Monday, March 30, 2009

Humanism and Licking Cockroaches

The Worship Committee at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church does this fantastic program once each year. We started it four years ago. It is called the "Annual UU Distinguished Guest Minister Weekend."

The basic idea is that the Worship Committee selects a distinguished minister in our movement and invites that person to spend a weekend with us. The distinguished minister leads a Saturday workshop for the church, is taken out for a fancy dinner during which we invite her or him to offer thoughts on the subject of worship to the committee, and then preaches on Sunday morning. The first three Annual UU Distinguished Guest Ministers were Barbara Pescan, Suzanne Meyer, and Ken Sawyer.

This year our 4th Annual UU Distinguished Guest Minister was the Reverend Dr. William Murry, a retired minister who served as the President of the Meadville-Lombard Theological School and also, for 17 years, as the Senior Minister at the River Road Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

Rev. Dr. Murry lectured and preached about his most recent book, Reason and Reverence. A work of accessible theology, the project Murry attempts in this book is to blend humanism with non-theistic religious naturalism. In merging the two, each defends the other from the criticisms that each often face. Murry argues that non-theistic religious naturalism gives humanism a compelling (and true!) story about its origins. This story is cosmic and biological evolution. Further, the awe and wonder that religious naturalism causes one to feel provides humanism with a spiritual practice. Also, Murry claims that religious naturalism leads to a sense of reverence that provides humanists with a sense of humility.

Before Murry arrived to lecture on Saturday 3/28 and preach on 3/29 I was generally familiar with his project. I wondered how to turn his theological arguments into a children's story. Here is what I did:

When the time came for the story for the children I invited the children to come up and sit at the front of the church. I asked them to think and to imagine the world, the planet Earth on which we live. I then asked them if they thought the world was amazing and beautiful or scary and creepy. Most thought it was the former.

Then I pulled out a box and told them that I had brought something from the world to show to them. I told them that it was an animal from Africa. I asked the children if they knew of any animals from Africa. They mentioned elephants, giraffes, and zebras. Obviously, I told them, I couldn't fit any of these animals in a box. Next, a child guessed that it might be a hyena. I told them that I doubted I could fit a hyena in a box. I told them the animal was from Madagascar. This prompted a chorus of children shouting, "Lemurs!" I guess there is a Disney movie that features lemurs in Madagascar.

I opened up my box, took out my terrarium, and reached in and picked up a three-inch long Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. The children were paying attention now! With their gazes fixated on the cockroach that walked around on my hand I told them all about it:

I told them how they eat moldy fruit, vegetable waste, and cat food. I told them how in Madagascar they live on the forest floor and eat dead vegetation and help plant matter to decompose. I told them how this is the only insect that has the ability to hiss and the cockroach complied by hissing for all of us. I told them that cockroaches like to live close to each other and that they spend a lot of time snuggled together. I also told them that while some people think they are gross, they are actually very clean. It was at this point that I spontaneously decided to touch the cockroach with my tongue! I gave him a pretty good lick.

Before we sang the children off to their classes I asked them whether they thought the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach was amazing and beautiful or scary and creepy. The children's votes were split. That is okay though. The natural world has the power to make us feel all sorts of things: awe and wonder, humility and reverence, excitement and chills, love and fear, revulsion and disgust. I thought this was a pretty good lesson in non-theistic religious naturalism.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Week 44: "Hands Down" by Dashboard Confessional feat. Michael Stipe

In last week’s “song of the week” essay I discussed the ska musical genre. This week’s song is a good example of a different genre: Emo.

If this is a genre with which you are not familiar, you could do worse than to read Wikipedia’s entry on it. Put simply, emo is a genre of alternative rock that emerged from punk and hardcore. Whereas punk and hardcore bands directed their angst outwardly, towards injustice or the government or religion or authority generally, emo tends to direct feelings of angst, alienation, and confusion inwardly.

“Emo” is shorthand for emotional. Emo became known for “deeply personal, impassioned lyrics” and recurring thematic elements such as “nostalgia, romantic bitterness, and poetic desperation.”

Chris Carrabba’s band Dashboard Confessional was one of the first emo bands to attain significant mainstream success. Their breakthrough album, 2001’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, featured the hit single “Screaming Infidelities” as well as other noteworthy songs like “Again I Go Unnoticed” and “The Brilliant Dance.” Dashboard Confessional followed this up with another album in 2003 entitled A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. “Hands Down” was the first single released off of this album.

My version of A Mark... came with a bonus DVD of Dashboard Confessional performing live covers of eight songs off of R.E.M.’s early-90s masterpiece Automatic for the People. In my opinion, the best moment on this DVD is when R.E.M.’s lead singer, Michael Stipe, gets up onstage and performs “Hands Down” as a duet with Chris Carrabba.

“Hands Down” begins with a repetitive guitar line followed by four beats on the cymbal. From there the song’s form consists of a verse and the chorus, then another verse and the chorus. Immediately following the second chorus the song immediately transitions into a prolonged bridge which slowly crescendos in the urgency of the vocals and the aggressiveness of the music. The lyrics to the bridge contain the poetically rendered narrative of a moment of adolescent romance.

Before you reach the bridge, there are sudden shifts in the song between the verses that are quieter and more subdued and the chorus where the emotion in Carrabba’s voice soars along with the guitars.

When Dashboard performs this song with Michael Stipe they trade parts of the song: Stipe takes the verses which he sings with elegance; Carrabba sings his heart out on the chorus. However, on this version of the song Michael Stipe takes over when the time comes for the bridge. As he begins he sings the song in an understated manner but as the guitars and drums pick up Stipe begins to raise his voice. Towards the end of the bridge, Stipe’s voice has morphed into a perfect imitation of emo singing. The moment is musically awesome.

Unfortunately Youtube does not have the video of Dashboard Confessional performing “Hands Down” with Michael Stipe. However, here is the music video, a video of the band performing the "Hands Down" live on David Letterman, and a pretty cool acoustic version of the song.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sermon: "Religion Without Guilt" (Delivered 3-22-09)

Unitarian Universalism is a religion without guilt. Amen.

[At this point I stepped down from the podium, went back to my seat, sat down, and waited for about 15 seconds before returning to the podium.]

What, you were expecting more? You don’t find a seven word sermon satisfying? (And if you would prefer a seven word sermon, I’d prefer that you not tell me.) But probably, considering that you pay me to preach, I should say something more on the topic of religion and guilt.

When we talk about Unitarian Universalism as a religion without guilt we are often saying something about our belief in the non-existence of Hell. Our Universalist heritage and theology proclaims that Hell does not exist, or if it does, its population is zero. This is the doctrine of universal salvation, a doctrine that historically proclaimed that God’s love and mercy were boundless and limitless, and that no soul would be judged and sent to a place of eternal torment. This is our Good News.

Ironically, our Good News is something that we can tend to take for granted nowadays. After all, the Universalist doctrine of universal salvation is more than 200 years old. But, every so often events remind us not to take our theological legacy for granted. Consider the case of Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister from Indiana. Gulley, along with his friend Jim Mulholland, co-authored two books of liberal Christian theology with the titles, If God is Love and If Grace is True. The second of these two books, If Grace is True, argued for universal salvation. Last weekend, Philip Gulley was stripped of his credentials as a Quaker pastor. The action was taken by a Committee on Ministry and Evangelism who charged Philip Gulley with preaching anti-Christian messages. The specific teachings charged as anti-Christian were that God will include all human beings in salvation, and that gays and lesbians must be included as equal members of the church. Let me remind you: Gulley was not the pastor of an evangelical or a Methodist or a Lutheran church. He is a Quaker!

Such an absence of a belief in Hell within Unitarian Universalism is one of the prime reasons why we might think of ourselves as a religion without guilt. Without the threat of eternal damnation, eternal punishment, or eternal separation looming over our heads, the guilt factor decreases exponentially.

This morning I want to explore this concept of Unitarian Universalism being a religion without guilt from two different perspectives. First, I want to explore how this discourse of being a guilt-free religion is often unhelpful and extremely self-limiting. Second, I want to explore guilt and shame at a deeper level. Guilt and shame are, after all, human emotions and our faith that we love should be up to task of speaking to these emotions with depth, rather than casually dismissing them.

An example from close to home helps to illustrate how our typical discourses about Hell and guilt is too often lacking. The example I share with you relates to financial stewardship, an area that is so often a locus for feelings of guilt. A few years ago, on a pleasant afternoon, I got in my car and turned left out of our parking lot and drove down 87th Street. If you make this drive, you notice that the religious buildings grow larger and larger. (Which is the case, I am convinced, and not the illusion one gets, the sense of shrinking and getting smaller and smaller.) So, on my drive down 87th Street I stopped in at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of Antioch, then the larger Nazarene church just past Quivira, then the larger Baptist church, and then, finally, the sprawling and immense complex that is the Lenexa Christian Center right by Shawnee Mission Park.

[It had not yet been built at the time I took this drive, but I would have stopped at the Covenant Church that now sits between the Baptist Church and the Lenexa Christian Center. Next time you drive by the Covenant Church, notice that they have a couple of small sports fields with several large signs declaring that these fields are the property of the church, that a permit is required in order to use them, and that this policy is enforced. I am always tempted to go there and to replace these signs with ones that say, quote, “Matthew 6:12: We forgive those who trespass against us.”]

But anyways, on my trip down 87th Street I stopped in at each church and asked for information on tithing, which the staff members of these churches tripped over themselves to provide to me. I compared the literature and noticed that as you travel West the literature becomes glossier and the expected standards of commitment grow higher, bolder, and more clearly stated.

I shared these findings with a leader in our congregation who promptly dismissed them. “We don’t have Hell,” she said. And here it was: the exact statement of our Good News was transformed into a statement of our own predestined mediocrity, an excuse for why we can’t.

“We don’t have Hell.” “We don’t have guilt.” “We don’t preach fear.” Are these bold declarations of our religious heritage and our convictions, or are they offered as excuses? It seems to me that in a religious climate where our religious brothers and sisters only one step away from us in terms of religious liberalism can charge one of their own with anti-Christian heresy for claiming that Hell does not exist, that we should declare ourselves fortunate and grateful. Our Good News should be a source of pride, not an excuse. The lack of a threat of Hell and the lack of a message of fear and religiously motivated guilt should not be used as an appeal to the lowest common denominator in terms of participation, attendance, and commitment.

Our faith is not about threats and guilt trips. At the same time, I believe our faith offers so much of value: a place for reflection and discernment, a community of searchers and heretics who are here to find answers to questions of how to live meaningfully, what has value, what is worthy. It is a place of deep engagement, of learning, of growth and transformation. That should be all the rationale that is needed for active participation and commitment and living out our faith’s profession.

There is another part of this sermon though. Yes, this sermon is a call for us to take our participation here seriously. Yes, this sermon is a call for us to examine what is holding us back if there is something holding us back. Yes, this sermon is a call for us to re-examine our rhetoric around Hell, and guilt, and fear, and for us to be fearless, not only in our theology, but also in the living of our faith to its fullest. But this sermon is something else, too.

You see, many forms of religion can be so good at scaring people and guilt-tripping them. But religion did not invent fear or guilt. Religion is so often used to shame, but religion did not create shame.

So, when we casually say something like, “Unitarian Universalism is a religion without guilt,” that may lead us to embrace something that is not true: the idea that Unitarian Universalism has nothing to say about guilt, that Unitarian Universalism is impotent in speaking about shame. This better not be true, especially when our ranks as a church are swelled by many who come to us carrying scars, the burden of guilt or shame that their previous religious home foisted upon them. But, even those who were born into this faith, or come to us from a religious tradition that did not deal in guilt or shame, or come to us from a secular background may find themselves faced with feelings of guilt and shame as well.

Let me briefly attempt to define the terms I am using. Guilt is simply an ongoing state of feeling bad about some action (or inaction) that a person regrets or wishes that had done differently. Guilt refers to something external, something outside of oneself. That time you broke the vase and blamed it on your brother who got punished. Guilt refers to that. It may have happened many, many years ago, but one can still feel guilty about it.

Shame is something a little bit different. Shame is guilt internalized. Shame has to do with a judgment about the state of your soul or, if you don’t like that terminology, the state of yourself as a human being. Going back to that example of the broken vase, shame has to do with what you believe those actions say about you as a human being. Shame is feeling bad because you are the type of person who is dishonest, or the type of person who blames others because you can’t cop to your own mistakes, or the type of person who is afraid to admit the truth, and so on.

Guilt says something about what you did. Shame says something about who you are. And I want to speak from our own religious tradition about guilt and shame. The first thing I do want to say is that guilt is not entirely a bad thing.

When we do something that is unfair, something that inflicts pain or anguish or suffering, we usually respond by feeling a sense of remorse and sorrow for our actions. Over time, feelings of sorrow and remorse may turn into feelings of regret and then, if left unresolved, into feelings guilt. Such feelings can grow inwardly inside of us and become shame. But, sorrow and remorse, even though they feel bad, are not bad feelings. In fact, we would say that someone who is incapable of feeling sorrow or remorse has something wrong with them. To be incapable of feeling sorrow or remorse is to be a sociopath.

The experience of remorse can leave a mark. Guilt can be the result of trace memories of our actions that were hurtful. In that case, guilt is not really all that bad of a thing. That feeling of guilt might actually help to remind us not to engage in actions that are harmful to others. At the same time, guilt can get out of control. If it paralyzes us and makes us afraid to live, something is wrong. And, guilt can creep, leading us to confuse doing with being.

So, while guilt, when it is experienced in the right proportions and in response to the right reasons can be a helpful emotion, shame is not helpful. Shame doesn’t paint a picture of what we’ve done. It attempts to paint a picture, usually a distorted one, of who we are. Shame is cruel. [A member of the church approached me after the service and offered a different point of view. He told me that in some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy, such as work with sex offenders, shame is a useful therapeutic tool.]

Probably the best analogy I can use to help us think about guilt and shame is to ask you to think of the dashboard on my car. My little 2002 Kia has a lot of computerized sensors throughout the car. One of those sensors has something to do with the scent of gasoline. This is an important sensor because if you are leaking gasoline something bad could happen. I don’t know what that something bad is, but I fear that it involves my car exploding. Unfortunately, this sensor is also triggered if you don’t tighten down the gas cap well enough. When these sensors go off the check engine light comes on, as it has about once every year that I’ve owned the car. When I bring the car into the shop, they do a scan and they tell me that I forgot to fasten my gas cap properly. But I still take my car into the shop on the off chance that the check engine light is signaling that there are big problems.

When we experience guilt it is as if the check engine light of our lives has come on. It may be a false alarm. But it is something worth paying attention to because it might signal something serious.

Shame is another matter entirely. As it turns out, the Unitarian side of our tradition speaks about the human condition in a way that liberates us from feelings of shame. The Universalist part of our tradition declared that there was no Hell. The Unitarian side of our tradition declared that we are not born sinful but that we have worth and dignity and that we are capable of improving ourselves and developing moral character. The Unitarian side did not say that we would never make mistakes. I said that we can learn from them.

We are not a religion without guilt. We are a religion that affirms dignity and worth, that teaches us that we are not hopeless and not beyond redemption. We are a religion that proclaims the good news that all are saved. The challenge before us is to be as good as our good news.

[This is the 250th sermon that I've preached in my career as a minister!]

Week 43: "The Impression that I Get" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

For a brief period when I was a college student in Portland, Oregon I got very interested in the ska music scene. This week’s “Song of the Week” is the only ska song in this collection of short essays on 52 songs. My thoughts about this song will be divided into two sections. First, I will write a little bit about the ska genre. More importantly, I want say something about this song’s meaning to me personally.

When I lived there, the residents of the Pacific Northwest had strong feelings (mostly negative) about the influx of Californians and California culture. I’m sure these feelings continue today. But borders are porous and cultural trends spread. Living in Portland, I got to witness at second hand the growing popularity of third-wave ska-punk music whose ground zero was Southern California.

Ska is a genre that originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s. It is a syncretistic musical style that developed when American Jazz and blues encountered Caribbean musical styles such as calypso. It is said that ska actually launched the more popular and well-known reggae music. Ska combines a flamboyant horn section with a rhythm that accentuates the offbeat.

Ska would find a new audience first in the late 70s and 80s in England where it found its niche as a subgenre within the British punk and mod movements of that era. For example, The Police were influenced by ska. Probably the most well-known British ska band was Madness.

In the 80s and 90s, ska music found a following in the United States where it influenced both punk and hardcore artists. It was fun music and it was a fun scene. From the “bubblegum ska” music of a band like No Doubt to bands that combined the ska beat with lots of distorted electric guitars, this was catchy music. Further, the style that accompanied the sound was also fun: tweed jackets, suspenders, fedoras, skinny black ties worn with a white shirt and black trousers, Doc Martens or wingtip shoes. Let’s just say that I wore lots of tweed my sophomore year in college.

With perhaps the exception of No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are probably the most recognizable ska band of this era, thanks in no small part to a cameo role in 1995 Alicia Silverstone film Clueless.

While my favorite Bosstones song may be the anti-romantic “Someday I Suppose,” the song “The Impression that I Get” is just as fun musically and a good bit more thought-provoking lyrically. While many genres of music, from Blues to Reggae to Rap to Rock, contain nearly constant themes of facing hardship and overcoming it, “The Impression that I Get” turns this concept on its head. In this song, the lyrics claim an absence of an experience of hardship. The lyrics open with the question, “Have you ever been close to tragedy or been close to folks who have? Have you ever felt the pain so powerful, so heavy you collapse?”

The lyrics that follow consist of somewhat of an empathetic break. “I’ve never had to knock on wood, but I know someone who has, which makes me wonder if could… I’ve never had to knock on wood, and I’m glad I haven’t yet, because I’m sure it isn’t good. That’s the impression that I get.” Later in the song, vocalist Dicky Barrett announces, “I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.”

So, why do I like this song? I find that I both identify and do not identify with this song. However, I certainly do applaud the Bosstones for overturning that common motif to write songs about how hard something has been, especially when those songs depend upon the artist stretching and embellishing or even inventing the truth.

In the end, I think the song speaks to ministry. I know without a doubt that every person suffers, that every person faces hardship. And I also know that there are all kinds of hardship and suffering that are beyond what I have experienced. It turns out to be a fair question, “How would I face it if that happened?” It is that lack of resolution, that position of not knowing, that I find so refreshing in this song.

You can watch the video to “The Impression that I Get” here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Week 42: "Just Like Heaven" Cover Versions

In 1987 the British rock band The Cure released the song “Just Like Heaven.” Arguably their most recognized and most revered song, “Just Like Heaven” combines a mid-tempo rock beat, a catchy melody, and Robert Smith’s distinctive voice and romantic lyrics. You can see the 1987 music video here.

The song is just about perfect. In fact, in 2004 Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It has a great beat and a great melody but the lyrics are what makes the Cure’s original version of the song so special. The song is romantic and mysterious and it manages to be seriously sexy without trying too hard. Moreover the lyrics blend and bend dream and reality, perfectly capturing a love that is disorienting and dizzying. Consider the opening verse,
"Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream" she said
"The one that makes me laugh" she said
And threw her arms around my neck
"Show me how you do it
And I promise you I promise that
I'll run away with you
I'll run away with you"
The lyrics continue with the following imagery,
Spinning on that dizzy edge
I kissed her face and kissed her head
And dreamed of all the different ways I had
To make her glow.
When the chorus comes around there is even more dreaming, dancing, and twisting:
Soft and only
Lost and lonely
Strange as angels
Dancing in the deepest oceans
Twisting in the water
You're just like a dream
You’re just like a dream
But it is not The Cure’s original version of the song that I want to focus on in this 42nd week of the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks essay project. Instead, I want to write about my two favorite cover versions of “Just Like Heaven.”

The first version I want to mention was released on the 2008 album Fire Songs by The Watson Twins. The Watson Twins had released a prior album in 2006 called Southern Manners although they are probably best known for appearing on Jenny Lewis’ exquisite debut solo album Rabbit Fur Coat, also released in 2006.

On their version of “Just Like Heaven,” The Watson Twins slow the song down to a ballad which contains a folksy flavor and a touch of the South. On this video of them performing the song on a radio show the piano is set a little too loud and the harmonica is a bit more pronounced than on the album version. Nevertheless, they manage to bring new levels of sensuality to a song that I could hardly imagine being more sensual. Here they are performing it at a record store.

There is no sharper contrast to The Watson Twins’ version of “Just Like Heaven” than the cover version recorded by Dinosaur Jr. and released in 1989. Dinosaur Jr. was a seminal early alternative-rock band that formed in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid-1980s. Though they never garnered the same popularity or record sales that would come to many of the alternative rock and grunge bands of the early 90s, Dinosaur Jr.’s sound influenced such bands and Nirvana and The Pixies.

Dinosaur Jr. broke up in 1997 but then reunited in 2005. It was during their reunion tour that I went to see them at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas. From listening to their albums for over a decade I went to the concert knowing that I was in store for lots of loud guitar distortion. However, I wasn’t prepared for this. Dinosaur Jr.’s frontman, J Mascis, plugged in his electric guitar in front of three full amp stacks from which came the gnarliest and most deafening sounds I could ever imagine a guitar producing. By the end of the first song I was listening from the back of the room. By the end of the fifth song I was standing at the back of the balcony. From there I retreated to the men’s room, but even there I found the band too ear-splitting. I do not exaggerate. I am not proud.

However, I do find the Dinosaur Jr. cover of “Just Like Heaven” to be masterful. It is played at a fast pace with unsurpassed levels of guitar distortion. Dinosaur Jr. rocks this song. If you choose (if you dare) to listen to versions of it available on Youtube (here, here, and here) check out how bassist Lou Barlow puts the entire microphone in his mouth and screams the word “you” during the chorus. Also notice how the band just quits the song at the beginning of the second chorus, which they also do on the cover version of the song they released in 1989.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sermon: "What is Usual is not What is Always" (Delivered 3-8-09)

First Reading Mark 4:26-32
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise, night and day; and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet, when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that [even] the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Second Reading by Jane Hirshfield
What is usual is not what is always.
As sometimes, in old age, hearing comes back.

Footsteps resume their clipped edges,
birds quiet for decades migrate back to the ear.

Where were they? By what route did they return?

A woman mute for years
forms one perfect sentence before she dies

The bitter young man tires;
the aged one sitting now in his body is tender,
his face carries no regret for his choices.

What is usual is not what is always, the day sings again.
It is all it can offer.

Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories.
Only the reminder that there is exception.

The cue ball, thanks to expertly administered English, curved around the red number 3-ball, struck the side rail, rolled back across the table, glanced off the blue-striped 10-ball knocking it into the side pocket, and then continued rolling until it came to a stop in perfect alignment with the 8-ball and the corner pocket. Game over.

Let me set the scene. I was 18. I was back at home for the summer after my first year in college. My grades had not been bad, though if you had paid attention to where I had spent my time you would have imagined I was planning to major in pool… which, needless to say, was not offered as a major.

A few weeks after returning home I received a call from my childhood minister asking if I would like to volunteer with the caring committee. He asked if I would like to pay visits to a man named Ernie who spent his days at home and alone save for his daily morning visit to the nursing home to visit his wife who was dying from cancer. I agreed to visit him. Ernie lived next to the town Senior Center, the town Senior Center with a seldom-used but immaculately kept pool table. And, it was Ernie who had made that beautiful shot leaving the cue ball perfectly placed and setting himself up for any easy shot to beat me… for the third straight time. Yes, Ernie, whose hands shook when he held the pool cue… Ernie, whose eyesight was failing him… Ernie, who claimed to forget whether he was stripes or solids, had pulled off another miracle shot (or so it seemed) and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. What is usual is not what is always. There is exception. It may be one thing to expect the unexpected, but how could anyone have seen that one coming? Ministry has its unexpected moments for sure.

As in, when the man who joined the church a few years earlier claiming not really to like religion all that much, stating that he is here for the social events, alluding to spending the hour in worship passing time before coffee hour… as in, when this man sends you an email asking for guidance in learning how to pray.

As in, when the person who comes to this church bearing the scars of their religious past or their family past… when this person comes here hurting and tender and edgy and angry… as in, when this person finds in this religious community not only healing but transformation.

As in, when someone in this community takes up something they never expected they would: the one who is awkward around children volunteers in religious education or the one who is deeply shy enrolls in the preaching practicum. I see this play out in the life of this church when we are doing what we should be doing. Our church declares that what is usual does not have to be what is always.

My words this morning are words of resistance. They speak to act of resisting that soundtrack which plays on repeat in our minds and in our hearts, in our imaginations and in our spirit. I am talking about resistance to whatever script we know so well that we can recite by memory, the script that tells us what we can expect. I want to talk about resistance in terms of silencing that tyrannical voice, that voice of fate that says, “You can see where this is going.” “You know how this is going to turn out.”

Last week, I delivered a sermon on “The Danger of Heightened Expectations.” In that sermon, I addressed that pressure that is often wedded to privilege that tells us that we are always supposed to come out on top, always win, never fail. This week’s sermon deals with the other side of the equation. To the extent that we have written a script for how our lives are supposed to play out and for what we can expect, might we prevent or limit surprise, miracle, exception from entering into our lives?

This idea is challenging. As Unitarian Universalists we have through the years thought of ourselves more as the agents of history’s unfolding much more than we have thought of ourselves as the passive passengers on a predestined path. To quote one of the leading ministers in our movement, “we’ve tended to see ourselves as the leaven and not the bread.” But I would argue that even for those of us who consider ourselves to be the authors of our own destiny, the spiritual practice of keeping ourselves open to exception can be tremendously important.

What would such a spiritual practice look like? How do we keep our eyes and hearts open to the possibility of surprise? I would say that one of the theological ideas from our tradition that we might have to contend with is the one that has lifted up the sacredness of the ordinary. It seemed like not so many years ago that spiritual practice groups in our churches were focusing on books like After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield, and spiritual guides like him, helped us to develop a spirituality that said that the sacred is not segregated from our everyday existence, but rather that God or the Holy is infused in all being, in every person, in every blade of grass and dirty coffee cup. These teachings drew from the wisdom of Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson who saw the ordinary as sacred.

Do not get me wrong. These teachings are not bad. They have positively impacted our faith and our spiritual practice. But, this morning I want to spend some time focusing on the other side. I want to talk about a spiritual practice that looks to the exceptions, the miracles, those times when what is usual is not what is always.

The well known wedding hymn “Surprised by Joy” begins with the lyrics, “Surprised by Joy no song can tell, no thought can compass.” I would ask you to take a moment to think of a time in your life when you were expecting one thing, but something else happened, something far better than what you had expected. I ask that you take a moment to reflect: has anything ever entered into your life that no song can tell and no thought can compass?

The remarkable poet Jane Hirshfield is the author of the poem whose lines I’ve woven in and out of my words this morning. Her poems have a quality of disturbing beauty, and her last two lines are startling. She writes, “Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories / Only the reminder that there is exception.”

And this is so striking in its denial. Not hope. How can you possibly say “not hope” when we have been challenged as a nation to be audacious in our hoping? And how can you say no to the consolation of stories when we know the immense power of narrative and story? And what are we left with? Exception?

And just then, just as I am about to shout out my words of resistance at the poet, just as I am about to pronounce her ideas to be silly, I go back there in my memory to that pool table in the Wayland Senior Center. I go back to that memory of an unsteady old man sharking me at pool. I know what it feels like to stand in the presence of exception, of surprise.

I find myself ever restless with what is usual. Now, don’t get me wrong. My usual life is pretty good, but usual is not what I live for. It is a spiritual challenge to walk down the street, to go to work, to go to church, to go to school, to entertain family, to volunteer, and to go into all of these everyday tasks without a pre-prepared script for how we think things will turn out. We are good at writing such accurate scripts for our lives. Those scripts are written down in our day-planners or on the sticky notes on our desks. They are taped to our bedroom mirrors.

All of us, any of us can be so busy with our lists of things to do, so involved in following the script that we miss the surprise that life holds out for us. If we are living the expected we have no room in our hearts for the unexpected, even when it arrives. If we are blind to the unexpected, we won’t see it when it is before our very eyes—we will see only what we expect to see.

And there is danger in this. The danger is that we can become disheartened by the expected, even when what we expect is good. What we expect can lead to boredom and going through the motions. The danger is that we forget that it is possible for us to be agents of change. If we are able to see the unexpected, to welcome it into our lives, we can then work for it to happen. We can help it to multiply.

Even in ministry, even in this vocation where those who are ministers are supposed to be able to see the signs and recognize the miracles, I find that I can fall into that trap where my heart is closed, my eyes are blinded, and my expectations keep me from, as Annie Dillard put it, “abetting creation so that it need not play to an empty house.”

Even if the story of our lives has been good, we still need to be open, to be brave enough to realize that the best part of our story may not have been told. When our lives take a turn for the worse, the expectations are what weigh us down. We really don’t know what the ending is going to be. We can have our hopes, our dreams our goals, but we don’t know. The unexpected happens.

Anything can happen. Our faith teaches us this. We say that there is still more light to break forth in this world. We claim that we possess an evolving faith. We declare that the canon is not sealed. We sing, “Faith of the larger liberty, source of the light expanding, law of the church that is to be old bondage not withstanding.” May we develop the capacity to behold:

Exception… in every singing day.

Exception… against every one of our expectations.

Exception… in every modest mustard seed.

Exception… in every life in this room and in this church, in each person of every theology, every color, every nationality, every age.

Look! Look to those moments when the story goes off the tracks and even the word “hope” is far, far too limited a word to use for what may happen.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Week 41: "The Sweetness" by Jimmy Eat World

There is this moment in the song “Sweetness” where a piano comes in and there are 64 staccato high notes played at rapid-fire speed. If I am driving in my car, you know that my index finger and middle finger will tap the steering wheel 64 times (hard!) and my fingers end up numb.

“Sweetness” is the fifth song on Jimmy Eat World’s self-titled breakthrough album. It would be hard to imagine a better album. Jimmy Eat World strikes a perfect balance between alternative rock and pop. The album’s first three songs are impeccable. It leads off strong with the hard-rocking opener “Bleed American.” This is followed by the bright, up-tempo number “A Praise Chorus.” The third song on the album, “The Middle,” is one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard. The video for "The Middle" is also top-notch, giving an usual twist to the fear of showing up somewhere wearing only your underwear. The album also features a great ballad “Hear You Me” and a wonderful groove on the song “The Authority Song.”

But, “Sweetness” has always stood out to me as an amazing tune. Sonic and frenetic, Jimmy Eat World proves that they can turn up the decibels. Although the cryptic lyrics are nothing special, the lyrics are not really the point. This song is all about raising your blood pressure and accelerating your pulse. The song never fails to pump me up more than any stadium anthem every could.

Take a listen (here, here, and here) and see if this song doesn’t get you moving.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Reverend X

Yesterday I finished reading Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, which was edited by Tamara Lebak & Bret Lortie and published by the Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The book has actually been sitting in my list of books to read since last June when I bought it at the UUA General Assembly.

I've decided to write about it here partly in order to remind you that I keep an annual log of books I've read and partly because I found it to be thought-provoking and excellent.

The book begins with an essay by Josh Pawelek that helps us to think what "Generation X" is and then an essay by Nancy McDonald-Ladd dealing with how Generation X approaches religion and church. From there the essays grow much more focused.

In particular, essays by John Cullinan and Marlin Lavanhar on the Principles & Purposes stand out as do Bret Lortie and Jennifer Crow's essays on making our churches places where meaningful spiritual practice is encouraged. These two pairs of essays fall in the center of the book and represent the core of what I would recommend that every single Unitarian Universalist read. Cullinan and Lavanhar argue that our 7 Principles are misused. Cullinan's essay addresses how the first principle, "The inherent worth and dignity of every person" is often taken out of context and used for self-justification. Lavanhar argues that the Principles & Purposes wrongly get in the way of our delving deeper in theology. Similarly, Crow and Lortie each argue for theological deepening and spiritual practice to have a greater role in our congregations. What I liked about these four essays especially were their concreteness. Their vision for Unitarian Universalism is not vague.

If you don't believe Unitarian Universalism should be a challenging faith, you should not read this book. Krista Taves explicitly calls for Unitarian Universalists to reclaim "selflessness" and "sacrifice" as core practices. "The hunger for sacrifice is a response to a growing weariness with self-indulgence and grater awareness of its cost." (p. 34) Similarly, Marlin Lavanhar picks up this language of sacrifice in his essay. (p. 94-96)

The remaining essays focus more narrowly on an aspect of church or ministry. Of special note are Tamara Lebak's essay against the practice of "Joys & Concerns" that I quoted in an essay I wrote on the subject and David Pyle's excellent essay on military chaplaincy. The essay collection is rounded out by Shana Lynngood's spirited call for a greater faith in our faith, Joseph Santos-Lyons' essay on the on-going work of anti-racism, and Michael Tino's essay focusing on a changing paradigm for ministry to and with youth and young adults.

These essays taken as a whole belie that notion that Generation X is a cynical group. It is perhaps easy to understand how being critical, demanding, and hopeful can be mistaken for cynicism.

On the back cover of Reverend X, Forrest Church provides a blurb that says that this book should be "on every Unitarian Universalist Book Table and in all our ministers' libraries." I hope that this book's audience reaches beyond just our ministers. I hope that lay-leaders, non-ordained religious professionals, and engaged UU members will think about the challenges posed by this book. I hope that the Jenkins Lloyd Jones Press will consider producing a second volume of essays by Gen X clergy. I happen to know one or two (ahem... ahem) who might have something to add.

Speaking of essays, I should really set about writing my own for a forthcoming book I'm working on about growing UU congregations.

Sermon: "The Danger of Heightened Expectations" (Delivered 3-1-09)

The reading this morning comes from a book by leading anti-racist writer, educator, and speaker Tim Wise, from his book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Wise begins this section of his book by introducing the example of a school shooting in Oregon carried out by a white student in an overwhelmingly white, middle-class town. Watching the news coverage of the shooting, Wise observes,
I wrote down every explanation offered by commentators for what [the student] had done. There were dozens thrown out before the list was completed: everything from violent video games, to violent movies, to rap music, to sugary snacks, to antidepressant medications, to mental illnesses, to cold and unfeeling parents, to the removal of prayer from schools… among others.

But no matter the excuse, what was telling was what went unspoken…. No one thought to ask what it was about the culture in which [this young man] found himself that might produce dysfunction. That’s the kind of thing we might ask if the perpetrator of violence is black and from the ‘hood, but which we never ask when whites are the authors of mayhem. Their rage is inexplicable, it seems.

But what if it’s not?... What if the culture of privilege itself creates the risk of this sort of thing by generating a set of expectations in the minds of the privileged, which when frustrated (as they sometimes are) leads them to lash out, unable to cope with setback?

Before dismissing such a thing, keep in mind the now-accepted sociological explanation for why urban rebellions and riots occurred in the midsixties and not the midfifties. After all, one could argue that the midfifties were worse in absolute terms for black folks, and that by the sixties, various legislative changes due to the civil rights movement were beginning to create hope where little had previously existed… According to literature on the subject, when expectations start to rise, but the fulfillment of those expectations proceeds far slower than the aspirations, frustration builds and can result in an explosion.

If frustrating the expectations of folks who’ve never had very many can lead those on the bottom to lash out, why couldn’t the same happen… when the expectations of the privileged get frustrated as well?

It seems to be white who engage disproportionately in a wide range of strange pathologies, all of which are about control and domination, either of other or even oneself. Whites, for example, are more likely than blacks or Latinos to binge drink or use drugs excessively (contrary to stereotype). Whites are more likely than blacks or Latinos to commit suicide. Whites are more likely than black s or Latinos to develop eating disorders or to self-mutilate…

None of this is because of some genetic predisposition to these things, nor because white culture per se generates such tendencies. Rather, these pathologies are all about one thing—the need to assert and exercise control, of others, of one’s body, or of one’s pain. (p. 152-154)

This is a true story though the details have been altered for the sake of anonymity. A colleague of mine serves a Unitarian Universalist church in a bedroom community outside of a major city with a large financial district. About five years ago, a member of this congregation lost his job, a lucrative position that he had held in that city’s financial district. The man did not tell his wife. He did not tell his family. He did not tell his friends. He did not tell his minister. For the next year he woke up every morning, put on a suit, and commuted into the city where he did not have a job. It took this man a year before he was able to admit the truth to anyone.

I think of the story of this man. I replay this story in my own mind and I ache with sadness. I ache for the depth of his denial. I ache for his feelings of shame. I imagine the emptiness of this year of his life: ten or eleven or twelve hours a day, five days a week, an entire year spent alone on the train, alone in the city, returning home on the commuter train. This is a man of privilege who held heightened expectations for his life. There is danger in heightened expectations.

This morning’s sermon is really about how it could have been otherwise for this man I just described. But first I want to spend a little bit of time making this point about the danger of heightened expectations.

A few weeks ago I went to hear an amazing speaker named Tim Wise. It is the second time I’ve heard him speak in the past five months. I arrived early and had the chance to spend about twenty minutes talking with him. I asked him, “What does your analysis of race and privilege have to say about the economic struggles in our country?” His answer to me went like this:

He said he had recently addressed a class of college students and asked them, “Objectively, who is it that suffers the most during a recession?” Everyone agreed that it was those who were already marginalized, already poor, already disenfranchised. These people are disproportionately people of color. But, paradoxically, often these are also the people best able to cope with crisis. They’ve lived with loss and crisis and hopelessness before. They know how to make due when times are lean.

Wise points out that when the stock market crashed in 1929 it was white, wealthy, privileged men who threw themselves out of the windows on Wall Street. Poor folks did not come out from living under bridges or leave the slums, climb up skyscrapers and jump. They had been poor the week before the crash and the week before that.

The danger of heightened expectations is real. Eighty years later we witness two high profile suicides by extremely rich men who lost their fortunes investing with Bernard Madoff. I don’t mean to trivialize the losses on the part of these wealthy individuals. I don’t mean to deny their suffering, but I am certain that both of these men would have been able to enjoy a standard of living far higher than mine, higher than almost everyone in this room, and higher than about 99 percent of the people in the world, even after losing significant portions of their savings.

The danger of heightened expectations is not just about the risk of suicide. The danger of heightened expectations involves living with a fundamentally distorted view of the world. Last month, the New York Times ran a piece in which it asked executives what their lives would be like if they faced an income cap of $500,000 per year. Some of the people interviewed said they could not imagine how they would be able to live. They claimed they would not be able to make it. The items that these executives could not imagine living without included such things as: private schools and private colleges for their children, summer homes, and personal chauffeurs. The danger of heightened expectations involves losing touch with reality. These men and women who were interviewed by the New York Times were incapable of distinguishing between necessities and niceties.

If you think this is just about Madison Avenue and Wall Street, think again. Again, what follows is a true story from which I’ve removed a lot of the details. The story is about someone I knew in school. What I am about to say about this person may lead you to think this person grew up affluent. In fact, this was not the case. This person grew up in a rural area in a family that lived not significantly above the poverty line. In school this person sat down and decided to create a budget to figure out how much they would need to earn in order to live. The budget that this person created concluded that this person could not make due on less than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year. (By the way, at age 24 this person completed school and did go out and get a job earning $150,000 per year.)

I want us to stay with this for just a little bit longer. If we had continued to read from the chapter in Tim Wise’s book, we would have heard the story of a woman who called into a Minnesota radio show a few years ago and talked about her son’s drug addiction. Her teenage son’s life had begun to spiral downward. He had been dumped by his girlfriend, gotten his first bad grades in school, had begun to lash out at his family with rage, and then had turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain caused by the setbacks in his life. He belonged to an affluent family and his parents could afford to send him to expensive rehab and therapy programs. One day while leaving therapy the teen reflected, “I never realized how messed up it could be, being a white male. The world around me teaches me to always see myself as being in control, in charge, stable, together. It is like a constant message: always be in control. Always win. Then when a few things went wrong I couldn’t cope with it because I’d never had to cope with anything before.”

That is a perfect example of what it means when we talk about the danger of heightened expectations. Pressure. A feeling that you always need to be ahead of others. A distorted view of life. The need to win every single time. It is no wonder that white people are more likely than people of color to engage in self-destructive activities. Whites are more likely than black or Latinos to use illegal drugs, to binge drink, and are far more likely to abuse prescription medications. I can’t help but mention Tim Wise’s off-the-cuff comment in which he said that after he graduated from Tulane University he went to work as a community organizer in the projects of New Orleans. Wise says he saw more drugs used at Tulane, on the eighth floor of a dormitory, in a single dorm room (which happened to be his dorm room) on any given Saturday night than he saw cumulatively over two years spent in the New Orleans projects.

It is at this point that I want to switch gears. Thus far I have described the dangers of heightened expectations. Rest assured, I could continue to give examples for the duration of this sermon, through the KU-MU game this afternoon, and into the evening if I wanted to. Instead, I want to comment on methods of resistance. The danger of heightened expectations, the pressure of privilege, threatens to undo our humanity, to lessen our lives. I’m not saying that all or most of us here are at risk for the extreme forms of denial and injury I mentioned earlier. But when our own life does not live up to our expectations we are in danger of experiencing anger, panic, guilt, denial, or self-loathing. We are in danger of acting out those feelings in ways that are aggressive towards others or ourselves. We might feel tempted to foul our own nests—our relationships, our homes, our communities. We needn’t.

Right before the sermon we sang that sweet song, “How can I keep from singing?” I’ve always loved that hymn but there is a line in that hymn that never really hit home for me until recently. “To prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging…”

“To prison cell and dungeon vile...” I want to confess that when I sing this line, I imagine something far away from my own experience. I tend to think of the types of people mentioned in mail solicitations for Amnesty International, those around the world who are the victims of human rights abuses. What I am saying is that when I plan out my week, I don’t expect to spend much time on prison ministry. In my six years as your minister, I’ve probably spent a dozen or fewer hours involved in ministry involving someone who is incarcerated. That is two hours a year.

However, when I just sang that hymn, I understood the concept of prison cells and vile dungeons differently, metaphorically: The man who lost his job taking the train into the city. The teen who turns to drugs and alcohol because he feels weak, because he feels he is not in control of his life. Are these not forms of imprisonment as well? And I ask what could be different?

“When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?” That line is about refusing to remain isolated. It is about being in community with others in a profound way where your pain and where your shame are able to be shared by another person who shares their pain and shame with you.

A friend of mine coined the term “terminal uniqueness” to describe that condition where you believe that nobody can possibly understand you, that your experiences or beliefs or whatever are somehow different. A lot of Unitarian Universalists suffer from “terminal uniqueness.” A lot of our churches suffer from it.

And yet, the first way of living in resistance to the dangers of heightened expectations is community. It is communion with others, becoming one with others. It involves literally losing those parts of ourselves that cause us to hold others at arm’s length. It means disabusing ourselves of our own notions of “terminal uniqueness.”

This church can be that place of communion if only we dare to step inside. If only stop acting like bystanders or detached sociologists. If only we dare to go deep, to go deep in our connections, to go deep in our own spiritual lives, to go deep in our commitment.

This Thursday I received a letter in the mail. The letter contained a $5,000 check written by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. The money was being given for the people in this church who need emergency assistance because they are really hurting financially. This church can be a source of help for those who are hurting.

Connection through community is an important, perhaps the most important, path of resistance. There are additional ways of resisting the danger of heightened expectations. One of those ways is justice work that leads us into compassionate encounter with those whose lives might be very different from our own.

A friend and colleague of mine spent her sabbatical in the Khasi Hills of India, living among the Khasi Unitarians. How tribal people living in isolated villages in India became Unitarians is an interesting story that is not germane to this story. But the point is that this experience forever altered her sense of self. It changed her notion of her place in the world and her ideas about success. You don’t need to travel to the Khasi Hills of India. Intimate, deep connection with others, whether it takes the form of volunteering with the Interfaith Hospitality Network or volunteering with Head Start or teaching literacy or serving as a Big Brother or a Big Sister can serve as an antidote to ways of thinking that distort reality. Service and justice work widens our view and, in so doing, causes our own souls to expand.

To these practices of resistance I might add just one more, which is the practice of radical generosity. I use the term “radical generosity” intentionally. Usually, we think of the word “generosity” far too narrowly. We think generosity has to do solely with matters of money. By radical generosity, I mean a generosity that is more expansive, a generosity that begins with a generosity of spirit. Do we assume the worst of others? Do we focus excessively on their shortcomings? Do we find ourselves counting our complaints? These things demonstrate a lack of generosity of spirit. During times of stress and distress, fear and consternation it is difficult to practice generosity of spirit. A generosity of spirit that leads us to charity in our opinions of others will lead to a generosity of self, a willingness to share our lives liberally with others. Such a generosity of self I see in this church with our new pastoral care teams, with the stories I am told when I visit someone in our church at the hospital and am told not only of those who visited, but those who took the time to send a card or a simple email, those who’ve brought meals and run errands: this generous sharing of your life with others.

And of course you know that I am going to mention financial generosity which is but a subset of this holistic idea of radical generosity that includes generosity of spirit and generosity of life as well as generosity of time and labor and talent. And how have I gotten here? By what route have I traveled to leave the story of that man on the train, the story of Bernard Madoff suicides, the story from the New York Times of those wondering how they can possibly live on $500,000 per year… how did I get from there to here? Remember part of the danger of heightened expectations results in an obsession about always being in control, always winning, always being ahead. Radical generosity has to do, paradoxically, with refusing to insist upon control.

Generosity of spirit has to with refusing to cling to the judgments we make about others. Generosity of life and of time has to do with opening ourselves to others. Generosity of wealth has to do with letting go of that need to live with utter control over our wealth, or maybe it is letting go of having our wealth exercise utter control over us. Those who have lost control, lost control to a credit card company, to a stock market fund, or even to a job know what it is like to serve a cruel and fickle master.

I’ve been challenging you with a hard message all morning here. So, let me go all the way. If generosity of spirit liberates us from contempt of others, and if generosity of life liberates us from living only for ourselves so that we may in fact live in part for others, then generosity of wealth liberates us from the palaces that don’t really serve us well.

Buddha taught that there is life abundantly outside the walls of the palace. [This is a reference to my children’s story about Buddha’s childhood.] Buddha taught that life spent entirely inside the palace was not life at all, but an illusion, a distortion of reality. To walk away from the palace was to embrace the fullness of life.

I am grateful for a congregation that will dare to listen to a challenging message like this one. Like any good Unitarian Universalist sermon, it does not end when I say, “Amen.” It goes forth with you for you to discuss, to consider, to wonder on, and, perhaps even to live out.

I end with the words that Tim Wise uses when he concludes a lecture. James Baldwin said, “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” Amen.