Monday, August 31, 2009

List #11: 26 Books Read on Midwest Airlines Flight 2056

Anne and I recently took a short trip to Washington D.C. There we stayed with one of Anne’s close friends, saw Anne’s brother, and had a swanky Sunday brunch with an old high school friend of mine.

We managed to get a direct flight from D.C. to KC on Midwest and when I boarded the plane I spotted a book on one of the seats. It was David Foster Wallace’s magnificent opus Infinite Jest. When Anne and I reached our seats at the back of the plane I glanced across the aisle and spotted someone reading Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, a book that currently sits on my “to read” list. I began to hatch a plan.

After take off and after we reached a cruising altitude I began to take short excursions from my seat. Notebook in hand I explained to my fellow passengers that I was a writer (technically true) and that I would be producing a piece about what people read on airplanes (also technically true.)

On the third of these jaunts the flight attendant came over the PA system and explained to everyone that a writer named Thom was writing a piece about what people read on airplanes and that I would be asking people to tell me about what books they were reading. I can’t claim that my survey was all encompassing. Also, I skipped over those people who seemed to be studying text books as well as those reading newspapers or magazines.

Following my list, you will find a few observations. Here is the list of 26 books being read on Midwest flight 2056 from Washington D.C. to Kansas City.
1) Master of the Senate (The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson) by Robert Caro. Checking in at over 1,200 pages, this book is the third volume of the definitive biography of LBJ.
2) 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan
3) My Life in France by Julia Child
4) Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich
5) Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (One of my all-time favorite books.)
6) ‘Tis by Frank McCourt (McCourt died a little over a month ago. June and July were bad months for people whose last name started with “Mc”. Besides McCourt, Steve McNair, Ed McMahon, and Robert McNamara all died in a period of a little over a month.)
7) The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury (Inauspiciously, this book is described on as a "ponderous Da Vinci Code knockoff." Ouch!)
8) Embraced by the Light by Betty Eadie (A book about spirituality and near death experiences.)
9) The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir (Historical fiction)
10) The Translator by Daoud Hari (This work of non-fiction about a man’s attempt to help the victims of the genocide in Darfur has received rave-reviews.)
11) Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
The next three books were all being read by the pre-teen children of a mother who was particularly proud to point out the reading prowess of her kids.
12) Living on the Black by John Feinstein (The prolific sportswriter chronicles the experiences of two aging pitchers: Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina.)
13) Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
14) The Wizard Heir by Cindi Williams Chima

15) His Excellency by Joseph Ellis (A biography of George Washington.)
16) The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith (An historical drama set in Ancient Egypt.)
17) Meant to Be by Walter Anderson
18) Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman
19) Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory (more historical fiction set in the same era as Alison Weir’s novel above.)
20) Obsidian Prey by Jayme Castle (Sci-Fi)
21) A Caress of Twilight by Laura Hamilton (Fantasy)
22) The Best of Field & Stream edited by J.I. Merritt and Margaret Nichols
23) The Apostle by Brad Thor (A thriller. How much do you want to bet that “Brad Thor” is not Brad Thor’s real name?)
24) The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
25) Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Anne is reading this for the SMUUCh book club.)
26) McSweeney’s Volume 31 (The book I am reading.)

1) This poll was not scientific. Who knows what books people had stashed in their carry on baggage. Maybe some people hid their books.

2) There were two genres that were noticeably absent in the reading on this flight. First of all, with the exception of the book by Betty Eadie, nobody was reading about spirituality or religion. That’s odd, it is practically a given that someone on a plane is doing Bible-study or reading for a religious education class at their church. The other genre that was noticeably absent was politically partisan books. This is almost equally surprising to the absence of books on spirituality and religion. Nobody was reading Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, or Glenn Beck. Nobody was reading Al Franken or Jeff Sharlet.

3) Reactions: One woman did respond to my impromptu interview very coldly. She covered the title of her book with her hand and demanded to know what I would be doing with the information. She assumed that I had nefarious purposes. Everyone else was only too excited to share. People proudly held up their books and made small talk with me while I wrote down the author and the title. Sometimes these conversations even spawned more conversations. Some across the aisle would jump in and add, “I’ve read that book.” Someone else might say, “I’ve been thinking of reading that. Is it any good?”

4) I remember flying about 5 years ago and seeing at least 5 people reading the Da Vinci Code. I was also surprised by the lack of duplicates aboard this flight.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lecture #9: "From Merger to Present: UU History from 1961 to 2009"

[This lecture is number 9 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

All throughout this week, as I have delivered lectures here at the Midwest Leadership School, I have benefitted immensely from two on-line sources. First, the miracle of “Googlebooks” has allowed me access to primary sources, everything from the poetry of Anne Bradstreet to On the Formation of Christian Character by Henry Ware, Jr. to James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions. As long as I have internet it feels like I have special access to the Andover-Harvard Theological Library or the Massachusetts Historical Society. The second wonderful resource I have turned to has been the Dictionary of UU Biography which has allowed me to keep my dates straight and to tell my Cabots from my Lowells.

For this penultimate lecture I am deeply indebted to the work of one man, Warren Ross. His history of the first 45 years of the Unitarian Universalist Association, The Premise & The Promise, is the best book for gaining an understanding of modern Unitarian Universalism. Additionally, his wonderful articles for the UU World magazine have helped us to remember our relatively recent past.

Though we know the Unitarians and the Universalists officially merged in 1961 we also know that merger was preceded by a long period of increasing cooperation. Dating back to the 1800s, Unitarian and Universalist ministers “traded teams” without having to alter their theology significantly. The most famous example may have been Thomas Starr King, who started out as a Universalist before taking a Unitarian pulpit in San Francisco in the mid-1800s where he successfully organized to keep California a part of the Union. Examples of Unitarians becoming Universalists were rarer, but I do call your attention to Ken Patton from the lecture on Universalism.

In the 1900s the two movements increasingly worked collaboratively. Religious Education curricula were designed for both Unitarian and Universalist congregations. The youth movements of each combined to form LRY, or “Liberal Religious Youth.” The merger combined two faith groups who were already working shoulder to shoulder, if not walking hand in hand.

For this lecture I do not want to give a decade by decade account of our recent history. Instead, I will approach our recent history more thematically.

Justice Work
The number of justice issues that Unitarian Universalist congregations and groups have undertaken over the last half century is immense. Unitarian Universalists have worked locally and nationally for civil rights. We have stood up for women’s equality and for full access to reproductive health care. We have worked for civil rights for GLBT persons.

Some Unitarian Universalist congregations have protested for peace during the Vietnam War and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During Vietnam some congregations participated in demonstrations that included the burning of draft cards and offered sanctuary to those who avoided the draft. Other UU congregations were split on the question of Vietnam and split on the role of the church in speaking out against it. This led to hard feelings and open conflict in many congregations.

Other Unitarian Universalists have worked passionately on issues like a halting the production of nuclear weapons, closing the School of the Americas in Georgia, the death with dignity movement, various environmental issues, advocating for the separation of church and state, advocating for honest sexual health education in schools, and even more. A thorough list of the issues that we have undertaken would tower over the social causes our movements supported in the early-to-mid 1800s.

Beginning in the 1980s, as the United States government funded El Salvador’s brutal military regime, dozens of Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in civil disobedience by taking in El Salvadoran refugees, common folk who had been terrorized and brutalized by forces trained and funded by our government. (Among the atrocities committed by the El Salvadoran government was the gang-rape and murder of four nuns who came to El Salvador to participate in relief efforts.) UU churches housed, sheltered, and fed these refugees, found them work, and helped them to re-establish a life here as the life that they had known had been taken away. The writings of Jennifer Harbury focus on the US sponsored torture and violence in Guatemala.

Most recently, our movement has been on the front lines in the battle for marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Thanks to the efforts of Unitarian Universalists I believe the battle for marriage equality is a decade ahead where it would be had UUs not taken the lead. We have sped up the bending of the moral arc of the universe towards justice. This week I saw one of our MWLS students proudly wearing a tee-shirt with the slogan, “Iowa: Cooler than California since 2009.” There is no longer any question in my mind that this battle will be won. The only question is when. Because of the work of our congregations, ministers, lay leaders, and legislative ministries, the answer is, “sooner than it would be otherwise.”

Social Changes within the Church
Perhaps even more interesting than the justice issues for which Unitarian Universalist have worked in our communities are the social changes that our movement has seen within our own walls.

If you look back over the past half-century, probably the greatest change our movement has seen is the rise of the number of women in our ministry. Although the Universalists first ordained a woman, Olympia Brown in 1860, our ministry was still at least 90% male in the 1970s. Two UUA resolutions, the first in 1970 and the second in 1977 (the year I was born), sought to promote greater numbers of women in the ministry. Most liberal and mainline denominations have seen a dramatic rise in the number of women clergy over the past thirty years however the percentage of women joining the UU ministry has dwarfed that of other denominations. On April 25, 1999 Rebecca Cohen was ordained into the UU ministry. With her ordination the UU clergy reached a point of equilibrium; half of our ministers were women and the other half were men. Over the past decade women have made up an increasing majority of the ministers in our movement. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the students now preparing for the UU ministry are women.

While this data points to equality, let us not be lulled into a sense of complacency. Writing from his position as an evangelical Christian, albeit one who does not wear that label comfortably, Brian McClaren has pointed out that while liberal denominations have welcomed women into the clergy, women's job prospects have been limited. McClaren points out that women clergy often receive the less desirable calls and often are asked to serve as “hospice pastors” whose job entails caring for dying churches and attending to those churches while they are in the throes of death.

Unitarian Universalists have succeeded in putting some cracks in the “stained glass ceiling.” Until the recent retirements of Marilyn Sewell and Laurel Hallman, two of our five largest congregations were served by women senior ministers. Currently, women serve as the senior ministers of large congregations such as Ann Arbor, West Hartford, Albuquerque, Mahtomedi (Minnesota), Fairfax (Virginia), and the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Additionally, women serve as the senior co-ministers (as one half of a clergy couple) in our congregations in St. Paul, Rochester (NY), and Berkeley (CA). Despite these advances, the fact that women senior ministers are still in the minority shows that we still have work to do as a movement.

If the rise of women in the ministry has been one of the major changes over the past several decades, our work to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons has been a second major change. I know of one minister in our tradition who conducted same-sex union services as early as 1957! However, surveys found that UUs held generally negative views of homosexuals into the 1970s. To counteract these prejudicial views, the UUA passed a resolution in 1970 calling for equality for gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons as well as affirming ministers regardless of their sexual orientation. In 1973 the UUA established an Office of Gay Concerns at the UUA. In 1989 the UUA launched the Welcoming Congregation program, an educational program through which any UU congregation could learn to be more inclusive of LGBT individuals and families. Since ’89 more than half of all UU congregations have been recognized as Welcoming Congregations. The fact that only slightly more than half have been recognized should not be perceived as evidence of division or controversy. For one thing, hundreds and hundreds of our congregations are tiny and often feel that programs of the UUA are not suited to their needs. Additionally, many of our congregations see it as a sign of their own individuality not to participate in initiatives of our larger movement. Any program supported by over half of our congregations has to be considered a tremendous success.

Today openly gay and lesbian ministers serve many of our large and historic congregations and our churches actively work in support of equal marriage and against hate crimes and against attempts to pass legislation that fail to respect justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

If I had to name a third major social change that our congregations have witnessed in recent history, it would have to be the rise of various neo-pagan theologies in our congregations. Neo-paganism has grown in our congregations from both the inside and the outside. In 1986 the UUA published an adult religious education curriculum on feminist theology called Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Written by Rev. Shirley Ranck, this curriculum introduced thousands of Unitarian Universalists to the works of Margot Adler, Starhawk, and Mary Daly.

Many UU congregations formed CUUPS groups, short for Covenant of UU Pagans. The membership of these groups did not entirely derive from those who discovered the Goddess through Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. In 1998 sociologist Helen Berger published an academic study entitled A Community of Witches. This book asks the questions: Why do contemporary practitioners of Neo-paganism have such a poor record of founding communities that endure? Why are Neo-pagan congregations all but non-existent?

The last chapter of A Community of Witches is fascinating. It seems that the one place Neo-pagans have been most effective at becoming “institutional” is by joining UU congregations. Berger explains that this relationship has been mutually beneficial in many cases. Neo-pagans find acceptance of their theology, quality childcare and religious education, and buildings that offer convenient ritual space. In return other members of the congregation are exposed to greater theological diversity. Many UU congregations celebrate the equinoxes and the solstices, as well as other holy days like Samhain at a special evening service or as the theme of a Sunday morning service.

Interlude: UUs and Racial Justice
In discussing the recent history of Unitarian Universalism, I cannot fail to mention two events from the 1960s that show our denomination at its best and at its most contentious. In 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death in Selma, Alabama. Following Jackson’s death, Martin Luther King issued his “call to Selma” for clergy from across the nation to join him in Alabama. Unitarian Universalists answered the call. Two UUs would die in Selma: Viola Liuzzo, a layperson from Detroit and Rev. James Reeb. Reeb’s death would lead LBJ to sign civil rights legislation. Martin Luther King would speak at the 1965 UUA General Assembly, delivering the Ware Lecture.

While the martyrdom of Liuzzo and Reeb would prove to be a proud moment for our movement, racial tensions would arise in the late 1960s and leave a scar that is still felt by our movement today. The Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 60s and early 70s was a time of great pain for our movement. Frankly, I cannot hope to do justice to the history of the conflict in my short lecture this morning. Frankly, the history is a bit confusing and you need to be very good with acronyms for the history to make sense. The history involves a group asking for significant funding, a walkout from General Assembly, a breakdown of trust, and the UUA not following through on its funding promises (while, it must be admitted, the UUA was on financially shaky footing.) Click here for a timeline of the controversy. Click here for Warren Ross’ reflections on it.

Quick Hits
To conclude this lecture, allow me to quickly touch upon a few other important points of the last half decade.

The Partner Church Movement
The fall of the Iron Curtain began with the Romanian revolution of 1989. The government was overthrown and head of state Nicolae Ceausescu was assassinated. With the fall of Communism in Romania the country opened to the West and Unitarian Universalists in North America were able to connect with the Transylvanian Unitarians. Through a “Partner Church” program UU congregations in North America were able to partner with congregations in Transylvania. These partnerships regularly meant trips of North Americans to Transylvania and collections taken to financially support those congregations. UU seminaries invited ministers from Transylvania to serve as visiting scholars. Other international work included partnering with Unitarians in the Khasi Hills and with the Holdeen Indian program in India, partnering with Unitarian congregations in the Philippines, and, most recently, working with emerging UU congregations in Uganda, Kenya, and other African countries.

Burning Issues
One way to gauge what is going on in the institutional life of Unitarian Universalism is to take a look at the work of the Commission on Appraisal. This Commission is elected by the General Assembly of the UUA and is charged with bringing to the movement greater insights about ourselves. Over the past decade and a half the Commission on Appraisal has looked at ways to deepen our own sense of Congregational Polity, has asked us to rethink the meaning of membership, and has asked us to contemplate the “core of our faith” which led to the publication of a report entitled Engaging Our Theological Diversity. Most recently the Commission on Appraisal took up the provision in the UUA by-laws that requires Article II of the UUA by-laws (the Principles & Purposes) to be revisited and reexamined every twenty years. Their proposed revisions of the Principles & Purposes were narrowly rejected at the 2009 General Assembly by a mere 13 votes.

Sex Education
In 1970 the UUA published a comprehensive sexual education program known as About Your Sexuality (AYS). AYS proved to be controversial for its slides which showed heterosexual and homosexual couples making love and male and female masturbation. In the mid-1990s AYS was replaced by Our Whole Lives (OWL), a collaborative project of both the UUA and United Church of Christ. OWL is both faith and fact based and is touted as one of the best sexual education programs available. It even received a recent write-up in Oprah magazine.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this lecture to five UU martyrs who have been killed since merger in 1961. (I apologize to anyone I may have unintentionally omitted from this list.)
Rev. James Reeb (3/11/65) Beaten to death in Selma, Alabama
Viola Liuzzo (3/25/65) Shot in Alabama while assisting civil rights marchers
James Barrett (7/29/94) At age 74 the retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel was shot while serving as an escort at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida
Linda Kreager (7/27/08) Died in Knoxville church shooting
Greg McKendry (7/27/08) Died in Knoxville church shooting

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sermon: "Return to the Springs" (August 23, 2009)

by Jacob Trapp
I am amazed to the point of ecstasy by the miracle of awareness.
Life brings me its freshness as an ineffable gift.
Every moment renews my vision.
Death is permission granted [for] other modes of life to exist,
So that everything may be ceaselessly renewed.
The ploughshare of sorrow breaking the heart,
Opens up new sources of life.
The land bursts again in bloom.
The possible and the future are one.
The possible strives to come into being, and can be, if we help.
Nothing grows, flowers, bears fruit save by giving.
All that we try to save in ourselves wastes and perishes.
All things ripen for the giving’s sake,
And in the giving are consummated.

The inspiration for my words this morning comes from the writings of the late UU minister Jacob Trapp, a humanist-mystic (that is not an oxymoron) and poet. Trapp was a mentor to John Buehrens who, in turn, was one of my mentors.

“Renewal” was one of the perennial themes that Trapp returned to time and time again in his writings. When I say the word “renewal” today there are some dominant images that come to mind. When I speak of renewal let me be clear that I am not talking about television commercials in soft focus that feature models with unblemished skin and a voice-over by a narrator with a smooth, luxurious voice. Nor am I talking about items found on the product aisle of a drugstore that are described using far too many adjectives. “A sensuous blend of cucumber and guava.” “Refreshes, rejuvenates, and restores.” Further, I am not speaking of day-spas where people lounge around in bleached-white robes with cucumber slices over their eyes.

Being a minister who writes about renewal must be pretty cushy, eh? Well, when Jacob Trapp brings up renewal he is talking about something rather different than manicures, pedicures, and organic beauty products.

Let me run through some of the many things that he means when he talks about renewal. One of the things he talks about is a “return to the springs,” which is also the title of a book of collected lectures and sermons. This return to the springs is a return the primitive by which he means a return to the original or the first. John Buehrens supplies a metaphor for how we might think about this. He mentions that the city of Dallas is fed by the Trinity River. By the time the Trinity River reaches Dallas, it is but a trickle of pollution, “full of poisonous accretions, sluggish, and meandering… not unlike what seemed to pass… for religion” in the city.

Buehrens mentions that from time to time he would spot a great blue heron and would marvel that anything sustaining could be extracted from this toxic stream littered with the rusted remains of shopping carts and abandoned tires. However, if you travel upstream, you would eventually come to the headwaters, the source, the spring—the place where the water is life-giving, where it is renewing.

Don’t misunderstand me. Jacob Trapp is not suggesting a return to the past. He would not have us, as Unitarian Universalists, return only to the sermons of Channing, the Universalist Winchester profession of faith, or the Cambridge Platform. He isn’t suggesting that we limit ourselves to “original teachings.” He is not making a historical claim, positive or negative. He is not advocating grumpy nostalgia.

For him, returning to the springs means direct experience. “The world does not lack for wonders, only for a sense of wonder,” just as, to paraphrase John Buehrens again, “the world does not lack for relatedness but only for a sense of deep relatedness, in which our strivings for community and communion with one another can be truly grounded.”

About a year and a half ago I preached a springtime sermon series on the topic of renewal. In that sermon series I talked about the renewal of our bodies and of our emotions and also the renewal of relationships and communities.

When I say the word “renewal” let me again point out that I do not understand this word to be synonymous with being idle or pampered. Renewal is not the same thing as rest. I recently watched the movie The Motorcycle Diaries. This film depicts the story of a young Ché Guevara when he, as a twenty-three year old about to finish medical school, sets out with a companion on a circuitous 5,000 mile motorcycle trip across South America. In the movie, renewal is found not in the hedonistic pleasure pursuits that were the trip’s original purpose. Instead, renewal was found in new understanding and new insight, in seeing the injustices faced by workers in the copper mines, by witnessing the suffering within leper colonies, and by beholding the ruins of Incan civilization and the colonial implications of those ruins.

About mysticism, Jacob Trapp wrote,
“I like to think of mysticism as the art of meeting reality, or the art of richer and deeper awareness. ... It is an experience that comes unbidden ... [It is] a very special experience ... of that Oneness, a rare and wonderful realization of what always is but of which we are seldom aware, flooding in to overwhelm the illusion of aloneness, separateness. ... There are moments when life seems vivid and resplendent, when a more than mortal splendor breaks in, when there is a touch of grandeur and of glory in just being alive. ... [It is] our experience ... of those moments when we're rapturously one with the wonder of all that is.”
So, how do we return to the springs? How do we seek out that which sustains us as well as that which renews us? As I have intimated, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with travel to the headwaters. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with solitude. There isn’t one right way or one wrong way. Sustenance and renewal can be found in solitude and in community, in nature and in church. It can be found in contemplation and in working in solidarity with others for justice. It can be found in the appreciation of art and in the creation of art. The Sufi mystic Rumi said that there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. We might likewise say that there are hundreds of paths that allow us to return to the springs.

My favorite story of such a return is an old rabbinic tale from Eastern Europe. This story, that I heard from one of my colleagues, involves a Jewish cobbler in Krakow, Poland who has a series of vivid dreams about a bridge in Rome. He has never visited this bridge, but in his dream there is a bag of treasure hidden under the bridge. As the dreams become more frequent and more intense, the cobbler sets out for Rome. When he reaches the city he sees the bridge, exactly as it appeared in his dream. On the bridge he meets a Roman guardsman. He mentions to the guardsman that he has traveled to this bridge from Poland. Astonished, the guardsman ask him if a cobbler from Krakow. Then, the guardsman admits that he has had a series of dreams about a cobbler in Krakow who has a treasure of gold and jewels buried under his hearth. The story, at least according to my knowledge of it, ends right there.

The meaning of this story is explained by Diana Eck, a professor of religion at Harvard, who has said that if you only know one religion (your own) you don’t know any religion. However, if you know more than one religion, you are able to understand the treasure of your own.

Like the Jewish cobbler from Krakow, I am about to embark on a journey. This afternoon marks the beginning of my sabbatical leave for the next three months. I have no intention of visiting any spas, of putting anything on my body that combines cucumber and guava or that uses the word “zesty” as an adjective. I won’t be searching under bridges or digging up hearths.

At the beginning of the service we held our annual “Gathering of the Waters” ritual. This morning I asked you, when you poured your actual or symbolic or imaginary water, to name a place where you go for sustenance or renewal. The responses this year were similar to those from years past: Water poured from beautiful locations. Water returned from a place of a family gathering, whether that family gathering took place a car ride away or near the Norwegian fjords. Water brought back from a trip to visit a new grandchild. Water brought from a summer garden that has produced plump tomatoes and zucchini. Water from a service trip—a medical mission to Haiti, helping to rebuild New Orleans, or working with Habitat for Humanity.

Thanks to this time of renewal, rejuvenation, and learning with which you have blessed me, I will have the opportunity to discover some metaphorical treasure. I go forth to return to the springs, but then to return here with surprises to share, with insights gleaned, with passion, drive, and focus. And who knows what exactly I will return to—but knowing you, I am delighted to imagine the possibilities.

Be good to one another. Hold this religious community as the precious jewel that it is and share it like the bread and the wine of life with all who hunger and thirst. I love you. I will miss you. And thank you again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sermon: "If Life Gave Us Do-Overs..." (Delivered 8-16-09)

Some ministers try to schedule the Sunday closest to their birthday as a Sunday out of the pulpit as a kind of birthday present to themselves. However, I love to preach on the Sunday closest to my birthday because I get to deliver something that I call “The Birthday Sermon.” This is an annual tradition. That is actually not true; it is not an annual tradition. I went back and checked and discovered that I’ve only given a Birthday sermon twice. (Here, Here) Other years I have been in the middle of delivering sermon series on subjects like covenant or the economy.

By tradition, or by lack of tradition as it were, a birthday sermon is a sermon that is not for you, that has no bearing on your life whatsoever because it does not consider a topic of importance to you. It’s my birthday and I’ll preach what I want to!

So, on this Sunday of all Sundays I beg, I implore, I beseech, I command you not to pay attention, because it will not be worth your time. Don’t take my questions and apply them to your own experience or the fire of your own thought. Don’t take them to heart and let them speak to the depth of your experience. And whatever you do, don’t answer my questions this morning with truthfulness and honesty.

So, now that you are not listening, let me tell you what has been on my mind recently. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about regrets. Don’t jump to conclusions. Regrets are not the only thing I’ve been thinking about. As I prepare for sabbatical my thoughts have largely been focused on taking stock and I’ve asked you to help me to take stock. And when we do this there are different kinds of thoughts that rise up. Some of those thoughts are about celebrations, about successes, about fond memories. But with those thoughts inevitably come regrets and disappointments. Fond memories and disappointments combine and help us to imagine the future, to consider it, to commit and recommit to it, to make goals and plans, and to design objectives.

(I’m sure that none of you have had anniversaries or birthdays where these types of thoughts have arisen, just as I’m sure that none of you and none of your children operate on an academic calendar where going back to school means new dreams, new objectives, and new resolutions.)

I’ve not only been thinking about regrets because of my process of taking stock. I’ve been thinking of them because of what seems to be a news period that has been unusually focused on significant individual failings. Until very recently it has seemed like the only thing that can take the focus off of an adulterous politician is another adulterous politician, just as it seems like the only thing that can take the focus off the scandal of an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs is a story about an athlete doing something else that is felonious and stupid.

When it comes to regrets, I am the type of person who can come up with a list of dozens of things, if not hundreds of things, that I would do over if life gave us do-overs. Just as, I am sure, some of you could think of something from your own life experience that you would gladly do over if you had the chance.

Before you worry that your minister is wracked by guilt over all the sordid and dreadful things that I have done in my life, worry not. Most of my regrets rise to the level of the story I am about to tell: When I was in middle school I was canoeing one afternoon when I suddenly had the unquenchable desire to find out if my retainer floated or sank in water. The answer could not wait for me to be back at home, could not wait for me to attempt the experiment in a glass of water or the kitchen sink. The retainer sank. Now, that is not something I go around feeling bad about, but even though it is a very, very small thing in the grand scheme of things, it is something that I would do over if life gave us do-overs.

Just to be clear, my regrets tend to deal with sins of omission rather than sins of commission and they mostly don’t deal with sins at all, but with opportunities missed, with the marrow of life not sucked, as Thoreau might say.

How much greater must be the desire to do over for a person whose mistakes and misjudgments landed them in prison, landed someone in the hospital, permanently damaged another person, or forever destroyed an opportunity! I am the type of person who is inclined to wish that do-overs were possible. However, in my life I have met honest and thoughtful souls who have said, in all honesty, that they would not do things over even if they had the chance. These are the people who claim that who they are is the product of hard lessons learned, of opportunities squandered, and of struggles overcome even when the struggle itself was entirely avoidable. These are the people who, even if they aren’t proud of their literal and metaphorical scars, don’t wish that the scars could be erased. Maybe some of you are like this. To me, personally, I have a tough time understanding this point of view. Who would not willingly undo something that turned out to cause regret?

Of course, this question is purely theoretical. Life does not give us do-overs. Life gives us second chances. A second chance is not the same thing as a do-over. Second chances exist. Do-overs do not. I can say with absolute, 100% certainty that a device that enables time-travel, that is, a device that allows us to go back into the past and literally do something over, will never exist in my life time. I can say this with such bold certainty because if it turns out that I’m wrong I will just jump in that time travel device and change what I just said.

Life does not give us do-overs but life often gives us second chances, and often third chances and fourth chances and tenth chances. Life does not give us do-overs but life gives us the ability to try to make amends and the grace of being forgiven. Life gives us, in the words of Paul Simon, “photo opportunities and shots at redemption.” A second chance is simply the opportunity to learn a lesson from something we don’t have the opportunity to do over. There is a difference. Michael Vick gets a second chance to play football in the NFL; he does not get a second chance at earning hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement deals. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford will get a second chance at marriage (although it remains to be seen whether it will be with his wife or with someone else.) South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford does not get a second chance, one would have to think, at being taken seriously as a candidate for President.

Just to be clear, second chances do exist whereas do-overs do not exist and what I’m talking about this morning is the thing that doesn’t exist. I want to argue why it is important to be mindful of do-overs, even though they don’t exist and especially because they do not exist.

Let me try to explain what I’m talking about here by using a story from the Bible. It is a good story. It is the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. The story appears in three out of the four gospels. The story basically goes like this. Jesus is making an appearance inside a large house. He is doing his miraculous healing thing and this attracts quite the crowd. The house fills up and people who cannot squeeze in surround the house, peering in the windows, and standing five or six deep. It is a major fire hazard. When the crowd is at its most crowded, four friends come along and they are carrying a fifth friend, a paralytic, on a makeshift stretcher.

If you recognize this story, you know what happens next. What you expect to happen is for the four friends to survey the scene and think, “We’ll try to catch Jesus another time.” That’s second chance thinking. But no, instead they do something hilarious and touching and courageous. First they climb up on the roof of this guy’s house, which is no small feat considering they also have to hoist their paralyzed friend up on the roof. What happens next depends on which version of the text you are reading. If you are reading Mark the roof is made out of straw and mud so the friends have to dig through the guy’s roof. If you are reading Luke, which is the Lexus of the Gospels, the guy’s roof is made out of tile. But, regardless, what happens next is the same. The friends manage to create a large hole in the guy’s roof and they tie their paralyzed friend to a rope and lower him down so that he can be healed.

Let’s pause right here. You can imagine the four friends attempting to game-plan this. They are debating ideas, coming up with a strategy, and one of them suggests that they all climb up on the roof and knock a hole through the roof and tie their ill friend to a rope and lower him down. And instead of being laughed out of town, his friends buy into this scheme.

Let me emphasize this: the four of them decide to go up on the roof. They decide to carry up their paralyzed friend. They decide to tear a hole in the roof of a stranger’s house. They decide to tie their friend to a rope and lower him through the hole in the ceiling. This is a plan that lacks pragmatism. This is a plan that lacks legality; the four friends are guilty of trespassing, breaking and entering, destruction of personal property, and reckless endangerment. Their decision is the type of decision that can only be made by someone who understands regrets, who understands that life does not give us do-overs.

The story is about the difference between second chances and do-overs. A second chance mindset says, “Well, we did what we could. Crowd is too large. Wait is too long. We’ll try to catch Jesus next time he swings through town. Sorry.” The do-over perspective asks the question, “How much are we going to regret not giving this our best shot?” It asks, “Can we look ourselves in the mirror knowing we didn’t give this one our very best, and very craziest shot?”

I don’t want to deny the power of the second chance, the third chance, the fourth chance. When any of us screw up, the second chance is a fantastic gift. Someone believes in us. We’re encouraged to try, try again. And yet, second chance thinking can grind things to a halt, can halt progress, can excuse inexcusable inertia. It was Martin Luther King who said that justice too long delayed is justice denied.

Along these same lines come the writings from a much more modern source. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, who joined the Harvard faculty at age 25, has written most recently on the theme of urgency in organizations. Now, I need to say that there is great danger in taking any book about business as the Gospel truth. Just as we reject fundamentalism in our readings of religious scriptures, we must also reject fundamentalism from those offering surefire business advice. But, this guy John Kotter says some interesting things. He says that urgency should not be confused with anxiety, fear, panic, or other reactionary behaviors. He says that urgency stems from a positive and hopeful view of the world in which, quote, “The world out there has amazing opportunities.”

This is the perspective that tells us to seize the day. Carpe Diem. This is the pastoral philosophy of UU minister Rev. Forrest Church who says that living a fulfilled life is a matter of being who you are and wanting what you have but also doing what you can. Do what you can because life does not give us do-overs.

My most recent regret that I am living with is over the loss of one of my most treasured mentors. If you read my blog this past week you know that last Sunday, my mentor, the Rev. Tim Jensen died of lung cancer. At the beginning of his battle I called him frequently, but our communications became less frequent. More sporadic. Last week, Tim sent a message to his colleagues on the UUMA email chat. In this message he said I should call him soon. We had different definitions of the word “soon.” Before I had the chance to call Tim had slipped into a coma and then died. I get the second chance of learning a lesson about being more responsive to loved ones who are ill. I don’t get a do-over. And I regret that so much.

There a term that is often used to critique Unitarian Universalism and theological liberalism, in general. The term is “cheap grace.” Cheap grace refers simply to a quickness to claim forgiveness, a quickness to excuse our errors. If our errors are easily excused, the result can be that we come to take our commitments lightly and taking important values, important institutions, and important relationships for granted. Cheap grace has to do with the flippant notion that we can always put off today what we will have a second chance to do tomorrow.

Whenever I am told that Unitarian Universalism and theological liberalism offer “cheap grace” I reply that this statement is not only incorrect, but that it is slanderous in fact. I reply that grace is not cheap even though it is plentiful. Do not say that grace is cheap because the world blesses us with its abundance, its beauty, its thrust towards life, and its natural wonders. Do not say that grace is cheap because some of us human creatures have learned the art of mercy, of compassion, of understanding and acceptance. Do not think that grace is cheap because the spirit of love is alive, because God is merciful.

And do not say that our theology offers cheap grace when Unitarian Universalism says that the journey towards a mature faith is never finished. Our faith instructs us that we must always keep our minds and hearts open to new wisdom, to new insight, to new revelation and that we are called to be always discerning and ever growing. Don’t say that my theology offers cheap grace when I am constantly being called to a greater understanding and deeper compassion. Do not say that this faith is easy when I am given not a single scripture, but am told that my scriptures are found in the library at Saint Paul School for the ministry and in the Linda Hall Library of Science and Technology, that my scripture is found in the lives of those who worship here and in the traditions of our neighboring faith communities, and that scripture resides as well in the vegetables in the garden, in the birds at my feeder, in this world of rainstorms and rainbows. Do not say that this religion is easy.

Give thanks for second chances, photo opportunities and shots at redemption. We are thankful for such awesome and amazing grace. But also stay alert, for the world is full of amazing opportunities. Let us not fail to move on them. Life is only cheap if we sit back, let it pass us by, and think to ourselves, “Oh, these chances will come around again.”

I thank you for this tremendous honor that you bestow on me. Even though I know that each new week brings a second chance, I treat each Sunday as if there were no do-overs.

List #10: A Dozen Birthday Cards

Over the past several weeks I have been going non-stop trying to get all the wrinkles smoothed out before my sabbatical begins. In the process I’ve fallen dreadfully behind in card writing. My birthday was this past Saturday which produced a greater than usual influx of cards. This week’s list re-caps some of the card high points. Please note the cards are not ranked.

1) My niece Sofia (with some help from my sister) sent me a computer-generated card.
2) My sister Mayra and her husband Kevin sent me a Barack Obama themed birthday card.
3) SMUUCh’s Music Director, Dave Simmons, gave me a musical card that plays Mozart when you open it.
4) Anne, my love, gave me a card with a quote by Emerson on the front, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.”
5) My parents sent me a tender card!
6) Jennifer Forker sent me a card featuring an Ecuadorian woman on the front holding a hand-knit sweater. The card’s purchase goes to support FINCA an organization that does micro-lending in developing countries.
7) Someone from the church sent me an anonymous card with geese in flight on the front. Anonymous cards usually make me groan but this one included a matching pair of crisp $50 bills. So I won’t complain. But it would be nice to know whom to thank.

Continuing with the animal theme:
8) The F. family sent me a card with two adorable cartoon dogs and a cupcake with a candle in it. One of the dogs is sitting in a decorative basket.
9) The P. family, who have over the years sent me many slightly edgy cards that I have loved, sent one with a cartoon dog imploring me to remember that even though I’m older than I’ve been before, I’m also younger than I’ll ever be again.
10) B. from church sent me a card with a picture of a fat cat sitting on the couch thinking about how nice it would be to have a tuna sandwich.
11) J. from church sent me a card with Tweetie Bird on it.

12) H. from church sent me an anti-card. In it he explained his decision that most cards are heedless expenses and that he’d taken to writing people letters for their birthdays instead while setting aside $4 each time to donate to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund, a special fund held by the church that assists those in our community when they face financial hardship. Thank you for the letter, H, and thank you for the check for $32.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Loss of a Minister: A Tribute Born of Grief

I was stunned and saddened yesterday to learn of the death of my dear colleague The Reverend Doctor Tim Jensen. Tim’s brother, Erik, posted an entry on Tim’s blog stating that Tim had slipped into a coma on Saturday evening (8/8/09) and died peacefully the next morning. I will miss Tim profoundly.

I first met Tim in 1998 when I began attending services at the Wy’East Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Portland, Oregon where Tim was serving as a part-time consulting minister. Wy’East met on Sunday afternoons in space rented in a Mainline Christian Church on the corner of 39th and Steele, just a few blocks from the Reed College Campus. I continued to attend the worship services at First Unitarian in Portland where I was moved by Rev. Marilyn Sewell’s powerful preaching. I attended Wy’East with my fellow UU students at Reed College.

Tim was my minister and pastor. Then he became my mentor and I, his protégé. Then he became my friend. Then I became his colleague.

Tim blessed me by welcoming me into a pulpit to preach for the first time. We co-preached a sermon on the religious life of Thomas Jefferson. That he endured my debut is a testimony to his graciousness. He welcomed me into the pulpit on the condition that our work would not go to waste. A short time later we took a weekend road trip to Washington State where we preached at a small UU Fellowship on the Olympic Peninsula. On the way home we opened the envelopes that contained our honorarium checks. His was several times larger than mine. Tim declared that this was unacceptable. We had shared the service 50/50 and would split the honorarium accordingly. On the way home we took a detour and enjoyed a ride on the Bainbridge Island ferry in Puget Sound. We later took a road trip together to the 1999 General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

In the summer of 1999 I left Portland to attend Harvard Divinity School. I brought with me Tim’s gift to me upon receiving admission to HDS, an Oxford Annotated version of the Bible. Over the next few years Tim and I stayed in contact by email. When he came through Boston he would take me out for ribs at Red Bones in Davis Square or for Italian in the North End. As I prepared to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in September of 2002, Tim invited me to join him for a five day stay in the parsonage on Nantucket Island, where Tim served a two year interim ministry. He invited me to guest preach in Carlisle, Massachusetts early in his ministry there. Tim’s encouragement and graciousness meant more to me than I have the words to express. I have met few people as generous as Tim.

When I think of Tim Jensen, many images come to mind. One image is an island. Tim served some of the “island” congregations in our movement. After student ministries in Boston and Seattle (where he learned at the feet of two giants of our movement, Rhys Williams and Peter Raible) his first call was to serve the UU congregation in Midland, Texas. Serving in this location meant a plane flight to be able to meet with his closest UU colleagues. Tim joked that his “parish” stretched east to west from Ft. Worth to El Paso (605 miles) and north to south from Lubbock to San Antonio (407 miles). Tim was the “Unitarian Bishop” of a 246,000 square mile parish. Tim’s second island ministry was a two year stint as interim minister on Nantucket. As a deeply reflective soul with a book reading addiction Tim had the perfect temperament for this type of service.

In total Tim would serve in Midland, Texas, in Hillsboro, Oregon, at Wy’East in Portland and a number of part time positions at congregations scattered across Washington and Oregon, on Nantucket, in Carlisle, Massachusetts, and, finally, in Portland, Maine. My heart goes out to all those whom Tim served in ministry.

Tim Jensen’s education was tremendous. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an M. Div. from Harvard, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington (studying under Annie Dillard), a master's degree in religious history from Oregon State (studying under Marcus Borg), and a Ph.D. in religious history from the University of Oregon. He joked that this made him a “Crimson Viking Husky Beaver Duck.”

Tragically, 18 months ago and while still just newly called to his dream position in Portland, Maine, Tim was diagnosed with lung cancer. As I write about Tim’s life, I face disquiet and discomfort, embarrassment and shame. I believe I could have been a much better friend to Tim during his illness. I had several short phone calls with him following his diagnosis, but more or less dropped away over the past year or so. The reason for this is not a mystery to me. My relationship with Tim was multifaceted. We were colleagues. We were friends. I considered him my mentor and he considered me his protégé. And yet, all of these ways in which we were related were secondary. He was my minister, my pastor; I was his “parishioner.” As a life-long Unitarian Universalist and as a minister for the past 6+ years I have been ministered to by my colleagues more times than I can count. That is what we do as colleagues. But care does not define my relationship with those colleagues. They’ve been colleagues, friends, teammates, advisors, mentors, advisees, mentees, and so on. But, I have had only two other colleagues besides Tim whom I have been able to call my minister first, and all those other things second. How do you minister, I mean really minister, to your minister?

On the afternoon of Thursday, August 6th, I heard from Tim for the last time. He sent an email to the UU Ministers Association email chat list. His email contained many of the common qualities of his communications in general: an uncommon generosity of spirit, a deep respect for the office of ministry and for the pastoral office in particular, wisdom, and an awe-inspiring grasp of our UU history. Embedded in that email was a message to me: Tim stuck a paragraph addressed to me in the middle of the email. He complimented me on the series of UU history essays I had recently posted on my blog. He asked me to call him soon. I did not call soon enough. Approximately 48 hours later he lost consciousness for the last time.

While I grieve not having the chance to say goodbye, I can tell you with certainty how the phone call would have gone. He'd have shifted the conversation away from himself. He'd ask me with sincere interest how my life and how my ministry were going. He'd speak kind words of praise to me. He'd take the time to offer wise counsel, charging me not to forget certain offices of ministry. But, how I wish I had called him sooner!

There is so much more I could write. I could write about Tim’s Boston Terrier (of course!) named Parker (of course!) and how much joy he received from his animal companion. I’d have to mention his love of basketball and how he was not impressed by high-flying acrobatic dunks. Tim enjoyed a high school girl’s basketball game more than an NBA dunk-fest. He valued sound fundamentals and appreciated a player making an astute pass to a teammate more than he appreciated a player creating his or her own shot. This speaks volumes about his approach to ministry.

In lieu of a list of the week, I’d like to share a list of fond memories of Tim:

1) Our preaching road trip to Washington State and our ferry ride across Puget Sound in 1999.
2) Going to the North End for a delicious Italian dinner and outstanding wine during the 2003 General Assembly in Boston.
3) His introducing me to Garrison Keillor (by playing a multi-cassette Best of Tales from Lake Woebegone collection) on a road trip from Portland to Salt Lake City in 1999.
4) Two gifts from him that I treasure: a Bible and a lapel pin depicting the rainbow and the dove from the story of Noah’s Ark.
5) Meeting for coffee in Concord, Massachusetts at the conclusion of my first year in the ministry and receiving his wise counsel and wonderful insights.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

List #8: 10 Bands I've Never Seen But Would Love to See

As I explained earlier in the list of the week project, a whole bunch of the lists are going to have to do with music. This week I present a list of musical acts that I’ve never seen live in concert, but hope to someday.

But first, there are some important ground rules to follow:

No Resurrection. Who among us wouldn’t want to see Jimi, Janis, or John? Or, how about Bob Marley or Jim Morrison? What I wouldn’t give to see Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper play the Surf Ballroom in Mason City. For that matter, I never saw Kurt or Tupac or Elliott Smith. While we are at it, let’s bring back Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bach.

No Time Travel. Bob Dylan is not on my list because I am not very interested in seeing Bob Dylan in 2009. Now, if we were talking about Dylan in ’69, he’d be at the top of my list. Similarly, the idea of seeing Springsteen today is nowhere near as exciting as seeing him in the early 80s. Get what I’m saying? You can only listen to the artist as they are right now in the present day, not how they were in their glory years.

Bill Clinton Isn’t Available. I’m not talking about playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. Even though Bill Clinton can go to North Korea to negotiate the release of journalists, we can’t ask Clinton to negotiate a truce between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar so that Uncle Tupelo can get back together. If a band has broken up, we need to think that there is a good chance that they might reform and tour again if they are to be included on the list.

So, without further ado, in order of preference here are musicians I hope to see:

1) Weezer. I’m actually surprised that this is my top choice. After putting out two fantastic albums in the 90s, I thought Weezer's next three were disappointments. However, their latest album, the red one, has brought me around. They are at the top of my list because I know that I won’t just be twiddling my thumbs waiting for them to play “Undone” and “El Scorcho.” I like the new stuff too.

2) Smashing Pumpkins. This is a risky pick to put this high. Depending on the mood of front man Billy Corgan the show might be epic or it might be dysfunctional. It is worth the risk. Would it be too much to ask for them play versions of songs by Zwan? Yes, that would probably be too much to ask.

3) Lisa Loeb. It would have to be at an extremely cool coffeehouse somewhere. She would have to make witty banter with the audience between songs. I might seriously consider offering my pinky finger for this to happen. Above the knuckle? Deal.

4) Outkast. Just to see what one of their live show is like. If the Grammys let this (offensive) craziness happen, who would know what to expect?

5) Rilo Kiley. Putting this band on the list may be cheating because I’ve seen Jenny Lewis perform her solo material. But I’d love to hear RK play some of their songs.

6) Postal Service. This one time collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello from Dntel produced an amazing album. I don’t know if they ever toured. Would a second album and a tour to support it be too much to ask?

7) Elvis Costello. While I can’t help but think that many veteran rockers would leave me disappointed and frustrated that I didn’t get the chance to see them in their earlier glory days, I bet Costello puts on one heck of a show.

8) The National. I only recently got turned on to their music. I love the distinctive vocals of Matt Berninger. I bet they would be awesome live.

9) Beirut. This up and coming band based out of New York City plays old world music with hipster coolness. Plus, their violinist used to be a member of the youth group at church where I served. Their live shows sound like a whole lot of fun!

10) Son Volt. If Bill Clinton can’t get Uncle Tupelo back together, I will have to “settle” on seeing Jay Farrar’s alt. country band.

Honorable Mention: Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Leon, The Pixies, Bright Eyes, Vampire Weekend, Iron & Wine, Jimmy Eat World

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sermon: "The Person Sitting Next To Us May Need Exactly the Words We Refuse to Sing" (Delivered 8-2-09)

This morning’s reading is a short excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s 1977 poem, “Natural Resources”:
There are words I cannot choose again:
humanism androgyny

Such words have no shame in them, no diffidence
before the raging stoic grandmothers:

their glint is too shallow, like a dye
that does not permeate

the fibers of actual life
as we live it, now:


My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Some poetry can stand by itself and some poetry needs a little bit of explanation. The key is to know when explaining a poem kills it and when explaining a poem is helpful. I think I should try to be helpful.

Adrienne Rich is a powerful poet. At age 21 she published her first volume of poetry and launched a 60 year career as a poet, essayist, and professor. Excerpts from two of her poems, including the one from which I just read, are included as readings in our hymnal. Her poem “Natural Resources” is an important declaration of feminist thought; she rejects the word “humanism” as a part of rejecting all words that claim to speak for men and women equally. She finds such words oppressive.

But I chose this poem for other reasons. Frankly, I chose to read from it because I thought it might challenge some of us. In particular, I especially wanted to include the provocative line, “There are words I cannot choose again: humanism…”

This morning I want to talk about religious language. But more than that, I want to talk about religious community. Authentic religious community is a place of dialogue and discussion, speaking and listening, conversation, intercourse, and interlocution.

Religious communities are communities of language. Our being together depends on understanding and being understood. To digress for just one moment, I wonder if anybody here knows how the word “barbarian” came to exist. The word actually comes from Ancient Greece and a barbarian was someone who could not speak Greek. If you couldn’t speak Greek, you were teased by Greek speakers who mocked your language, claiming it sounded like, “Bar bar bar bar bar.” Perhaps “barbaric” behavior happens when people are not able to talk and communicate with each other.

Returning for just a moment to Adrienne Rich, I am trying to be provocative. The first line that I quoted reads, “There are words I cannot choose again.” I am going to guess that among us this morning there are some people here who have perhaps made a short list of words that cannot be chosen again. Some of us, sitting here in this room, cannot choose the word “God” again. Others of us have decided there may be more religious words that we cannot choose again.

“That word, that word is a word I cannot choose again,” has anyone ever thought this way before? Well, that is why I decided to include the Adrienne Rich poem. When she writes that “humanism” is a word that she cannot choose again, she is saying that it is a harmful word, a word that hurts and oppresses people. She is saying it is a dirty word. Sticks and stones can break our bones but words will never hurt us. We know this isn’t exactly true. We know that words have the power to harm and to do violence. And here is Adrienne Rich writing that the word “humanism” is a word that does violence to other people.

Does this make any of us uneasy? I remind you that Adrienne Rich is not a fundamentalist. Our hymnal contains two of her poems, including the final stanza of this very poem of hers that I am talking about this morning. How does it feel to be told by someone close to you that a word you may have strongly identified with is wrong? My guess is that it does not feel good.

In late June I heard a response to a lecture that was offered by my good colleague Rosemary Bray McNatt who serves the Fourth Universalist Church in New York City. Rev. McNatt spoke fiercely and passionately. Here is part of what she said,
Consider who many of us are, and who we are pretty proud about being, no matter what our race or ethnicity. Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us. […] Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing.
I love this last line of hers. “We forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we refuse to sing.” There is a story from very early in my ministry here that I love to tell. When I first came to Shawnee Mission I wanted to sort of feel out where we were with theological language, with “God talk,” and so on. So, early in my ministry I decided to end the service with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” The hymn really fit with my topic that morning. But I was curious about what the response would be. In the receiving line following the service one person gushed enthusiastically and said that “Amazing Grace” was her favorite hymn and that she wished we could sing it every single Sunday. She was followed in the receiving line by someone who shared that she hated “Amazing Grace” and wished we would never sing it again. We don’t sing “Amazing Grace” every Sunday and we have not stopped singing “Amazing Grace” either. We sing it as often as we sing it. We sing it no more often and no less often than we sing it. We did not put the hymn up for a congregational vote. We did not take a survey.

But Rosemary Bray McNatt’s comments made me think of something that I had not thought of before. What if those two people in the receiving line had been sitting right next to each other? Our neighbor may need the word “grace” as much as we need the word “reason.” Our neighbor may need the word “God” as much as we need the word “humanism.” Do we fully understand this? What would allow us to be able to look into the heart of the person sitting next to us?

We began the service this morning with Marjorie Bowen-Wheatley’s wonderful responsive reading that reminds us that it will not matter if you are black and I am white, if you are female and I am male, if you are straight and I am gay, or if you are older and I am younger. Similarly it will not matter if you are theist and I am atheist, if you are humanist and I am Christian, if you pray and I meditate. When we join our differences together and build community, it does matter.

In all this seriousness about language, we can forget that language can be poetic and imaginative and even playful. Consider the following quotation by Laurel Hallman from an address she gave in 2003,
I spoke to our Adult Sunday School Class in Dallas on the topic “Why I am not a Theist.” They packed the room to hear what I had to say, because of course they thought I was [a theist]. Why did they think I was a Theist? Because I use the word God. Because I pray in the midst of the worship service. I was embarrassed a bit myself, to find that I had failed to make the distinction that the use of metaphors and poetry and scripture has to do with religious imagination, and not with one theological category or another. We had a lively and productive discussion that day, as I spoke about religious language, and how it communicates the depths of experience, and that it isn’t always what it seems.
What I love so much about this paragraph by Laurel Hallman is how open it is, how the author breaks up categories in our mind that we imagine to be restrictive. A non-theist who loves to talk about God. What categories do we insist on holding firmly onto? Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley insists that categories of gay and straight, male and female, conservative and progressive do not matter. Hallman insists that categories of theist and non-theist do not matter.

Imagine what we could do if we really liberated our language! Imagine what we could understand if we really exploded the boxes of our categories! Imagine what we could do if we focused on the words that others need instead of the words that we prefer and recognized that sometimes the words we can barely bring ourselves to say are the words that the person sitting next to us needs.

When I talk about liberating our language I am talking about generosity. I am talking about what it means to have a generosity of spirit, a generosity of self. What if we also cultivated a generosity of language?

I want to tell you a little bit about one of the core principles of my ministry. One of the core principles of my ministry is that I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do. And, to be completely honest, I am extremely comfortable with God language. I am extremely comfortable with religious words. I’m comfortable with the vocabulary of theology. So, I asked myself, is there any language that I really have a problem with?

And there was. I cannot stand jokes about Unitarian Universalism. A lot of UU jokes drive me nuts, and I’m especially driven nuts when the jokes Garrison Keillor tells about us are repeated. I find many of these jokes to be insulting. UU jokes sting because I’ve dedicated my life to the service of our Unitarian Universalist movement and a lot of UU jokes insinuate that our faith is not a thing worthy of taking seriously, that it is not worthy of dedication. Which I know not to be true! Which I know not to be true! Because I’ve seen the lives changed. And I’ve seen the lives saved. And I’ve seen people transformed. And I’ve seen communities changed because of our justice work.

But, if I am going to ask you to expand your language, I need to expand my own. So, let me tell you a UU joke. There are some jokes I’m just not ready to tell; there may be ones I’ll never be ready to tell. This is a joke that only mildly bugs me and it goes like this,

When you die, your soul travels on a path and comes to a fork in the road. The signpost has two signs, one sign says “Heaven” and an arrow points towards a majestic crystal staircase leading up into clouds that radiate golden light. The second sign points down an ugly corridor to a cinderblock room with flickering fluorescent lighting and peeling paint. In the room there are uncomfortable folding chairs and a dirty coffee urn. The sign that points in this direction (which is the direction that every UU follows) reads, “Discussion about Heaven.”

I still don’t like this joke, but if we are going to face a fork in the road, if we are going to walk down that cinderblock hallway to the poorly lit room, let us—God, let us—be able to discuss any subject with an open mind and a generosity of language.

Let us learn to be playful with our language. After all, it was the Unitarian poet e. e. cummings, who used language so playfully and lightly, who wrote another poem that can be found in our hymnal,
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
My Microsoft Word automatic spelling and grammar check hates this poem. My heart loves it.

If you are new to us, let me explain that we are a liberal church. We are a part of the liberal religious tradition. That liberalism has to do with the subject of this sermon. It has to do with Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley’s claim that we are a community made up of people who are different, and that those differences are beautiful. It has to do with standing on the side of abundance rather than on the side of scarcity. It has to do with having a broad and inclusive language of faith and not a narrow or exclusive language of faith. As e. e. cummings writes, “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”

Shalom. Salaam. Amen. Namaste. Blessed Be.