Wednesday, January 21, 2009

2008 Year in Review: New Ministries in 2008

Here are some of the NEW ministries taken on by members of our community in 2008:

Women’s Wellness Retreat—In the spring of 2008 Susan M. and Carol E. organized a day-long retreat for women that included yoga, spiritual writing, and nature appreciation. Approximately 40 women participated.

Julia’s Voice—A steering committee including several members of our church planned the Mother’s Day “Stand for Peace” event and lifted up the profile of historic Unitarian Julia Ward Howe.

Children’s Performance Group—Under the direction of Joy I., our Children’s Performance Group prepared and led a worship service in December based on the book On the Day You Were Born.

ContinUUm—The group formerly known as the 30-somethings has a new name and new leadership thanks to Nancy D. They meet for a potluck dinner on the second Saturday of each month. You can find them on Facebook.

Website—If you have seen the new church website, it is a thing of beauty. The updated site came on-line in 2008. It was lovingly created by Kerrie G. and is maintained and updated thanks to the care of Penny B.

Campfire USA—We have a thriving chapter of Campfire here at SMUUCh thanks to the dedicated commitment of Gretchen S. This group provides meaningful activities to younger children in accordance with the values we hold as UUs.

Capital Campaign / Facilities Task Force—Dale T. and Kenna B. are ministering to the future of our church by agreeing to co-chair our Capital Campaign Committee. While the Facilities Task Force is not new, new members Keith D. and John D. have joined with Phil H., Susan B., Penny B., Randy B., Nancy D., Dick R., and Vickie T. to help drive the work of fulfilling our facilities vision.

Youth Group—With the guidance of Roger P. and RE Assistant Brandon Jacobs the youth group is stronger than it has been in years, occasionally joining together with the youth group from All Souls for activities.

Teaching Congregation—Key to having an Intern Minister is having a fantastic group of lay leaders for coaching and support. Our Intern Committee is chaired by Fern A. and includes Elizabeth B., Susie F., Leslie G., and Bill R.

DrumBeat Newsletter-It may have a new editorial team with Kim M., Pam M. and Deb M. putting it together, but the DrumBeat continues to be the best newsletter in the Prairie Star District.

Connection Circles-Thanks to the tireless work of Fern A. along with a team of fantastic circle leaders our small group ministry program is revived and thriving.

These are just some of the new ministries that debuted or were reinvigorated at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in 2008.

2008 Year In Review: A Grant Receiving Church

Our Church is increasingly viewed by the wider UU movement as a dynamic, innovative, and vibrant community. Our recent track record of growth and our profile in the wider movement leads others to want to invest in us. In 2008 we received $23,725 in grant funding!

Sara Sautter, Director of Lifespan Religious Education, wrote grant requests to fund Julia’s Voice. In the first cycle Julia’s Voice received two grants for $6,000 in order to fund the Mothers Day “Stand for Peace” event. In the fall of 2008 Julia’s Voice received two additional grants totaling $6,975 to continue the movement by producing a DVD and a community organizing guide entitled “Julia’s Voice: Loud and Clear.”

In addition, Sara received a $2,500 grant from the UU Sunday School Society to fund the creation of a curriculum for Coming of Age youth and their mentors using the book The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.

Rev. Thom Belote applied for and received grants from the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Prairie Star District Chalice Lighter program. These two grants for $8,000 funded a significant portion of our Internship Program. In addition, Thom received a $250 professional development grant from the UUA to travel to Minnesota to study policy governance at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul.

What will 2009 bring? If you have a passion for an exciting new initiative or new ministry don’t hesitate to share your idea with Sara or Thom. The wider Unitarian Universalist world has made it clear: We are a Church that is worth investing in!

2008 Year in Review: Celebrating Social Justice & Community Outreach

Here are some of the ways that the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church made a difference and lived our values in the past year:

Donate-the-Plate
We selected an organization to receive our offering on one Sunday each month:

January 2008
Southwest Blvd Family Health Center
$1,393.05

February 2008
Healthy Living Project (AIDS Awareness)
$1,057.00

March 2008
Maison de Naissance (Birth Center in Haiti)
$1,292.18

April 2008
Heart of America Indian Center
$681.00

May 2008
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Collection for the victims of Cyclone Nargis
$873.00

June 2008
Interfaith Hospitality Network
(Homelessness in Johnson County)
$1,087.50

July 2008
Court Appointed Special Advocates
(Children’s Advocacy)
$633.00

August 2008
Interfaith Power & Light (Environment)
$988.45

September 2008
Julia’s Voice
$859.80

October 2008
Literacy KC
$992.20

November 2008
Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement
$1,177.00

Other Organizations: $814.77

Community Giving Total: $11,598.95

Service Is Our Prayer
The Service is our Prayer subcommittee of the Religious Education Council plans regular service projects for the children in our church. These service projects often include bringing in a presenter to help our children understand the needs of others and how they can help.

March 2008
Heifer International
The children learned about the importance of agriculture around the world and created items to be sold at a “UU MALL” during coffee hour to support Heifer International.

April 2008
Earthwalk
Our children participated in a walk to support Bridging the Gap, an organization that works on a host of environmental issues.

May 2008
South Lake Park Clean Up
Following a lesson about our Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle, the children helped to clean up the park across the street from our church.

September 2008
South Lake Park Clean Up

November 2008
Pack-a-Sack Sunday
The children created 110 sack lunches for the Argentine Kitchen and learned about homelessness.

December 2008
Soles for Souls
The children learned about the hardship caused by natural disasters and collected over 300 pairs of shoes to be shipped to disaster victims around the world.

Julia’s Voice
Beginning in the fall of 2007, a 7 member steering committee formed to launch “Julia’s Voice: Mothers and Others Against War.” Taking their inspiration from Unitarian activist Julia Ward Howe, the group sought to reclaim the original meaning of Mother’s Day. (Howe began Mother’s Day as a mother’s peace day.)

The group organized their main event: a “Stand for Peace” event on Mother’s Day, 2008. After a worship service that morning on the legacy of Julia Ward Howe, around 500 people lined the sidewalks on 95th Street, in front of the Oak Park Mall and stood for peace. The all-ages crowd included a peace choir and historical re-enactors who played Julia Ward Howe. The event was the largest peace demonstration in Kansas City in at least a decade.

The May event was supported with $6,000 in grant funding from the UU Funding Panel.

This fall, Julia’s Voice received almost $7,000 in grant funding to create a DVD “Julia’s Voice: Loud and Clear” and to promote Julia’s Voice as a nationwide movement.

Rose Brooks Quilters
Led by Mary-Lou P., Patsy P., and Lanny S., SMUUCh’s quilting group makes quilts and blankets for the residents at Rose Brooks, a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City.

In October they hosted a church-wide block quilt workshop. Other fabric artists in the church also contributed beautiful quilts. In December they presented Rose Brooks with two large bags of hand-crafted quilts and blankets!

HOA Indian Center Food Drive
Patsy P. coordinated our November food drive for the Heart of America Indian Center. The drive collected boxes and boxes of donated food for HOA.

Interfaith Hospitality Network
Niki H. is our contact person with the Johnson County IHN, a network of over 30 faith communities that provide services for homeless families in Johnson County.

As a support congregation our members deliver hot meals and offer child care and tutoring to homeless families that are staying in a church. (Our facilities do not meet the specifications for us to serve as a host congregation.) Since joining IHN in 2004, dozens and dozens of our members have been trained to volunteer. We’ve also hosted volunteer trainings here at the church.

In addition, in December we adopted a family and provided an IHN family with Christmas presents.

THANK YOU for helping our congregation to live out our values in the world.

We hope that you will get involved in one of these great groups in 2009. As a permission-giving church, we want to support you in starting your own ministry to help our church live out its values. Please talk with a member of our staff if you have an idea for a social action ministry at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.

2008 Church Year in Review

During the first three Sundays in January we included inserts in the order of service holding up notable activities in the life of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. Follow the links below to see what we celebrated:

January 4th: Celebrating Social Justice & Community Outreach

January 11th: A Grant Receiving Church

January 18th: Honoring New Ministries in 2008

Week 34: "The Gymnast High Above the Ground" by The Decemberists

“The bosun calls upon the quay.” Yes, those are actual lyrics from the song “The Gymnast High Above the Ground” by The Decemberists. In an age when it is frequent for people to complain that they can’t understand the lyrics to songs because the words are garbled or slurred or poorly enunciated, it is rare to find a band whose lyrics are a practically a vocabulary quiz. (In case you are wondering, a “bosun” is a petty officer on a merchant ship and a “quay” is a landing place for a boat. “The Gymnast…” also includes the word “tarlatan” which is a type of thin fabric.)

This week is the third song by The Decemberists about which I’ve written. Earlier, I wrote about their songs “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” and “The Sporting Life.” Last week I wrote about the third song of the year by Fountains of Wayne and next week I will write about the third song I’ve selected by the band Death Cab for Cutie.

“The Gymnast High Above the Ground” is probably my favorite song by The Decemberists. The song consists of two short and minimalist verses and two long and exquisite choruses. The verses are subdued, sung over a quietly strummed guitar, a steadily tapped drum, and some subtle flourishes on the keyboard.

The contrast is in the chorus, where the music swells, soars, and floats… just like a gymnast high above the ground. I struggle to find the words for just how beautiful the chorus is. It has a dreamlike quality. Or maybe I should say the quality is chimerical. With the assistance of strings, horns, and percussion the song swells. Or maybe I should say that it tumefies.

Take a listen for yourself. Unfortunately, the only recording of the song on youtube is not too great, although it is recorded at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon which is a great place to see a show.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sermon: "Remembrance Sunday 2009" (Delivered 1-11-09)

Reflection
Remembrance Sunday is a tradition in our church that long predates my ministry with you. Over the years it has had different champions and has taken on different forms. Its purposes, however, have remained the same: To make note of those who have died in the previous year. To address death, that universal and inevitable human experience. To remind us of the great and profound gift that is life. To inspire us to live life more fully.

Each year, part of the Remembrance Sunday service is the inclusion of a list of what Mary Ruth K. calls “one-liners.” [Scroll to the bottom of this blog entry.] This list of noteworthy persons is always incomplete; there are always a few names that it was a mistake to have overlooked. At its best, the list aims to encompass some amount of diversity. On the list you will find artists, musicians, actors, politicians, writers, scholars, activists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and media celebrities. They are there to remind us of some of the diversity of human living. Not all of them led lives that are virtuous or worthy of emulation. This year’s list is lacking in obvious villains, or maybe not, depending on your political persuasion.

Each year some of my favorite people to point out are those who we associate with something that we might encounter day after day, something commonplace that has a human life and a human story behind it. Next time you drive past a McDonalds', you may take a moment to note that Herb Peterson, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, died this past year at age 89. If you pass a Popeye’s Chicken or a Baskin-Robbins, think of Al Copeland or Irv Robbins, the founders of those respective chains.

If it were not for Richard Knerr, who died this year at age 82, the world may never have known the hula-hoop or the Frisbee. He invented both. If not for Betty James, who died at age 90, you might never have played with a Slinky.

For music fans, the list of those who passed away this year would make an all-star band with Eartha Kitt on vocals, Bo Diddley on guitar, Richard Wright of Pink Floyd on the keyboards, LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band on saxophone, and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the drums. All died in 2008.

I always pay special attention to the heroes of the civil rights movement who have died. With each life that has ended we have the chance to look back. With each death we lose a part of our own living history. So, this morning we name and we remember Johnnie Carr, the woman who ran the Montgomery Improvement Association after Martin Luther King, Jr. became a national leader. We remember James Orange, a civil rights leader and community organizer. We remember Zelma Henderson, the last surviving plaintiff of Brown v. Board of Education. We remember Mildred Loving, the plaintiff in the 1967 case argued by the ACLU in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down Virginia’s laws that made it illegal for a white person to marry a person on color. The 1967 ruling declared that marriage was, “one of the basic civil rights of man” and “cannot be infringed by the state.” Forty one years later the battle for marriage equality continues with a victory in Massachusetts or Connecticut and a set-back in California or Florida. When Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, he did not say that too often it bends too slowly. In recent days we have known this slowness to bend. But bend it will. Bend it will.

As a matter of ministerial privilege I always mention a few names that are meaningful to me. I read all eight of David Foster Wallace’s books in 2006 and I have never enjoyed anyone’s writing as much as I enjoyed his. I am saddened by his death by suicide this year at age 46. I am also grateful for Loren Pope who died this past year at age 96. His book Colleges that Change Lives introduced me to Reed College and changed my life.

Before I invite you to pray with me, I want to read briefly from one of the three memorial services I performed for members of our church this year. In this past year we held memorial services for Don F., Tim H., and Bob N. Allow me to read just a short passage from Bob’s eulogy in which I talk about legacy in our congregation,
After leaving the Baptist church at age 12 and going unchurched for 23 years, Bob discovered Unitarian Universalism and became a member of All Souls in 1958. He appreciated the common sense, practical humanism of their minister, Rev. Raymond Bragg. When the idea arose to launch another church, Bob became chair of the steering committee that investigated starting a congregation in Johnson County. Along with a group of several dozen founding members, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society held its first meeting in the spring of 1967 and Bob was elected its first President. Going without a minister for the first few years, Bob had some particularly interesting duties including presiding over the first child dedication in which he dedicated Anne B.

Over the years, Bob served this congregation faithfully in a wide array of capacities. He served on the Board, the Finance Committee, the Endowment Trust, the Facilities committee, and headed the building committee that successfully added this wing of the church…. Over his 41 years as a leader of the congregation, he was a pillar, committed through our best days and our hardest days alike.

Bob saw the world through an engineer’s eyes. I remember him insisting on climbing the twenty-five foot aluminum ladder to the roof of Saeger House to inspect the guttering work… at age 80. I recall a gas leak in the church that shut us down for a week during the winter’s coldest snap and how Bob was here every day – in a coat and hat and gloves – working side by side with the contractors. He secretly, or not so secretly, loved problems like these. […]

We mark the loss of our George Washington, our pillar, a man who anchored this congregation in times of storm, and tended the boilers when we were moving full-steam ahead. I think Bob would say that the greatest way to honor him is to re-dedicate and re-commit ourselves to service and sacrifice for the health and future of liberal religion. He has left a void that we will never be able to fill. And yet, his aspirations now become ours. What he dreamed is now ours to do. Let us hope his hopes and seal them true. I cannot begin to describe the honor of serving the church that Bob was instrumental in establishing. I loved him and I love you.

Prayer
Dear Holy One, on this cool January morning we pause for a moment to take stock of our lives, to remember lives that have ended, to recommit ourselves to lives of compassion and consequence.

While we this morning lift up mostly the lives of famous, we also take a moment to acknowledge those losses not covered by the national news, but far more important in our own heart.

We hold in our hearts every member of this community who has lost a parent or a grandparent.

We hold in our hearts every member of this community who has lost a spouse, a partner, or a companion.

We hold in our hearts every member of this community who has lost a relative, an aunt or uncle, a cousin, a niece or nephew. And we hold in hearts all of those who have faced the death of a friend.

We embrace the families and the loved ones of Don, Tim, and Bob.

Extending our prayers to others in our Unitarian Universalist movement, we remember the tragic shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, pray for that congregation’s continued healing, and recall the lives of Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger who were slain in that attack.

Extending our prayers beyond these walls, we express our respect and our sympathy to the families of the 469 American servicemen and women who died in service to our country in Afghanistan or Iraq in 2008.

Summoning forth the fullness of our compassion, let us pause for a time of remembrance.

Homily
Earlier in the service I mentioned many of the remarkable and well-known persons who died in 2008. I saved two names to speak about at slightly greater length, two Unitarian Universalists. Ric Masten and Randy Pausch.

Perhaps my decision to speak on them comes out of my own family background. I grew up the son of two teachers. My father was a scientist who taught nuclear physics at MIT for a decade before becoming a high school physics teacher. My mother was a high school English teacher for over thirty years; her knowledge of literature is profound. Needless to say, growing up I could not get away with not doing my homework. In describing their different fields, perhaps I overstate their differences. My father can parse a poem and my mother knows her numbers. It is this image of the poet and the physicist that came to mind when I read books by two Unitarian Universalists who died in 2008.

Ric Masten’s final book of poetry, Going Out Dancing, was released posthumously after he died in May, following a ten year battle with prostate cancer. He was 78. Masten was a minister, poet, artist, troubadour, and Northern Californian through and through. His final book contains many poems that address the process of death and dying, as well as insights into living.

If Masten is the poet then Randy Pausch is the scientist. Pausch, a computer programming professor at Carnegie Mellon, died from pancreatic cancer this year at the age of 47. He is famous for delivering his last lecture on “How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams.” Video of this lecture became an internet sensation and was followed up by a book entitled The Last Lecture.

In their respective books, each author contemplates the meaning of living with a terminal diagnosis and each writes about what it means to live well and fully. The similarities go even further. As both books were written by Unitarian Universalists it is not surprising that neither book mentions the afterlife. The emphasis is much more on living the one life you’ve been given to the fullest, even if that life is cut short. In Masten’s book of poetry, one of his boldest poems declares that a world with death is better than one without, “Death loses its sting only after you consider the alternative.” Pausch, likewise, embodies the Unitarian Universalist notion that the truest afterlife is the sense in which we live on in the lives we touch. His lecture is an attempt to preserve himself—who he is, what he believes, his lessons for living,-for the sake of his young children, two of whom were too young when he died to remember him.

Likewise, I was touched by how self-effacing each could be. Pausch repeatedly refers to himself as a nerdy computer scientist and points out his lack of fashion sense, although he defends this as a logical decision. Masten does one better. In the middle of his book of poems related to living with cancer, one poem sticks out. It is out of place. In this poem he relates a story from the 1960s when he had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. After attending a church service where King had preached, Masten noticed King standing alone after the service and went up to him, slapped him across the back, and said, “Working you pretty hard are they?”

I think we can all think of a time in our own lives where we said or did something extremely embarrassing. I think we all have a story where we might say to ourselves, “I can’t believe I just said that.” In Masten’s poem, Dr. King is at first taken aback by the na├»vete of the poet. Yet King recomposes himself and lets Masten off gracefully by simply saying, “Yes, but it is worth it.”

Masten’s placement of this poem makes it seem almost like a confession. And if it is a confession, it is a confession for being human. Life is not only about those moments when we rise to some level of transcendence, when we write that exquisite line of poetry, solve that programming quandary, or receive accolades for our achievements. Life is also about the awkward moments, the times we blow it. Masten could have easily hidden this interaction with King. It could have been a secret that died with him. Instead, he embraces his own embarrassment. Not only does he embrace it. He preserves it for posterity.

While Ric Masten and Randy Pausch have a lot in common, I want to focus briefly on the differences between the two authors. The differences go deeper than the fact that they are three decades apart in age and that one is a Northern Californian poet and the other is an East coast computer scientist.

It is very subtle, but they seem to face death with two different strategies. Neither is right and neither is wrong. Several of Masten’s poems are odes to the support group he attends. He sings out praises to this group. Randy Pausch makes no reference to any type of support group. He talks about dear friends, but says he doesn’t discuss his cancer with them. He mentions the counselor he sees with his wife although he seems to hint that it is more for her than for him. Masten seems to surrender. By surrender I don’t mean he gives up or falls into despondency. I mean something more like what Muslims mean when they talk about submission. Submission is not the same as defeat.

Professor Pausch is certainly more willful. He isn’t in denial. But, he responds by taking control of his life and riding it hard and holding on for as long as he possibly can. His Last Lecture is full of illustrations of the virtues of determination, perseverance, and focus. In fact, after he delivered his Last Lecture, he delivered another lecture at another University, on the subject of time management. There is that control again.

I can’t tell you whether, if faced with the same set of circumstances, I would be more Ric Masten or Randy Pausch although I can tell you that I would hope for the grace to face death as well as either of them did.

It has often been said that lessons about dying well are really lessons about living well. As you go forth this morning, take with you both the poetry of life and the analysis of life. Take with you the knowledge that you spent some portion of your life on the same planet as someone with the imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, someone with the soul of Bo Diddley, someone with the playfulness of Richard Knerr, someone with the listening ear and inquisitiveness of Studs Terkel, someone with the moral courage of Johnnie Carr, and someone with the irreverence of George Carlin. And count yourself blessed. And count yourself immensely blessed.

Notable People Who Died in 2008
William F. Buckley, Jr. (82) Columnist and influential conservative thinker for over 50 years
Skip Caray (68) Atlanta-based sports broadcaster and son of Harry Caray
George Carlin (71) Veteran comedian pushed the envelope with his off-color style
Johnnie Carr (97) Civil Rights leader and friend of Rosa Parks. She followed MLK as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association
Arthur C. Clarke (90) Science-fiction author who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey
Al Copeland (64) Founder of the Popeyes Chicken fast-food chain
Michael Crichton (66) Medical doctor was author of science fiction novels including Jurassic Park and producer for TV programs such as ER
Bo Diddley (79) Musician was instrumental in the transition from Blues to Rock & Roll
Dock Ellis (63) Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher during the 1970s was known for bizarre antics
Mark Felt (95) FBI agent known as “Deep Throat” was the whistleblower for the Watergate scandal
Bobby Fischer (64) World Champion chess grand-master became a recluse
Vincent Ford (68) Jamacian songwriter credited with writing Bob Marley hit “No Woman, No Cry”
Estelle Getty (84) Actress best known for her work on The Golden Girls
Gary Gygax (69) Inventor of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game
Don Haskins (78) College basketball coach famous for promoting racial integration
Isaac Hayes (65) Funk and soul artist known for the soundtrack to the movie Shaft
Jeff Healy (41) Blind blues and rock musician died after long struggle with cancer
Jesse Helms (86) Conservative 5-term Senator from NC was controversial for race-based remarks
Zelma Henderson (88) Last surviving plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education legal case
Charlton Heston (84) Actor starred in Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and Planet of the Apes. President of the National Rifle Association from 1998-2003.
Edmund Hillary (88) Mountain climber was first to reach the summit of Mount Everest
Tony Hillerman (83) Popular writer set his mystery novels in the American Southwest
Gordon B. Hinckley (97) President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Albert Hofman (102) Swiss chemist was the first to synthesize LSD
Samuel Huntington (81) Political scientist known for controversial “Clash of Civilizations” theory
Betty James (90) Businesswoman was the marketing force behind her husband’s invention: The Slinky
Ollie Johnston (95) Disney animator worked on Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi, and many others
Stephanie Tubbs Jones (58) African-American congresswoman from Ohio
Eartha Kitt (81) Actress, singer, and cabaret star
Richard Knerr (82) Invented the Frisbee and Hula-Hoop. Co-founder of the Wham-O company
Tom Lantos (80) California Congressman (1981-2008). Only Holocaust survivor to serve in US Congress
Ted Lapidus (79) French designer popularized “unisex” fashion
Heath Ledger (28) Actor co-starred in Brokeback Mountain and appeared in 18 films
Mildred Loving (68) Plaintiff in 1967 Supreme Court Case that struck down anti-miscegenation laws
Bernie Mac (50) Comedian and comic actor appeared in 27 films
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (91?) World-wide guru founded the transcendental meditation movement and was a spiritual advisor to The Beatles
Dick Martin (86) Comedian was a co-host of Laugh-In
Ric Masten (78) UU minister, troubadour, artist, and poet wrote the hymn “Let It Be A Dance”
Jimmy McGriff (72) Soul-jazz organist with an innovative playing style on the Hammond B-3 Organ
Jim McKay (86) Sportscaster hosted Wide World of Sports and covered the Olympics and other events
Vicki van Meter (26) As a pre-teen was a record-breaking pilot. Died from suicide
Anthony Minghella (54) Director of Oscar-winning The English Patient
Mitch Mitchell (61) Jimi Hendrix’s drummer
Robert Mondavi (94) California wine-maker helped put Napa Valley on the map
LeRoi Moore (46) Saxophonist for the Dave Matthews Band
Paul Newman (83) Longtime Hollywood star was also a racecar driver and activist. He donated the proceeds from his name brand salad dressings, sauces, and popcorn to charities
Katoucha Niane (48) Supermodel of African descent and activist against female genital mutilation
James Orange (65) Civil rights activist during the 60’s who continued to work as a community organizer
Deborah Jeane Palfrey (52) The “D.C. Madam” operated escort service catering to Washington elite
Randy Pausch (48) Computer scientist and UU known for The Last Lecture
Herb Peterson (89) Longtime McDonald’s employee invented the Egg McMuffin
Utah Phillips (73) Folk-singer was also a labor organizer and social activist
Johnny Podres (75) Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers pitcher was World Series MVP in 1955
Sydney Pollack (73) Prolific Hollywood director, producer, and actor. Credits include directing Out of Africa (for which he won an Oscar), Tootsie, and The Firm
Loren Pope (96) College counselor and author of Colleges that Change LivesIrv Robbins (90) Co-founder of the eponymous Baskin-Robbins chain of ice-cream parlors
Tim Russert (58) TV news journalist and host of Meet the Press program
Yves Saint-Laurent (71) Acclaimed French fashion designer
Roy Scheider (75) Twice Oscar-nominated actor best known for his role in Jaws
Herb Score (75) Pitcher and then broadcaster for the Cleveland Indians
Levi Stubbs (72) Lead singer of the Motown group “The Four Tops”
Tony Snow (53) Press Secretary under Pres. George W. Bush. Also worked for Fox News and CNN
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (89) Russian novelist and historian won Nobel Prize and was exiled from Russia
Studs Terkel (96) Author captured the American experience through interviews
Robin Toner (54) First woman to serve as national political correspondent for the New York Times
Gene Upshaw (63) Hall of Fame football player and head of the NFL players association
David Foster Wallace (46) Post-modern author best known for his novel Infinite Jest
Paul Weyrich (66) Influential conservative thinker and co-founder of the “Heritage Foundation”
Norman Whitfield (68) Motown songwriter composed “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”
Richard Wright (65) Keyboardist for the rock band Pink Floyd

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Joys and Sorrows of Joys and Sorrows

Background Information
In my column in the January 2009 edition of our church newsletter I made reference to the essay that appears below. To give those who have not read the newsletter column a little bit of background, in November we began to experiment with different formats for the “candlelighting” (or “joys and sorrows”) portion of the worship service. Traditionally we had invited those in the worshipping community to come forward to light a candle and share a brief, personal joy or sorrow. We experimented. On one Sunday we invited the congregation to fill out a form with a written joy or sorrow. The slip of paper was then placed in a basket at the front of the sanctuary and read aloud by the worship leader. On another Sunday we invited the worshipping congregation to speak of their milestones, millstones, and stepping stones. We made available smooth stones and invited people to drop their stones in a vase filled with water as a symbolic act. On other Sundays the worship leader has set a tone and rhythm by sharing several congregational joys or sorrows before inviting the congregation to participate.

In my column in our newsletter I made reference to several pieces of writing about the practice of including a time for sharing joys and sorrows in worship services. I also wrote that I was going to use this conversation as a “foil” for asking some theological questions about our church community.

Introduction: Individuals in Community
When I first became the minister at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church one of the earliest things I wanted to discover was how the congregation reacted to the use of theological language. One Sunday early in my ministry I decided to end the service with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” After the service, I received two comments. One person said she hated “Amazing Grace” and hoped that we would never sing it again. Another person said she loved this hymn so much she wished we could sing it every week. There is no pleasing everyone. The only solution was integrity; I would choose “Amazing Grace” when the hymn fit the overall tone and tenor of the service and I would not choose the hymn when it didn’t fit with the service.

When I began to receive feedback about changes we had made to “candlelighting,” the responses were just as varied and polarized as the two opinions about the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Some people loved “candlelighting” and wanted us to keep it like they were used to. Others wrote to say that they despised “candlelighting” and wished we would do away with it

There is an intrinsic quality within Unitarian Universalism that encourages differences of opinion. As people with inherent worth and dignity engaged in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, our fifth UU principle attests to each of us having the “right of conscience.” As a religious tradition that is not centered on any specific creed, we explicitly affirm that “we need not think alike.”

Our UU principles also declare that we are “interdependent.” This claim means that our individual actions and inactions have an impact on others just as the actions and inactions of others have an impact on us. Our tradition also affirms that, though we do not share a common creed, we are a covenantal faith. A covenant is a set of sacred promises we make about how we will endeavor to be together in community.

Worship and Community
It is impossible to say anything substantial about “candlelighting” without a working theology of worship. What is the point of worship? Why do we worship? What is the relationship between worship and the other parts of the life of the church? These questions are deep and it is beyond the scope of this essay to answer them in full. Instead, I want to contextualize my answer by writing briefly about how worship functions in a church like ours.

The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church would be classified in church literature as a program-sized church. What this means is that between 150 and 400 human beings pass through our doors on an average Sunday. (On a usual Sunday, we approach the mid-point with 250-275 adults, youth, and children coming through our doors.)

If you are interested, Alice Mann describes these sizes in her book Raising the Roof. Here is how churches of different sizes are categorized:
Family Size: Up to 50
Pastoral Size: 51-150
Program Size: 151-400
Corporate Size: 401-1,000
Super-Church: 1,000-3,000
Mega-Church: 3,000-10,000
Meta-Church: 10,000 and beyond
What makes a program-sized church distinct is that worship acts as its own program. At smaller sizes, there is a blending of functions and the Sunday morning worship hour is used to meet many different needs. It is completely normal for a smaller church to invite a professor to give a lecture instead of a sermon. In this case, the educational needs of the congregation take precedence over worship on that Sunday. In at least one smaller UU church, worship is cancelled one Sunday each year for a church clean-up day. Several smaller churches cancel worship on the day of their annual congregational meeting; governance displaces worship.

Worship, education, governance, social action, fellowship: these are all important functions. In a program-sized church, the goal is for there to be abundant program offerings in each area. The programs are not in competition for the limited resources that you would find at a smaller church.

So, what makes worship distinct? In most churches worship is the most attended program. It is also the program that visitors will come to first. In the words of Rev. Tamara Lebak, “The church’s primary opportunity to define itself as a single corporate body with a common vision is in its public worship.”

While I want to resist trying to define worship too narrowly, the thing that I want to say about worship is that it is the leading vehicle in helping a community to define itself and project its vision. Worship can (and should!) address issues of ethical and moral importance, but worship is not social action. Rather, worship might inspire the corporate body of the church to engage in social action. Worship is not devoid of intellectual content but the purpose of worship is not to be a vehicle for the dissemination of information. Worship can have a pastoral function. It can help a community to address a shared grief or a common element of human living, such as coping with death. But, worship could not possibly replace other avenues for pastoral care available in the church.

"Candlelighting” and Worship
Rev. Tamara Lebak is the author of a provocative essay entitled, “My Concern: Joys & Concerns” that appears in the new book, Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism. She writes,
I am shocked by the many churches in our movement that cling to “Joys and Concerns” in worship, especially in the name of inclusion. In its most common form, “Joys and Concerns” is an open-mic sharing in the middle of a corporate public worship service, and serves as the model spiritual practice of unhealthy churches… This unscripted and unpredictable practice speaks volumes about what is most important to us. It clouds the worship message, gives power to a vocal minority, and focuses the entire church inward on personal matters.
What Rev. Lebak is saying here is not that personal matters are unimportant, only that worship is not the right vehicle for sharing them. In a lengthy chart she lists many of the functions that people claim “Joys and Concerns” fulfills and then rebuts those claims by listing programs that better address those functions. She points to programs and tools like small group ministry, pastoral care, membership programs, and communication technologies as functions that better achieve the purposes of “Joys and Concerns” or “Candlelighting.”

Rev. Lebak is not alone in this criticism of the practice of having an open-mic time in worship. In the book Worship that Works, Rev. Wayne Arnason and Rev. Kathleen Rolenz write,
Open-ended invitations to express joys and concerns during the service are a cherished part of the liturgy in many UU congregations. Whatever the criticisms or abuses that arise from time to time, the power of this ritual of personal sharing embodies what many UUs hold up as one of our most important principles….

Many congregations have sought a creative compromise between an open-ended invitation and elimination of the ritual altogether… Even in small congregations there is no way that all the pastoral issues and personal feelings of those present will be expressed through a Joys and Concerns ritual. It will always be a sampling from people who are the most motivated and expressive. The idea that it is a sampling makes it easier to understand the ritual as having a symbolic role in the liturgy, rather than a functional one. There are better ways for the congregation’s pastoral ministry leaders to hear about something going on in a member’s life than a public announcement in worship.
While Arnason and Rolenz do not call for the elimination of the practice, they do suggest alternatives, including inviting members to light silent candles, to write their joys and concerns down for a worship leader to read, or to include the text of “joys and sorrows” in the printed order of service. Other suggestions do leave space for participants to speak “off the script.” Arnason and Rolenz conclude their section on “Joys and Concerns” by advising congregations to, “Experiment with a variety of styles until you find the one that will work well over time.”

For a wider perspective on ministers’ feelings about “Candlelighting,” it is worth turning to a study done by Rev. David Keyes and a number of UU ministers in the Atlanta area in 2005. The “Excellence in Worship” project interviewed ministers who were widely considered to be the best at leading worship. Here were some of the responses,
Rev. Lynn Ungar wrote: “Participation of laity in worship can be both the best and the worst of our worship practices. Joys and Concerns, or candles, or whatever name, expressions of worship such as this I see as essential and even beautiful, as expressions of our theology, as prayers. At the same time, they can be annoying, tedious. The more we allow the untrained [to] have access to our community ritual, the more loss of control, and, at times, completely inappropriate sharing we have.”

Rev. Kathleen Rolenz wrote, “[One of worst practices is] joys and concerns. Sorry. I know this is a sacred cow. They can be done well, with grace, dignity and discipline, but usually it’s a celebration of the individual that borders on idolatry.”

Rev. Greg Ward wrote, “Joys and concerns that have no clear criteria – I believe that joys and concerns (and the myriad of ways that we can present it) CAN BE very powerful in bringing about that sense of ‘something greater’ among us. They can also be diatribe and passive aggressive commentary and advocacy and announcement forums that actual detract from safety, discourage depth and break down feelings of community orientation.”

A minister at one of our largest churches wrote, “The worst [part of UU worship] is joys and concerns. If I ran the world we would stop it. We have stopped it at [the church I serve.] At its best joys and concerns can be touching and can reinforce community. However, as it is usually practiced it does us untold harm. While some visitors find it warm and touching, more of them find it off putting and an in-crowd exercise that leaves them out.”

On a more positive note, Rev. Frank Hall writes, “One of the best worship practices in Westport, helping to create and maintain a sense of community, care, support, and encouragement, is the invitation to come forward to light a candle and to say something. I've been working on this for 22 years; it makes me nervous (helping to keep that 'edge.') It took a few years to get it 'under control.' But it was worth every drop of perspiration, every uncomfortable time I had to put my hand on someone's shoulder and say, quietly in his/her ear, ‘Thank you,’ meaning, ‘Enough.’ It's risky business, this thing we call 'worship.' So, sure, the candle lighting time is a bit risky, and it may make some folks in the pews uncomfortable. But it's worth its weight in gold, as my mother used to say.”
It is worth remembering that these comments were solicited from ministers who are widely considered to model excellence in worship and are considered as the most thoughtful ministers in our movement about worship practices.

The Risks and Rewards of “Candlelighting"
In the literature there is frequent mention of the open-mic (unscripted, unpredictable, etc.) nature of “candlelighting.” Even when this part of worship is carefully introduced, there is no way to control what will be said. It is worth considering whether the practice of “candlelighting” is compatible with my “Letter of Call” with the congregation that stipulates that “The minister will be responsible for all worship services.”

Here are some of the risks associated with having an open-mic available in worship service:
Safety Risks
+ Someone might slander or verbally abuse another person in the congregation.
+ Someone might make a remark that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise prejudiced.
+ Someone might make a political statement that violates IRS regulations and threatens the tax exempt status of our congregation.
+ Someone might share in a way that makes others in the congregation feel unsafe. (Imagine if someone announced a violent fantasy, said they were contemplating suicide, etc.)

Identity and Message Risks
Worship is the time when our congregation broadcasts its vision and its identity.
+ Insider language can have the effect of making our congregation appear insular, cliquish, and unwelcoming.
+ Some sharing, such as describing something luxurious, may have a classist tone and convey the message that our church is not welcome to all, regardless of socio-economic class.

Risks to the Integrity of Worship
+ Elements in the worship service such as the sermon and music are carefully prepared in advance. When “candlelighting” takes a long time, these elements have to be cut or dropped.
+ Effective worship sets an intentional tone. One person’s sharing during candlelighting has the potential to disrupt the tone and flow of the entire service.
Those who endorse “candlelighting” often point to the rewards of this part of the service. Those rewards include building a sense of community, allowing worship participants to name either a profound grief or a profound joy in their life, informing the congregation of these events so that we the members of the congregation are better able to minister to one another, and making the worship service more personal.

For those who feel this way about “candlelighting,” I would invite you to read Rev. Tamara Lebak’s essay in which she challenges each of these positive rewards that come from the practice. And yet, while I find much insight in Rev. Lebak’s arguments, I take a much more moderate view. I think it is possible for “candlelighting” to work effectively in a church like ours. At the same time, I believe that we need to be more disciplined about the practice.

"Candlelighting” Etiquette
The other day I had a conversation with someone in my own generation. We reminisced about getting our first email accounts. With some laughs and some embarrassment we talked learning the hard way not to send “spam” or annoying chain letters to our entire group of friends, not to reply to the entire group with a message meant for an individual, that some communication is better done over the phone or in person and not over email, and so forth.

Church etiquette is something that makes people nervous. In fact, evangelical and non-denominational churches have picked up on the sense that un-churched people tend to be very nervous about attending church because they won’t know what to do. In response, these churches have developed a “come as you are” informality and have all but eliminated participation by the worshipping congregation. In the worship service at SMUUCh, the worship leader gives clear instructions when it is time for the congregation to participate by singing or speaking. When we say our affirmation, the worship leader informs the congregation that the words are found on the front cover of the order of service. When we sing out of both hymnals, we specify whether the hymn is located in the gray or the teal hymnal.

Here are some helpful hints for “candlelighting”:

1) Say your name so others know who you are.
2) Put the cordless microphone close to your mouth so that it picks up your voice and allows everyone to hear you.
3) Share briefly. This is not the time to tell a story. One or two sentences should suffice in most cases.
4) Candlelighting is about community. Even though the candle you light is for something that is personal to you, the moment is front of the congregation is transactional. “My aunt is having surgery this week and your thoughts and prayers would be greatly appreciated.” “I invite you to join with me in celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary which is today.” “It is a real blessing and I feel honored to have been asked to write a book.”
5) Leave out details that are too graphic. I like to say that it is one thing to say that your aunt is having surgery. It is another thing to describe the re-sectioning of her colon.

"Candlelighting” Going Forward
After careful consideration, research, and listening to thoughtful and diverse comments from many in the congregation I’ve reached the decision that we will go ahead with “candlelighting” in a slightly altered form. The introduction to this time will be extremely intentional and the worship leader will begin by lighting a number of candles for congregational joys and sorrows. These first candles will establish a rhythm that is intended to set a tone.

Covenants in our Community
In the article I wrote about “candlelighting” for our church newsletter I wrote that I considered “candlelighting” to be a “foil” for a larger theological question. That question has to do with how we relate to one another as a covenanted community. Earlier I wrote of the tensions that exist between individualism and community. There is a larger question that is implied: What responsibility do we have to each other? This question has to do with “candlelighting” but it also transcends “candlelighting.”

I have noticed that when a person lights a candle to express personal grief that the care of the congregation is extended to them. People express their condolences and ask if the person needs anything. When someone shares a joy, others approach the person after the service and offer their congratulations. This is part of our covenant to be a church that cares for one another.

I would submit that it is also a part of our covenant for our members to confront one another when behavior detracts from the well-being of our community. Such confrontation should not be done angrily or harshly, but honestly and compassionately. Are we able to honestly say to one another, “What you said in ‘candlelighting’ made me feel uncomfortable.”? Can we say, “I felt like you took advantage of the trust extended to you in that part of the service.”? This goes far beyond “candlelighting.” When we perceive that someone is not living up to a commitment, when we perceive that a person is not fulfilling the expectations of membership, are we able to approach that person and ask how things are going?

I conclude this essay with the reiteration of something I wrote earlier: “Our 7th Principle declares that we are ‘interdependent.’ This claim means that our individual actions and inactions have an impact on others just as the actions and inactions of others have an impact on us.” It is a hard challenge to ask us to be compassionately honest with one another about how other people impact us. However, the goal of deep community is not easy.

Week 33: "Valley Winter Song" by Fountains of Wayne

This week’s song is the third song I’ve written about by the band Fountains of Wayne. Earlier I wrote about their summery song, “Radiation Vibe,” and their cover of Jackson Browne’s autumnal song “These Days.” The season “Valley Winter Song” refers to is obvious.

Personally, I like many aspects of “Valley Winter Song.” I like that the song mentions Massachusetts. The valley, presumably, is some picturesque New England locale. The song makes me feel nostalgic. I like the song’s pleasing acoustic guitar. I like its gentleness and image of the snow “whiting out the streets.” But, what I like most about “Valley Winter Song” does not have to do with the song itself. Rather, I like it for reasons that can only be described as contextual.

The members of Fountains of Wayne are sort of the pop music laureates of the northern New Jersey suburbs. (In fact, several episodes of The Sopranos have scenes at a store called “Fountains of Wayne.” I have no idea if this store actually exists or not.) However, the band is also cynical and snarky. Often, their lyrics drip with disdain. On no album are they more negative than on their 2003 release Welcome Interstate Managers.

With tracks like “Hackensack” and “Bright Future in Sales,” the band has never sounded more cynical. This mood pervades the entire album. On “All Kinds of Time” they use a football metaphor to sing about the unpromising future of a young man. On “Fire Island,” they sing about teenagers throwing an alcohol-fueled house party while the parents are taking a tropical vacation. “Don’t you remember last December when they went to Steamboat Springs?” And, on the up-tempo, “Hey, Julie,” Julie’s boss is described condescendingly as a “mean little man with a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan” and as a “mean little guy with a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie.”

Perhaps Fountains of Wayne has reason to be resentful. Largely on the strength of the album’s extremely catchy single, “Stacy’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne was nominated for the Grammy for “Best New Act” despite this being their third major label release and despite approximately a decade of musical excellence under their belts.

I picked up my copy of Welcome Interstate Managers in the fall of 2003 after I had seen them perform a fantastic free concert in Kansas City. The album didn’t work for me. The cynicism and derision was too pointed. And then “Valley Winter Song,” the sixth song on the album came on, and it was sweet. It was charming. It was redeeming. After listening to it once, I had to put it on again to make sure I hadn’t misheard it. It really was as tender as it sounded. It was a great song.

You can hear them perform "Valley Winter Song" live here.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sermon: "The Quest for Perfection" (Delivered 1-4-09)

Last Sunday I preached about the Puritan roots of Unitarian Universalism and about aspects of Puritanism that we can still locate in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. That sermon was a way of killing two birds with one stone. This coming July, I will be spending a week in Wisconsin as the guest lecturer in history and theology at the Midwest Leadership School, where I will be assisting lay leaders from twelve states across the Midwest, from Kentucky to Michigan and from Kansas to North Dakota, to deepen their leadership skills. My role will be to help these lay leaders develop a concept of leadership that is grounded in a fuller understanding of both our history and our theology. And I figured that you might be interested in some of what I will lecture about this coming July.

This morning I will continue killing multiple birds with single stones. Leaving the Puritans of the 1630s back in 2008, I want to jump ahead 200 years to the first half of the 19th Century. My sermon this morning will speak to us today but it will also look back to our past for perspective, for greater self-understanding, and for some good laughs at some of the wildest times in all of UU history.

But before we do any of that, I want to invite us to pause. So, here we are. It is 2009. And I wonder: How many of you made New Year’s resolutions?

I did make a few. One resolution was to actually return things that people have loaned to me. In December I returned to M. and A. the first season of The Sopranos which they had loaned to me, if I remember correctly, in 2007. I also returned to D. his tent that he had loaned me back in August for a wedding I performed in Yosemite National Park. This morning I have with me a book on psychology that P. loaned to me for a sermon last March. I also have Z.’s trifle dish that was left at my condo when I threw a birthday party last August. I am not proud.

My more serious resolutions include truly re-committing myself to my chosen spiritual practice, a morning routine that involves spending time in active contemplation of a piece of spiritual writing, and beginning each day with a tangible act of gratitude.

I don’t think I’ve ever made more than one or two New Year’s resolutions, but this year I find myself setting goals about reading, practicing the electric guitar, exercise, and I find myself wondering what all this resolving says about me.

Among the things it says about me is that Unitarian Universalist blood runs through my veins. Let’s take a trip back in time. In the early 1900s, a Unitarian named Horatio Alger published a number of morality novels about boys and young men pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Decades earlier, Charles Dickens, who had connections with British Unitarianism, wrote his famous tale of Scrooge’s ethical conversion. Each of these authors channeled earlier ideas that were central to Unitarian theology.

Those ideas went like this: human beings possess the capacity to do what is good and to make good choices about how they will live. All they need is to be convinced that they are neither hopeless nor helpless, that they can in fact change. They also need good models and examples of character in their lives. In the words of Kathleen McTigue, “Let us begin by remembering that whatever justice, whatever peace and wholeness might bloom in our world this year, [that] we are the hearts and minds, the hands and feet, the embodiment of all the best visions of our people.”

This idea is one that we probably take for granted. But, when it originated, it was revolutionary. Those Puritans who were our ancestors thought very differently. They believed in predestination, that our lot in life was preordained by God and that human beings lived in a fallen state. We were, as the first point of five-point Calvinism put it, totally depraved. (Being totally depraved is a bad thing, by the way.) According to that understanding of the human condition, we were helpless, lacking in free will, and our good works and our sins alike were not something within our control.

And then along came William Ellery Channing, a liberal minister in Boston who preached his most famous sermon in Baltimore in 1819 at the ordination of Jared Sparks who would go on to become the President of Harvard University. Channing’s sermon was actually a brilliant defense of human nature and human agency. Let me put it this way. I spent a lot of time Friday questing for perfection on this sermon and by Friday night I had little to show for it. So, I went over to the house of two friends and played “Rock Band” on the Nintendo Wii. Channing did not have a Nintendo Wii. In fact, he finished his sermon way in advance and published it in advance in Baltimore. A standing room only crowd came out to see if Channing would really dare to say what he wrote. This was what people did before Nintendo. Channing’s sermon is full of memorable lines and great pronouncements, but to me, there is no better argument than one he makes about reading the Bible.

He argues that if you believe that human beings are truly helpless and hopeless and given to sin and error, then anything you say about the Bible or about religion can’t possibly be taken seriously. If you are arguing that human beings are not capable of reason, then you are a very easy debate opponent.
We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism. If reason be so dreadfully darkened by the fall, that its most decisive judgments on religion are unworthy of trust, then Christianity, and even natural theology, must be abandoned; for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine original of Christianity, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it.
Channing went on in this sermon to elevate the human capacity to reason, to learn, and to exercise free will in our living. About a decade after Channing wowed the Nintendo-lacking crowds in Baltimore, another famous Unitarian, Henry Ware, Jr. published a book entitled On the Formation of Christian Character. It was like the original self-help book. People could actually develop character!

This time period is extremely fascinating both for Unitarian Universalism and for American religion. People were released from the bonds of state religion and released from a Calvinist theology that told people that they were helpless and hopeless. Told that their lives were improvable, people pushed the limits to find out exactly how improvable their lives were. The 1820s and 30s were the religious equivalent of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. This was the era that gave birth to the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and scores of wandering street preachers declaring the end of the world and starting tiny religious movements. This is the era that also launched the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and a variety of other movements for social reform.

The other thing that happened was that some people began to have ideas about creating not just improved, but perfect communities. The most famous of these was the Oneida community in New York founded by John Humphrey Noyes. Oneida had no Unitarian connection. Thank goodness for that, because they were a freaky bunch. I can mention one practice of theirs that I can bring up without having to give this sermon an “R” rating. They had a community practice called “mutual criticism” in which they would gather together and take turns being criticized by all the other members of the community. It was felt that this exercise in honesty would reduce tensions in the community at other times.

The Unitarians, however, did have their own experiments with communal living. These included Brook Farm and Fruitlands. Listen to this description [taken from this web-site] of life at Fruitlands, a commune that lasted only seven months,
Fruitlands residents began their days with a purging cold-water shower and subsisted on a simple diet containing no animal products or stimulants. They were strict vegetarians, excluding even milk and honey from their diets. ‘Neither coffee, tea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production,’ Lane wrote. ‘No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies.’ Diet was usually fruit and water; many vegetables—including carrots, beets, and potatoes—were forbidden because they showed a lower nature by growing downward.

Fruitlands members wore only linen clothes and canvas shoes; cotton fabric was forbidden because it exploited slave labor and wool was banned because it came from sheep. [They] believed that animals should not be exploited for their meat or their labor, so they used no animals for farming.

The biggest challenge at Fruitlands was the farming aspect; the community had arrived at the farm a month behind the planting schedule… The decision not to use animal labor on the farm proved to be the undoing of the commune; combined with the fact that many of the men of the commune spent their days teaching or philosophizing instead of working in the field, which made farming difficult. Using only their own hands, the Fruitlands residents were incapable of growing a sufficient amount of food to get them through the winter.
Brook Farm lasted longer but was not without its own serious problems. As an attempt at utopian living there were no assigned jobs and it was felt that everyone should be free to do as they pleased. That meant lots of philosophizing and little farm work. The forays into farm work proved to be disasters. One group that was feeling industrious went out and seeded a field. They didn’t tell anybody and the next day a different group of people decided to be industrious; they went out and plowed the field that had just been seeded and wrecked the planting.

Enough history. I wonder what it means for us to be the religious descendents of these people, these people who boldly proclaimed the power of human agency, human reason, and that we could be entrusted with our own capacities. I wonder what we can learn by looking at those Unitarian ancestors of ours whose attempts at communal living turned out to be absolute failures.

I think the quest for perfection lives uneasily inside many of us. Kind of like a hip bone on a whale or an appendix inside a human being, we inherit something of this quest for perfection. If we believe in the power of human agency and human choice, then shouldn’t it follow that human perfection is attainable?

One of my mentors, Rev. John Buehrens, had a couple of memorable lines. During prayers, he would often use the line, “Forgive us for demanding perfection from those we show none.” Another line of his: “If you find yourself feeling disillusioned, you may do well to ask yourself why you had illusions in the first place.”

New Year’s resolutions can function as a part of this great self-fooling. If only I get this in line, that squared away, all this taken care of, then I will be on my way to perfection. And then there is the frustration piece, that growing disappointment with yourself because you have not lived up to your own lofty goals… or your growing disappointment with others because they do not live up to your lofty standards.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Greek figure Sisyphus. For disobeying the Gods, Sisyphus’ afterlife is spent in eternal torment in which he rolls a giant boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder roll back down as soon as he gets it to the top. That is what trying to be perfect feels like.

A new year begun. All ambitions before us. All dreams to be realized. All disappointments, too. All devastations and all let downs. And still, all hopes remain as the quest for perfection, or something like it, resides inside of us. We can be happy about it or we can be distressed.

What I am preaching to you this morning is not one way or another. It is not that you should attempt perfection. And it is not that perfection is elusive so you should throw up your hands in resignation. Instead, glory in imperfection. Delight at all that is still in progress, even when that progress has been slow and challenging. Love the struggle. Love the journey more than the destination.

And delight. Delight in the powers of imagination. Give thanks for the gift of being able to imagine a better world than we have known thus far. We are all imperfect people who imperfectly love our imperfect neighbors. By the way, that is the reason why love is worth anything at all. I love you. Amen.

Sermon: "Roots, Wings, and Little Lights" (Delivered 12-28-08)

[In July of 2009 I will serve as the guest lecturer in Unitarian Universalist history and theology at the Midwest Leadership School. The following sermon is based on part of what will my first lecture.]

Call to Worship
After the presents have been unwrapped. After the feasting. After family and friends have been bid goodbye, and the time of returning has happened, then quiet, pause, a fallow time in these last few days before the New Year. Outside, Mother Nature deals us snow and ice and storm. Inside we seek the distractions of college football bowls and board games.

Each year, I lead a service at this time of the year that goes by the title, “Cozying Up with a Good Book.” I contend that there are few pleasures as wonderful as fixing a mug of hot chocolate or a cup of tea, wrapping yourself in a throw blanket, cozying up on the sofa with a good book.

As the dark weather storms outside the window we wrap our bodies in warmth and give our minds the great gift of an exotic vacation. Our thoughts soar, flying off to destinations around the world, to the past and to the future. Without getting off the couch we walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Or, we hold up a mirror by which to see ourselves more clearly. This morning we celebrate books. We celebrate the adventures of the mind as we pass these few final days of 2008.

Summon your imagination. Summon your curiosity. Summon your desire for adventure. I am glad that you are here. Let us worship together.


Reading
This morning’s reading is from Sarah Vowell’s fifth book, entitled The Wordy Shipmates. Her name may be familiar to you even if you haven’t read any of her books. She is a commentator on NPR’s This American Life with Ira Glass. She was also the voice of Violet in the movie The Incredibles.
The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don’t mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed.

Take the reverend John Cotton. In 1630, he goes down to the port of Southampton to preach a farewell sermon to the seven hundred or so colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Led by Governor John Winthrop, a gentleman farmer and lawyer, these mostly Puritan dissenters are about to sail from England to New England on the flagship Arabella and ten other vessels in the Winthrop fleet.

By the time Cotton says amen, he has fought Mexico for Texas, bought Alaska from the Russians, and dropped napalm on Vietnam. Then he lays a wreath on Custer’s grave and revs past Wounded Knee. Then he claps when the Marquis de Lafayette tells Congress that “someday America will save the world.” Then he smiles when Abraham Lincoln calls the United States “the last best hope of earth.” Then he frees Cuba, which would be news to Cuba. Then he signs the lease on Guantanamo Bay.
[…]
[Aboard the Arabella, after it has crossed the Atlantic, Winthrop preached,] “God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.”

Winthrop couldn’t know that overturning what he just said would become the definition of the American dream…

In 1630, however, the truth that all men are created equal is far from self-evident. Winthrop is saying the opposite—that God created all men unequal. To Winthrop, this is a good thing, especially since he’s in charge. The beauty of this inequality, he claims, is “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”… More than anything, [Winthrop’s sermon] is a declaration of dependence.
Sermon
This morning’s sermon takes place in between two hymns. I am going to talk to you about roots and wings and little lights. The two hymns in between which my comments are situated are two of our favorite hymns. One of those hymns, that we just sung, is “This Little Light of Mine.” When we sing it, it is a justice hymn. When we sing it we probably think of letting our truth, our love, and our values shine out into the world. The hymn is based on a passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers that they are lights for all the world. That is one idea that I want for us to consider.

The other concept is taken from the hymn that will follow the sermon, another favorite hymn of our church, “Spirit of Life” by Carolyn McDade, a Unitarian Universalist. In this hymn, she uses the images of roots and wings. “Roots hold us close and wings set us free.” These evocative words signal that we are part of a tradition. Our own religious tradition has deep roots and we are also rooted in traditions of family and culture. However, this hymn declares that we also have wings. Wings are a symbol of liberation and progress, evolution and creativity. Religiously, culturally, we are not static. We are rooted in tradition but we are also creating the future in front of us.

Let me begin with the roots. I grew up in the small New England town of Wayland, Massachusetts and attended the Unitarian Universalist church growing up. That congregation was founded in 1642 and is about the same size as our congregation here in Overland Park. One summer I was home from college and I found myself wanting to talk through some of what was going on in my life with one of the ministers of that church. We met at Bruegger’s Bagels and talked and during the conversation my minister mentioned that she considered herself to be a “bibliotherapist.” That is to say that whenever she faces challenges, she is likely to seek assistance in the shelves of a bookstore or a library. I left the counseling session with a belly full of bagels, with a sense of greater perspective and reassurance, and with a list of books I might want to read.

And I tell you all of this because there was something in that religious interaction that was distinctively Unitarian Universalist. I don’t mean to say that people of other religious traditions don’t read books. Rather, this idea that reading is a sacred act comes out of our religious heritage. From our roots.

This morning I am not only going to talk about roots and wings and little lights; I am also going to talk about the Puritans. Many of my remarks refer to a specific book, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, a wildly entertaining intellectual history of the Puritans and a book that is also good scholarship. I am going to discuss some of the roots of Puritan thought that continue to influence us today.

Especially for those of you who are newer to Unitarian Universalism, when I tell you that Unitarian Universalists are the religious descendents of the Puritans, you may react to this statement with a sense of shock and incredulity. The dominant images we have of the Puritans today are of religious fanatics who killed accused witches in Salem, hung Quakers on Boston Common, exiled Roger Williams to Rhode Island for being too mouthy, and then exiled Anne Hutchinson as well for being too mouthy and too female.

Moreover, the Puritans have a reputation for being killjoys and overly serious moralists. And some of this reputation isn’t deserved. On one hand, they were a serious bunch, religiously devout and fearful of incurring God’s wrath. One the other hand, some of the stereotypes of them being joyless people just do not ring true. They loved to feast. They loved to drink. (When the Arabella set sail for the Massachusetts Bay colony, they loaded the ship with ten thousand gallons of beer.) And, despite what Nathaniel Hawthorne would have us believe in his novel The Scarlet Letter, the Puritans enjoyed their sex as well, although their concept of sex was limited to heterosexual sex for the purposes of procreation.

Other images we have of the Puritans carry some amount of truth, but aren’t exactly precise either. For example, the Puritans are often considered to be the first capitalists and when sociologist Max Weber coined the term “The Protestant Work Ethic” he most certainly had the Puritans in mind. The truth is a bit more complicated. The economic system of the Puritans certainly valued work, but it was also anxious about wealth. You could make a historical argument that the Puritans were early socialists just as easily as you could argue that they were early capitalists. Their social system prized high levels of charity and the redistribution of wealth. These values were based on a very serious reading of Jesus’ teachings about, and self-sacrificing care for, the poor and the needy.

So, what are some of the Puritan roots from which we still draw sap today? First, I would argue that we still exude the Puritan quality of restlessness. The so-called Protestant work ethic was not so much about the greedy creation of wealth. It was the way the Puritans channeled and sublimated their own tremendous doubts about their own salvation. Since they believed in predestination—from the beginning of time it was already decided whether you were headed for heaven or for hell—they constantly looked for clues about where they would go in the afterlife. Hard work and earthly success was seen as a hint that you might be one of the elect. Their lives were restless and they were constantly wracked with doubt.

And we are equally restless people, if the truth be told. The place where this plays out most conspicuously is in our justice work. Unitarian Universalists tend towards social awareness. You only need to attend the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly and take a walk through the booths in the exhibit hall and you will find UU group after UU group working tirelessly for everything from anti-racism to women’s rights. And this is all such good work, the work of making our world peaceful and fair and free. Only sometimes I talk to the people at these booths and find myself wishing that they smiled more. Sometimes they seem so constantly restless that I wonder about their own suffering. Of course, I manifest my own restless qualities. This isn’t at all about feeling restless about my own salvation. It is about trying to reconcile my own existence with a world that is deeply troubled.

Another root from which we draw sap and another feature that we share with our Puritan ancestors is skepticism of false authority and a desire to be self-regulating. There was a massive religious uprising in England that gave birth to the Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, and dozens of other religious groups. These groups were all critical of the organizational structure of the Church of England and especially the power vested in Bishops, the King, and ecclesiastical hierarchies in general. Reacting against the corruptions within the Church of England, the Puritans established their own system of local control. Their churches would call their own ministers, elect their own officers, and regulate their own conduct. It is important for us to remember that this desire for less external control was not a move towards a more laissez faire church. The Puritans wanted higher expectations. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spells out in exacting detail the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of ministers, church leaders, and church members.

A third root that connects us with our Puritan ancestors is a devotion to scholarship and literacy. The Puritans of the 1600s were probably the most literate group of people ever to live on this planet. Historian Perry Miller writes,
“Puritanism was no an anti-intellectual fundamentalism; it was a learned, scholarly movement that required on the part of the leaders, and as much as possible from the followers, not only knowledge but a respect for the cultural heritage. Being good classicists, they read Latin and Greek poetry, and tried their hands at composing verses of their own. The amount they wrote, even amid the labor of settling a wilderness, is astonishing.”
I earned my Masters degree in Divinity from Harvard, a school that was founded by the Puritans in 1636 for the training of, “a learned clergy” so that, as they put it back then, “when our present ministers lie in the dust” they wouldn’t be forced to choose between accepting illiterate clergy from the colonies or importing ministers from England who have been grossly corrupted by the false teachings of the Church of England.

At Harvard one of the most amazing resources was an enormous microfiche collection of every piece of writing published in the colonies. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of pages. These folks read and read and read. So, when one of my childhood ministers talked about being a so-called “bibliotherapist” she was invoking Puritan roots that go back nearly three hundred and eighty years. Yet other circumstances of this simple story emphasize the wings of our religious tradition rather than our roots. That the minister to whom I was turning for counsel was a woman would have greatly upset those Puritan ancestors. That the reading suggestions presented to me included a Catholic, a Buddhist, and a secularist would have been equally distressing. We are both rooted and winged, a product of our past and the creation of our present.

In The Wordy Shipmates, an image runs through the book from a passage from a sermon that John Winthrop preached aboard the ship The Arabella in 1630 called “A Model of Christian Charity.” Harvard professor Peter Gomes, in a best of the millennium list that came out in The New York Times in 1999, called Winthrop’s sermon the best sermon of the past 1,000 years. The basic gist of the sermon is that the world will be watching what the Puritans do in this new land and that the Puritans are to be, drawing language from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a city upon a hill and a light to all the world. Winthrop goes on to warn the Puritans that being the light of all the world means living by some pretty lofty standards. Sarah Vowell says about this image,
“The image of a city on a hill will get passed down as an all-American beacon of hope. But it wasn’t only that to Winthrop. To him, the city on a hill was also something else, something worse—a warning. If he and his shipmates reneged on their covenant with God, the city on a hill would be a lighthouse of doom beckoning the wrath of God to Boston Harbor.”
In tracing the history of this image through American history, Vowell notes that it was an image used both by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In fact, Reagan used the “City on a Hill” line so many times that when it came time for Reagan’s funeral, a passage from Winthrop’s sermon was chosen as a reading.

The reading was delivered by Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court, and the first woman to serve in this position. Just a few weeks before Reagan’s funeral, the biggest news story in the land was the release of pictures of inmates being tortured at Abu Ghraib. These are the words of Winthrop that Justice O’Connor read at the funeral:
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”
Vowell points out that we live under both the arrogance and the expectations of Winthrop’s sermon. She writes, “America is supposed to be better. No: best. I hate to admit it, but I still believe that, too. Because even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on a hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it. And I don’t even believe in God! And I have heard the screams! Why is America the last best hope of Earth? What if it’s Liechtenstein? Or, worse, Canada?”

We stand at the brink of a year about to pass. A difficult year for many of us. We stand before a year that is to come. Into this new year we carry with us roots, and wings, and little lights. We bring the past that we cannot leave behind, even if we really wanted to. We are rooted. And, we bring wings, the hope that we can break out of the forces of custom. And we bring our little lights. Yes, we have heard the warning. And still, and still, what other choice do we have but to let our little lights shine and commit ourselves to making sure that our light illuminates and reflects the best of what we are and what we are called to be?

Friday, January 02, 2009

Week 32: "I Was Wrong / You Were Right" by Badly Drawn Boy

Badly Drawn Boy is the stage name of British singer/song-writer Damon Gough. Gough is known for writing and recording the soundtrack to the film version of the Nick Hornby novel About a Boy as well as for his trademark stocking cap.

In 2002, Badly Drawn Boy released the album Have You Fed the Fish? HYFtF represents an evolution from Gough’s trademark sound. Instead of focusing on his gorgeous voice and piano and acoustic guitar playing, HYFtF introduces a broad spectrum of instrumentation including electric guitar, orchestral flourishes, and varied percussion.

Of all the songs by Badly Drawn Boy, I am most drawn to the song entitled “You Were Right.” The track that immediately precedes “You Were Right” is a short track entitled “I Was Wrong” that serves as an intro to “You Were Right.” On “I Was Wrong,” Gough gently strums an acoustic guitar and sings one verse softly. As the acoustic guitar fades out, the album launches right into “You Were Right” which begins with a declarative fanfare.

“You Were Right” has an interesting form. The song is a series of verses without a chorus. The verses are varied in length and the song takes on the following form: Fanfare intro, long verse, long verse, half verse, long verse, short verse, solo, long verse, short verse, long verse, long verse, short verse, solo, short verse.

The lyrics to this song are a fascinating mixture of personal confessions and stream of consciousness fantasies. The dominant motif of the song seems to hinge on his confession that his impulsive song-writing blocks his own personal relationships. The first verse of song begins, “And you, you were right to bide your time and not buy into my misery. Well the good things are never free. Do the colors of the rainbow look the same to everyone?” These sentiments are made more explicit in a later verse where Gough sings, “And I, I was busy finding answers while you just got on with real life. [I] always hoped you’d be my wife. But I never found the time for the question to arrive. I just disguised it in a song.”

These personal confessions are juxtaposed with fantasies. In one verse he sings of dreaming that he was married to the Queen, that Madonna lived next door, and that he had to turn down Madonna’s amorous advances. In other verse he sings about remembering what he did on the days that Frank Sinatra, Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, and John Lennon died. These digressions serve to add a wonderful texture at the same time that they demonstrate the conflict about which Damon Gough sings: the question of whether to live in the world of song or in the world itself. To paraphrase lyrics that appear in a later verse, a life and a soundtrack to a life are two different things.

As/If you listen to “You Were Right” you can hear these elements and also so many tiny details that flesh out this song. Listen for the burst of electric guitar as the song transitions into one of the main verses. Listen for the descending string line during the short verses. Listen for the whistling during the second solo. Listen for the beautiful sound of Gough’s voice especially when he sings the words, “Soundtrack to a Life.”

You can see the psychedelic video to the single-length version of “You Were Right” here. You can listen to a scaled down live performance of the song here.