Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sermon: "When It Just Won't Come" (Delivered 5-24-09)

Last Saturday I spent four hours here at the church holding a retreat with five members of this year’s Preaching Practicum class. Each of the members of this class has put in at least 15 hours attending classes in addition to the dozens of hours that each has spent planning, researching, and drafting their sermons. Half of the class will lead worship on Sunday mornings this summer and the other half will have preaching dates in the fall when I am on sabbatical. It is a blessing and a way of growing in community for you in the congregation to come out and see your own peers stand in front of the congregation, speak from the heart, and minister to you. They’ve all worked extremely hard and put their true selves into this discipline.

As a minister there are around a half-dozen questions that I’m frequently asked. One of those questions has to do with preaching. The question goes something like this, “How do you come up with something to talk about every week?” Or, “So, what do you do if can’t think of anything to say?” Or, “What do you do when it just won’t come?”

I always answer this question a bit differently. Sometimes I tell people that it isn’t really an option; it has to come. It just has to. Otherwise, it is going to be an awkward twenty minutes we spend together when I am supposed to deliver a sermon to you. Other times I am a little boastful, declaring that I’ve never suffered from a shortage of ideas. This is true, but whether they’ve always been good ideas is another matter entirely. But I’m blabbering on. The question is still valid. “What would I do if it just won’t come?”

Switching gears—taking the focus off of me and putting it on you, I pose the question to you. What do you do in your own life when it just won’t come? Not a sermon, but your work, your relationships, your hopes or dreams or ambitions… your life.

This morning we are going to delve into these sorts of experiences: disappointment and frustration, stress and burnout, setbacks and failures. In this sermon I am going to begin by exploring these sorts of experiences and offering us a framework for understanding them. For a time, we will address these experiences from a secular perspective. Then, later on, we will add a religious layer to the conversation, and ask if our religion, faith, and Unitarian Universalist theology can speak to these experiences.

When we talk about frustration or disappointment or burnout or failure, we often just lump all of them together, thinking they are all the same. But this is just not the case. They happen in different ways. Let me count just a few of the ways.


Burnout
First, I want to go back to the juggling example I gave you earlier in the service. [The juggling example was meant to illustrate burnout. I started with one ball, which required no attention at all. I then added to the juggling, one ball at a time. When I reached 5 balls, the juggling was taking all my concentration and energy. When I added a sixth ball, it all fell apart.] That was allegory. It was an illustration. But, even if you don’t juggle, you might do something like that in your life. You care deeply. You want everything to run smoothly. You don’t want any balls to drop. And you are competent, and talented. And, all around you, you see all these balls getting dropped, all these things that might be breaking down in front of your eyes. So, not only do you carry your own load, but you also do a little bit extra to help. This is easy to do, putting a little something extra on your plate. And, then you do a little more than that and that’s okay too. But then you make yourself a savior and pick up even more. At this point it all becomes unsustainable, so you cut corners here and there. You fake others out about how it is really going. And then it all falls apart. Burnout has a story to it, a narrative. There is a past and present and future to it. There is a beginning when everything was under control. Then there is an escalation. Things speed up. You hit a breaking point. There is a dénouement and it all breaks down. That is the textbook case of burnout. It is life unsustainable: life out of control.


Frustration
As a minister, when others ask me about whether a sermon idea ever just doesn’t come, they aren’t really asking me about burnout or overwork necessarily. These things can be related. If I’m juggling five balls and someone asks me to balance an umbrella on my nose, something is going to have to give. You can be too focused, too preoccupied, and too overextended. Sometimes this does have an impact on the other things you are supposed to do.

But, when we suffer a barrier, such as in the case of writer’s block, it does not necessarily mean that we are overextended. When we have a barrier that we keep hitting, a responsibility that we avoid, or when we find that we keep getting stuck, it is a good thing to stop running into the wall. We need to pause and analyze. Maybe our heart is just not in it. Maybe we can enlist others in helping us to break through that barrier. But first, we need to pause. When the barrier is another person, we may ask them, “I’ve been running at you and smashing into you over and over again, how does that feel? What could make this different?” Feeling stuck, whether it is your own self, another person, or a community, is an invitation to creativity, cooperation, and collaboration. But first you need to pause and take stock.


Disappointment
There was this band called They Might Be Giants that I used to listen to in high school. A lot of their lyrics were silly and their lyrics featured a lot of wordplay. I remember one of their songs, a real “woe is me” number where the singer plaintively croons, “If it weren’t for disappointments, I wouldn’t have any appointments.”

It is important to remember that sometimes, even when we are not on the path to burnout and even when we are not stuck, that we can get slammed with a major disappointment. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of ways that we can set ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic goals or heightened expectations—and there is a danger in heightened expectations—but failure and disappointment can still come our way, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Disappointment teaches us the humbling lesson that we can never be fully in control of our own lives and our circumstances. We can get slammed whether we deserve it or not.

What’s more, failure and breakdowns can happen without any warning. There are times when it just won’t come. Sometimes we know disappointment is creeping up on us. Other times, it catches us completely out of the blue.

Let me share with you the story of Chuck Knoblauch. Chuck Knoblauch was a second baseman who began his baseball career with the Minnesota Twins. He broke into the major leagues in 1991 and helped to lead the Twins to a World Series championship that year while taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Through the 1990s he was one of the top two or three second basemen in all of baseball. He played in four All Star games and even, in 1997, won a Gold Glove award for his exemplary fielding. Following that season the New York Yankees offered him an outrageous sum of money and he joined the Bronx Bombers where he played on teams that won the World Series the next three seasons and came close to winning it all for a fourth straight time in 2001.

Yet, life was not easy for Knoblauch in New York. In 1999 he began to lose the ability to make throws from second base to first. His throws sailed all over the place. How wild was he? Well, a throw from second base can be about 40 feet. On one occasion, Knoblauch threw a ball that traveled over 100 feet instead, sailing into the stands, and hitting the wife of Keith Olbermann in the face. Almost overnight a world class athlete lost the ability to throw a baseball with any semblance of accuracy.

I’m going to guess that what I’ve said so far resonates with just about everyone here. You may have never had to write a sermon. I’m guessing you did not play second base for the New York Yankees. But, I will bet you that there has been a time in your life when it felt like you had too many balls up in the air. Or, a time when you had this barrier that you just couldn’t get beyond and kept smashing into. Or maybe you’ve experienced a time when what had been routine turns out now to be impossible. There may have been a time in your life when it just wouldn’t come, whatever it is.

And, I’m going to name it because it is in this room with us today. I’m going to bet that walking out of last Sunday’s Annual Meeting many of you felt something resembling the types of things I’ve been describing this morning. Some of our most passionate volunteers feel like they have too many balls up in the air. Some of you see balls getting dropped. Some of you feel like there is a barrier we keep slamming into, something that is limiting us that we feel we should be able to break through even though we haven’t figured out how quite yet. I will tell you; I have felt all these things. So, if you have felt them too, you are not alone. And, frankly, it is not fun. And, frankly, it is part of life. And, now is not the time for me to hammer on about it. Instead, I want to approach the topic from a religious angle.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published his book Walden, which many people have since read and found tedious. Or, if they like it, they like it for a couple of quotations found in the second chapter, quotations that have become almost trite: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” “Simplify. Simplify.”

We often forget how radical the thoughts of that great Unitarian thinker were! And we are familiar with a few of the concepts: Thoreau’s willingness to question things that members of society took for granted; Thoreau’s passionate repudiation of materialism and wealth.

I almost want to ask each and every person here to go home and read the entirety of the second chapter of Walden this week. Read it then keep a spiritual journal about it. Dare to let it speak to your life and really listen to what it says. This is our sacred writing. This is one of our holy texts. I’m not asking you to read Deuteronomy.

Let me share with you a few things I found striking within. Listen to this passage from the second chapter of Walden,
“If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of Concord, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman, I might almost say, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire — or to see it put out, and have a hand in it, if that is done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself.”
Let me make the language more transparent. Thoreau writes that we tend to go around making excuses about the “presses of engagements” in our lives. In other words, we boast about how busy we are. However, Thoreau says that if given an excuse to put aside our work, we would use that excuse in a second. I don’t know if you had fire drills when you were in school, but I did. When the fire alarm rang, all the students would all cheer. And then, standing out in the parking lot some of the students—you know it is true—would hope that it was an actual fire because then, you know, school might be closed for a longer period of time. In that passage, Thoreau writes that the worker spends the day complaining about how much work he has to do, but when the church bell rings, the worker will gladly drop the work and head into town hoping for a blaze that will allow the worker to stay away from work even longer. Thoreau says that they would be fine with the church going up in a blaze if it meant a longer escape from the usual burdens of daily life.

Elsewhere in Walden, Thoreau writes,
“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements… is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense… and the only cure for it is a… simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”
Or, to give you more Thoreau,
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep…To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
So, what exactly is Thoreau speaking about here? Thoreau is saying that there are all types of forces and values external to us that serve to make our lives far more complicated than they need to be. Thoreau is saying that we can develop the ability to affect the quality of the day, not just to live the day that has been given to us. Thoreau is saying that what we take as givens need not necessarily be so.

Of course, if we decided to live by Thoreau’s example, to become disciples of his teachings, we would still not be completely insulated from disappointment or frustration or failure. Those sometimes just happen, as in the example of Chuck Knoblauch. But Thoreau is our voice that questions whether the world, as it is given to us, really needs to be as it is. I question this as well. I question this as well. I hope you do too.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sermon: "So Few Grownups" (Delivered 5-17-09)

[I delivered this sermon at our worship service honoring our youth who completed the Coming of Age program this year.]

In the last month I had the chance to have one-on-one conversations with each of the youth in the Coming of Age program. During these chats I asked them a lot of questions and they had the chance to ask some questions back. Among the questions they had was how someone becomes a minister. This question has a long answer and a short answer. I will give you the short answer: you go to a special school that teaches you about religion and ministry; you have to do an internship, like what Anne Griffiths has done this year with us; and then, you meet with a special committee. At that meeting with the special committee, you preach a ten minute sermon and then the committee members sling questions at you for the rest of the hour. It’s kind of like the Coming of Age panel on steroids.

The story I am about to tell you is true. There was once a minister in our movement who became very successful and is held in the highest of esteem. When he went in front of the special committee to preach, he decided that he would deliver a children’s sermon. He spoke to the committee members like they were third graders. The first question the committee asked him was, “Do you always preach children’s sermons?” He responded, “I find that in our churches there are so few grownups.”

What I want to talk about this morning is the question of what makes a person an adult. How do you know that someone is a “grownup”? This sermon is addressed to our Coming of Age class: you are no longer children, exactly, but you are also not adults yet, either. And these words are addressed to the rest of the congregation because I think it is a question worth reflecting upon.

When exactly does a person become an adult? Maybe at a certain age. Maybe you become an adult when you are allowed to get your drivers license. But that means that people become adults at different ages in different states. Or, maybe you become an adult when you turn 18 and you are allowed to choose whether to enter the military or not. Or, maybe when you turn 35 and you are allowed to run for President.

We could decide to ask the law. The law says that you are an adult when you turn 18, except in cases where you commit a horrible crime. If you commit a horrible crime you can be tried as an adult even though you are not 18. So, in other words, the law might treat you as an adult earlier if you exhibit irresponsible and harmful behavior. Maybe the law is not the right place to look.

Maybe becoming a grownup has to do with an achievement. Maybe you become an adult when you finish school. But, what about all those people who engage in ongoing learning all their lives or who go back to school for a degree? Maybe you become an adult when you get to finally live on your own. But there are all sorts of people, including past presidents of our country, who have never really lived on their own, but lived off the money that their mommies and daddies gave them. Maybe you become an adult when you get married. But what about people who never decide to marry? Does that mean they are not adults? Or, maybe you become and adult when you have children of your own. Britney Spears kind of shoots that theory out of the water. [I decided not to in my sermon, but you could just as well insert Bristol Palin here as well.]

As youth, you Coming of Age graduates live in a society that gives you very mixed messages about becoming an adult. On one hand, media sends you messages telling you to grow up fast and that reaching adulthood means acquiring lots of stuff like a house and a car. The media send you images of the type of lifestyle you should live that will make you seem grownup. At the same time, adulthood is also presented as something that you should avoid for as long as you can because your job is going to suck away your soul and you will live a life full of regrets and longing.

The truth is—and listen to me here—adulthood has absolutely nothing to do with your age, or whether you can drive or vote, or whether you live on your own, or whether you are married, or whether you have children, or whether you own your own car or your own house.

Do you know how I know this? I look to some of the world’s great religious leaders. Take, for example, the Dalai Lama. Now, the Dalai Lama lives in a palace that looks like it should be featured on MTV Cribs, but it is not like his life is surrounded by stuff. Plus, he doesn’t have a wife or children. And, when he is at home in Dharamsala, his lifestyle is a bit different from the lives of most adults. According to his own homepage, dalailama.com,
“When His Holiness is at home in Dharamsala, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. After his morning shower, he begins the day with prayers, meditations and prostrations until 5:00 a.m. At 5:00 a.m. he takes a short morning walk. Breakfast is served at 5.30 a.m. For breakfast, the Dalai Lama typically has hot porridge, barley powder, bread, and tea. From 6 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. His Holiness continues his morning meditation and prayers. From around 9.00 a.m. until 11.30 a.m. he studies various Buddhist texts written by the great Buddhist masters. Lunch is served from 11.30 a.m.”
So, in other words, by the time lunch is served he has done seven hours of prayer and religious study.

And, if we use the standards by which adulthood is usually judged, Jesus meets none of the tests. As Jesus is depicted in the Bible, Jesus does not have a house or possessions, a wife or children, or even an education. His ride was a donkey. Jesus was not an adult by almost any of the standards I’ve just listed. But he was an adult.

So, being an adult must have to do with something different. And what exactly was that minister talking about when he commented about there being so few grownups? I don’t think he was talking about people’s age.

What does it mean to be an adult? And what does it mean to be an adult religiously? And what does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist adult?

There is this great quote from a book in the Bible, from First Corinthians, about becoming a religious adult that I want you to consider. It is one of the most popular passages in the Bible. In fact, it is so well known that Barack Obama quoted it in his inaugural address. I’ll read the passage and then I will offer an explanation of it.
“Love will never come to an end. Prophecies will cease; tongues of ecstasy will fall silent; knowledge will vanish. For our knowledge and our prophecy are partial, and the partial vanishes when wholeness comes. When I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child; but when I grew up I put away childish things. At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole. There are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”
So, what in the world does this passage mean? And why should it speak to you? I believe this passage is meaningful and it does speak to you. The passage begins by saying that our knowledge of God is incomplete and our ability to prophesy, to know the will of God, in also incomplete. Hmmm… that sounds a lot like some of your Coming of Age projects. How many of you know all the answers? It also sounds a lot like the answers given by many of the older people in our congregation when asked a question about religious truth. How many of you ever answer religious questions by saying something that resembles, “My knowledge is only partial, incomplete; I do not know for sure.”

The passage then talks about putting away childish things. But it really doesn’t say exactly what those are. But then the very next line is very interesting. It talks about how right now we only see reflections in a mirror, but one day we will be able to see more than that. When we look into a mirror, all we see is our own reflection. I think maybe the passage is saying that if our own religion is self-focused, self-absorbed, and all about us, then something is the matter.

The passage ends by saying that the only things that really matter are faith and hope and love, but love is the most important. Faith and hope and love.

This year the Coming of Age program has asked you to sort through things in your life and figure out if they are really important to you. The Bible passage says that the things that aren’t important are partial, but the things that are important are whole and complete. The things that don’t matter as much are childish, but the things that really do matter are adult.

I want to end this by giving you a lesson from our Unitarian Universalist history. Around 175 years ago there was a famous Unitarian minister in Boston named Theodore Parker. Parker was a social activist and an amazing thinker. His most famous sermon was entitled, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” Transient and permanent are big words, but they really mean incomplete and complete. He wanted to know what matters in religion and what doesn’t really matter. And his sermon angered a lot of people because he told them that a whole lot of things they thought mattered didn’t really matter. He told them to put away their childish things and that the most important thing is, in fact, love. Does this sound familiar?

Faith, hope, and love. So few grownups have really managed to separate what’s truly important in their lives from what is not important. So, let me tell you what I think is truly important and what is not as important.
I believe that it doesn’t matter if you are right. It matters if you are kind.
I believe that it doesn’t matter if you are logical. It matters if you are loving.
I believe your actions matter more than your words, and this goes for religious words too.
I believe that keeping score doesn’t matter. Forgiving does.
I believe that you will be remembered for what you share, not for what you have.
I believe that if too much of your religion involves looking at yourself, you’re doing something wrong.
I believe that when you are in doubt, you should ask, “What is the loving thing to do?”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sermon: "Those Two Magic Words" (Delivered 5-3-09)

Since last September I’ve been working on this book. The Unitarian Universalist Association asked me to edit as well as contribute several chapters to a book of essays by ministers of growing churches in our movement. Now, you may be wondering, how does any of this relate in any way whatsoever to the theme of this morning’s worship service, that of expressing gratitude—sincere and effusive and heartfelt thanks—for all of the volunteers whose labors make our church thrive? The answer to that question is that it does not relate at all. OK, it sort of does. But, first we are going to take a big swerve.

You see, just this past week I received the foreword for this book that I’m in charge of putting together. The foreword for the book was written by UUA President Bill Sinkford. And, in this foreword Rev. Sinkford wrote something that I found extremely powerful and that caused me to completely scrap what I was planning to say about gratitude.

In his foreword, Rev. Sinkford makes this point in a lot fewer words, so let me expand on and add quite a bit to what he wrote. The point he makes is something to the effect that,
We live in a time when we are hyper-vigilant about boundaries, where pressures often lead religious leaders to conduct themselves as detached professionals. I am not at all suggesting that our insistence on boundary-setting has been misguided. The abuse scandals that have rocked so many denominations confirm how critical it is to set boundaries and to make the safety of everyone in the church, especially minors, a top priority. And yet what has been too often lost in these rigid boundaries is a powerful sense of love… love expressed by ministers to members of the church community, love shared within and throughout the congregation, and love that pours out from within the church’s walls and takes the form of ministering to the wider community and larger world. Those churches that grow and thrive are the ones that have been able to cultivate and preserve this practice of love despite a larger culture that encourages an almost clinical sense of detachment and distance.
Reverend Sinkford points out how many of our congregations, like ours, use the affirmation that begins, “Love is the doctrine of this church.” He also points out the rising popularity of a new hymn in the teal hymnal called, “Standing on the Side of Love.” (Personally, I find this song to be a hard one to sing in that it calls upon all the members of congregation to simultaneously do their best James Taylor impersonations.

Reverend Sinkford’s point is simply this: A key to thriving seems to involve the centrality of love within a church. I am not sure there is any way to prove Bill right or wrong, but I find his argument to be gripping, and even surprisingly startling. It seems so true, this idea that the foremost part of what we should be about as a church is to make love manifest. If we can’t do that, what hope is there for us?

Before you get uncomfortable, I am not going to ask you to hold hands this morning. I am not going to introduce the act of ritual hugging. I am not proposing or promoting anything creepy. I am asking: are you finding love? And, I am going to come back to what that means in a minute.

It seems to me that love and gratitude are similar in that it is easy to diminish their significance. The language of gratitude and the language of love can both come too easily to the lips.

With gratitude, there is a great paradox. Many social commentators have pointed out the fact that we live in a society that takes so much for granted, that sees human beings as means to an end, that teaches us how to want more instead of how to count our blessings, and that teaches us how to feel and act entitled. At the same time, however, we live in a society where expressions of thanks are common, although they are often superficial. Sometimes those two magic words—“thank you”—don’t quite hold that much magic. In particular, I am thinking of how often I am thanked when making a consumer purchase. “Thank you for coming, may I help you find something.” “Thank you; here is your change.” “Thank you, please come again.” In fact, and I’ve always found this curious, when I walk into a store—perhaps it is a store where everything is out of my price range or it is just a store that does not have what I am looking for—I can guarantee you that as I head for the door to leave I will hear a cheerful voice thanking me for something, I know not what. I bet if we actually kept a ledger, we would find ourselves thanked at least twenty times each day, but often in hollow ways, in ways that make us feel something less than genuinely appreciated.

It is much the same with love. Paradoxically, we live in a society that is both love deficient and where love is oddly expressed in ways that are trite and superficial. For example, social scientists point to decreasing levels of human bonding. In the essay that Peter Morales contributed to the book I am writing, he shares that, in 1985 a survey of the general population was taken where people were asked, “How many people do you have in your life with whom you can confide?” In 1985, the modal response, or the response most given was 3 people. Twenty years later, this survey was duplicated. In 2006, the modal response was zero. More than half of the American population reported that they had either not one single person or only one other person in their lives in whom they could confide.

Now, having a person in your life who is a confidant and having someone with whom you share love is not exactly the same thing, but it does point to a relationship where there is depth, trust, and authenticity. At weddings at which I officiate I often speak these words that were passed down to me by my internship supervisor Dennis Hamilton to those whom I am marrying, “We forget, as the days are spent, and we slide into comfortable habits, how powerful was the love the day we were wed. It is easy to take life for granted, and, alas, to take the ones we most love for granted. We needn't. Every day, please, take a moment to look at one another, to listen to one another. Speak what is in your heart. And don't forget to say, ‘I love you,’ and ‘Thank you.’” In those lines, love and gratitude are inseparably linked.

So, what exactly does it mean for the church to help us to discover love? There is of course the way that Peter Morales alluded to. Church can be a place for forming deep horizontal relationships, deep relationships among and between one another. In a social sense, church can be a place for making not only friends, but for forming relationships that are based on deep interpersonal intimacy. But that is not the only way.

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to have minister meetings, 20 to 30 minute conversations, with each of the 11 youth in our Coming of Age program. In speaking with them about what being Unitarian Universalist means to them, they talked extremely frequently about acceptance and tolerance. Acceptance and tolerance, those two magic words, along with the two words “religious freedom,” hold a lot of meaning and significance for our youth. When I was between 12 and 14 years old those same words held a lot of meaning for me as well. Acceptance and tolerance are a type of love that is extended to you by the community, but it also can lead, as it so often does for so many who find sanctuary in our religious community, to a healthy sense of wholeness, self-esteem, and self-love.

In Ntozake Shange’s theatrical poem, For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuff, the girls take turns telling of the pain and hardship of growing up in the ghetto. The poem ends on a powerful note of redemption with each of the girls repeating the line, “I found God within myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.” This line is repeated over and over until it becomes a chant. Each of the girls discover her own inherent worth and dignity. They accept themselves.

It is possible to grow in relationship with others through the church and it is possible to grow in your own sense as a human being deserving of love, whether that love comes from your own sense of being worthy of it or whether that love comes from having a sense of a personal relationship with a God who loves you, like the one in which our Universalist forebears believed.

It is also possible to grow in your own sense of love for this world, to find yourself enchanted and awed with existence itself. In mystical traditions this is known as a sense of union. And it is possible to fashion your own life into a response to this sense of love for the world, a life committed to justice.

Now what does any of this have to do with gratitude, you ask? And what does any of this have to do with being grateful for our many, many talented and dedicated volunteers who served the church faithfully and skillfully this year?? The connection is made, I think, at those times when our sense of volunteering, our commitment and our service transcend getting the job done or filling a vacancy and become an act of love incarnate. I’m talking about those moments when “I love you” becomes linked to “thank you.” That is what we aspire towards. It is especially what we aspire to when we recognize that thriving churches, to go back to Reverend Sinkford’s comments, have made the practice of love central.

I suppose it is up to each of you to determine the extent to which your own volunteerism, you own service to the church, is connecting you to a sense of more profound love. It is something you have to know on your own. It is not a truth that I can speak for you. I can only say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

And yet, I have my suspicions about some of those times when love and service come together:
There is that time when Coming of Age mentors establish a powerful and profound bond with those whom they mentor and love and service come together.

There is that time down in the religious education classrooms where there is a moment of connection between child and teacher. One year ago we took a leap in moving from one session of religious education to two which required immense levels of volunteerism on the part of our congregation. It did result in many of our key religious education volunteers spending between twenty and thirty Sundays teaching. We’ve also found that having two sessions of religious education every Sunday evens out worship attendance and this is the only possible way for us not to stagnate in our current facility. It also is respectful to our visitors with children, who come and find programming for their children instead of supervised playtime. Next year, the religious education program hopes to offer two sessions of religious education using a different model that will prevent teacher burnout.

There are so many other areas in the volunteer life of our church where service and love are linked. I think about this year’s revamped Connection Circle program and the possibilities for intimacy and transformation in those groups.

I think of our newly launched lay ministry program and the soul stretching work of our trained lay ministers.

I think about our greeting team. Their smiles and their hearty welcomes are genuine and authentic. When they welcome you, it does not feel as though you’ve walked onto a used car lot.
I will stop right there because I do not want to leave anybody out, and my sermon would get too long if I tried to mention everybody. But I could go on. I could go on.

We live in a culture, in a society, in which loneliness is far more prevalent than love and isolation is more prevalent than intimacy. And yet we also live in a culture that believes in cheap grace, in which utterances of both love and appreciation are so often rendered superficial and trite. Paradoxically, they are in short supply and they come too easily to our lips.

Perhaps we should take our instruction from words of one of really good hymns. To a beautiful English melody was set Paul’s words from First Corinthians about love. In the text Paul distinguishes between outward acts and a depth of inner feeling. The forms are hollow without the feeling. “But not be given, by love within, the profit soon turns strangely thin.” “And have not love, my words are vain as sounding brass and hopeless gain.”

We will sing that hymn in a few minutes. What Saint Paul is saying here is that those two magic words—“Thank you”—need to be linked to those three magic words—“I love you”—for them to carry force and significance and depth and profundity. It remains our task, and by that I mean the task of all of us, to grow more proficient in our speaking of the two magic words and the three magic words.

“We forget, as the days are spent, and we slide into comfortable habits, how powerful our capacity to love is. It is easy to take life for granted, and, alas, to take each other for granted. We needn't. Every day, please, take a moment to turn to one another, to listen to one another. Speak what is in your heart. And don't forget to say, ‘I love you,’ and ‘Thank you.’”

I love you. And thank you. Blessed be. Amen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Encore: "Too Young to Die" by National Fire Theory

It is time to bring the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project to an end. Ever since June 1, 2008 I’ve blogged about some of my favorite songs at a pace averaging one song per week. This entry will wrap things up. You may want to call this an encore, or a benediction, or a curtain call, but there is only song I could possibly choose as a conclusion.

It is 1:00 in the morning at The Hurricane in Westport in Kansas City, Missouri. Or maybe it is 1:30 or 2:00. Standing in the audience I realize I won’t be getting home until 3:30 in the morning. This is acceptable if my evening began on a Friday night. It is not as acceptable if my evening began on a Saturday night and the first service on Sunday morning is six hours away. Even though The Hurricane has since closed and re-opened as The Riot Room, even though I’ve realized I can’t stay out this late on Saturday nights anymore, and even though the band National Fire Theory has broken up, these are the memories that remain.

As the band finishes setting up its equipment, lead guitarist Doug Nelson crouches down and fiddles with his pedal board. He has muted what he is doing. The band leaves the stage. The lights go down. When the sound technician un-mutes his equipment the room explodes in a cacophony of noise, feedback, distortion, and high pitched squeaks. The band climbs up on stage. Bass player Jeremy Wilson is social, making conversation and cracking jokes with the crowd. On the opposite side of the stage, Doug Nelson is all business as he prepares to unleash some amazing guitar playing. Chill and mellow by nature, unassuming front man Tim Gutschenritter flips on a switch and becomes a charismatic showman, exuding pure energy. Tim’s brother, Dallas, takes a set behind the drumset where he appears meditative and spiritual. Doug presses a pedal and the noise halts. The band launches into their first song.

For the next 45 minutes or hour National Fire Theory will rock out, combining emo, screamo, metal, and just plain old rock & roll into an eardrum-pounding mixture of bravado and sonic bliss. Tim will sing his lungs out. Dallas will pound away on the drums relentlessly, adding a constant barrage of Jimmy Chamberlin-esque fills. It won’t matter if you blink. The sticks are moving too fast to follow. Doug will do things with his guitar that you didn’t know were humanly possible, all the while with a look on his face that says, “No sweat.” As the band’s party animal, Jeremy will offer comic relief along with his thumping bass.

And, yes it is true: I did see NFT at least 31 times over a 3 year stretch. And, yes it is true: A half-dozen times I did climb on stage and sing-shout the back-up vocals during the bridge on their song, “10,000 Black Eyes.” And, yes it is true: I did drive to places like Des Moines and Columbia for no other reason than to hear them play.

If there was one song that they played that I looked forward to more than any other, it was, without a question, “Too Young to Die.” Ironically, “Too Young to Die” is the first song on the band’s Ending With White Lights EP, an record with a title that conjures up images of an untimely and traumatic death due to youthful irresponsibility.

Listening to NFT play “Too Young to Die” you’re immediately swept up in the no-holds-barred beginning of the song, an all out assault of drums and guitar. As Tim begins singing, the guitars screech behind him. The song is deeply layered and almost claustrophobic. The spaces between Tim’s phrases are filled up with heavy chords and smashing cymbals. The second verse begins with the lyrics, “My time is getting closer, but I’m too you to die.” It is a song about resisting fate. It is a song that is as defiant as any song I know. And it is a song that, for all its darkness and angst, actually points towards a different path. Unfortunately, you can only listen to a lo-fi version of “Too Young to Die” here. This version of the song ends with an extended guitar solo that climbs in pitch and speeds up to a frantic pace before fading out.

However, when NFT performed this song live, they would extend the song. Following the solo, Tim would sing/chant the words “I’m too young to die,” allowing his words to set the rhythm of the song and then allowing these repetitive lyrics to grow louder until they reached a visceral scream. At that precise moment cathartic merged with transcendent in a way that I, a lover of music, have only rarely known.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Week 52: "Tangerine" by Buffalo Tom

“She’s a tangerine, made in California.” So begins the chorus of the song “Tangerine” by Buffalo Tom, the first track from their remarkable 1995 album Sleepy Eyed. I said a bit about Buffalo Tom back in week 36 when I wrote about their song “Crutch.” “Tangerine” is in many ways the antithesis of “Crutch.” “Crutch” is sincere and folky and singer-songwriter-ish. “Tangerine” is brash and frenetic and whimsical. In fact, it might be the most up-tempo rock song in Buffalo Tom’s entire catalogue.

During my first semester in college I went to a rock club in Portland to see Buffalo Tom as they toured in support of the Sleepy Eyed album. When they played Tangerine early in the set, people began moshing. After the song ended, lead singer Bill Janowitz explained something the effect of, “We’re Buffalo Tom. People don’t mosh to our music.”

All throughout the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks essay project I have tried to match songs to the time of the year when I wrote about them. During the summer I tried to write about summery songs and during the winter I mostly chose to write about wintery songs. Last June, in the third week of the project, I wrote about Fountain of Wayne’s “Radiation Vibe,” a song that perfectly captures the spirit of enjoying the sunshine. The song “Tangerine” makes me feel the exact same way.

Unfortunately, there are slim pickings on YouTube for listening to this song. The best you can do is to watch the music video which unfortunately has very poor resolution. The video alternates between shots of the band playing and an attractive woman driving down the California coastline in a bright orange Pontiac GTO convertible. (Don’t ask me about the part where she dons a ski mask and holds up a store for what appears to be lobsters. Um. Okay.)

A couple years after I first saw Buffalo Tom play, I got to see them play a short set at a record store in Portland in support of their album Smitten. They played a short set that included a mellower acoustic version of “Tangerine.” Both versions were pretty good, but I’m sticking with the loud version.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Week 51: "Don't Call It A Ghetto" by The Architects

Last July I saw The Architects play a show here in Kansas City where they opened for Murphy’s Law and Rancid. A music reviewer in town described the show best when he wrote, “Starting a three-hour show with a band like The Architects is like starting a hockey game with a bench-clearing brawl.” This quote pretty much sums up the band. So do the T-Shirts the band sold at their merch table. The T-shirts didn’t feature the band name. They were plain, black, and carried a very simple message across the front: “Stones > Beatles”.

The Architects merge punk, blues, and straight-up rock & roll and they play it without barring any holds or taking any prisoners. They are cocky and charismatic.

Way back in week 20 I wrote about another song by The Architects, a song called “Widow’s Walk.” Both that song and this week’s are off The Architects’ sophomore album, Revenge. Writing about that song, I identified it as falling within the punk genre of songs that speak about the importance of acting as sentinel or watch-dog.

“Don’t Call It A Ghetto” is The Architects’ feature-song in their live performances. The song is full of bravado and gets the crowd sweating. The song is also the band’s homage to their hometown of Kansas City, especially the area of the city known as Hyde Park which is located directly between the upscale locations of Crown Center and the Plaza.

The song is foul-mouthed and feisty, proud and defiant. At one point, singer Brandon Phillips spits out the best line of the song, “If dreams were like bombs, I’d be Hezbollah. And no, I’m not afraid of that metaphor.” You can’t just find punk-ridden angst like that anywhere.

You can check out the video of the song here. You can watch a video of them playing the song live here. You can also listen to their music on their myspace page.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Week 50: "The Plan" by Built to Spill

We are coming up on the end of the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project that I began on June 1, 2008. After this week’s entry, I will have only two songs left to write about. (Well, I will probably also stick in a bonus song as an encore.) With the end of this essay project coming, I’ve been thinking about what weekly feature I will put on my blog beginning this June. Right now I am thinking about a “List of the Week” feature. If I decide to go this route, my first list might just include 104 songs that I could have just as easily written about for the 52 songs in 52 weeks project.

Probably the greatest injustice of these essays is that I will only write about one song by the band Built to Spill, which happens to be one of my favorite bands. I’ve seen them perform live five times. Three times they were amazingly good. Twice they disappointed. (At one show, front man Doug Martsch had a wicked cold; at another show they had serious equipment malfunctions.)

However, I will always remember the first time I saw them. They were playing a show at the Reed College student union. I was walking home from the library at about 11:00 on a Friday night (which says a lot about my experience in college) and wandered into the union and managed to catch the second half of Built to Spill’s show. I had never heard of them before, but their amazing guitar work blew me away.

Since forming in 1992, the band has released six original albums in addition to a compilation of B-Sides, a greatest hits album, and a live album. Doug Martsch, a gentle giant, is the band’s lead vocalist and lead guitarist. Their drummer, Scott Plouf previously played with the Spinanes. The band originally hailed from Boise, Idaho and has made their home throughout the Pacific Northwest. Their style features lots of guitar distortion, catchy hooks, and long jams. On stage they have more pedals than the Indianapolis 500.

Their signature ending to a concert is to play a 20 to 30 minute version of one of their songs with the majority of that time consisting of traded guitar solos which evolve and devolve and evolve again only to disintegrate into a mixture of feedback, static, and loops. At one show I attended, the band ended with all of the guitarists kneeling on the ground, their guitars laid to the side, working the various knobs of the pedals and amps. The drummer eventually got up and left the stage. Doug Martsch had recorded a segment of a guitar solo onto an old-fashioned tape loop which he manipulated the speed of while his fellow guitarists left the stage. Finally, the sound guy cut the energy and Martsch began packing up his gear. Built to Spill’s live album contains two of their signature 20 minute tracks, a version of their song “Broken Chairs” and a cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”

“The Plan” is the first song on both Built to Spill’s live album and their amazing 1999 release Keep It Like A Secret. The song is little more than an introduction for the greatest guitar soloing I have ever heard. The version on their live album is impeccable. As Built to Spill goes to the solo portion of the song, one of the guitarists begins with a warped solo by manipulating the strings of the guitar below the frets and almost on top of the pickups. The solo is eventually passed to Martsch who starts off grinding away in the lower register and slowly climbing up the scale to hit a series of soaring and triumphant high notes. He doesn’t stop there as he continues the solo, breaking it down and jerking the song into a new rhythm.

There is no version available on YouTube that quite matches the version of the Live album, but these two videos (first, second) are good places to start.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rev Thom: Making Waves in the Business World

Not that you would have any reason to do this normally, but if you happened to enter the keywords Belote and Sprint and Nextel into Google in the past 24 hours, you would have received hundreds and hundreds of hits. Most of these hits are repetitions of a story put out by the Associated Press. My connection to this story is that I attended yesterday’s Annual Shareholder meeting for Sprint/Nextel in order to move two shareholder resolutions.

Let me back up a second. A week and a half ago I received a phone call from a Unitarian Universalist involved in socially responsible investing. One of the strategies SRI advocates employ is Shareholder Activism. Basically, this involves organizing a large enough group of the owners of a publicly traded company’s stock to present a resolution calling for a company to change its business practices to make them more socially responsible. When companies hold their annual shareholder meetings in the Kansas City area I am often called to appear and move a motion by proxy. (Ministers are often called because of our experience with public speaking and our ability to think on our feet and speak extemporaneously.)

Yesterday I appeared representing the employees of New York City (!!!) and the roughly $83 billion dollars in the pension plan of NYC teachers, the NYPD, the FDNY, etc. The pension plan owns close to 9 million shares (or about $50 million worth) of Sprint/Nextel stock. I was sorely tempted to show up wearing my Red Sox hat.

I was on the agenda to move a proposal calling on Sprint to make full disclosure of their political giving. At the last moment, I was also called to move by proxy a second proposal which was far less sexy. The second proposal would allow a quorum of ten percent of shareholders to call a special meeting. This is a trend that is spreading quickly around the corporate world with shareholders insisting on their right to call a special meeting. From a purely democratic basis, this seems like not such a bad thing. After all, in the church that I serve calling a special meeting requires a signed petition by 25% of the membership.

Both shareholder resolutions were unanimously opposed by the Sprint/Nextel Board of Directors. They argue that political contributions are a privileged strategic business decision. They also argue that special meetings of shareholders could prove to be expensive and time consuming.

Let me back track again and say that this is not the first time I have engaged in shareholder activism. Two years ago I moved a proposal about the disclosure of political contributions at the Verizon Annual Meeting. As I read the carefully scripted proposal, Verizon’s CEO scowled at me and acted inconvenienced. When I finished with my statement he gave me a curt reply and told me that Verizon’s political contributions were none of anybody’s business. I had information that indicated that some of Verizon’s political giving was going to creationist institutes that tried to get “intelligent design” taught in public schools. I fired back at the CEO, “Can you explain to me how sending money to Creationists who try to undermine the teaching of evolution is part of Verizon’s business plan?” This response irked him.

So, when you show up to take part in Shareholder Activism here is what happens. You show up at a room at a very sterile convention center and there are lots of people wearing dark suits. The convention center has set up an area where coffee and sodas are served. Despite it being 10:00 in the morning, Sprint was serving chocolate chip cookies. The meeting began exactly on time. About 50 people gathered inside a room where about 80% of the seats were empty. Up front, the Board of Directors and the executive management team were seated in the front row. The meeting moves along quickly.

The room was mostly empty because all of the business has been already transacted. It is actually quite stiff and procedural. The Chairman of the Sprint/Nextel Board, James Hance made some perfunctory opening comments and then read the list of items to be voted on. Three items were proposals from the board. Then he called on me and I was given two minutes for each of the shareholder proposals that I moved. My rhetoric counted for little. All of these motions had already been voted on. Mr. Hance was a lot more personable than the Verizon CEO that I told off. He exchanged pleasantries with me and smiled. When I finished moving my proposals the screen behind Mr. Hance flashed up the results of the voting. The three board motions each passed almost unanimously. The proposal to give shareholders the right to call meetings passed with 75% of the vote. The proposal concerning disclosure of political contributions received only 30% of the vote and failed. James Hance smiled at me and said, “Looks like you are 1 for 2 today, Mr. Belote.” I smiled in return, joked about a recount of the final motion, and told him that I would be back.

Next the Sprint CEO, Dan Hesse gave a short speech and then took questions. A local woman asked him a bunch of questions, employing a nasty and accusative tone in her voice. (By the way, I think it is crazy and hilarious that the AP story mentions my name in the third paragraph but doesn't get around to mentioning CEO Dan Hesse and his comments about the state of Sprint/Nextel until the eighth paragraph.)

After the meeting I made small talk with many of the Sprint/Nextel executives. I also held a five minute conversation with James Hance and he was extremely cordial.

The reason I care deeply about the issue of disclosure of political contributions is simple. It is an issue of transparency. Corporate giving to political candidates is a given. However, because the FEC limits giving more than a very small amount to candidates directly, corporations gain their influence by directing much larger contributions to PACs or to other places where the politicians can appreciate a larger sum being given. I would bet that Sprint has given to Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts as well as to Dennis Moore and Kathleen Sebelius. This is business; it is the game you play. However, I believe it is also my right (not only as the proxy representing about $50 million in Sprint stock but also as a member of the general public who may consider investing in Sprint or purchasing their products) to know whether Sprint helps to fund Fred Phelps, or a Creationist institute, or extremist anti-gay or anti-choice groups. At that point, the social responsibility of the company comes into question. It leaves the realm of a “business decision” and becomes a question of “business ethics.” Any sleuth with the time can track down a partial record of corporate giving by digging through candidates’ contribution reports. But such information is inevitably incomplete. The transparency of full disclosure is the only way to measure this ethical dimension of corporate life.

By the way, the chocolate cookies weren’t very good and my choice of a tan suit was a bad fashion decision. Everyone else sported dark suits.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Week 49: "Light Rail Coyote" by Sleater-Kinney

Some people just like things for reasons that are inexplicable. For example, I dislike horror movies with the exception of Zombie movies, which I adore. I could try to analyze why this is, but I’d prefer to leave it an unexamined mystery. I’m terribly fond of the color orange. And, I like coyotes. (Check out entry #15 in my 2008 reading journal and entries #16 and 17 in my 2009 reading journal.)

With only four songs remaining in my 52 songs in 52 weeks essay project, I’ve selected a song that combines two things I like (coyotes and great public transportation systems) with a place that I absolutely love (Portland, Oregon.)

Coyotes are adaptable animals that aren’t afraid to venture into urban surroundings. On an unusually warm spring day a couple of years ago, a coyote wandered into a Quizno’s in downtown Chicago and chilled out in the store’s drink cooler. That story has nothing on the one about a coyote who hopped aboard the Portland light rail system in 2002.

The latter story is the thematic inspiration for Sleater-Kinney’s ode to the city of Portland included on their 2002 album One Beat. The song, which is musically jerky and dissonant, is about a clash of cultures. The song's focus is actually not out by the PDX airport where the coyote got onboard, but on Burnside which is the name of the street that divides Portland’s North from its South. The Burnside Bridge also spans the Willamette River which separates the Portland’s West from its East. So, if you stand at the center of the Burnside Bridge, you are in the very center of the city.

In “Light Rail Coyote,” Burnside is sung about as the place "where the kids and the hookers meet." Before the Pearl District development cleaned the area up, the ten blocks on Burnside on either side of the river were a pretty mixed-up place. On the East side, there was La Luna, a since-closed music venue where I saw dozens of bands play while living in Portland from 1995 to 1999. There were also greasy all-night diners and a variety of adult-oriented businesses. On the West side there was a sketchy downtown park where one of my college friends claims to have been offered crack cocaine and was also a popular place for prostitutes to gather. And this was only a couple of blocks from Powell’s Books, one of the best bookstores in the universe as well as a number of other stores that were very attractive to college students. Sleater-Kinney sing, “And Burnside will be our street / where the kids and the hookers meet / diners and strip club junk / bookstores and punk rock clubs.”

Portland is very much this way, a once sleepy, blue-collar city that lived off the logging industry and has, for the last 20 or so years, been home to trend-setting youth culture, the DIY hipster movement, some of the best music to come from anywhere, and tons of experimentation with alternative lifestyles and grassroots activism. The “light rail coyote” is more than just a piece of news filler that aired on the local news stations. It is a symbol of the rugged West (loggers, coyotes, a part of our country sealed off by gray skies) bumping up against trendy culture (the environmentalist sensibilities of a light rail system, microbreweries, Evergreen State College educated feminists playing aggressive punk rock.)

Sleater-Kinney, by the way, was a critically acclaimed women’s punk rock trio that was active from 1994 to 2006. They derived their band name from a highway exit between Portland and Seattle. In their 12 years as a band they released 7 albums. Although commercial success eluded them for the most part, they were the darlings of serious rock critics. Their songs music often featured dual (or dueling) vocals by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, who each played electric guitar while Janet Weiss backed them up on the drums. Brownstein is now a writer and correspondent for NPR.

You can listen to them play “Light Rail Coyote” at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom (located on Burnside across from Powell’s Books) in this video from one of their very last shows. Just don’t stop there, whatever you do. Listen to more of their music.

Week 48: "Sick of Myself" by Matthew Sweet

In the 90s, alternative rocker Matthew Sweet released a series of albums featuring lots of electric guitar matched with his sensitive vocals. His 1991 album, Girlfriend, is indisputably his best album. Although I don’t listen to it often now, if I put it in my CD player I can sing along word-for-word with at least the first half of the album. However, Sweet’s best song is the first track on his 1995 album 100% Fun.

“Sick of Myself” is incredibly catchy, a perfect pop-rock song with lyrics that are full of self-loathing as a result of unrequited love. “You don’t know how you move me / deconstruct me, and consume me.” But the lyrics are not the thing. Although the guitar part is fairly simple, you’re left humming it all day. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on learning it thanks to this very odd YouTube video consisting of a guy teaching the guitar part to the song while sitting on what we have to presume is his toilet.

The stunning attention to detail is another thing that makes this song special. The four simple guitar scratches at the very beginning of the song and the fake-out ending are extra embellishments that put “Sick of Myself” over the top.

It may be the ultimate compliment to Matthew Sweet that other groups that have attempted to cover the song seem uninterested in adding their own interpretation. Instead, they try to mimic Matthew Sweet as closely as possible. The frattish, immature rock group Bowling for Soup can be heard covering the song here. It is a little bit louder and faster, but that's about it. Ben Gibbard, the front man for the band Death Cab for Cutie, has also offered his own acoustic cover version.

However, if you want to listen to the real thing, check out the original music video.