Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon: "With Laughter Drown the Raucous Shout" (Delivered 1-24-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Connect - To connect on a common spiritual journey. Click here for more information.

The reading comes from Marilyn Sewell’s essay on “Power” which is contained in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality (which I edited.)
Some natives of Northern Rhodesia, using Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolent resistance as their guide to counter British imperialism in the mid-20th century, refused to cooperate with the colonial government. The British colonists, on the other hand, were wary of living in a country where their presence was not supported. After putting up with the resistance for several months, the British government sent a new, particularly tough administrator to the colony, a disciplined man who would surely bring these recalcitrant Africans in line. However, when the new administrator arrived at the Lusaka airport, a surprise awaited him. Julia Chikamonenga had organized a group of the biggest women she could find to welcome their new ruler. As he got off the plane, he saw before him a vast sea of naked Zambian women, singing songs of greeting. He turned tail and ordered the pilot to fly, posthaste, back to London.

This story… is about power and the misuse of power. Colonialism never has a moral grounding because it is exploitation based on military and economic superiority. But the story is about another kind of power—the power of people who just said no, who would not cooperate with their oppressors. And it is about using… ingenuity and humor—the informal power of the people—to turn the tables on the formal power of the colonizer.

[…] In and of itself, power is neither good nor evil: It is morally neutral. It can be used for nefarious ends or it can be used to heal and bring justice. The direction it takes depends on the spiritual maturity of the one who wields the power, and the purpose for which it is used.

The following is a true story told to me by a colleague of mine. In the town where she lives, the Fred Phelps clan arrived to protest something. I don’t remember what exactly: A church or a synagogue or a high school. But I do remember what my colleague said she did in response. According to her she put together all the accoutrements of a clown outfit: a multicolored frizzy wig, a bulbous red nose, pancake makeup, and mismatched pants and shirt. As a final touch she went to a storage closet in her church where she found a prosthetic rear end. I have no idea why a Unitarian Universalist church would keep a plastic fake derriere in its storage closet. I don’t really want to know.

My colleague arrived at the scene of the Phelps protest and acted like a clown. Standing on the opposite side of the street she spent the next hour goofily walking up and down the sidewalk carrying a sign that read, on one side, “God hates nags,” and, on the other, “God loves gags.” Cars driving by slowed down and honked. Passengers waved. People did U-turns to drive by a second time and a third. People parked their car, got out, and posed for pictures with the clown minister. There was applause, cheers, smiles, and hearty belly-laughs.

“With laughter drown the raucous shout.” Like the story about the Zambian women, my colleague’s story teaches us that there is an informal yet potent power in absurdity and spectacle. I am aware that explaining a joke is the best way to kill the force of its humor, but I do want to say just a few words about Marilyn Sewell’s story. Many of you laughed. Why did you laugh? The story has a slightly risqué quality to it. But the humor is found in the reaction of the tough administrator whose proper British “civility” is shaken by witnessing a sea of undulating flesh, National Geographic come to life before his eyes.

Colonialism, as Sewell reminds us, always involves the immoral exploitation of a land and its people. It involves the theft of wealth and domination by brute force and might rather than right. Colonialism also depends upon self-deception on the part of the colonizing forces, the misguided belief that occupation is in the best interest of the people they have colonized. It requires the arrogant illusion of one’s own superiority and benevolence. “I know what is best for you. I will help make you civilized.” The myth of colonialism also has to do with belief in intellectual superiority. “I am smarter than you. It is my duty to educate you.” And that is where the real humor lies in the story Marilyn Sewell relates. The colonial administrator gets outfoxed, outsmarted. The “savage” behavior on the part of the women that Julia Chikamonenga recruited is really anything but savage. It is deeply intelligent, incisive, creative, and organized. It is the behavior of the colonialists that is truly savage.

There is such a sweet spot in my heart for gags and pranks and practical jokes. I cannot help but tell another story. A few years before I moved to Portland, Oregon, there was a push to rename a road running alongside the riverfront and call it Martin Luther King Boulevard instead of Front Street. I think we can all agree that “Front Street” is a street name begging to be renamed. It isn’t as if the petitioners were attempting to diminish the family legacy of some Mr. and Mrs. Front. The City government balked and instead decided to rename a street running through the African-American part of town. Their ruling had all of the trappings of racism. In response, a group of pranksters with access to some sweet graphic design equipment printed up a bunch of alternate street signs. The signs were printed using a perfect white street-sign font and they were printed on perfect street-sign green reflective adhesive paper. Overnight the pranksters meticulously stickered every street sign on Front Street—as well as every highway exit sign—rechristening the street, Malcolm X Boulevard. I would say that our city’s newish “Power & Light District” could use a dose of that same spirit. [For those of you who do not live in the Kansas City metro region, P&L is an upscale dining and shopping area in downtown. It has been criticized for enforcing a dress code that gives security an excuse to turn away African Americans.]

“With laughter drown the raucous shout.” This line comes from one of the great hymns in our hymnal, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” (Last month I preached on a line from another hymn.) “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door” is a hymn that is close to my heart. Growing up as a Unitarian Universalist in Wayland, Massachusetts, we would sing it every year on the first Sunday after Labor Day, at the beginning of the “church year.”

One of the great gifts of growing up in this faith, of growing up in this tradition, and going to church and Sunday school (almost) every Sunday is that there are all of these tunes and ideas and sayings and expressions that become not only a part of the conscious expression of my faith, but live in my subconscious as well and pop up, becoming available in times of need.

For example, almost a decade ago there was a large gathering of Unitarian Universalists, and, in the midst of this crowded room, a gentleman suffered a sudden heart attack. Emergency services were immediately called. The paramedics arrived swiftly and skillfully administered life-saving medical attention. The man was rushed to a hospital and survived. All of the Unitarian Universalists gathered in the room were in shock. All of a sudden someone began to sing the hymn “Spirit of Life” and everyone instantly recalled the song from memory. Some knew all the words. Others just hummed the tune. It was sung with tears. It was a shared prayer and it provided healing comfort to all those who were present. I wish for you, as well as for your children, for this gift of strength and healing to be available to you. I wish for resources like that to seep deep into the marrow of your bones. That is part of what it means to connect on a common spiritual journey.

And, of course, sometimes these gifts of faith seep out at very unusual times. “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door” is a beautiful hymn, and for some reason for the longest time I found myself humming it whenever I walked around inside of a mall. I would be at the mall, and, all of a sudden, it would get stuck in my head. “May nothing da da da da this door. And may da da da never da.”

The first time I realized I was doing this I thought that maybe that they were playing a Muzak version of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal at the mall. They were not. Every time I went to this mall this hymn would get stuck in my head. At first I couldn’t even recall which song it was but I knew I had sung it in church. And then I sat down one day with the hymnal and realized which hymn I was singing. I carefully read the lyrics hoping for insight. And there, on the page, the connections all came together. The first store I saw when I entered the mall was a women’s clothing chain store called “Casual Corner.” The third verse of the hymn that got stuck in my head goes, “Peace shall walk softly through these rooms, touching our lips with holy wine, till every casual corner blooms into a shrine.” I don’t think that sanctifying the malls of America was what the author of this hymn had in mind.

The first hymn in our hymnal, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door,” poses some theological questions for Unitarian Universalists. It is a hymn about safety, shelter, and refuge and uses metaphorical imagery of storms, thunder and lightning, and gale force winds. But does it actually suggest that our churches ought to be places where we shut ourselves off and turn away from the storms that blow in the world? I would answer that our proper response to tsunamis and earthquakes and typhoons is not to close ourselves off from the world. Rather, it is to do like what we did last Sunday, to send a bit of our tremendous generosity to places that have been battered by the storm.

And, while my own theology does not make claims about the existence of the personification of an evil force in the universe, I do believe that there are things in our world that can properly be called evil, things for which no other word but “evil” is appropriate. What exactly is our proper response to this? It is because of the interdependence of all things, because the world outside the walls of our church cannot be separated from the world within our walls, that passivity towards the larger world is not a moral option. The world inside becomes a microcosm of the world outside. And drowning the raucous shout with laughter does not mean ignoring hate while we seek our own amusements. It means using the power of creativity, the power of courage, the power of wisdom, the power of love, and, yes, sometimes even the power of laughter to drown the raucous shout.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s father is murdered and his murderer ascends to the throne. In a very uncomfortable scene, a theater troupe comes to the palace to entertain the royal family and puts on a play, a play about a murderer who ascends to the throne. This hits a raw point with the King who becomes quite uncomfortable. Hamlet soothes him, telling him, “No, no they do but jest.” The joke is on the King though and everybody knows it.

Humor has the power to be both sharp and gentle. A clown went to a demonstration, but everybody knew that the real clowns were standing on the other side of the street. The naked women of Northern Rhodesia sang songs of welcome, but everybody knew that it was the empire that wasn’t wearing any clothes. When confronted with hate, with raucous shouting, with spiteful ignorance, send in the clowns, I say. Send in the clowns.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

List #28: Answers to 11 Questions about Reading

In the last book I read, Mikita Brottman's The Solitary Vice: Against Reading she spends the better part of a chapter describing the answers to a survey about reading habits that she administered to over 50 people. I thought it would be interesting to provide my own answers.

1) What book are you currently reading?
I am currently reading three books: Weekends at Bellevue by Dr. Julia Holland (a medical memoir), The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, and Be The Change, a collection of justice and peace related prayers and meditations by UU minister Stephen Shick.

The next books on my list include writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a business and leadership book entitled A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter, and McSweeney’s Volume 30.

2) How do you decide what book to read next?
In this post I described how I intentionally plan to read books from different disciplines. Each year I read at least one book from each of the following categories: contemporary fiction, classic fiction, short stories, poetry, spiritual writing, religious scholarship, church administration, at least one book from the field of business, at least one book from the field of math or science, and at least one book about a profession that is unfamiliar to me.

I actually keep a master list of books I hope to read. The list has well-over 300 titles. My particular mood and upcoming sermon topics influence which books I choose to read next.

3) Do you always finish books, or do you give up on them?
Not only do I always finish books, but I actually have made a list of books that I gave up on that I plan to return to one day. In previous years I have returned to (and enjoyed!) Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Some books that I have given up on that I plan to return to include Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Christopher Moore’s Lamb, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

4) Do you generally separate your reading into “work” and “fun”?
Only for tax purposes. It is true that I probably wouldn’t have read John Carver’s book on policy governance or Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont’s book on staffing and supervision in churches if I did not work for a church. On the other hand, most books I read on religious history, theology, and spirituality are enjoyable.

5) Do you ever reread books you love? If so, how often?
No. The only books I reread are preaching books that I reread each time I teach my Preaching Practicum course at the church. There are a few essays and short pieces that I do reread from time to time. These include Peter Gammons’ Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, Atul Gawande’s essay “The Learning Curve,” and David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College.

6) Can you read books in noisy places (e.g., on trains and buses)?
I enjoy reading at coffee shops and other places where there is a lot of noise and distraction. The one place where I absolutely cannot read is while I am a passenger in a car.

7) Can you remember if a book has ever made you laugh out loud, or shed tears?
I notice that I cry during movies more often than I cry while reading. I think the book that caused me to tear up the most was Dave Eggers’ What is the What. On the other side, I find it is easy for me to laugh, chuckle, or guffaw while reading. Sometimes what I am reading will make me recall a hilarious incident. Sometimes the content itself is funny. But usually it is a clever or unusual word usage that gives me a chuckle.

8) Where do you buy most of your books? How much do you spend on books each year?
I buy too many books. In fact, I probably buy more than $1,000 worth of books each year. But at least I get to charge roughly half of it to my professional expenses.

Where do I buy books? I subscribe annually to McSweeney’s Literary Quarterly. I also usually make a purchase or two from the McSweeney’s website. I order books directly from Skinner House Books of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These are worth supporting! I also shop at Borders where I make use of my Borders membership and discount coupons. I also shop at I do go and browse at two Half-Priced Books locations in Kansas City though I tend not to buy much from them. Finally, I tend to buy as many books as I can carry at a library’s used book sale or at the book sales put on by Unitarian Universalist churches in the KC metro area.

9) Do you use bookmarks, or dog-ear the pages of your books? Do you make marginal notes? If so, do you use pencil or pen?
Most books I read are pristine when I am done with them. I tend not to write in them and I usually do not dog-ear the pages. I always use bookmarks. Sometimes I use business cards as bookmarks. In one book that I am currently reading I am using a bookmark I picked up in South America that has a picture of an endangered bird on it. In another book I am using a Bill of Rights bookmark that the ACLU sent to me.

10) How quickly do you read? Do you skim through pages at top speed, or do you stop to savor the sentences along the way?
Reading for me is a marathon, not a sprint. I am not a particularly fast reader. However, I do read attentively paying close attention to the text.

11) Where, and when, do you do your best reading?
Mikita Brottman wrote that most people said they do their best reading in bed. That is not the case for me. I actually prefer not to read right before I go to bed. My best reading is done on the couch if I have a rainy afternoon and nowhere I have to be.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Review: The Solitary Vice / Against Reading by Mikita Brottman

As those of you who read this blog know, I keep a list of books that I read each year and write a few paragraphs about each book. I began this practice as a way of paying homage to Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately” column in The Believer magazine. I justified it by imagining that members of the congregation I serve and readers of this blog might be interested in what I read. But, lately I’ve been asking myself reflexive questions about the book list. Why do I bother to count the pages? What other motivations are at work here?

Another reason I have been thinking about the book list is that my relationship with reading has been a bit conflicted as of late. I panned 3 out the last 4 books I read in 2009. More recently, I also wrote a fairly harsh review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A reader of this blog commented that my review was unfair. It was. So, I went back and slightly edited my review and also wrote an editorial reconsideration of my original review. There hasn’t been as much joy in reading lately.

To help myself think this through I turned to a book by Mikita Brottman, a British psychoanalyst who lives in Baltimore and teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her book, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, is titled after a Victorian euphemism and proved itself to be a clever and provocative read.

In The Solitary Vice Brottman teases us with the notion that she is going to argue that reading is a waste of time. Of course she doesn’t really make this argument. Instead, she argues for us to rethink many of the assumptions we make about the act of reading and about the quality of different genres of books. Her book is largely a work of rhetoric.

In her outstanding introduction Brottman offers an alternative take on the pro-reading, pro-literacy campaigns of the last three decades, reminding us that for most of history reading has been regarded with contempt, suspicion, or fear. She asks if slogans like “reading makes you a better person” are meaningless and empty. She argues that “there’s nothing inherently worthy or decent in the act of reading itself.”

Later in the book Brottman argues that social ideas about reading, and especially about what types of books a person ought to read, are actually ways of enforcing ideas about social class. She mentions that there seems to be a stigma attached to not reading (or being unable to read) that is not attached to many other areas in a person’s life that may be lacking. Brottman points out that people experience a sense of shame when they admit that they can’t read or often feel deficient when they say that they are not readers. On the contrary, people will happily joke about being tone-deaf, not having rhythm, having two left feet, being clumsy, being bad at athletics, or having lousy handwriting. There is no social stigma in claiming to be lousy at math even though innumeracy may be just as harmful as illiteracy.

Throughout much of the latter half of The Solitary Vice, Mikita Brottman challenges the position of classic literature and literary fiction atop the hierarchy of writing. Instead, Brottman recommends several overlooked genres that we might read instead of classic literature. Four of those genres? Hollywood gossip books exposing the lives of celebrities, true crime writing, books about serial killers, and psychoanalytic case studies!

I found Brottman’s psychologically tinted exploration of “reading neuroses” to be the most engrossing part of the book. She writes about hoarders, book collectors who assemble immense personal libraries but seldom have time to read. Then there are the obsessive-compulsive types who have rigid rules about the handling and care of books. And then there are all types of book fetishists.

And then there is Art Garfunkel. And, the part about Art Garfunkel hits really close to home because I do some of the same things that he does. On Garfunkel’s personal website he maintains a list of every book he has read since 1968, when Simon & Garfunkel were at the top of their musical game. The list contains very little fluff. It seems like Art Garfunkel is on a mission to read all of the great books in the history of western civilization. On another page where Garfunkel maintains a list of his 150+ favorite books of all time he actually tracks the number of pages in each book. This was the part of the book that made me cringe as I noticed my own Garfunkelesque tendencies. Unlike Garfunkel, I don’t ever plan to read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style from cover to cover, much less twice in the same month as he did in April, 1984. I don’t ever plan to read the Random House Dictionary cover to cover as he did in May, 1993. And, once I finish a book I don’t seal it in a protective plastic covering and place it in my own personal library that is arranged chronologically by the date I read the book!

All in all, even though The Solitary Vice dragged at times I found this book to be incisive, provocative, funny, and thoughtful.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sermon: "Remembrance Sunday 2010" (Delivered 1-10-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Connect - To Connect on a shared spiritual journey. Click here for more information.

Part I: The Cloud of Witnesses

“Remembrance Sunday” has been an evolving tradition over the past two decades in our congregation, and throughout our movement various churches observe their own versions of this tradition. It is fit that in the turning of the year we pause and mark time and remember. We take this time to remember the year past, to recall the pains and losses the year gone has stitched to our hearts, and to remember some of the people no longer with us.

Each year it has been our tradition to put together a list of some of the people who died in the previous year. The list, at its essence, captures a part of the diversity of the human experience. It includes religious leaders from across the spectrum of faiths, politicians from both sides of the aisle, activists, organizers, visionaries, athletes, scholars, and inventors. It includes diverse representatives from the world of the arts and entertainment. It includes many long lives well-lived and many whose lives were lost far too young. It includes people who lived deep and sucked the marrow out of life, for as much life as they were given. It includes those who used the life they had to bless others and improve the world. And, it includes a few people who squandered the great gift of life, who lived meanly and made choices in their lives to harm rather than to help or to heal. There are lessons here.

And there are lessons beyond lessons. The lives remembered can inspire in us a holy reverence for life as well as awed bemusement for the human condition. Mary Travers died this year and if you’ve ever gotten a bit of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” stuck in your head it is because Peter, Paul, and Mary made that song famous. If you or your children or your grandchildren grew up with those plastic toys with absurdly spherical heads (I’m not sure I can describe it any better than that) it is because of Hans Beck, the creator of Playmobil toys. He died this year.

Both I.J. Good and Shaun Wylie died this year. They were two of the last of a diminishing number of mathematicians who gathered at Bletchley Park and worked to crack Nazi codes during World War II – a moment in human history when advanced mathematics and heroism were one and the same. If you’ve taken out a student loan or received a higher education grant, your life has been connected with the life of Claiborne Pell who died this year. The Rhode Island Senator helped to expand government assistance of those pursuing higher education. If you’ve ever enjoyed rock & roll music you can thank Les Paul who died this year at the age of 94. He was the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and recording techniques like over-dubbing, tape delay, and multi-track recording.

It is an amazing thing indeed, I say. There is human life behind every song, every technology, every invention, as well as every idea or concept or understanding that reaches us. They all were once attached to a flesh and blood person who loved, who lost, who struggled, who screwed up (often over and over again), who failed, and who sought meaning and the opportunity to use well the talents and gifts with which he or she was blessed. How wondrous is life!

Of all the people I neglected to include on the list, the one whose omission I regret the most was 107 year old Ann Nixon Cooper, a remarkable woman who gained international fame when Barack Obama told the nation about her life during his victory speech on November 4, 2008. “She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” Born in 1902, she moved to Atlanta with her husband in the early twenties which were also her early twenties. Her more than 80 years of community service included founding a youth club for young African American girls in the 20s and, because the Boy Scouts of America was a segregated organization, starting Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops for African-American boys in the early 1930s. Ann Nixon Cooper was a personal friend of W.E.B. Dubois as well as the historian John Hope Franklin, who also died this year.

In researching her life I found an interesting digression. Apparently, after Obama named her in his victory speech several news outlets reported that she was, at age 106, the oldest voter. That is not true as the researcher corrects. The article then goes on to list ten voters aged 109 or older and for whom each of them voted, which I think you have to admit must have been an interesting thing to research.

In the New Testament there is a very noteworthy passage in the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the letter to the Hebrews. The eleventh chapter provides a litany of those who lived faithfully: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, and so on. Then the twelfth chapter of Hebrews offers the exhortation, “Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight… and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” For those who approach religion liberally, which is to say generously and expansively, we might also say that the great cloud of witnesses (I love that term) includes all those who partook of the human spirit, all the saints who from their labors rest.

Part II: Prophetic Deeds of Women and Men

As Unitarian Universalists we hold that one of the sources of our religious understanding is “the prophetic deeds of women and men.” In the first part of my sermon, I celebrated the human spirit in general. In the second part, I want to celebrate the human spirit in particular. In trying to decide on one person to speak about at greater length several options came to mind.

There were several of my beloved and accomplished colleagues who passed away this year and I thought I might comment on their ministries. There were also some powerful souls who founded amazing organizations. 2009 saw the deaths of Maurice Albertson, who was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Corps and Village Earth, Millar Fuller, the founder of Habit for Humanity, Judith Krug, a librarian who founded “Banned Books Week,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, and Lillian Willoughby, who helped advocate against violence against women by organizing “Take Back the Night” marches on college campuses. Just think of the lives these five people touched.

However, in researching the lives of those who died in the past year, one story grabbed my attention more than any other. I am going to guess that few of you recognize the name Helen Suzman, but I hope that you are impressed by her story. Helen Suzman was a Jewish woman born to immigrant parents in South Africa in 1917. She married a dentist at the age of 19 and pursued her studies in economics and statistics while raising her two daughters. At age 26 she became a professor at a university in South Africa and then gave up academia to pursue politics and was elected to parliament in her mid-thirties. She served for 36 years in the South African parliament. And here is the kicker: for a period of fourteen years, from 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman was the only member of parliament who opposed apartheid. For six of those years, she was also the only woman in parliament. South Africa’s Progressive Party suffered devastating losses in 1961 and Suzman, representing a district in suburban Johannesburg, was the only member of her party to keep her seat. Here is how one obituary describes her,
She possessed four qualities in particular. Firstly, she was completely fearless, confronted though she was by some of the most menacing and odious politicians of any parliament ever. Secondly, she seemed to have more energy than anyone else - she often attributed her physical health to the fact that she never drank wine, only whisky…

Thirdly, Helen had an unfailing sense of humour, sometimes lovely and light, at other times cutting and caustic. Fourthly, she pursued with extraordinary tenacity the principle that should be inscribed on her tombstone – “let right be done.”

She seemed to regard the ministers with whom she fought as denizens of some primeval forest. Without this humour, she could never have survived. She described how government MPs used to bleat “Mau Mau” when she stood up, or shout “go back to Moscow/Ghana/Israel.”

Helen's reputation was built not on lofty thoughts and resounding speeches, but on hard work. One by one, as they came off the assembly line, she shredded the bills that removed civil liberties. One by one, she tore her parliamentary colleagues apart for their callousness, ignorance and ineptitude. Day after day, she would meet the poor, either in her office, or more often in their own shacks, listening to their tales of sorrow and sadness, of hurt and hatred.

With typical chutzpah, she would accost ministers in the parliamentary lobby or beard police officers in their dens, and demand to know why some nameless person of colour was being deprived of his or her rights.
Helen Suzman frequently visited Nelson Mandela in prison. Her visits are remembered fondly in Mandela’s autobiography. Suzman left parliament in 1989, the same year that President de Klerk began to reverse course on apartheid, lifting bans on liberation groups and releasing many political prisoners.

Between 1973 and 1999 Helen Suzman was awarded 27 honorary doctorate degrees and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though the obituary writer I quoted earlier said that she was not one for masterful oratory, she certainly told people how it was. She once claimed that her true constituents were “the enlightened people of South Africa.” Once when criticized for asking questions that could prove embarrassing to the country, she fired back, “It is the answers, not the questions, that are embarrassing.”

It is important to remember that to take positions like she took was not easy, nor was it safe. It could have gotten her killed. It did get her phone tapped by the government. She responded by blowing a police whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone as hard as she could. We might call her a whistleblower in the less literal sense of the word, a person with the courage to stand up and name the truth when to do so carries immense risk.

But, the image is so striking. For six years the lone woman in the parliament serving with 166 men. For nearly fifteen years the only opponent of apartheid serving with 166 supporters of apartheid.

Sit with this for a moment. Let it sink in. Feel deep down in the center of being what it would be like to walk a mile in the woman’s shoes. Imagine the depth of her conscience. The strength of her commitment. For thirty-six years she dug into the rocky, harsh mountain of racism at its ugliest with a teaspoon of righteousness. Pebble by pebble, stone by stone she carved a tunnel. Take a moment and consider it.

[And also remember, as a member of the church pointed out to me, that her constituents kept voting her back into parliament for those 36 years. In the chambers of government she stood alone but her constituents organized and campaigned to keep her in office.]

When we say that the prophetic deeds of women and men are one of the sources that inform our religious living tradition, we include not only our Unitarian Universalist heroes, but also those whose lives might inspire holier living for us here today.

Notable People Who Died in 2009

I included the following information as an insert in the order of service for the worship service on January 10, 2010. You can read my sermon here.

Nick Adenhart (22) Pitching prospect for LA Angels was killed by a drunk driver
Captain Lou Albano (76) Professional wrestling personality
Maurice Albertson (91) Central to the creation of The Peace Corps and Village Earth
Wayne Allwine (62) Voice actor best known as the voice of Mickey Mouse
Richard Aoki (71) Only Asian American to hold a leadership position with the Black Panthers
Corazon Aquino (76) Former president of the Philippines who helped oust the Marcos regime
Dave Arneson (61) Role playing game inventor was co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons
Bea Arthur (86) Actress best known as Dorothy on The Golden Girls
Ron Asheton (60) Guitarist for the punk rock band The Stooges
William Avery (98) Kansas governor in the 60s and 5-term U.S. Congressman
Hans Beck (89) Inventor of Playmobil toys
Norman Borlaug (95) Nobel-prize winning scientist made advances in global food production
David Carradine (72) Actor starred in Kung-Fu movies
Jim Carroll (60) Punk musician and author of The Basketball Diaries
Vic Chesnutt (45) Partially paralyzed folk singer released 17 albums
Forrest Church (61) Minister of All Souls UU, NYC from 1975-2009 and son of Idaho Senator Frank Church. He edited or wrote more than 20 books
Jeanne-Claude (74) With husband Christo produced large-scale fabric art installations
Max Coots (81) UU minister whose poetry—especially “A Harvest of Gratitude”—is often used in UU churches
Walter Cronkite (92) Iconic TV news anchor was “the most trusted man in America”
Chuck Daly (78) Basketball coach won two championships with the Detroit Pistons and coached the gold medal winning “Dream Team” at the 1992 Olympics
Dom DeLuise (75) Actor starred in Cannonball Run
Dominick Dunne (83) Controversial author of Hollywood “True Crime” books
Dom DiMaggio (92) Outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and brother of Joe DiMaggio
David Eddings (77) Prolific author of fantasy novels
Natalya Estimirova (50) Murdered author / activist documented human rights abuses in Chechnya
Eddie Fatu (36) Professional wrestler “Umaga” and member of the Anoa’i wrestling family
Farrah Fawcett (62) Actress starred in Charlie’s Angels
Mark "The Bird" Fidrych (54) Eccentric pitcher for Detroit Tigers had career cut short by injury
John Hope Franklin (94) Leading historian of African-American experience
Millar Fuller (74) Founder of Habitat for Humanity International
I. J. Good (92) British mathematician helped crack Nazi codes at Bletchley Park during WWII
Paul Harvey (90) Radio personality known for his dramatic pauses and mixing news with product advertisements
Thomas Hoving (78) Influential curator changed the experience of museums
John Hughes (59) Filmmaker famous for 80s films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles
Michael Jackson (50) World famous pop star whose album Thriller was all-time best-seller
Harry Kalas (73) Beloved sportscaster announced games for the Philadelphia Phillies
Lawrence Halprin (93) Modernist landscape architect
Stanley Kaplan (90) Made a business out of helping students prepare for standardized tests
Millard Kaufman (92) Screenwriter, author, and co-creator of Mr. Magoo
George Kell (86) Hall of Fame third baseman played for 5 teams including the Detroit Tigers
David Kellerman (41) CFO of Freddie Mac, committed suicide
Jack Kemp (73) Star quarterback served as a congressman for 18 years and was Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 Presidential election
Edward Kennedy (77) Massachusetts Senator for 42 years
Webster Kitchell (78) UU Minister known for his trilogy of books featuring Coyote, the trickster god
Willem Kolff (97) Leader in the development of the artificial heart
Irving Kristol (89) Writer was known as “the Godfather of neoconservatism”
Judith Krug (69) Librarian and anti-censorship activist co-founded “Banned Books Week”
Claude Levi-Strauss (100) Ground-breaking anthropologist and structuralist thinker
Jeremy Lusk (24) Champion motocross racer
Karl Malden (97) Actor starred in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront
Frank McCourt (78) Author of prize-winning book Angela’s Ashes
Steve McNair (36) MVP-winning NFL quarterback for the Tennessee Titans
Ed McMahon (86) Television host known for roles on The Tonight Show and Star Search
Robert McNamara (93) Controversial Secretary of Defense served under JFK and LBJ
Billy Mays (50) Infomercial personality known for his loud sales pitch
Andrew Martin (33) Professional wrestler who appeared with the ring name “Test”
Oscar G. Mayer, Jr. (95) Third generation executive of the eponymously named meat company
Vic Mizzy (93) Television composer wrote themes for The Addams Family and Green Acres
Ricardo Montalban (88) Actor best known for role on Fantasty Island
Brittany Murphy (32) Popular actress and voice talent
Richard John Neuhaus (72) Prominent Catholic theologian and author noted for conservative views
Robert Novak (78) Conservative columnist and political commentator
Les Paul (94) Musical inventor and leading developer of the electric guitar
Claiborne Pell (90) 6-term Rhode Island senator was sponsor of higher education grants
Carl Pohlad (93) Owner of the Minnesota Twins for 25 years and wealthy banker
Natasha Richardson (45) Actress of the stage and screen and daughter of Vanessa Redgrave
Oral Roberts (91) Evangelical preacher and founder of Oral Roberts University
William Safire (79) Nixon speechwriter and New York Times political columnist
Paul Samuelson (94) First American to win Nobel Prize in economics
Budd Schulberg (95) Screenwriter and novelist wrote On the Waterfront
Eunice Kennedy Shriver (88) Sister of JFK and founder of the Special Olympics
Ron Silver (62) Actor of the stage and screen
Naomi Sims (61) Broke modeling’s color barrier by appearing on 1968 cover of Ladies’ Home Journal
Troy Smith (87) Founder of the Sonic fast-food chain
Sheldon Stahl (76) Economist and commentator based in Kansas City
Percy Sutton (89) Politician, civil rights activist, and attorney for Malcolm X
Helen Suzman (91) Political activist challenged Apartheid in South Africa
Patrick Swayze (57) Actor’s breakthrough role came in the movie Dirty Dancing
Nancy Talbot (89) Co-founder of eponymous chain of women’s retail clothing stores
George Tiller (67) Doctor whose Wichita clinic was a center for anti-abortion protests
Wayman Tisdale (44) NBA basketball player and jazz musician
Mary Travers (72) Folk singer and member of Peter, Paul, and Mary
John Updike (76) Prolific writer won Pulitzer Prizes for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest
James Whitmore (87) Actor known for military roles was twice nominated for an Oscar
Lillian Willoughby (93) Quaker activist who founded “Take Back the Night” marches
Andrew Wyeth (91) Realist artist best known for painting Christina’s World
Shaun Wylie (96) Mathematician and WWII codebreaker at Bletchley Park

United States Military Deaths in 2009
317 in Afghanistan (956 from 2001-today)
149 in Iraq (4,373 from 2003-today)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sermon: "Where Does All the Time Go?" (Delivered 1-3-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Challenge - To challenge those aspects of our culture and society that diminish human life. Click here for more information.

An old proverb tells us that a stitch in time saves nine. But, who has the time to make a stitch. Sometimes I wonder, “Well, if I only have time to make half of a stitch, can that still save me four and a half?”

Ben Franklin famously advised never to put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today. It is sound advice, but it sounds a little bit dated in our fast-paced, “I need it by yesterday,” society.

The truth of the matter is that we live in a culture of busy-ness. I bet that you can relate to some of what I am about to say. I trust that I am not just preaching to myself. It seems to me that many of us find ourselves lamenting that there are just not enough hours in the day. We find ourselves feeling swamped. We find ourselves living at a pace that we recognize is not sustainable. We find ourselves looking ahead at future deadlines and we find ourselves saying things like, “If I can just get through next week...” and, “Things will calm down in a month, once I get some of these things off my plate.”

In everyday polite conversation it is normal to be far more forthcoming about stress from time pressures than most of us normally would be about other challenges. You know the polite exchange. The question: “How are you doing?” The response: “Fine.”

I have noticed that it is socially acceptable to answer this polite question with the response, “I’m really busy these days.” It is socially acceptable to say, “My schedule has been out of control.” “I’ve got a lot going on.” It is interesting that we feel at liberty to talk about how we feel pressed for time while other subjects are taboo.

When we ask an acquaintance how they are, there are answers that we almost never receive: “I’ve been really concerned with how much I’ve been drinking.” “The collection agencies have been beating down my door.” “I’ve been really wondering whether there is a point to life.”

If anybody tossed one of these comments out in polite conversation, we would be shocked, even worried. But, it is acceptable to make chit-chat about being under a lot of stress, feeling strapped for time, and being insanely busy. Come to think of it, being insanely busy is probably the most socially acceptable form of self-declared insanity.

To put it more plainly: There is shame in sharing, at least in making small talk, that our lives are out of balance in terms of addictions, finances, or emotions. We don’t talk about being out of balance psychologically or spiritually. But, there is no shame in mentioning that we are out of control with how we use our time. In fact, it may be the opposite of shame. It may be a source of pride and even competition.

Talking about how busy we are can become a kind of bragging. I am reminded of an old joke from college: “How long did it take you to write that term paper? Well, that depends. Do I get to count the hours I spent in library lobby complaining about having to write the paper?” Boasting about living a hectic life can reinforce for us the sense that what we are doing in life is important and significant. We want to say that we have a lot on our plates. We fear what it would mean not to be busy.

So, here we are. We have already used up 58 hours of this brand new year. This morning I want to challenge the aspect of our culture that tells us that we must be busy at all times and that being too busy, to the point of damaging our lives, is something to be proud of. I want to challenge the notion of whether it has to be this way. I want to talk about the cost of living this way for I believe that there is a significant cost, a high price that we pay for living this way. Is this just the way things are? Or, is a different way of life possible?

There are a couple of sayings by Ralph Waldo Emerson that inform us of an alternative vision to the life that I have just described. Emerson said, "Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods." A second quote, "The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away."

What if these words declare an alternative possibility for how our lives might be? Emerson tells us that each day is a god, or at least a gift from the gods, but that we often do not recognize the gift of the day. That each day is a holy gift is a truth that is veiled and hidden. The days are gods, each bearing gifts according to our ability to receive them and we often fail to be receptive to the gift of the day.

There is a belief that I used to hold that I don’t believe anymore. I used to believe that while we as human beings will never have the time to do all the things we would hope to do, people tend to choose to do what is important to them. I used to believe that, generally speaking, it was possible to look at how a person spends his or her time and deduce the person’s values. Now I don’t believe this anymore. I believe that it is possible to completely lose track of one’s true self, to forget who and whose you truly are, and to succumb to forces in our culture that distort the truth and diminish life.

An extreme example is found in the writings of John Gottman, one of the foremost experts on the psychology of relationships, who shares the true story of a family he worked with. The family consisted of a husband, wife, and two children. The husband was a very successful and highly regarded doctor. He was also a workaholic. The problems in his relationship with his wife and children came to a head when he spent another Christmas at the hospital. She packed up dinner and the children and took them for a Christmas picnic dinner in a waiting room at the hospital and had him paged to join them. When the husband and wife entered into therapy to address his addiction to work it was revealed that he didn’t even know the name of the family dog. Again, a true story.

Now, I suppose you could look at the doctor, look at how he budgeted his time between work and family, and conclude that his wife, his children, and even the family dog were just not a major priority in this man’s life. To me it seems more plausible, and more generous, to say that this man’s life at some point fell out of balance and continued to slide, bit by bit, even further off of the path.

I would guess that just about everyone in the room knows the name of the family dog, or whatever the equivalent is in your particular family. But, I would also guess that many of us feel that the life that we lead is sometimes unbalanced, that many of us feel as though there are not enough hours in the day, and that many of us feel that we are constantly under time pressure. Is this the way it has to be? Or, can we choose another way?

Let’s assume this is not the way it has to be. Let’s assume we can choose another way. How might we do this? I want to start out with a basic suggestion and then move on to other thoughts. The first thing I might suggest is to create a time budget. Budgets are something with which we are probably familiar from our own finances, or at least we understand the concept. Since time is money, as the old saying goes, why can’t we do the same with our time? There are 168 hours in the week. We spend in the neighborhood of 120 of those hours awake. I invite you to create your dream budget of how you would like to spend those hours. How many of those hours will be spent at work? With family? In study or pursuing personal enrichment? Exercise? Volunteering? How many hours will be spent involved in church activities or in the enrichment and expression of your faith? How about hobbies? Socializing? Now estimate how many of those hours will be spent on grooming and hygiene, shopping, commuting, and eating. Finally, ask yourself how many hours you plan to spend in front of a television, surfing aimlessly on the web, or trying to master a video game. So, you’ve created your time budget. After you do this, I challenge you to spend a few weeks carefully tracking how you spend the hours and the minutes of each day. Finally, it is time for the reality check. Compare your dream time budget with your actual one and ask yourself, “Where does all the time go?” [A much extended version of this idea, including next steps, is found in the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.]

I am going to guess that if we peered really deeply into the time budgets of some of the busiest people we might find something curious. Hours spent aimlessly surfing the net. A brainless time-sucking computer game. Channel flipping. This would seem to be an irony but I contend that it is not. Mindless zoning out is related to living a high-stress, constantly on the go lifestyle. People zone out not because they are lazy, but rather for the opposite reason. Because it dulls a taxed brain and quiets a stressed-out body. Productive, constructive hobbies and interests demand something that most people can’t give after they clock out. [I’ve adapted this idea from the chapter on “Sloth” in Dan Savage’s Skipping Towards Gomorrah.]

Studies show that Americans who are fortunate enough to have paid vacation tend not to use their full allotment of vacation time. Studies show we spend a whole lot of time acting like zombies in front of screens. I believe these two facts are not contradictory. Zoning out can be a stop-gap measure for those who do not take the time to recharge.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once quipped, “What would be the use of immortality to the person who cannot use well a half an hour?” A former supervisor of mine once told me, “Thom, ministers are not allowed to have busy lives, but they should have full lives.” Intellectually, theoretically, I understand what he meant by these words. In our heads we understand the difference between living busily and living fully. But in practice it is so much more difficult. The gifts of the day come muffled and veiled. It can be hard to know whether our lives are full or busy.

And there are things we lose out on. Our bodies deserve better than what we give them. Commitments to a never-ceasing variety of activities cut into family unity. To have a developed religious life requires more than an hour every week, significantly more. Putting our brains into zombie mode for a few hours is a palliative measure; it may help us go back and face the grind but it is not life enhancing.

But, I am convinced that we need not live this way. I am convinced that we can live against the grain of our culture. Next time you feel tempted to say how busy you are, ask yourself, “Am I using this time well? Do my days feel like gifts from the Gods?”

Is it possible to live otherwise? Can we resist forces in our culture that threaten to pull us out of balance? I believe we can resist and that resistance is not futile. I’ve suggested a first step, the creation of a time budget and an analysis of where your time actually goes, a fearless temporal inventory if you will. However, I’ve also given you a caution. The remedy may not be as easy as resolving to become more efficient or to waste less time. Our approach to time should not consist of periods of manic sprinting followed by doubling over with exhaustion. It may require from us the courage both to drastically reshape pieces of our lives that pull us out of balance and to spend more time on areas that we tend to neglect.

I want to close by describing the cover to the Winter edition of the UU World magazine. Its cover features a vaguely impressionist oil painting. At first glance it seemed like the room was a cathedral with figures focusing their gaze on some holy of holies glowing brightly in the center of the room. If you look at the credits, you find that the painting is of the concourse at Grand Central Station in New York City. The glowing holy of holies is the iconic clock. In this merging of spiritual and secular imagery can there be any doubt that Emerson knew the truth: "Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods."

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Sermon: "To Serve the Cause of Human Need" (Delivered 12-27-09)

[Due to the ice and snow here in Kansas City, attendance was smaller than usual on this last Sunday of 2009. If you missed church on Sunday, here is my sermon.]

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Challenge - To challenge those aspects of our culture and society that diminish human life. Click here for more information.

Nine years ago, on the last Sunday in December of 2000, I stepped into the pulpit of the First Church in Boston to preach for just the third time in my life. I remember that day vividly for a couple of reasons. It was a snowy, frigid day in Boston just like the weather we have outside this morning. And, that Sunday I selected the same hymn that we will sing to conclude this morning’s service, nine years and 264 sermons later. (Not that I am counting.)

On that Sunday nine years ago two of the visitors who came to the service were observant Mormons who were students at Harvard Law School and who had never been to a Unitarian Universalist church before. That’s a story for another time. After I preached we went out for lunch and they shared their impressions of the worship service with me. Of all the things that they observed the lyrics to one of the hymns that I had chosen stood out to them. The lyrics were from the second stanza of hymn #145, “As Tranquil Streams,” with words by Marion Franklin Ham. The first verse announces that “our kindred hearts and minds unite to build a church that shall be free,” and the second verse expands on what that freedom is meant to look like. “Free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed, free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need.”

It was that part about the social code that really grabbed their attention. In many religious traditions, social norms, rules, and regulations are written down in stone, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. The truth as it is set forth in scripture or doctrine is the truth for all time, immutable and never changing. In those traditions, it is our human duty to shape our living to conform to the never-changing laws of scripture.

And then there is a different approach, our approach. Our approach uses our own experiences as well as teachings from the social sciences and the hard sciences to ask, “What best serves the cause of human need?” Then we go forth and do that even though we understand that we don’t and can’t have all the information. Our understanding of what best serves the cause of human need will change and evolve over time.

If you’ve attended this church for a while, the litany I am about to repeat may sound familiar. But it is a litany that speaks to the heart of our faith tradition. In the 1800s Unitarians realized that social systems in our young nation did not serve the cause of human need. So Samuel Gridley Howe devised a new way of caring for the blind. And Dorothea Dix worked in hospitals and worked to create a much more compassionate approach to the treatment of those with mental illness. Many Unitarians and Universalists understood that slavery was a system that completely and utterly and completely failed to serve the cause of human need (to say the least) and so they threw their weight behind the abolitionist movement. Theodore Parker saw the fugitive slave act as a grossly immoral piece of legislation and decided to serve the cause of human need by defying the law and assisting runaway slaves.

Universalist Clara Barton served the cause of human need as a civil war nurse and the founder of the Red Cross. Universalists recognized that women’s needs were not served by preventing them from serving as clergy so the Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women. The cause of human need was not served by denying women the right to vote. Unitarian and Universalist women led the women’s suffrage movement.

In the 1950s – yes, I said the 1950s – a Unitarian minister in California recognized that it did not serve the cause of human need to fail to recognize same-sex relationships. He performed the first religious services of union for same-sex couples in our country. The cause of human need, not to mention human decency, led Unitarian Universalists to be the leading denomination in working for LGBT equality both in our congregations and in our society. It has been a funded mandate in our denomination for more than 40 years. In fact, the week before Christmas the District of Columbia approved equal marriage. The ceremony to sign equal marriage into law in Washington D.C. was held at the All Souls UU Church in D.C.

In the 80s, as HIV/AIDS became an epidemic, many religious groups in the United States shunned those with AIDS. Many hospitals and doctors refused to treat those with AIDS. UU ministers served the cause of human need by serving those suffering from AIDS and by being willing to conduct funeral services that treated those who had died from the dread disease with basic human dignity and respect.

Free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need, indeed. Time and time again, for more than 200 years, our movement has worked to change society to better serve the cause of human need. Today’s sermon is the first in a series of sermons I will deliver over the next six months. At a rate of perhaps one sermon per month I am going to take a line or two from one of the really good hymns in our hymnal and explore the meaning of that line. In four weeks I am going to give the second sermon in this series. I will be taking a line from the first hymn in our hymnal, a line that reads, “With laughter drown the raucous shout.” It will be a sermon about the power of humor to disarm hate. But that is next month. Back to today.

As I announced a week or two ago there are three themes that I am planning to make the focus of my preaching. Those three themes, the three C’s, are preaching a message that connects us on a shared life journey, preaching a message that asks all of us to commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life, and, finally, challenging us to resist and counter those parts of the culture in which we live that diminishes human life.

Sometimes to serve the cause of human need requires that we challenge aspects of our culture. In early 2009 my colleague in Madison, Wisconsin, Michael Schuler published a book entitled Making the Good Life Last. Schuler also contributed the first chapter to my forthcoming book that will be released in about 16 days. (Not that I am counting.)

Schuler says that it is the task of our churches to be life-giving communities in a death focused culture. What aspects of the culture in which we live do you find to be life diminishing rather than life enhancing?

[At this point in the service I asked the congregation to name elements in our culture that they considered life diminishing. They gave answers that included larger societal issues such as lack of affordable health care and neglect of children but also mentioned cultural elements like violence as entertainment, a media focused on gossip and violence, rampant materialism, and the idea that you can become happy by consuming.]

In both my book and his, Schuler describes what happens when you type the phrase “good life” into Google and ask it to show images. He states, “The screen will fill with images of people lolling by the seashore, drinking champagne, driving expensive sports cars, being pampered by masseurs, skiing or skydiving. The good life is also identified with long-stemmed roses, diamond necklaces, wads of cash, [and] impeccably furnished penthouses.” Schuler comments that these are “all representations of over-the-top luxury and once-in-a-lifetime vacations.” I would just qualify his remarks by saying that for many of the people in this room the things Schuler mentions are rare splurges. For most people in the world they are never-in-a-lifetime things.

Schuler argues that the fantasy ideal of the “good life” is not only unattainable for most, but unsustainable both personally and ecologically. He refers to this kind of materialism as a gluttony that isn’t nourishing, and calls our culture a dangerous, barren wasteland in which so many cease to thrive.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine not long after Schuler’s book, Making the Good Life Last, came out. My friend winced and said it was a great book released at exactly the wrong time. Schuler wrote the book before the market crash of 2008 but its release in early 2009 coincided with a time of fear and heightened anxiety due to unemployment, foreclosures, and retirement fund losses. My friend suggested a second printing with an alternate title: Making the Good Life that is not as Good as it Once Was Last. But, upon revisiting Schuler’s book this past week, it does not seem as out of touch as it did a little less than a year ago. Perhaps the keys to a good life are easier to see now even though times are more fearful.

According to his book, the keys to a good life are, “a beautiful and healthy earth home, enduring relationships, strong communities, work that contributes to the common good, and play that restores our bodies and lifts our souls.” If you actually dig into what those things entail it turns out that several of them may in fact be easier to pursue now as opposed to a few years ago.

I want to read to you a short excerpt from Michael Schuler’s book, Making the Good Life Last. In this part he turns to an idea found in Buddhism, the idea of “the hungry ghost.” Let me share it with you:
“Buddhist teachings describe perpetually dissatisfied, grasping, overanxious people as ‘hungry ghosts.’ As much as they long for happiness and the experience of true contentment, these sad individuals are unenlightened about how an abiding sense of well-being might be secured. Moreover, they haven’t acquired the tools of self-discipline to tap into these wellsprings of nourishment. The ‘hungry ghost’ subsists, therefore, on the deceptively thin fare its culture provides – easily appropriated pleasures that dull the cravings but do not satisfy them. The habit of happiness, beauty that is more than skin-deep, and trustworthy relationships all lie beyond the ghost’s reach and are usually beyond its ken…. This Buddhist metaphor is compelling; it graphically describes a condition that afflicts many Americans.”
As we approach a new year, may this community help keep us from becoming hungry ghosts. May we find the antidotes to emptiness, to our cravings for things that don’t sustain us, and to perpetual dissatisfaction. May we grow in greater intimacy, taking part in enduring relationships and strong communities. May we recall those Unitarian Univeralist heroes of old and of the present day who teach us with their lives what it means to live well. And, may we seek out ways of living that serve the cause of human need, for ourselves and for others.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Three C's: Connect, Commit, Challenge

My fall 2009 Sabbatical was meaningful for a number of reasons. Those of you who checked out my travel blog have learned of how meaningful and inspiring my trip to Ecuador and Peru was. The month of November provided me with a different kind of meaningful opportunity, the chance to reflect on my ministry. One area (among many) where I reflected was on how I arrive at topics for sermons. I decided I wanted to tighten up the focus of my preaching. To that end, I came up with a list of the three most important types of messages that I feel I can convey on Sunday mornings. I came up with what I will call the Three C’s:

The First C: To Connect us on a common journey
As Unitarian Universalists we value diversity. We are and will forever be a congregation of people with different beliefs, different interests, different individual spiritual practices, and different opinions. But, when we come together on Sunday morning or at another time we come together as a people and as a congregation to share our lives with one another and “to walk together” as the old covenant puts it. The first C, “Connect,” has to do with lifting up aspects of the common journey we share.

The Second C: To Commit to a distinctly UU way of life
Does being a Unitarian Universalist change the way you live your life? It is a question that I have, for years, posed to our Coming of Age youth. Now I pose it to the wider SMUUCh community. Several years ago one UU congregation printed up their version of “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, and distributed bracelets that asked, “WWUUD?” What does it mean to live a UU way of life? How do we put legs on our faith?

The Third C: To Challenge parts of our culture and society that diminish life
Rev. Michael Schuler has commented that we are a life-giving faith in a death-focused culture. In the culture and society in which we exist we find wonderful art, stories of courage, and things worthy of our enjoyment. We also find habits, practices, and attitudes that are harmful to many, that diminish us as full human beings, and that detract from the life we might live. As Unitarian Universalists we are not beholden to our culture. Instead, we are called to challenge, resist, and transform aspects of our culture that are harmful to us and to the planet on which we live.

Over the coming year I will focus my preaching on elaborating on each of these major themes. Let us Connect on the journey. Let us Commit to a distinctly UU way of life. Let us Challenge our culture when it fails us.

Homily: "The Work of Christmas" (Delivered 12-24-09)

[As you probably know, we got hit by an ice and snow storm on Christmas Eve. Even though some hearty souls made their way “over the river and through the snow,” many members of the congregation remained at home “hanging stockings by the chimney with care.” For those who were unable to join us, here is my Christmas Eve homily.]
When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers,
to make music in the heart. (by Howard Thurman)

I have only been back from my sabbatical for three weeks, but I want to tell you about three things that have happened in this church over just this short period of time.

On my very first Sunday back from sabbatical a member of this church pulled me aside and asked me to make an announcement about where people could drop presents that they had bought after taking cards off of the giving tree the previous week. Following the service I beheld an enormous pile of bags and boxes and envelopes that were donated to support families that are served by the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization of which our church has been a part for more than five years. Following the service I helped two members of the church carry large, overflowing food baskets that the children had prepared for these families as a “Service is Our Prayer” project.

The very next day I received an invitation from the organizer of our congregation’s quilting and crafting guild to join them as they delivered an enormous stack of hand-crafted quilts and blankets that would be given to children at the Rose Brooks domestic violence shelter. Some of these beautiful works came from our quilting group and others were lovingly made by church members who spent hours at home stitching and sewing their fabric projects for Rose Brooks. When we went to drop off the quilts and blankets I was surprised to find my neighbor working the booth where donations for Rose Brooks are received. My neighbor was there as a part of a corporate volunteer day at his company. He told me later that the volunteers had been tremendously impressed by both the volume and the beauty of our donations. They were especially impressed by a monster truck themed quilt that had been donated.

The next Saturday I went as a guest to a volunteer recognition luncheon in midtown Kansas City. Anne volunteers with an organization called MOCSA, an organization we had supported financially with a “donate-the-plate” Sunday last spring. MOCSA’s executive director saw my name and immediately made the connection, thanking us profusely for our contribution. Over the past few years I’ve had an experience like this at least a dozen different times. I will be out attending some community function and the director or development officer or outreach coordinator of an organization we’ve supported will realize that I serve as the minister of this church and they will tell me how much what we have given to their non-profit organization means to them. They tell me how touched they are. They tell me about the impact that our gifts allow them to make in the community.

I don’t think any of us fully understand the full impact we make on our community. Sometimes we don’t really see it, or really hear about it, or fully realize the significance of it. It is too large for me to comprehend and I like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what is going on around here. I hear about some of it. But you should hear about it more than you do. I don’t think the members of the congregation hear enough about the good that you do. You should hear about it more than you do. I should tell you more often. So, thank you for doing this work. Thank you for doing the work of Christmas.

The work of Christmas. In the reading with this title, the great theologian Howard Thurman juxtaposes the fantastic stories about Jesus with the great moral teachings of Jesus. The stories cannot mean anything if we do not try to live by the teachings which counsel us to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to heal the sick, to comfort the bereaved, and to work for peace on earth. This is our work. This is the work that we do. This is what we do.

When the offering is given and received tonight, we will have the opportunity to combine the celebration of Christmas with the work of Christmas. Our collection this evening will be split between three different worthy causes:

Our church sits just a couple of blocks away from Head Start of Shawnee Mission. I have had a wonderful time volunteering with them each of the past four years on their annual “Cat in the Hat” Dr. Seuss day. I know a number of members of our church work and volunteer there. Head Start serves so many children and families in our community. They have an enormous waiting list and serve so many children whose families face significant hardships. We will be donating to a fund that they use to assist families with significant need.

Another organization that part of our Christmas Eve collection will go to is Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care. This progressive, direct-care organization serves the underinsured, uninsured, and indigent in our greater metro area. Some of our members have been deeply involved with this organization. As you can imagine, at this time their need is great.

Finally, part of our collection this evening will go a new project that I have started. There is a story that goes along with this:

I began my two month sabbatical in South America by spending a few weeks in Quito, the capitol city of Ecuador. I stayed each night at a small hostal run by a couple of young men. As I walked the streets of Quito during the day I found myself passing large groups of young children dressed in colorful school uniforms. One day I returned to the hostal in the early afternoon to enjoy a short siesta and saw the housekeeper and her ten year old daughter changing sheets and running loads of laundry. The next day was the same thing. I came back for my siesta and discovered the ten year old girl sweeping the floors instead of attending school with her peers.

I pulled her mother aside and asked, in the best Spanish I could muster, if her daughter went to school. She didn’t have the money to send her daughter to school. I asked her how much it would cost. It would cost $35 per month. It was a no-brainer. I did the moral math in my head. A full year of schooling for this lively and spirited ten year old girl costs $350. That is less than the hourly rate I charge other congregations when I accept a speaking engagement. Heck, a year of school for this girl was far less than I had forked over earlier that morning to reserve a spot on a tour of the Amazon rainforest. The next day Tatiana was in school and I plan to continue to support her schooling. It was my way of saying, “This is how I want to be as a guest in this city, in this country, a guest of this people, a guest of the world.”

In returning to the United States I wanted to find a meaningful way to continue that connection. I’ve decided that in addition to providing for this girl’s education I would like to create a scholarship program at the school she attends and build a computer lab for the school. Part of our offering this evening will go to launching that program and, if you cannot help financially, perhaps you can help by finding some businesses willing to donate laptop computers.

All of this, all of this, is the work of Christmas.

Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales has expanded upon these ideas, reminding us that our work has a spiritual component to it as well as a justice and service component. Morales has spoken poetically of our moral obligation to find the spiritually lost and heal those who have been harmed by religion. It is our task, Morales urges, to feed the spiritually hungry and house the spiritually homeless. I might add that it is also our task to release the religiously imprisoned and to work to bring peace among the world’s religions. In bold language that I think a lot of people have misread, Morales claims that expanding the reach of Unitarian Universalism is a “moral imperative” and the “moral equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.” Let me be the first to note that there is a difference between equivalence, which has to do with analogy, and the idea that things are equal, that they are the same.

Howard Thurman tells us that the nativity story, the story of a poor and needy family that is denied the comfort of the inn and must take up shelter in the stable, is connected with Jesus’ moral teachings about giving shelter to the exposed, food to the hungry, comfort to the weary, and care to the sick. Jesus’ ministry goes beyond that, reaching out to those who are imprisoned by bars and those who are imprisoned by a crisis of faith. In the Gospels, Jesus feeds those who are hungry for bread and fish and those who are hungry for hope. The wine quenches literal thirst and the metaphorical thirst of those parched for community and communion.

Understanding the work of Christmas is a simple thing, even if it is wrapped in the ornate and lovely wrappings of story and scripture and song. We know the work of Christmas. We know it is not only for the days of December. We know it is not the work of a season but the work of a lifetime.