Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sermon: "Inglourious Unitarians: Religious Violence Reconsidered" (Delivered 2-28-10)

Opening Words
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Time is the most valuable thing we have, because it is the most irrevocable. The thought of any lost time troubles us whenever we look back. Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer. It is time that has not been filled up, but left empty.”

This quote implies questions we bring to religious community to examine. What are we to do with the gift of this day? How shall we live so that we do not squander the irrevocable gift of time? What does it mean to live well and how ought we to find a balance between experience, learning, creation, enjoyment, and suffering?

Bonhoeffer also wrote, “The capacity to forget is a gift of grace. But so too, memory, the recalling of lessons we have learnt, is also a part of responsible living.”

Religious community is a community of memory and tradition. What have we forgotten and what ought we to remember? Which lessons from the past teach us about responsible living today?

Come, you questioning, seeking, discovering souls! Come into this place of honesty and discovery, of challenge and hope.

Pastoral Prologue
You can tell what kind of Sunday morning it is going to be by what I wear. When the focus is on the sermon as the central spiritual moment of the service I usually just wear a suit. It makes me look like a Baptist. When ritual has a more important role I wear my preaching robe and stole. I get to look like a priest. But, when I wear my robe and academic hood, as I am this morning, you can expect that I am going to present you with something more academic and intellectually centered.

This morning, the singular goal of the sermon is to cause you to consider a challenging question, an important question, an uncomfortable question. I am going to ask you to go with me to a place that is intense intellectually and emotionally. I am going to ask you to go to a dark place with me. It is neither my expectation nor my hope that you agree or disagree with me. It is my hope that you find these ideas provocative.

At the Academy Awards next Sunday one of the most mentioned films will be Inglourious Basterds, a film that has received eight nominations, including a nomination for Best Picture. Inglourious Basterds is directed by Quentin Tarantino, a polarizing figure even by Hollywood standards. His films tend to garner mixed critical acclaim at the same time that Tarantino is widely vilified for the graphic violence that appears in his movies. Torture, vengeance, and other forms of calculated violence are frequent themes that run through his films, from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill. And, Inglorious Basterds contains as much violence, if not more, than any of his previous films, but this time the violence was received much more positively by the critics. This positive reception has to do, I believe, with the fact that Nazis are at the receiving end of the violence. In this film Brad Pitt plays Aldo Raine, a man with a Southern accent and Native American blood, who leads a Jewish-American special operations unit behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied France. This unit ambushes groups of Nazis whom they kill and scalp. No brutality is spared. In another plot line, a theater owner in Paris (Melanie Laurent) who witnesses her parents’ death at the hands of the German SS keeps her Jewish identity a secret and plans to burn down her theater when Hitler attends the opening of one of Goebbels’ propaganda films.

You could argue that Tarantino’s movie is just a movie. But it is interesting to me how the film has been received. More than one critic resorted to rhyme, writing that film possesses a “gory glory,” or some blending of the words “gore” and “glorious.” The response to the film by Jewish critics has been especially divided. Some have praised it as “transcendent.” Others have said the film basically turns Jews into Nazis. But, let’s leave the land of the theater, the land of fantasies violent or otherwise, and enter the world of reality.

In the real world of history attempts were made to assassinate Hitler, though without Tarantino’s theatrical fanfare. German theologian and clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a leading member of the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was also an active player in plotting a conspiracy to kill Hitler. For his role in the resistance he was arrested, imprisoned, and was later executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp.

Over the past month I have read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and also some of his theological works. In divinity schools Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological writings remain popular among religious liberals and religious conservatives alike. In Westminster Abbey a statue honoring Bonhoeffer as a martyr of the Twentieth Century stands alongside statues honoring Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero. Like King and Romero, Bonhoeffer died living out his faith to the best of his ability. Unlike King and Romero, Bonhoeffer expressed his faith by plotting violence.

I bring up Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a reason. If there was ever an example of violence that we would think of as right, as justified, it would be hard to come up with a better example than Bonhoeffer’s attempted assassination of Hitler.

It is possible to argue that Bonhoeffer’s actions were right. But can we also call them righteous? Is there ever glory in what is gory? I invite you to step inside Bonhoeffer’s theological world and listen to his own words: “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it...Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace."

One author describes Bonhoeffer’s theology this way, “[Bonhoeffer belived that a] Christian must be prepared, if necessary, to offer his life for this. Thus all kinds of secular totalitarianism which force man to cast aside his religious and moral obligations to God and subordinate the laws of justice and morality to the State are incompatible with his conception of life.”

In other words, Bonhoeffer stops short of saying that by choosing to try to kill he is following the will of God. Instead, he says he is following the dictates of his own conscience. It is a spiritual decision. He believes that being obedient to his religious sense and to his conscience justifies violation of the laws of the State.

Well, we live in a world where a lot of people believe that God tells them to kill or who say that their act of violence is religiously justifiable. This describes members of Al Qaeda and suicide bombers. It describes the man who shot Dr. George Tiller and every shooter or bomber who has ever terrorized a women’s health care clinic. It describes members of our government who believe that they are chosen by God and that this chosen status means they are immune from error. In a way it also describes the Timothy McVeighs of the world as well as the man who last week flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas.

Theologically, morally, what do we do with someone who decides to kill, whether this person believes he has been given clear instructions from God or whether he, in Bonhoeffer’s words, decides to “take guilt on himself”? So far, this has all been very theoretical and speculative. I want to bring it into this room.

I want to share with you a story from only a few years ago. Early in my ministry I went on a retreat with several seasoned ministers who were well-versed in the history of our movement. At one point during the discussion on the first evening the subject of Fred Phelps came up. Making reference to the history of our movement, one of my colleagues spoke. “You know what we would have done back in the day?” one of the wizened ministers asked rhetorically, “We would have found somebody and paid them to burn his church to the ground. And, if he tried to build it again, we’d have it burned to the ground a second time.”

This comment made me a little uncomfortable. But, to be completely honest with you, back in the day this was exactly what many Unitarians would have done. It is what they did do. From the late 1700s to almost the present day, Unitarians used the influence and power born of their religious connections for all sorts of things, including violence. Here in Kansas, John Brown’s funders were a group of influential New England Unitarian clergy and their connected congregants. Five of John Brown’s “Secret Six” were Unitarians. They not only funded John Brown here in Kansas but armed him for his raid on Harper’s Ferry as he attempted to overthrow the United States government.

Or, consider the life of William Howard Taft, who served as Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt, as President of the United States from 1909 to 1913, and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930. Between his Presidency and his time serving as Chief Justice, Taft served as the moderator of the American Unitarian Association. Taft’s presidency is not remembered for being particularly effective, but he did distinguish himself as an advocate for world peace which he pursued through internationalism, arbitration, and treaties. That is, of course, if we don’t count his invasion of another country and overthrow of its government. When Nicaragua threatened to try to build its own canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, Taft dispatched naval warships to seize coastal cities, exile the Nicaraguan President to Mexico, and set up a US approved government. This began a 22 year military occupation of Nicaragua’s ports. As President of the American Unitarian Association, Taft punished Unitarian ministers who opposed US intervention in World War I and revoked the fellowship of pacifist ministers.

While Taft’s persecution of pacifist ministers looks really bad today, he served our movement during an era when it was far from a foregone conclusion that Unitarian ministers would speak out against war. (Today, if you kicked out ministers critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan you wouldn’t have a whole lot of UU ministers left.)

So, what do we make out of knowledge that our Unitarian forebears did things like hire arsonists to take care of elements in their community they didn’t care for? John Brown was not an isolated incident. If you scratch the history a little bit, you find many examples of Unitarians sending somebody to knock on some heads. The mentors of those ministers at the retreat and the mentors of their mentors served during a time when a German pastor attempted to assassinate Hitler. Ours is a young nation and you do not need to go back too many generations to find Unitarian ministers and lay people who hung out with John Brown’s “Secret Six.” In fact, Unitarians of the day were extremely fond of John Brown. Louisa May Alcott wrote a poem in honor of John Brown entitled, “With the rose that bloomed on the day of John Brown’s martyrdom.” Amos Alcott honored John Brown with a sonnet that declared that Brown sits next to the throne of God, exalted as the Messiah of the slaves. Lydia Maria Child wrote a poem in Brown’s honor as did Edmund Hamilton Sears. Julia Ward Howe, whom we remember for her pacifism, penned several poems praising John Brown. In one poem, entitled "The First Martyr," Howe touches her pregnant belly and gives thanks that her unborn child will be born into a world that John Brown helped make better. [These poems and more can be found here and here.]

Today I would guess that we would react more negatively than positively to John Brown, though I am sure we could find people willing to argue both sides. I would also guess that we could find people willing to argue both sides of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though I doubt too many of us would categorically reject his attempt to assassinate Hitler.

So, why not hire an arsonist to burn down Fred Phelps’ church? I cannot say for certain that my senior colleagues were daring me to do just that. I cannot say for certain that they were seriously proposing it. From the feeling in the room, I doubt many of them would have shed a tear. Just for the record, let me say that I think that it would be a bad idea to set fire to the Westboro Baptist Church. For one thing, we would not want someone to burn down our church because they disagreed with us. For another thing, I do not believe that doing things that might generate sympathy for Phelps is a good idea. So, clearly and for the record, I am not suggesting or recommending or advising that any of us commit or conspire to commit arson. Are we clear on that?

But, is there a time when it is right to kill? Is violence ever justified? Besides the example of Bonhoeffer, one might point to more recent examples of genocide. Should the United Nations send more units to Darfur to protect Sudanese refugees? Should the United Nations or the United States have acted more quickly to stop the genocide in Rwanda that may have killed as many as one million people?

U.N. Peacekeeping forces operate under the philosophy of not firing unless fired upon, but using weapons as a deterrent is still a form of violence. And, it is a form of violence that I would expect many of would find acceptable in certain circumstances. Perhaps we could argue that violence in self-defense or in defense of the defenseless can be acceptable. If I am Dietrich Bonhoeffer do I join the Confessing Church in Germany? Yes, I do. If I am a member of the U.N. Security Council, do I advocate for forces to be deployed in order to protect Sudanese refugees from violence? Yes, I do. If I am Bill Clinton, do I send soldiers to Rwanda on a mission to save helpless people from a brutal death? Yes, I do.

Those are my honest answers. You can feel free to disagree with me. I would tend to agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”

But, if I choose to be responsible and not to extricate myself, as Bonhoeffer puts it, I have put myself in a precarious place. If I believe that it is worthy to protect Sudanese refugee camps, then why not attack a group of Janjaweed militants as they move towards villages in Darfur? And why not attack the Sudanese government in Khartoum that sponsors the Janjaweed militias? If Hitler, who else? If Rwanda and Sudan, where else? At what point to you hire an arsonist? Where do you draw the line?

We should rightly be afraid that justifying some acts of violence can lead to the rationalization of much greater brutality. In his book The End of Faith, atheist author Sam Harris draws a line that I find unconscionable. He argues for all out nuclear war against the Islamic countries, even if the cost is the lives of “tens of millions of people in a single day.” Harris writes,
“If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or [even] what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own… It may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”
Perhaps what I am describing is the proverbial slippery slope. If you are willing to justify violence in some situations, are you in danger of eventually promoting nuclear holocaust? Yes, maybe there is a slippery slope, but as moral agents our lives are lived in the precarious position of being on the mountain. And the mountain has more than one side. The other side of the mountain is equally precarious. Sure, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero may have stood at the top of the mountain as serious and powerful players in the struggle for justice. But there is a slippery slope of pacifism as well. The slope goes from passionate engagement to lazy engagement to being opinionated but failing to act to growing cynical to the point of self-extrication.

The precarious predicament is the sheer fact of being alive.

I want to return to the question of religiously motivated violence, of whether gore is ever glorious. Religiously speaking, I believe we open ourselves up for trouble whenever we claim that God is on our side, that God endorses or condones violence. Too often we jump to the question of whether it is acceptable to kill in the name of God, to enact violence in the name of faith. The religious question, I believe, is rarely about violence. It is much more often about sacrifice. Are you willing to go to jail for what you believe? Are you willing to trespass at the Sudanese embassy in order to stand in solidarity with the people of Darfur? Would you, like Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb, answer the call to Selma and march with King even though you run the risk of being fatally attacked by Klansmen? Would you hurt your own bottom line by divesting yourself from corporations that earn their profits through injustice? We move too quickly towards the question of taking life. We gloss over the other side, the religious question of for what should a person be willing to give a part of her life, or even her whole life.

I began this sermon by invoking the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds. His film, I believe, is clever. After producing film after film that gets criticized for glorifying violence, Tarantino answers his critics by saying, “I bet I can create a film that will get you to glorify violence as well.” And, for the most part, Tarantino was successful. Critics fawned over the film’s “gory glory.” So, who exactly are the inglourious basterds? I would argue that they are not Brad Pitt’s special unit of soldiers. We are the inglorious ones. The inglorious ones are us if we are seduced into believing that violence is glorious.

[Note: More thoughts can be found on the film Inglourious Basterds in a subsequent essay that I have posted here.]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
______, The Cost of Discipleship
______, Ethics
Dave Eggers, What is the What
Christopher Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Christopher Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning
Jeff Sharlet, The Family

A Very, Very Short List of Films to Stimulate Discussion about Violence
Inglorious Basterds
The Hurt Locker
Hotel Rwanda
The Fog of War
The Power of Nightmares
(3-part BBC Documentary)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

List #30: My Ranking of 8 Nominees for Best Picture

I am not the biggest movie buff and most years I only see one or two of the films up for Best Picture. If I watch the Oscars, it is usually to cheer for one of the charming, spunky, underdog films for that year, films like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. This year I decided to watch as many of the films up for Best Picture as I could. So far I’ve seen 8 out of 10 but it doesn’t look like I'll have the time to see either Precious or Up before March 7. (When I do see them, I will add them to my list below.)

How would I rank the eight films nominated for Best Picture? Here are my subjective rankings from worst to best:

8) The Blind Side
The saving grace of this film is that it is rather faithfully based on a true story. It is a true story made for a movie; most of the parts that are trite and cliché really did happen. The plot revolves around a young man named Michael Oher who grows up in the slums of Memphis. His childhood is horrific. On account of his physical gifts, Michael finds his way into a Christian prep school in Memphis’ white, affluent suburbs. Homeless, he is adopted into a wealthy family who groom him to make him eligible to play college football and, eventually, play in the NFL. Unlike the book, the film ignores the severe ethical questions about the influence of money in college athletics. The movie sticks to the feel-good, emotional side of the story. A few scenes caused me to tear up.
Best parts: Hilarious cameos by the coaches of SEC football teams, Sandra Bullock’s star power.
Worst parts: The film’s analysis of race and racial dynamics is often lousy and many scenes come off as patronizing and preachy. However, the presence of the most annoying child actor ever (Jae Head) is what sends this film to the bottom of the list.

7) District 9
When aliens arrive from outer space they usually come to destroy the earth or to teach us some important lesson about life. In District 9 the aliens arrive to use our social welfare systems. Set in South Africa, the “prawns” (the derogatory term for the aliens) are housed in squalid townships, eat cat food, and live in plywood shacks. The prawns live under a system much like apartheid, are preyed upon by Nigerian warlords, and are horribly exploited by Blackwater-esque private military contractors who try to find a way to harvest the aliens’ advanced weaponry. I was fully engrossed when I watched this film but now I look back and can’t remember why I liked it.
Best parts: This is not a moment per se, but I think it is pretty remarkable that director Neill Blomkamp was able to create this film for only $30 million. That is extremely inexpensive for a sci-fi action-adventure movie.
Worst parts: The movie’s message is as subtle as a train wreck. OK, we get it. It is an allegory for apartheid and also for refugee crises and the military-industrial complex. On the other hand, Sharlto Copley perfectly plays the incompetent Wikus Van De Merwe. His fumbling calls to mind every project that has been botched by someone holding a position because of nepotism rather than merit. “You’re doing a heckuva job, Wikus.”

6) Avatar
I admit that I went into this film expecting not to like it. I was surprised with how much I liked it. Sort of. First of all, the film is absolutely visually stunning. It deserves enormous credit for all of its technological innovations. I can’t say enough about this aspect of the film. While I do worry that I’m going to have to wear 3D glasses every time I go to the cinema from now on (some of the 3D stuff was quite forced) I found myself absolutely mesmerized by the world James Cameron creates on Pandora. As in District 9, the allegory in Avatar was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Colonialism, Blackwater-esque private military outfits, environmental exploitation. The racial issues in the film are, at best, pretty rough around the edges and could have used some reworking.
Best parts: Exploring the planet Pandora; the acting of Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver.
Worst parts: Apart from the fact that Jake Sully’s avatar behaved like Keanu Reaves, the last 30 minutes of the movie were painfully cliché and trite. Didn’t we see all this before with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi?

5) An Education
I am a Nick Hornby completist. If Hornby publishes his grocery list, I will read it. If Hornby writes an adapted screenplay based on somebody else’s grocery list, I will go see the movie. An Education is Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir. In the movie Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a London schoolgirl in the early 1960s who is on her way to Oxford if she can bring up her Latin grades a bit and keep practicing the cello. Jenny comes to realize the limited opportunities available to her as a “proper woman” and instead seeks out worldly pleasures with a playboy twice her age who takes her to jazz clubs, art auctions, trendy restaurants, musical performances, and Paris. It is a film about the courage, cost, and wisdom of breaking cultural norms.
Best parts: The acting of Carey Mulligan as Jenny was superb. Also, Rosamund Pike (Helen) is a joy to watch as she brings a lot of levity to the film. At times she is an airhead. Other times she acts as a caring older sister figure to Jenny. The face she makes at the classical music concert is hilarious.
Worst parts: It is hard to point to anything about this film that is bad. The film’s narrative arc was a little flat and the ending was a let down.

4) A Serious Man
It is the late 1960s and the world is changing fast for Larry Gopnik (played wonderfully by Michael Stuhlbarg.) Gopnik is a physics professor trying to get tenure at a college in a small Midwestern town. His wife is having an affair in front of his face. His children are insolent. His brother takes advantage of Gopnik’s hospitality while hiding his own legal troubles. His neighbor walks all over him. He can’t get no respect. He turns to his Jewish faith to try to make sense of his existential suffering and discover what it means to be a serious man. He turns to a series of three rabbis who give him unsatisfactory responses. It is a retelling of the story of Job.
Best parts: The film’s mysterious Yiddish beginning involving a dybbuk is very cool. Fred Melamed’s turn as Sy Abelman, a man who embraces the cultural ethos of the late 60s, is both cringe-inducing and delightful.

3) Up in the Air
Writer and director Jason Reitman gives us one of the best films of the year with Up in the Air, a film that perceptively captures the spirit of the times. George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a traveling “transition specialist” whose job is to oversee corporate layoffs. He lives by the motto that anything he can’t carry with him in his backpack—family, relationships, belongings—is dead weight that will hold him back. If he isn’t moving, he is dying. He spends 320 days a year flying from city to city and his singular goal in life is to earn 10 million American Airlines frequent flyer miles. Insert some twists and complications caused by co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick and you have a movie. Add in the voices and testimonies of those who have lost jobs and you have a deep connection with the present.
Best part: Vera Farmiga’s role as “Alex.”
Worst part: I am really going to have to dig deep to come up with a worst part, but here goes: The cameo by Young M.C. Young M.C. was a late 80s rapper who, like DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, helped popularize cartoonish rap among white junior high students. His biggest hit was the song “Bust a Move.” To “bust a move” is to seize the moment, take the initiative, or, you know, carpe diem. (It just now occurs to me that this could be a great catch-phrase for a motivational speaker.) Twenty years later Young M.C. has put on some weight and, apparently, performs at corporate events, weddings, and proms. The economy is even tough for Young M.C., it seems. But, what astounds me is that one day Jason Reitman was sitting around in a room with his producers and someone decided, let’s get Young M.C. to make a cameo in our movie. Such impulsive decision making makes Up in the Air unworthy of an Oscar.

2) The Hurt Locker
It really came down to a toss-up between my favorite and second favorite Oscar contender of the year. Second place goes to The Hurt Locker. This film is set in Iraq and follows a unit of soldiers whose unenviable task is to locate and disarm improvised explosive devices. The film is relentlessly stressful from beginning to end. Jeremy Renner steals the show playing Staff Sergeant William James, a reckless risk-taker who has become addicted to the thrill of brushes with death. Even though the movie aspires to a kind of hyper-realism, parts of it stretch the limits of believability. One would think that some of James’ rogue antics would not be tolerated. If you can willingly suspend this disbelief the film shows itself to be much, much more than a war movie. It is a meditation on masculinity, courage, survival, and the limits of sanity.
Best part: Unlike many of this year’s “message movies,” The Hurt Locker manages to be deeply insightful without being preachy. Rather than moralizing the viewer into submission (see Avatar and District 9) this film, like my number one film of the year, avoids such simplistic messaging by opening up space for questions and deliberation.

1) Inglourious Basterds
If I explained and justified my selection of I. G. as the movie most deserving of the Academy Award I would give away the conclusion to the sermon I am planning to preach this Sunday. After I deliver that sermon I will make an extra post with my argument for why I. G. deserves the Oscar.
Best part: The incredibly tense first scene in which Christoph Waltz interrogates a French farmer who is hiding a Jewish family in his home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sermon: "Can't Buy Me Love" (Delivered 2-14-2010)

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

[Worship Note: We had a fantastic Sunday morning! The worship service included three Beatles songs by our church rock band: "And I Love Her," "Can't Buy Me Love," and "All My Loving." I was especially excited that two members of our youth group formed the rhythm section of the rock band. As if that wasn't enough, David K., our immensely talented Jazz pianist played a gorgeous rendition of "My Funny Valentine."]

“I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.”

On this Valentine’s Day it is not at all fitting, actually, to begin my sermon about love by introducing two abstract concepts, one from theology and the other from introductory physics. Bear with me.

The first concept I want to introduce is the concept of voluntary and involuntary associations. This idea was developed by James Luther Adams, the most important Unitarian theologian of the 20th Century. Adams wrote that all of our relationships are based either in freedom and choice, our voluntary associations, or that they are based in circumstances largely beyond our control and our choosing, our involuntary associations.

To make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary associations clear, I am going to invite you to open up your wallet. (Relax. It isn’t time for the offertory yet.) If your wallet is at all like mine, it may include: A drivers license, a credit card, a gym membership card, a student ID, a “rewards” card from this store or another, a membership to Costco or Sam’s or the ACLU or the Sierra Club, a library card, a punch card from a coffee shop. All of these things speak to our voluntary associations. You can cancel your credit card or your gym membership with a simple phone call. You can toss out your CVS card. You can stop going to the coffee shop. You can choose not renew your membership with the ACLU.

Some of our associations are voluntary but speak to a stronger connection. Without running afoul of the law you could voluntarily give up your drivers license by moving to another state but that is a lot harder than cancelling your gym membership. Other associations are involuntary. You didn’t choose your nationality or your race, your nationality, your sexual orientation, or your gender. Those are involuntary.

I think we can improve on James Luther Adams’ concept of voluntary and involuntary associations by turning to a second concept. In physics there is an idea known as escape velocity. Escape velocity refers to the speed at which an object of a certain mass needs to move to escape the gravitational pull of a second object that keeps the first in its orbit. I can jump as high as I can but gravity still brings me back down to earth. But, if I jumped with tremendous force I could sail off into space. To imagine escape velocity, think of a space shuttle launch and the size of those booster rockets that are needed to send an object into space. Then imagine a moon landing and how you don’t need a giant booster rocket to leave the moon. The escape velocity of the Earth is much larger than the escape velocity of the moon, just as we might say that the escape velocity of being a United States citizen is much greater than the escape velocity of being a member of 24-Hour Fitness.

Trust me, this is going somewhere. But before I get to love I want to talk to you for just a short amount of time about economics. What caused Borders and Barnes & Noble to put a lot of independent book stores out of business? And what caused to hurt the bottom line of Borders and Barnes & Noble? Why have Lowe’s and Home Depot put thousands of independent hardware stores out of business? Why did Blockbuster kill the mom and pop video store and why is Netflix putting Blockbuster out of business and why is video-on-demand posing a threat to Netflix?

In attempting to answer these questions you could offer a number of business responses. You could say that the reason is competition on price, better selection, or greater convenience for the customer. And, if you responded in this way, you would be only partially correct.

The answer I would give is escape velocity. Let me explain what I mean by that. Out of all of the voluntary associations we have, our voluntary relationships as consumers and as customers have the lowest escape velocities. Case in point, a few years ago one of the cell phone service providers launched an advertising campaign which insisted that the advantage of their service was that you wouldn’t have to sign a contract. The message was: The best part of our service is that you can stop using it at any time.

One natural trajectory of this sermon would be to stay on this path and talk about ethical consumption, about the moral dimension of what we buy and how we spend money. When I wrote the paragraph that mentioned Home Depot I immediately recalled a song by folk singer named David Wilcox. In this song he sings,
You go first to that age-old place,
To that old wooden door that you have to close behind you
To the wide-board wooden floor, worn down soft
To the real thing, a good advice, quality at a fair price
I’m sure there’s stuff you’ll have to find at Paty’s, Lowe’s, or Sears,
But go to East Asheville Hardware
Go to East Asheville Hardware before it disappears.
Rather than talk only about our identities as consumers, I instead want to talk about situations where holding the identity of a consumer is detrimental. I want to say that our identities as consumers lead us into voluntary associations that have the lowest escape velocity of any of our relationships. Fifteen minutes or less can save you hundreds on car insurance, but this attitude and this approach would be profoundly wrong to apply to other areas of our lives.

If you want to have a lousy Valentine’s Day, here is one way that is sure to work. Sit down with your loved one and tell that person, “Honey, we need to make some changes in our service-delivery agreement. I’ve been out getting other bids and I need you to match what they are offering.”

You don’t look at your children and ask whether they are competing on price as compared to your neighbors’ children. You don’t upgrade your family dog to the newest model every two years. You don’t upgrade your wife or your husband to the newest model every two years.

Partnering, parenting, friendship—these are all voluntary associations, voluntary relationships. But, they are relationships where the behaviors and attitudes that we demonstrate as consumers are extremely inappropriate. I promised myself that I would never use Tiger Woods as a sermon illustration, but now I am going to break that promise. Shortly after the Tiger Woods scandal broke there was a news report that lawyers from both sides were renegotiating the prenuptial agreement between Tiger and Elin. If you have enough money lots of things are for sale, but even then you can’t buy love. You can’t buy love.

And, if you can’t buy love, one wonders what else is not for sale. Or, to turn the question slightly: if acting like a consumer is harmful in our family relationships, what other relationships are harmed by the consumer mentality?

Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to argue that acting like a consumer is a bad thing. There are plenty of times when we ought to act like a consumer… like when we go to the store. Everybody here consumes. It is a part of who we are. There is nothing wrong with that. But, I would argue that our humanity is lessened when our identity as a consumer starts to define who we are when we are not at the store. Our humanity is diminished when our consumer identity creeps and seeps into other parts of our being. Our humanity is cheapened when we act like consumers within the context of a relationship where we have no business (no pun intended) acting like a consumer.

Last month I had a conversation with one of the leaders of our church and we briefly discussed this idea. I brought up the subject of education. After all, at many prestigious private colleges and universities tuition, room, and board can run as much a $50,000 each year. In our conversation we did decide that a consumer approach was not entirely misguided. After all, students do have a right to insist that their professors are competent in their respective fields. But, there is also a difference between being a student and being a customer. In the classroom the customer is not always right.

If money were no obstacle, you could purchase individual tutoring from Nobel Prize laureates, but you can’t buy intelligence.

You can buy books, but not wisdom.

You can buy art, but not taste.

Compassion is not for sale. Empathy cannot be bought. Understanding cannot be purchased.

And, with regard to religion, you can travel to the great religious places on earth, to the Holy Land, Rome, Athens, Nepal and the Taj Mahal. You can visit Notre Dame and St. Paul’s Cathedral and Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia and not profit from those travels spiritually or theologically.

So, we have established that there are times when having the attitude of a consumer is helpful and that there are times when having the attitude of a consumer is detrimental. We have established that the same attitude you bring into negotiations with a car salesperson may not be very helpful in a discussion with your romantic partner.

So, I ask you this question: Is it ever helpful to approach the church with the attitude of a consumer? Should you ever think of yourself as a customer here? I cannot answer that question definitively, but I am hard-pressed to think of even a single instance in which it is helpful. I can, however, think of many instances where it is harmful and destructive.

Let me make a couple of things clear. A church is a voluntary association. We are all here because we have freely chosen to be here. Religiously speaking, Congress has made no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof. But remember, not all voluntary associations are created equally. Marriage is a voluntary association. Joining the cheese of the month club is a voluntary association. One carries a bit more gravitas than the other. It is very, very easy to join and leave the cheese of the month club. Joining a church is not a marriage, but it certainly is not the cheese of the month club. In fact, one Unitarian Universalist church in the Midwest chooses to interpret membership using the analogy of marriage. They tell their members that membership is, in fact, “till death do us part.”

Part of me thinks that this is a bit overly grandiose, but I don’t reject it completely. Our relationships that we have as consumers have the lowest escape velocities of any of our relationships. But, committed relationships require that we abide with discomfort and disappointment at times. It is natural and it is a part of growth. With a partner or a spouse we talk about “for richer and poorer, good times and bad, in sickness and in health.” Every relationship has high points and hardship. Healthy relationships have the capacity to persevere through difficulty. Their “escape velocity” is not small.

Last week I talked about the movements of consolation and desolation in our spiritual lives. Church doesn’t always make us feel good, nor should it. The authentic religious life contains moments immeasurably sublime and moments that are painful and uncomfortable. Church is a place where we face the pain of the world. Church is a place where we take a fearless moral inventory and dare to take an unflinching look at ourselves, to own up to our imperfections, to admit our mistakes, and to confess our failings. It is not easy but it is good for us. Of course, there are also the times when we celebrate our joys, feel the spirit move, laugh heartily, embrace, and grow in kinship. The times for rejoicing, celebrating, fellowshipping, and smiling until our faces hurt can even outweigh the more challenging parts, but both are necessary.

We are not in the instant gratification business because that gratification turns out to be awfully cheap. There are dry spells and challenging times and the consumer mentality is not helpful during those times. At church, as in the classroom, the customer is not always right. This is not to say that I am always right. I am frequently wrong. It is to say that being wrong or being right has nothing do with being a consumer or a customer.

There are a myriad of ways in which the consumer model completely fails to account for what happens in our church community. A few weeks ago I received a communication from someone who had been involved here a long time ago. This person has come to church functions perhaps a half-dozen times over the last 15 years. This person wanted to make a pledge. It was a pledge of $100 per month to start but it would increase after a few months. This person wasn’t interested in attending or participating in our programs. The person just wanted us to be here and to do good work in the world. I have to confess that in an ideal world I would want for this person to come every Sunday and take part in our programming. I told this person that our door was always open. But the point I want to make is that there is no real business model that accounts for this person’s gift. Love does account for it.

As a church we are about those things that cannot be bought. Haggling over price and trying to get the best deal is antithetical to what we are about. We are not in the business of instant gratification. Real growth only happens through discipline, learning, and building relationships. We talk about generosity because there is no way to put a price on the church, and trying to put a price on what we do together is impossible.

Love cannot be bought. Haggling over a price and trying to get the best deal is antithetical to what love is about. Love is not about instant gratification. We grow in love by practicing love, by learning about our beloved, and by working over years to build the relationship. Love makes us generous because there is no way to put a price on love.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sermon: "Confessions of an Author" (Delivered 2-7-10)

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

[The reading comes from one author’s description of Ignatian spiritual practice.]
One of the spiritual disciplines I practice is the Daily Examen, developed by Saint Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century and described in his book, The Spiritual Exercises. The idea is to look for the movements of God throughout your day. Ignatius expected that God would speak through our deepest feelings and yearnings, what he called "consolation" and "desolation." For us, consolation is whatever helps us connect with ourselves, others, God, and creation. Desolation is whatever disconnects us.

The Examen is a very short form of journaling, and it helps me to see patterns in my day. There are three useful questions to help you get at what your day's consolation is: What draws me close to God? For what am I grateful? What gives me life?

The experience of consolation: directs our focus outside and beyond ourselves; lifts our hearts so that we can see the joys and sorrows of other people; bonds us more closely with our human community; generates new inspiration and ideas; restores balance and refreshes our inner vision; shows us where the holy is active in our lives and where we are being led; and, finally, consolation releases new energy in us.

There are, likewise, three useful questions to help you get at what your day's desolation is: What pulls me away from God? For what am I least grateful? What drains life from me?

The experience of desolation: turns us in on ourselves; drives us down the spiral ever deeper into our own negative feelings; cuts us off from community; makes us want to give up on things that used to be important to us; takes over our whole consciousness and crowds out our life vision; covers up places where the holy is active; and, finally, consolation drains us of energy.

When I listed the title for this sermon in our newsletter and on our website I said that the title was going to be, “Hey! I Published a Book.” Needless to say, my title gives me a good bit of latitude as to what I will speak about. My sermon this morning is going to be very little about my having published a book. But, that is where I want to start.

I want to start by sharing with you my emotional response when I opened the package that came in the mail and held a copy of my book, hot off the press. To be completely and absolutely honest, I experienced in that moment a feeling that was different than the absolute euphoria and beaming pride I expected to feel. Needless to say, this is not what I am going to say about the book when I have an occasion to sell it. And, it is not like I’m not genuinely proud of the book. I am. And I am especially proud to be able to put my name alongside the names so many of my colleagues that I respect so deeply. So, what were the complicated feelings all about, anyways?

I asked myself a series of questions in order to try to figure out why I felt the way I felt about the book:

Is the book true? Yes, everything in the book is true to the very best of my understanding of the truth. I believe that all of my colleagues wrote the truth as they know it.

Is the book complete? No, it is not complete. (Is any book?) There are some things that are not in the book that I wish I had thought to include in the book.

Is the book authentic? Yes. Everything in the book contains my authentic convictions and my best thoughts. But, what if that is not enough? What if I am a fraud? I don’t mean a fraud in terms of telling deliberate lies. I mean a fraud in terms of writing on a subject on which I may not be a credible expert. (Fortunately, the other 8 contributing authors are all credible experts.) But what if history shows that I don’t know the first thing about church growth and vitality? What if we found out that the guy who wrote about Zen and motorcycle maintenance didn’t actually know how to maintain motorcycles, or that the guy who wrote the book about cheese getting moved didn’t know that much about the movements of cheese?

Allow me to make the observation that lots of people dream of writing a book or a poem or a short story and having it published. Some people dream of writing the great American novel. Others want to write a memoir or a family history. Still others dream of producing an impeccably researched work of scholarship. These desires are quite common.

Over the past few weeks I have talked with a number of experienced writers. A friend of mine here in Kansas City tells me that when he published his first book he was euphoric. Now he regards it with a sense of embarrassment. He comments that the most painful part of it is how crystallized it is. The parts of it that should be altered are preserved for all eternity, or at least until all of the copies of the book that are in existence have been lost.

A guitar teacher publishes one of the most successful guides for learning to play. It becomes an industry best-seller. The author is not satisfied and believes he could have improved upon it. He thoroughly revises it and publishes it and the new and improved version is a flop. The old version continues to sell well, which is bittersweet.

A colleague of mine is asked to review a draft of a book by a leading author of books about ministry. My colleague writes the author a comprehensive review with dozens of insightful and helpful comments about places where the manuscript could be improved. The author calls him up and says, “Yeah, you’re right. But, I’ve gone as far with this project as I can go. The book is just going to have to go to press more or less as it is. But, I plan to use a lot of your observations in my next book.”

[In fact, between the two services a member pulled me aside and confided in me that she felt a feeling of embarrassment and anxiety when she first held a copy of a book she had published.]

So, what is missing in my book? What does my book lack that I wish I had thought to include? By far, the biggest thing I wished that I had included in my book was a chapter on how to lead through challenging stretches. What do you do when you hit a rough patch? What do you do with disappointments and setbacks?

It occurs to me that these questions do not only apply to churches that are trying to grow towards greater vitality. These questions speak to so much of what it means to live in our world right now. Economically our nation is experiencing a recession. Psychologically, I would argue that our nation is experiencing a collective depression. This collective depression is the result of not only unemployment, foreclosures, stock market crashes, and layoffs, although those things play a big part. It is the result of living in a state of anxiety, fear, and worries that, when prolonged, may morph into despair and resignation.

Political liberals, a term that describes some of us but not all of us, contend with symptoms of fatigue and depression these days. Political liberals could use a chapter on how to contend with disappointment, a chapter on how to successfully navigate rough patches.

I recently spoke with a beloved colleague whose advice I find extremely helpful. I asked him to discuss with me the question: How does one minister amidst fatigue and weariness, amidst a melancholy spirit? He answered metaphorically, by talking about how he responded to his college-aged daughter when she became sullen and despondent and threw herself on her bed and refused to move.

He talked about how intellectually he could come up with 101 great ideas that he could propose to help her overcome her gloom. She should call a friend. She should throw on some tennis shoes and go for a walk or a run. She should call that person about that internship she was interested in applying for. At least open up the shades and let some sunlight in. But he knew that any idea he suggested, no matter how insightful and how wise, would be met with resistance if he did not allow her to feel her own misery. She needed to decide that she didn’t want to feel that way.

In Ignatian spiritual practice there is the idea of being fully present and attentive to the movements of consolation and desolation that happen in one’s life, indeed that happen to us each day. Consolation involves a feeling of euphoria and enchantment, the feeling of joy unsurpassed. Consolation is a feeling on connection with what is holy. Desolation involves a feeling of lowness and misery, the absence of joy. Desolation is a feeling of disconnect with what is holy.

St. Ignatius was not alone in this spiritual insight. In the Building Your Own Theology adult religious education class, a mainstay in Unitarian Universalist churches for decades, there is an exercise that asks participants to name “peak” spiritual experiences and “valley” spiritual experiences. The peaks involve exhilaration and celebration. The valleys involve devastation and loss.

If you are distrustful of Ignatian spirituality, or if the metaphors of peaks and valleys don’t really speak to you, I offer you some words from the Unitarian Universalist humanist tradition that describe this same condition. The words were written by The Reverend Kendyl Gibbons. Listen to the movements of consolation and desolation in her language,
I grew up in this Unitarian Universalist tradition, bred into the confident expectation of the ultimate triumph of the enlightenment. That there were both superstition and arrogance to be overcome, I never doubted, but neither did I ever seriously contemplate a universe whose arc did not bend toward liberation, reason, justice, democracy, and an advancing tide of education, freedom and human well-being. As I understood it, part of my task as a minister was to hasten the coming of that day, and to minimize the tragedy and waste of human suffering in the meantime – but the happy end, however long delayed, was thought to be within sight. Lately, I'm not so sure any more. I'm still enough of a product of my upbringing to believe that ignorance and suffering are bad, and that individual freedom and systemic wellbeing are good, but I'm no longer confident that they are inevitable. Indeed, my work may not be so much to herald the advance of the triumph of reason and good will, as it is a rearguard action to delay as long as possible the rising flood of renewed violence, superstition, oppression, and ruthless power. It's a far less blithe assignment, I assure you.
So, what is it that we ought to do when we experience the valleys, when we experience desolation? Some of the teachings related to Ignatian spiritual practice are helpful, I believe. From one resource on the experiences of desolation and consolation, here are a few suggestions of what to do and what not to do when you have that experience:
When you experience desolation there is a tendency to pull away from other people. That is not helpful. Times of desolation are times to seek out companionship. In times of desolation there is a temptation to break commitments. Instead, commitments should be made during times of consolation and kept through the movement of desolation and reevaluated again during a cycle of consolation. In desolation it is important to turn to your idea of your true self and to stay true to an inner map.

In contrast, during times of consolation it is important to fortify, to expand your notion of your true self and to expand your inner map. Consolation is a time when energy may be used to further one’s deepest desires and it is also a time when excess energy may be spent to take care of things that you would rather not take care of.
You know, I think this is what I would have written if I had thought to add another chapter to the book. I would have addressed the movement of desolation. And I am thankful for all the consolation and hope: The consolation and hope in the chapter on transformation. The consolation and hope offered in the chapter on energy. The consolation and hope offered in the chapter on innovation. The consolation and the hope offered in the chapter on the spirit of welcoming.

The hymn “O Come, You Longing Thirsty Souls” (#209) is about the movement from desolation to consolation. But both desolation and consolation are natural movements of our spirit. Sometimes we are the longing, thirsty souls and sometimes we are the sated ones. Sometimes we are the weary, famished folk and sometimes we are filled to the point of bliss. Sometimes all we see around us are thorns and nettles; other times we feel we are in the presence of bay tree and pine. Both are a part of us. Give thanks for those moments of consolation and be consoled by the knowledge that desolation is not forever.

Friday, February 05, 2010

List #29: 10 Thoughts about Vedera's New Album

In the fall of 2008 I went to Lawrence, Kansas to see Jenny Lewis in concert. That evening I wore a tight fitting maroon t-shirt with the word “veda” written in yellow down the side in a stylish, cursive script. At one point during the show I swiveled my head around and locked eyes with Kristen May, the lead singer of the band formerly known as Veda. I had bought the shirt, even though it was a bit tight, back in 2004. I had been very impressed with the young, up-and-coming band and saw them play in Kansas City a half-dozen times in ’04 and ’05.

I bought their EP (2004) and their debut album, The Weight of an Empty Room (2005), and bumped into the members of the band around Kansas City when they were not out on tour as the opening act for various hardcore bands such as Thrice. Around this time the band changed its name to “Vedera” because of another musical group named Veda that took legal action against them.

Earlier this week I paid to a visit to Streetside Records where Vedera’s brand new album, Stages, was displayed with other new albums. Here are a few observations about the new album.

1) Vedera has really changed its sound. Their earlier sound combined Kristen May’s strong vocals with a heavy, guitar-driven, hard rock sound. The new sound is much lighter and brighter. Stages is a pop album. Kristen May’s voice is even more dominant than before. Now she doesn’t just belt it out; the instrumentation is restrained and her voice soars above it.

2) The new sound reminded me of several other acts. On the more up-tempo songs May sounds a bit like Avril Lavigne. On the more acoustic numbers she sounds a tiny bit like Lisa Loeb if Lisa Loeb had a bit higher vocal range. The instrumentation is quite produced and, at times, sounds like what you would find on the last two Liz Phair albums.

3) Their listening audience has changed. On their first album they thanked bands like Acceptance and the Get Up Kids. On this album they mention touring alongside pop acts like Jason Mraz and Eisley and pop-rock groups like Jack’s Mannequin, the All-American Rejects, and the Fray.

4) Their relationship with their past is unclear. The sticker on the Stages album declares that this is their first album. That isn’t exactly true.

5) They’ve hidden their past. If you do a search on youtube for the video to "The Falling Kind", the lead single off of Empty Room, you cannot find it.

6) Their relationship with their past is complicated. The first single off Stages is the song “Satisfy.” This song borrows its pre-chorus and chorus from the song “Desire on Repeat” from the Empty Room album.

7) Just check out the videos to see how Vedera has changed. In the video to “Satisfy,” Kristen May acts flirty and twee, walking through fields and frolicking in the ocean with an obscured man. In the video to "The Falling Kind," May dons a straight jacket and lurches about with jerky spasms.

8) The first few bars of “Satisfy” on the acoustic guitar sound a lot like the first few bars of Green Day’s mellowest song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”

9) The bridge on "Satisfy" is really weird. Pay attention. Following the chorus the instrumentation drops out and May’s voice is completely exposed. You expect a powerful guitar solo will follow, but the guitar just disappears and is replaced by a sample of orchestral strings. The first time I heard the song I was so surprised that I actually stammered, “Are those strings?”

10) Good for Vedera. I am completely serious! Good for Vedera. From my previous comments you may think that I would criticize them for “selling out.” Far from it. It is very cool to see a Kansas City band find national success with their music featured on MTV programs. Good for them. And, even though I really like the loud energy of songs like “The Falling Kind,” I would definitely pay to go see Vedera in concert when they come back through Kansas City.