Friday, August 06, 2010

Sermon: "More Bricks for Your Backpack" (Delivered 8-1-10)

After I finished my first year at Harvard Divinity School, I spent the summer working in the cataloging department of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. As one of the world’s leading theological libraries, the volume of books we processed was enormous and the diversity of books collected was vast. That summer, no shipment we received was as memorable as a box of books authored by Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) was an Indian guru, spiritual teacher, and philosopher who came to the United States in the 1960s.

A part of the spiritual practice Chinmoy espoused had to do with extreme athletic achievements. As one biographical article about him states, “In the 1990s, Chinmoy made it a requirement for his male disciples to have finished at the very least a half-marathon. Sri Chinmoy himself continued to enter races [including ultramarathons] until his sixties when a knee injury hampered his ability to run; afterwards he turned his attention to lifting people and things off the ground.”

One website dedicated to Chinmoy contains the following story,
International fitness champion and global harmony leader Sri Chinmoy achieved a most astounding and amazing feat of strength in the weightlifting world by pressing two huge dumbbells totalling 740 pounds overhead. The powerful senior citizen’s seated double dumbbell press is equal to the weight of a glider airplane or a large concert piano! [... Said Chinmoy,] “I am 74 years old. This double dumbbell press of 740 pounds I am dedicating to men and women of my age—the old generation—to inspire them.” [...]

Sri Chinmoy’s unique fitness programme also includes lifting men and women from all walks of life to honour them for their uplifting contributions to humanity—a total of nearly 8000 people since 1985. He has also written more than 1500 books, composed over 18,000 songs and drawn more than 14 million soul-birds.
Inspired by Chinmoy’s example, I am pleased to announce the launch of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church ultra-marathon and extreme weightlifting ministry. From this point forward, prospective members will need to complete a half-marathon, you will pledge the amount that you plan to bench press in the coming year, and volunteers will now be thanked by being lifted over the head of the minister during the worship service.

Actually, that is not true at all. To be honest I get fatigued just reading about this guru’s physical accomplishments. But, I do want to use this most unusual example to offer a few reflections about living and practicing your faith.

Many of us, I would wager, at some point in our lives came to think that being religious entailed working extremely diligently in order to fulfill a long list of instructions, a long list of requirements, or maybe even a long list of commandments. In Judaism, for example, we know about the Ten Commandments. But, did you know that according to rabbinic tradition there are some 613 commandments or mitzvot that are set forward in the Torah? Reform Judaism has greatly relaxed the requirements for following these 613 rules, however Ultra-Orthodox Judaism stresses the keeping of all of the commandments, with the obvious exception of the mitzvot that apply to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and are, therefore, impossible to follow at this moment in history.

Critics of religion have argued that living a life according to a list of rules can seem restrictive, mechanical, arbitrary, or even counter-spiritual. Some theologians and other scholars of religion answer these criticisms by observing that these practices are not about rote obedience or calculation. For example, sociologist Mary Douglas points out that many of the Jewish dietary and purity laws are neither arbitrary nor examples of pre-modern scientific understanding. Instead, Douglas argues that keeping these commandments is a part of living life within a faith narrative that always reminds the practitioners of who and whose they are. If that seems too restrictive, I might remind us that not a single one of us lives free of a worldview. We all live within some overarching framework that shapes our thinking and our understanding. We all live according to a set of commandments. Just because the commandments that you may follow are not written down in scripture, don’t think that you do not have any.

I have a confession of sorts to make. About a year ago I found myself working on a writing project. I was writing an essay, a thought-piece. The essay was entitled, “95 Theses on Membership and Leadership.” This piece of writing was inspired by Martin Luther’s 95 theses that he nailed to the church door in Wittenburg. Only, instead of pointing out 95 errors in the Catholic Church, my piece, as I envisioned it, would enumerate 48 principles that members of UU congregations should follow and an additional 47 rules for leaders. While working diligently on this essay over the course of a couple of days I felt a turning in my heart. Insight led me to the realization that publishing this piece might be unwise; that it was an idea worth spending some time reconsidering.

So, I’ve got this file on my computer with 24 of the 95 theses on membership and leadership. And I had mostly forgotten that it even existed until about a month ago when I found myself having a conversation with a church consultant and author named Michael Durall. This conversation happened at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Minneapolis. We were talking about the transformative power of religious community. We were talking about the life saving, life giving, life creating power of faith communities. And, Michael Durall said something very interesting, so interesting that it has stuck with me. He said that we too often offer people a religious life in the form of adding more bricks to their backpack. We too often offer people a religious life in the form of adding more bricks to their backpack.

And my mind fled from the conversation. My mind fled to my laptop. My mind fled to my documents folder, the folder named “essays,” and the file named “95 Theses on Membership and Leadership.” Ninety-five bricks for your backpack might be more like it. Ninety-five dumbbell presses.

Durall continued, saying that faith communities ought to invite people to life, to life lived more deeply, to liberation, to the joy of a life lived well and meaningfully. That is what we have to do, not add more bricks to your backpack. In fact, we need to help each other realize that we probably carry bricks in our backpack than we ought not to carry. There are probably things that weigh us down and keep us from living deeply and meaningfully.

The backpack metaphor was not invented by me. It wasn’t invented by Michael Durall. It wasn’t even invented by George Clooney, although he delivered a famous and extreme version of backpack theology in the Oscar-nominated film Up in the Air. In Up in the Air, Clooney plays a traveling businessman whose life has very little grounding. He possesses nothing that he cannot fit in his carry-on. He has no friends, no relationships, and tries to interact with his extended family as little as possible. He supplements his work by offering motivational speeches in depressing and dilapidated meeting halls at lonely airport motels. In the film, Clooney’s motivational speech works to establish the character. His monologue exhorts his listeners to get rid of all the things in the life that slow them down, everything from their material possessions to their memories to their relationships.

For the record, that is not my message this morning. My message this morning is about a middle way. Not burdened down with a million arbitrary tasks and not purging in order to attempt to try to find solace in emptiness. The wise religious teachers have taught lessons in paradox: You cannot ride your camel through the eye of a needle. You can only become rich by sharing. To be strong you must be pliable.

Earlier in my sermon I spoke of some of the various dietary commandments observed by Orthodox Jews. We might also mention commandments to observe the Sabbath, or the Islamic requirement to pause and pray five times each day and to practice almsgiving, or the spiritual practice maintained by a colleague of mine in Massachusetts who began each day with two hours of meditation. From the outside, these disciplines may seem onerous, arbitrary, restrictive, or invasive. But to the practitioner, I have found, it does not feel this way at all. To the practitioner these things don’t feel like bricks that they have to carry in their backpacks. In fact, these feel like necessary elements so that their lives do not feel weighted down, liberating them from the necessity of picking up every single brick they happen to stumble over.


On this first Sunday in August we here in Kansas are experiencing the hottest part of the year. The blazing heat and the blistering sun can be a force that leads us to practice discernment. If we have to practice conservation of movement we can’t afford to carry more bricks in our backpacks. We have to make space and make time for what is most essential.

One of my idiosyncrasies is that in the heat of the summer I turn to “cool entertainment.” The genius of the movie March of the Penguins, a nature documentary that became an unlikely summer blockbuster, was partially that it was very refreshing to invite people into the theater and have them stare at pictures of Antarctica for 90 minutes. In my car recently I’ve been listening to the Minus the Bear album Planet of Ice. So, it should not be any surprise that this past week I opened up an anthology of worship resources for the Christmas season, an anthology which contains this reading by Albert Perry?:
How full is your life? […]

Too full of activities to have rooms for accomplishments?
Too full of responsibilities to have room for simple joy?
Too full of busy-ness to have room for thought and prayer?
Too full of self-interest to have room for common needs? […]

Too full of regrets to have room for hope?
Too full of fear to have room for faith?
Too full of Suspicion to have room for love?
Too full of conflict to have room for peace and goodwill? […]

The things that matter will not clutter and crowd your life.
The things that matter will enlarge the orbit of your being until you are large enough to contain all that is worthy of being welcomed.