Thursday, September 30, 2010

The National Concert Recap + Setlist

If you’ve seen me in the past month, you’ve probably heard me speak excitedly in anticipation of going to see the band The National in concert. With all the build-up it is only fair to provide a little concert recap on this blog.

Last night I went to see The National in concert at the Uptown Theater here in Kansas City. I arrived just as the lone supporting act was beginning his set. The opening act was Owen Pallett, a Canadian violinist who is best known as the string arranger for the alternative band The Arcade Fire. Pallett performed half his set solo and the other half with a back-up instrumentalist who added minimalist flourishes of percussion and electric guitar.

Pallett’s performance was astonishing. He builds each of his songs from the ground up. He begins by playing a repetitive line which he records and loops. He then adds other lines which are overdubbed and looped. These looped tracks may be a melody on the violin or chords on his synthesizer. They may also include him percussively tapping the violin, playing with the wooden side of the bow, or even screaming into the electric pickup on the bridge of the violin. As a result each song builds into a frenzy of sound. Pallett then uses effects pedals to modulate the speed and tone of the recorded parts. Or, instead of trying to imagine my description, check out these videos of Pallett creating his art in concert:

Here is a video of Pallett playing “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” at a festival in Guelph. (The performance occurs during a rainstorm.)

Or, better yet, check out this video which gives you another feel for what he is like in concert.

After the show I had the chance to chat with Owen Pallett and he was exceedingly gracious.

With only one opening act, The National came on around 9:15. I was delighted to see that they were touring not just as a 5-piece band, but with two horn players and also talented violinist, keyboardist, accordion player, and back-up vocalist Padma Newsome. It was great to hear them with their full sound.

The concert was just about everything I wanted it to be. Their set covered mostly songs from their last two albums. The band was tight musically, but also somewhat relaxed on stage for a band that carries so much tension in their music. My only complaints were that the crowd didn’t seem as electric as I had hoped and that I wished they had played longer. Their 90 minute performance wasn’t enough for me.

Here is the set list in case you are interested:
Anyone’s Ghost
Mistaken for Strangers
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid of Everyone
Available / Cardinal Song (Medley)
Conversation 16 (I think this is their worst song.)
Apartment Story (I think this is their best song.)
Daughters of the SoHo Riots
Fake Empire

All the Wine
Mr. November
Terrible Love
A few notes:
“All the Wine” is fast becoming one of my favorite songs and their rendition of it was perfect.
I had always known that “Abel” was an energetic song but the passion they brought to it was surprising.
I am surprised they decided not to play “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” a song of their latest album that they seem to be promoting.
I picked up a “Bloodbuzz Ohio” themed T-shirt, red on red, with the image of the state of Ohio rendered in what appears to be spattered blood. The shirt looks cool, not creepy. Really it does.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ian White Maher's Charge to the Minister at the Ordination of Jason Lydon

[Note: The post below is not written by me. It is written by my colleague Ian White Maher who delivered words similar to these at the ordination of Jason Lydon into the UU ministry on September 19, 2010. Ian gave me permission to post his words on this blog. I hope you find them as challenging, provocative, and thoughtful as I do.]

The Exodus Generation
A Charge to the Minister
At the Ordination of Jason Lydon
by The Reverend Ian White Maher
September 19, 2010


I hope I don't offend you by saying, we are cut from the same bolt of cloth. We are both dedicated to the Unitarian Universalist movement, we are both passionate about social justice work, we have both taken non-traditional, somewhat irregular paths to our ordinations. It is an honor to share this ceremony with you and to call you a colleague.

Jason, you are now part of the institution, as horrific as that might sound. You have worked hard to earn this mantle. It is time for you to assume all of the responsibilities that go along with it. We welcome you. Indeed, you are needed.

We are the inheritors of an anti-institutionalist strain of Unitarian Universalism which traces our rebellion back to Emerson’s Divinity School Address, perhaps even earlier, which says the church isn’t necessary. All you really need is to appreciate the snowstorm that is rages outside the window, he says. But this is not true. The church is necessary. Institutions provide opportunity as much as they negate opportunity. For you and I, and for many of the people who have gathered here to celebrate with you, the question we wrestle with is, who will control the institution?

Speaking to you as a colleague, what I would hope most for you, perhaps selfishly, what I need most from you, is a willingness to move the culture of Unitarian Universalism from the inside.

There is a whole new generation of young ministers. I’m not exactly sure why this generation of young ministers has stuck with the movement, but I do feel a groundswell. And now is the time to position yourself for an appropriate assumption of that power. Now is the time to cultivate the spiritual tools so that you can speak clearly and respectfully and honestly to those who are less radical than we are, both politically and spiritually.

The church has to change. We are insular and often irrelevant. Many members in our older generations are plagued with resentments of how they were raised and the younger generations, well, they leave largely because these resentments have impoverished our spiritual life. I am tired of the young generation leaving the movement, because we are not fed here. A colleague calls us the exodus generation wandering without a home. So many of us who came to see you ordained here today grew up with people, friends of ours, who are no longer churched because there is no place for them. There is no place for spiritual adventurism. I don’t think the older generations are trying to trick us into believing that the seven principles are actually theology with this Build Your Own Theology crap. I just think they don’t know any better. The seven principles are not theology. They are a substitute for theology. They are for people who want talk about theology rather than live it. It is not necessarily their fault, but we must get inside so we can change that.

I have never seen so many people travel so far for an ordination. We came because you have a bright future. You are dedicated and passionate, willing to sacrifice. But the question is, are you willing to sacrifice that part of your ego that stands you in opposition to the institution, so that you might find a way to change it from the inside?

My ego wants me to be a great prophet. My ego loves seeing pictures of me getting arrested posted on Facebook. My ego loves battling ministers on the interwebs as they tell me I didn’t show Sheriff Joe enough love or that my actions violated the concept of love. And I cherish the opportunity to chant down these ministers who I see in the tradition of the gradualists and anti-abolitionists. But that is just my ego. My ministry is to create the spaces so the prophets can come. I’m not the prophet. My ego would wish that I were, but I’m not. And that is okay.

I believe that Unitarian Universalism is a saving faith. That it has the power to create authentic and life-changing experiences and rituals for atonement, redemption and celebration of this very miracle that we experience called life. But we need to create a larger circle so that others may be able to step in. In many ways our work is not glamorous work. Fighting from the outside is sexier, but it will not change the culture nor stop the hemorrhaging of the exodus generation.

There is a Baptist church near my house that offers weekend classes for children. Their sign says, we have Bible lessons, music, art, games, lunch and fun. And there is a young boy with a pair of dark sunglasses and his arms cross his chest showing off a big James Bond style watch with a caption that reads: Agents in Action: challenging kids to live courageously as God’s special agents. Now, the last thing I'm interested in is some undercover Christian working for God.

And yet I look at this sign and I say, Why don’t we have that? Not that I want to win people over through subterfuge. The truth is more often than not all you need. As Stephen Colbert has said, reality has a well-known liberal bias. But why don’t we have a sign inviting young people to follow a prophetic faith which cares for this planet and its people and animals? Where are our classes to train our agents for God?

We don’t have these classes because we don’t have the people to teach them. And we don’t have the people to teach because we haven’t done the work to make those teachers. Sometimes is takes years, sometimes decades, sometimes generations for the great prophets to come. The great prophets will come if we create the space.

There is a ministry to your church. This is primary and most important. It is the source of your authority. A minister with no church has very little authority. You must always tend this community. Love them sincerely and with all your heart and they will support you through thick and thin.

And there is a ministry to our larger community particularly those in the exodus generation who need young ministers to demand the older generations deal with their damaged religious pasts so we can have a vibrant and accepting church.

All of our actions are done for the next generation and the generation after that. Do we change some of our language so that we are not discounted? So that we are heard? Is that selling out? Is that being strategic? Only your still small voice can tell you if it is authentic. Do not listen to the ego. We do what we do to put a stop to the hemorrhaging of the exodus generation. We do what we do to create legions of young Unitarian Universalist who live in the world as agents for God.

Your ministry is bright, brother. It is a blessing to know you.

[Rev. Christana Willie McKnight is the colleague who shared the term exodus generation with me]

My Solution to the BCS College Football Mess (Keywords: BCS, Playoff, Bowl, Boise State, TCU, Oregon, Florida, Alabama, National Championship)

[Note to my readers: This blog has absolutely nothing to do with ministry. Nothing in the least. It isn't an allegory or a parable or a ministry metaphor. It is just about College Football. If you aren't interested in College Football, don't read it.]

A few years ago a parishioner of mine took a trip to Portland, Oregon and returned bearing a lovely gift, a University of Oregon shirt. It is a long sleeve, green shirt with the word “Oregon” in bright yellow letters across the front—the colors of the U of O. Two weeks ago I wore the shirt around town and someone stopped me to ask, “How’s your team doing?”

The Oregon Ducks are not my team, but I still had an answer. “I have no clue. They’ve played a bunch of weak opponents and blown them all out.” This is exactly the truth. The Ducks football team, the #5 team in the nation at the time I was asked about them, had demolished its three opponents by a combined score of 189-13. They had played two absolute cupcakes and also dispatched the University of Tennessee, a team that is usually solid but appears to be having a down year. Oregon will have its turn to compete. The next week they began a streak of nine straight games in the Pac-10 conference. Over that stretch they will play four games against teams currently ranked among the top 25 in the country. But, with perennial powerhouse USC crippled by sanctions, Oregon looks to be in great shape to make it to a BCS Bowl game and has an outside chance of playing for the national championship.

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Oregon lost its first game of the season to upstart Boise State, an emerging football dynasty that plays in a lesser conference. In frustration over the loss, Oregon star running back LeGarrett Blount punched a Boise State player after the game and was suspended for the season. Even without the services of their suspended star, Oregon went on to have a good year, win the Pac-10, and play in the Rose Bowl. But, that is somewhat of a consolation prize. The loss in the first week of 2009 all but disqualified them from having a chance to compete for the national championship. Is it any wonder that they scheduled a slate of cream puffs at the start of the 2010 season?

This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with ministry. It is entirely about college football. More specifically, it is about college football’s inept and infuriating way of determining a national champion.

A Short History of the BCS
In 1992 the Bowl Coalition, the precursor to the BCS, “was formed to increase the likelihood of matching the top two teams in the nation [in the championship game] while creating other exciting bowl pairings that would appeal to fans and would be based on the full season's results. When No. 1 Miami met No. 2 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl [following the 1992 season], it was the first pairing of the top two teams in a bowl game since Oklahoma and Miami played for the national title in the Orange Bowl after the 1987 season. The Crimson Tide beat the Hurricanes and won the national championship in both the coaches and the writers polls.”

While that language, taken from the BCS website, sounds good, it is incomplete. In 1992 a third team, Texas A&M, was undefeated heading into bowl play. Should they have had a shot at the championship? Fortunately, they lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Had they won that contest, they would have certainly had an argument that they deserved a share of the national championship. In fact, in the past 17 seasons there have been only three seasons in which there wasn’t any doubt as to which two teams deserved to play for the national championship. What’s more, there has been several times when an undefeated team has not had the opportunity to compete for a national championship.

The Current System
In the current system, football teams play a 12 game season. Following the season, there are 34 bowl games and (arguably) the top 68 football teams in the country are invited to play in one of the bowls. With the exception of one outlier, the minimum payout per bowl game in 2009 was $750,000. The maximum payout, paid in each of the five BCS bowls, was $17 million.

The BCS bowls invite the regular season winners of the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC) plus four at-large teams. Those four at-large berths can go to a second place team from a major conference, an extraordinary team from a minor conference, or to an independent school. (Aside from two of the military academies, the only independent football school is Notre Dame. Notre Dame does this for financial reasons; because of its storied history it has its own television deal which earns it more money than it could earn joining a league and having to share its revenue. Interestingly, BYU stands ready to try its hand as an independent believing that it has a natural nation and worldwide LDS fan base, enough of whom will want to see every game televised.)

As I have for the past several years, this year I continue to root for teams from the minor conferences. In 2006, an undefeated Boise State team was not invited to compete for the national championship and went on defeat Oklahoma in one of the most thrilling football games ever played. In 2008, an undefeated Utah team was not invited to compete for the national championship and went on the handily defeat Alabama. Last year, 5 undefeated teams including two teams from minor conferences, Boise State and TCU, were invited to BCS bowls. Undefeated Alabama beat previously unbeaten Texas for the championship while unbeaten Boise State prevailed over TCU, but did not get a sniff of a chance to play for the national title.

I think hardly anyone believes that the current system is ideal. The debate hinges around what a better system would look like.

A College Football Playoff?
For decades, college football fans have called for some sort of a playoff system in college football in order to more fairly determine a national champion. It is an issue that has even attracted major political interest. Weeks after he was elected President, Barack Obama appeared on Monday Night Football and called for a college football playoff.
“I think it is about that we had playoffs in college football. You know, I'm fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams, the top eight teams right at the end, you've got a playoff; decide on a national champion.”
Many different formats for a playoff have been suggested. The most basic of these is the “And-1.” In other words, following the BCS bowls, one more game should be played pairing the two top-ranked teams. But, there are problems with this suggestion. In some cases, this would help to clarify a national champion. In other cases, there would be a dispute about which teams would compete in the “And-1” game. For example, last year we could have had a clear national championship by having Alabama play Boise State in an “And-1” game. However, what if Florida had not beaten Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl? If Cincinnati had won, there would have been two undefeated teams claiming a right to compete for the title. In many years there would have been substantial debate as to which teams deserved to play in a final game. In other years, the season would have ended with a clear national champion and no team could claim a right to challenge.

Obama’s idea of an 8 team playoff is another common suggestion. However, just looking at last year’s ten teams who played in BCS bowls, it isn’t immediately clear which two teams deserved to be excluded. All ten teams had an argument for inclusion in an 8 team playoff.

Others have suggested an expanded playoff with 12 teams like the NFL playoffs or 16 teams like the NBA or NHL playoffs. The problem with this is makes the college football season too long. It means three extra games for the teams playing in the championship game. Those teams are going to send dozens of players to the NFL and the extra wear and tear has a greater chance of costing the stars their livelihood. A four or five week playoff would have other logistical complications. Would some of these games be hosted by schools? Well, then what do you do with campuses that are closed down for winter break? Are the playoff games hosted at desirable warm weather locations like the bowl games? Well, then how do fans travel in the way they do for bowl games?

But, even if the logistics could be figured out and even if we decided that it was an acceptable risk to ask the players to play up to three additional games, it wouldn’t solve all the problems. Allow me to digress for a few moments and consider the arguments of those who argue against a college football playoff. The main argument is seldom stated. The main argument is that the bowl system, with 34 bowls with corporate sponsors, is extremely lucrative and there is no need to change this system. But, nobody is willing to admit that this is the real reason. Instead, there are two common arguments made against a playoff. The first argument is that people like the debate and that the debate is good for the sport. The second argument is that it makes the regular season more critical.

Unfortunately, both these arguments are specious. While debate is good for ESPN and sport radio talk shows, the debate is also infuriating. Nobody would suggest that we cancel the Super Bowl so that we can debate which team, the AFC or NFC champion, is better. The second argument is also problematic. The regular season is critical. Lose one game and your national championship aspirations are dashed, as we found out last year when Oregon lost to Boise State. However, schools have largely sought to avoid heartbreaks of this nature by scheduling schools against whom they can run up the score. Last weekend’s epic “contests” included:
#2 Ohio State defeating Eastern Michigan 73-20
#11 Wisconsin demolishing Austin Peay 70-3
#13 Utah cruising against San Jose State 56-3
#18 Iowa beating Ball State 45-0
#21 Michigan dominating Bowling Green 65-21
#25 Michigan State blowing out Northern Colorado 45-7
Arguments about the regular season being more competitive have to be compared against the reality that each team schedules two or three presumed drubbings each year. Take perennial national title contender Florida, for instance. They play in the most competitive conference in football and face a ruthless gauntlet of games against teams like Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, and Arkansas. Every year they also schedule mid-season tune-ups against hapless victims like The Citadel and Appalachian State.

And, this is a problem whether you have 10 BCS bowl games or a playoff with 8 or 16 teams. The regular season is short. That extra loss, whether it is your first or second or third, knocks you out of a chance at being number one. So, the schools schedule a couple of patsies so that they have a better shot. For most schools, competitive scheduling is a disadvantage. Something is deeply broken when competition is a disincentive.

My Suggestions for Fixing College Football
While I don’t believe that the current system works, I don’t think that a playoff is the best fix. As I argued above, I believe that a playoff system that is large enough to include all worthwhile competitors makes for a season that is too long and is too risky for football’s youngest stars. Further, a playoff system does nothing to combat the tendency for teams to schedule non-competitive games during the regular season.

So, here is my recommendation for fixing the college football season. Before the season there will be a preseason poll. The preseason poll will rank the top 32 teams in the country. Those are the 32 teams that will be invited to play for the National Championship. Other teams will still play a regular season. For those 32 teams, the season will work the following way. There will be one preseason game that does not count. The preseason game will be a tune-up game against a lesser opponent. This will allow those 32 teams to play, for example, a neighboring school and help that school financially. When Oregon beats Portland State 69-0, it is a loss for the fans, but it is a win for Portland financially. Have the game be an exhibition.

The first four to five games of the season will be played against conference rivals. For example, if KU is ranked among the top 32 teams at the beginning of the season, KU would play natural rivals Mizzou and K-State, one other team from the Big 12 north and one team from the Big 12 south. This arrangement allows schools to continue to play their natural rivals. A fifth game would be added in cases in which a team plays an out-of-conference natural rival, such as Mizzou playing Illinois or Florida playing Florida State.

The next part of the season would be “pool play.” Each of the 32 teams would be divided in four pools of eight teams. During the next 7 games of the season, every team would play every other team in its pool. The team with the best record in each pool would then play a simple Final Four playoff to decide the National Championship. If two teams tie for having the best record in their pool, their body of work during the first four or five weeks of the season would be used to determine the best team in each pool.

This system is an improvement over the old system in many ways. For one thing, the “pool play” portion of the season would guarantee that competitors have balanced schedules, something that is currently sorely missing in college football.

Some may object that it is exclusionary to make only 32 teams eligible for the championship. But, when has a team that began the season outside of the top 32 ever had a shot at the title? Heck, Boise State may go undefeated for a second consecutive season and still not have a shot at the title. Oregon or Oklahoma or TCU (or all three) may also go undefeated this year and not have a shot at the championship. However, to promote competitiveness, the four (or eight) worst teams in “pool play” will be ineligible to compete in pool play the following year which guarantees that the best teams that were excluded the year before will be included the following year.

While the top four teams compete in a mini-playoff for the National Championship, all other teams will be eligible to compete in bowl games with the 28 “pool play” teams receiving automatic bids.

Give me a call College Football. Let's talk.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

UUA Meditation Manuals 1961-1969: A Journal

Click here to read an introduction to this project.

PARTS AND PROPORTIONS by Arthur Graham (1961)

About the book:
Dimensions: 4 in. x 9 in.
Contents: Writer’s Comment, 43 meditations, Artist’s Comment
Cover: This meditation manual’s unique cover has a cartoon drawing by artist Ralph Kniseley. I will reproduce the artist’s comment in its entirety:
My cover design touches on some of the chapter headings of Arthur Graham’s manual for meditation. It suggests a tenement fa├žade. In the doorway is a couple sharing their fate. The woman’s eyes are closed in thought, while the man peers out passively but with hinted ruthlessness. The painter at the lower window pauses from his creative struggle to gaze into the street. Above in his window, another man looks at his precious potted flower, his only contact with nature.

In the introduction, Arthur Graham shares his ideas as to what meditation is supposed to do. He argues that meditation should not work to produce “a disciplined achievement of a tranquility which will yield spiritual rest and reassurance.” Instead, Graham views life as “a complex, dynamic, scintillating depth-experience” and suggests that, “Meditation should aim at the understanding of life in all its nuances and the enjoyment of its deep emotional satisfaction through recapitulation of its experience.”

In his 1961 manual for meditation, Graham provides us with 43 poems (many of which rhyme) that he counsels “are more meaningful when read aloud. Somehow the sound helps the sense.” He divides these poems into six different sections: Man Alone; Man in Nature; The Demons; The Social Prison; Beyond Thought; and, The Living Soul.

In these meditations there is a persistent view that life’s purpose is bound up in ceaselessly striving, yearning, and struggling. Graham’s view of life seems to be strongly influenced by existentialism. His language and imagery evoked the writings of Albert Camus, especially Camus’ famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In the poem “Return to the Universe,” he writes,
May I see the clouds forming
Ever new heavens,
And aspire to strive to them;
For this is the destiny of man.
May we fill our destiny in hope.
And from “Common Destiny,”
So we would pray for a sense of common destiny
Which arises in our will to be sharers
Of the burden of all mankind, and
Sharers of its total victories and defeats.
Of interest is Graham’s section on “The Demons.” The demons are temptations. (Presumably, this is a nod to the trials and temptations that Jesus faced during his forty days in the desert.) The temptations that Graham names are fascinating: The Easy Thought; Self Enclosure; Ego, Undifferentiated; Anxiety; Self Pity; Fear; and, Death. In this section Graham’s philosophy of life is clearest. From his poem, “Death,”
Well, sing the tune with vigor then!
Chant out its tale to mortal men!
Across that lapping void no guide?
Then set the course on this bleak side.
And, from his poem, “The Easy Thought,”
We wish a world within our minds,
A pleasure-giving barony
Over which we rule; where life is kind;
Ease, our responsibility.

This fantasy but cuts us off
From the hard, the challenging and real.
The limped mind can never doff
Its ease to serve the great ideal.
One of the things that I am interested in as I embark on this project is how the understanding of the connection between nature and spirituality has changed within Unitarian Universalism over the past 50 years. Although Graham does include a section entitled “Man in Nature” he understands nature quite differently than a Mary Oliver, a Rachel Carson, or even a Henry David Thoreau. For Graham, nature is simply one of the locations of man’s eternal striving, aspiring, and searching. His poetry is focused on the horizon, the heavens, and the courses of the stars.

Quite unlike the meditation manuals before it, Parts and Proportions is not explicitly a Lenten manual. However, it does conclude with a resurrection of sorts. The last poem in the collection is the wonderful “Miracles Repulsed.” Graham begins this poem with the lines, “We would open every tomb / Where man lies dead to life.” Graham interprets the tomb as a turning away from life and urges his readers to willingly enter the fray of living,
No soul set free. No kingdom to come.
Just death and darkness to faithless ones
Who resisted always the twin miracles of conviction and labor,
Who failed to struggle with the stone.
One of the things that surprised me most in this manual for meditation was that Graham mentioned current events. We will see, in the next meditation manuals, that there is far less reference to current events. My colleague Jake Morrill informed me that Arthur Graham served our congregation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That might explain “The Long Path,” a poem about evolution that pokes fun at the evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee. (In a companion poem, “The Short Path,” Graham seems to cast each day as an ascent of man in miniature.) Likewise, the poem “Jesus” focuses on Jesus as a universal figure. Jesus is seen in Gandhi, Saint Francis, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King. And, Jesus can be and is intended to be us as well if we “cast off the aloof, vicarious observer role.” Interestingly, Graham tells of King behind bars in the Atlanta jail—Birmingham won’t happen for another three years!

5 Best Meditations:
1) Miracles Repulsed
2) Jesus
3) The Cynical Mechanic
4) Child’s World
5) Paradox

I read Parts and Proportions between September 9 and September 14, 2010. I posted this commentary on 9/14/10.


Here are links to read about UU Meditation Manuals through the years. [Links will become active when they are available]:
Click here to read an Introduction to this Project
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1970-1979
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1980-1989
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1990-1994
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1995-1999
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2000-2004
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2005-2009
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2010-2011
Click here to read about Unitarian Lenten Manuals from 1955 and earlier
Click here to read about Universalist Lenten Manuals from 1955 and earlier
Click here to read about CUC Lenten Manuals from 1956-1960

Reading Through the UUA Meditation Manuals: A Journal

Click here to continue to Part 1: UUA Meditation Manuals from 1961-1969

For the past five years or so I have engaged in a spiritual practice. I’ve endeavored to practice it daily, though in fact I have practiced it a bit more intermittently than that. One of the parts of my practice has been reading and then reflecting on a short piece of writing. Sometimes I select a passage from a sacred text of the world’s religions. At other times I read from volumes of contemporary poetry. Often I pick up a book of collected meditations, spiritual writings, or sermons. One of the most reliable resources for my spiritual practice has been the meditation manuals published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Next spring the UUA turns 50. Over the past half century the UUA has published 60 meditation manuals. And, over the past five years I have read a quarter of those meditation manuals as a part of my spiritual practice. I’ve also used many of my favorite selections from these manuals as readings for worship services or as opening words for a committee meeting or class.

This past June I attended the UUA General Assembly in Minneapolis. During GA I had a book signing for the book I edited, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality. As I signed copies of my book in the bookstore area in the cavernous exhibition hall, I sat across from Robert Walsh who was signing his book Stone Blessings, the UUA meditation manual for 2010. I had never met Robbie before, but I was familiar with his written meditations. Several years earlier, during a trip to Portland, Oregon, I made the essential pilgrimage to Powell’s Books, one of the world’s truly great bookstores. Perusing the religion section at Powell’s I happened to find a copy of Walsh’s out-of-print meditation manual from 1992, Noisy Stones.

With the memory of that lucky find from several years ago on my mind, I decided that I would try to collect the whole set of UUA meditation manuals. Several weeks, and one big book buying binge later, I had assembled the whole set and had also managed to get my hands on several Unitarian and Universalist meditation manuals from the 1940s and 1950s.

The UUA meditation manual for 1975, In Unbroken Line, anthologized published prayers and meditations by Unitarians dating back the mid-1800s. In the introduction, editor Chris Raible mentions that when the American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, one of its chief purposes was to function as a pamphlet society that published theological tracts and sermons. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that the AUA began to publish devotional literature. A volume of the collected prayers of Theodore Parker was an early publishing hit for the AUA.

Lynn Ungar’s 1996 meditation manual, Blessing the Bread, contains a listing of meditation manuals published since the 1930s. From that list we learn that from 1938 to 1955 the Unitarians and the Universalists each published an annual meditation manual. From 1956 to 1960 the two denominations jointly published one manual under the imprint of the Council of Liberal Churches. If not all, the vast majority of these collections published between 1938 and 1960 were Lenten manuals. They contained forty prayers or reflections, one for each day between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Over the past fifty years, most of the meditation manuals published by the UUA have not followed the form of the Lenten Manual, with the exception of a period from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s when there was a resurgence of the Lenten manual theme.

In honor of the 50th birthday of the UUA I’ve decided this year to read through all 60 UUA meditation manuals (or at least the ones I have not yet read) and keep a loose reading journal on my blog. In order to finish this project before the General Assembly next June, I will be reading my way through them and not praying my way through them in way I normally would.

Throughout this project I plan to describe not only each meditation manual, but also to make some observations as to what these meditation manuals have to say about Unitarian Universalist devotional practices and theology over the past fifty years. After I finish with these 60 manuals, I may decide to look back and explore devotional publications from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Maybe I will even try to get my hands on a copy of Theodore Parker’s collected prayers.

This project does not purport to be a comprehensive examination of post-merger Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. The UUA has published all kinds of resources that would also have to be considered. It is beyond the scope of this project to consider other volumes of spiritual writing that were not part of the mediation manual series, books about spiritual practice such as Scott Alexander’s Everyday Spiritual Practice or Erik Walker Wikstrom’s Simply Pray, two hymnals and at least two hymnal supplements, and various religious education curricula.

Here are links to read about UU Meditation Manuals through the years. [Links will become active when they are available]:
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1961-1969
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1970-1979
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1980-1989
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1990-1994
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 1995-1999
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2000-2004
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2005-2009
Click here to read about UUA Meditation Manuals from 2010-2011
Click here to read about Unitarian Lenten Manuals from 1955 and earlier
Click here to read about Universalist Lenten Manuals from 1955 and earlier
Click here to read about CUC Lenten Manuals from 1956-1960

Several individuals offered tremendous assistance in helping me to assemble my collection of meditation manuals:

Thanks first and foremost to Brent Smith. Brent responded to a query to the UU ministers email list-serve by mailing me a box and two envelopes containing not only a few rare UUA meditation manuals, but also a stack of other published meditations, sermon collections, and pamphlets. Brent: your books have found a caring home where they will be loved; you receive my deepest thanks.

Alison Wohler, a dear classmate of mine not so long ago, sent me three hard-to-find meditation manuals. Alison: I am deeply touched by your generosity.

My parents, Tom and Barbara Belote, purchased several meditation manuals for my birthday.

Marshall Hawkins at Skinner House Books sent me the digital proof of a more recent meditation manual that is out of print and is prohibitively expensive on Amazon.

My friend and colleague Roger Butts helped me to get my hands on a copy of Clarke Dewey Wells’ The Strangeness of This Business.

Several ministers including Jake Morrill, Lisa Presley, Peter Richardson, Douglas Taylor, Jean Wahlstrom, Robert Walsh, Alice Blair Wesley offered helpful advice and assistance.

Finally, thanks are due to Heather Hyland of The Hyland Eclectic bookstore in Florida who helped me to round out my collection.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon: "Do That Thing You Do" (Delivered 9-12-10)

Opening Words
A passage from the Epistle of James in the New Testament:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister does not have clothes and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet does not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… I by my works will show you my faith.
Jesus said much the same thing. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit… You will know them by their fruits.”

We come together this morning to be refreshed by the simple clarity of this message. Around us we see a world in which too many people think that purity of faith justifies acts of hate, of violence, of exclusion. We pause this weekend in solemn memory of devastating violence. We come to remember the sobering lesson that faith does not, cannot, and must not excuse destructive acts.

We come together this morning to weigh and measure the fruits of our work, of our living, and of our faith. By our works we shall be known.

Come, let us worship together.

In a few weeks I will be going to a concert in Kansas City. This band that I love is coming to town. I’ve never seen them before and I’m really excited for this show. The band is called The National and the other day I was telling somebody that I was going to see them in concert. This person had never heard of this band and asked me, “Well, what do they sound like?” And, I kind of hemmed and hawed and said, “Well, they are from New York City.” Which didn’t exactly answer the question. And, then I added on other descriptions interspersed with random facts. “The lead singer has a beautiful, deep, baritone voice. They’ve released five albums. They are kind of an alternative rock band, but their music isn’t jangly and angular. Their sound is more mature. But not boring. It is mellow, but it isn’t only mellow. Their fourth album is probably their best.”

As I was making a bunch of random statements about this band, I realized that I was in no way conveying any sort of sense of what The National sounds like. I debated as to whether I should try to sing one of their songs and I decided that probably wasn’t a good idea. [Some more information about the band The National is appended to the end of this sermon.]

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. If it hasn’t happened to you a hundred times by now, it will happen to you a hundred times. You will find yourself in a conversation about religion. You will say that you are a Unitarian Universalist. The person you are talking with will give you a blank and baffled look, and will ask you, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” And you will gulp. And you will swallow hard. And you will be reminded of that fact that you belong to a relatively small religious movement, one that very few people have heard of.

Nobody will ever ask you, “What do The Beatles sound like?” But, if you are a fan of a not-very-well-known, under-the-radar band, or if you are a member of not-very-well-known religion, you are going to get asked this question. And, if I were smart—and that is a very big “if”—I would carry around an MP3 player so I could just say, “Here, take a listen to The National and tell me what you think.” That would work for music, but I don’t think you can put your religion on an MP3 player. Come to think of it, I suppose you could carry around a portable electronic device and pull up an “introduction to Unitarian Universalism” video on the web, but that would be weird and awkward. Like you can’t even describe your own religion.

Talking about Unitarian Universalism is hard because we’re a small religion and a lot of people haven’t heard about us. But, it is also hard for at least two other reasons. The first reason is that we want to be respectful to others and that we tend to be private about our faith. We have had people visit our church and see someone they know and exclaim, “I’ve know you for twenty years and I didn’t know you went to this church.” We don’t go door to door. We don’t stand on street corners handing out leaflets. We don’t even invite our friends to church. During the children’s story time I engaged our children in a game of charades. It was easy to act out a gorilla. It was easy to act out an eagle. But, when I challenged us to act out a Unitarian Universalist, we were a bit stumped. [After the service, a member commented, “How exactly can you act out forming a non-profit organization to work for human rights?”] But, as the audience called out ways that I might act out Unitarian Universalism, not one person suggested that I pretend to knock on doors. I don’t think we will ever be people who evangelize by going door to door, but maybe we should invite our friends or colleagues.

A second reason that we don’t talk about our faith is that our religion, Unitarian Universalism, is different from what a lot of people think religion is like. A lot of people believe that religion involves affirming a dozen impossible propositions every morning before breakfast. That isn’t what religion is about. But most people think that it is.

Ironically, you could come up with the most impossible, incredible, and bizarre beliefs you could possibly imagine, and the other person would have an easier time understanding you. You could tell people that you believe that we were put on this planet by aliens from the planet Xyphoid 4, that the aliens will return for us in the year 2020, and that the aliens communicate with us through a secret device in our teeth, and the person you are talking with would think that your religion is weird, but they would at least think that it sounds like a possible religion because to them religion involves believing in dozens of impossible propositions.

So, if you try to explain how Unitarian Universalism is based on relationships and behaviors and not on beliefs—that we are a covenantal faith rather than a creedal faith—the person that you are talking with is likely to keep coming back to beliefs. “So, what do you believe?” “So, what do you believe?” It can sound like a broken record.

We live in the post-Enlightenment, modern, Western world. We live in a culture that is both very religious and very ignorant about religion. We live in a culture in which most people think that religion mostly has to do with what you believe. That is unfortunate.

One of the images that I use when I teach about religion is the image of the four-legged stool. To be sturdy, a stool needs four legs. Religion, likewise, has four expressions. One of those expressions is belief, what your mind embraces. But another expression, another leg on the stool, is faith. If belief is a thought, then faith is an emotion of love and trust.

So belief and faith are two of the legs of the stool. The third leg of the stool is religious practice: prayer, meditation, devotion, contemplation, yoga, singing, or lighting the chalice. As we were playing charades earlier with the children, one of the first suggestions for how to act out a Unitarian Universalist was to pretend to light the chalice.

Finally, there is the fourth leg of the stool: your life and your actions in the world. This is the most important leg of the stool. It is the values that you hold dear. It is the choices you make. It is what you decide to do or leave undone, when you decide to speak out or remain silent. This leg of the stool says that religion is about something that you do. You practice your faith when you do that thing you do.

My colleague Laurel Hallman once had this quote that I liked. She said, “You can ask a person what they believe and they might tell you something halfway interesting.” She was being very polite, very tactful and diplomatic. What she really meant was this: most people, when they start talking about their beliefs, are boring. Belief is actually the least interesting part of religion. What a person thinks is less interesting to me than what that person does in the world as an expression of the values that person holds dear. What a person thinks is less interesting to me than how that person cultivates their way of being in the world. And, what a person thinks is less interesting to me than what that person puts their deepest trust in.

In the New Testament we find numerous examples of times when Jesus was asked to make a statement of belief and refused to do so. Instead, Jesus preferred to speak in parables. He preferred telling stories over a boring explanation of belief.

And, the good news is that you can do this too. It is a lot easier to tell a story than it is to memorize the Seven Principles. It is a lot easier to tell a story than it is to try to craft an elevator speech. Here are a few of my favorite stories:

Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister in the 1800s. He served a church in Boston when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Fugitive Slave Act required that citizens report runaway slaves to the authorities and made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves. Parker continued to harbor escaped slaves; he even kept a pistol by his side when he wrote his sermons. He was willing, if need be, to defend the lives of the slaves he harbored with his own life.

Hosea Ballou was a Universalist minister in the 1800s. In one frequently told story, Ballou was out one day traveling by horse with a companion who was an orthodox Christian. During their ride, their conversation turned to theology and Ballou told his companion that he did not believe in Hell. His friend asked, “Well, if you don’t fear being punished for sins, then what stops you from mugging me and taking my money and my horse?” Ballou responded, “Because I am Universalist the thought never even crossed my mind.”

Not all of the stories are from a long time ago. In her meditation manual, Jane Mauldin tells a story about an older woman who had searched and searched for her dream home, a wonderful home where she could retire and be surrounded by beauty and comfort. She finally found the perfect home. Everything was perfect: the design, the location, the price. The only problem was that this dream house existed in a place where there was a “restrictive covenant” as to which races were not permitted to buy or sell the home. She agreed to buy the home on the condition that the racist covenant would be removed from the closing documents. On the day of her closing she traveled to another state to sign the paperwork, but the paperwork still contained the racist clauses. She refused to sign.

Mauldin writes, “The ripples of our actions, when we live as our conscience dictates, wash upon distant shores, and reshape our world, one heart, one neighborhood, one town, one generation at a time.”

Instead of talking about what you believe, tell a story. Tell a story about a time when you practiced your faith by following your conscience, by demonstrating your values, by standing up for what you believe. Or, tell a story about someone you admire from our tradition. After you tell the story it becomes easy to talk about what you believe. You can explain why the person did what they did, the ideas and values that influenced their actions. But, remember that what you do is far more important than anything you say. So, do that thing you do.

If you were intrigued about my description of the band The National above and want to hear what they sound like, here are a few of their songs you should check out.

“Slow Show” from their album Boxer is one of their best songs. The song features a reprise of the song “29 Years” from their first album. You can watch the video here.

“Fake Empire” is probably their best known song and is the first track on Boxer. Here they are performing the song on Letterman.

Like many of their songs “Apartment Story” starts slowly and then catches you with an amazing hook. The video for this song is a lot of fun!

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the first single off their newest album, High Violet.

“Terrible Love” is another great song from High Violet. Here they are performing it live.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Welcome Visitors!

Greetings! Welcome to RevThom. Here I post sermons and blog for the church that I serve, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kansas. A special welcome to everyone who is visiting from Tony's Kansas City blog or from Mike Hendricks' story in the 9/8/10 Kansas City Star.

Here's a link to my sermon on Islam and Islamophobia that I delivered last Sunday.
Here's a link to the (somewhat) comical slideshow that accompanied that sermon.

And, of course, I invite you to check us out at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. We are a progressive denomination with a history that stretches back more than 200 years in the United States. Our church practices pluralism, acceptance, and our members engage in an open-minded free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

We live in a time in which so many religious groups are torn apart by social issues and struggle to reconcile their tradition with an evolving understanding of humanity. Not us. We fully welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families to full participation in our congregation and our ministry. We welcome a diversity of families. We respond to exclusion and intolerance by standing on the side of love.

We live in a time in which so many religious groups struggle to reconcile their beliefs with the teachings of science. Not us. Our members embrace the teachings of science. During the last evolution/creationism controversy involving the Kansas Board of Education, we offered classes taught by college biology professors and high school biology teachers on the science of evolution.

We live in a time in which so many religious groups struggle to reconcile the particularity of their own faith with an increasingly diverse America and an increasingly interconnected world. Not us. We don't see ourselves in competition with the great religions of the world: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism. Embracing our own tradition does not invalidate the understandings of other religious traditions.

We live in a time in which many people find doctrine restrictive and limiting. Throughout our history Unitarian Universalists have held that we need not think alike to love alike. And love is the main thing. Because we don't insist that we need to think alike, our congregation is a place where theists and atheists can come together and rejoice in each other's presence. Our congregation is a place where we can dwell together in peace, seek knowledge in freedom, and serve humanity in fellowship.

Feel free to check us out on the web or come visit us on a Sunday morning for either our 9:30 or 11:00 service.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sermon: "Islam and Islamophobia" (Delivered 9-5-10)

Back on August 9 of this year, Pastor Adam Hamilton, founding minister of 14,000+ member United Methodist Church of The Resurrection in Leawood, appeared on The Darla Jaye Show, a conservative talk-radio show on KMBZ in Kansas City. He went on the show to promote his new book and, 17 minutes into the conversation, Darla Jaye switched topics, bringing up the plans to construct an Islamic Cultural Center a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. She introduced the topic as, “A contentious issue right now not getting nearly as much attention that it should be from the media [sic].” Darla Jaye continued to introduce the topic, saying, among other things, “Now I’m not saying that all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists seem to be Muslim.”

We are going to get to the topic of the Islamic building in New York City a little bit later on, but I want to start off with a bit of a broader view. Right now, we are in a dangerous place in the United States. Rhetoric about Islam has reached a fever pitch of hysteria. It comes from all sides, from the media, from opportunistic politicians, and from religious leaders. It is a discourse of demonization and fear that plays off of insecurities and ignorance. This extremism poses a real threat not only to the millions of Muslim citizens of the United States, but it poses a threat to the soul of our nation and to world security.

Next weekend the bizarre pastor of a fringe church in Gainesville, Florida will be holding “Burn a Qur’an Day.” Next weekend a rally will be held in New York City to protest the plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. Originally, Newt Gingrich was to headline this event, but Gingrich pulled out because he didn't want to be associated with it. However, one of the guests of honor who will be there is Geert Wilders, a Dutch neo-fascist politician who spreads anti-Islamic hatred. Wilders has proposed a series of laws in The Netherlands that amount to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. He is so controversial and extreme that for most of 2009 he was banned from visiting the United Kingdom because he was deemed “a threat to the fundamental interests of society.” You’ll be able to catch him next weekend in New York.

In the United States, extremism has gone beyond talk. On August 25, a man asked a taxi driver in New York City if he was Muslim before repeatedly stabbing him. Last week a mosque in Tennessee was the target of arson and vandalism. Since September 11, 2001, there have been well over two hundred instances of hate crimes in the United States targeting mosques or other buildings associated with Islam. That’s a rate of one every two weeks. These hate crimes have ranged from simple vandalism and graffiti to arson, pipe bombs, and strafing an Islamic center that houses a preschool with sniper fire.

A little history is in order. Let’s begin with Muhammad. During the month of Ramadan each year Muhammad went to the mountains outside of Mecca to fast and pray. In the year 610 he had a religious experience, heard the voice of Allah, and began to receive the recitation, known as the Qur’an. Two years later he began to preach the message he had received. Within a century, the Umayyad Dynasty, which stretched from present day Spain and Portugal in the West to present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India in the East had embraced Islam.

For the next 800 years much of present-day Spain existed under Moorish rule. No governing system is perfect, but under Muslim rule religious minorities were treated as dhimmis, as protected subjects. There was, if not equality, a broad tolerance of non-Muslims. The lines of empire ebbed and flowed, and Christianity began to reassert itself on the Iberian Peninsula during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We all know what happened in 1492, right? Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That’s the big news on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Spain, 1492 is the year that the Catholic monarchy, which had just recently wrested control of Spain back from the Moors, instituted the Inquisition. In fact, it was in 1492 that an edict was issued that required all Jews and Muslims to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain by the end of the year or face the Inquisition.

Historians believe that the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria included quite a few people, among them some Jews and possibly some Muslims, who elected to take their chances on the high seas rather than face the torture chambers of the Inquisition.

It is possible that Muslims first came to the New World on the ships of Spanish explorers. It is certain that Muslims came to the Americas as enslaved persons from the African continent; it is estimated that 20% of the slaves who came to America were Muslim. The earliest Arab Muslims who came to the United States in any significant number came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first wave of these immigrants were young men from present day Lebanon and Syria who came because of limited economic opportunities in their homelands. They settled in Dearborn, Michigan, Detroit, and Toledo, Ohio.

Through the twentieth century, American Muslims faced much of the same discrimination faced by other ethnic minorities. The racist housing covenants of the 1940s-60s in Leawood and Mission Hills discriminated not only against Jews and African-Americans, but also against Arabs, Turks, and other non-whites.

Over the past half century, Muslim immigrants to the United States have come from every corner of the globe: Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and more. Today, there are about 8 million Muslims in the United States. The typical American Muslim is middle to upper-middle class, earns an above-average income, and has generally had a positive experience with our nation’s unique blending of consumer-capitalism, religious liberty, and broad pluralism.

Given the reality that American Muslims are typical of the American experience, how do we account for the widespread virulent Islamophobia that we see in our national discourse?

The easy answer is that controversies like we see in New York City play well in the media and are deeply attractive to cynical politicians. As my colleague John Cullinan put it in a sermon he recently delivered,
[This whole debate is] noise. [It is] sound and fury signifying, ultimately, nothing. A distraction. A method of scoring cheap political points during an election season. A chance for those who seek power to say something that resonates with the frightened and the small-minded, without having to make a promise they cannot possibly keep (for what can our politicians do in this situation except give sound bites). A chance to whore for attention until the next noisemaking toy arrives, until we all forget and move on to the next manufactured controversy. It’s America’s favorite game: Political Football. It’s a game that everyone eventually loses.
However, I think there is something deeper at play. Do not be tempted into thinking this is solely about the building in New York City. There is a much deeper, much more widespread Islamophobia at play here. It is not just New York City. We must also account for arson at a mosque in Tennessee and self-professed “Tea Partiers” marching against a mosque in Southern California that is planning a building expansion. We must account for the nonstop rumoring about President Obama’s religious beliefs. We must account for the hysterical and delusional ravings about America being "Islamicized" or "Islamified," about there being some secret plot for some Ayatollah to seize power and turn the United States into an Islamic theocracy.

Again, the politically cynical answer is that this entire discourse is a distraction. It is a way to keep people focused on an imaginary boogeyman. If you can rile up fear and outrage about gays or Latinos or Communists or Muslims — whichever tried and true scapegoat is the flavor of the month — you can diminish people’s outrage about their economic vulnerability, their lack of access to affordable health care, or the quality of the schools to which they send their children.

It is one thing when we are distracted by Hollywood tabloids or even when we are distracted by political mudslinging. That is bad enough. But, the distraction that has come about from demonizing American Muslims may be more than a distraction; it is dangerous.

Of course, it is literally dangerous to the 8 million American Muslims who each stand a greater risk of being the victim of a hate crime. It is also dangerous to American soldiers overseas and imperils our own national security.

A few weeks ago I went to the annual awards banquet of the International Relations Council of Kansas City where Reza Aslan was the featured speaker. Dr. Aslan made a very important point. He said that the “War on Terror” is a war of ideas. In the end, it comes down to having the ability to say that my ideas are better than other ideas. He argued that the greatest weapon America wields in this war of ideas is the collective experience of 8 million American Muslims. In fact that is why people like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf travel the world on behalf the US State Department delivering lectures that cast the United States in a positive light.

To prevail in this competition of ideas, you have to frame a broad narrative about the experiences of Muslims living in a liberal democracy. You have to say: look at the experience of Muslims in America. They practice their faith freely and without government coercion. They experience economic prosperity, security, and safety. Diversity is lifted up as something positive and enriching. Respect is a fundamental value of our society and disagreements are dealt with peacefully. It is a vision that is immensely appealing to Muslims all around the world.

How do you lose a competition of ideas? Send images around the world of Christian pastors burning Qur’ans and marching on mosques. Distribute clips of Darla Jaye telling her listeners that all terrorists are Muslims. Show the screaming heads of radio and cable news entertainment promoting anti-Islamic hysteria. Heck, send videos of American politicians lining up to condemn Islam. After all, the competing narrative says that Americans hate Islam and are on a global crusade to eradicate Islam. Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf is the leading Imam behind the plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center in New York City. And, it really does put him in a tough spot as he travels to places like Egypt and Jordan to address large audiences and tell them that the United States is not hostile to Islam.

With regards to the planned Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan, let me say that there are two parts of this equation. One part consists of reason and facts. The other part consists of emotions.

You can look up the facts for yourself, but the facts are worth repeating. The so-called Ground Zero Mosque is not a mosque and is not at Ground Zero. There are already dozens of mosques on the Island of Manhattan, including one four blocks away. This building will not be a mosque. Instead it will be a 13-story, $100 million dollar community center and will include a 500-seat auditorium, a theater, a performing arts center, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a childcare area, a bookstore, a culinary institute, a food court, an art gallery, a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks, and a space set aside for prayer.

And, it is not at Ground Zero. The common refrain repeats that it is not at Ground Zero; it is two blocks away. But even that is not entirely true. I cannot help but think that part the national discourse about this building is shaped by a broad cluelessness about the geography of New York City. David Foster Wallace, in his 9/11 essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” makes the point that many Americans don’t realize the radical scale of everything in New York. We see the totalizing image of the NYC skyline as it is famously depicted on so many television programs, but this view doesn’t capture the sheer scale of New York. The proposed site of Park51 is two blocks away as the crow flies, but it is five blocks by foot, and five blocks in NYC is a lot bigger than it sounds. Here in Middle America we are used to seeing horizons. Stand on a sidewalk in New York City, at the bottom of a canyon created by vertiginous buildings, and the idea of distance is warped. I’m no expert on New York City geography, but I had to snicker when I heard Adam and Darla on The Darla Jaye Show agreeing that Park51 should be built ten blocks away. That is such a Johnson County way of thinking; you’re only ten blocks from some new development taking place in some repurposed cow pasture. Tell a New Yorker that his favorite deli is moving ten blocks away and see what happens.

I say this lovingly: If there is anything larger than the scale of New York City, it is the size of the city in the mind of a New Yorker. (Think of the famous New Yorker cover depicting a New York understanding of the geography of the United States.) The idea that a person in Manhattan should care about what a person in Queens thinks of a building project is laughable, to say nothing of a person living in Kansas City. The project developers worked for several years to generate broad support and the project earned the overwhelming support of New York’s interfaith leaders, the city planning council, and Mayor Bloomberg. And that is good enough.

Currently, the area around the proposed Park51 project is underdeveloped. A lot of businesses have closed or moved out of the area and there are many vacant storefronts. In fact, Park51’s neighbors at the moment include a strip club and an off-track betting lounge. The project is being spearheaded by a Sufi Imam who has spent his distinguished career working to build bridges and improve relations between Islam and the West. Originally, the building was to be called Cordoba House. Cordoba is the city in Spain that was the center of a Muslim presence in the West marked, albeit imperfectly, by tolerance and cooperation between different faiths. I should also mention that dozens of Muslims were among the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. There were Muslim employees who perished in the Twin Towers. There were Muslim passengers on the highjacked planes. There were Muslim firemen and EMTs who died heroically in the rescue efforts. I should also mention that there is a room set aside for Islamic prayer in the Pentagon just a few yards from the spot where terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon.

You probably already knew most of these things. These are facts, what reason tells us. But, we do not make decisions by facts alone. There is an emotional component to this debate. Emotions are powerful. Facts do not overrule them. I have found in talking to people and in listening to the conversations and arguments that emotions are like a truth serum. It is a referendum on people’s deep seated feelings about Islam and Islam’s place in the United States. Some people are uneasy about how they feel and try to stuff their own emotions. They attempt to justify the way they feel with theological and philosophical contortions.

Americans experience a wide range of emotions concerning the Park51 project. The emotions that we feel tell us something about ourselves.

Click here to see the humorous and sarcastic slideshow that went along with this sermon.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Islamic Plot to Take Over Kansas City

[Note: On Sunday, September 5, I preached a sermon on Islam and Islamophobia. Over the past several weeks and months I've been amazed and troubled by the craziness of the anti-Islamic hysteria that has become so prevalent in our national discourse. It is sheer lunacy! In light of all the claims that President Obama is secretly a Mulsim or where Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf receives funding, I decided to do a tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic slideshow during the worship service. The results were fairly immature, but also, I think, kind of funny.]

*** Welcome Visitors! If you have come to this page from Mike Hendricks' column in the KC Star, from Tony's Kansas City blog, or from another place on the web, I welcome you to this blog. Click here to find a special post welcoming you. Also, feel free to learn more about the congregation I serve, the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park. You are invited to visit our web site or join us on Sunday morning. ***

Also, click here to read the sermon that went along with this slide show.

On Friday, September 3, I grabbed my camera and headed down to the Plaza in Kansas City. First I treated myself to a falafel sandwich for lunch. Then I set out to uncover the Secret Islamic Plot to take over Kansas City. [If you are not from Kansas City, the joke hinges on the fact that the Plaza, a popular shopping and restaurant district, is inspired by the Moorish architecture of Seville, Spain.]

First, I noticed this odd building with a gold dome:

But did you know that this building is modeled after a Moorish (Islamic) military structure?

Connect the dots, people! There is a Muslim military installation right in the heart of Kansas City. I also noticed this ongoing construction:

The triangular, tiled roofs are eerily similar to The Alhambra in Granada, a Moorish palace. Is this being built for the Muslim ayatollahs who plan to rule America?

But, it gets even worse. In the Muslim world there is a teaching against depicting the human form. Muslims developed tiles with intrictate and abstract geometric patterns. And you can find these tiles all over Kansas City!

Put the pieces together! The architecture on the Plaza conforms to Shariah law. But hold on a second. You are not going to believe this. This is a picture of La Giralda, a minaret that is nearly 1,000 years old:

And, here is an identical minaret on the Plaza:

It is extremely suspicious that this minaret is connected to a restaurant called The Cheesecake Factory. Are they making cheesecake or yellowcake?

What are they hiding? What secrets are they keeping?

Why don't more people know about this? Could it be that the secret is being kept because the media has fallen under Islamic control?

And, most sinister of all. I've learned that at schools across our country our children are being recruited to join al-Gebra.

[An aside: you might remember Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper from the TV program The Wonder Years. Now she has authored a series of books about math for teenage girls. Before Hot X: Algebra Exposed she authored Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who's Boss.]

Yeah, I will admit that this whole slideshow was kind of immature and probably a little tasteless. But the point is that my "ground-breaking investigative photo journalism" has as much integrity as the anti-Islamic hysteria we find on cable news channels. And, if you want to see something truly funny, check out Keith Olbermann's piece: Obama Not the First Muslim President!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Back in March, the Onion A.V. Club began a weekly feature called "Undercover" and yesterday was the final installment in the feature. How it worked was that the folks at the A.V. Club made a list of 25 songs they thought it would be fun to see another band cover. Each week they invited in a band and that band had their choice of however many songs remained. A couple of other things: each band performed the song inside of an small, circular, claustrophobic room. After the performance, each band got to add a bit of graffiti to the room.

Yesterday, The A.V. Club asked people to vote for their top 5 performances. The runaway winner was Ted Leo & The Pharmacists who set an incredibly high bar by covering Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" in week one. The next four favorites were: The Swell Season covering Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two Headed Boy"; Wye Oak covering The Kinks' "Strangers", The Clientele covering M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes"; and Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide covering Journey's "Faithfully".

There were several wonderful things about this feature: It was cool to watch the bands adjust to the awkward room. Most of the artists showed a neat side of themselves personally; some were clearly emotionally attached to the songs they chose to cover. In addition, it was very cool to see a band chose to play a song they probably would never play.

There were also some disappointing aspects of this feature: Too many bands elected to cover a song by playing a disaffected, stripped-down, acoustic version of it. A few of the bands (ahem, Cursive) elected to butcher the song they chose. Having to watch the Budweiser advertisement again and again was annoying.

Here are my top 5 songs from this series:

#1) The Clientele covers M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes"
This is everything a good cover song should be. In the hip-hop smash hit "Paper Planes," The Clientele chose a song completely out of their comfort zone. They made it their own with violins, creative vocal stylings, and the inventive tambourine/xylophone combo on the chorus. Most of all, they clearly had a fun time with this song. Click here to see just how much their version differs from the original.

#2) Ted Leo & The Pharmacists cover Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"
I didn't want to include this song because this was so popular with the A.V. Club crowd. But, there is just no way I could omit it. They make this song rock. Ted Leo is flawless on the guitar and adds a stunning solo at the end.

#3) Owen Pallett covers Guided by Voices' "Game of Pricks"
I am going to see Owen Pallett in concert later this month when he opens for The National. I can't wait. Pallett's wizardry with the violin is captivating.

#4) Motion City Soundtrack covers Pavement's "Cut Your Hair"
This was actually the first of the cover songs that I listened to. With 5 acoustic guitars this cover seems equally ambitious and amateurish. However, they get tremendous credit for their enthusiasm and for not holding back on the solo.

#5) Ben Folds covers Elliott Smith's "Say Yes"
I am a huge fan of both Ben Folds and Elliott Smith. So, it was fascinating to listen to his distinctive voice and his pop-keyboard style on his rendition of the Smith classic. For the usually bombastic Folds, there is a dignified solemnity in his performance.

Bonus: The next five
#6) Rise Against covers Nirvana
#7) The Swell Season covers Neutral Milk Hotel
#8) Wye Oak covers The Kinks
#9) Coheed & Cambria covers The Smiths
#10) Patrick Stump covers The Wedding Present

(My 52 Lists in 52 Weeks feature went on a bit of a hiatus. I'm going to count this blog post as list #35.)