Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Celebrate What You Have" Day: Press Coverage & Recap

Thanks to everyone who helped out and turned out to yesterday's "Celebrate What You Have" alternative Black Friday event. About 60 people joined us for some part of the day.

We got some coverage last night on NBC Action News. We were one of the lead stories at the 5:00 hour.

I am grateful to everyone who helped to make this day happen:
Thanks to Dave Simmons for leading the music!
Thanks to Kenna, Paul, and Tiffany for serving as greeters.
Thanks to Leslie for leading her creative "Advent Calendars with a Twist" project.
Thanks to Sue for teaching drawing in the afternoon.
Thanks to Meg for taking charge of our baking. (We made dozens of cookies for Safehome.)
Thanks to Elizabeth for sending out press releases and helping us get media attention.
Thanks to Vickie for leading a beading class.
Thanks to Gloria for teaching Gentle Hatha Yoga.
Here are some links from the day:

Click here to find out about Reverend Billy's Church of Life After Shopping.
The Church of Life After Shopping is project of The Immediate Life, a New York based arts organization using theater, humor, and grassroots organizing to advance individuals and communities towards a more equitable future - starting today. We partner with citizens, grassroots organizations and progressive visionaries to produce dynamic, informed public campaigns that enact our core values - participatory democracy, ecological sustainability, and the preservation of vibrant communities and local economies.

Since 1996 our project has expanded from a one-man performance artist preaching against consumerism on the sidewalks of Times Square to a 35-person choir and 7-person band with dozens of original songs, a critically acclaimed stage show, a major motion picture and multiple media platforms. We have demonstrated commitment to educating the public about the consequences of unsustainable consumption. Our message--consuming less--is the single most effective and immediate response an individual can take to immediately halting the climate crisis. This same message has reached millions of people and has contributed to the public's increasing awareness of the relationship between shopping and climate change. Besides our long-term commitment to promoting sustainable consumption, our organization’s efforts to revitalize public space and defend the first amendment have been documented all over the world.
Click here to find out Advent Conspiracy, an evangelical Christian movement to reclaim the Christmas season. As Christians, they see the birth of Jesus as a world-changing event and look to embrace Christmas in a way that does justice to that world-changing power. "What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?" Their message is simple: Worship fully. Spend less. Give more. Love all. Give presence. Christian congregations that are part of the Advent Conspiracy movement have given millions of dollars to efforts to bring clean water to developing countries. (The videos on their site are quite catchy.)

Click here to find out about Lauren Greenfield's amazing half-hour documentary Kids+Money. Greenfield is a brilliant photographer and documentary film-maker who turns her lens on the lives and experiences of teens, especially teen-age girls. Kids+Money can be purchased directly from and can also be found on Wholphin volume 8.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

First Thanksgiving was no "Tea Party"

Earlier this week I ran into Dr. John Herron, professor of history at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He told me that he would be traveling to a hiring conference in early 2011 as UMKC is looking to hire a new professor of colonial American history. Our conversation made me fondly remember all the classes I had taken with Prof. David Hall at Harvard Divinity School. Hall is the world's leading expert on the history of colonial New England.

Earlier this week, a short article by Hall on the Puritans was published in the New York Times.
Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My 300th Sermon! (Delivered 10-24-10)

This sermon, delivered last month, was the 300th sermon I've preached!

Sermon: Bringing in the Sheaves in Holmes' Prairie
If you stand in the right spot, and align your eyesight just so, you can make out the perfect silhouette of the great horned owl in the newly bare trees of autumn. The late October moon, silver and brimful, provides an ideal background. The owl turns its head, surveying the exhausted field, looking for reflections of light from the eyes of field mice who continue to come to work even though human work has ended for a day and for a Sabbath. The human work will end for the season just as soon as the slumbering turnips are plucked from the earth, along with the last few recalcitrant potatoes which had been defiant for the whole growing season. Standing there, eye and branch and owl and lunar body align. The night wind blows across God’s country carrying the scent of the soil, the scent of a few pygmy pumpkins which hadn’t been plucked from the vine. The rush of air rustles the dried leaves and empty stalks, indicators that there had been a harvest. The remainders remind of the plump tomatoes and sweet corn of August, the endless zucchini and the string beans that couldn’t grow fast enough, and the most recent haul of pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash. The town of Holmes’ Prairie sleeps soundly off in the distance. [1]

Holmes’ Prairie is a small town in Western Kansas going the way that small towns have been going. It is a place that is hard to find on a map and the drive is hard on your car. The trip is many miles of kicking up dust and gravel. In the land of Eisenhower not even Ike saw it fit to put an interstate through Holmes’ Prairie. If you must know, I will let you know: Holmes’ Prairie is well to the West of Wichita geographically and far to the right of Liberal, geographically and politically. Just keep driving until the big city skyline of Wichita recedes into the horizon. Look for the water tower that proclaims that Jesus is Lord over Holmes’ Prairie. You’re almost there when you pass the whitewashed, red-lettered sign that announces that “Holmes’ Prairie believes in prayer in the home.” Or, you can get there the way that I do, by quieting your restless thoughts, retreating from life’s hurry-hurry and busy-busy, and learning whatever lessons there are to learn by paying attention to what is happening in a town where nothing ever happens. [2]

After a bumpy ride into town, my first stop is always at Annie’s Pie and Coffee Shop on Main Street. Her pecan chocolate pie is the closest thing to sin available for sale in Holmes’ Prairie. (It takes a couple of gallons of gasoline to carry you across the county line to buy a six-pack.) Holmes’ Prairie is a town taken to clean living, not so much by choice as by circumstance, though Annie’s coffee is an abomination that should have been written up in Leviticus.

“Hello, preacher boy!” Annie hollered as I stepped through the door. [3]

“Hello to you ma’am,” I responded, “I’ll have the regular, a grande cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso. And, I mean a cappuccino! Last time it was practically a latte.” Annie took the carafe off the black heating plate and poured the light brown swill into a blue ceramic mug, told me I was welcome, and sent me over to where good ol’ Sol was gazing absentmindedly out the window.

Sol’s Bible rested on the table in the closed position. Also, closed was his copy of Albert Camus’ The Plague. However, the latest entry in Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency series sat with its spine sticking up indicating he was three quarters finished with it. With his finger he tapped a yellow legal pad with a few vaguely geometric scribbles and doodles on it. He appeared no closer to becoming the next M.C. Escher than he was to beginning his sermon. I pulled up a chair and told Sol that I would apologize for interrupting him while he was writing his sermon, except for the fact that he wasn’t.

Excuse me, I’m being rude here. To me he is just plain ol’ Sol. He is otherwise known as The Reverend Solomon J. Samuels III, Pastor of the Full Gospel Holiness First Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. The primary strength of Sol’s ministry is his human fallibility. He has backslid just about as far as a Baptist can slide and over the years the blazing summers and windy winters of life on the Kansas prairie have baked and blown every ounce of orthodoxy from Sol’s old bones. He would have long given up belief in any kind of deity, had it not been for his exposure to a humanity that wasn’t any great shakes either. [4]

I asked Sol how things were with the faith communities of Holmes’ Prairie. He told me that the Interfaith Alliance was going strong. The Interfaith Alliance consists of Sol, the priest at the local Catholic parish, and the minister of the First Methodist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. They call it the Interfaith Alliance because the group includes Protestants and Catholics.

Next I had to ask how the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, under the fearless lay leadership of Mabel Pool, was faring. “Well,” commented Sol, “They certainly are not lacking in passion. The revision of their by-laws is their congregational theme of the year and they’ve been attacking it full force. The entire Fellowship has been working on the project as a committee of the whole. They have thirty seven pages of by-laws written so far. Plus, they are holding steady at ten members. I tell Mabel that they have enough for a minyan, but of course there is a problem with that.

“You mean they aren’t Jewish?” I offered.

“Well, there is that,” Sol answered, “But I was thinking more about the prayer part.”

Sol and I weren’t the only patrons at Annie’s Pie and Coffee Shop. Across the room Bobby Willoughby raised his blue mug and yelled, “Annie, let’s have another warm up.”

Bobby Willoughby and Hank Mathers occupied a corner booth tucking into slices of pumpkin pie and plenty of pseudo-coffee. Hank and Bobby were on duty serving with the volunteer fire department. They weren’t exactly serving for altruistic reasons. They liked the perk of being able to cruise the town with flashing lights and a blaring siren. But mostly they liked being able to spend hours sitting at Annie’s without being accused of loitering. As they had told Annie when she told them to go hang out somewhere else, “We’re not hanging out. We’re protecting and serving.”

“Hold your horses!” Hank hollered, “Take a look at this story in the paper.” Hank had been paging through the paper when he came across a story that he proceeded to read out loud.
Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee.

Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with the family’s pets. “They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn't do it," Cranick said.

The fire started when the Cranicks' grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond. "We wasn't on their list," he said the operators told him.

Cranick, who lives outside the city limits, admits he "forgot" to pay the annual $75 fee. The county does not have a county-wide firefighting service, but South Fulton offers fire coverage to rural residents for a fee.

Cranick says he told the operator he would pay whatever is necessary to have the fire put out. His offer wasn't accepted, he said.

South Fulton's mayor said that the fire department can't let homeowners pay the fee on the spot, because the only people who would pay would be those whose homes are on fire.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Bobby said, “We’ve been serving and protecting with the volunteer fire department all this time and we never get called for anything. These guys get a chance to actually put out a fire and they do nothing.”

“Um, Bobby, I think you’re missing the point here,” said Hank. “I mean these firefighters stood around and watched the guy’s house burn down. And the mayor and fire chief defended ‘em. Put yourself in the shoes of those firemen. Could you just stand around and do nothing?”

“Well, you know I’ve never been a guy who’s big on taking orders. But, then again, the folks down there in Tennessee need to have some rules, don’t they?”

“Oh, c’mon Bobby. Do you think the mistake and the consequence of the mistake match? I mean, it would be one thing if this guy’s mailbox had been on fire. This was his home we’re talking about.”

“But Hank, did you ever think of the principle of it? That Mayor seems like he knows what he’s talking about. You let Gene get away without paying the fee and then every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks they don’t have to pay the fee. And, how is that fair to the other people who did pay the fee on time like they were supposed to?”

“I see what you’re saying Bobby,” Hank replied, “That’s true. Nobody in Tennessee is going to forget to pay that fee now. But that is still a pretty stiff way to punish a guy. I mean, I think if you show the man a little mercy he’d probably walk door to door and collect the fee for the county for the rest of his life.”

“Hank, Hank, Hank. Just remember what the Bible says. It says, ‘You reap what you sow.’ You reap what you sow. This guy didn’t sow his seventy five dollars so he doesn’t get to reap the services of the fire department. That’s just what the Bible says. It’s personal responsibility.”

At that point, Annie had had just enough of Hank and Bobby’s yapping. She called out with sass from behind the counter. “Look at the two of you. You’ve wasted most of your day and my day here reaping my pie and reaping my coffee and reaping my newspaper. And, I know you two aren’t going to sow your check.”

“Oh, Mrs. Annie,” they called back, “We are sowing. Don’t you know? We are protecting and serving.”

I decided it was about time to stop rubbernecking. I turned back and found that Solomon had snuck out and stuck me with the check. He did, however, send me a copy of the message he preached.

On account of having spent a whole day driving out to Holmes’ Prairie, I didn’t have the time to prepare a sermon today. But, I don’t think Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III would mind if I shared his homily with you. And, I don’t think you would mind a little Baptist preaching. So here is what my friend Sol recently told his congregation in Holmes’ Prairie:
I don’t think I can really explain it, but I always find myself drawn to the field after the harvest. Undeniably there is poetry in the turning, the seeding, the tending, and the harvest. But, there is stillness and grace in the absence of human toil. In the stillness, there is a different motion.

When the striving ceases, the field becomes the home of the deer and fox, quail and crow, hawk and rabbit, owl and field mouse. These beasts scavenge and glean. They know nothing of property lines. For them there is no such thing as trespass. Sometimes I need to just go stand there and ponder the ways of the Lord. Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “There goes Pastor Sol again, going off and standing in fields and confusing himself with all this crazy contemplating. What are we paying this preacher to do anyways? Can’t he just go and get a hobby?”

When I look across the field after the harvest, it seems to me that we like to think that our ways are ordered, that the harvest we reap corresponds neatly the seeds we have sown. We reap what we sow. This is an easy thing to believe when the harvest time comes to us, when we bring home the bounty of the year and our stores are laden. When the harvest is great we believe that it is a sign of God’s justice. And, when others reap less we like to believe that it is also because God is just. Those other folks are just reaping what they sow. They should’ve sown better seeds.

Of course, from time to time our own yield is not as great. Floods and droughts, blights and beetles: these are also a part of our experience. When this happens we don’t tend to see this as the work of God’s justice. We turn to what it says in Ecclesiastes about the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike.

In sixth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians there is a line that has gotten a lot of good God-fearing folk in trouble. Paul writes, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” Some people read this line and think that it is an instruction to sit in judgment of other folks, to be indifferent to their afflictions. If they are suffering then they must have done something to deserve it. People forget another line from the sixth chapter of Galatians where it says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

It seems to me that people reap what they sow except for when they don’t. There is a Psalm that says exactly this. It just says it better. Psalm 126 is a prayer for deliverance when our world has gone wrong. The psalmist cries out, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negeb.” And then the prayer continues, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing in their sheaves.”

Psalms are songs of praise and prayer. And, we tend to reserve our praise and prayer for things that could have been otherwise. The psalm is asking, “May those who sow well reap well.” And, you wouldn’t be bothering to ask if it wasn’t always so.

Dear Lord, we’d ask that you please open our hearts wider this day, as wide as the Kansas prairie and as wide as the Kansas skies. May we think and love in ways that are as wide as the fields. Let the crisp breeze of your spirit blow over us, taking away from us pride and self-righteousness and our narrowness. Let the wind remind us that it will blow where it will. Take away our quickness to judge, our quickness to claim our own righteousness and to judge others for what we perceive as their lack of righteousness.

Lord, it would be so much easier if your ways were clear and if you didn’t keep giving us all these different directions. But, it seems like you have given us a world in which sometimes we reap what we sow, and sometimes we don’t reap what we sow, and sometimes, by some kind of mysterious grace, we are permitted to reap even though we have not sown. Help us to turn away from judgment and fulfill the law by bearing another’s burdens. When in doubt, may we err on the side of charity.

The farmer separates the wheat from the chaff, but you have made things of the spirit inseparable. You’ve given us day and night, Lord, but you’ve also given us the cool pleasant shade to shield us from the harshest light and you’ve given us the moon and stars so that we might find our ways during the darkest night. We seek out your dappled places for we are dappled creatures. And we give thanks that you are such a lover of dappled things. Amen. [5]

That, my friends, is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out there in God’s country, West of Wichita geographically but well to the right of Liberal. It is a long drive by car but a short journey by heart, if we can only put aside our distractions, our worries, and our judgments and take a little time to stop and pay attention to what is happening in a town where nothing ever happens.

Sermon Notes
[1] A few weeks earlier I had seen a great horned owl in a tree at the church. Inspiration for my poetic opening paragraph also came from the beautiful poem "Garden Meditations" by Max Coots.
[2] Holmes' Prairie bears more than a coincidental similarity to the town of Bodacia, Texas as imagined by Rev. Dennis Hamilton, my internship supervisor at the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, TX. I have used some of the devices for describing Bodacia, like the water tower, in creating Holmes' Prairie.
[3] This salutation is frequently heard in Bodacia.
[4] Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III is a composite character. He partially resembles Hamilton's Bodacian Baptist pastor and an actual Baptist preacher I heard deliver a prayer or installation at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Waco, Texas.
[5] In the real Baptist minister's prayer, if I remember correctly, he uttered the line, "For God is surely a lover of dappled things."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sermon: "Welcome as Ministry and Spiritual Practice" (Delievered 11-7-10)

The reading comes from Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales’ essay “Welcome” in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality, edited by Thom Belote.
The issue of religious hospitality is ultimately a moral and spiritual issue… Religious hospitality is the moral equivalent of feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless. The people coming to us are spiritually hungry and religiously homeless.

Americans today are the most isolated people in human history. That is a bold statement. A study published in the June 2006 American Sociological Review shows a decline in close relationships so large and so rapid that the data shocked sociologists… The study was essentially a repetition of one done in 1985. Both interviewed participants about the number of people in whom they confide personal information, and both asked participants a number of questions about their confidants. By asking the same questions asked in 1985, they could track changes.

For example, in 1985… the response given most often to the question about the number of confidants was three. In 2004, the most common response was zero. The percentage of people who said that they had non one with whom they could confide jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 24.6 percent in 2004… According to the study, almost half of all Americans now have either no one or only one person with whom they can discuss important matters.

These are not dull, abstract numbers. They are a cry of isolation, of pain, of loneliness. Americans are far lonelier than they were a generation ago. Many of us are lonely, and all of us are surrounded by lonely people.

In the book Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortensen shares his tale of a Himilayan hiking adventure gone wrong. After becoming separated from his climbing group while attempting to climb K-2 in the early 1990s, Mortensen wandered the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and was taken in and nursed back to health by the residents of a village in Afghanistan. “Three cups of tea” is a reference to a saying in the village about hospitality. The first time you share tea with a person from this village you are a stranger; the second cup is an offer of friendship; the third cup of tea means that you are now a part of the family. That profound experience, with a radical welcome at its center, reshaped the course of Mortensen’s life.

Three cups of tea has a different meaning in a different part of the world. In 1957, under the Eisenhower administration, the Department of Defense published a Pocket Guide to the Middle East. In the section on customs, the Pocket Guide offers the following advice,
When coffee or tea is served, you will be offered one to three cups or glasses—accept them. Since the cups and glasses are small, the quantity consumed will not be great. Besides, you may develop a taste for the local brands of these beverages, served hot, very sweet, and without milk. Always refuse a fourth cup. This is done by shaking your cup from side to side or turning it upside down. While it’s impolite to leave before the third cup is served, you may overstay your welcome if you linger after you drink it. The third cup is your signal to depart.

This morning my words are about welcoming. My words are about how we welcome and, more than that, about why we welcome. Oftentimes, when welcoming is the subject, the discussion becomes one about tactics. The tactics are often what membership teams in churches wrestle with. Should visitors be asked to stand and introduce themselves at some point in the service? Should we give visitors a special colored mug in coffee hour so that we know they are visitors? What follow-up should take place with a visitor? An email, a phone call, a card, a face-to-face visit? When someone has completed our Exploring Membership class, in what way should the invitation to join the church be extended?

These are questions about tactics. And, while I don’t want to spend very much time on the subject of tactics, I do want to make just a point or two of observation. I could ask each person in this room to imagine a visit to a church for the first time and what would constitute a warm and wonderful welcome. We could each name our platonic ideal of what a genuine welcome is like and we might find that we have different images in mind. Case in point, a few weeks ago a member of our congregation told me about visiting a UU church while on vacation in another part of the country. She told me how at the beginning of the service they asked visitors to please stand and how great it felt to be able to stand up and say she was visiting from the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. Of course, I also remember a guest who visited our church once who told me, “Thank goodness you didn’t ask visitors to stand. I would never stand. But when the greeter asks people to stand I feel like every eyeball in the room is on me and makes me want to curl up in a fetal position underneath my chair.”

In villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border a third cup of tea is a sign that you are now part of the family. On the Arabian Peninsula a third cup of tea indicates that you have overstayed your welcome. So, let us not be surprised that for some people an invitation to sign the membership book will be perceived as pushy while for others anything less than a marching band spelling out the words “sign the book” on your front lawn will be perceived as cold and standoffish.

So, from time to time we do tell you that no matter how narrow and congested our foyer is, it is unwelcoming to bunch up there and it is especially unwelcoming to bunch up in front of the membership table. And, from time to time we do remind you that nobody should be left standing alone in the Barn Chapel during coffee hour. But mostly, the art of welcoming requires a rejection of the Golden Rule. To welcome others as you would want to be welcomed is a little presumptuous. Instead, the art is to welcome others as they themselves wish to be welcomed.

Throughout this month, welcoming will be the central theme we will be exploring in our worship service. Next week we are going to have a special guest, Jose Soto, the brother of one of our church members. Mr. Soto is an educator on issues of anti-racism and multiculturalism and his message will touch on a very important facet of welcoming. The next week I’m going to be preaching a sermon based on something that former Unitarian Universalist Association President John Buehrens said to me three weeks ago when we were together in Dallas. Buehrens’ words carried much the same message as Peter Morales’ statement about the loneliness and isolation, the emptiness and longing that so many people experience in our contemporary society. Finally, we’re going to end the month with a message about welcoming that gives me the shivers just to think about. How can we fully embrace a posture of welcoming if we do not fully welcome ourselves for who we are? The last Sunday of the month I am going to attempt to describe some of the tensions that pull at us as religious people and I am going to say that the only solution that allows us to live fully is to live within those tensions. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s move from the tactics of welcoming to kind of the soul of welcoming.

A year ago I published a book on church growth and vitality that contained an essay by Peter Morales on welcoming. Peter’s chapter is striking in that he says that the art of welcoming is not a matter of manners or numbers. Instead he says that welcoming is both a moral imperative and a spiritual practice. To quote Peter,
We were transformed, spiritually transformed, by our practice of hospitality. The spiritual practice of deep hospitality made us more aware of others, more sensitive, more empathetic, and less self-centered. When we listened, really listened, to the people visiting our church, the implications were profound…

The initial work, as always, is spiritual. We must begin with awareness and compassion. We begin by truly opening our hearts. When we open our hearts to those coming to us and to the pain of their isolation, we immediately want to reach out. That, after all, is what love is; reaching out is how love expresses itself. Opening our hearts also means—and too often we forget this crucial element—that we have to be willing to be changed by our new relationships…. When love and awareness guide us we realize that to ignore the pain and needs of [others]… is morally wrong.
What are we to make out of that strong language? Is he just speaking in hyperbole to try to make his point? Maybe welcoming is really about manners and everything Peter Morales says about spirituality and morality is just exaggeration.

When I was in seminary I had a friend who was studying to become an Episcopalian priest. Her first position was as an assistant minister at an historic and thriving Episcopalian Church in Boston. Her job title was the coolest job title ever. She was “Minister of Radical Hospitality.” You see, there is a welcome that belongs on a doormat. And, then there is a welcome worthy of being called radical hospitality.

So, let me cut to the chase here and get at what I want to say about the soul of welcoming. It seems to me that welcoming really means something when the stakes are high. There is a doormat welcome and then there is a lost and wandering in the Himalayas kind of welcome. One type of welcome involves manners and social codes. The other type of welcome engenders profound transformation. That kind of welcome, as it did for Greg Mortenson, resets your compass and recalibrates your course in the world. It is a radical welcome.

We may not be taking in lost mountain climbers, but make no mistake: the stakes are high. It is rare that anyone walks through the doors of this church for frivolous reasons. Nobody shows up and says, “Well, I guess I’m here because I was bored and I was getting restless and needed something to pass the time before the football games start.” Along those same lines, nobody ever arrives at our doorstep by accident. Nobody turns up on our doorstep, leather-bound Bible in tow, assuming that they are going to hear orthodox Christian doctrine. As Peter Morales puts it, “People are not coming to us to find out if they agree with us.” Nobody arrives here randomly, for a laugh, on a whim. Heck, in more than seven years here I don’t think we’ve ever had an actual flesh-and-blood visitor who had so much as confused us with Unity.

Let’s face it: we are not that easy to find. Those that come here have intentionally and purposefully sought us out. In researching us they’ve more than likely discovered that they are on the same wave-length as us intellectually and cognitively and that their values are deeply aligned with our values. What they can’t know from looking at our website or from reading the sermons I post on my blog, is whether we actually embody what we say about ourselves. Are we a habitable home for the human spirit?

If welcoming is a spiritual practice, it probably builds off of several habits of being in the world that are the products of other spiritual paths. Hospitality is a blending of compassion, self-differentiation, forgiveness, and generosity.

A few weeks ago I overheard something in passing out in the foyer after the service. It was a comment by a member of the church. I don’t want to embarrass the person so I am not going to say who, but she began the sentence with something like these words, “When I hear something that I don’t care for during the worship service, I…” Needless to say, I was very interested in how this individual was planning to finish this sentence. She finished the sentence this way, “When I hear something that I don’t care for during the worship service, I remind myself that those words may have been the words that the person sitting next to me needed to hear.” That expression combined all of these elements. That listener had compassion for others whose needs were different than hers. She had forgiveness, namely the ability to forgive me for speaking words she may not have preferred. She had self-differentiation. She realized that she was not the only person in the room. And, she had generosity. She was willing to share my voice with other people.

I try to follow a rule in the pulpit. If I am tempted to tell a story that makes me look good, I can probably find a better story that makes someone else look good. If I am tempted to tell a story that makes someone else look bad, I can probably find a story about myself to tell instead.

I want to tell you a story from about six weeks ago that involved a failure of hospitality on my part. Welcoming is an act that combines compassion, self-differentiation, forgiveness, and generosity. Its opposite, being inhospitable, combines rigidity with an attitude of scarcity.

Six weeks ago I was teaching a class on Wednesday night. The week before, we had agreed that we would meet early and join together in sharing Wednesday dinner as a class before we switched locations and finished our class meeting in another room. We set up a table with a chair for each person in the class. We were just beginning to discuss the material for this class session. I looked up and I saw the last member of our class come into the Barn Chapel and start in at the buffet. And, just that moment, I received another person came up to me and asked if she might join our table for dinner. This was a person who was new to the church and had actually come that evening to attend our Exploring Membership class.

And, my response was not what it should have been. My response should have been, “Please sit down, the more the merrier.” Compassion and generosity. Instead, my response was, “This seat is actually spoken for. We’re holding a class meeting right now.” Rigidity and scarcity. I turned back to the table and attempted to reconnect with the flow of the conversation until I looked up ten minutes later and realized this person was sitting alone in the Barn Chapel. Mine had been a failure of hospitality. I had been clinging to a script for how the evening’s class was supposed to go, a script that only I knew. I had only seen a scarcity. A scarcity of chairs, a scarcity of room at the table, a scarce vision of the possibilities for our meal together. I try my best not to scare off every new person who comes into our church.

Compassion, charity, self-differentiation, generosity, flexibility, forgiveness. These are lofty qualities to aspire to embody. As Peter Morales puts it, “The spiritual practice of deep hospitality made us more aware of others, more sensitive, more empathetic, and less self-centered.”

It is worth aspiring to embody these qualities. After all, the need is great. Those coming in our doors are deeply disappointed by the politics of our country, are worried about the crush of unemployment, and are fearful for their own future as well as the future of their children, grandchildren, and planet. Those coming in our doors are seeking meaning within a culture that often seems hollow and dehumanizing. Those coming in our doors have known the kind of isolation and loneliness of which Peter Morales speaks. May the welcome we offer be an agent of transformation.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Double, Double Toil and Inappropriate

Two weeks ago I was making the final preparations for the order of service for our church’s Halloween multigenerational service. I was thinking up ideas for the service’s opening words and from somewhere in the recesses of my mind I recalled the famous scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which the three witches stand around a boiling cauldron casting a spell. I even arranged for someone to bring some dry ice and a cauldron so that I could play up the opening words.

It sounded good to me. I sent information to our church administrator asking her to print that the opening words in the order of service would be from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It was only after the order of service had gone to print that I bothered to look the reading up. That was when I realized I had made a mistake.

Here is the part of the scene from Macbeth that I remembered,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Classic Halloween imagery there. Nothing that anyone could object to. Then I read a bit further and realized that this reading was wholly inappropriate. (I solved this dilemma by using the six lines from Shakespeare from above and then composing my own reading using the Bard’s meter and rhyme scheme.)

But, here is why I rejected the passage:

List #36: 3 Politically Incorrect Ingredients in the Witches’ Cauldron in Macbeth
1) “Liver of blaspheming Jew”
2) “Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips”
3) “Finger of a birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab”
Note to worship leaders: In order to avoid toil and trouble it is a good idea to avoid making anti-Semitic slurs, to avoid comments about Eurasian facial features, and to avoid mentioning the removal of body parts from a prostitute’s stillborn child that has been abandoned beside the road. This advice goes double, double for a multigenerational service.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sermon: "Who Needs Vulnerability?" (Delivered 10-10-10)

The reading this morning comes from the book Learning to be White by Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist theologian:

I had recently moved to Massachusetts to teach at a local college. Several weeks after arriving on campus, I had lunch with a member of the college staff. My luncheon partner, a fifth generation Smith College graduate with a New England genealogy older than the state and a portfolio perhaps as wealthy, wanting to get to know me, asked what if felt like to be black.

I was not offended by her query. Her face was open; her eyes were friendly and engaged. She simply believed that nothing from her own background or experience could help her understand me. I knew better. I had been assigned a race by America’s pervasive socialization process, and so had she. I thus believed that if she drew upon her own experience of being “raced,” she might then be able to see what we had in common. But how could I make her conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her? Searching for an answer to this question, I invented the Race Game and invited her to play it for a week.

The Race Game… had only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, “my white husband, Phil,” or “my white friend Julie,” or “my lovely white child Jackie.”…I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question using terms she would understand. We never had lunch together again. Apparently my suggestion made her uncomfortable.

African Americans have learned to use a racial language to describe themselves and others. Euro-Americans also have learned a pervasive racial language. But in the racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid. […]

The Race Game unearths proscribed feelings and, as such, is a trespass. To play the Game, one has to violate limits and break boundaries. One must step outside the rules for whiteness by disinterring one’s own feelings.

In last week’s sermon I told the same story that will begin this week’s sermon. The story was told to me by a community organizer who worked with congregations in Boston, congregations as diverse as inner-city African-American congregations and churches and synagogues from some of Boston’s most affluent suburbs. As the story goes, the community organizer hosted a meeting that brought together women from the inner city and women from the affluent suburbs. The women from the inner-city began to speak openly of the challenges in their lives and they began to focus on the challenges with the schools the children in their communities attended. In particular, they identified the gangs, drugs, and gun violence their children encountered on the way to and from school as not only a significant educational deterrent, but also a grave danger.

As the African American women spoke, the white suburban women grew more withdrawn and closed. In the story I told last week I talked about how the suburban group had met later to process the meeting. I talked about how, in their own group, they were able to open up, how they named their concerns for students who were the victims of homophobic slurs and bullying, and how this group was able to act on their concern and organize to get the administration of the school system to take homophobia and bullying more seriously.

But, this week I want to focus on a different facet of the story, a facet of the story that was left unspoken last week. I want to ask why the more affluent suburban contingent became silent and withdrawn in the presence of the contingent from the inner city. Why did they react this way? When we hear this story, the first thing we might think is that the suburban group was quiet because they believed the schools to which they sent their children were perfect. But, that just doesn’t jibe with reality.

Over the years I have talked with so many of you who have sent your children to schools in the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley School Districts. And, if I learned anything from those conversations, I learned that you are fiercely opinionated, that you approach these schools with a mixture of fierce pride and fierce criticism. The criticisms have to do with intrusions from the religious right in the form of efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution, introduce bogus sex education courses, or ban the teaching of certain books in English class. The criticisms have to do with concerns about districting, where lines seem often to be drawn according to class and race. The criticisms have to do with how well the schools do at creating an environment for success for special needs students. The criticisms have to do with funding and with administrative and legislative decisions that often exasperate teachers. In short, if these women from the suburban synagogues and churches were anything like you, they would have had something to add. So, why didn’t they?

How did they respond? They responded by closing off in terms of talking about their own experiences. In fact, the community organizer told me that they responded to the inner-city stories of drugs and gangs and violence by becoming other-focused, by asking how they could help. However, their offer of assistance was rebuffed. A few of the women from the inner city countered, saying something like, “We’ve been here before. You come. You hear our stories. You offer to help. You come to a couple more meetings. Maybe you come to an event. Then you lose interest. You get busy with other obligations. Then, you disappear. You don’t have skin in this game. For us this is life. For you it is social action tourism and you’ll get bored and decide to go home. That is not going to happen again.”

So, what happened? The suburban group had not spoken of their own struggles. They hadn’t anteed up, so to speak. They didn’t have skin in the game. When the community organizer told me this story, I immediately thought of a book from about a decade ago, Thandeka’s Learning to be White.

In Learning to be White, Thandeka writes about the cost of white privilege. This is an unusual way to put it. We are used to thinking of privilege in a different way. We are used to thinking not of the costs that come with privilege but of the privileges that come with privilege. W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term “wages of whiteness” to describe the advantages enjoyed by whites by virtue of living in a white supremacist culture. Thandeka argues that privilege isn’t free. It exacts a cost. It comes with a price. So, while I don’t have the time to reconstruct her argument, I will share her conclusion, which is that racism also hurts white folks just as sexism also hurts men and homophobia also hurts straight folks.

Thandeka evokes the work of Juliet Schor, a sociologist formerly of Harvard and currently of Boston College, who studies American habits of work and consumption. Schor studied the spending habits of middle-class Americans, in particular overspending, status buying, and the intersection between class and race. She found, for example, that “Caucasian women were much more likely to engage in status purchasing than African Americans or non-Caucasian Hispanics.”

Using Juliet Schor’s economic findings, Thandeka argues that with privilege comes a need to demonstrate that privilege in the form of appearances of wealth. Thandeka writes, “Middle-class poor whites who overspend to create the illusion of economic success and stability are thus, in a certain sense, financially recapitulating the legal history of their own racial creation. In effect, they are disempowering themselves as a class for the sake of a constructed appearance.” Or, put more simply, one of the root causes of overspending and financial imprudence is a desire to appear to belong to a particular socio-economic strata. These findings by Thandeka and Juliet Schor imply a paradox: Many Americans spend in ways that make them economically vulnerable in order to avoid the appearance of economic vulnerability. Being poor, it would seem, is preferable to appearing poor.

So, what does any of this have to do with the story told to me by the community organizer? We are going to hold that question for a moment while I add some more information to the equation. During the Connecting Conversations that we engaged in as a congregation, two members of our church each spoke with me independently about the cards they were filling out. Both members told me that increased diversity was a part of their answers to the question, “What do you most hope for our church?” This is something that is hoped for not only in our own church, but in UU congregations throughout the country. As one of my colleagues puts it, “We endeavor to bring the reality of liberal religion closer to the aspiration of liberal religion.”

Over the years Unitarian Universalism has tried all sorts of different strategies to increase diversity and virtually all of them have failed, often disastrously. One strategy focused on offering anti-racism training to all churches. The assumption was that our lack of racial and ethnic diversity could be solved by better education. Another strategy was to call attention to the historical contributions made to Unitarian Universalism by members of historically marginalized communities. The assumption was that we could increase diversity by celebrating the contributions of those from historically marginalized communities. The danger in this message was that we would welcome anyone, as long as they were exemplary and exuded greatness. This assumption also led to some rather bizarre attempts to try to claim people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama as partial or even “closeted” Unitarians.

A further assumption posited that what was holding us back from growing more diverse was past injustices and oppression. Only through a cathartic recounting of our sins and a process of atonement would we increase our diversity. Others have argued that what holds us back from becoming more diverse is boring worship, which is an interesting argument because it sort of suggests that boring is worship is okay for white folks. And some have even argued that our congregations don’t attract as much diversity as they could because our congregations are too intellectual. Even to suggest this is condescending, offensive, and downright racist.

I have an answer that I would like to suggest as to why our congregations aren’t more diverse than they are. How do we bring the reality of liberal religion closer to the aspiration of liberal religion? Of course, the answer to this question is hopelessly complex and nuanced and multifaceted. But, if I had to reduce my answer to the five minutes I have left in this sermon I would say that the answer to this question has to do with vulnerability.

In her own words, the Race Game that Thandeka challenges her co-worker to play disinters suppressed feelings and names the great unsaid. According to my friend the community organizer, when the representatives of the urban and suburban congregations came together, one contingent became withdrawn and closed.

Let me cut to the chase and propose a simple statement. Members of historically marginalized communities (it could be race, ethnic background, socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation) tend to be wary of and cautious around members of historically dominant communities who are not in touch with their own vulnerability.

Who needs vulnerability? We do if we are to bring the reality of liberal religion closer to the aspiration of liberal religion. In last week’s sermon, the prequel to this sermon, I talked about the truth that everybody hurts, that not one single person alive on this planet lives a life that is free from some measure of affliction. This week I am challenging us, and challenging myself, to move beyond just understanding that everyone hurts. I am challenging us to the practice of becoming more vulnerable with each other about our struggles and afflictions. I don’t always do this well. Sometimes I put up my walls of invulnerability. Sometimes I put forward a fa├žade that says that I need nothing from anyone.

I wonder what it would look like for the interpersonal emotional climate of Unitarian Universalist churches to be one of risk and vulnerability as opposed to pretense.

If this theory of mine is at all correct, we should be able to look to places in our religious life together where we do exhibit diversity and be able to observe habits of vulnerability there. If there is one area where we would seem to excel at diversity it would be in the realm of theological diversity. We don’t always get it right. There is work to be done here. But, we do have some things going for us. When it comes to the theologies we hold, the culture of this congregation embraces people telling the stories of their religious journeys. We embrace articulations of struggle, doubt, and uncertainty. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are places where we could improve. But, my point is that in the realm of theology and faith exploration we are robust not because we are right, but because we are open, because we are honest.

We do theological diversity extremely well here. I am proud of how we practice it. Can we extend this openness and honesty to other areas of our being together? What would that look like? Last week during the Family Focus portion of the service I told one of Aesop’s fables, the story of the lion with a thorn in its paw. The moral of the story is that our lives require that we both ask for help and offer help.

One of the most challenging and at times frustrating parts of religious leadership is when I see others refuse to ask for help or even refuse offers of assistance from others. It is something that I wonder about. Why do some of us decline offers to be visited when we are in the hospital? Why do some of us decline offers for rides to church or not ask others for help? Our church directory divides names into neighborhood groups. Would we ever call a neighbor and ask for help.

Since my parents are here this morning, I thought I’d share a story from childhood: As a family we were making some kind of dessert. It was a holiday or maybe a Sunday evening and all the grocery stores close to us were closed, because they used to close on Holidays and Sundays. The recipe called for a cup of sugar.. We were out. We ransacked through every cupboard, every shelf. We were stuck. I decided to take action. I put on my coat and boots and mittens and dragged my siblings along and went next door to ask if we could borrow the needed cup of sugar from our neighbor.

Somehow I had gotten it in my mind that it was acceptable to go next door and ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar. (Maybe my subversive religious education in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School taught me this message.) That is, after all, sort of what being a neighbor is about. But, at the same time, and this is what I remember most about that time from my childhood, I remember experiencing mixed emotions. On one hand I knew that neighbors were supposed to do things like this. On the other hand, I felt like I was doing something really transgressive. Was it OK not to have sugar in your house? Was that something to be ashamed of? If even the simple ask of asking a neighbor for sugar was so challenging, what might that say about developing the capacity for sharing our vulnerability that I believe is necessary for us to manifest the beloved community?

I close by re-invoking Marge Piercy’s words with which we began the service. Marge Piercy writes about how connections are made slowly. She writes about the persistence, tenaciousness, courage, and determination of plants that fight persistently, spread like squash, gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar. But we don’t use the sun to make sugar. We must get our sugar elsewhere. Piercy writes:
If we are live a life we can endure and make love that is loving… if we are to weave real connections, create real nodes, and build real houses we need to reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
Amen and amen again.

Sermon: "Beyond Comfort and Affliction" (Delivered 10-3-10)

From A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century by Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens
Facing into human suffering is necessary. In communities of justice and compassion, God’s presence can be manifest as people offer loving presence to one another. Such presence heals and transforms, and elicits surprising revelations of life’s resilience and grace…

Is it reasonable to believe in God? The question “Does God exist?” can be a metallic, hard-edged question about what is factually true. As if scientists in a glistening clean lab, peering through microscopes, could settle the matter. Is there any evidence? But the question “Does God exist?” arises in another way—not as a cool inquiry into the nature of ultimate reality. It arises in the messy, painful dead ends, on the cold winter afternoons where life is exposed to the raw elements. It arises among the communities of those lacking the bear necessities. It arises among the lonely, the hungry, the frightened, and those without voice. In such settings, the question is not about metaphors or about rational arguments. It is more elemental. It is a question borne in the suffering souls of human beings, and its meaning is a cry for hope: Is there any help for pain? Is there anything that will spring green from this bitter winter, with its dirty ice and slush? Is there any hope for the disempowered and the silenced? The abandoned? And when everything human fails, and nothing that is within the power of human beings to do can be done, what then? Is there a source of healing and transformation? […] Is there reason to trust that there is any help available?

Finley Peter Dunne was an author and satirist who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. He was most famous for a syndicated a column in which he published the thoughts and opinions of a fictional character named Mr. Dooley, an Irishman who wrote to him from an Irish Pub on the South side of Chicago where he weighed in on current events. Mr. Dooley’s letters even spelled out his Irish accent phonetically.

One of Mr. Dooley’s famous letters was a warning about the power of the media: “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce, an’ th’ banks, commands the milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

Although this line was intended as satire, it caught on. In the film version of Inherit the Wind, Gene Kelly plays a journalist who declares that it is the duty of newspapers to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The great community activist and labor organizer Mother Jones declared that comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable was her business. The Archbishop of Canterbury once proclaimed that it was the job of religion to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And, indeed, generations of clergy have wrestled with these dual impulses: to comfort and to afflict.

The tension in this duality is found in the Biblical tradition. The God we encounter in the twenty-third Psalm is a soothing God. “You make me lie down in green pastures and lead me beside still waters… Your rod and staff they comfort me.” Yet, in the prophetic texts we encounter a God seething with anger because of the injustices and iniquities practiced by the people.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to care for the sick, the widow, and the orphan. But we also find Jesus overturning tables and casting moneychangers out of the temple. And, it wasn’t as though Jesus had run out of lepers to cure.

Several years ago there was an email chain letter describing “The Perfect Pastor.” The email contained a bunch of little humorous lines: “The perfect pastor is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience.” “The perfect pastor is passionate about working with youth and spends all his time with senior citizens.” And, one of its lines showcased this tension between comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. “The perfect pastor makes fifteen house calls and hospital visits every day, is always available in his office, and frequently is observed working for justice in the community.” The chain letter concluded with the warning that you needed to send it to six people or else you would get your old minister back.

Three weeks ago our church engaged in an exercise that we called connecting conversations. In these connecting conversations you were asked to speak to each other from the depths of your being about what you treasure most in our congregational life together and what you want most for our church. The “pulse committee,” a subcommittee of the board, is still sorting all of the input we received and the board will be meeting at the end of this month and will use your responses to establish goals and objectives. I’ve seen only a portion of the responses, but many of the responses indicate either a desire that the afflicted be comforted or a desire that the comfortable be afflicted. Some responses speak to the depth of friendship, support, and healing that our people find in this church community. Some responded that they are most proud of the church when we are out making a difference in the world. They desire for this church to be a more powerful agent for societal change.

All of this would seem to indicate that the Archbishop of Canterbury was on to something when he borrowed Mr. Dooley’s words and proclaimed that it is the role of religion to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. But, there is a problem here. Exactly who among us is comfortable? And, who among us is afflicted?

This morning and next Sunday the worship service deals with themes of vulnerability and intimacy. Next Sunday my words are going to take the form of an argument. I am going to make a case for the necessity of vulnerability. My words this morning are intentionally more impressionistic than argumentative, more evocative than persuasive.

Yes, I do know that community and authentic spirituality can ease a troubled spirit and can soothe a furrowed brow. There is a balm in Gilead. And, yes, I do know that community and authentic spirituality are supposed to challenge us and shake us. There is both a time for troubled waters and a time for bridges over troubled waters.

But, I worry about the damage caused by judging. Who am I, who is anyone, to tell anyone else they are comfortable? If we are going to afflict the comfortable, we need to decide who the comfortable people are. That means we have to label someone.[At this point I looked around the congregation, picked three people at random (including a first time visitor), pointed my finger at each of them, and declared, “You are comfortable.”]

Let us pause for a second. Let us process what just happened. I was being a little playful, a little facetious. But, what happened when I labeled someone else as comfortable? It felt uncomfortable. It felt awkward. It felt dismissive. It felt like I was negating a part of that other person’s experience, that other person’s selfhood.

I don’t know if you are anything like me, but if you are anything like me you may find yourself labeling others as comfortable. In this context, the term “comfortable” often implies something socio-economically. The socio-economic implication is that a family is free from financial anxiety, living well within its means, and so on. I don’t want to say too much more about class and comfort at this moment, except to point out the obvious fact that whenever someone labels someone else as “comfortable,” there is, more often than not, an economic judgment attached to the label.

Who else is labeled as comfortable? It is often someone who disagrees with you politically. It is often someone who disagrees with you on a social issue. It might be someone who agrees with you on a political or social issue but you feel doesn’t demonstrate sufficient urgency or passion about that issue. And, it is almost always someone whose pain is not evident to you.

Next week we are going to talk about what leads people to describe themselves, as comfortable. But, for right now, I just want to say that I don’t see any good in attaching the comfortable-label to someone else.

So, that means we are all afflicted, right? In a way, yes, and in a way, no. The rock group R.E.M. once sang that “everybody hurts” and I believe this to be an absolutely true statement. Labeling someone as “comfortable” denies that person’s own particular experience of universal human suffering. But labeling someone as “afflicted” can be tricky as well.

We can use the same exercise that we tried before. I can select three people from random and judge them and attach a label to them. And, of course, I am not really approximating real life here. Of course we are in church and there is a general weirdness, namely the fact that you may have trusted me to listen to you talk about times in your life when you have experienced pain and not announce the details of your hurt to the entire congregation. It has been my experience that people don’t like to be labeled in general, and especially don’t like to be labeled by their pain or their afflictions any more than they like to have that hurt denied.

Everybody hurts. There is not a single person alive who does not live without affliction. Most people also experience some degree of comfort in some aspect of their living.We are neither fully comfortable nor fully afflicted. We are both and we are more than both.

I was planning to save this story for next week, but I think it fits here. It is the story that inspired my idea for the topic for this week’s and next week’s service. The story was told to me by a community organizer who worked organizing faith communities in the greater Boston area. At a meeting, she brought together mothers and grandmothers from both the inner city and from some of the surrounding affluent suburbs. At the meeting, the participants were asked to reveal the struggles they face. The women from the inner city were quick to speak, identifying their frustration with the schools their children and grandchildren attended. The problems that they focused on included—as you might expect—gangs, guns, and drugs. Safety was an elemental concern. The women feared for the lives of their children.

When it came time for the suburban women to speak, they drew inwardly. After hearing the stories of gun violence, what right did any of them have to kvetch about the issues in their own lives. The dynamic became unbalanced. The inner city women named their hurt and affliction. They became vulnerable. The suburban women withdrew, putting up walls of invulnerability. There is more to the story than this, but I want to jump ahead.

In a debriefing meeting about what had happened, the suburban mothers reflected on what had transpired. One of them spoke up and admitted that she had wanted to add something, but that in the meeting it was somehow unspeakable. She talked about a high school student who was a friend of her child who was rumored to be gay and was facing aggravated bullying. She talked about how the response of the school had been to trivialize the bullying. What she shared led others to begin to name some of their concerns both around homophobic bullying and other issues. It led them to take action which led the school administration to institute firm anti-bullying policies and to develop resources for GLBT students.

I tell this story today for a reason. [Note: I preached this sermon on October 3, 2010.] If you have been following the news over the last several weeks, you may be aware that the mainstream media is beginning to cover the stories of a number of gay teens in high school in college who have committed suicide following nasty bullying and harassment. Educators and youth advocates know that this isn’t anything new. What is new is that the mainstream media is willing to pay attention to it and to begin to take it seriously.

I know many of my colleagues have joined with me in reflecting on how our congregations, our church communities, and our youth groups are often life saving for the queer youth who come to our churches. It has begun a discussion about how we can do something more than be secret hate-free stops on the underground railroad for GLBT youth who need to escape persecution. It has begun a discussion about how we need to evangelize, how we need to make our existence more public.

In the coming days and weeks and months we are going to see an outpouring of public attention to the issue of bullying. One of the first campaigns I became aware of was launched by Dan Savage, an openly gay syndicated advice columnist. He created a channel on YouTube and he posted a video of himself and his partner talking about both the hell they endured as high school students and the meaning and beauty and joy and life that they have found because they survived. The YouTube channel is called the “It Gets Better” project and Dan Savage invited people to create their own videos talking about the struggles and hardship they experienced as youth and the meaning they have been able to create in their life later on.

The videos are deeply powerful. I tear up watching them. It is powerful and amazing, and for the purposes of what I am talking about this morning the really beautiful thing about the “It Gets Better” project is how these video testimonials transcend categories of comfort and affliction. They name pain, hurt, struggle and suffering. But they also name what life can be like beyond the pain. They speak to the reality of a present comfort, however imperfect, as well as a past affliction.

In the reading this morning I quoted Rebecca Parker. In the reading she describes how she approaches theism not from a clinical and detached perspective but from a place where she is standing hand-in-hand and hip-to-hip with suffering and resistance, pain and healing.

It occurs to me that what she is really doing is making a case for vulnerability, for the mystery that becomes manifest when we tear down walls. Walls of detachment. Walls of distancing. Walls of invulnerability. Walls of labeling. Walls of concealing pain.

I end by re-invoking her call for a “presence [that] heals and transforms, and elicits surprising revelations of life’s resilience and grace.” What is needed of us is not to differentiate between and label and categorize the comfortable and the afflicted among us. What is needed is a radical naming of our own experiences, our struggles as well as our successes.