Monday, May 31, 2010

Sermon: "John Muir & Reverence for Nature" (Delivered 5-23-10)

Reading by John Muir
How infinitely superior to our physical senses are those of the mind! The spiritual eye sees not only rivers of water but of air. It sees the crystals of the rock in rapid sympathetic motion, giving enthusiastic obedience to the sun's rays, then sinking back to rest in the night. The whole world is in motion to the center. So also sounds. We hear only woodpeckers and squirrels and the rush of turbulent streams. But imagination gives us the sweet music of tiniest insect wings, enables us to hear, all around the world, the vibration of every needle, the waving of every bole and branch, the sound of stars in circulation like particles in the blood. The Sierra canyons are full of avalanche debris - we hear them boom again, and we read the past sounds from present conditions. Again we hear the earthquake rock-falls. Imagination is usually regarded as a synonym for the unreal. Yet is true imagination healthful and real, no more likely to mislead than the coarse senses. Indeed, the power of imagination makes us infinite.

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
Sermon
Almost two years ago I traveled to California. I had been asked to perform a wedding for two friends of mine, bohemians living in San Francisco’s Mission district. It was to be a camping wedding lasting four days in Yosemite National Park with immediate family and close friends staying at a campsite (without shower facilities.) On the second day, in the evening, the group of about fifteen of us hiked the short trail leading to Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley. As dusk approached we stepped off the trail into the meadow and, standing under the majestic half-dome, I performed their wedding.

The couple asked for a non-traditional ceremony. So, the words I chose for the ceremony were drawn almost entirely from the nature writings of John Muir. I only changed the object of affection, from the rapturous love of nature to the rapturous love of partner. The words worked very well.

The origin of this sermon comes from a gift from Barbara S. About two months ago Barbara came to visit me during one of my Wednesday open coffee appointments and gave me a biography of the life of the famous naturalist and conservationist John Muir. I decided that this could make a good worship service. It turns out that the biography was pretty lousy, but that John Muir’s life was far more incredible than I had known. Fortunately, I supplemented my research with parts of the brilliant Ken Burns documentary series on America’s national parks.

But, before I turn to John Muir, allow me to pause for a moment. In gearing up for this sermon I was having so much fun that I began second guess myself. I wondered if there was maybe some hedonism at play. What does talking about reverence for nature mean when millions of gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico? When states like Arizona are proposing draconian immigration laws that would appear to violate the constitution? When the problems of the world are so immense?

But, I want to try to defend the merit of this worship service. The brilliant poet Wendell Berry wrote,
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
These lines by Wendell Berry give me goose bumps. They are so gorgeous. And yet, is there any truth to them? Many, many people have come to me and told me that despair for the world grows in them. And, I don’t think I have ever told anyone to go and lie down with the wood drake. It seems like something less than an entirely satisfactory response.

Let me be clear. The point of this morning is not to advise all of you to go and lie down with the wood drake. So, what good is reverence for nature then? Yes, that is a rhetorical question. It is actually quite good and quite important. And this morning’s sermon is really about why it is important.

Last month I gave a lecture entitled “This I Believe…” The lecture included two autobiographies attempting to give insight into why I believe what I believe. One was an academic autobiography, the story of my education. The other was a spiritual autobiography, the story of my involvement in Unitarian Universalism. I think that if there was one detail I should have added, it would have been to let you know about the role that the spectacular natural world played in my growing up. Both my parents were teachers and summers involved long camping trips to all of the great National Parks.

These were learning experiences. The trips offered early introductions to natural history, geology, botany, taxonomy, ecosystems, forestry, and conservation. They were also experiences in having my mind completely and utterly blown. Just imagine: The Colorado River has been slowly carving the Grand Canyon for two billion years. Just imagine: That tree on the rim of Bryce Canyon is older than Christianity. Just imagine: That black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains is so strong that it can utterly destroy the interior of that mini-van.

University of Texas philosopher Paul Woodruff defines reverence as the ability to simultaneously and virtuously hold three emotional states—awe, respect, and shame—in correct proportion. And, it was, among others, the Transcendentalist Unitarians of the nineteenth century who told us that when our human life grows out of balance, the experience of nature is essential in helping us to recalibrate ourselves.

Emerson and Thoreau, along with their European counterparts, were deeply concerned about a world like the one in which we live, a world in which technological ability exceeded wisdom, in which industrialization stunted the growth of the human spirit, in which oppression seemed to be increasing, and in which people seemed increasingly lacking in spiritual health. This is the experience to which we can contrast the story of the life of John Muir.

John Muir was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his life is intriguing. He was born in Scotland and his family immigrated to the United States during his childhood. His family settled in Wisconsin and tried to make it as farmers. Muir was raised by a harsh father, a self-made preacher who fashioned his own strict and dogmatic understanding of Christianity. Bible memorization was central in the Muir household and by the time he left home, Muir had been forced to memorize almost the entire Bible.

As a child, John Muir was much more interested in observing the prairie wildlife than in trying to subdue it and transform it into arable farmland. Muir enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and studied the natural sciences but left and took an industrial job where he proved to be a talented and imaginative inventor. A factory injury caused him to decide to follow a new path and pursue his interest in the natural sciences. He set off from Indianapolis determined to walk to South America and to discover the headwaters of the Amazon River. He made it 1,000 miles by foot until he contracted malaria in Florida. This made him reconsider his decision to continue his walk to South America.

Instead, he took a boat to San Francisco and immediately began hiking the Sierra Nevada Mountains toward Yosemite Valley. He came to Yosemite in 1869. The first white men had entered Yosemite 18 years earlier. They were armed militia that had come to California along with the 1849 gold rush. They named the valley Yosemite thinking that they were naming it after the Indian tribe that had lived there. In fact “Yosemite” was an Indian word meaning, “The people who should be feared because they are killers.”

Muir found work at a sawmill in Yosemite Valley owned by James Hutchings, who was trying to develop a tourism business. With every spare moment, John Muir experienced the splendid environment of Yosemite. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address, he urges his listeners to “acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” Nature was Muir’s Deity. Ken Burns’ documentary on the national parks speaks of Muir as nature’s evangelist. Just as John the Baptist was eager to baptize believers in the Jordan River, Muir wanted to immerse others in nature.

He gave himself not a sprinkling but a full immersion. The cabin he built for himself in Yosemite was built over a babbling brook. Muir slept in a hammock and his floor consisted of stepping stones placed amongst the ferns. One day, while hiking to get a close look at the top of Yosemite Falls he decided to climb down on the slippery rocks and stand behind the falls in order to feel what the water felt. The wind changed and blew the waterfall into him. Had not his arm been anchored into the rock he would have been swept over the 1,000 foot drop. The thousands of gallons of water battered his head and gave him a concussion.

Once, while hiking in the winter, Muir decided to throw himself into an avalanche and ride it to the bottom. During fierce storms he would climb to the tops of tall trees in order to feel a connection with the trees. He soaked pinecones in water and drank the bitter mix thinking it would render him more “sequoiaical.” He often stood and tucked his head been his legs to view the world upside-down in order to acquaint himself with what he considered the “upness” of the world. And, in his journal, he describes an incident where he came across a grizzly bear in a clearing. He had been told that bears were afraid of human contact. So, Muir decided to test the truth of this claim with an impromptu experiment. He charged the grizzly bear running at full spring. The bear did not retreat. Instead, it reared up on its hind legs and Muir decided to abort the charge. He later wrote in his journal, "In my first interview with a Sierra bear we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear's behavior was better than mine"

I would guess that most of us commune with nature a bit differently. But, for Muir, these experiences were deeply spiritual. “To go out is to go in,” he believed. By placing himself in the place of a waterfall, a treetop in a storm, tumbling snow, or a charging bear he developed an intimacy with the natural world at firsthand.

These experiences led him to a reverence of nature. Remembering what Paul Woodruff said, that reverence is a virtue that combines the feelings of awe, respect, and shame in correct proportions, how does nature lead us to an experience of reverence?

First, nature can fill us with awe. The incredible size and power of nature can make us feel very small. The author David Foster Wallace said that “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe.” But, the experience of nature can remove this delusional arrogance from us. The immensity of nature can help us to know that we are not at the center of the universe.

Second, Ken Burns’ documentary talks about the setting aside of the national parks as a placement of posterity above the present. A present-focused orientation values things according to their ability to bring immediate pleasure or profit. Such an orientation is self-centered and greedy. The idea that beauty and biodiversity ought to be preserved for future generations is an idea that causes us to resist our inclination towards instantaneous self-gratification.

Third, nature is slow. It teaches us patience. Mountains form over millions of years. Species evolve over the course on tens of thousands of years. It takes many lifetimes for a sequoia sapling to grow into a majestic tree. Encounters with animals are not something that we can order up “on-demand.” Sometimes we see bear or mountain lion. Often we do not. The slow pace of nature helps us to think of our lifespan in an entirely different context.

Finally, while nature can take away our own sense of arrogance and can teach us to resist our own insatiable tendencies, nature can also remind us of the power that we do possess and how that power can be used for good or ill. In an increasingly globalized world, in an increasingly interconnected world, the sum of individual actions grows exponential.

We all know the scenario. A young child sees a patch of flowers and snatches up a handful. The parent teaches a lesson. Yes, there are hundreds of flowers. Yes, you only picked a dozen. But, what if everyone did what you did? It is one of the greatest moral lessons. Our own individual actions are almost inconsequential in and of themselves. I can throw trash into the ocean or not throw trash into the ocean. My trash is small and the ocean is large. But, what if everyone did what I did? And, more to the point, why am I so special that I am exempt from standards I would wish that others would follow?

Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

This beauty, I say, has more than the power to heal and give strength. It has the power to inspire moral action and worthwhile living.


Benediction
My colleague Rev. Erika Hewitt shared these words from Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King with me. The words were written after he had heard a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I share them with you in the spirit of levity and playfulness.
"Emerson gave us last Monday evening the most brilliant lecture I ever listened to from any mortal. It was on the identity of the laws of the mind with the laws of nature. He proved conclusively that man is only a higher kind of corn, that he is a squirrel gone up into the first class, that he is a liberated oyster fully educated, that he is a spiritualized pumpkin, a thinking squash, a graduated sun-flower, and inspired turnip. Such imagery, such wit, such quaint things said in a tone solemn and sublime! I have the most profound respect henceforth for every melon-vine as my ancestor (melancholic thought). I look upon every turtle as of kin. Tonight he lectures again. I fear I may lose it."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sermon: "Whose Are We?" (Delivered 5-16-10)

Reading by Victoria Safford
Not long before he died, William Sloan Coffin, the great preacher of Riverside Church, asked a beautiful question: “Who tells you who you are?” - which is another way of asking what covenants you’re bound by, who harbors you and whom you harbor. He said some people rely on money to tell them who they are, and it’s a desperate standard. Some rely on status or power or position, and some need enemies to tell them who they are. (“Whatever I am, I am not that” – a small and cynical defining.) Too many of us, too often, he said, allow our own mistakes to tell us who we are. We look through the murky lens of shame or regret at our own shabby jumble of stumbles and sins and define ourselves by these alone. No other measure will convince us. There is grandiosity in such delusion. Who tells you who you are? He responded by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name. You are mine, saith the Lord.” For him, a Christian preacher, this meant, “For one thing, you never have to prove yourself. God’s love is poured out universally on everyone, from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates it. Our inherent value is a gift, not an achievement. So you never have to prove yourself, with money or power or perfection. You only need express yourself, and abundantly return the love you’ve been given so abundantly.”

[…]

Douglas Steere, a Quaker teacher, says that the ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I?” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?

Sermon
Unitarian Universalism saved my life.

Unitarian Universalism saved my life, and that statement is only partially true. "-isms" don’t really have the power to save lives. So, allow me to clarify. My peers and friends, who were Unitarian Universalists, saved my life. My ministers, who would later become my colleagues and friends and peers, saved my life. The church saved my life. And, I don’t just mean the people who were there. And, I don’t just mean the programs. I mean the institution that was there: dependable, present, solid, a visible entity signifying a set of enduring values, offering reassurance by the sheer fact of its existence. I’m talking about sanctuary, not just a fancy theological term for the room where people gather to worship, but the feeling of security and protection that the place emanates. As the hymn goes, “By peace made strong, the rafters will withstand the battering of the storm. This hearth, though all the world grow chill, will keep you warm.”

My peers saved my life. My ministers saved my life. My colleagues saved my life. My church saved my life. And, yes, an “-ism”—Unitarian Universalism—also saved my life. The writings of Forest Church, John Buehrens, and Jack Mendelsohn that taught me about the saving, life-giving, message of liberal religion. The brilliance of Emerson. The defiant honesty of Michael Servetus and Theodore Parker. The selflessness of James Reeb: This movement of interconnected lives and deeds that beckoned—this “-ism”—saved my life too.

When I say that it saved my life, what do I mean, exactly? I do mean at least two different things. I do mean life as opposed to death. And, I do mean living as opposed to something that is less than truly living. I mean what Thoreau meant when he wrote, “I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived. I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear.”

Let’s take the literal first. When I say that Unitarian Universalism saved my life I mean that when I truly got involved, when I got involved in a way that was more than passively going to Sunday school, more than just showing up, I came carrying a lot of ugly emotions. I came with a lot of anger. I came with a lot of anger about injustices large and small. I came with a lot of anger towards those with whom I was in school: anger about the social dynamics of middle school and high school, anger about how those social dynamics depended upon a draconian system for determining social status, the elevation of some through the cold and cruel exclusion of others. I came with low self-esteem, a sense of my own inherent unworthiness. I came with feelings of existential loneliness, a suspicion that I was fundamentally unlovable. I came filled with seething hatred; hatred directed inwardly and outwardly, at all those who I deemed guilty of or complicit in creating the type of environment that brought me such pain and made me feel so very, very sad for myself.

Had it not been for the church I don’t know where all these feelings would have led me, and I do not want to know. All sorts of sad and horrible and tragic things happen to teenage boys who feel this way. I just know that Unitarian Universalism saved my life. Possibly literally.

Definitely metaphorically. Slowly and painstakingly I was pieced back together. I grew to trust others and myself. I learned to receive love and compassion and care and I learned to give love and care. My self-esteem sky-rocketed. I went from feeling inherently ugly to believing, to knowing at the core of my being, that I was a person with inherent worth and inherent dignity.

I’ve seen the lives changed. I’ve seen the lives saved.

Sophia Lyon Fahs famously said that “some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.” I’ve seen rigid people loosen up and begin to let a little love and laughter in. Fahs said that “some beliefs weaken a person’s self-hood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.” I’ve seen weakened people develop a healthy self-esteem. I’ve seen wilted people revive and bloom. Fahs said that some beliefs are like shadows that cloud our days with fear, that some beliefs are divisive, separating people. And, I have seen people grow from fear to faith and courage and resilience. I’ve seen people break bread and build friendships with the people they had been taught to hate or avoid or reject.

When John Buehrens served our congregations in the South he said that he sometimes felt like he was operating less a church and more a decompression chamber for people with the Baptist bends. At Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve seen people break away from beliefs that cause them to live in judgment of their neighbors and the feeling of contempt for themselves. I’ve seen people grow from eagle-eyed malice and form intimate bonds with the types of people they had been taught to reject. I’ve seen our congregations serve as safe places for gay and lesbian teenagers when there are simply no other safe spaces. I’ve seen our congregations serve as safe communities for gay and lesbian adults when there are so few safe places, and even fewer spiritually safe places.

Ten days ago I was in Denver as a participant in a growth consultation being put on by the Unitarian Universalist Association. We were asked to do a very negative brainstorming exercise. We were asked to name what would kill our faith. One of my colleagues was the first to speak up. He said, “We did not believe we had a message that saves lives.”

“We did not believe we had a message that saves lives.”

###

Two years ago, I got to hear The Reverend Victoria Safford preach an amazing sermon. It was about courage. It was about calling. It was about the borders and barriers, real and metaphorical, that our faith calls us to cross. She asked us, “Who is it that tells you who you are?”

I turn the question to you, beloved congregation, “Who tells you who you are?” Who tells you who you are with a message that is a lie, with a message that is not true? And, who speaks the truth, the pure and honest truth, about who you truly are?

Reverend Safford continued with an extremely interesting paragraph. She said,
Douglas Steere, a Quaker teacher, says that the ancient question, “Who am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I?” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
This paragraph struck a chord with some of my ministerial colleagues. If fact, over the next year, every single Unitarian Universalist minister is going to be asked to participate in a structured theological dialogue around this question: Whose are we?

So, this morning I am jumping the gun a little bit. My plan is to offer an answer to this question this morning and then go through the process of theological reflection and then preach a sermon with the same title next year to see how my thinking has changed.

So, whose am I? And, whose are we? Before I go on, I might recognize that there are probably at least a few of you who chafe at this question a little bit. That is the reason I had us sing the hymn “We Are Not Our Own” just before the sermon. That hymn gears us up for asking this “whose are we?” question. The first verse states, “We are our own. Earth forms us, human leaves on nature’s growing vine, fruit of many generations, seeds of life divine.” The second verse declares our interconnectedness with the entire human family. The third verse declares our interconnectedness with all of nature and exhorts us to care for all things living. And then the final verse names an aspiration. We aspire to be a house of welcome, outwardly focused and other centered.

It was perhaps Rabbi Hillel who expressed this sentiment the best when he wrote, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?”

Victoria Safford asks a series of questions: Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?

These questions seem to touch upon both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of religious life. It is common to speak of religion as having a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension, it is said, has to do with our relationship to that which is eternal and transcendent, what Rudolph Otto called “numinous.” The horizontal dimension, it is said, has to do with our human relationships and our relationship with the world. But, I think it is overly simplistic to say the vertical dimension of our religious experience is the worship service and the horizontal dimension is the coffee hour, that the vertical dimension is our experience of spiritual practice while the horizontal dimension is serving on a committee, doing social justice work, attending a social function, or coming to the congregational meeting. The impact of humanism on Unitarian Universalism does not have to mean the squashing of the vertical dimension; it can mean the re-enchantment and the making sacred of the vertical dimension. Just as Carl Sagan described the universe using a language of reverence and of the numinous, so too is it possible for us to name as sacred—as sacred—our relationships, our justice work, and the interpersonal deepening that happens in community.

The question “Whose am I?” is not a question that deserves a legalistic answer. Some have joked that being the minister must feel like having approximately 300 bosses. Which is, actually, not at all what it feels like. There is a bit of wisdom that gets passed down from generation to generation that says that the moment a minister begins to care about keeping his or her job is the moment the ministry is compromised and less than what the congregation deserves. A friend of mine in town jokes that I have one great big boss. He is talking about God. I joke back, “Yeah, but the instructions are unclear and subject to a good deal of interpretation.” I joke when I know that there is a way to answer this question with utmost clarity.

Whose are we? Whose am I? I would say that I am fundamentally about and I would hope that we are fundamentally about the work of saving lives, of transforming lives. It has happened to me. I’ve seen it happen again and again.

Whose am I? I do not belong to life as it is but rather I belong to life as it might become. Whose are we? My tentative answer, before I go through this process of spiritual reflection in the coming year, is to say that our deepest allegiance ought to belong to all of those who are closed off from their truest selves, shuttered from the possibilities of their own becoming. We belong to those whose vision is still too small and too limited. We belong to those who doubt the salvific and transformational potential of this church, of this faith, and of themselves.

Let us answer and keep answering and keep answering to that voice that asks us to do what seems impossible, trusting and faithful that a way will be made.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Seven Principles of Vital UU Congregations (Blogging the UUA Growth Consultation)

At the UUA Growth Consultation held from May 5 to May 7, one of the most interesting documents that the participants developed was a list that we wound up calling "The Seven Principles for UU Vitality." This document was produced using a process of brainstorming, the grouping of emerging themes, and reflection on our own experiences. These seven principles would inform the growth initiatives that we developed later on in the meeting.

The Seven Principles for UU Congregational Vitality

1) The Congregation has a clear and powerful Purpose and Mission
• The congregation posesses a compelling narrative that connects past, present, and future.
• The congregation's story is constantly embodied and rehearsed.
[Thom's commentary: Even though my chapter in the book The Growing Church is on "mission," I was not the leading brainstormer of this principle.]

2) The Congregation is aware of & responsive to the world around it
• Another way of saying this is to say that the congregation has a "sense of place" that is theologically informed.
• The public mission is owned and embodied by the congregation.
• There is strong leadership and high levels of participation in living out the public mission. [It is not just the minister doing it or a committee or a group of people who are marginal in the life of the congregation.]

3) There is vital worship and a vital Sunday experience for all ages
• "It's gotta sing": vitality and energy are felt throughout the congregation on Sundays.
• There is coherence in the church's programming. Sunday morning is an aesthetic whole.
• The worship service is relevant and meaningful in people's lives.
• Music inspires and moves the congregation.

4) Church is done well [this principle is in reference to administration and leadership.]
• This principle has to do with Policies, Practices, and Places.
• The above are clear, adaptable, and responsive to the evolving needs of the congregation.
• There is a sense that we must be willing to change ourselves in order to "do church well."

5) The Congegation cultivates religious community
• The community participates in shared practices and rituals.
• The congregation provides connections where there is disconnection. [This is another way to describe the building of the beloved community: It encompasses multiculturalism, multigenerationalism, and other forms of diversity.]
• The congregation provides a safe atmosphere and environment where healthy relationships can be built.
• The congregation recognizes and overcomes its own idolatries in how it envisions community.

6) The Congregation builds skills to lead and nurtures gifts to serve
• People who come to a church discern a call in community.
• The community nurtures, trains, honors, and trusts leaders.

7) Strong ministerial leadership supports the fulfillment of the previous six principles.
[Thom's commentary: Originally we developed a list of six items. Following a break we looked at the list and asked ourselves, "Does this feel right?" "What is missing?" Members of the UUA staff quickly spoke up and said that the parish ministers had tremendously devalued their own role in promoting congregational vitality. The seventh principle is intended to signify the role of the minister in promoting the previous six principles.]

Click here to return to the main menu of posts about the UUA Growth Consultation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sermon: "Where Does Peace Begin?" (Delivered 5-9-10)

Most years at our church auction I’ve sold the rights for the highest bidder to choose the subject of a Sunday morning sermon. This year’s winner was Bill G. Bill and I went out together for Chinese food to discuss what he had in mind for a sermon. During our lunch, Bill told me that he wanted me to speak about the topic of attaining world peace. Thanks, Bill, for giving me such an easy topic. Yeesh!

So, let me begin by sharing with you some of the thoughts that Bill had about peace that he wanted me to think about. Bill wanted me to try to define what world peace actually means. How do we know if we are actually getting closer to it? Do we really want it? Bill also observed that human life often has a certain “dog eat dog” quality to it. We compete with one another and the way in which we live often involves hurting other beings. Bill wondered if this negative view of who we are as human beings—if it were true—makes world peace an impossible dream.

If you look not only at the world today, but at the history of the world, the goal of world peace can seem like an impossible vision. In the book, What Every Person Should Know About War, Christopher Hedges writes, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” And, it is not as if we can point to any kind of modern moral progress. More people died in the wars of the twentieth century than in all the other wars that were ever fought throughout human history. At the beginning of the year 2003 there were 30 active wars going on around the globe.

But, I want to make Bill’s question about attaining peace even more challenging. Peace is not the same thing as the absence of war. I want to argue that even if you could end every war on the planet, as wonderful as that would be, you might still not have peace. Don’t get me wrong, it would be amazing if every war ended, but even that would not guarantee peace.

How is that possible, you ask? Well, let me give you this example. The Roman Empire conquered lots and lots of lands all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The leaders of the Roman Empire believed that they had the right to conquer other lands and to force the people there to live under their rules. Their power made it so that some of the people they conquered couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. This was known as the Pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, but I don’t think this felt like peace to the people who were forced to live under foreign rulers. But, just because the people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fight back, didn’t mean they did not have something to protest and speak up about.

As we learn about the history of our country, we learn that ours has been a history of being very unfair to many people. This land is not ours. This land right here, this land where we live and this land where we worship, first belonged to Native Americans. Our country took this land unfairly and often violently. Now, it has been a long, long time since there was an actual war between an Indian tribe and the United States military, but just because there aren’t war battles raging, that doesn’t mean that there is peace exactly. An absence of violence does not equate to peace.

There is a popular bumper sticker that reads, “If you want peace, work for justice.” I used to see this bumper sticker and interpret it as a threat. (“You better start working for justice, or else!”) That, of course, isn’t what the bumper sticker actually means. What it means is that you can’t really have peace until there is justice and fairness.

This point makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about it. I bet a lot of you have brothers or sisters. I bet that a lot of you have fought about something with your brother or sister. When children fight there is often a maneuver that is employed that helps us to imagine what I am thinking about here. That maneuver involves sitting on your sibling and pinning his or her arms underneath your knees, so that your sibling is completely immobilized. In that moment all struggle is eliminated, but the person being pinned down feels something other than peace. We might call that arm-pinning, chest-sitting maneuver the Pax Romana.

Fighting with your brother or sister is not just something that kids do. (I bet some of the adults here still have fights with their brothers or sisters, although I hope it doesn’t involve pinning each other to the ground.) But, the point is this: if you’ve had a fight with somebody, there is often a space between when the fight is over and when peace is made. That space is not fighting, but it isn’t peace either. Peace requires more than just that the fighting stops. It requires healing and resolution, so that both sides feel that justice has been done.

If you want peace, work for justice. I think that this is what the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah had in mind when he said, “They dress the wound of my people as though it was not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is not peace.” A few verses later in Jeremiah there are some very interesting words of prophetic wisdom. Jeremiah says, “Take your stand and watch at the crossroads; ask about the ancient paths; ask which is the way that leads to what is good.”

One of the questions Bill asked me was whether human beings really want peace? I think it is all too often that human beings stand at a metaphorical crossroads and do not ask which path leads us to what is good. I think it is all too often that human beings stand at the crossroads and ask, “Which is the shortest path?” “Which is the easiest path?” “Which is the most comfortable path?” “Which is the most pleasant and enjoyable path?” Not, which is the good path?

I should note that in our own tradition, delegates to this June’s General Assembly will get to vote on a statement of conscience about creating peace. Part of that statement of conscience talks about three successive forms of action: peacebuilding, peacemaking, and peacekeeping.
Peacebuilding has to do with creating a fair world where the roots of conflict are addressed. The roots of conflict include things like economic inequality, the violation of human rights, and political oppression.

Peacemaking has to do with negotiation, mediation, and reconciliation when there is conflict.

Peacekeeping also has to do with taking action, with intervening to try to minimize the harm that violence causes and to support the creation of space for diplomacy and humanitarian aid.
Unitarian Universalist social ethicist Sharon Welch talks about war and peace as much, much more than a black and white issue. She claims that when we argue about war, we tend to divide ourselves into two camps. One camp contains people of good will who believe that war and violence are always wrong, are never right. That position is known as pacifism. On the other side are people of good will who believe that violence and war are sometimes necessary. This way of thinking is often known as “just war” theory. Both sides have faith that they are right.

We have diversity in this room on this subject. Some people in this room believe that war is always wrong and should be protested. Other people believe that sometimes war is necessary. But, Sharon Welch argues for a third way that gets us beyond black and white thinking, a way of reconciling these two positions. She writes,
“When I was first a peace activist, the choices facing us seemed clear: the limited violence of just war or the renunciation of violence in any form. Now, however, our options are greater and our choices more complex. Since the early 1990s, the world of peace activism has been transformed by a focus on the vast areas of concern shared by proponents of nonviolence and by supporters of just war. The debates that divided us are now overshadowed by a recognition of what we share - the need for a third way: joint efforts to prevent war… and repair the damage caused by armed conflict. […] If [we claim that] war is the last resort, what are the first, second and third responses[?]”
When Julia Ward Howe issued her Mother's Day Proclamation, she was issuing an invitation for mothers to take action, to, in her words, “take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”

This afternoon members of this congregation will gather with friends from our city for our third annual Julia’s Voice Stand for Peace event. Even better, this year we are being joined by many other Unitarian Universalists all around the country. Julia’s Voice events are being held in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, and Colorado. As a church, though, we do more than witness and protest. Our witness is made all the more powerful by other acts undertaken by those in our church community. Do we work to prevent war? By small acts. Our religious education classes have participated in the Pennies for Peace initiative started by Greg Mortensen, which has helped to build schools in Afghanistan, something that is needed if there is to be peace in Afghanistan.

Our church and our individual members have been active in working to repair some of the damage caused by armed conflict. Some of our quilters have been involved in the “Quilts of Valor” program, a way of showing tenderness and care to those harmed by war. At the same time we have worked to provide support services to Iraqi refugees living in the Kansas City area.Such efforts, large and small, are relevant to that third way of engagement that Sharon Welch tells us about.

At the beginning of this morning’s sermon we read together words from the Taoist tradition. Lao-Tse tells us,
If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors.

It there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the human heart.
Is this true? Does peace actually begin in the heart? Yes and no. I would also say that the opposite could also be true. If there is not peace in the world, a moral nation should not feel a sense of peace. And if a moral nation does not feel a sense of peace, a moral city should not feel at peace. When the city does not feel at peace, neighbors should not feel at peace. When neighbors do not feel at peace, families can’t really feel a sense of peace. And when we do not feel peace in our families, we often have a troubled feeling in our hearts, a discomfort stemming from an honest view of the world.

Our Unitarian Universalist seventh principle talks about the interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part. One place we see that web is in nature. If your neighbor decides to go outside and burn all their trash in the backyard, the smoke will make you cough. If you burn trash in your backyard, the smoke will make your neighbor cough.

It is a rich and complex system. Our choices, our decisions, our actions, our relationships, our efforts to heal, our efforts to reconcile, our voice, our witness: Each of these touch the whole.

###

I leave you this morning with a paradox from an unlikely source. Some years ago business author Jim Collins went to interview Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running-mate in 1992, who had been brutalized as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. In the interview, Stockdale said that those of his fellow prisoners of war who lost all hope perished. However, Stockdale also revealed that the optimists, those that were certain that they would be going home by Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving also perished; “They died of a broken heart.” He said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

As you go forth this day, choose to follow the good path, the path between despair and ungrounded hope. Do what you can, knowing that by doing this, you touch the whole.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

External Forces? (Blogging the UUA Growth Consultation)

Over a "break" during the UUA Growth Consultation, held from May 5 to May 7 near Denver, Colorado, a group of us put our heads together and chewed over the idea that the growth or lack of growth at any given Unitarian Universalist church might have more to do with external factors largely beyond the congregation's control than with what the congregation itself does.

Together we brainstormed a list of "external forces" that have been largely credited with helping a congregation to grow. Here is the list we came up with:

• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically conservative area.

• We have grown because we are located in a religiously and politically progressive area.

• We have grown because of our proximity to major higher education institutions.

• We have grown because the population of our metro area is transient.

• We have grown because of demographic and economic growth in our region (new buildings, new developments.)

• We have grown because of suburban sprawl.

• We have grown because of urban gentrification.

• We have grown because a local or national tragedy inspired people to go to church.

• We have grown because we attract people who hold a broad angst about politics and culture.

• We have grown because we have a fantastic location!

• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that promotes church going.

• We have grown because we are situated within an area with a culture that does not promote church going.

• We have grown because we are the solitary UU congregation in a metro area.

• We have grown because there are many strong UU congregations in our metro area.

When we looked at this list and compared these statements with the congregations represented at the Growth Consultation and other growing congregations we knew about, we immediately recognized that these external factors are not causitive.

Some UU churches in major University towns have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches that are far away from major educational institutions have grown. Others have not.

Some UU churches in economically vibrant communities have grown. Others have not. Some UU churches in economically hard-hit areas have grown. Others have not.

For each item on the list above it is possible to point to congregations that have grown and congregations that have not grown. That some of the external factors that we came up with are contradictory indicates that external factors are just not as influential as internal factors.

We concluded that these external factors are not deterministic! What goes on within a congregation determines growth.

[My own opinion: Of all the items on the list above, the only one that I think needs to be carefully examined is the one about the economic vitality of the community in which the church is located. I heard somewhere that zip-code was the greatest predictor of whether a church would grow or not. At the outer limits, I think economic conditions can have the effect of constraining or supporting growth. However, I also believe that an adaptable congregation that is deeply in touch with its community can thrive in spite of external conditions.]

Click here to return to the main menu of posts about the UUA Growth Consultation.

Monday, May 10, 2010

UUism Won't Grow If... (Blogging the UUA Growth Consultation)

During the UUA Growth Consultation that I attended from May 5 to May 7, participants brainstormed ways to finish the sentence:

"It is 5 years from now and Unitarian Universalism has not grown because..."

Here are a few of the ways our group finished the sentence:

... We did not believe we had a message that saved lives.

... We were still scared of religion.

... We realized that by living our faith we might risk losing our place of privilege. Liberal religion requires that we live at the edge of what is comfortable. Rather than choosing to live on the edge we did nothing.

... We did not put religion first.

... Our ministers felt frustrated and demoralized.

... Preaching in our congregations was generic and predictable.

... Ministers hated being told what to do [to create growth in their congregations.]

... Our members lacked the ability to "go deep" and cultivate intimacy in our congregations.

... Our congregations did not want to grow.

... Our congregations were inward focused and acted like a "kept" social club.

... We equated Unitarian Universalism with white, middle-class values.

... We fought about governance.

... We failed to support growing churches.

... The focus on growth became just one of too many.

... The direction of the UUA failed to resonate at the local level.

... Our evaluation of growth programs was poor.

... We continued to neglect team leadership.

... We failed to create strong learning environments for congregational leaders.

... We did not feel that we had a moral imperative to heal disconnections in our communities and in the world.

Click here to return to the main menu of posts about the UUA Growth Consultation.

Pre-work (Blogging the UUA Growth Consultation)

In blogging about the UUA Growth Consulation held from May 5 to May 7, I thought you might be interested in the pre-work that the participants engaged in before we arrived in Denver.

Of course, much of the pre-work came from drawing on our own expertise and our experiences leading growth in congregations. Consultation participants were also asked to go beyond our own experiences and to confer with leaders in our congregations and colleagues.

In addition, we were assigned reference materials including:

1) The book that I edited, The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality.

2) UUA President Peter Morales' Monitoring Report of Global Ends, presented to the UUA Board in March, 2010.

3) A fascinating document entitled "Faith Formation 2020: Thirteen Trends and Forces Affecting the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World."

Finally, when we arrived for the Growth Consultation we all took a standard personality inventory known as the DISC Profile. The DISC involves answering 28 questions which reveals one of four personality tendencies. The four tendencies are:
Dominance: Emphasis is on shaping the environment by overcoming opposition to accomplish results.

Influence: Emphasis is on shaping the environment by influencing and persuading others.

Steadiness: Emphasis is on cooperating with others within existing circumstances to carry out a task.

Conscientiousness: Emphasis is on working conscientiously within existing circumstances to ensure quality and accuracy.

It is fascinating to note that one third of the gathered group tested as "dominant" and two thirds tested as "influencing." (Three members of the group also tested high on the "conscientiousness" scale.) But, it is worth noting that the group trended extremely highly towards the "dominance" and "influence" side of the spectrum and that our group lacked participants who most strongly embodied the traits associated with "steadiness" and "conscientiousness."

Question #1: Have you ever used the DiSC profile in a congregational leadership setting? What blend did you find among congregational leaders?

Question #2: Do you think the high tendency of our group towards "influence" and "dominance" says something about the nature of leading congregational growth?

Click here to return to the main menu of posts about the UUA Growth Consultation

Blogging the UUA Growth Consultation

From May 5 to May 7 I attended the UUA Growth Consultation held at a retreat center about 75 miles North of Denver, right at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Growth Consultation brought together 17 individuals and we were charged with developing a growth plan for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

More specifically we were charged with imagining initiatives that:
1) Are congregationally based: The approach cannot be "top down" but rather must depend on congregations working together collaboratively to grow.
2) Have a low cost: Even if the money were there, growing Unitarian Universalism is not a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Money can be raised for specific initiatives, but we were instructed to develop plans with a modest cost.
3) Produce results quickly: There was prevailing sense of urgency (in John Kotter's sense of the word) and an understanding that action needed to come quickly.
4) Focus on the attraction and retention of members in our congregations.
Above all, we shared a sense that the challenge of growing Unitarian Universalism could not be solved with "technical solutions." The challenges we face are cultural and relational.

The group of 17 included 9 parish ministers:
Kaaren Anderson, Co-Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Rochester, NY
Ken Beldon, Lead Minister, Wellsprings Congregation, Exton, PA
Thom Belote, Minister, Shawnee Mission UU Church, Overland Park, KS
Helen Carroll, Minister, UU Fellowship of San Luis Obispo County, CA
John Crestwell, Associate Minister, UU Church of Annapolis, MD
Howard Dana, Minister, Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, PA
Rob Hardies, Senior Minister, All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington, DC
Christine Robinson, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church, Albuquerque, NM
Michael Schuler, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI
UUA Staff attending included:
Peter Morales, UUA President
Harlan Limpert, Vice President of Ministries and Congregational Support
Taquiena Boston, UUA Director of Multicultural Growth & Witness
Terasa Cooley, UUA Director for Congregational Life (effective June, 2010)
Dea Brayden, Special Assistant to the President
Special Guests included:
Anne Bancroft, President of the Liberal Religious Educators Association
Jim Wind, President of the Alban Institute
Our meeting was facilitated by Jon Hassinger, President of CI International.

Towards the end of our meeting I asked Peter Morales if he would mind if I blogged about it. He responded encouragingly; the more openness and transparency, the better. Over the next several weeks I will recreate and document as much of the Growth Consultation as I can. I will also offer my own commentary, thoughts, and observations. Finally, throughout my posts I will include questions that you may wish to consider.

Here are the links to materials from the UUA Growth Consulation:
Click here to find out about the pre-work assigned to the participants.
Click here to find out what will cause Unitarian Universalism not to grow in the next 5 years.
Click here to read about the "Seven Principles of Vital Congregations."
Click here for a reflection on the extent to which external factors impact growth.
Click here for a list of solutions that we created. [Check back for this post.]
I'd love to hear your responses. Email me at minister [at] smuuchurch [dot] org

Monday, May 03, 2010

Homily: "Gratitude is the Basis for All Religion" (Delivered 5-2-10)

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

Reading
The Place I Want to Get Back To by Mary Oliver

is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness

and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me

they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let's see who she is
and why she is sitting

on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;

and so they come
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way

I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward

and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years

I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can't be repeated.

If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
Gratitude.

Sermon
At home I have this refrigerator magnet that contains one woman’s four sentence synopsis of the message of Unitarian Universalism. These words, written by Laila Ibrahim, announce,
It’s a blessing each of us was born.
It matters what we do with our lives.
What each of us knows about god is a piece of the truth.
We don’t have to do it alone.
We don’t have to do it alone. If there was a sentence that summed up this sermon, that would be it. We don’t have to do it alone.

I’m not sure how many of you recognize this or realize this, but the sermons that I preach are not created alone. When they are bad I am happy to take all the blame, but when they are good I cannot take all the credit. In this congregation we have a worship committee that works collaboratively with me. A lot of times I think that this group flies a little bit under the radar. At least they have a greater public presence on those 20% of Sundays when I am not in the pulpit. On those Sundays, the worship committee serves as worship leaders, assisting our guests to find their way through the order of service, making sure that the chalice gets lit and extinguished, that the offertory is given and received, and so on. The worship committee also arranges our annual Distinguished Guest Minister weekend that has brought us the likes of Kendyl Gibbons, William Murry, and Suzanne Meyer.

But they have another role as well. We meet as a committee almost every month and we begin each meeting by reviewing the services from the previous month and I receive feedback about what worked especially well and what did not work. Next we talk about the worship services that are coming up in the next month and I receive input and ideas. Sometimes we even brainstorm the contents of a sermon together.

So, for example, when I told the worship committee that I was going to be doing a service on the theme of gratitude, one member of the committee mentioned the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver that I read earlier. This member of the worship committee also shared that she had been at an auction event where a group of church members had gathered to discuss the poetry of Mary Oliver and that one of the other guests had made a remark along the lines of, “Gratitude is the basis of all religion.”

All of this is just to say that there is more than meets the eye. All of this is to say that there is more teamwork and mutual effort that goes into any given Sunday service. All of this is to say that the line “You don’t have to do it alone” is absolutely true. All of this is to say “Thank You” because if it were not for the members of the Worship Committee not only would 20% of all worship services be threatened, but the 80% that have my name and title attached to them would be severely diminished. So, thank you. [At the end of the sermon I briefly recognized volunteers throughout the congregation.]

What did that member of our church mean when he said that “Gratitude is the basis for all religion”? Of course, I could have gone and asked the person. But instead, I decided to wonder about its meaning.

To me “basis” does not mean the same thing as “origin.” Spiritual writer Anne Lamott has said that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me,” and, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Somewhat facetiously I wonder whether the first prayer uttered by some missing link hominid millions of years ago might have been a prayer of gratitude.

Was the caveman grateful? “Thank you for sending along a succulent animal for me to kill with my spear!” Or, was it a prayer of petition? “Please send along a succulent animal for me to kill with my spear!” Or, was it a prayer of confession? “I have done something horribly wrong to cause you to withhold succulent animals from me!”

Or, maybe, in saying that gratitude is the basis of all religion, this person was saying that all religions have in common the act of expressing thanks, that cultivating a thankful heart is something that all religions hold in common. I am hard pressed to think of a religion that does not practice a form of gratitude. All across the spectrum of English speaking mainline Protestantism, church-going folks this morning are singing a doxology that goes,
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Earlier this week I attended an interfaith gathering. At this gathering the “Faith Reflection” was led by a Jewish woman from Congregation Beth Torah who taught us about the traditional Jewish prayer known as the Birkat Hamazon, which is said after a meal. The Birkat Hamazon involves four expressions of gratitude. First, gratitude is expressed for the food that has been eaten. Next, gratitude is expressed for the land that brought forth the food. Third, gratitude is expressed for Jerusalem, the Holy Land. Finally, gratitude is expressed for God’s goodness.

It is hard to imagine a religion of the world that does not make a major point out of the expression of gratitude. If there is one the person who could probably tell us about it, it would be Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University. In his newest book, God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, Prothero writes, “For more than a century, scholars have searched for the essence of religion… Today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share.”

So, gratitude was probably not the first religious sentiment ever uttered by our hominid ancestors. And, gratitude may not even be a common characteristic that connects all of the religions of the world. I want to offer a third interpretation of the claim that gratitude is the basis for all religion. Perhaps what it means is simply this:

Suppose you are going about your daily life. Work or school. Commitments and obligations. Feeding, grooming, and cleaning. Volunteerism, amusement, relaxation, procrastination, exercise, Sudoku. Suppose you are going about your daily life and inside of you there stirs some inclination towards religion, towards faith. The easiest way to embrace this mode of being is to turn towards gratitude and to name and fully embrace that thankful spirit.

That is what Mary Oliver’s poem is about. In her poem, “The Place I want to get back to,” she describes a powerful religious experience. She is sitting in the woods in solitude. A pair of deer amble past and – can it be believed? – one of them resists its skittish and fearful urges, approaches the poet and nuzzles her hand, a moment at once incredibly tender and sublime.

That image, as powerful as it is, is actually not what this poem is about. The poem is about the twenty years that pass after this ecstatic encounter. She writes that for twenty years she has gone to the woods and sat, not because she was expecting these events to repeat, but to live in the memory of and the abiding gratitude for that great gift she found decades earlier.

The opposite of gratitude is to take something for granted. The opposite of gratitude may also be some combination of desire and greed that devalues the present or the past by impatiently grasping at a vision for the future.

The place that Mary Oliver wants to get back to is not having another deer come and nuzzle her. It is not a desire for two or three or four deer to approach. It is not a desire for a bobcat to saunter by or for foxes to turn somersaults for her amusement. The poet is not complaining. She is not whining, “C’mon, Mother Nature, I’m getting impatient. Entertain me.” The place she wants to get back to is that experience of awe and thankfulness. If she loses that, she loses so much. If she loses that, she loses so much.

And, so I want to say “Thank You.”


###

I'm going to end this blog entry with both a plug and an embarrassing confession.

The plug is this: If you live in the Kansas City area you should definitely plan to go the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas where Mary Oliver will give a free poetry reading this Wednesday, May 5, 2010. I was fortunate enough to hear her read several years ago in St. Louis and it was very enjoyable.

The confession is this: Mary Oliver and I have an ongoing rivalry. Well, it isn’t really a rivalry. Mary Oliver has no clue who I am or even that I exist. But, about five years ago I found myself talking with a group of Unitarian Universalists who were going to hear her give a reading. People were very curious, wondering what her voice sounds like. Completely straight-faced I told the gathering that they were going to be completely shocked because Mary Oliver sounded like Mike Myers’ character on the Saturday Night Live skit Coffee Talk. So, I’ve had this shtick where I’ve read the poems Wild Geese and In Blackwater Woods in my own version of a “Coffee Talk” (heavy on the New York accent and avoiding the Jewish stereotypes.) Well, that shtick has gotten old. For some time I’ve been trying to think of a new way to do a prank reading of Oliver’s poetry. I finally found it! I am going to auto-tune Mary Oliver! The debut of auto-tuned Mary Oliver will be this summer at Midwest Leadership School.