Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lecture: Unitarian Universalism & Theories of Faith Development

For this lecture, I am indebted to several of my gracious colleagues, Jonalu Johnstone, Roger Kuhrt, and Anne Anderson, for sending me resources on James Fowler. I am further indebted to Dennis Hamilton for introducing me to Fowler’s theory and to Barbara Morgan for sharing with me a creative application of Fowler’s thinking following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Introduction
In the fall of 2003 I attended my first professional retreat as a member of the Prairie Star chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. On the first day of that retreat I met Rob Eller-Isaacs, who serves as the co-minister of one of our congregations in St. Paul, Minnesota. One of the first questions Robbie asked me was, “How is your spiritual practice?” I answered him honestly, telling him I did not have one. He persisted in asking me this question each time we ran into each other at professional gatherings. It was about the fourth time I met him, nearly three years later, that I was able to respond with an answer other than, “I don’t have one.”

I am sure that this line of questioning could be taken as a kind of badgering, a mild annoyance, a slight harassment. It seems possible to regard this question as socially transgressive, if not socially deviant. That is, until you understand that the context for our meeting was not primarily social.

How is your practice going? It is a question that has meaning if two musicians or athletes are having the conversation. How is your practice? It has meaning if two doctors or lawyers are having the conversation. Robbie’s question could be taken as declarative. The question suggested a particular framework for the nature of our time together. It was not a social gathering; it was a gathering of spiritual practitioners.

But, it would be disingenuous to say that the question about spiritual practice was entirely in that vein. It did name the context for our meeting, but it also was directive. The question carried seeds of encouragement. He was encouraging me towards something. Robbie’s personal spiritual practice is partially shaped by the spiritual practice of the late Harry Scholefield, whose spiritual practice was later adopted, adapted, and popularized by another UU minister, Laurel Hallman. That practice, known as “Living by Heart,” features a combination of journaling, poetry memorization, silent sitting, and visualization of people in your life. This coming January I will be offering an adult religious education class using Laurel Hallman’s Living by Heart DVD and workbook as our guide.

In the Living by Heart materials there is a palpable sense of urgency for people to develop a commitment to a spiritual practice so that they, quote, “do not dry up and blow away.” So, yes, I was being urged. There was encouragement.

And, it is that word – “encouragement” – along with the word “spiritual” and a third word – “growth” – that I want to hold front and center during this lecture. If those three words sound familiar to you, it is because encouragement to spiritual growth is a phrase that is found in our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes. Our third principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. I believe that there is a wonderful, nervous tension that is intrinsic to our third principle. Is accepting one another ever at odds with encouraging each other to grow?

What this lecture is about, fundamentally, is exploring what it might mean to grow spiritually. If we are going to encourage spiritual growth, we have to have a vision of what that actually looks like. What does spiritual growth look like? How can you tell that growth is taking place? Is growth a linear line between point A and point B, or is it a winding journey? What are the things you look for? What are the things you measure? To use the image of a journey, are there signposts and mile-markers? Is the path even marked? Is there even a path?

Allow me to digress and offer just a bit of historical commentary. Way, way back in our history Unitarianism and Universalism broke away from conservative, Calvinist congregationalism over a theological debate about the nature of human beings. Their theological anthropology said that humankind was hopeless, helpless, and depraved, that we are all born with original sin, and that ultimately our lot as human beings was to live, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, as “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears rejected that theology. One of my favorite texts from early Unitarianism is a small book by Henry Ware, Jr., entitled, On the Formation of Christian Character. While its title sounds terribly old-fashioned, I like this book a lot because the book’s very existence implies an underlying assumption about human nature, namely that moral and religious character can be formed. Character can be learned, taught, developed, nurtured, and encouraged. And, you can read a book in order to learn how to do this.

If a Puritan wandered into a contemporary bookstore, he would stand and scratch his head if he found himself in the “Self Help” section. “Exactly who are these fools who think people can help themselves?” Well, today Unitarian Universalist congregations attract a lot of social workers and psychologists. I like to think this is because we possess a theological anthropology that meshes fairly well with psychological understandings of the self.

In this lecture I will turn to the field of developmental psychology to inform our understanding of personal development and growth. I was originally introduced to concepts of developmental psychology and faith formation when I served as the Intern Minister at the Horizon UU Church in suburban Dallas in 2001-2002. One of the ministers of that church, Barbara Morgan, introduced me to developmental psychology as a way of making sense of the diverse reactions of various people in the aftermath of September 11th.

Let me show you what I mean using an example. The late author David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant essay for Rolling Stone magazine entitled, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” This essay describes his experience in Bloomington, Illinois during September 11th and the days that followed. In this piece, David Foster Wallace describes his observations of various people in the town and his own feelings of existential difference from them. He writes in that essay,
Everyone has flags out. Homes, businesses. It’s odd: you never see anybody putting out a flag, but by Wednesday morning there they all are. Big flags, small, rectangular flag-sized flags. A lot of homeowners here have those special angled flag-holders by their front door, the kind whose brace takes four Phillips screws. Plus thousands of the little handheld flags-on-a-stick you normally see at parades – some yards have dozens of these stuck in the ground all over, as if they’d somehow all just sprouted overnight. Rural-road people attach the little flags to their mailboxes out by the street. A good number of vehicles have them wedged in their grille or attached to the antenna. Some upscale people have actual poles; their flags are at half-mast. More than a few large homes around Franklin Park or out on the east side even have enormous multistory flags hanging gonfalon-style down over their facades. It’s a total mystery where people can buy flags this big or how they got them up there, or when.
During his “flag hunt” around Bloomington, David Foster Wallace writes that he asked people what the flags meant to them, “when circumstances permitted the question to be asked without one seeming like a smartass or a loon.” Let me share the responses he received:
“To show our support towards what’s going on, as Americans.”

“To show we’re Americans and we’re not going to bow down to nobody.”

“For pride.”

“What they do is symbolize unity and that we’re all together behind the victims in this war and they’ve [messed] with the wrong people this time, amigo.”

And, finally, there was the response a grad student gave to David Foster Wallace: “It’s a classic pseudo-archetype, a reflexive semion designed to preempt and negate the critical function.”
David Foster Wallace’s essay is a fascinating study of how different people respond to similar circumstances. Take a moment to think of the different ways that people responded to 9/11. One woman in my church took flowers to her neighbor, a Muslim woman, because she felt her neighbor might be scared; we heard news stories of people who committed acts of violence against people perceived to be Muslim. Some people called for war against al-Qaeda while others critiqued US foreign policy in Afghanistan. Very different responses. Developmental psychology provides one schema for making sense out of these different responses.


A Quick Introduction to Developmental Psychology
In the 1920s, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) began to construct a theory of developmental psychology for children. His research showed that children, as they grow, move through a series of development stages. Piaget’s work inspired many other psychologists who studied development and described stages along the developmental process.

Building off the work of Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of stages of moral development. Kohlberg posited six stages of moral development. Kohlberg had his subjects react to moral conundrums such as the classic ethical question known as the Heinz dilemma. The Heinz dilemma, succinctly put, goes like this:
There is a man named Heinz whose wife is dying from a rare form of cancer. There is a druggist in the town who has developed a medicine that cures the cancer. The ingredients that go into the medicine cost a few hundred dollars. The druggist sells the medicine for a few thousand. Heinz tries to raise the money, but can only come up with half. The druggist refuses to sell. What should Heinz do? And more importantly, what is the moral justification for Heinz’s decision.
There are, of course, several other thinkers who are heroes in the field of developmental thought. Abraham Maslow famously proposed the concept of a “hierarchy of needs” that corresponds to different developmental stages. The famous psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed eight stages of psychosocial development. Erikson wrote case studies based on the lives of famous historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther, and Mahatma Gandhi, interpreting their life stories in terms of his developmental concepts.

Two more recent developmental thinkers worthy of note are Robert Kegan and Ken Wilber. Kegan teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and I was fortunate to study under him. Wilber is a thinker whose project involves integrating developmental psychology, philosophy, history, ecology, and faith. I personally find him grandiose and unnecessarily complex. Wilber’s integral theory is known as “spiral dynamics” and posits different levels of consciousness that correspond to eight or nine different colors, different historical epochs, and so on.

Of course, all of the names I’ve dropped so far have been white males. Carol Gilligan has offered a feminist critique of developmental psychology, especially Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.


Fowler’s Stages of Faith Development
In this lecture, I want to focus on one theory in particular, the work of James Fowler. Fowler was a United Methodist minister and professor of theology at Emory University. He is most famous for his 1981 book Stages of Faith that applied the developmental theories of Piaget and Kohlberg to faith.

In Stages of Faith, Fowler described seven stages of faith that he numbered from zero to six. Allow me to go through the seven stages.

Stage 0: Undifferentiated Faith
Stage Zero is called undifferentiated faith, primal faith, or pre-faith. This is our faith orientation from the time we are born, or even the time when we are in the womb, up until we are two years old or so. Primal faith is basically our experience of the world as either a warm, safe place in which our needs are met or a cold, harsh place. This stage corresponds with Piaget’s “sensorimotor” stage.

Stage One: Intuitive/Projective Faith
Fowler calls Stage One, “Intuitive/Projective Faith.” We might also call it “Fantasy Faith.” (The simpler terminology was furnished by Rev. Jonalu Johnstone.) An overview of Fowler’s stages, provided to me by Anne Anderson describes Stage One this way,
[This stage] characterizes the child of two to six or seven. It's a changing and growing and dynamic faith. It's marked by the rise of imagination. The child doesn't have the kind of logic that makes possible or necessary the questioning of perceptions or fantasies. Therefore the child's mind is “religiously pregnant.”
This stage is dominated by magical thinking, by the absence of logic, and by fantasy. Things appear and disappear and there is very little reason why anything happens the way it does. To imagine this stage, try imagining getting a four year old to tell you about her day. The world is not experienced as a cohesive narrative.

Stage Two: Mythic/Literal Faith
We might also call this “Narrative Faith.” (Johnstone)
Here the child develops a way of dealing with the world and making meaning that now criticizes and evaluates the previous stage of imagination and fantasy. The gift of this stage is narrative. The child now can really form and re-tell powerful stories that grasp his or her experiences of meaning. There is a quality of literalness about this. The child is not yet ready to step outside the stories and reflect upon their meanings. The child takes symbols and myths at pretty much face value, though they may touch or move him or her at a deeper level.
If Stage One faith is magic and random, Stage Two faith is extremely ordered. In this stage, the moral universe is structured in a very black and white way. Thinking is extremely dualistic: good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unfair. In this stage, people are very attracted to heroes, paragons of virtue who keep the world ordered. If you go to a Christian bookstore and look at the books for this age of children, you will find a lot of books about heroes of the Bible: Noah, Moses, Daniel, David, Joseph.

StageThree: Synthetic/Conventional Faith
The next stage is called synthetic/conventional, but we might also call it “Conforming Faith.”
[This stage] has its rise beginning around age 12 or 13. It's marked by the beginning of what Piaget calls formal operational thinking. That simply means that we now can think about our own thinking. It's a time when a person is typically concerned about forming an identity, and is deeply concerned about the evaluations and feedback from significant other people in his or her life. We call this a synthetic/conventional stage; synthetic, not in the sense that it's artificial, but in the sense that it's a pulling together of one's… images and values, the pulling together of a sense of self or identity.

One of the hallmarks of this stage is that it tends to compose its images of God as extensions of interpersonal relationships. God is often experienced as Friend, Companion, and [as] Personal Reality, in relationship to which I'm known deeply and valued. I think the true religious hunger of adolescence is to have a God who knows me and values me deeply, and can be a kind of guarantor of my identity and worth in a world where I'm struggling to find who I can be.
Whereas the previous stage was very focused on a narrative that is understood in an extremely literal way, in Stage 3 the stories are understood in light of the experiences of a group.

Stage Four: Individuative/Projective Faith
Fowler calls the next stage “Individuative/Projective Faith.” We might also call it “Questioning Faith.”
Stage Four, for those who develop it, is a time in which the person is pushed out of, or steps out of, the circle of interpersonal relationships that have sustained his [or her] life to that point. Now comes the burden of reflecting upon the self as separate from the groups and the shared world that defines one's life. […] Many people don't complete this transition, but get caught between three and four. The transition to Stage Four can begin as early as 17, but it's usually not completed until the mid-20s, and often doesn't even begin until around 20. It comes most naturally in young adulthood. Some people, however, don't make the transition until their late 30s. It becomes a more traumatic thing then, because they have already built an adult life. Their relationships have to be reworked in light of the stage change.

Stage Four is concerned about boundaries: where I stop and you begin; where the group that I can belong to with conviction and authenticity ends and other groups begin. It's very much concerned about authenticity and a fit between the self I feel myself to be in a group and the ideological commitments that I'm attached to.
It is this “Questioning Faith” that many people most identify with Unitarian Universalism. After all, in our faith tradition there is a high value placed on individualism, on distinguishing how you are different from others, how you are unique. As a person leaves Stage 3 on the way to stage 4, a lot of time is spent defining what you don’t believe in reaction to others. However, a person remains somewhat enmeshed in Stage 3 as long as that person defines himself by what he is not. Stage 4 is self-defining, self-determining, and self-differentiating.

Stage Five: Conjunctive Faith
The next stage is called “Conjunctive Faith” or, “Big Picture” faith, as Jonalu Johnstone puts it.
What Stage Four works so hard to get clear and clean in terms of boundaries and identity, Stage Five makes more permeable and more porous. As one moves into Stage Five one begins to recognize that the conscious self is not all there is of me. I have an unconscious. Much of my behavior and response to things is shaped by dimensions of self that I'm not fully aware of. There is a deepened readiness for a relationship to God that includes God's mystery and unavailability and strangeness as well as God's closeness and clarity.

Stage Five is a time when a person is also ready to look deeply into the social unconscious—through myths and taboos and standards that we took in with our mother's milk and that powerfully shape our behavior and responses. We really do examine those, which means we're ready for a new kind of intimacy with persons and groups that are different from ourselves. We are ready for allegiances beyond our tribal gods and our tribal taboos. Stage Five is a period when one is alive to paradox. One understands that truth has many dimensions which have to be held together in paradoxical tension.

Stage Six: Universalizing Faith
Fowler did include a sixth stage, which he called “Universalizing Faith” and which we might call “Enlightenment.” It is exceedingly rare to get there. Most people familiar with Fowler think that only a handful of people ever truly reach this stage. Fowler describes this stage this way:
Persons described by stage six typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance.

Putting Fowler’s Theories to Work
So, we’ve got these six stages of faith. And, I am willing to bet that as we went through this exercise, you kind of evaluated yourself and assigned yourself a stage. That is a really normal thing to do. I want to say just a few words about how to use these concepts. And, I want to throw out some metaphors for helping us to imagine these stages of faith.

At around the time Fowler wrote Stages of Faith, the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, now famous for his work explaining the effectiveness of political speech, co-wrote a book called Metaphors We Live By. According to Lakoff, one of the metaphors that live by is the metaphor that tells us that “higher” and “up” equals better, superior, more moral, more advanced, and more capable. We use this metaphor every day. A person who takes the high road is more moral. A person who uses her higher faculties is more advanced. A person who is up for the challenge is more capable, etc. As the theme song to the Jefferson’s put it, “We’re movin' on up.”

I make this comment because it is our instinct to find Fowler’s stages hierarchical and to feel like we’ve been forced to label and evaluate ourselves. It is our instinct to be defensive. So, I want to show some ways to think about Fowler’s stages.

First, we might picture a ladder. Progressing through the stages might be like climbing from one rung of the ladder to the next.



Of course, this leads to thinking that some stages are superior to others.



There are some limits to the ladder analogy. For reasons I’ll explain in just a few moments, a series of back and forth ramps might be a better analogy.



Or, even a spiral ramp. Must we travel the shortest distance between two points?



While I was thinking about metaphors that we might use to imagine these stages of faith, two other very powerful images came to mind. The first was one of the contests on the old TV show American Gladiators. The second image that came to mind was that of Russian nesting dolls. Let’s look at the nesting dolls first.



We know how Russian nesting dolls work, right. The very small doll fits inside the next sized doll that fits inside the next sized doll, and so on. This metaphor is important because it seems to me that we might consider the stages to be cumulative, not successive. We don’t leave the stages behind us; we carry them inside of us like the larger nesting doll carries many smaller dolls.

There are times when I go back to stage one, the intuitive/projective stage. During my honeymoon earlier this summer Anne and I were in Quebec City and we went to go see the Cirque du Soleil perform a free outside show. I found myself appreciating the show on two different levels. One level of appreciation was based on being attuned to the technical artistry that the performers displayed. (For four years I belonged to a society of jugglers and got to know many juggler, magicians, and acrobats. I can watch a juggler and analyze and critique the performance in a technical manner.) But, I also found myself able to enjoy the performance on the level of pure fantasy, in which the performers really flew and transformed into animals and what have you.

A few weeks ago I preached about playfulness. When playing with small children, whether it is playing peek-a-boo or building a fort, it is helpful to be able to immerse yourself in that world of imagination.

I find it harder to think of too many times when it is helpful to adopt a Stage 2, “Mythic/Literal,” faith. The best example that I can come up with would be when I am watching a fairly mindless action movie. But, then again, this requires a suspension of ethical thinking that may be a bit troublesome.

As far as Stage 3 “Synthetic/Conventional” faith goes, I can think of all kinds of times that call for a Stage 3 level of being. Sometimes it can feel really amazing to go along with the crowd. At the game, when people chant “Here we go Royals, here we go,” I chant along. And, when the scoreboard urges fans to get loud, I get loud. When everyone stands at a crucial and exciting moment, I also stand.

You know that feeling when you are at a concert and everyone is singing along? That is a Stage 3 type of feeling. Of course, there are plenty of times when going along with the crowd can be very dangerous and destructive. But, there are all sorts of times when it can be powerful in a positive way.

The lesson of the nesting dolls reminds us that we all still carry within us a primal faith, an imaginative or magical faith, and a literal/mythic/narrative faith.

Allow me to introduce another metaphor for helping us think about and use Fowler’s theory of faith development. On the old television show American Gladiators, one of the contests was called “Assault.” Here is a clip of the program. In watching this clip, I perceived many wonderful convergences between the contest and developmental theory. Consider the god-like gladiator and consider that Robert Kegan’s book, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, posits a modern way of living that assaults us with challenges and where we are forced to develop to meet those challenges. Pause the video at 0:23 where the announcer uses a telestrator to show the path of the course. Those back and forth lines correspond to the crossing ramps that are often used to depict developmental theory. And then there is the fact that at each stage the competitor makes use of a different weapon, just as those individuals at different stages employ different skills and worldviews.

The analogy isn’t perfect. We have a tendency to think in whole numbers. And the strategy in “Assault” is to spend as much time as possible at the stations and to cross between stations as quickly as possible. But, that is not how we move through life. We don’t spend years at one stage and then quickly jump to the next stage. We spend time between the stages, pushed and pulled, progressing and regressing.

Those back and forth lines at 0:23, like the picture from the Donkey Kong game above, captures yet another important facet of developmental theory. According to Fowler’s theory, as we move between stages, we alternate between two polar orientations. One orientation is extremely individualistic. The other orientation is extremely communalistic.

Let’s say you have an extremely black and white (fundamentalist) faith. That is kind of a stage 2 faith, extremely literal, extremely absolutist. That kind of faith is actually extremely independent. A billion people can disagree with you, but that doesn’t matter. All of them are wrong. You have the total truth and there isn’t any room for anybody who varies from you even one iota. To go to the next stage you will have to cross all the way over to a conventional faith, one that puts an enormous emphasis on belonging. The move from stage 2 to stage 3 requires that doctrine take a back seat to relationships. Okay, now you are moving from stage 3 to stage 4. The move from stage 3 to stage 4 requires that you separate yourself from your community and move back towards self-reliance. And then, to move from stage 4 to stage 5 you have to be willing to re-enter and re-engage with community.

Remember David Foster Wallace’s article about September 11th? Why are you flying the flag? We can equate the responses to different stages.
Stage 2: “To show we’re Americans and we’re not gonna bow down to nobody.”

Stage 3: “For unity. To remind us we’re all in this together.”

Stage 4: “It’s a classic pseudo-archetype, a reflexive semion designed to preempt and negate the critical function.” (An extremely annoying Stage 4 response.)
Earlier I talked about developmental thinkers such as Piaget, Kohlberg, Maslow, Gilligan, Erikson, Kegan, and Wilber. Each of these thinkers has proposed a way of understanding human development using somewhere between 5 and 9 stages. Unfortunately, time limitations and the threat of our brains exploding from too much information will prevent me from going into all of these theories. But, I do want to say just a few words about Robert Kegan. Like I said earlier, Kegan is a professor at the Harvard School of Education and I took a course on developmental psychology from him. In 1982, Kegan published a book called The Evolving Self which he dedicated “to the living legend of Jean Piaget.” The Evolving Self was published two years after Piaget’s death and one year after James Fowler published Stages of Faith. Kegan’s theory imagined six stages that he called: Incorporative, Impulsive, Imperial, Interpersonal, Institutional, and Interindividual. There is a lot of overlap with Fowler. One thing that is very interesting about what Kegan did was that he explicitly said that each stage has a subject-object relationship with the previous stage. To overstate his point, each stage exists in reaction to the previous stage. I have noticed a tendency to objectify the other side.

Take, for example, the “New Atheist” author Sam Harris and his book, The End of Faith. Harris seems to fall very strongly on the individualist side of the spectrum. It is interesting to me how dismissive he is of religious expression that is more communalistic. His attack on Stage One faith: Believing in God is like believing in the Tooth Fairy or Tinkerbell. His attack on Stage Three faith: Religion is the opiate of the masses. And, Harris even attacks Stage Five faith: Harris criticizes Gandhi’s pacifism, calling it “highly immoral.”

According to Fowler’s theory, pure fundamentalism is Stage Two. In Stage Two we would terrorists who hijack planes and blow up abortion clinics. Interestingly, we observe some identification between Harris and pure fundamentalists. To Harris, those fundamentalists represent religion in its truest sense. At least they are honest.

Now, take Chris Hedges, who wrote a book entitled I Don’t Believe in Atheists that attacked Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Hedges conflates the hyper-individualism of Harris and Dawkins with religious fundamentalism, accusing Harris and Dawkins of practicing “atheist fundamentalism.” To me that term is completely meaningless.

Conclusion and Using the Theory
[During my lecture I elected not to end with any set conclusions. Instead, I opened the time up to discussion and invited the audience to use the theory to think about various facets of contemporary Unitarian Universalist congregational life.]

I’ve decided to list a set of questions that I believe many Unitarian Universalist congregations wrestle with. I leave it to you to use Fowler’s theory to explore possible answers to these questions:

• What is the meaning of membership in a Unitarian Universalist church?
• Should congregations take stands on social issues?
• Should worship services contain more participatory ritual?
• Should congregations insist that members pledge a certain percentage of their income to the church each year or should congregations let each individual give as much as they choose?
• Should social action be undertaken as a project of the whole community or should it be left to individuals to decide how they wish to serve their communities?
• During December should the focus be mainly on Christmas, on all the Holidays of Light (Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Divali, etc.), or on none of the above?
• What is the point of exploring world religions? For children? For adults?
• How should congregations practice acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth?
• Did Fowler’s theory bring to mind anything in your congregational experience?

Thank you for attending, and thank you for taking the time to read this lecture!


Bibliography
James Fowler, Stages of Faith
Laurel Hallman, Living by Heart (DVD)
Sam Harris, The End of Faith
Chris Hedges, I Don’t Believe in Atheists
Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development
Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By
David Foster Wallace, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” in Consider the Lobster

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sermon: "Faithful Conversations" (Delivered 8-22-10)

Last June I attended a community organizing training. About one hundred people attended the ten hour training held over two days at a Lutheran Church in Westport. We were racially diverse, religiously diverse, socio-economically diverse, and we represented many different neighborhoods from all over the Kansas City metro-area.

The organizers of the event had assigned me a role. I was asked to deliver some closing words to tie the experience together. Sure, stand up in front of a large group and say something inspirational; I think I’ve got that covered. But then the details of the assignment were clarified. My closing words were supposed to capture stories, reflections, and sound-bytes from our time together.

I don’t know about you, but at events and gatherings like these I have a tendency to become a bit restless. When the presentation is taking place I find myself wondering, “Hmm… I wonder how strong the Wi-Fi signal is in this room. I better check.” I find myself wandering to the back of the room to see if all the chocolate chip cookies have been taken.

We didn’t just sit in one big group and watch the presentation. During the training we were assigned to have discussions at our table, either a discussion among our six or seven other table mates, or one-on-one with a partner. I don’t know about you, but sometimes in these situations my own listening is shortchanged by my own inner composition of the perfect thing I plan say when it’s my turn to speak. I’m sure that this never happens to you.

This closing litany that I was supposed to create for the leadership training necessitated that I adopt a very different state of mind. If I was going to capture stories and reflections, I was going to have to listen. And the final product, I decided, would not have a single word I composed. It would consist entirely of the words, stories, and reflections that others had spoken and that I would assemble, just like stringing exquisite individual pearls to create a beautiful necklace. The point of telling you all this is that this exercise, this discipline, of listening for those quotes and stories altered the way I was present, the way I was in the room for those ten hours. What was striking to me was how different this felt. To do what I was supposed to do I had to listen incisively. I had to hear the participants in their own voices and to be able to report what was said. Let me be clear, my role wasn’t heroic. I’m not bragging. It was just striking to me how much this simple assignment changed the way I participated, the way I was in the room.

The title of the service this morning—“Faithful Conversations”—is lifted from a collaborative program between Unitarian Universalist congregations from a large metro-area in the country. In that metro-area there are about a dozen UU congregations, including four large ones. Those four large congregations created a program a few years ago that they called “Faithful Conversations.” Over the course of two years, these congregations hosted a series of invitation-only evening events inviting the leaders from the four congregations to come together. The goal of these evenings was to train the attendees on how to think theologically. First, ministers representing each congregation modeled conversation on a theological theme. Then, those in attendance broke up into small groups and practiced engaging in a faithful conversation on a theological theme.

It is interesting to note how this series of “Faithful Conversations” events meshed seamlessly with the goals of one of the participating congregations. That congregation had established three goals for its members. Those goals went something like this:
Our members are able to think theologically and engage in meaningful spiritual practice.

Our members are able to go deep quickly in small groups and are able to connect across differences.

Our members are effective at leading social change in the communities to which they belong.
This morning, this sermon is about the second of those three goals, the ability to go deep in small groups and connect across differences. And, while this is not something we’ve adopted as a goal here at SMUUCh, I would actually suggest that the ability to participate constructively in small groups is a core religious competency that it is important to develop.

I say it’s a central competency for several reasons. For one thing, there is the possibility that the content that someone shares in a faithful conversation can be inspirational, informative, and a source of wisdom to us. What other people say can lead you towards greater self-understanding just as when you speak from the depths of your being it can also lead you towards a deeper self-understanding. Aside from the content of the conversation, learning to be disciplined in both our listening and in our speaking is important. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about the interconnected web of all existence. Our capacity both to listen and to speak from the depths of our being will partially determine the way in which we are interconnected one with another. Also forming relationships with other people, especially people from historically marginalized communities, the quality of the relationship is going to be shaped by two significant questions. First, are you able to hear and understand the painful experiences of another person? Second, do you know yourself well enough to be aware of the ways that privilege, as a byproduct of systematic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, has played a role in shaping the person you are?

Earlier this week a friend of our church sent me a magazine clipping referencing a study of the neurological effects of intimate conversations.
A new study… has found that conversing can produce an almost eerie synchronization of brainwaves… Using a special type of MRI device, researchers at Princeton University imaged the brain activity of a student as she told of two person experiences… Researchers then scanned the brains of several subjects listening to the stories. Listeners who followed and enjoyed the stories quickly synchronized their brain waves to the speakers’. But if the listener didn’t like or understand what was being said, this effect disappeared, and brain patterns decoupled… The effect goes beyond the parts of the brain used to process language; during a good conversation, people will unconsciously begin imitating each other, using similar sentence structures, speaking rates, and physical gestures and postures. In fact, listeners can get so tuned in that they can even begin to anticipate what the speaker is about to say.
In the life of this religious community there are several opportunities on the horizon to engage in faithful conversations with your fellow church members. During the second week of September our Board of Trustees is sponsoring a week long experience called Connecting Week. This week will include open events such a wine and cheese reception, an “ice-cream for dinner” family gathering, a coffee time, and time set aside on Sunday mornings. During these event we will pair off into groups of two and those pairs will engage in a focused and intentional one-on-one conversation around four questions that the subcommittee designed. Everyone will then write down their answers on a set of note cards that will be provided and those note cards will be returned to the Board to inform their leadership. The board wants every single person in our church to participate.

Another set of faithful conversations will be taking place over the next several weeks as a group in our church continues to explore a relationship with the community organizing group, Communities Creating Opportunity, or CCO. Over the next several weeks there will be three or four house meetings held. These house meetings will invite people to come together and to consider whether there is a common cause shared widely by our members and how it might be possible to organize in such a way as to effect a change in our wider community, to take action so that we might move a little closer to the world as it should be. At these house parties people are going to speak from a personal place, from a place of intimacy, as they take turns speaking and listening to the question, “What keeps you awake at night?” After the first batch of house meetings, there will be a decision on whether to hold more or not.

But finally, the Connecting Conversations and the community organizing house meetings are just one-shot opportunities. And the ability to go deep in small groups is a core competency of religious life. For those people who want to develop this competency, who want to go deep, we have a small group ministry program. We used to call these groups “connection circles.” But, the name has been switched a little bit and we are going to try calling them “covenant groups.” And, I don’t want to get too wrapped up in the semantics, but it occurs to me that it is possible to find connection in all sorts of ways. It is possible to connect through collecting stamps or butterflies. But, these groups are going to stress a different sort of connection. I think they are using the term covenant intentionally to mean promise or commitment. And, these groups will ask people to commit not only to attendance (which is very important), but also to a way of being together, a way of talking and listening, a way of honoring and respecting and sharing that develops our capacity to go deep in small groups.

I’ve decided to end my sermon this morning by inviting you to practice engaging in a faithful conversation. The theme I’ve selected is “holy moments.” Earlier this summer I attended a worship experience on this theme. Several of my colleagues gave personal reflections on a holy moment in their lives before they asked us to pair up into groups of two, as I am about to ask you to do. During that worship service, the first person to speak shared this intricate story about an amazing interfaith worship service she helped to lead, a service that spoke to the deep hurts of the community, a service in a house of worship with cathedral ornamentation. And it was a good story, but I became concerned. Was this going to turn into a bragging match? Was this going to turn competitive? The next person took it in a completely different direction. He talked about vulnerability, a time when he had experienced failure. The holy moment for him came from those who offered abundant forgiveness, from those who responded to his shortcoming not by distancing themselves, but by drawing nearer and embracing himself for his vulnerability.

So this wasn’t going to spiral into a series of arrogant boasts. But, was it going to descend into a pity party? The third person spoke. She began playfully, “Oh, so now we have the ability to decide what’s holy and what is not. Maybe UU folk singer Peter Mayer is right, and everything is holy. But, what makes us think that even if the holy smacked us right on our foreheads that we would even notice it?” She went on, to describe her practice for writing eulogies for memorial services, which involves waking up at four o’clock in the morning on the day of the service to compose them. She described a recent time when she had done this and coming to the realization that holy moments are something that we choose.

Next it was our turn and now it is your turn. In just a moment I want you to pair up with one other person. The topic, the theme, is a time when you have experienced the holy. You are all adults; do your own defining.

[After I gave a few more instructions, I had those in the congregation share in one-on-one groups about a holy moment in their lives.]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reza Aslan Rocks Kansas City

“I am certain that David Petraeus wishes he could be here in Kansas City instead of Afghanistan.” – Reza Aslan
Last night I attended the annual awards banquet of the International Relations Council of Kansas City. Originally, the keynote speaker was supposed to be General David Petraeus. When Petraeus got reassigned to Afghanistan, the IRC managed to get Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American public intellectual and author, to fill in. I could not have been happier. Dr. Aslan’s address was a tour de force.

Recognizing that he was filling in for General Petraeus, Dr. Aslan began his lecture by painting a pessimistic picture of counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan. He explained counter-insurgency theory, listed the factors necessary for a counter-insurgency to be successful, and then explained why he believes a counter-insurgency strategy won’t work in Afghanistan.

Switching gears, Dr. Aslan turned his remarks to the “War on Terror.” He asked where the war on terror is being lost. His answer, surprisingly, was Europe. He presented an overview of Islamophobic laws throughout Europe, from French bans on certain kinds of Islamic head coverings, to Switzerland banning the construction of minarets, to political parties in The Netherlands and Germany trying to pass anti-Islamic legislation and even calling for Muslims to be kicked out of the country.

His point was this: the “War on Terror” is a war of ideas which can only be won by convincing people that your ideas are better than other ideas. He asked us to put ourselves in the shoes of a young Muslim, 19 or 20 years old, in France. Laws are being passed to limit your religious expression. Politicians are using you as a scapegoat. The message is delivered over and over again that you are to be feared, that you are a threat, and that the country needs to resist being “Islamicized.” Does this seem like a good strategy for encouraging moderate and liberal Islam and discouraging religious extremism? I didn’t think so.

The lecture then moved to the United States and his comments were made within the context of the debate about the construction of an Islamic cultural center close to Ground Zero in Manhattan. Dr. Aslan argued that the greatest weapon America possesses in the “War on Terror” is the combined experience of the 8 million Muslims living in the United States. He provided demographic data that shows that American Muslims are better off economically than non-Muslims and that the 8 million Muslims in America have a combined discretionary spending power of $150 billion annually. The Muslim experience in America has been one of economic prosperity, religious liberty, and democratic pluralism. And, that is the reality that wins points for the United States in the worldwide war of ideas.

Therefore, the stupidest thing the United States can do is to succumb to the same kind of Islamophobic scapegoating and fear-mongering that has plagued Western Europe. We see this fear-mongering not only in the debate about the Cordoba Institute in New York City, but also in various religio-political groups that are planning to burn the Qur’an on September 11 and protest the “Islamicization” of America by staging demonstrations outside of American mosques. In fact, on September 11, 2010, Newt Gingrich will be headlining a demonstration against the Cordoba Institute in Manhattan. For this event Gingrich will be flying in neo-fascist Dutch politician Geert Wilders who has, among other things, advocated banning the Qur’an, prohibiting the construction of mosques, taxing women who wear headscarves, banning Muslim immigration to the Netherlands and advocating the removal of all settled Muslim immigrants from the country.

Aslan asked rhetorically: How do US soldiers in Afghanistan do effective counter-insurgency work when the country they represent is publicly burning the Qur’an? When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf travels around the globe on behalf of the US State Department to promote the idea that American democracy is compatible with Islam, how exactly is he to be taken seriously when US politicians are lining up to score political points by criticizing the Islamic cultural center he plans to build?

Dr. Aslan proceeded to list a number of facts about the Islamic Cultural Center, its backers, and the widespread support it has received from the NYC interfaith community and the city’s planning commission. He also argued that the “sensitivity” argument against building the Cultural Center does not hold water.

In the section of his speech that impressed me the least, Reza Aslan turned to the principles of religious liberty. He argued that a person who values religious liberty cannot say, “I believe in religious freedom, but…” This argument just does not hold. I can complete that sentence a hundred different ways that wouldn't be inconsistent with valuing religious freedom and I bet Dr. Aslan can as well.
“I believe in religious freedom, but I think burning the Qur’an is ignorant, offensive, and that people who would do this are ugly souls filled with hatred.”

“I believe in religious freedom, but I abhor the hatred spewed by Fred Phelps and his followers.”

“I believe in religious freedom, but I oppose those who use religion to persecute and deny the civil rights of gay, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families.”

“I believe in religious freedom, but I am deeply concerned about so-called 'Christian Identity' white supremacist groups. I believe that these groups should be monitored closely and prosecuted ruthlessly when they violate the law.”
Personally, I do not see any contradiction between valuing religious liberty and criticizing the actions of religious groups. At the same time, I would tend to agree with Dr. Aslan that most of those who object to the Cordoba Institute either do not understand the project or are being politically opportunistic at the expense of American Muslims and US relations with the Muslim world.

Dr. Reza Aslan capped the evening with a brilliant assessment of US relations with Iran. All in all, a fantastic lecture and a fantastic evening at the International Relations Council annual awards banquet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sermon: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the SAT" (Delivered 8-15-10)

Alacrity. Punctilious.

Springtime. 1994. My junior year in high school.

Solicitous. Nonplussed.

Monday afternoon. English class. Two weeks before the SAT. A voice from one of my classmates, “It’s only two weeks until the SAT. Can you please quiz us with a few vocab words before class starts?”

Obsequious.

Wayland Public High School was usually a pretty high strung place. But with The Test coming up the anxiety level was ratcheting up to record levels. The following Friday, the day before the SAT, the same student again made another request, “Since tomorrow is the SAT, could we spend this entire class period going over vocabulary words.”

Acerbate. Pusillanimous.

What our teacher did next was something that I would never forget. He winced. His voice grew loud, “Stop. I mean just stop. I mean… listen.” He turned away from the black board and relaxed into the front of his desk. His voice grew soft and he delivered a startling monologue.

He told us about his freshman year at Stanford. He shared openly and frankly about some choices that he had made that year, how he would find himself at the end of the year not only fighting to stay in school but fighting for his life. He also told us that he eventually got to go back, and earned a Ph.D. in English literature. But the moral of the story was that this test was going to have a very insignificant impact on the course of our lives. Much more important and significant things would shape our futures.

Again, a student raised her hand. “Well, could you at least quiz us on a few vocab words. I mean, Stanford is my safety school.”


The point I might make here is, in fact, quite obvious. It is a point about how we measure our lives. After all, our lives are full of things that we track, that we count, that we measure. Some things we are able to count with a great deal of precision: the amount of money in a bank account, the square feet in a house, the score received on a standardized test. Other things are measured without numbers: the brand name on a car or an article of clothing, the prestige associated with having been to a certain restaurant or entertainment event or vacation destination. And, of course, some things like happiness, contentedness, and satisfaction are a bit more challenging to try to measure.

So, what do you spend your time measuring? What do you spend your time counting?

Besides the question of how to count, there is the question of what is really worthwhile to count. Disparate fields have been revolutionized by people who have insisted that it is important to count this thing as opposed to that thing. In the past decade the sport baseball has undergone a sea change with statisticians rethinking how player performance should be measured. Even in the world of religion there has been a move to get congregations to quantify some things as opposed to other things.

Whenever I log out of my Yahoo! email account there is a page that pops up with a list of trending news articles. And, many of the articles aren’t actually news per se. Instead, they tend to be lifestyle stories in the form of lists. A couple of weeks ago an article popped up listing the top cities for young adults. I decided to page through the cities on their list and I noticed that New York City made the list and that Denver did not. And I began to think, “Well, this list is stupid.” Isn’t it all just a matter of what you decide to count? If you live for skiing, hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking, New York City is not going to make you a very happy person. If you live for the theater, you will find yourself getting restless in Denver.

During my time at Harvard I had the opportunity to witness a group of people who were very focused on one kind of counting. In the Harvard Law School dorms there is a tradition in which, at the beginning of the third year, many of the 3L students tape all of their offer letters from firms on the doors of their dorm rooms. All of these letters offered six-figure base salaries, signing bonuses, and all sorts of other benefits and perks. Wile visiting the Law School dorm at this time of the year I walked past several doors that had more than a dozen offer sheets taped up. When space ran out on the doors, the offer sheets spilled over onto the adjacent wall.

And, this seemed like a very odd thing to count competitively, seeing as how each student would only be able to choose one. But, what was striking to me was that there was this very clear, very apparent system that the students used to compare themselves to one another. I wondered, what about all the other facets of life? Might there be other measurements worthy of consideration as well?

Obvious point again, the point about how there is often a stark discrepancy between the things we pay a great deal of attention to and the things that matter profoundly in contributing to living a life with meaning and value. To paraphrase Emerson, “A person will count something—have no doubt about that… Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we measure, for what we are measuring we are becoming.”

To summarize what I’ve argued so far: The danger in placing a great significance on counting some things is that it may lead us to disregard other things that may be more important to count, to count some things expense of other things, other things that might help us to live better lives. It is possible to over-focus and grow obsessed with measuring things to our own detriment. It is easier to measure a person’s net worth than their happiness. It is easier to measure a grade point average than the depth of a person’s wisdom. It is easier to measure a person’s stuff than it is the depth of love in a person’s relationships.

To the Yahoo news feed: You can’t rank cities. Every single person is going will rank cities differently based on individual personal preferences, passions, interests, and values.

To the 3L students: Your compensation package is one thing, but there are some other things you may want to measure. What impact does your life have on your community? What does it take to become a full person?

To the students my high school English class: What our teacher said was true, the future course of your lives will be determined by so much more than it is possible to account for on a test.

I want to take us back for a second to that high school English class. And, I want for us to go back to that moment when the student was so caught up in her own measuring of what was important that she couldn’t even hear the message from our teacher imploring us to keep a sense of perspective. I wondered why she couldn’t hear him.

It could well have been that she couldn’t hear this message because her way of approaching the world seemed to be working pretty well for her. But, let me try to ask this question again. Why do people measure things that, in the end, are not really the measure of a good and worthy life?

I mean, deep down, people know that they are more than the sum of a bunch of numbers. Maybe they don’t know this, but I think most people do know this. Maybe this is naïve or overly optimistic for me to think, but I think that if you asked people what was really important, they would tell you that what is important is that that they have love in their life, family and friends, connection and relationships. They would tell you that making a positive impact in the life of other people and in their community is important to them.

There is a passage from the Bible that I think captures the difference between what people say is important and what people spend their time measuring. The passage is from the prophet Micah.
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression…?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In this passage you can just imagine the people to whom Micah is speaking. What does the Lord require of you? And the people, they aren’t dumb. Nobody actually raises his hand and says, “Well, I think that what God really wants is the fatted calf.”

Look even more closely at the text. There is a progression. The first objects identified in the texts are the burnt offerings and year old calves. Then, the text escalates the counting. The next items listed are “thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil.” Finally, amidst the list of massive riches we find the offer to sacrifice the firstborn child. It is a passage about how if we count lesser things we might wind up forgetting the value of that which is much more important.

Instead, maybe it would be better simply to keep a ledger of our efforts in pursuit of justice, our acts of lovingkindness, and the moments when we do walk humbly with God.

So, where is this coming from? From fear, I think. For all the lightheartedness that I have tried to bring to this subject, it is, if we are really being honest with ourselves, a scary, scary thing to actually try to count and measure what is truly important and worthy. It is easy and comforting to count sheep. It is difficult to measure our lives by what we truly hold to be most important. Passing our time counting things that are less important can serve as a very effective distraction against forcing ourselves into the hard task of asking ourselves what has meaning and then calibrating our life with that sense of meaning.

It is a scary thing to ask: What if we did measure ourselves based on our deepest and most sacred values? What if we measured those things in our own lives and found we didn’t like what we discovered? Well, then we might actually have to change. We might have to make different choices.

The stakes are high. The stakes are this one life that you have been given.

In her meditation manual, Walking Towards Morning, Victoria Safford writes on this theme,
In a cemetery once, an old one in New England, I found a strangely soothing epitaph… [On the headstone were] the words, “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” At first this seemed to me a little meager, a little stingy on the part of her survivors, but I wrote it down and have thought about it since, and now I can’t imagine a more proud or satisfying legacy.

Every day I stand in danger of being struck by lightning and having the obituary in the local paper say, for all the world to see, “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many unimportant, meaningless details.”
Safford goes on to list several other sample epitaphs. “He got all the dishes washed and dried before playing with his children in the evening.” “She answered all her calls, all her email, all her voicemails, but along the way she forgot to answer the call to service and compassion…”

Albert Einstein once said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Or, as our hymn puts it, “If they ask what I did best, tell them I said ‘Yes’ to love.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why Ministers Burn Out

A feature story by Paul Vitello in the August 1 issue of the New York Times shared findings from several sources, among them a Duke University study, that showed the American clergy is unhealthy and unhappy. One study revealed that religious leaders suffer from depression, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity at higher than normal rates. (The study was silent on whether ministers are also more likely to contract St. Vitus’ Dance.)

The article went on to cite several reasons for clergy burnout. The chief reason cited was that religious leaders work long hours and don’t take enough vacation. Other factors mentioned in the article included cell phones and social networking sites that keep ministers from getting away; stress inducing cultural changes like changing patterns of volunteerism and fundraising struggles; and, “boundary issues” that lead clergy to over-function.

This article was already generating a lot of buzz in ministry circles and other papers were beginning to report on clergy burnout when G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a UCC (liberal Christian) pastor who serves a small congregation in Swampscott, Massachusetts, responded to Vitello’s reporting with an op-ed in the August 8 New York Times.

MacDonald argued that clergy burnout and illness had to do with a deeper issue than stress and overwork: churches put pressure on ministers to “forsake [their] highest calling.”
The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. […]

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.
MacDonald continued,
They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.
MacDonald called on lay leaders and members to expect and embrace the minister as a source of challenge and not merely comfort. Your religious leader didn’t sign up to be an entertainer. She is not a Country Club activities director. He is not your monkey. It is the job, MacDonald contends, of religious leaders to lead congregations of people to places they don’t really want to go. “They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries,” he wrote.

I can only imagine what MacDonald’s next board meeting in Swampscott will look like. Last night at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church I decided to share MacDonald’s op-ed with the members of my board, asking them to reflect on it. I also send my mom (LOVE YOU, MOM!!!) a link to the article. Both my mom, a former English teacher, and a member of the board, a former journalist, felt that the story resonated with their vocational experiences. Journalists are asked to forsake their vocational calling, to promote sensation over nuance and to avoid complexity.

Similarly, my mom pointed to the profession of teaching where, according to her, there is an increased emphasis on teachers to entertain, keep students and parents happy, award high grades, and not assign too much work – and raise test scores to boot!

I guess we might summarize the point this way: wisdom will not come without work and, to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, grace doesn’t come cheaply. Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… [and] communion without confession.”

In a few weeks, on Thursday, August 26, I will be delivering a lecture on Unitarian Universalist and Theories of Faith Development. This lecture will partially touch on the question of how challenging and demanding a minister ought to be.

Earlier this year I read two books that were highly critical of the kind of culture that G. Jeffrey MacDonald describes. In both Empire of Illusion by Christopher Hedges and Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, the authors strongly criticize churches that offer the experience of shiny surfaces entirely lacking in depth. This is partially the crisis of post-modernity. Some post-modern philosophers, theologians, and cultural critics have argued that everything is surface. While I find that objectionable, I do accept the necessity of surface. As a character in a novel by Jonathan Lethem put it, “You can’t be deep without a surface.” But, I also give my final word to a member of the SMUUCh board who said, “If you aren’t asking the really important questions at church, where can you?”

So, I’m interested in your thoughts:

What is your response to Jeffrey MacDonald’s op-ed?
Did his cultural analysis resonate with you?
Do you come to religious community holding onto any sacred truths that you would be upset to have challenged or confronted?

UU Immigration Links

Are you interested in learning more about Unitarian Universalism and immigration? Here are some links that might interest you:

Just before the July 29, 2010 protests in Phoenix, UUA President Peter Morales had two pieces published.
The Huffington Post published Morales’ piece on why he went to Phoenix.
The Washington Post also published an op-ed by Morales on what people of faith must do about immigration reform.
The Huffington Post also carried Morales' reflections from his night in jail.

Kim Bobo, of Interfaith Worker Justice, had the following piece published on the Religion Dispatches website. She credits Unitarian Universalists for our excellence in organizing.
Although most faith bodies and denominations have very strong statements on immigration reform, those same denominations did not activate people. With one glaring exception—the Unitarian Universalist Association.
[...]
Given the significance of the immigration crisis, the religious community’s values around welcoming immigrants and the substantial role immigrants play in congregations throughout the nation, one would expect that denominations would be leading in every action around the nation. Unfortunately, the formal denominational leadership has not played the role it could and should. Luckily, the Unitarian Universalist Association offered an example in Arizona of what can and should occur. Let’s hope others will “go and do likewise.”
Of course, many Unitarian Universalist ministers have preached on the subject of immigration. My colleague in Albuquerque, Christine Robinson, delivered a thoughtful sermon on immigration back in June.

Leslie Mills, one of the UU protesters arrested in Arizona, has blogged about her experience.

The Standing on the Side of Love site includes a blog with reflections written by many of those arrested or standing in solidarity in Phoenix. I've included links to testimonials from Audrey Addison Williams, Mae Singerman, Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, and Rev. David Miller.

You can also see videos from the July 29 Phoenix protest on YouTube:
This video includes footage of Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and Rev. Ian Maher being arrested.
Here is a video about the way immigration has touched the lives of members of the UU Congregation of Phoenix.
Here is a video of UUA Moderator Gini Courter at a vigil in Arizona.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon: "A Theology of Playfulness" (Delivered 8-8-10)

Reading
The reading before the sermon was Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Rowing Endeth”

Sermon
Together, we had a joke contest, and I told the only three jokes I know. We sang songs—some together, some as rounds, some solos, some English, some Spanish. We had a morning yoga class. We did the “UU Hokey Pokey,” where we put our open minds, loving hearts, helping hands, and whole selves in and shook them all about.
These words are from the blog of my friend Leslie Mills. Leslie is studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities. The words that I have just read are excerpted from an account of her night in the jail of Sheriff Joe Arpaio after being arrested for civil disobedience in Phoenix ten days ago. Her blog continues,
Girls and women wearing black-and-white striped shirts and pants. They are being brought in and ushered out; the guards shuffle the prisoners frequently. I’m guessing it’s so that the prisoners can’t form community, get to know each other, or offer one another support.

The problem today is that they arrested so many protesters, wearing their bright yellow t-shirts, that they don’t have enough cells to keep us all separated. And we are offering our community to everyone who comes through the door.

Sometimes, the guards make us all go stand in the hallway. Our friends in the cell next to ours are being made to stand in the hallway, and the guard is yelling at them to keep their backs to the wall and not talk. We stand in the window of our cell, looking at our sisters in the hallway, and we do the chicken dance for them. The guard doesn’t notice, but our sisters have smiles on their faces again.
Now, I have just shared with you the most light-hearted part of Leslie’s blog post. I don’t want to give you the impression that the jail is at all a pleasant place. In fact, the Sheriff of Maricopa County is infamous for devising methods to systematically intimidate, humiliate, and dehumanize those who have been detained.

But, what I want to focus on is a phrase from Leslie’s blog in which she writes, “We are offering our community to everyone who comes through the door.” Offering that community through hospitality, through song, through prayer, and through moments of lightheartedness and tenderness intended to get your cellmate to crack a smile.

My sermon this morning is about playfulness. More specifically, it is about the role that playfulness can have in shaping our lives and, it is about how practices of playfulness can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, of others, and of our worlds. And, what I hope the example I just shared shows is that playfulness is something that we can draw upon during serious parts of our lives as well as in casual times.

Earlier this week I reached out to L., a beloved member of this congregation. L. is a psychologist who incorporates play therapy into her practice. I said, “You’re an expert when it comes to play. Tell me something I need to know about play.” She responded in a way that was humble and true. “Honey, in play there aren’t any experts. That is kind of the point of play. ‘Play expert’ is an oxymoron.”

Even though L. has said that there are no experts when it comes to play, I decided to ask a number of people in our congregation to say something about play and playfulness.

B. and T. wrote to me and said that they try to live their lives according to core values of happiness, gratefulness, and thankfulness. They went to on to describe that they found “attraction” to be a powerful concept. What they wrote, though, reminded me of another word, “invitation.” They told me that they found truth in the saying that “a smile is the best accessory anyone can wear.” A smile is, as they put it, “An outward expression that is the key to unlocking the door in any relationship.” I think back to what Leslie wrote about the fellowship that they created during their night in jail. With their yellow shirts proclaiming that they were standing on the side of love, Leslie’s cellmates offered community to everyone who came through the door and got their comrades in the hallway to smile.


During the month of July I spent a week in Wisconsin serving as a presenter at the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Leadership School. Part of the learning experience included worship twice each day, with each worship service planned and executed by a small team that included adults and youth. What’s more, each team worked under pressure. Each small group was given less than twenty-four hours to create a worship service from scratch. Not every single worship service was my speed, but not a single one failed to be deeply creative. The worship experiences included: liturgical dance, a stand-up comedy routine, a marshmallow s’more communion, two worship services interrupted by spontaneous dance parties (or, maybe they were dance parties interrupted by worship), and lots and lots of hugs and holding hands.

After I announced that I planned to preach on the subject of playfulness, I began to feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. This doesn’t feel like play. I stand up here protected by an ugly, wooden podium and hogging the microphone. You sit out there in mostly orderly rows. What’s up with that? Maybe we should clear the room and tell jokes, do the UU hokey-pokey and the chicken dance, and play poker. If I were really to suggest it, I’m sure that many of you would volunteer to stack the chairs. But, our Sunday mornings are different than the community at leadership school, where there is the necessary intimacy that comes through rooming together, eating together, and learning together. And, we are different than a group of people who have been thrown in jail together for proclaiming our beliefs.

L. did loan me a book that I skimmed over the last several days. Playing by Heart is by an apparently wonderful man named Fred Donaldson who spends his life doing play research with human children as well as with dolphins and wolves. Now, I have to admit that I was really curious about how play with wolves works so I went to that part of the book and the author offered these words, “Before going in a wolf enclosure for the first time, I spent two weeks of long eight-hour days on the outside of the their enclosure. I sat next to the fence so the wolves and I could get to know one another. I touched, groomed and watched; they licked, sniffed and watched. It was a time for building trust.” This is only to make the point that some of us take to playfulness very easily while others of us need a little time to come around.

I also asked D. to share his thoughts about playfulness. He sent me a beautiful message that included this wonderful nugget,
William Saroyan wrote about comedy, “Comedy is where you die but they don't bury you because you can still walk.” So maybe, we can modify the idea to say that playfulness is where you act foolish but they don't reprimand you because you are offering love.
“Because you are offering love.” It is this notion of playfulness as a way of offering love that brings me to raise this to the realm of theology. John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker recently published a wonderful book on progressive theology. (I found it fascinating and I will be teaching a class on this book on Wednesday evenings beginning in September.) In the section of the book on progressive theologies of human nature, Rebecca Parker shares an interesting story. Parker is President of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, a school that trains Unitarian Universalists for the ministry. Rebecca Parker holds dual credentials as a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister. In the book she shares a story about serving on a Methodist task force that was called to make recommendations to the United Methodist denomination on controversial issues related to human sexuality. She describes a minister named Sam, one of her colleagues on the task force, who approached their work from a conservative bent based on his negative theology of human nature. Sam believed that human beings are naturally sinful and disobedient. Because that is the way we are, Sam believes that God has established very clear and firm rules about how we are supposed to act. God has given us those rules out of love and for our own protection. For Sam, “God’s love was embodied in the ‘orders of creation’… and deviate from it would be to turn away from God’s love.”

Rebecca, needless to say, came to this task force with a very different understanding of human nature. She believes that we are born blessed with potential. Imagination, joy, creativity, and free will are gifts that we have been given and we are called to use those gifts well for the purposes of love. To quote Rebecca, “God’s love is experienced in unexpected surprises of grace and new insight. It stretches me and my community beyond our established norms into adventures in inclusiveness [and] greater solidarity.”

I share with you this example because I think if we asked Sam and Rebecca to talk about play, I suspect we might get two very different responses. Sam might describe a game with clearly established rules and a referee whose job it is to make sure that everyone plays by the rules correctly and penalizes those that do not. Rebecca might envision a form of play “that surprises, disrupts, and alters the status quo; that expresses itself in diverse ways; that comes in rainbow colors.” In this form of play, the main thing, as D. puts it, “is that you are offering love.”

Playfulness, with its mixture of imagination, creativity, joy, freedom, surprise, disruption, and love can describe human relationships. Fred Donaldson would say that these same playful behaviors also exist in the animal world. I would add that this same kind of playfulness is useful and even necessary in our understanding of God. In the poem “The Rowing Endeth” Anne Sexton is extremely playful in the image of the divine that she presents; a God of laughter and surprises.
Dearest dealer,
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.
When is comes to the vicissitudes of human relationships and of the very core nature of our humanity we know that Sam’s approach will lead to a diminishing of our humanity and that Rebecca’s approach will lead to health, wholeness, and well-being. The same approach is just as needed when it comes to faith. Limiting rules and “correct play” lead to finitudes and platitudes. Like Rebecca, we need an approach to the questions of faith that is every bit as creative, imaginative, and truly loving as we would hope to be.

I want to conclude by offering just a few thoughts on the experience of play. J. wrote to me with these words, “I think playfulness is an essential component of our emotional toolbox. It helps us take each other and especially ourselves less seriously, and when done well, to forget our ‘self’ entirely. What a restful break that is.”

Lo, and behold, the exact same point appears in Fred Donaldson’s book. Donaldson argues that play has a circular structure. Play involves a kind of spinning; you might imagine an excited dog that races around you in a circle and jumps into you. Donaldson contends that this kind of play involves the integration of playmates into a super-individual that provides a balance to the self-assertive tendencies of the individual. If play draws us into one another then contest and competition has a centrifugal force that pushes us away from one another. Play, in the end, is a force that draws individuals and groups into a deeper sense of union, unity, and interconnection.

While not precisely a story about play, I leave you with this powerful story from Leslie's experience in the Phoenix jail:
“It’s him! It’s him!” Excited whispers rouse me from my drowsiness in the evening.

I look up and see a man surrounded by guards standing outside our cell. He’s looking in through the window, observing us as though we were dogs in a kennel. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, come to observe the prisoners that got in the way of his plans to raid innocent people’s homes that day.

One of my sister protesters walks slowly up to the window where Sheriff Joe is looking in. She is smiling, and her hands are formed into the shape of a heart. She, like most of the rest of us, is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that reads “Standing on the Side of LOVE.”

Through the window, she shouts to him in her Spanish accent, “I love you, Sheriff Joe!”

He blinks. I could have sworn he took a step back, as though she had dealt him a blow. He points to himself. ”You love me?”

“Yes,” she says. ”I love everybody—all my brothers and sisters. I even love you.”

Sheriff Joe does not appear to know how to handle this; he turns and leaves.
So, put your thinking minds in…
And, put your helping hands in…
And, most of all, put your loving hearts in…
And, shake them all about!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Conservatives for Same Sex Marriage!!!

On November 4, 2008, the voters in California passed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that prohibited same sex marriage. Two days ago, a Federal District judge in San Francisco overturned Prop 8. In spite of the stay placed on the ruling until all the appeals are heard, I celebrate this victory for equality and human dignity. But, there is a side to this story that some readers of this blog may find surprising. (Or, maybe you have been following this story closely and won’t be surprised.)

I invite you to take a moment and imagine the lawyer who argued for Proposition 8 to be overturned. While you are at it, take another moment and imagine the Federal District judge in San Francisco who ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional.

It may surprise you to know that the lawyer who headed up the legal challenge to Proposition 8 is Ted Olson. Here are a few accomplishments on Mr. Olson’s résumé:
• Successfully represented George W. Bush in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case that made Bush the President of the United States.
• Solicitor General of the United States under George W. Bush (2001-2004).
• Served as legal counsel in the Reagan administration and defended Reagan during the Iran-Contra affair.
• Was a critic of Clinton’s presidency and helped prepare the attorneys representing Paula Jones.
• Rumored to have been on the short list of possible nominees for the US Supreme Court. (Bush chose John Roberts instead.)
• Rumored to have been a top choice to follow Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General but his nomination may have been rescinded because of strong Democratic opposition.
• Served on Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 Presidential Campaign Committee.
Needless to say, this is hardly the background you would expect from someone leading the legal fight for marriage equality. A few other Olson factoids: Olson seems to be a fan of the First Amendment freedom of the press. While searching for what I could find about him on the web I discovered several instances where he had defended journalists who had been subpoenaed in order to try to force them to reveal their sources. Olson has been married four times. His third wife was killed during the September 11 terrorist attacks; she was a passenger on the plane that terrorists hijacked and flew into the Pentagon. Last but not least, Olson’s legal partner in the struggle for marriage equality in California is none other than David Boies, head of Al Gore’s legal counsel in 2000. What an unlikely pairing!

But wait, there is more. The Chief Judge of the United States District Court of Northern California also seems to have an interesting background. Vaughn Walker was a George H. W. Bush judicial appointment. He had been previous nominated under the Reagan administration in 1987 but this nomination failed when a group of House Democrats led by Representative Nancy Pelosi accused him of holding anti-gay views. On the bench, Walker has shown a sensitivity to LGBT concerns. Wikipedia describes him as “independent-minded conservative” with libertarian leanings.

I think Ted Olson and Vaughn Walker are perfect examples of a principle from community organizing that holds that there are “no permanent allies” and “no permanent enemies.” This principle holds that when it comes to public relationships of power it is worthwhile to build relationships with people we don’t usually agree with. Similarly, it is important to demand accountability even from those people we assume will be on “our side.” In other words, take no relationship for granted.

Or, given the statistics that indicate increasing acceptance of same sex marriage, maybe Olson and Walker represent the "new face" of proponents of same sex marriage.

Changing Views on Gay Marriage

This is the first of two posts in celebration of Wednesday's court decision to overturn California's Proposition 8.

The battle against discrimination and inequality is long and along the way there are many victories and many setbacks as well. While it is true that justice delayed is justice denied, it is often helpful to take a look at the big picture, the longue durée if you will. Over at FiveThirtyEight.com they posted an interesting graph showing changing attitudes towards same sex marriage over the past 12 years in each of the 50 states. Click here to see the graph.

In 1994-1996, only one state (New York, 36%) had an approval rating for same sex marriage of more than 35%. In 2008-2009, six states had approval ratings of more than 50%. Acceptance of same sex marriage increased by more than 15 percentage points in 22 states between 94-96 and 08-09. Acceptance of same sex marriage increased in every single state since 94-96. Acceptance seems to be increasing at an accelerating rate in 34 states and there is only one state (Utah) that is less accepting of same sex marriage today than five years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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