Monday, December 19, 2011

Sermon: "Miracles for People Who Don't Believe in Miracles" (Delivered 12-18-11)

Something very much like this actually happened. A decade ago I did my internship at a church in suburban Dallas. At this congregation there was an ongoing discussion group that met midweek to consider various religious texts, books, or current events. I was invited by this group to lead a series of discussions on a topic of my choosing and I chose the topic of mysticism because I had just previously taken a class on mysticism in divinity school. Following one of our discussions, a woman asked if she could visit with me. She wanted to tell me about her mystical experience.

The experience happened when she was alone and out in nature. All of a sudden she found herself completely paralyzed. Energy, like an electrical current, coursed through her. Despite being unable to move, she was not afraid. In fact, the feeling was intensely and immensely pleasurable. This experience lasted for what seemed to her like hours, but the experience also seemed to happen outside of time.

What actually happened? It is a question that this woman didn’t feel a particular need to answer. She had had a mystical experience. But, she was also afraid of speaking openly about this experience. She did not want to be judged or ridiculed. She didn’t want others to attempt to explain away her experience or deny that it had happened.

No, she was not suffering from mental illness. No, she did not have a seizure disorder or a brain tumor. No, she was not taking hallucinogenic drugs. No, while out in the woods she had not accidentally ingested mushrooms or berries and she had not licked any toads. And, no, she had not fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing.

What had actually happened? She had an experience of mystical union with a divine being. At least that is how she made sense of it. But, how does one talk about that? Until she shared the story of this experience with me, she had kept it completely secret.

***

The Christmas stories that we hear this time of year, the stories that we will retell on Christmas Eve, are stories that contain miracles on top of miracles on top of miracles. In the first chapter and a half of the Gospel of Luke an angel appears to Zechariah, and then to Mary, and then to the shepherds along with a multitude of heavenly host; both Elizabeth and Mary conceive miraculously; Zechariah is struck mute fantastically and then cured in an equally fantastic manner; and John has something of a psychic episode while still inside of Elizabeth’s womb, detecting the presence of Jesus all the way over in Mary’s womb by way of fetal ESP. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, astrologers interpret an anomaly in the sky, and both Joseph and the astrologers have prophetic dreams.

These biblical texts are full of miracles, supernatural events, and synchronicities. How exactly has our own Unitarian Universalist tradition regarded these miracles? We know how Thomas Jefferson, influenced by British deistic Unitarianism, regarded them. Jefferson literally took a razor to the Gospels, performing an epic cut-and-paste job. He cut out every single miracle, not just the virgin birth and the angels, but the miraculous healings and the resurrection, too!

This miracle slashing tendency within Unitarianism was captured humorously by Christopher Raible when he rewrote a popular carol with these lyrics:
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
There was no star of Bethlehem, there was no angels' song;
There could have been no wise men for the trip would take too long.
The stories in the Bible are historically wrong,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact!
Our current Christmas customs come from Persia and from Greece,
From solstice celebrations of the ancient Middle East.
We know our so-called holiday is just a pagan feast,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
Of course, Raible was not poking fun at Christianity or Christmas. He was lampooning us, encouraging us to laugh at ourselves for abolishing comfort and joy in favor of reason and fact.

I want to go back in time with you to the early 1800s, to the ministry and career of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and to a time in Unitarianism that was known for a theological debate called the “Miracles Controversy.” How many of you knew we had a Miracles Controversy? You may be surprised to know that this theological controversy was not about whether the miracles of the Bible, particularly the miracles involving Jesus, were true or false. The controversy was about whether the miracles of Jesus were unique. One side, the more conservative side, argued that the Biblical miracles had a kind of primacy. The other side argued that miracles did not only happen 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, but happened throughout human history, and, most importantly, were happening around us and to us now, directly. (I suspect that more than a few of us would have trouble choosing either side in this controversy.) The Transcendentalists took the here and now side of the debate. They were much more interested in experiencing the present than in believing in the past. They believed in miracles beyond miracles.

Here is where things begin to get weird. Just as the woman I spoke of at the beginning of this sermon kept her mystical experience a secret, we tend to keep an important part of our own religious tradition secret. Emerson’s wild band of Transcendentalist friends were deeply curious about such things as animal magnetism, mesmerism, séances, mediums, and various other forms of paranormal phenomena. That’s not a fact that we choose to broadcast, is it? Many of these same wild spiritualists were among the first to introduce the English speaking west to the religions of India, just as they were among the most eloquent voices speaking out and writing out in favor of the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. These are facts that we do broadcast. But here is the thing. I’m absolutely convinced that their commitments to greater human freedom, intellectual freedom, artistic freedom, and spiritual freedom were deeply interconnected with their willingness to explore and experiment with the occult and paranormal.

It’s been nearly two hundred years since the “Miracles Controversy.” Looking at much of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it doesn’t seem like either side won. Rather, a third side came to dominate, the side that likes the Jefferson Bible and heartily sings out the words “reason and fact.” The experiences of the woman I spoke of earlier and the paranormal interests of the Transcendentalists are concealed. They are the secret story of our faith, and there is a secret story of our world. And, this is where things will get really weird.

In the early twentieth century, a man named Charles Fort began a most unusual project. He decided to read every single newspaper and scientific journal published in the previous century – in English and in French! What he was looking for was stories of uncanny coincidences and unexplained phenomena. And, did he ever find them! His notes mention tens of thousands of anomalies and coincidences. [see AI, 92-141] The world, according to Fort, is significantly weirder than we like to admit. In the words of Jeffrey Kripal [see note below], Fort wrote about,
tablecloths and lace curtains bursting into flames around teenage boys and girls (mostly girls, it turns out), or, even better, rains of fish, periwinkles, frogs, crabs, or unidentified biological matter falling from the sky and piling up in the ditches for anyone to see. Or smell.
Kripal continues,
Fort, by the way, was not the first American writer to notice the fish. Earlier, Henry David Thoreau had wryly observed that “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” [AI, 95]
None of this is about belief, by the way. This is not about believing that frogs actually, factually fell from the sky in the nineteenth century, much less that frogs fell from the sky in Pharaoh’s Egypt. What is absolutely factual, though, is that newspapers reported that frogs, and fish, and periwinkles, and unidentified biological matter did rain from the sky.

Here is another strange fact. Wolfgang Pauli was a brilliant physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1945. He also was a patient of Carl Jung, going to the doctor for help with emotional and sexual problems that plagued him. Anyone who knew him as a scientist knew about something called the “Pauli Effect.” You see, when Pauli entered a lab, weird things tended to happen. Equipment would malfunction, break, or explode. It was humorous, to an extent. When something went haywire around a laboratory, scientists would inquire about Pauli’s whereabouts. Even his presence in the same city as a laboratory was thought to cause bizarre things to happen. At a physics conference in a warm weather location, his colleagues insisted that he sit well away from the air conditioner. And, just what should we make of the fact that the furnace in our sanctuary stopped working on the same morning that I decided to talk about Pauli? Finally, during World War II Pauli was not invited to join the Manhattan Project, the team of scientists charged with developing the first atomic bomb, despite his reputation as a brilliant scientist. It is rumored that those organizing the research worried about what would happen if the “Pauli Effect” was unleashed on an atomic research laboratory. It was more of a risk than they were willing to take. To put it bluntly, a community of the world’s greatest scientific minds was willing to engage the idea that one of their colleagues possessed untamed telekinetic powers. [see AI, 14; MM, 128-129]

The secret story is that a whole parade of the brightest, boldest thinkers in virtually every field have been interested and involved in spiritualist, psychical, paranormal, and occult pursuits. The people we’re talking about here are psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, scientists, inventors, artists, and literary figures, people who altered the course of human events and our understanding of what it means to be human. [see AI, 11-17] In their secret lives we find them contemplating and experiencing the “miraculous” despite being people who were not passionately committed to the miracles of the Bible in any way that was even remotely orthodox. And, in many cases, we find that the strange and bizarre is not a hobby off to the side of these brilliant thinkers, but an integral part of their work and their being, even a source of their “superpowers.”

There are stories far weirder than those I’ve shared. There are hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of these secret stories. I’m less interested in the facts behind any one story than I am in the fact that these stories mean something.

***

I want to come back into this room, this community, this congregation. The woman who shared her mystical experience with me a decade ago poses an interesting question for us. What would happen here if someone shared a personal story about a personal mystical experience, an anomaly, a synchronicity? I mean actually share it. Talk about it. Like during an adult religious education class, or in a Covenant Group, or in the Exploring Membership class, or at coffee hour, or over dinner at one of our Saturday Suppers, or even from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I suspect that quite a few of us have had experiences that are not easily explained. I’m not talking only about full-blown miracles or paralyzing mystical trances. I’m talking about the subtle anomalies, minor synchronicities, sensations, premonitions, the tingling of sixth senses.

Jeffrey Kripal [see note below] shared with me a series of four sermons he delivered at the Emerson UU Church in Houston on this very same subject. About experiences like those I’ve talked about, he told his listeners, “Next time something like this happens to you, do not ignore the event. Do not let it pass without comment or interpretation. Most of all, do not approach it as a mere coincidence or a miracle. Approach it as a tiny piece of a story in which you are the central character. Who knows what might happen?”

My own charge and challenge to us is just a bit different. The experiences that I’ve talked about this morning are ones that many communities are completely unable to accept. In orthodox religious communities, spiritual experiences are fine, as long as they follow a very narrow script as to what is acceptable. The moment they cross boundaries, they are deemed heretical and taboo, and are forcefully, even violently, opposed. Outside of these religious traditions, our cultural institutions have a prevailing attitude that scoffs at and excludes these experiences for violating the principles of scientific rationalism, or insists that these experiences be disguised, obscured, or hidden away.

I’m interested in what I would call a “gnostic community.” Alas, a better name eludes me at this moment. It would be the type of community in which Ralph Waldo Emerson would happily stay. It would be a community in which the woman of whom I spoke at the beginning would feel no need to keep her story a secret. It would be a community that tells Wolfgang Pauli that he can sit wherever he wants. It would be a community, somehow, for those who are partial to the traditional miracles, for those who prefer reason and fact, and for those who experience miracles but don’t believe in miracles.

Thank you for considering this. And, I wish a very weird Christmas.


Notes

Jeffrey Kripal. This sermon would not have been even remotely possible without the scholarship of Jeffrey Kripal. I took a course from Kripal in the spring of 2001 at Harvard Divinity School. He is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, where he is also the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. His two most recent books, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, provided the core source material for most of the stories and ideas in this sermon. In the text of the sermon above I’ve cited the pages from these two books that discuss Charles Fort and Wolfgang Pauli.

Trout in Milk. When I read this quote by Henry David Thoreau I laughed so hard that I simply had to include it. But, what is Thoreau writing about? Here is a rational explanation. Dairy farmers of Thoreau’s era were known to increase their profits by watering down the milk they sold. Thoreau may have been making a joke. “You’re obviously watering down your milk; there is a trout in it.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sermon: "What's In a Name?" (Delivered 12-11-11)

I remember, as a child, looking through the bookshelves of the house I grew up in and discovering a book of baby names that belonged to my parents. On the inside cover there was a pair of lists, handwritten in ink. The list of boy’s names had “Thomas” at the top, followed by a handful of inferior choices. My curious eyes scanned across the page to the list of girl’s names. How many of you know what your name would have been if you had been born the opposite gender? Apparently, my name would have been “Bambi.”

At least that’s what I believed for many years, until I realized that I had misread the handwriting in the book of names. My father’s name is Thomas. And, my mother’s name is Barbara. My name wouldn’t have been “Bambi.” It would have been “Barbie.” A modest improvement, I suppose...

In thinking about stories about names, I was filled by vivid and powerful memories. Earlier, our Intern Minister Lane Campbell shared the story of a renaming ritual for a transgender friend. So much is in a name. I have a vivid memory of college and an acquaintance telling me of the poem she had just published, a courageous, powerful poem about the poet coming face to face with the true origins of her name and struggling with what exactly this means for her identity. [I didn’t mention this in the sermon, but the poem’s title is “In the Name” and can be found in Blue Mesa Review #10, published in 1998. The poem deals with her tracking down an image of the woman for whom she was named – a Playboy playmate – and reflecting on this discovery in terms of her own emerging identity as a feminist and a woman.]

As your minister, you may have noticed that I try to learn as many of your names as I possibly can, as well as the names of the children in our church. I’m not perfect, but I am pretty good at it. Knowing your name, how you pronounce it, and how you spell feels important to me.

Names are deeply meaningful. There is a history and a story behind every name. You may have been named after somebody, a relative perhaps, and there is a story behind that. Or, you may not have been named after anybody, and there is a story behind that, too. You may accept the name you were given, or alter it to make it your own, or choose your own name. There is a story behind that. Even if you are ambivalent about your own name, even if you don’t particularly care for your name, your name has a story with meaning attached to it.

As a congregation, as a congregation moving in 2012 to a new location, we’ve decided to open up a conversation about our name and whether we should change it or not change it. Let me be entirely up front and say that on the question of whether we should change our name or not, I don’t have an opinion. I don’t actually care that much. However, and this may sound a bit confusing, I am extremely in favor of having a conversation about our name. I’m in favor of such a discussion because such a discussion is an exploration of our identity as a religious community, and it seems to me that it is really healthy and important to spend some intentional and deliberate time focusing on our identity.

I’m also excited that the decision was made to have this conversation, because I am very hopeful. It is not that I’m hopeful about a particular outcome. The outcome actually does not matter to me. What matters to me are the conversations we’ll have and the process of thinking about our identity. I’m positive and I’m optimistic because you, as a congregation, are healthy enough and capable enough and mature enough to have this conversation in a productive way. It is a conversation that you’ll bring your best selves to: your dreams, your views, your stories, your longings, your humor and joy, your hopes and fears and vulnerabilities, your respect and love and wisdom and understanding. I have the utmost faith in you.

What I want to do this morning is to frame a discussion about church names, the various issues we may want to think about, and how it all relates back to who we are. I’m told that we were formed as a congregation in 1967 as the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society. But, even this I have some questions about. Over in Saeger House, there is a poster on the wall commemorating our first meeting with a “paid minister” on September 7, 1969 and signed by all those in attendance on that day. Curiously, the heading reads, “First meeting with a paid minister of the Johnson County, Kansas Unitarian Society.” Despite this confusing poster, we were known as the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society through the 70s and 80s until, in 1994, our name was changed and we became the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. This change was made to reflect accurately the full name of our religion, Unitarian Universalism, and because our identity as a “society” confused people. It was thought that we should more clearly identify ourselves as a religious community. This change was made in 1994, and what those of us who were here seventeen years ago remember is that the decision was made very quickly, without a lot of input, and that many found the decision abrupt and jarring.

About our name, there are many things I could say. But for this moment, let me say that I do not believe that it is a perfect name, but that I also believe that there is no such thing as a perfect name. In Islam we learn about the ninety-nine names of God. God is too expansive to have one name. One Islamic interpretation of the ninety-nine names is that those are just the revealed names, and that there are perhaps an infinite number of hidden names, names beyond our ability to even perceive. It seems to me that we too, as a church, could come up with at least ninety-nine names. In fact, we are well on the way. I will guarantee you that none of those names alone is perfect, but that in the practical world we have to put something on our street signs and letterhead. And, if having an imperfect name is vexing and aggravating to you, I’d urge you to accept it, for all of us, you and especially I, are also imperfect.

As to the diversity of Unitarian Universalist church names, allow me to count the ways. There are roughly 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America. Most are named for a location on a map. Every UU congregation in Kansas except for us is named after the city in which it is located. We, in fact, are named after a district that stretches across several cities.

Naming a church after its city – such as Springville Unitarian Church – harkens back to a 1950s ideal although it is a much older practice than that. Churches in the 1950s thought of themselves as denominational outposts, as cookie-cutter franchises. McDonalds’ golden arches communicated a menu and taste that was completely standardized. Similarly, First Presbyterian of Springville in the 1950s had the same hymns, same communion schedule, same Sunday school classes, and probably much the same sermon as just about any other First Presbyterian.

There is a certain utilitarian quality to naming yourself after your location. But, how specific should you be? In Bethesda, Maryland, there are two UU churches: River Road and Cedar Lane. Many UU congregations go larger, naming themselves after their county. Some have directional names. Northwest UU Congregation is located in the suburbs north and west of Atlanta, but should not be confused with a different congregation, Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North, which is known by its acronym UUMAN, pronounced like “human” with an almost silent “h.” Northwest UU Church, meanwhile, is located north and west of Detroit, but is also located in the suburb of Southfield, Michigan, making it, yes, the Northwest UU Church in Southfield. Not all location names are named after geopolitical locations such as streets, towns, cities, or counties. Lots of UU churches name themselves after geophysical features. UU churches have incorporated natural images into their names, including river, lake, harbor, bay, valley, island, mountain, slope, foothills, high plains, prairie, and woods. Congregations are also named after regional after local plant life: Live Oak, Cedars, Wildflower, River of Grass. At least three – Caribou, White Bear, and Manatee – have animals in the names of the congregation. I’m pretty sure that we couldn’t get away with putting “Manatee” in our name.

Here’s how two congregations incorporate natural images. The UU church in Memphis is named the Church of the River, and the sanctuary looks out on the mighty Mississippi. Meanwhile, the Thermal Belt UU Fellowship in Tyron, North Carolina is named for the temperate weather caused by geologic formations. One suspects this congregation has several scientists for members.

Naming a church after pleasant images of nature causes me to recall an old comedy piece by Molly Ivins in which she tells us that suburban housing, shopping, and office park developments are named for what used to be there but was destroyed to make space for developments. Fox Meadows gets its name because there used to be foxes and meadows. Willow Creek gets its name because there used to be willows by the creek. At the Oak Park mall there are exceedingly few oaks and no park.

Of the largest churches in America, many have secular names that would work just as well as an upscale mall, housing development, or country club: Lakewood (the largest church in America with a weekly attendance of 43,500), North Point, North Ridge, Lake Point, Saddleback, Willow Creek, Prestonwood, Woodlands, and Eagle Brook. Just as popular with mega-churches are secular abstract terms: fellowship, new life, community, horizon. The very first time I drove by a “Prairie Life Center” I actually thought it might the name of non-denominational mega-church, and not a fitness center.

There next largest group of UU churches are named not for a place but for an idea. Some of those names are fairly old and some are fairly new. For example, in the mid-1800s it was all the rage for Unitarian churches to name themselves, “Church of the Messiah.” Confusingly, later in the 1800s, in was in vogue for Unitarian churches in the Midwest to take the name “Unity.” This was not a reference to the Unity School of Christianity (which wasn’t founded until 1889) but to the godhead as a Unity and not a Trinity. And, of course, there is the very popular name All Souls. In fact, one name that was considered when our church was founded as an offshoot of All Souls in Kansas City was “Southwest Souls” as we were south and west of downtown Kansas City. (Thank goodness that name was rejected.) Tulsa, Oklahoma is home to All Souls Church, the largest UU church in the country as well as three other smaller churches named after concepts: Hope Unitarian Church (named, in fact, for a woman instrumental in founding this church), the Church of the Restoration (named for a Universalist doctrine), and The Welcome Table Church, which describes itself as “A free, universalist, Christian, missional community.” More recent UU congregations that have named themselves after concepts include Pathways, Wellsprings, Tapestry, Mosaic, Spirit of Life, and the Church of the Open Door.

There are, of course, many names of Unitarian Universalist congregations that do not have to do with places or ideas, but with historical figures. A few have chosen to name their congregations after figures that are most people have heard of, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. (It is odd that our largest church named for Emerson and our only church named after Thoreau are both located in the Houston area, an area not particularly known for its transcendentalism.) Others have named their congregations after fairly obscure figures. It can be challenging enough to explain Unitarian Universalism to someone who has never heard of us, much less also trying to explain who Michael Servetus was and why your church is named for him. I know of four congregations named after their ministers. Just sayin’. (Of course, this was after their minister had died.) One UU church is named for someone who was very clearly not UU. That would be the Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation. But, it is also in Springfield, Illinois and if you live there you sort of have to name to yourself after Lincoln.

Our congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia is named after Thomas Jefferson, as are three other UU congregations. One of our denominational districts in the south had been named after Jefferson but recently voted to change its name due to its concerns about naming itself after the slave owner and architect of Native American removal policies. The congregation in Charlottesville is currently considering changing its name, an issue it struggles with at a deep level.

Their brand new senior minister, Erik Walker Wikstrom, shared this reflection in the possible name change in his sermon entitled, “What’s In A Name?” that he delivered in October.
What are we to do with this? What are we – an overwhelmingly white congregation that would like to become more truly diverse with regards to race, and ethnicity, and class; a congregation that occupies the highest point in Charlottesville, Virginia, a stone’s throw from Monticello – what are we to do with this? If, in the 1950s, the American Unitarian Association saw Thomas Jefferson as an exemplar of all things right and good in liberal America and thought it proper to build a Memorial Church in Charlottesville, then now, in 2011, we know that the truth is much more complicated. And perhaps we think that continuing to align ourselves with this slaveholder who truly believed that blacks were inferior and “made to carry burdens,” makes us complicit.
In his sermon, Erik asks a number of tough questions, but also seems to oppose changing the name.

I bring him up because, like their church, our church is named after a part of our local and national history that is complicated and hurtful. Technically, our name is derived from the name of the postal service district in this area. The postal district derived its named from the Methodist mission to the Shawnee Indian tribe as well as members of more than a dozen other tribes that were expelled from the East and sent to live here beginning in the 1820s. The Mission was established in 1830, moved to its location in Fairway in 1839, and closed in 1862. The Shawnee Mission was run by a Methodist minister named Thomas Johnson, as in Johnson County, who had been a supporter of slavery, but who was killed by supporters of the Confederacy after taking an oath of loyalty to the Union at the outset of the Civil War.

The history of the Shawnee Methodist Indian Mission is worth exploring at greater length than I am able to this morning. But, allow me to make a few points. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re not complicit in what took place in northeast Johnson County in the first half of the nineteenth century. As Americans, however, we live in a country whose legacy includes slavery, oppression, colonization, racism, and the destruction of peoples and cultures. Shawnee Mission is a part of that story, albeit a small part.

In the field of anti-racism, there is a concept known as white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to tell stories and use language that is blind to the lived experience of people of color. Speaking of how many African Americans view Thomas Jefferson, brilliant Jefferson historian Annette Gordon-Reed said, “[They] find his conflicted nature a perfect reflection of the America they know: a place where high-minded ideals clash with the reality of racial ambivalence.” When we say “Shawnee Mission” and imagine just a school district or just a part of Johnson County that is white privilege. A Native American may hear the term and think, “Yep, that’s where our children were taken to be civilized by the white folks who had kicked us off our land.”

Of course, changing our name does not change history. If only it was that simple. Erasing names does not overturn centuries of imperialism, oppression, and violence, nor does it address or redress inequality today.

Early in my ministry I attended an interfaith clergy luncheon with a distinguished theologian. As we introduced ourselves, one of the ministers in attendance introduced himself as the minister of the Country Club Christian Church. The distinguished theologian was taken aback and exclaimed, “That is a most intriguing name for a church.” The minister replied, “Our name reflects our geography, not our philosophy.” The same might be said of our name.

The final chapter of Freakonomics, the 2005 mega-bestseller by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, deals with the subject of naming. The authors find that there is a correlation, but not causation, between names and socioeconomic status and education levels. Their stories are more interesting than their statistics. One story they tell is about a large family in New York that named their sixth child “Winner,” and then, for some inexplicable reason, named their surprise seventh child “Loser.” Winner’s life path was one of crime. He was arrested some three dozen times for all manner of criminal behavior. Loser, who went by Lou, turned out to be an upstanding citizen, civic leader, and Sergeant with the police department.

In conclusion, I share with the name of a church in Denver, Colorado. This church calls itself “the church for the right-brained and the left-out.” On their web-site they write,
Our name doesn’t sound like a church name… on purpose. We really want to connect with people who have no interest in “church” by society’s definition. There are plenty of churches for normal people and we think we have a unique calling to reach out to our otherwise unchurched friends…. Who have been outcast by society or even by the church itself. Most important to us, however, our name is humble and implies that being people of faith does not mean that we are better than anyone else.
The name of this church, you ask. Their name is actually Scum of the Earth. Yes, that’s right. Scum of the Earth. Let this be a reminder to us that a name is a name, and that beyond that name is our ministry of lives changed, free faith inspired, community created, services rendered, and justice advanced.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Sermon: "Alienation" (Delivered 12-4-11)

Reading
This reading is adapted from words by Albert Q. Perry that appeared in Carl Seaburg’s Unitarian Universalist anthology, Celebrating Christmas.
One of my favorite Christmas stories concerns the rather snobbish ox who shared the stable with the family from Nazareth. With considerable amazement he witnessed the visits of shepherds and the strangers from the East; heard all the talk about stars and angelic choruses; and finally watched Mary and Joseph flee with their son. The ox was not impressed!

For days the other animals could talk of nothing but their human guests while the ox silently chewed his cud over in a dark corner. Finally he reproved his companions with this reflection: “I don’t understand all this excitement. I don’t know, I really don’t know why you are so interested in that vagabond family. If they had been anybody worth knowing, they would never have stayed in this broken-down shack. As for the baby, ─ it was very like any other baby that I ever saw. They were very ordinary people, I would say. Very ordinary people indeed!”

Regardless of how we react to this story, most of us can confess to being even more “ordinary” than the family from Nazareth. It remains our task to find ways for our ordinary lives to become more unusual, more extraordinary. It remains our task to cultivate unusual neighborliness, unusual generosity, extraordinary expressions of love, extraordinary attention to matters of the heart and the spirit. May this season bring extraordinary grandeur to our otherwise ordinary lives.


Sermon
While pondering the theme for this morning’s sermon and service, an image came to my mind. It is a bit of a random and obscure image, but I thought I’d share it with you. On the first season of the television program The Simpsons – see, I told you it was random – there was an episode that began by playing up the dysfunction, disrespect, and lack of civility in the Simpsons’ household. One evening the Simpsons decide to compare themselves to other families in Springfield. They slip out into the night, slink through bushes, and peer in at their neighbors through the windows of their living rooms. In this act of voyeurism they see scenes of domestic tranquility and wholesomeness. In this viewing they have an experience of alienation.

Almost every year on the first Sunday in December in has been my tradition to preach on a negative emotional state, what I call a “spiritual affliction.” In past years I’ve considered such themes as loneliness, anger, jealousy, disillusionment, and depression. It is not that this time of the year makes me pensive and pessimistic. Rather, it is that I know, pastorally, that some people, not everyone but a lot of people, struggle emotionally and spiritually at this time of the year.

Meteorologically, December is a harsh transition. “Now light is less,” as one of hymns puts it. The wind and chill startle us. Physically, we conserve heat by becoming closed and drawn in. It is the beginning of a season that is bare and raw, and I don’t just mean the weather. For some of us, for many of us, it is a season of various stressors, longings, expectations that are put upon us, and regrets that surface. In the words of what will be our closing hymn, this can be a season in which, “disappointment pierced me through.” So, what I want to do this morning is to focus on one of those challenging emotional states, one of those spiritual afflictions, the feeling of alienation.

Alienation. The dictionary defines alienation as estrangement, as turning away, as the state of being or feeling like an outsider, as the state of being or feeling isolated, or as the state of being or feeling withdrawn from the objective world as through indifference or disaffection. It is as if we were hiding in the bushes, looking in at this reality that is not ours.

Alienation, we might say, involves the feeling of existential distance and difference. Distance and difference. Such distance and difference are evident even in our common uses of the word “alien.” This word is used in the realm of science fiction and in the realm of immigration.

Let’s take science fiction first. [These two paragraphs are inspired by Jeffrey Kripal’s new book, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.] In the realm of science fiction – films, television, books, comic books, and the like – aliens typically first appear as distant (that is, they come from a long way away) and different (that is, they are not human.) And, one of the really fun things about science fiction is that it plays with what happens when what seems very far away and very different becomes close and familiar, a close encounter of the third kind. Sometimes that distance and difference is overcome by empathy. E.T. the Extraterrestrial is not that strange. I, too, like Reese’s Pieces. I, too, have been homesick and have wanted to phone home. And, sometimes the distance and difference is overcome by painful recognition. When the aliens of science fiction are not cute and adorable, when they are threatening and menacing, they actually function in sci-fi literature as a way of reminding ourselves of our own human proclivities to colonize, enslave, exploit, and destroy. We see our own ugliness reflected.

[As an aside, we might note that many of the creators of these alien beings had a deep rootedness in humanism and religious liberalism. The Twilight Zone was created by Rod Serling, a Unitarian. Star Trek was created by Gene Roddenberry, a humanist. It is interesting to mention, for example, that the very first interracial kiss on television took place on a 1968 episode of Star Trek. What might it mean that one of our own society’s racist taboos was first shattered on a distant planet, many light years away? Talk about an overcoming of difference and distance.]

In present day America, the word “alien” is used in a different sense. The term refers to a non-citizen. It happens to be a legal term, resident alien, non-resident alien, and so forth. But, the language, as language does, also has significance beyond its precise legal definitions. I would submit that when immigrants are spoken of as aliens, the language emphasizes difference and distance, and denies a sense of common humanity. I would argue that there are whole classes of non-citizens that we would never think of as or refer to as aliens: the shortstop for the Kansas City Royals, the visiting professor at KU, the guest soloist at the symphony, the co-worker down the hall. All technically alien according to legal definitions, but we would never think in these terms.

Our current focus as a religious movement on immigration justice, on Standing on the Side of Love for families and individuals who suffer because of a broken immigration system, is based, I think, in a realization that emphasizing distance and difference beget dehumanization, and that our faith calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every single person.

Not only is alienation about a sense of perceived difference and distant. It is, like our snobbish ox said, a way of saying, “I do not recognize myself in you.” When we sung “Building Bridges” [a hymn we sang before the sermon] in our church youth group, the alienation that was being combatted was akin to teenage existential angst. But alienation also has a greater meaning and greater significance beyond that somewhat limited sense. I think social alienation is a term that we might use to speak to a larger sense of indifference. That way of thinking that says that the poor and the sick and the suffering are not my problem is a form of alienation. It can be holding your own self away or holding the other person away. It is saying, “I cannot see myself reflected in you.” Or, it is saying, “I cannot see you reflected in me.”

You probably weren’t expecting an Advent sermon that mentioned The Simpsons and Star Trek. They are funky, odd little examples. But, the truth is that alienation is a tough thing to face into directly. It is that feeling of distance and difference and inability to see your own self in another person. It is a feeling that becomes intense when you feel alienated from members of your own family. It is a feeling that is painful when you feel distant from those around you. It is a feeling of panic when you are in a group of people and, all of sudden, you think, “These are not my people. I don’t belong here.” Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt this way?

In years past, when I’ve spoken about these negative emotions and preached about these spiritual afflictions, something has been obvious. It has been really, really obvious that our lives would be improved if we had less of this or that, less of this spiritual affliction, if we could keep that emotion in check. In talking about loneliness or depression, it was very obvious that if we were feeling lonely or depressed we wanted to feel less so, because feeling that way hurts and we do not want to hurt. When I preached about anger or jealousy, it was clear that we all wanted less anger and less jealousy because when those emotions were strongest we tended to act in ways that were inconsistent with our best selves.

But, is alienation the same way? Why should we bother to work to overcome it? What if the people from whom we are alienated are people we shouldn’t even bother to like? I struggle with this. I can think of some events and functions that I had to attend where I’ve walked in and thought, “These are not my people. I cannot see myself in these people. I don’t really want to see myself in these people.”

Alienation will happen to almost of us from time to time. There will probably always be moments when it hits us. I think this is true. But, I also think that it is true that it can become a default script that comes to dominate our living.

One of the earliest sermons I ever preached was in Boston. In the sermon I used Jesus’ line where he instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This wasn’t a major point of my sermon. In the receiving line afterwards, a woman approached me and said, “You can’t tell me to love my neighbors. My neighbors are horrible and I hate them.” That is who I do not want to become. That is what happens when a sense of alienation grow too powerful and dominates our lives. Too much alienation makes us misanthropic.

I want to end with some thoughts about what life would look like with the absence of alienation. The Latin playwright Terence offered probably the very best quote about being free of alienation. Terence wrote, “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” It is a quote that sounds a bit different if you know the briefest sketch of his life. Terence was born about two hundred years before Jesus. He was born into slavery in northern Africa and, as a child, was taken to Rome as the property of a Roman Senator. He was educated and later freed and is remembered today because as a youth he wrote six comedies, still translated by Latin students today. He died very young, perhaps in his mid-twenties, perhaps at sea. And, knowing these few biographical facts about Terence makes us think a bit differently when we hear again his famous quotation, “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

Gandhi’s life is a testament to overcoming alienation. Gandhi’s early experience in South Africa, where he first faced off against the racism and prejudice of the British Empire, led him to a deeper sense of his connection to all. In South Africa Gandhi has a “Rosa Parks” experience on a train. When he refused to move, he was beaten. He worked for voter rights with a broad base of people of color. He was chased by a mob of white supremacists. He turned his treatment as an alien into a life lived in which nothing that was human was alien to him.

As Unitarian Universalists, what we find most inspiring in the figure of Jesus is his radically inclusive ministry. The core of his message is that there are none who are alien, that all human beings are the children of God, and we love God by treating each other like children of God. The aliens of Jesus’ time were the tax collectors, the lepers, the poor, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the outcasts and the left behind. Like Terence and like Gandhi, the stories that are told about Jesus’ birth and childhood have him coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Nothing good can come out of Nazareth, we’re told in John’s Gospel. An expression of alienation.

We will all experience alienation. The question is whether we will grow distant in response, or whether we will grow into a profound awareness of connection despite the efforts to distance and differentiate.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

My Favorite Music of 2011 (Ranking all the new music I bought this year)

Last year I ranked my 10 favorite albums of 2010. This year I decided to rank all 23 albums I purchased this year from worst (#23) to best. Thanks to the wonder of YouTube you can hear what many of these bands and songs sound like. And, if you are interested in the thoughts of better music critics than me, you can read reviews of these releases by the Audio Visual Club, my most trusted source for pop culture information.

23) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
In 2008, Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album received massive critical acclaim. It was pleasant enough, but I didn’t get what all the commotion was about. Thinking I must have missed something, I picked up their sophomore release and realized I hadn’t missed much. Helplessness Blues contains a dozen indie folk songs with occasional moments of beauty. However, in listening to this record I found myself more bored than touched or inspired.
The AV Club’s grade: A
Sample song: Montezuma

22) R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
Collapse Into Now was released back in March, but I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until the group announced that it had called it quits in September. It seems like this end of the band as we know it may have provided an impulse to look favorably on this album; assessment is clouded by nostalgia. What is striking is just how derivative this album is. It recycles many of the tricks that made each R.E.M. album an event around twenty years ago, but this album sounds uninspired. On virtually song we can hear references to R.E.M. hits of old. “Überlin” evokes the cool pacing of “Drive” and the pop hooks of “The Great Beyond.” “Discoverer” reprises the jangly rock riffs of Monster. “Oh My Heart” even references the mandolin of “Losing My Religion.” On the album you can also hear the spacious sound of New Adventures in Hi Fi and the verbal randomness of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Once upon a time these features were compelling; here they sound tired. R.E.M. will be missed, but not for songs like those found on this record.
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Überlin

21) Rise Against – Endgame
The key to enjoying Rise Against is not to expect too much. This band churns out politically-blunt but catchy hardcore punk rock songs that dazzle with brilliant guitar riffs and get your heart pumping. Their lyrics shout out a progressive and idealistic political ideology. It is an ideology with which I agree, but it is expressed in a way I surely would have appreciated more when I was 16. “Help is on the Way” attacks the lack of a response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the disastrous BP oil spill. “Architects,” my favorite song on the album, speaks of recovering a radical vision. “Our heroes, our idols have mellowed with age / Following rules that they once disobeyed.” (Come to think of it, when I was 16 I was listening to Rage Against the Machine whose politics were much more radical than Rise Against’s.) This is a band whose liner notes contain book (Naomi Klein, Jonathan Safran Foer) and documentary (Collapse, Captialism: A Love Story) suggestions. There are far worse soundtracks for a revolution.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: Architects

20) They Might Be Giants – Join Us
This is the first They Might Be Giants album I’ve bought in the last decade. I decided to pick it up after thoroughly enjoying TMBG’s excellent and joyous cover of “Tubthumping.” Join Us kicks off with the manic “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” a song in the model of many of the band’s greatest hits. (The music video contest winner had a creative idea.) And, like too many TMBG albums, this one has too much filler in between its catchy tracks like the acoustic “Old Pine Box” and the lyrically-bizarre “You Don’t Like Me.”
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: Can’t Keep Johnny Down

19) Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
Has this band really been around for more than 15 years? Formed in 1995 and fronted by Dave Grohl, the drummer from Nirvana, the Foo Fighters have carried the banner of alternative rock into the second decade of the millennium. Wasting Light, their seventh studio album, is full of solid rock songs. “Walk” has one of those perfect Foo Fighter choruses. “Dear Rosemary” includes a guest appearance by the amazing Bob Mould. “Bridge Burning” and “Rope” are great songs as well.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: Walk

18) Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes
It is not Fountains of Wayne’s fault that their fifth studio album, Sky Full of Holes, inspired the year’s worst piece of music journalism. Steve Hyden’s “The five-albums test” is arbitrary and pointless and joyless and ill-conceived. I also disagree with Hyden’s assertion that Fountains of Wayne has released five consecutive albums that are all, at the very least, very good. In my opinion, only their first album can be considered excellent. Their next two albums had multiple spectacular moments but aren’t what I’d consider classics. Their fourth album was, for me, a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. I love this band. They are the master songsmiths with a seemingly endless supply of catchy pop-rock tunes. When they get it right, they are amazing. And, Sky Full of Holes has several moments when they get it right. “Someone’s Gonna Break My Heart” has aurally addictive hooks. “The Summer Place” is a rocking track and “Acela” is playful and fun. And, I could listen to “Cemetery Guns” over and over again. It is an above-average album with a handful of very good songs. That’s nothing to scoff at.
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart

17) Jay Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Jay Z is the best known rapper making music today. Kanye West is coming off the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an outrageous and brilliant work of recording genius that critics (The AV Club, Rolling Stone) said was the best album of 2010. There was no shortage of sky-high expectations with the release of this collaboration. From its magisterial title to its gold-plated CD packaging, this duo does not deny that they are the kings of rap. Unfortunately, when you are the king, there is nowhere to go but down. There is too little urgency to this album. Instead, they play it safe with raps and beats that are quality, though at times formulaic. The album’s best track is “Otis,” a single that features heavy sampling from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and Jay Z and Kanye trading rhymes bragging about watches and cars. (The video for it is a lot of fun!) Other notable songs include the track “Lift Off” featuring Beyonce and “Who Can Stop Me.” Watch the Throne is an album full of great beats and great rhymes. What I miss is the sound of hunger and ambition.
The AV Club’s grade: A-, #9 album of 2011
Sample song: Otis

Interlude: Way, way back in 1994 I read a piece of music journalism (on the band Rage Against The Machine?) that argued that commercial rap music is the artistic representation of Reagan's economic principles. "Otis" would seem to confirm that. Jay-Z raps, "New watch alert, Hublots / Or the big face Rollies, I've got two of those." Kanye responds, "I pulled up in my other Benz. Last week I was in my other other Benz." I'm struck by the idea that enjoying this song involves a willing suspension of the ethical. What is your opinion of the willing suspension of the ethical in art?

16) Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys
On one hand, this is the album on my list that is the most underrated. On the other hand, it is the worst album that Death Cab for Cutie has released. The first single, “You are a Tourist,” is one of the year’s catchiest songs. And, it is less catchy than many of my favorite DCfC songs. In fact, I liked just about every song on the album with the exception of “Underneath the Sycamore.” That this is their worst album tells you a lot about how much I love this group.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample song: You’re a Tourist

15) Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
This past summer I did a wedding in which the bridal party processed to Explosions in the Sky’s most well-known song, Your Hand in Mine, from the Friday Night Lights soundtrack. A great choice. I’ve enjoyed everything by EITS that I’ve heard at the same time that I’d dismissed it as just instrumental rock. I decided to pick up their newest album and it grew on me. Great tracks like “Last Known Surroundings” and “Postcard from 1952” became frequent favorites in my car and while writing sermons. Listening to this band makes me feel like my life has been scored as the soundtrack for a movie.
The AV Club’s grade: B-
Sample song: Last Known Surroundings

14) Mates of the State – Mountaintops
A few summers and several Mates of the State albums ago, I saw this duo put on a fantastic afternoon show at a music festival in Lawrence. Their syncopated rhythms, dual vocals, and terrific keyboards are always a joy to my ears. Mountaintops may lack a hit single, but it is a collection of ten very good songs. The spirited “Total Serendipity” is one of the year’s most fun songs. “Change” and “Maracas” are both very catchy. And, ballads like “Mistakes” and “Unless I’m Led” round out this terrific record.
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Total Serendipity

13) British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
This album is a collection of very solid songs by an indie rock group from “across the pond.” “Who’s In Control?” is frenetic dance number but the album gives way to a more subdued feel with gorgeous soundscapes on songs like “Cleaning Out The Rooms” and the epic, 11-minute, “Once More Now."
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Who’s In Control? (SFW)

Interlude: I've gone back and forth on whether and how to mention this, but while searching for clips of these songs to link to, I stumbled across a striking video for "Who's In Control?" on YouTube. This video is NSFW. (That means, Not Safe For Work.) The video starts with young folks driving around and goofing off in their car. Next, we find them at a protest (of the G-20 summit in Toronto in 2010?). The protest becomes violent and one of the kids gets his nose bloodied. Then, we find ourselves at a protest after party (?) where lots of clothes get taken off. It is very mild, but also not safe for work. The thing about "Who's In Control?" is that it is a song that is catchy and makes you want to dance and it is also subversive. The opening lyrics to the song are, "Oh, were you not told? Do you not know? Everything around you is being sold. Do you not care? Will you not bear? Everybody else is going spare." Then, later in the song we hear the singer say, "Sometimes I wish that protesting was sexy on a Saturday night." What a fascinating line!

12) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
Of all the albums I listened to this year, this one is the hardest to rank. I found out about this group when I learned that I had known its front man, Kip Berman, in college. It is a band with an interesting sound. Think of The Cure with a bit heavier guitars. Kip’s voice sounds a bit like a young Morrissey. And, somehow, those descriptors don’t sound quite right. Besides my own feeling that it is pretty cool that I know the lead singer, it’s been an album that has definitely grown on me. If you are checking it out, I’d recommend the tracks “Belong,” “Strange,” and “The Body.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Heart In Your Heartbreak

11) Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
I’ve always liked Iron & Wine fine enough. A song like “The Trapeze Swinger” or “Naked As We Came” might thrill me, but the rest of their catalogue seemed to run together. This album, however, came out sounding like their strongest album even if it doesn’t have one standout song that soars above the others. If it is hard to pick a “stand out” it is because they all stand out. Fans of their older material will enjoy “Half Moon” while the electronic distortion tinges on “Walking Far From Home” and “Rabbit Will Run” and the bluesy “Me and Lazarus” are all winners.
The AV Club’s grade: A-
Sample song: Half Moon

10) Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs
This has got to be one of the year’s quirkiest albums. It is also one of the most charming. This concept album consists of the Pearl Jam front man singing and playing the ukulele. The album art is a crack up; it features pictures of Vedder posing with his uke all over the Hawaii Islands. On rocks next to a waterfall. On a kayak. On rocks by the ocean. The music, though, is not cheesy, but sincere and pleasant and contemplative. Of his solo songs, the two best are “Without You” and “You’re True.” Even better are his duet with Glen Hansard on “Sleepless Nights,” his duet with Char Marshall on “Tonight You Belong To Me” and the gorgeous cello on “Longing to Belong.”
The AV Club’s grade: B-
Sample song: You’re True

9) Beirut – The Rip Tide
If you’ve never heard Beirut, you should! Beirut began as hipsters from Brooklyn playing songs inspired by old world European folk music. The Rip Tide has much less of an European feel, but it is still full of fascinating sounds. Instrument credits mention the accordion, the euphonium, and the farfisa organ, as well as tuba, clarinet, cello, glockenspiel, French horn, mandolin, and the ukulele. Above all of these instruments, Zach Condon’s breathtaking, old soul, voice soars. This band has produced another lovely record.
The AV Club’s grade: B
Sample songs: Santa Fe, Goshen

8) Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
I caught Okkervil River’s live show at a summer music festival in Iowa and was very impressed. Listening to their 2011 release I continue to be impressed. Front man Will Sheff leads this band in churning out an album full of great indie rock tunes with significant folk music influence. The band has a large sound complemented by brass, strings, woodwinds, synths, and more. The album takes a few listens and then grows on you. Indeed, it seems to offer more and more with every listen. Check out tracks “Wake and Be Fine” and “Rider.”
The AV Club’s grade: A-
Sample song: Wake and Be Fine

7) Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
How does Conor Oberst manage to put out winning album after winning album? This would have been a better album for Steve Hyden (see #18 above) to write about. Actually, The People’s Key took a while to grow on me. The opening track, “Firewall,” is unnecessarily long and alienating (in both senses of the word.) But the song “Haile Selassie” grabbed me and fascinated with me. On subsequent listens the entire album became even more intriguing and enjoyable. "Haile Selassie" mesmerizes with its 6/8 time, triplet beat as well as its bright keyboards and guitars. The song, like the entire album, weaves together images from Rastafarianism with various images from mysticism, science fiction, and the occult. Replete with mythemes of orientation, alienation, and radiation, this album could receive mention in a book by Jeffrey J. Kripal. And, if you choose not to pay attention to the weird lyrics, you can still enjoy the great music! Also worth listening to are tracks like “Shell Games” and “One for You, One For Me.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample songs: Haile Selassie

8) Das Racist – Relax
This is what happens when two very intelligent students from Wesleyan College meet in a dorm for “students of color for social justice” and decide to create a hip hop album with abundant references to post-colonial theory (and fast food and pop-culture.) Das Racist consists of Victor Vazquez (Kool A.D.) and Himanshu Suri (Heems) as well as their hype-man Ashok Kondabalu (Dapwell.) Their music is hilarious and bizarre, equal parts rap and performance art. About their own music, Suri says,
We’re not making music that’s instantly appealing. We dabble with nonsequiturs, dadaism, repetition, repetition. We make dance music while talking about not-dancey things. We say things that on the surface can seem pretty dumb but it’s a mask on some Paul Laurence Dunbar shit for actual discontent with a lot of shit in the world. Further, not a lot of people want to hear rappers talk about Dinesh D’Souza being a punk, Eddie Said, Gayatri Spivak being dope or even know who they are.
If you find that paragraph hilarious, you’ll like Das Racist. If not, you probably won’t. On one level, their music feels like an inside joke that you are never quite in on. On another level it is as fun and catchy as it is ridiculous and absurd. The addictive, outrageous, and postmodern absurd track “Michael Jackson” is as good a song to start with as any. From there check out the self-effacing “Girl”, the wonderful “Punjabi Song”, and the masterful “Rainbow in the Dark.” The latter song includes these closing lines, “No trust them white face man like Geronimo / Tried to go to Amsterdam, they threw us in Guantanamo.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+
Sample song: Michael Jackson



5) Wild Flag – Wild Flag
I grinned from ear to ear the first time I heard this record. It’s been seven years since Sleater-Kinney disbanded and I missed their sound, especially Carrie Brownstein’s voice and electric guitar. Now, two thirds of that group returns (along with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole) as Wild Flag, a little less punk and a little more rock than S-K, but still really, really good. This album is a gem. “Something Came Over Me” is my favorite track on the album, but you should definitely watch the videos for “Electric Band” and “Romance.”
The AV Club’s grade: B+, #17 album of 2011
Sample song: Something Came Over Me

4) Wye Oak – Civilian
What a beautiful record! Wye Oak is an indie rock duo that turns out powerful, haunting, ethereal songs. Jenn Wasner’s voice and guitar work is enrapturing. These songs are so engrossing that I find them difficult to describe. Wasner’s lyrics tend to be challenging to decipher and even then their meaning is often elusive. But the feeling is there powerfully. In that way, she is a bit like the female version of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. I could go on and on about the song “Holy Holy” – one of the very best songs of the year – but that would only distract from the rest of the album that glows from beginning to end. Other fantastic songs include “Two Small Deaths,” “Civilian,” and “Fish.”
The AV Club’s grade: A, #1 album of 2011
Sample song: Holy Holy



3) The Decemberists – The King is Dead
I absolutely loved that I loved this album so much. It’s a great record. But, it is even better when you consider the band’s trajectory up until this point. After releasing three excellent (and quirky) studio albums the band’s next two releases were attempts at rock operas. The first of those, The Crane Wife, had a number of tremendous songs and a number of lousy ones. Their second stab at a rock opera, The Hazards of Love, was a disaster. With this year’s release they return to their roots and grow in a wonderful new direction. The King is Dead lacks the quirkiness of their earlier recordings and winds up exceeding them. “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” are beautiful. “Rise to Me,” “Don’t Carry It All,” and “This is Why We Fight” all are great songs as well, melding acoustic pop rock, folk, and bluegrass into a gorgeous and distinctive sound.
The AV Club’s grade: A, #10 album of 2011
Sample songs: January Hymn, June Hymn

2) Bon Iver – Bon Iver
My expectations were dangerously high when I went to see Bon Iver play a concert this fall. Their first album had floored me with its stripped down beauty and their second, eponymous, album was a jewel. Somehow they managed to exceed my expectations. How was that possible? Bon Iver’s first album was simple and delicate, falsetto vocals and an acoustic guitar. On this album the sound has grown larger and much more textured, but somehow it retains a lovely, intimate feeling. It is a very short album, but it dazzles from beginning to end. It is hard to select the best tracks, but I’d choose “Perth,” “Holocene,” and “Calgary.”
The AV Club’s grade: A-, #3 album of 2011
Sample songs: Holocene, Perth

1) Joy Formidable – The Big Roar
My heart raced when I first listened to the 7-minute album version of the single “Whirring” from this album. The song was an alternative rock revelation and this album soon grew to become my favorite record of the year. The Joy Formidable is a small band that makes a great big sound. The band is a trio from Wales with Ritzy Bryan on guitar and vocals, Rhydian Daffyd on bass, and drummer Matt Thomas. Both their name and the name of the album are perfectly spot-on. There is an emotional power to their music that leaves you feeling a sense of elation. There is also an intimidating size to their sound. It is most definitely a big roar. The song “Whirring” will become its own blog entry sooner rather than later so I’ll focus here on the other songs that make this a great album. The record is bookended by a pair a long tracks with long names. The opener, “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie,” and the closer, “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade,” each demonstrate their ability to create spectrums of sonic energy. The middle of the album is full of great tracks. Songs like “A Heavy Abacus” and “Austere” grow on you. “Cradle” demonstrates this band’s ability to craft a hard-hitting, three minute rocker. Their music hits you hard. It seeps down into your marrow. It envelops you. It was the most affecting music I heard this year and the best album of the year.
The AV Club’s grade: Not reviewed
Sample songs: Whirring, Cradle, The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sermon: "Moral Fluency and Moral Quietude" (Delivered 11-20-11)

Reading
“In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” by Wislawa Szymborska
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Sermon
Over the last couple of months I’ve officiated at several weddings. When I do a wedding, it is interesting because I’m up there in front of a bunch of people and most of them I’ll never see again. They don’t have any experience of me, and most of them don’t have any experience of Unitarian Universalism. And, sometimes what happens is that people will come up to me and say things that project onto me ideas about ministers and churches in general, and these ideas don’t really have any connection to how I understand my ministry or our religious community.

Most recently a wedding guest came up to me and began, “Do you know why I don’t go to church.” I didn’t know, but I bet she was going to tell me. “I don’t go to church,” she told me, “Because church is someone telling you what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to sit there and have anyone tell me how to live my life.”

I politely excused myself as quickly as I could. But, now, I’m a bit curious. What exactly does she do that she is worried that someone will tell her not to do? But, I was also struck by what she thought it was my job to do. On one level, I kind of reject her understanding of the role of the minister. For example, say I run into you in a public place and you’re with your friend. “Oh,” you say to your friend, “I’d like for you to meet Thom. He tells me right from wrong and good from bad and he tells me what to do.” That would be awkward. But, I also would find it awkward for you to say, “I’d like for you to meet Thom. He’s a minister, but don’t worry. He never says a word to anyone about right and wrong or good and bad and he never says anything about how we should live our lives.”

Or, let me put it a slightly different way. Someone who lives in a different area of the country recently shared with me that she attended a discussion group at her Unitarian Universalist church. During the discussion, an older man remarked, “The great thing about the Unitarian church is that it doesn’t interfere with my life.”

I think a lot of people are drawn to Unitarian Universalism because of the freedom that is found here, because of the acceptance, and because nobody will say, “Here are the absolute answers. Here are the final truths. This is what the eternal word of God says.” But, it is also true that this church is a place where we ask questions about morality, attempt to figure out the answers to difficult ethical questions, and increasingly understand that there is an ethical dimension to how we live our lives. And, part of what we might gain here is some assistance with ethical discernment. We might develop a greater moral literacy, by which I mean the ability to read the ethical significance of affairs in the world around us. We might also develop a greater moral fluency, a larger capacity to speak about things of moral importance. And, we might exercise moral imagination and reasoning, the ability to question the way things are and think through significant ethical questions.

In bringing up the subject of morality, I should probably make clear that I don’t think that this is an area where we as a community of individuals are grossly inadequate or deficient or particularly in need of remedial instruction. Most of the time, most of us have a developed sense of right and wrong and good and bad. Our understandings of right and wrong have evolved over time and with experience and are open to the influence of those we trust and love. But, in articulating that sense of right and wrong, we may struggle at times to identify the source of authority.

Not a lot of us here believe that God literally gave Moses stone tablets with commandments chiseled on them. And, because we doubt that it happened this way, all questions about right and wrong will include a second question: on whose authority? The sources of authority we look to, then, are not singular. We find authority in the revelation that comes to individuals and communities and in our own experience of what works to preserve and uphold life. We find authority in the depth of our conscience, in the workings of reason, and in lessons from the humanities, the sciences, and the arts. We find authority in the examples and teachings of great moral figures and in multiple traditions of wisdom from around the world.

Moral fluency, moral literacy, moral reasoning: these are ideas I want to explore with you this morning. And, I want to suggest that moral fluency, and moral literacy, and moral reasoning are especially important because it can be argued that we live in a world that is less morally fluent. When I say that the world is less morally fluent, what exactly do I mean? I don’t mean that people behave worse than they used to. That is not what I’m saying at all. I mean that people are less likely to speak of things as having moral significance.

This idea for this sermon began as a response to an email I received from a member of this church. This member sent me a link to an op-ed piece by the right-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks’ article discusses a recent sociological study that concluded that young people struggle to articulate their thinking about moral issues. To quote from Brooks’ article,
[The researchers] asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery… What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all… "I don't really deal with right and wrong that often," is how one interviewee put it.
I think that Brooks is partially right and that the researchers he cites are partially right. But I also think that the truth is not nearly as bleak as they make it out to be. I do think that there is an increasing tendency to avoid speech that articulates moral principles. And, I think this is unfortunate. And, I think that there are good reasons that this is the case.

Allow me a digression to talk briefly about something that probably seems extraordinarily random: changes that have taken place in conservative political discourse. But, there is a reason why I bring this up, as I will explain shortly.

Conservative political discourse has changed over the course of the past few decades. A few decades ago, even a few years ago, the loudest right wing voices in America belonged to the religious right. In the eighties they were known as the Moral Majority, although both their status as a majority and as moral were dubious. In the nineties, they were known as the Christian Coalition, as the Religious Right. Their leaders spoke in the language of moral absolutism and moral certainty. They shouted condemnations and judgments. It was a movement that was morally repugnant and morally farcical. But then, this movement sort of dropped out of sight. Jerry Falwell died. Pat Robertson got old. James Dobson ran into money problems. Ted Haggard got caught up in a salacious sex scandal. Here in town, Jerry Johnston’s trajectory mimicked that of the movement as a whole. Of course, the dangerous ideas of the religious right are still around and they are still dangerous. Just look at Topeka. People who believe in religious diversity and the separation of church and state will always have to contend with Dominionists and demagogues.

Now, and this is my point, the loudest conservative political voices in America are much less overtly moral in nature. The language used by groups like, say, the Tea Party is not the language of morality. Their explicit goals are presented as amoral or extra-moral. Of course, the effects of their ideas would have significant consequences, consequences that I believe to be immoral and evil, but the discourse about those ideas, by and large, suspends morality as a category worthy of consideration. [Robert Putnam and David Campbell offer a slightly different sociological study of the Tea Party in this piece.]

I spoke about conservative rhetoric first because the opposite end of the spectrum, the religious left in America, has notoriously had a problem with articulating morality. Jim Wallis’ 2006 book God’s Politics: How The Right Gets It Wrong And The Left Doesn’t Get It. Note the subtitle. Wallis picks apart the moral vision put forth by the religious right, calling it shameful, but also condemns the left for being mute on the issue of morality.

Everything I’ve said so far has been painted with broad strokes. I’ve spoken in generalities and there are plenty of exceptions. But, thinking about those researchers who tell us that many in the younger generation struggle to articulate their moral thinking, I’m left to wonder whether this isn’t as much a rejection of the bombastic judgments of the religious right as it is something akin to the communication struggles that have plagued progressive religion and progressive politics.

If you read the actual interviews on which Brooks based his article, you find that they are not always as alarming as Brooks would have us believe. What is behind the moral quietude of these young people? The interviewees seemed cautious about judging other people whom they may not understand. They seemed careful not to express positions that may be insensitive or oppressive to ethnic or cultural minorities. There was questioning and curiosity mixed in with apathy. Moreover, they rejected the rhetoric of absolutism as false and fruitless and ugly. This is not to say that those interviewed always got it right. This is not to say that they don’t have much to learn. This is not to say that greater moral literacy and moral fluency and moral education are not needed.

I have to be honest with you, when given the choice between a red-faced demagogue and a person who practices moral quietude I would often choose the company of the latter. And, at the same time, I have to admit that something is lost in this moral quietude. What is lost is the ability to critique or challenge or resist the dominant cultural narratives around us.

The researchers I spoke of earlier also wrote this about those they interviewed,
We went into this consumerism section of the interviews expecting at least some emerging adults to display a heightened awareness about environmental problems associated with mass consumer economies. We thought we would hear a variety of perspectives, including some “green” and “limits-to-growth” viewpoints… We expected at least some of them to speak critically about the emptiness or dangers of all-out materialism… We also went into our interviews expecting to hear [them] talk about the political or military complications of such dependence on foreign natural resources like oil. And we expected some to emphasize the importance of personal, inward, subjective, or spiritual growth or richness over the material consumption of products. But we heard almost none of that… Soon we were nearly pushing [them] to consider any plausible problematic side to mass consumerism, if they could. They could not.
If spending money is fraught with moral considerations, saving money can be just as morally dangerous. As one minister friend of mine shared in a recent email, monies that are saved and invested, depending on where they’ve been invested, can be used in multiple by financial institutions to provide loans for the predatory lending businesses and other forms of “development” that blight our local communities as well as to create the factories abroad that exploit workers. Banks can use our investments to place bets on whether Greece will go bankrupt. There are enormous moral dimensions to the dominant narratives in which we live.

Polish poet Wislawa Syzmborska, in her poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself,” writes,
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
Moral fluency, moral literacy, moral imagination, moral reasoning. All of these actively resist quietude. All of these muddle the clearness of conscience. They demand that we be more outspoken about our values, to risk offending, to risk speaking.

There is a balance to be found between the zealousness of declaring how other people ought to live their lives and the quietude, indeed the silence, of choosing to avoid “interfering” with anyone else’s life. But, it is necessary to find our way in between. Conscience demands it.

Sermon: "The Spirituality of Civic Engagement" (Delivered 11-6-11)

Those of you who have been attending church for a while know that I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. And, I mean I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. From the first day of preschool to the last day of high school I faithfully attended religious education classes almost every Sunday. If they had given an award for best attendance, I probably would have won it. And, what I want to do at the beginning here is kind of reflect on that experience and how it had an impact on me.

Growing up attending a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school I did learn something about the history of Unitarian Universalism and something about the various religions of the world. Two weeks ago, in my sermon on suffering, I told the story of the Buddha’s adolescence and early childhood. The story of the Buddha was something I first learned in elementary school.

But, more important than any story, I also learned a particular approach to religion. I grew up learning that it was okay to ask questions about religion, that I could author my own religious understandings, that the differences between the beliefs and practices of different religions were not threatening, and that differences were worthy of respect. This education was priceless.

Another priceless learning happened in the areas of morality, values, and character. Religion, we learned, didn’t just have to do with what you thought about God or the afterlife. It had something to do with the type of person you were and how you lived your life. So, I learned something about religious stories and traditions. I learned something about how to approach thinking about religion. And, I learned something about what it means to be a good person.

But, that is not all that I learned. Some time ago I found myself asking myself, “How is it that you know what you know about civic participation?” I can tell you what grade I was in when I learned my multiplication tables. And, I can tell you what year in Sunday school we learned about the five pillars of Islam. But, when and where and from whom did I learn about the importance of civic engagement? One textbook defines civic participation in this way,
Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.
I didn’t learn everything I know about civics at a Unitarian Universalist church, but some portion of what I learned came from serving on committees, working with boards, volunteering, and realizing what it meant to practice care for an institution, a community, and the larger world.

It may interest you to know that the earliest Unitarian churches in America did not refer to their buildings as churches – or congregations or fellowships or societies – but as meetinghouses. The buildings were used for religious services on Sundays and for town meetings when the need for a town meeting arose. (The construction was also paid for with tax dollars, but that is another matter altogether.) What is interesting is that the business of the town and the business of the church were conducted in virtually the same fashion. Our annual congregational meetings look a whole lot like New England town meetings.

Our guest speaker on October 30 (Rev. Bobbie Groth) shared the fascinating history of the earliest Unitarians in Kansas. These activists literally risked life and limb to keep Kansas a free state. That was certainly one kind of civic engagement. You find stories that are equally amazing though far less dramatic in many other cities. In places like St. Louis, St. Paul, and Portland, Oregon, Unitarians played a leading role in establishing all of the important civic organizations, everything from the public school systems, universities, and libraries, to parks and museums, to various organizations that provided public services related to health and well-being.

This legacy of building social capital is not just something that our religious forebears did in the nineteenth century. My mentor, John Buehrens, recounts a visit he made as president of our movement to a Unitarian Universalist church in a mid-sized city. He met with a group of women from the church who told him that had been the largest city in the United States without a Planned Parenthood – well, at least until they started one!

Now, Unitarianism may be better known today if those people in St. Louis, St. Paul, Portland, and Lawrence, Kansas, had named all of their institutions after their faith. Alas, they also had humility. But, the important thing to note is that the building of these secular social institutions was the expression of a theological idea and a spiritual value. They believed that the arts and public education and public parks and social services that provide for the common good ought to be funded and protected. This is a sentiment that is much in need right now.

I want to talk about two books that offer troubling observations about the current state of civic engagement in our society. A decade ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. His study documented the decline of membership and participation in civic organizations. In an appendix he lists forty civic and professional organizations, everything from 4H to the Knights of Columbus to Parent Teacher Associations to the American Medical Association. All of these organizations were formed in the early decades of the twentieth century. All of them saw membership spikes in the 1950s and 60s. And, all of them have seen significant decreases in membership over the last three decades. Today parents are less than half as likely to participate in a Parent Teacher Association as they were forty years ago. Today professionals are much less likely to belong to professional associations in their field than they were in the 1960s.

On to book number two. Just a few weeks ago, a team of social scientists led by Christian Schmidt of Notre Dame University, released a book entitled Lost in Transition, a study of the lives and struggles of young adults aged 18-23. The researchers write,
Democracy requires the active political participation of its people. A thriving republic depends upon its citizens becoming civically informed and active in order to exercise the informed public stewardship needed to sustain communities of responsibility and freedom… Any thriving human life, by most accounts, requires some participation in civic life, extending oneself beyond one’s private world to participate in broader communities and public institutions. By doing so, people have the chance to learn more about the larger world, connect relationally with different kinds of people, consider how to build shared lives together that benefit all, and personally contribute to the well-being of others.
The researchers continue, writing,
Most [young people] are either alienated from or despairing of public life in various ways, or maintain only tenuous connections to actual civic or political involvements.
And, if observations like these are true, it is mostly a case of the acorn not falling all that far from the tree. Putnam shows how rates of civic participation have been decreasing steadily for decades and decades. In searching for information and statistics on voting, the best sources I could find show that rates of voter participation have been slowly decreasing over the past forty years and were already decreasing even before today’s young people were born.

During midterm elections, less than one out of five of eligible voters votes in the primary. Twice that number, just over forty percent of eligible voters, votes in the midterm general elections. Or, put another way, eighty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in primaries. Sixty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in midterm elections. And, at least forty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in presidential elections.

Consider these extremely disparate images. Last week in our worship service we heard about families from Massachusetts who chose to move into a virtual warzone over 1,000 miles away in order to advocate for their deeply held abolitionist beliefs. This week we hear about people who cannot be bothered to vote. A century ago they created school systems from scratch in frontier cities; today they are less likely than ever to belong to a Parent Teacher Association.

On the subject of civic and political disengagement, the authors of Lost in Transition make this telling observation. They write,
We… find a statistically significant correlation among the [young people] we interviewed between enthusiasm for mass consumerism and lack of interest in political participation. The more [they] are into consumerism, the less they are into politics and civic engagement…

More profoundly at issue are their very visions of what a human self and society are and ought to look like. The ideology and practice of mass consumerism reshapes people – their fundamental visions of who and what they are – not into active citizens but acquisitive consumers. Society itself is transformed not into a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions that together comprise a civil society and promotes human flourishing, but rather a national mega-supermarket of endless products and services.

What disappears with the cultural takeover of mass consumerism are shared social identities, organic communities of solidarity, the civic virtues of duty and responsibility, and the learned processes of public deliberation, consensus building, and conflict resolution. What takes their place instead are individual-preference formation, acquisitive materialism, entertainment, and the sating of desires.
I want to ask us to hold onto the phrase, “a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions.” Wendell Berry, the great American writer and environmental activist, once wrote, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”

On the back cover of your order service you’ll find what you find every week, the seven principles of the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These principles hold in dynamic tension our own individual freedoms and our larger responsibilities toward one another, our society, and our world.

The seventh principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” usually evokes images of nature. If I ask you to imagine an interdependent web you might think of ecosystems, food chains, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the cycles of seasons, and so on. I think these environmental understandings are a part, an important part, of the seventh principle, but that the seventh principle also speaks to the interdependence of human beings in human society. It speaks to systems of health care, social services, government, and education. It speaks to financial systems and markets. Indeed, what Wendell Berry says is true, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”

In the architecture of the New England meetinghouse there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. On the Kansas frontier there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. In the building of cities there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. May you go forth aware that civic engagement is an expression of spirituality, that autonomy is a myth, and that we are called to practice “responsible dependence” within the interdependent web.