Friday, January 28, 2011

Message to the Community (excerpts from the memorial service for Jack Proctor)

Yesterday I co-officiated at a memorial service for a teen who took his own life. The service was held at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and I was joined by Karen Lampe, their Executive Pastor for Congregational Care, in leading the service. The guests at the service included several hundred high school students. I don’t normally post my words from memorial services on this blog. However, I feel like it is important that these words I spoke in the portion of the service called the “Message to the Community” are available. The family gave me permission to post these words and also asked that I include this link to a memorial fund in his honor.

In this service we felt it was so important to say some words to the wider community. What I want to tell all of you is simply this: Don’t forget. Don’t forget. In visiting with Jack’s family, I was struck by the comment that “Jack forgot.” He forgot the things that made life worth living. He forgot that he was loved and liked and that others cared for him. He forgot the possibilities of what his future could hold. He forgot how much he mattered to other people. Don’t forget.

Some of you have probably heard of a guy named Dan Savage. He doesn’t get mentioned too often in church, but last year Dan Savage started this thing called the “It Gets Better” Project. The project is aimed at LGBT youth who are bullied or discriminated against. But the message can speak to any young person who feels hopeless or desperate, for any reason. The message of the project is really simple: If things are really hard and really desperate for you right now, you need to know that things get better. They really do get better.

So, maybe you really don’t like the town you live in. The good news is you don’t have to live here forever. There will come a time in your life when you will be able to choose where you want to live. You will have the choice and chance to try out life in another part of the country or the world. This isn’t for the rest of your life. But there is a rest of your life and it gets better.

So, maybe you can’t stand high school. Maybe high school is really hard for you right. But don’t forget this about high school: it ends. And then you get to live the rest of your life, and the only thing I know about the rest of your life is that once you make it through high school you don’t have to go back to high school. High school isn’t for the rest of your life, but there is a rest of your life and it gets better.

Maybe you are in a family situation that is really hard for you. I want to tell you something. It is not really a secret, but we don’t talk about it a lot. In my entire ministry I have never met a family without problems. I have a feeling that Karen might say the same thing. Now, all the problems are different, and some are bigger than others, but they are all real. And, the good news is that even if the challenge right now seems insurmountable, there isn’t a challenge that’s impossible to manage. It does get better.

Or maybe you are lonely right now. Maybe you are finding that it is hard to make friends. Don’t forget that the world is bigger than your school. There is a place for you and a community for you and amazing people for you to find. It may take a little time and it may not be easy, but it will get better if you allow it to get better. What Dan says is true. It is about getting through the day or the week and remembering that what you are dealing with is not forever. It does get better. It will get better.

And, it can start getting better right away. There is someone who will listen to you. There is someone who will be there to help you if you reach out. Reach out. Pastor Karen is here in this church. I’m available down at the congregation I serve. It can be a church or it can be a synagogue, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a teacher. It can be someone at your school that you trust. It can be a trusted adult or a family member you trust. It can be a hotline that you call. You aren’t alone, so don’t try to face it alone. There are people here for you right now.

I want to ask you to do something. It may feel a little bit funny or awkward to do it, but you’re going to have to trust me. In just a moment I am going to ask you to stop looking up here. Instead, I’m going to ask you to look out across this room. Look into the eyes of the people sitting all around you. Look into the eyes of people sitting on either side of you, of the people sitting in front of you and behind you. Make eye contact with someone down the aisle, or over in the corner. If you’ve been crying, that’s OK. You are beautiful. The tears are tears of love and, because they are tears of love, they are also tears of beauty.

So, you are looking around: You are seeing your friends. Maybe you are looking into the eyes of important adults in your life. Maybe you are looking at a family member or someone from your church or your school. As you are looking around, as you are looking into the faces of one another, just take a moment to know: you are not alone. Remember: you are not alone. Don’t forget: you are not alone.

This is what we can’t forget. Standing up here in front of all of you, this is what I wish Jack had been able to see: a room full of care and love, compassion and understanding.

Don’t forget that you are loved. Don’t forget that people care about you. Don’t forget, even when it is really hard to remember. You matter and you bring things to other people that matter. If you ever can’t see that, you need to find someone who will help you to remember that you matter, someone who help you remember what you’ve forgotten.


One of Jack’s favorite books was My Side of the Mountain, a Newbery Honor Book by Jean Craighead George. It is a favorite book of many young people. The story involves a boy named Sam who leaves his family and his community in the city to go and live in the wilds of nature. Sam learns to make fire and catch food. He learns about trees and plants and the ways of the forest. Sam’s companions become a falcon, a weasel, and a raccoon.

But, the thing about this book is this: it isn’t about Sam’s leaving as it is about Sam’s returning. Slowly, over the course of the book, Sam learns how to trust and how to let people into his world. First, it is a kind farmer who teaches him how to start a fire. Then it is a kind English teacher who takes hikes in the woods. Then it is his father and, then, his family and his community.

I don’t think this was Jack’s favorite book because of the leaving. I think it was his favorite book because of this longing to open up his life to others, this longing to connect. Listen to this passage from My Side of the Mountain,
By the middle of March I could have told you it was spring without looking. Jessie, the raccoon, did not come around anymore, she was fishing the rewarding waters of the open stream, she was returning to a tree hollow full of babies. The Baron Weasel did not come by. There were salamanders and frogs to keep him busy. The chickadees sang alone, not in a winter group, and the skunks and minks and foxes found food more abundant in the forest than at my tree house. The circumstances that had brought us all together in the winter were no more. There was food on the land and the snow was slipping away. […]

At noon… a voice called from the glen… “Dad!” I shouted, and once again burst down the mountainside to see my father.

As I ran toward him, I heard sounds that stopped me… For a long moment I stood wondering whether to meet him or run forever. I was self-sufficient, I could travel the world over, never needing a penny, never asking anything of anyone… I started to run. I got as far as the gorge but turned back. I wanted to see my family.

I walked down the mountain to greet them. I walked slowly, knowing that my solitude was all over. I could hear the voices of my entire family, father and mother, sisters and brothers. They filled my silent mountain. I jumped in the air and laughed for joy.

I think Jack’s longing and Sam’s longing were the same. In coming together today, we have filled his side of his silent mountain. We miss Jack. We miss Jack dearly. And, we will continue filling his silent side of the mountain.

Monday, January 24, 2011

"Remembrance Sunday 2011" (Delivered 1-23-11)

Click here for a list of notable people who died in 2011.
Click here for a blog post about what music I listened to while I wrote this sermon.

by Lucille Clifton

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, is also ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister. One of his later books, From Beginning to End, considers the subject of rituals – big rituals like weddings and funerals, as well as all those smaller rituals that happen day to day and week to week that give form and shape to our living.

As Unitarian Universalists we are often known for the distinctiveness of these life passage rituals. Those seeking us out know that having a Unitarian Universalist as their officiant means that they won’t be judged in all sorts of ways that many couples often are. They won’t have to make promises they have no intention of keeping about who will convert to what faith or in which faith the children will be raised. They won’t have to bite their tongues and cross their fingers behind their back when the minister goes on and on about something they don’t accept. The woman will not be made to promise to obey. The same sex union will be blessed. The interfaith couple will not be forced to accept the tradition of one and reject the tradition of the other. And, the ceremony will be about them, not about the minister’s dazzling and brilliant and insightful theological commentary, as dazzling and brilliant as it may be (alas!)

Unitarian Universalists are even more known for our memorial services than for our weddings. At a memorial service led by a UU minister, the service will be about the life of the person who has died, and not about the minister’s metaphysical speculation about the destination of an immortal soul. The service will be personal and personalized. It won’t be an opportunity to exploit the vulnerabilities of a captive and grieving congregation by lecturing them about their own salvation.

Perhaps, you’ve been to a service that has left you angry. Many of you have probably attended a funeral at which no evidence was ever given that the person who had died had ever lived. To paraphrase Emerson, “There was no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined… This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head ached; his heart throbbed; he smiled and suffered; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.”

Whenever I officiate at a memorial service I try to write it in a way that is true, and by true I mean deeply and intimately and unflinchingly personal. Undeniably, there is a challenge in attempting to capture a life—a life!—and reduce it down to only a few thousand words. And, at a memorial service it is my tradition to end by invoking the characteristic strengths and particular virtues of the person we are remembering and to charge the mourners to honor the life now gone by practicing those virtues, by struggling to embody those esteemed qualities and to incorporate them into our living.

“I am running into a new year,” wrote the late poet Lucille Clifton, “And, the old years blow back like a wind that I catch in my hair.” It has been a long tradition of this congregation, and of many Unitarian Universalist congregations, to set aside a day to remember those who have died in the previous year. Each congregation does it in its own way. At the congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts, where I grew up, the minister led a Remembrance service on Memorial Day. The tables during coffee hour were covered with obituaries and tributes to those who had died in the past twelve months, cut out from newspapers and magazines. One congregation in the Southwest holds a “Dia de los muertos” celebration in which members bring photographs of lost loved ones and the photos are arranged as a collage on a wall at the front of the sanctuary and the experience of worship includes a walking meditation past the wall with its assortment of photographs.

Our tradition in this congregation has been to hold a service of remembrance in the first month of the new year. We create a list of notable and recognizable names, some more notable and recognizable than others, of those who died in the previous year. And, the sermon that morning, this morning, usually selects out a few stories from two or three of the lives, stories that might inspire better living in us.

As we run into a new year, we take a moment to notice what of the old years blow back and catch in our hair. The list that you have in your order in your order of service reads like entries on a time line, telling us about where we’ve been as a people, as a world. We see these episodes from our history: Miep Gies helping to harbor Anne Frank, and Edith Shain, captured in an iconic photograph kissing a sailor in Times Square as World War II came to an end. We see dramatically disparate scenes from the year 1957, the year Barbara Billingsley first appeared on television portraying June Cleaver. 1957 was also the year Jefferson Thomas and eight of his classmates entered Little Rock’s all-white Central High School while the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army stood guard. 1957 was also the year Allen Ginsburg fell in love in Paris with a young poet named Peter Orlovsky. In these lives our history rolls out in front of us, as we remember the death of the last surviving members of Kennedy’s cabinet along with Kennedy’s speech writer, Ted Sorensen, who grew up as a Unitarian in Nebraska.

And, the decades roll forward with their sports stars and celebrities, humanitarians and artists, politicians and entrepreneurs, authors and journalists.

Each January I research this list, and compile this list, and revisit this list and what I hear during the process are those words of the poet Mary Oliver whispering to me, challenging and demanding, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I decided that I would give my remarks this morning the title, “What humanism means to me.” The title was born out of a realization I have each and every year as I prepare the list and research these lives, and think about what it means to prepare a service named Remembrance Sunday. And, the realization I’m left with is that going through this process makes me feel the closest to the humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism. When I talk about feeling closest to the humanist tradition I am not talking about a theological argument. I’m not talking about having to choose sides because I think such choosing of sides is a false choice. Rather, what I am talking about is feeling deeply aligned with a way of seeing, a way of making sense and discovering impactful truths.

In our humanity we bear witness to elegance and grace. I marvel at our human capacity for artistic expression and athletic achievement.

But I am also aware that much of what we do in life is not done with particular talent or acumen, but rather with bull-headed tenacity, determination, and dedication to simply showing up. The poet Marge Piercy writes, “I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along… The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” I am reminded that life consists largely of showing up, of putting your shoulder into what needs to be done.

The annual act of compiling this list also reminds me that human life does contain an element of the whimsical and the fanciful. A core essence of our humanity is that we are unpredictable. It is with a similar sense of astonishment and delighted whimsy that I read stories marking the death of a man named Richard LaMotta. One piece on his life began this way:
Richard LaMotta knew he had something good when he stuffed a serving of vanilla ice cream between two chocolate chip cookies and rolled it in chocolate morsels, and invented the ‘Chipwich.’

But, Lamotta had no way to market his new tasty invention. After failing to raise money to roll out the 'Chipwich' nationwide, LaMotta found a way to sell the ice cream after watching hot dog vendors in Manhattan: Streetcarts.

What started as 50 highly visible streetcarts with people standing in line for the $1 novelty, soon turned into armies of vendors nationwide. The 'Chipwich' became a success. In 2002 LaMotta sold his company… after over a billion were sold nationwide.
And then, there is the truly sobering part of this exercise of remembering. With the sublime opportunities that come by virtue of our humanity, so too comes the opportunity to squander the one life we have been given. I don’t include many of them on the list, but the reality is that each year a least a couple of notable individuals are remembered whose lives read as records of wasted opportunities and squandered years, who chose selfishness over any concern for the welfare of others, and whose lives are remarkable for the harm they did and the havoc they wrought.

Each of these is an element of what it means to be human. Our lives brush against beauty and grace, an invitation to succulence. So much of life is showing up, chopping the wood and carrying the water, persevering and devoting our efforts to a worthy cause. Our lives are opportunities for transcendence, for rising above our own immediate concerns to act for a good that is larger than ourselves. And with that heroism, also whimsy and the absurd and the surprising. Life needs its social activism and its Chipwich ice cream sandwiches. And, with all of this, with all of this, comes the peril of living ignobly, of wasting the one life we have been given.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” For me, I keep coming back to this question. If you allow this question to have the weight and the heft that it deserves you will find that it is a haunting question.

We answer this question in community, surrounded by humanity. We look to one another to remind us of what it is to live well, to help us in discernment. We look to history: we look back to help us to plot a path forward.

We are chastened by the knowledge that, as the poet said, “Everything dies at last, and too soon.” So we resolve to live so that when we come to die we do not discover that we have not lived.

Soundtrack to a Sermon

Last summer my friend Paul, a Unitarian Universalist in Rockford, Illinois, introduced me to the music of Bon Iver. He even ordered me a copy of Bon Iver’s only album and had it shipped to me. In the wintery week that we just had in Kansas City, the music of Bon Iver supplied the soundtrack as I wrote my sermon for Remembrance Sunday.

I don’t expect that most readers of my blog are familiar with Bon Iver. And, even if you are, the story of his music demands to be retold. In 2006, Justin Vernon was living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and trying to make a go of it with his band. In short succession his band broke up, his relationship with his girlfriend ended, and he contracted a nasty case of mononucleosis that attacked his liver. Dejected, he moved back home and went to hibernate and heal in a hunting cabin his family owned in rural Northwest Wisconsin. Over a three month span he took stock of his life and recorded a haunting and transcendent album. The story is told here. And here.

He recorded under the name Bon Iver, an intentional misspelling of the French term meaning “good winter.” (“Hiver,” he said, reminded him too much of “liver.”) He got the term from an old episode of the TV show Northern Exposure where the citizens of a small town in Alaska greet the first snowfall of the year by excitedly wishing one another a “bon hiver.”

The music departed from his previous work considerably. For one thing, he sang almost the entire album in falsetto. The musical accompaniment is Spartan. Most songs are accompanied by little more than a cheap acoustic guitar. There is hardly any bass to speak of. The percussion is light and unassuming. On many of the tracks he fills out the sound by layering his vocal tracks over each other over and over again; he sounds like a choir. During his live performances, Bon Iver passed out the lyrics to the audience to create this larger vocal effect.

In all, Justin Vernon recorded 9 songs for a total of only 37 minutes of music. He wasn’t sure he had an album and he began to release the tracks on the internet. It spread on blogs and by word of mouth. Some were calling it among the best albums of the year before it could even be purchased. He chose to release the album on the small, independent Jagjaguwar record label, based in Bloomington, Indiana, under the title For Emma, Forever Ago. And, it was a hit. It was almost universally adored by music critics. They named it not only among the very best releases of 2008, but it also made several lists of the best albums of the decade!

The music strikes on an emotional level. Between the falsetto, the layering, and the unusual lyrics it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what he is singing. But, emotionally, you know exactly what he is singing. Justin Vernon uses the term “excavation” to describe his work. He is excavating his past: his pain, his disappointments, his longings. But he is also preparing a foundation. The music is hopeful. He is calling out to life.

And, that is why it became my soundtrack for my sermon this past Sunday. His music, somehow, unmasks something nakedly and purely human. It delves into the winter of human experience and names it and courageously claims it.

Bon Iver went on to release a follow-up EP entitled Blood Bank. He most recently collaborated with hip-hop superstar Kanye West on West’s amazing and grandiose 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that is widely regarded as among the best albums of 2010. Bon Iver appears on six tracks on MBDTF. His song "The Woods" is extensively sampled on that album’s second climactic moment, the track Lost in the World.

Here are links to a few Bon Iver tracks:

The Wolves (Act I and II) – notice his use of auto-tune!
Flume – one of the most adored tracks on the album
Skinny Love – as played live on Letterman
re:Stacks – my favorite track on For Emma, Forever Ago
For Emma – the title track
The Woods – the original song sampled by Kanye West

Notable People Who Died in 2010

As a part of our annual "Remembrance Sunday" service, I create and distribute a list of some well-known people who died in the past year. (Click here to check out my sermon from January 23, 2011.)

Gaines Adams (26) NFL player for the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Theo Albrecht (88) German billionaire owned grocery stores including Trader Joe’s
Sparky Anderson (76) Hall of Fame manager for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers
Nicky Daniel Bacon (64) Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for service during Vietnam
Vernon Baker (90) Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for service during WWII
Glen Bell (86) Founder of the Taco Bell fast-food restaurant chain
Melvin Biddle Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for service during WWII
Barbara Billingsley (94) Actress most famous for playing June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver
George Blanda (83) Hall of Fame quarterback and kicker
Manute Bol (47) Standing 7 feet, six inches, he was NBA’s tallest player and humanitarian for Sudanese refugees
Leslie Buck (87) Business executive and Holocaust survivor who created Anthora coffee cup, a NYC icon
Pat Burns (58) Was three time NHL Coach of the Year
Margaret Burroughs (93?) Artist and teacher founded museum of African American history in Chicago in 1961
Robert Byrd (92) Democrat from West Virginia served a record 51 years in the Senate
Isabella Caro (28) French model appeared in ad campaign to battle anorexia
Chubby Carrier (63) Leading Zydeco musician
Dixie Carter (70) Television actress starred in Designing Women and appeared in Diff’rent Strokes
Robert Carter (82) Catholic priest, gay rights activist, and a founder of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Alex Chilton (59) Popular singer with the band Big Star
Lucille Clifton (73) African-American feminist poet and author of children’s books
Art Clokey (88) Created the figure of Gumby
Hank Cochran (74) Prolific Tennessee songwriter’s work made famous by Elvis, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, etc.
Gary Coleman (42) Television star of Diff’rent Strokes
Paul Conrad (86) Esteemed editorial cartoonist
Mike Cuellar (70) Cuban Major League baseball pitcher starred for the Baltimore Orioles in 60s and 70s
Tony Curtis (85) Hollywood star best known for role in Some Like it Hot
Robert E. Davis (70) Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court
Dino De Laurentiis (91) Hollywood producer whose career spanned six decades
David C. Dolby (64) Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for service during Vietnam
Elizabeth Edwards (61) Author and wife of Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards
Larry Evans (78) Chess grandmaster and author was 5 time United States champion
Bob Feller (92) Hall of Fame pitcher for the Cleveland Indians
John William Finn (100) Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during attack on Pearl Harbor
Daryl Gates (83) Controversial longtime LAPD chief was ousted after the LA riots in 1992
Miep Gies (100) Supplied food and books and assisted in helping hide Anne Frank
Arthur Gish (70) Longtime peace activist as a member of the Church of the Brethren
Bud Greenspan (82) Filmmaker noted for decades of documenting the stories of Olympic athletes
Linda Grover (76) Peace activist and founder of Global Family Day
Alexander Haig (85) US Army General served under Nixon and Ford and as Secretary of State under Reagan
Corey Haim (38) Teen idol who starred in numerous popular films in the 1980s
Phil Harris (53) Captain of the fishing vessel on the hit Discovery Channel program The Deadliest Catch
Whitney Harris (97) American lawyer and last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials
Dorothy Height (98) 60s civil rights leader was longtime President of the National Council of Negro Women
Richard Holbrooke (69) US ambassador to Germany and the UN, among other international appointments
Dennis Hopper (74) Iconic American actor who appeared in Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, and Hoosiers
Lena Horne (92) Prolific singer, actress, dancer, and civil rights activist
Andy Irons (32) World champion surfer and one of the most recognizable names in the sport
Rhys Isaac (72) Australian historian was Pulitzer Prize winning author of Colonial American history
Marvin Isley (56) Bass player was a member of the musical group The Isley Brothers
Lech Kaczynski (60) President of Poland died with 95 others including numerous Polish political and
military leaders in tragic plane crash
Irvin Kershner (87) Director of The Empire Strikes Back
Ruth Kligman (80) Abstract painter was a muse to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning
Richard LaMotta (67) Inventor of the Chipwich ice cream sandwich
Art Linkletter (97) Famous television host of the 50s and 60s
Mark Linkous (47) Popular music innovator recorded under the name “Sparklehorse.”
Bud Mahurin (91) Ace pilot with US Air Force in WWII and Korea credited with shooting down 23 enemy planes
Al Masini (80) Created popular TV programs such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Entertainment Tonight!
Robert McCall (90) Futuristic conceptual artist contributed to film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Karen McCarthy (63) Missouri Congresswoman served five terms from 1994-2004
Rue McClanahan (76) Starred on the TV series The Golden Girls
David McNerney (69) Awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for service during Vietnam
Don Meredith (72) Cowboys quarterback and commentator for Monday Night Football
John Murtha (77) Pennsylvania congressman and first Vietnam vet elected to congress served 13 terms
Leslie Nielsen (84) Longtime actor best known for comedic roles in Airplane! and Naked Gun
Merlin Olsen (69) Hall of Fame football player and later a successful actor and sports broadcaster
Peter Orlovsky (76) Beat poet who enjoyed lifelong relationship with Allen Ginsberg
Harvey Pekar (70) American Splendor author was underground music critic and comic book writer
Teddy Pendergrass (59) Acclaimed R&B and soul singer
Elizabeth Post (89) Renowned etiquette expert and granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post
Robin Roberts (83) Hall of Fame pitcher won 286 games with the Phillies, Orioles, Astros, and Cubs
J. D. Salinger (91) Reclusive author of A Catcher in the Rye and Franny & Zooey
Juan Antonia Samaranch (89) President of the International Olympic Committee from 1980-2001
Ron Santo (70) Star third baseman for the Chicago Cubs
Daniel Schorr (93) Television and radio journalist, most recently a reporter for NPR
Edith Shain (91) The woman in the iconic Times Square V-J Day kiss photograph
Ted Sorensen (82) White House advisor and speechwriter for JFK
George Steinbrenner (80) Outspoken owner of the New York Yankees
Ted Stevens (89) Longest serving Republican Senator in history; died in plane crash
Mosi Tatupu (54) NFL running back had a 15 year career
Jefferson Thomas (67) A member of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated the Little Rock public schools
Bobby Thomson (86) Giants baseball player famous for hitting the pennant winning homerun in 1951
Stewart Udall (90) Former secretary of the Interior was influential in the early environmental movement
David Warren (85) Scientist and inventor of the “black box” flight data recorder
George Weiss (89) Composer and songwriter co-wrote “What a Wonderful World” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
Frank Williams (73) Accomplished NYC architect designed Trump Palace Condos among other buildings
Charlie Wilson (76) 12-term Texas Congressman known for helping Afghanistan receive US military support in 80s
George Willoughby (95) Quaker peace activist
John Wooden (99) UCLA basketball coach guided Bruins to 10 national championships in the 60s and 70s
Howard Zinn (87) Progressive American historian and author of A People’s History of the United States

Monday, January 10, 2011

On Arizona: A Lament, A Plea, A Difficult Making Sense (Delivered 1-9-11)

It was my intention to speak about complexity. In a sentence, that sermon was going to be about one of the core characteristics that sets us apart as religious liberals, namely our awareness of life’s complexity, and about how we are called to respond to complex situations, problems, and realities in a way that isn’t simplistic, but instead maturely accepts the complexity of life.

Yesterday’s horrific events in Arizona cause me to take my words this morning in a different direction. I find myself shaken and saddened and angered by the attempted murder of United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a shooting that nearly killed the Congresswoman, and took the lives of six people:
Christina Taylor Green, a nine year old girl
The Honorable John Roll, a Federal judge appointed by President George H. W. Bush
Gabe Zimmerman, a congressional staffer with a bright future in public service
and three elders, Dorothy Morris, Dorwin Stoddard, and Phyllis Schneck
The shooting wounded an additional dozen people.

I believe it is irresponsible conjecture at this point for me to attempt to explain what led the young man to commit murder. We may know more. We may never really know. [As columnist James Fallows explains, ascribing motivation to assassination attempts is often a murky business.]

However, it is both responsible and necessary to speak about the climate in which Gabrielle Giffords’ appearance took place. Giffords was holding an event to connect with the voters she represents in Congress. The event is known as a “Congress on Your Corner” event. It is a type of event that members of Congress have begun to hold because of unruly, disruptive, and dangerous behavior at “Town Hall” meetings. Over the last few years, organized groups have taken to disrupting assemblies held by liberal and moderate politicians.

A classic “town hall” meeting looks a lot like our room. The person stands in front of an assembled group and interacts with the group as a whole. At a “Congress on Your Corner” event, individuals are supposed to file past the elected official in an orderly fashion and each individual is given the opportunity to ask a question or share a concern with the elected official one on one. In this way, a person who comes to the event with the goal of disrupting the entire event is supposed to be unable to do so. This type of event should probably be called “Congress in the Corner” because the threat of incivility and mob-like behavior has forced many members of congress to avoid holding public meetings. In this way, those who attempt to disrupt these meetings subvert the democratic process and violate the first amendment rights of orderly attendees.

The climate of which I speak is filled not only with disruptive behavior but with threats of violence and actual violence that together are a form of terrorism. We know that following the health care reform vote last spring that Giffords’ district office was vandalized as Sarah Palin tweeted that those who oppose health care should not retreat but reload. We know that Palin’s political action campaign published a map of the United States with crosshairs over twenty congressional districts and a list of members of congress to be “targeted” in the midterm election. Giffords was one of those put in the crosshairs. Though the midterm elections took place last November, the map was taken down off the Palin website after news of the shooting broke yesterday. Last spring, Giffords expressed that she felt this violent rhetoric constituted a real threat against her life.

Giffords’ opponent in the last November’s midterm election traded in disturbing imagery. His campaign photos depicted him dressed in camouflage and holding an assault rifle. His campaign events included invitations to come and fire an M16 with the candidate.

Last year, after Judge John Roll made a ruling involving immigrants, a conservative radio host took to the airwaves. Apoplectic about the judge’s ruling, he implored his listeners not to stand for it. The show’s listeners bombarded the judge with nasty phone calls. Those calls included death threats that forced Roll to be placed under the protective services of a U.S. Marshall.

The sheer amount of violent rhetoric endured by our elected representatives and public servants is deeply troubling. So too is the ready availability of lethal weapons and the ease with which troubled individuals acquire those weapons. Last summer a mentally ill individual took hostages at the offices of the Discovery Channel in Washington D.C. This man had become obsessed about certain issues of environmental concern and was demanding that the Discovery Channel create programs to promote his views. But, what is most troubling is that his behavior escalated over a period of years until it reached the point of violence, hostages, and police stand-offs. I fully expect that as more information becomes available we will find that the shooter in Arizona had a similar history of troubled behavior that escalated and escalated and included him going out and acquiring weapons. We live in a society that is incredibly lenient about gun ownership and incredibly ill-equipped when it comes to addressing signs of mental illness and intervening in the lives of individuals who demonstrate the potential for violent behavior.

And, what I had planned to say about complexity touches tangentially on this whole question of antisocial rhetoric and violent behavior. When I think about complexity, I think about a story a friend told me.

Before he accepted a position in another city, my friend was the minister of one of the most progressive Christian congregations in our metro area. My friend had been teaching a Bible study class at the church he served. The class incorporated the findings of the latest, cutting-edge Biblical scholarship – archeology, textual analysis, linguistics – and offered interpretations of Scripture that deviated from what most had assumed the text said and meant.

His was a church, like ours, in which new understandings and new wisdom were welcomed and accepted and expected. But, one day, a man in the class came by my friend’s office to speak to him. He expressed that the class was challenging him in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. “Look,” he said, “My life feels like it is in constant flux. It feels like the world is changing and I don’t know how to keep up. My company is constantly reorganizing and I’m just trying to hold on. Any day I could show up at work and find that I’ve been relocated to another city or worse. I feel like what is expected of me as a husband and a father is constantly shifting. Heck, when I buy a new phone the technology will be obsolete before I even figure out how to use the dang thing. I feel like the ground is moving under my feet. And, I thought that church could be the one solid, dependable, unchanging thing but I come to your class and I find out that everything I thought I knew about the Bible is wrong.”

My friend told me that this man wound up moving on to a more conservative Christian church at which new developments in Biblical scholarship were ignored and rejected. I don’t want to make too much out of this story. My friend’s congregation was full of people for whom the new wisdom did not pose an existential or spiritual crisis, but rather an opportunity. But, I want to ask us to hold the example of this man in our minds during our time together this morning.

Even though we do not seek out an unchanging, constant, and eternal theology, we can probably relate to the experience of a world that is complex, complicated, and confusing. We can relate to that experience of feeling that at least a part of our life is uncertain and in flux.

So, let me say at the outset that life’s complexity is often anxiety-producing and overwhelming. It is that exasperating complexity that often leads us to look for ways to simplify life. We look to the great Henry David Thoreau who urged his readers to “Simplify! Simplify!” We enjoy singing the famous Shaker hymn that begins, “’Tis a Gift to be Simple.” The urge to make our lives simpler is extremely powerful. But, it is important to remember that Thoreau urged simplicity in some facets of life in order to make space for complexity in life elsewhere. He dismissed the complexities of fashion and social propriety in order to embrace complex ethical discernment and to fully embrace the spiritual benefits of nature. The simplicity movement is a call to simplify our living, not our thinking.

My colleague in the Denver area, Nathan Woodliff-Stanley once delivered a sermon on liberal religious approaches to morality. “Life is complex,” Woodliff-Stanley declares, but harm is done when we try to face life’s problems in a simplistic way. Woodliff-Stanley states, “Religious liberals know that honestly facing the complexities and difficulties of life is a requirement for sound moral formation.”

He argues that a commitment to truth-seeking and honesty is an essential component of moral development. In his words,
A commitment to truthfulness often means asking questions or speaking truths that an authority-based morality may not like. As our whole nation is discovering, when political loyalty is valued more than truth-seeking and truth-telling, the results can be dangerous, even deadly.

Honesty and truth-seeking are not easy to practice, and they often begin with an awareness that we are not always honest or truthful. I believe that an ever-renewing commitment to honesty within ourselves is a far more powerful force for morality and redemption than is the fear of hell. A commitment to truthfulness means being willing to learn and grow and change. It means admitting when others… are right about something. And it means being honest about everything from our own abilities and limitations to the complexity and interconnectedness of the world in which we live.
In this quote we find that Nathan Woodliff-Stanley draws a line connecting complexity, honesty, truth-telling, and moral development. What exactly is this all about?

The connection between honesty and moral development is an easy connection to make. Earlier this week I was sent a video of a portion of last Sunday’s worship service at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Last Sunday retired Navy Commander and Unitarian Universalist Zoe Dunning gave a testimonial in church about her work to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Dunning was actually selected to stand next to President Obama as he signed the repeal.

In her testimony, Dunning talked about the meetings she attended to persuade high ranking military officials to change their stance on this policy. And, she talked about the different arguments opponents of DADT employed. One argument was the argument about equality, about fair treatment for all. A second argument was based on practical economic considerations. It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time to train a member of the military. It is a drain on resources to go through the process of discharging someone who is outed. Dunning mentioned that the military servicemen and women discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” included a number of skilled translators and linguists fluent in the languages of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Dunning talked about the tactical idiocy of discharging gay and lesbian translators when the military already has an insufficient supply of translators.

But, both of those arguments – the argument about equality and the argument about supply and demand – were weaker than her central argument. That argument had to do with the connection between truth-telling and morality. Zoe Dunning argued that those who serve in the military are expected to conduct themselves with integrity, that the institution is supposed to stand for the values of honor, courage, and commitment, and that a policy that tells people to lie undercuts those professed values in a profound way. It not only detracts from the honor of the individual who is told to lie but it detracts from the integrity of the entire institution. It is that way that truth-telling and honesty is wedded to moral formation. In the absence of telling the truth, morality grows deformed and distorted.

Morality is also intricately and intimately connected to complexity. When we deny the complexity of life and of our world we prevent ourselves from making wise moral choices. This month we are joining Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country in reading The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, by Martha Regan, a journalist who has covered immigration for more than two decades. It is a short book. Although it is too short it begins to convey the complexity of immigration. She looks at the issue through the lens of international economics, local economics, geopolitical history, environmentalism, human rights, the Native American experience, faith, and the experiences of ranchers and border patrol agents.

Last month our Second Sunday forum speaker was the President of the Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement. During the Q+A session she was asked if she could change one part of the immigration laws, what would she choose to change? Her answer was refreshing for its candor and its wisdom. “The issue too complex to give a simple answer,” she replied.

We live in a world of three word sound bites because four word sound bites prove too distracting. Simple answers to the complex social and economic issues of our times (a globalized economy, immigration, health care, or whatever) are lies at best and morally bankrupt at worst. Simple answers lead to unhealthy obsessions, obsessions based on half-truths, bold-faced lies, and moral deformities.

The irony here is also the opportunity. In twenty minutes I cannot explain the roots of hatred in the human heart. In twenty minutes I cannot offer solutions to impossibly complex issues. In twenty minutes I cannot offer the solution to a politics dominated by violent fantasies.

In our tradition, in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the work does not end when the service ends. In our tradition, my words are not the final word. Rather, the work is yours to take up and move forward. It depends on your discernment. It for you to think about and to discuss.

And, as you do, remember that honesty, complexity, and morality are forever wedded, each one to the others.

Speak the truth, because morality withers in the absence of honesty.

Embrace complexity, because simple answers are the beginning of delusions.

Find a morality that does not shrink from the truth and does not deny the complexity of our lives.

In tragedy, satisfying answers are often elusive.

No "Next Year" for the Kansas City Chiefs

A little "sports blogging" on a slushy, snowy Monday afternoon...

I grew up as a fan of the hard luck Boston Red Sox. Every October, at least until 2004, a familiar phrase reverberated through all of New England: "There's always next year."

Yesterday, after services at church, I rushed home to lie on the couch and watch the Kansas City Chiefs look awful in losing to the Baltimore Ravens. They lost 30-7, but the score wasn't even that close.

But the Chiefs are a team on the right path, right? They are a young team that's bound to improve, right? There's always next year, right? Quoth the raven, "Nevermore! (At least not in 2011.)"

At the beginning of this season I listened to Kansas City sports radio personality Nick Wright predict an appearance in the playoffs by the Chiefs. Wright's argument was a bit unorthodox. Wright pointed to history to show that every year a couple of NFL teams win at least 5 more games than they had won the previous year. He surveyed teams capable of such a dramatic improvement and thought that the Chiefs were a likely bet to improve their win-loss record by 5 games. They did. The Chiefs went 10-6 this year, a six game improvement over last year's 4-12 record.

Unfortunately, indicators point to a regression for the Chiefs next year. This year they played a last place schedule and also had the good fortune of playing the mediocre AFC South and the anemic NFC West divisions. The teams they played in 2010 had a combined record of 106-150, a winning percentage of just 41%. Only 3 of their 16 games were played against teams with winning records. They only played two teams that made the playoffs and one of those teams, the Seattle Seahawks, made the playoffs despite a losing record. Before the playoff embarrassment against Baltimore, the best team Kansas City played all season was the 10-6 Indianapolis Colts.

Next year, the Kansas City Chiefs face a much tougher schedule. This, of course, assumes that there will be a 16 game NFL season next year. It isn't certain that teams will play a 16 game season. It is entirely possible that there may not even be a 2011 NFL season at all. But, assuming there is one, the Chiefs will be tested. They will face eight teams that sported winning records in 2010 and six teams with ten or more wins. In 2010 they faced Indianapolis and twice played the 9-7 San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs 2011 schedule has them playing those teams again in addition to the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago Bears. All five of those teams have a legitimate shot at playing in the Super Bowl.

The NFL likes to proclaim its parity. It likes to mention how a very bad team can become a very good one in a short period of time. The Chiefs would seem to be proof of this. However, when listening to these claims of parity, make sure you read the small print. For the last decade, three teams have dominated the AFC. The Colts, Steelers, and Patriots have each won more than 2/3 of their games. (The Patriots have won more than 3/4 of theirs.) Together, these three teams have represented the AFC in eight of the last nine Super Bowls and either New England or Pittsburgh is likely to return to the Super Bowl this year. In thirty chances, these three teams have won ten or more games a whopping twenty-five times.

In the interest of full disclosure, the NFC's track record in the past decade paints an entirely different picture. In the past nine seasons, nine different teams (St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Arizona, and New Orleans) have played in the Super Bowl. If either Atlanta or Green Bay advances this year, the NFC would be a perfect ten for ten. Compared to the sustained dominance of the "haves" over the "have nots" in the AFC, the NFC practices pigskin socialism. But, what is important to realize is that neither division permits (new) teams to rise to positions of sustained excellence. The exclusive club is off limits in the AFC; in the NFC there is no club. That is bad news for the Chiefs.

So, what will 2011 bring for the Kansas City Chiefs? If we are lucky, they will have the chance to play in 9 months. But, it is very hard to find a team with a track record of steady and incremental improvement. Nick Wright used trends to predict a Chiefs playoff appearance. If these larger trends hold true, don't look for the Chiefs to get back there in 2011.


Curious Football trend: the curse of the Superstar Running Back?

Seventeen running backs rushed for 1,000 yards in 2010. 17 out of 32 teams (53%) featured a running back who reached 1,000 yards. Of the 12 teams to make the playoffs, 7 (58%) had a 1,000 yard rusher. In some ways that is not surpising. A team with a 1,000 yard rusher is more likely to win than a team without one. You don't say.

In another way, this statistic is surprising. Teams that make the playoffs win a lot of their games. Teams that win a lot of their games tend to frequently have leads late in the game. Teams that often have leads late in the game tend to hand off the football to the running back in order to run time off the clock. This is how the Bears' Matt Forte and the Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis got their 1,000 yards. (By the way, BJGE's nickname is "Law Firm." One of the best nicknames ever!)

It would be a bit more accurate to look at total team rushing. A team could have a pair of running backs with 800 yards each and be a dominant rushing team despite the lack of a 1,000 yard rusher. However, of the ten best rushing teams in the league, only four made the playoffs!

What do superstar running backs Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Stephen Jackson have in common? Their teams all missed the playoffs. And, now the NFL's second leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, is out of the playoffs. If the Atlanta Falcons, one of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs, reach the Super Bowl, it will be the first time in five years that a top-5 rusher has played in the Super Bowl. If Atlanta doesn't make the Super Bowl, then we might be able to blame it on the curse of the superstar running back.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

About Inviting Friends to Church

It is something I’ve observed several times: It is a Sunday morning and a person walks through the doors of our church for the first time. Just as the person is being warmly greeted by our greeting team, out of the corner of his eye he sees a familiar face. “Is that really you? I didn’t know you came to this church!” They are co-workers. They are old friends. They are next-door neighbors. “I never knew that you belonged to a church.”

This Sunday, January 9, 2011, will be our first “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday of 2011. Of course, you are welcome to invite a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor (or a complete stranger, for that matter) to come to church with you any Sunday, but this Sunday is just a particularly good one to bring a friend. The sermon will be especially designed to speak to those who are brand new to Unitarian Universalism and we will have other things happening for any friends you may bring.

It has been noted that we Unitarian Universalists are notoriously bad at inviting our friends to visit our churches. Some time ago I heard the claim thrown out that, on average, a Unitarian Universalist invites a friend to church once every twenty years. I have no idea how the person making that claim arrived at those figures. But, it does seem true that many of us don’t invite our friends to church despite the fact that personal invitation is the most effective way to introduce people to Unitarian Universalism is through personal invitation.

So, why don’t we invite our friends, co-workers, neighbors, and dog-groomers to come and visit? The answer is obvious: we don’t want to be like those people in those churches. Many of you have heard me tell the story of my very first day in Kansas in 2003. I had gone to a furniture store and, as I was leaving, an employee followed me out into the parking lot to invite me to visit her church. I politely thanked her and explained that I had moved to town to accept a position as the minister of a church. She was relentless. It takes a bit of chutzpah to try to evangelize a minister. And, none of us want to be like her.

I’m not asking you to be anything like her. Here is a different way of thinking about it. Over the last seven and a half years I have had dozens of friends and acquaintances come and visit on a Sunday morning. These are people I’ve met at social gatherings and at social action events. They are people alongside of whom I’ve volunteered. They’ve even been employees of restaurants and coffee shops I’ve patronized. Heck, one time a bartender came to visit our church! Most of these people weren’t looking for a church community. Some already had one of their own. Others were just not at a point in their life when they desired to join a church community. But, they were curious. In my case, they were curious about watching me lead a worship service and deliver a sermon. And, they were also curious about what UUism was all about. Maybe they just wanted to see me in my “natural habitat.”

When you invite someone to church what you are really doing is offering that person a chance to get to know you better. To get to know you better as a friend, as a co-worker, as a neighbor. The church is a part of your life. It is where you go for your soul to be fed, for your children to receive a religious education. It is where you go to be around like-minded folks. It is where you have your conscience stirred. It is where you go to feel at home. So, what you are doing when you invite someone to come to church with you is you are inviting them to experience what you experience in your spiritual home. It is an invitation to deepening relationship.

Unlike my experience of being evangelized in the furniture store parking lot, inviting a friend to church is not about recruitment or conversion. Last spring I was invited to and attended the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a friend of mine who served with me on the board of a community organization here in town. At the Bar Mitzvah I ran into a family from our church, also there sharing the faith community of our mutual friend. I deepened in my connection to my friend as I witnessed my friend practice her faith. I was deeply thankful for the invitation. It was a wonderful gift to receive. And, it is a gift that you can give.

I’ve found that the best way to share Unitarian Universalism is not with pamphlets or tracts or form letters. It is deeply personal. It is about sharing an important part of your life with someone you care about.

One of the most frequent things we hear from people when they come to a Unitarian Universalist Church is, “I wish I had know about this community years ago!” That sentiment resonates. And, sometimes they come through the door and catch, out of the corner of their eye, their next door neighbor and say, “We’ve lived next to each other for thirty years. I didn’t know you came to this church!”

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011: A Year in Reading

Below you will find a list of books I've read in 2011 along with some brief comments and reflections. (Follow the links to find book lists from other years and a reading preview for 2011.)

Books Completed:

45) The Zero – by Jess Walter (324 pages)
Prior to picking up this book at a library book sale I had read two of Walter's short stories as well as the first chapter of a previous novel, Citizen Vince.  The Zero was a let down for me.  This work of post-9/11 fiction follows a New York cop in a bizarre terrorist investigation following the September 11 attacks.  The cop is afflicted with a medical condition that causes him to suffer lapses in which he blacks out.  This episodic novel has been described as Helleresque, Kafkaesque, and neo-noirish.  The concept just did not work for me.

44)  McSweeney's 39 (276 pages)
This latest release from McSweeney's arrived just before Christmas and it was spectacular.  Every single work of fiction was better than the one before it, but what set this issue apart from the rest was several non-fiction selections including a story about a European conman in Uganda, the tale of a man who became the trusted adviser of the Shah of Iran, and a brilliant reprint of a speech by Vaclav Havel.

43) Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal – by Jeffrey Kripal (340 pages)
I cannot rave enough about this newest release from Jeffrey Kripal.  It is the best book I read all year, and deserves a blog post of its own.  It is a thrilling read.  The book itself was a splendid work of art, beautiful to behold.  Want to get a sense of what this book is about?  Read this sermon I delivered after finishing it.

42) The Sacred Depths of Nature – by Ursula Goodenough (185 pages)
I read this book as a part of SMUUCh’s brand new “Spiritual Texts and Contexts” reading group. Goodenough dives deeply into the physical, chemical, and biological science that created the universe and life on planet Earth (well, at least more deeply than this non-scientist could easily understand!) Nature, for Goodenough, is more than beautiful flowers, trees, and wildlife. By explaining the deep complexity of RNA and enzymes, she evokes awe at even the cellular level. Sometimes her reflections and the science mesh seamlessly. At other times, the combination feels force.

41) Unincorporated Person of the Late Honda Dynasty – by Tony Hoagland (85 pages)
This is the third collection of Hoagland’s poetry I’ve read, and he is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. This collection of sarcastic poetry locates the reader late in the Honda Dynasty, or in the midst of suburban sprawl. The first section of this collection is the best by far. Hoagland uses the mall food court to discuss diversity and puts us in touch with the innovator who invented the extra-large personal bag of chips. In poetry he writes of his compassion for and fascination with Britney Spears, and, in the collection’s best poem, writes of the dissonance he experiences hearing a Muzak version of Dylan’s “It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a shopping center. It is a great collection of poems by a fantastic poet.

40) God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Quetion - Why We Suffer – by Bart Ehrman (280 pages)
You can read the sermon I delivered on this book here.

39) Let the Great World Spin – by Colum McCann (349 pages)
This novel has received rave reviews from everyone I know who has read it. My wife loved it. Members of the church book club loved it. An essayist reviewing post-9/11 fiction for McSweeney’s 33 loved it. One of my colleagues said it was the best piece of modern fiction he’d read in years.

McCann’s critically acclaimed novel takes the form of ten interlocking short stories that take place on the same day in August 1974 that Philippe Petit did a tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in New York City. In the stories we meet an Irish-Catholic priest, a grandma who is a prostitute, a passenger during a fatal hit-and-run accident, a judge, and a group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. Through McCann’s vivid and tactile prose these lives separated by fewer than six degrees come beautifully to life. I generally prefer more obtuse and quirky novels, but there is no denying that this one is very, very good.

38) The Denial of Death - by Ernest Becker (297 pages)
Read the sermon I preached on this book here.

37) Mcsweeney’s Volume 38 (264 pages)
The most recent issue of McSweeney’s is a solid collection of short fiction and non-fiction. On the fiction side, I was most impressed by Roddy Doyle’s short story “The Hens.” I also enjoyed Nathaniel Rich’s story “The Northeast Kingdom”, Rachel Glaser’s “The JPEG,” and Adam Levin’s hilarious short piece “Cred.” On the non-fiction side I was blown away by Chanan Tigay’s piece about Arabs who serve in the Israeli Army.

36) Blue Like Jazz: Non-religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality - by Don Miller (243 pages)
You can read my review of Blue Like Jazz here.

35) McSweeney’s Volume 33 (281 pages)
This was just ridiculous. I received this behemoth in the mail in December of 2009 and didn’t get around to reading it until just now. McSweeney’s 33 is a tribute to the newspaper. The issue is printed as a giant newspaper with ten full sections on 15” x 22” newsprint. In addition, this issue contains a marvelous “Sunday magazine” and a great books section that features short stories and reviews.

My favorite parts were the magazine that brought us fascinating dispatches: a woman writes about social life at an Antarctica research station; a gay couple attends NASCAR in Michigan; a Pakistani-American playwright/lawyer defends foreclosures in California. The long-form journalism from destinations around the State of California is fantastic as well. Plus, a comics section and a food section that was a lot of fun!

34) Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History – by Ben Mezrich (309 pages)
Mezrich’s non-fiction-ish books about audacious kids from fantastic universities who take the world by storm and play by their own rules are guilty pleasures in which I delight. Sex on the Moon deviates from his formula in a few key ways. What is similar throughout his high-wire tales about MIT students who make a fortune counting cards in Vegas, Princeton grads playing the Asian stock markets, and a Harvard dropout who founds Facebook and becomes a multi-billionaire is that the audacity pays off. Enemies are made and risks are taken, but, in the end, glory does not go to the meek.

Sex on the Moon is different. It’s audacious, risk-taking protagonist winds up in a federal prison. This book tells the story of Thad Roberts, an ex-Mormon from Utah who is by the idea of becoming an astronaut. Thad applies himself and gets accepted to an extremely competitive internship program with NASA. The charismatic Thad takes the program by storm; he is an emerging scientist and a party animal. He is in the process of leaving his wife for one of his intern co-eds when he hatches a scheme to steal priceless moon-rocks from the Apollo missions. He is busted and goes to prison.

The rude awakening at the conclusion undermines the rest of the book in retrospect. Thad’s story is not tragic, but stupid. The shine comes off. Thad’s wife is presented as a superficial model and party girl. But she lives in Salt Lake City, so we may want to take that with a grain of salt. Mezrich sexes up the college students accepted to NASA’s internship program. He probably exaggerates. The reader is left feeling not only that the story is not nearly as exciting as Mezrich makes it out to be. The reader is left feeling like the story is without a reason to exist.

33) Of Gravity & Angels – by Jane Hirshfield (70 pages)
This is the fourth poetry collection that I’ve read by this author, and I had a harder time getting into these poems than the ones in her other collections. As all her poems are, the ones in Of Gravity & Angels are challenging and often somewhat opaque, a mixture of Eastern religious thought and beautiful nature imagery. Her amorous poems in the second section of the collection were the most striking poems.

32) The Hunger Games - by Suzanne Collins (372 pages)
So, this is the current state of Young Adult fiction? And, how much is Suzanne Collins paying in royalties to Stephen King for ripping off his novel The Running Man?

As with King’s novel, subsequently made into a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian police-state, in which your only ticket out of abject poverty lies in your willingness to put your life on the line and win a gladiator-themed reality television program.

In The Hunger Games, North America has become a totalitarian state. The land is divided into 12 districts and each district produces goods and raw materials that are consumed by the wealthy denizens of the Capitol. The citizens of the districts are perpetually undernourished and live in a state of servitude. Orwellian “Peacekeepers” mete out harsh penalties for crimes such as criticizing the government. As punishment for an uprising many years ago, and as a reminder of the absolute authority of the Capitol, a lottery is held each year and each district sends an adolescent boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. They are placed in a large arena and fight to the death. The last surviving child is allowed to live, is afforded a life of celebrity and privilege, and, for the next year, the home district of the child receives increased rations. The two children selected from District 12 include Katniss, the anti-authoritarian survivalist and bow and arrow enthusiast, and Peeta, the doughy baker’s son who wears his emotions on his sleeve. What will be their fate?

Even though I don’t watch reality television, it is easy to see how The Hunger Games draws heavily on reality television themes. (Survivor, Hello!) Each contestant has their own stable of image consultants, designers, coaches, and trainers. Their fate in the games depends not only on their combat skills, but on their ability to win the hearts of viewers. In the Hunger Games, you definitely do not want to be the Biggest Loser!

31) Here If You Need Me - by Kate Braestrup (212 pages)
I've been meaning to read this memoir since it came out in 2007. The book tells of the author's experiences as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who serves as the chaplain during search and rescue operations carried out by the Maine Warden Service. The author made the decision to pursue the ministry after her husband, a police officer who had planned for a second career in the UU ministry, had died in a tragic car accident while on duty.

The author's approach to theological questions and to the art of pastoral ministry make me proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and a UU minister.

30) Death of the Liberal Class - by Chris Hedges (217 pages)
You can read my review of this book here.

29) Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer – by Steven Millhauser (293 pages)
I am drawn to and utterly fascinated by America at the turn of the twentieth century. The poetry of Walt Whitman. The psychology of William James. The muckraking journalism of Upton Sinclair. A few years ago I was enthralled by contemporary writer Chris Adrian’s debut novel, Gob’s Grief, which is set in New York City at the turn of the century. I was almost equally enthralled by Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in the exact same time period.

I had previously read only a few of Millhauser’s short stories and I am glad to have read one of his novels. Martin Dressler gives us the life of an ambitious man building his empire in New York City’s rapid expansion and development. The son of a German immigrant and tobacconist, Martin Dressler leaves school and the family trade to enter the hotel business. He works his way up from bellhop to assistant manager. Then he opens a restaurant and then a chain of restaurants. Next it is a hotel and then a series of ever more elaborate and ambitious buildings until he is consumed by… well, something. Maybe it is his ambition that is his downfall. Or, maybe he has forgotten something about the essence of humanity.

What made this book for me was not the characters but the setting. Millhauser uses a rich vocabulary to exquisitely describe the hotels and lunchrooms and shops as well as the urban ambiance of the city. Millhauser conjures up and dreams an amazing landscape.

28) McSweeney’s 37 (249 pages)
This issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern features 15 short stories, five of them contemporary short stories by Kenyan writers. On the whole I found the Kenyan stories flat and lacking in appeal. Fortunately, many of the other stories are quite good. Of special note are stories by Jonathan Franzen, Joe Meno, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Hyduk’s account of being unemployed in the current economy. My favorite piece of writing in this collection was Jess Walter’s amazing “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington.” While McSweeney’s is always creative with its packaging and artwork, I found this latest edition to be a real clunker in the art department. The book was unwieldy and the binding came unglued by the time I had finished the first few stories.

27) Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives – edited by Peter Orner (371 pages)
This is the first book I’ve read of the now seven books to come out through McSweeney’s “Voices of Witness” series that is published for the purposes of “Illuminating human rights crises through oral history.” The other books in the series illuminate domestic crises including people harmed by the Patriot Act, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and America’s wrongfully convicted. International oral histories tell the stories of human rights abuses in Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

This collection gives voice to 24 undocumented persons living in the United States. These voices are diverse. They include teenagers and a gentleman in his sixties. They are gay and straight. They include people from Mexico and Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. Underground America is a gripping collection of stories. The oral histories of Victoria, a transgender young person, and Desiree, a lesbian, show the particular vulnerabilities of immigrants whose sexual orientation or gender identity places them in the minority. I was particularly drawn to the oral histories of Liso who is lured to the United States under the auspices of doing missionary work but is forced into indentured servitude, and Farid, a successful business owner in the United States facing deportation.

While I am not sad that I read this collection of oral histories, I am not sure how many in the series I plan to read. I think the ones about wrongful imprisonment and the Patriot Act sound fascinating.

26) The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion - by Jeffrey J. Kripal (185 pages)
I may be biased – after all, I took a course from him in graduate school – but, for my money, Jeffrey Kripal is the most exciting scholar of religion we have amongst us today. Last December I read his daring and provocative book, Authors of the Impossible, which deals with why the field of religious studies has ignored psychical phenomena and why it has judged some categories of the supernatural as worth exploring while other categories of the supernatural have been off limits. As a graduate student I read parts of Kripal’s award-winning first book, Kali’s Child and later I read parts of his second book, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom. At this time, I am returning to the corpus of Kripal’s writing.

The Serpent’s Gift is part manifesto and part meandering (snake-like in its twisting) meditation on the academic study of religion. Kripal calls for the academy to move beyond dualism (faith-reason; subjective-objective; etc.) by embracing a radical third. This “third” is the turn towards gnosticism and postmodernism. Kripal writes of categorical triplets: premodern, modern, postmodern; faith, reason, gnosis. He also evokes or implies others who have thought in parallel, including Paul Ricoeur’s concept of first naïvete, disillusionment, and second naïvete, and, presumably, the mystical system of Pseudo-Dionysus and others that posits kataphatic, apophatic, and hyperphatic mystical experiences.

Kripal writes that this gnostic turn will succeed in evoking the erotic, heretical, mystical, and mythical dimensions of religion that traditional scholarship conspires to conceal. Kripal’s four chapters deal with the sexuality of Jesus, the heretical thought of Ludwig Feurbach, the mysticism of the Hindu guru Ramakrishna, and, most notably, the X-Men comic book series. It is this latter chapter that is most compelling.

Kripal manages to write about deep and subversive thoughts in a way that, while challenging in a scholarly sense, is often charming, funny, and certainly iconoclastic.

25) Clamor – by Elyse Fenton (75 pages)
Elyse Fenton’s time at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, overlapped with mine and I picked up her debut volume of poetry earlier this month when I traveled back to Stumptown for the kickoff to Reed’s Centennial celebrations.

Clamor is full of complex, challenging poems that deal with the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking subject matter of the poet waiting for her beloved to return from tours of duty in Iraq. Just as “clamor” can refer to either a cacophonous, busy noise or to silence, Fenton captures the dual nature of life in wartime. There is home – the garden, coffee, writing – and there is the other, the life of the loved one in battle.

These poems draw from a rich background in the humanities. We find characters such as Dante and Persephone. We find words like “chthonic.” However, in these complex and difficult poems, Fenton often hits us with a line that makes you swallow hard:

“Each eggplant that I pick / is ripe and sun-dark in its own inviolable / skin. Except there is no inviolable anything / and you’ve been home now for a year.”

Her poem infidelity is a confession of her dreams of death befalling her beloved. “I never dreamed you whole.”


24) Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War – by Deb Olin Unferth (206 pages)
Deb Olin Unferth’s collection of very short stories, Minor Robberies, was quite good. I found her debut novel, Vacation, to be a total disappointment. Her memoir, Revolution, was a spectacular read that shows Unferth at the height of her writing powers.

Unferth’s writing style is choppy and abrupt. She states things simply. Her writing style is also extremely self-conscious, exuding the post-modern turn towards self-awareness, reflexivity, and self-critique. This writing style is perfect for a memoir and it is perfect for this kind of memoir, in which the absurdity and insanity of the story needs no unnecessary embellishment.

Revolution tells the story of Unferth, at age 18, dropping out of college and following her idealistic and ideological boyfriend to Central America where they decided they would try to foment the revolution and work to spread Marxism and liberation theology Catholicism. To call them naïve would be a great understatement as they haphazardly bounce around El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica during the mid-1980s.

Revolution is a misadventure of the highest order. They struggle to find work and manage to get themselves fired from volunteer jobs with an orphanage and a bicycle shop. They suffer continuously from a variety of tropical diseases. They are robbed repeatedly.

It is a crazy, scary, hilarious and wild tale and one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

23) Five Skies – by Ron Carlson (244 pages)
Occasionally I will select a book that has been read and well-liked by the fiction book group at our church. This book was recommended to me by one member of the book club. Five Skies takes us to rural Idaho where three laborers are working to construct a massive ramp for an Evel Knievel-ish motorcycle jump over a canyon.

Five Skies features three male protagonists, none of whom would be described as verbally expressive. Through their silence and their oscillation between being soft-spoken and non-spoken the traumas of their previous lives are slowly revealed. And, that is about it.

As a whole, I didn’t particularly like this book that much. If I had to look for something that I particularly enjoyed, it would have to be the way the massive ramp looms as a character in its own right. It is a spectacle. It points to a way of being in the world that overshadows the human characters. I think a book group could have a very rich discussion on this aspect of the novel.

22) Zeitoun – by Dave Eggers (323 pages)
About five years ago I read Eggers’ powerful What is the What, in which Eggers tells the life story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese lost boy. That book was probably the most powerful book I’ve ever read. With Zeitoun, Eggers returns to this tried and true formula of writing a contemporary biography in the form of a novel. His writing thus inhabits the space between fiction and non-fiction. The events are true and real. The book reads with urgency and elegance.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant to the United States. He settled in New Orleans where with hard work he created the American dream for his family and himself. Zeitoun operates a successful painting and contracting business. When Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orelans, Zeitoun decides to stay while his wife and four children flee, first to Baton Rouge and then to Arizona.

Staying through the flood, Zeitoun finds himself canoeing through the flooded city. He rescues a woman trapped in her home, an elderly couple, and a number of dogs left behind. Then, astoundingly, he is arrested and indefinitely detained by the Department of Homeland Security.

As New Orleans residents were dying in their homes and facing horrible conditions in the Super Dome and elsewhere, various security agencies of the United States government focused their efforts on setting up makeshift Guantanamo Bay-style internment camps. Zeitoun’s civil and human rights were grossly violated. He and his friends spent between one and six months detained without charges or a phone call.

Zeitoun is both a powerful testament to the human spirit and a powerful indictment of gross human rights violations in our own country. It is an amazing, deeply affecting book and a quick read to boot.

21) A Better Angel - by Chris Adrian (225 pages)
A nine year old child prodigy with a thing for memorizing Emily Dickinson. The haunting, out-of-body wanderings of a woman in a coma. A psychotic fifth grader. The fevered, prophetic visions of a child from another century. An underachieving guardian angel. A boy possessed by the spirits of the dead from the September 11 terrorist attacks. A boy who discovers his father is the devil.

These are the odd, haunting, dark, medical and mystical things that populate Chris Adrian’s imagination. In these nine short stories, Adrian gives us a terrifying and surreal world filled with horrible diseases, loss, grief, and their attendant angels and demons.

The gem of this collection is “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death.” It was this story, published in McSweeney’s 14, that first turned me on to Adrian. I can hardly think of a better short story that I’ve ever read. In this story, Cindy is an adolescent girl with a damaged digestive track who stalks the halls of a children’s hospital. She seduces a boy with cystic fibrosis, aggravates a young intern named Dr. Chandra (likely a substitute for Adrian himself), and composes a book about animals with dreadful diseases.

While none of the other eight stories quite reach the level of this one, they are all moving and wondrous. Adrian is not for everyone, but he is most certainly my type of writer.

20) Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary – by David Sedaris (157 pages)
Ah, summer reading! In this short collection, David Sedaris takes a stab at writing animal fables. What he produces is this short volume of laugh-out-loud hilarious and irreverent animal stories in which the animals behave badly, but the joke is on us.

The collection begins with fables that take aim at obsequiousness, gossiping, narcissism, and political correctness. However, some of his best fables – The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat, The Judicious Brown Chicken, The Crow and the Lamb – take aim at contemporary and perennial spiritual crises. Why do bad things happen to good people? How do we account for suffering? What is the relationship between things of the spirit and things of this world?

My two favorite fables were the darkly funny “The Faithful Setter” and the entirely absurd “The Grieving Owl.” If you have a dark sense of humor and want to howl with laughter, this book is for you.

19) The Great Night – by Chris Adrian (290 pages)
A few years ago I read Adrian’s short story, “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death,” in McSweeney’s. I’d never read a short like it and it took my breath away. Another short story of his, “The Black Square,” was almost as good. I had never encountered an author with a voice like Adrian’s.

The Great Night, released in late April, 2011, is the third novel I’ve read by Chris Adrian. It was my least favorite of his three novels. The Great Night is a creative, modern retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Adrian sets his action inside of a park in San Francisco in which Titania, Oberon, and Puck conjure up the full magical spectacle of the Great Night. Trapped in the park are three brokenhearted souls: Henry, an obsessive-compulsive doctor who experienced childhood trauma and who was dumped by his boyfriend; Will, an arborist grieving the loss of his brother who recently split from his wife; and Molly, a drop-out from the Unitarian Universalist Starr King School for the Ministry who struggles to live in the aftermath of a boyfriend who took his own life. Also trapped inside the park are a handful of homeless individuals rehearsing a musical adaptation of the movie Soylent Green that they plan to stage as a protest against the city of San Francisco.

With The Great Night Adrian gives us a dark reimagining of the Bard’s classic comedy. Sure, this book is funny at times, but the humor is dark. In San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, Adrian conjures up a world in which the dark, magical realism that is a hallmark of his writing is on full display. Supernatural beings intervene in human affairs; dreams and trances abound; the spirit world intersects with the earthly realm; memories haunt; magic is afoot. The Great Night has all of the special effects of his earlier novels but it is missing the heart.

By the way, Adrian’s biography is worth repeating. He is the author of 3 novels and a collection of short stories. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2010 he was named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40. He is a medical doctor and a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology at a hospital in San Francisco. He has studied at Harvard Divinity School and at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Does he ever sleep?

18) Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America - by Chris Hedges (176 pages)
This is the fifth book by Hedges that I've read. I go back and forth in my thinking about Hedges' writing. Sometimes I find him prophetic and powerful. At other times I find him to be preachy and miserable and given to gross oversatements.

Published in 2005, Losing Moses is like a non-fiction, book version of Krzysztof Kieslowski's film The Decalogue. For each of the ten commandments, Kieslowski creates a one hour short film exploring the meaning of the commandment. In Losing Moses, Hedges finds a story from contemporary American culture that explores the deeper significance of each of the commandments. Some of Hedges' stories are powerful; the story of competing Chess stores in New York is fascinating. Other stories, such as the one about a young music fan devoted to the band Phish, come across as preachy and heavy-handed.

17) The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel - by David Foster Wallace (551 pages)
After David Foster Wallace killed himself in the fall of 2008, rumors began to circulate about an unfinished novel that his estate was planning to posthumously publish. I’ve read just about everything David Foster Wallace has written. I’ve read both his novels, including the epic 1,000+ page Infinite Jest. I’ve read his three volumes of collected short stories. I’ve read both his essay collections, among the most amazing works of writing I’ve ever read. I read his famous Kenyon College commencement speech about a dozen times before it was published as a short book. I’ve even read (with very little understanding) his book on the mathematics of infinity. And, I’ve read a transcript of an interview he gave over several days to David Lipsky. I have not yet read the book he co-wrote on structural linguistics and rap music. (It seems like it can’t be found on Amazon for less than $50.) And, I’ve also not yet read his Amherst College undergraduate thesis in philosophy (on free will) though I did read his first novel which emerged from his undergraduate thesis in creative writing.

The Pale King is haunting to read. It is simply haunting to read the living and distinctive prose of an author who died tragically and too young. And, The Pale King is doubly haunting because what you’re reading is not a finished work, but a work in progress. His editor, Michael Pietsch, provides an amazing forward in which he describes how he ushered the book into form. He also provides a brief appendix where he provides many of David Foster Wallace’s notes in which he makes hints about the trajectory of the novel. (David Foster Wallace had wrestled with this novel for eight years; there is a weightiness to it all.)

The Pale King centers around the experiences of a bunch of IRS employees living in Peoria, Illinois. It is a disjointed novel. It is without anything resembling an over-arching narrative and many of the characters’ identities are concealed. We flashback to childhoods or formative events but we often don’t know who is being described. The Pale King focuses on two central themes in David Foster Wallace’s thought. The preeminent theme is the idea of boredom and attention; this is also the theme of his published commencement speech. A second theme is loosely related to his worries about free will. To what degree are we all just a part of the machine? Like any piece of David Foster Wallace’s writing, The Pale King is frequently arduous. Paragraphs, if not sentences, go on for pages. The details of examining a tax form might take up an entire chapter. In David Foster Wallace’s writing, there is not fun without a lot of work.

It was interesting that I could read a book about boredom, a book about IRS examiners in Illinois, with as much emotion as I did. In the past month I’ve officiated at three funerals and I definitely think I projected some of my own emotion onto the text. I think all of his dearest fans will project emotion onto the text. For a multitude of reasons, the book is without answers, without closure, without any kind of a satisfying finality. That truth is both fitting and tragic.

16) Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle - by Pamela Eisenbaum (258 pages)
I am currently teaching an adult religious education class at the church on "Reading Paul as Unitarian Universalists." I'm teaching this class, in part, because I wanted to force myself to read Eisenbaum's book on Pauline interpretation. The book was a gift from a former parishioner.

In this book, Eisenbaum, a Jewish professor at a Christian seminary, gives an overview of contemporary Pauline scholarship and adds her own unique interpretation of Paul. She argues for a radically and completely Jewish Paul who follows his calling to be an "apostle to the Gentiles" in order to help speed along the world to come that is a part of his Jewish eschatological theology.

Eisenbaum's book is helpful in pointing out some of the ways in which many in the monotheistic world continue to accept the theological categories of Augustine and Luther. Her reading of how Paul theologizes faith, law, and works is nuanced and, for the most part, convincing. Her book is proving very useful as I lead a group of some 25 Unitarian Universalists in exploring the Pauline espistles.

15) Unfamiliar Fishes - by Sarah Vowell (233 pages)
Unfamiliar Fishes is Sarah Vowell’s sixth book and I’ve read them all. In this book written in her distinctive style – part history, part travel-memoir, part cultural commentary – Vowell explores the history of the Hawaiian Islands from the time they were settled by New England Calvinist missionaries in the early nineteenth century up until their annexation by the United States in 1898. (Vowell is the type of personality that can travel to Hawaii and be perfectly content to spend the entire day in the fluorescent recesses of a research library, poring over the journals and letters of missionaries from two centuries ago. )

In some ways this book disappointed. Many of the historical characters she mentions are just not developed with much depth. Some of her contemporary digressions come across as forced. In other ways, the book excelled. I particularly enjoyed her insights about monarchy (she laments that one of the sad things about the Hawaiian annexation is the Hawaiians never had the opportunity to overthrow their own monarchs), as well as her description of the cultural clashes between morally uptight missionaries and pleasure-seeking sailors and whalers.

It was Vowell’s account of the debate about the annexation of the Hawaii that was most chilling. One of the leading voices pushing for the spree of US imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, in which the United States would seize not only Hawaii but also Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, argued that there was no contradiction inherent in democratic imperialism. He argued that the United States has always disenfranchised its voters and that it never asked Native Americans for permission. Similarly, Alaska and the Louisiana territory were purchased without consulting the people who lived there. So, what’s the big deal about claiming Hawaii or Puerto Rico? Chilling…

All in all, it was a pretty fascinating read about a part of United States history that is rarely told.

14) Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived - by Rob Bell (205 pages)
The release of Bell’s Love Wins attracted a tremendous amount of media attention, including appearances on Good Morning America and numerous television news programs. Much of this attention was due to Bell’s critics who accused him of being a heretic and a universalist. UUA President Peter Morales used this opportunity to pen a piece on Universalism for the Huffington Post. I preached on Bell’s book on March 27, 2011.

Love Wins is a short book written in his conversational preaching style. In fact, much of the book is not written in paragraphs, but rather broken lines that indicate the cadence with which he speaks. Each chapter is like a long sermon.

Last week I had lunch with a distinguished minister in a liberal-leaning Mainline Christian congregation. He told me he had read parts of it and that the book bothered him. He listed his complaints: there are no notes, citations, or references to theologians. It is like Bell ignored the entire history of Christian thought. Bell’s theology is essentially the same as Harry Emerson Fosdick’s from sixty years ago.

Indeed, in Love Wins Rob Bell gives us a theology that largely makes no reference to history or to outside influences. It is almost entirely self-contained Biblical theology. The most notable place where he employs the historical-critical method is in a survey of the uses of the word “Hell” in the Bible, where he provides definitions of what was actually meant by Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna. When the New Testament speaks of Hell, it almost always uses the word “Gehenna,” a proper noun that refers to an actual, physical location. Gehenna is the location of the trash dump outside of Jerusalem, a place where trash was allowed to burn freely which produced an odious sulfur smell, and where feral dogs gnashed their teeth while squabbling over scraps.

Love Wins probably wouldn’t be that interesting of a book to most Unitarian Universalists. Bell’s epistemological assumptions about the Bible are not ours. I am glad for his theology: it is kind and humane and leads to acts of goodness. Christianity is better for people like Rob Bell. It will be interesting to see the direction in which his theology goes next.

13) The Instructions - by Adam Levin (1,031 pages)
Click here to read my review of The Instructions.

12) Half a Life – by Darin Strauss (200 pages)
This brief memoir is written in a style that is almost minimalist, but its content is so deep and piercing that it will have you thinking for weeks. Darin Strauss began writing Half a Life when he was 36. His memoir concerns living in the aftermath of having accidentally killed a classmate in a freak auto accident when he was 18. This memoir has to do with how our brains process memory and trauma, with how to live with guilt and responsibility. (Published by McSweeney’s.)

11) The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love, and Act the Way You Do – by John M. Oldham (421 pages)
At last November’s church auction, Anne and I purchased spots at an event called “Dinner with Two Psychologists.” Ten SMUUCh members read this book and then joined together for a fine evening of BBQ and parlor games designed to help us to make educated guesses at each other’s personality self-portraits. (Anne, by the way, was the most successful guesser and walked away with a sweet gift certificate.)

The NPSP describes fourteen personality types that corresponded to the fourteen personality disorders contained in the DSM-III. Subsequent editions of the DSM have removed three of the original fourteen personality disorders. A personality disorder, the authors suggest, is having far too much of one personality type and lacking the flexibility to alter or diminish the style you lead with as the situation dictates. So, for example, having an overabundance of a dramatic style may result in having a histrionic personality disorder just as having too much of the devoted style may lead to having a dependent personality disorder. Or something like that.

The NPSP begins with a test that allows you to map your own style and then read at length about the qualities of your own and other people’s styles. This book isn’t the most thrilling read – the parlor games were better than the prose – but I found it to be immensely insightful and useful.

10) Big Sur - by Jack Kerouac (241 pages)
This is actually the first thing I've ever read by Kerouac. I spent all last week at the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey Peninsua in California. Big Sur was just a few miles down the road. In order to put myself in the "spirit" of the place I decided to go on the road with Kerouac's fictionalized account of his time at Big Sur, a book that would turn out to be one of last novels.

After publishing On The Road in the mid-50s, Kerouac became a bit of a celebrity. In Big Sur, his friends become concerned about his alcoholism and send him down to recuperate in a cabin on the Monterey Peninsula. There, Kerouac goes through the Delirium Tremens and a nervous breakdown that he documents in perfect beat prose. The novel ends with a long poem about the psychedelic sounds of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the rocks and beach at night. My experience close to Big Sur was considerably different.

9) Arkansas - by John Brandon (224 pages)
Last December I read John Brandon's second novel, Citrus County, and loved it. I've also enjoyed several short stories by Brandon that have appeared in McSweeney's, including a great short story called "The Occurrences" that appeared in McSweeney's 36.

Though I've loved everything by John Brandon up until this point, I was disappointed by Arkansas, his debut novel. Arkansas follows the lives of two low-level drug runners posing as associate park rangers at a state park. When disaster befalls their supervisor, they're left to figure out how they fit in the larger underground world of the drug trade in the American South. I didn't find this at all compelling.

Brandon is one of the most promising revivalists of the contemporary Southern Gothic style. While his first effort was disappointing, his subsequent writings give me great hope for his future works.

8)Moments of a Springtime: Pieces for Reflection - by Rudolph Nemser (36 pages)
Moments of a Springtime was the UUA meditation manual for 1967. [I'm currently behind on my project of blogging my way through the meditation manuals, but I will post a link to the review here when it is up.]

7) Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White - by Tim Wise (166 pages)
Tim Wise shares this story: Some years ago, it was suggested that a predominantly white high school in Northern California that sent a lot of its graduates to competitive colleges change its name to Martin Luther King high school to honor King’s memory. White parents objected. They argued that such a name might put students at a disadvantage in applying to colleges as the colleges might assume that the students were coming from an underprivileged school system that had inadequately prepared them for achievement in higher education. This objection tells you everything you need to know to reject arguments about affirmative action causing “reverse discrimination.”

The problem with Tim Wise’s book, Affirmative Action, is that it is too lacking in anecdotes. Much of what makes Wise a compelling thinker about race and privilege is his skillful rhetoric. (In his speaking appearances he often asks the audience to imagine the HR department at a large corporation. He asks us to imagine hiring teams sitting around and saying, “Wow, what a day! We had three Jamal’s and two LaShonda’s apply.”)

Affirmative Action is lacking in anecdotes but it is heavy in statistics. The book, a part of a series of position pieces on issues in higher education, was written in the aftermath of legal challenges to affirmative action policies in several states, most notably at the University of Michigan. The statistics, frankly, do not make for the most compelling reading. However, there is a large section on standardized testing that is fairly interesting.

I read this book knowing I would agree with Tim Wise’s analysis. He properly places Affirmative Action programs within a larger history and context of systematic “affirmative action” for the benefit and privilege of white folks.

6) Walking to Martha's Vineyard - by Franz Wright (72 pages)
The thing is, you can’t walk to Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is an island. The title, I think, implies something about the poems themselves. The poems in this 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning collection are short and don’t employ a challenging vocabulary or make obscure literary allusions. But, Franz Wright’s poems are a bit impossible. They challenge the reader to make sense of them; their meaning is not readily apparent. For me, Wright’s poetry occupies that perfect middle-ground, somewhere between the torturously opaque and the obviously translucent.

There is also an undeniable darkness that runs through many of Wright’s poems. Many of his poems contain a line or two that seems deliberately provocative. The titular poem contains the naked, uncomfortable line, “If they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it would have been an act of mercy.” The line just sits there, challenging the rest of the poem.

That he does this, that the poet adds these horrible little utterances, may have something to do with the author’s life. (Allow me this bit of conjecture.) The dust jacket tells us that the poet works at a mental health center in Waltham, Massachusetts, as well as for an organization called “the Center for Grieving Children.” This bit of biographical information changed the way I read several of his poems, such as “Antipsychotic” and, especially, “Study in Acid & Green”:
On Broadway
blonde high-heeled skinny
kindersluts smoking and giggling
in terror

The dark side of the

And the way certain places
on earth amount
to forgetting
the future,
and heaven’s

Then the I died (for laughter and beauty)

One of my favorite poems from this collection has been “5:00 Mass,” which has been a gift to me all through this snowy week. “The church is a ship in the brightening snowstorm; shafts of light falling in through blue windows.” The other poem that stands out is the gorgeous Walden in which the poet’s hope seems restored by the power of nature. “There is a power that wants me to live.” “There is a power that wants me to love.” Indeed.

5) McSweeney's 36 (564 pages)
Every issue of McSweeney's is a creative masterpiece, but the concept behind issue 36 has to be one of the most creative yet. This issue comes in the form of pamphlets contained inside of a cubic box (6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 inches) painted to depict a grotesque human head. The theme deals with looking at all the random things a person might have bouncing around inside of his skull.

Inside this head we find some weird and wacky contents: fish postcards, over three feet of offbeat fortune cookie fortunes, and a bizarre tale about a "noble savage" roaming Paris in the early twentieth century.

The highlights of this issue include two short stories, one by John Brandon and the other by Ricardo Nuila, that are among the finest short stories that McSweeny's has published. My favorite part of this issue was the inclusion of Wajahat Ali's play "The Domestic Crusaders" about a Pakistani family living in the United States. This hilarious, troubling, and touching play features incredible dialogue and a gripping, startling climax.

It was a bit disappointing to discover that this issue contained several previews of future McSweeney's publications. I skipped reading a 40-page excerpt of Adam Levin's debut novel, the 1,000+ page The Instructions. I did read a portion of the forthcoming sixth release in the Voices of Witness series. This release will collect oral histories from the victims of Burma's repressive government. I was touched to read the testimony of Ma Su Mon, a young woman who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 11 months for participating in the pro-democracy work led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held as a political prisoner in Burma for most of the past two decades.

4) Across the Abyss to God: A Book of Personal Affirmation - by Walter Donald Kring (41 pages)
Across the Abyss to God was the UUA meditation manual for 1966. [I'm currently behind on my project of blogging my way through the meditation manuals, but I will post a link to the review here when it is up.]

3) The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands - by Margaret Regan (248 pages)
The Death of Josseline is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Common Read” book for this church year. Next week (January 24-28) members of the book club at the Shawnee Mission UU Church will host four discussion sessions on this book.

In this book, journalist Margaret Regan condenses decades of her experiences writing about immigration on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border. Though short, her book is broad. She examines immigration through the lens of the history of American economic and military policies in Central America, from the perspective of secular and faith-based human rights activists, and from the vantage point of ranchers, law enforcement agencies, environmentalists, Native Americans, and migrants themselves.

The title of this book refers to one particular death out of thousands of deaths in the Arizona after a policy of strict enforcement in urban areas pushed would-be crossers further and further into the dangerous desert. Throughout the book, bodies appear at regular intervals reminding the reader of the human toll of government policies. I found the penultimate chapter, detailing the arrest and deportation of eleven migrants working at a Tucson Panda Express to be as shocking, if not more so. Regan tends towards anecdotes, but those anecdotes show the human face of a broken immigration system. In this tale of the Tucson raid, I think we find the clearest proof that our immigration system is just another iteration of the criminalization of the poor.

Especially given the events of last summer in Phoenix, it is clear that Arizona is “ground zero” (a term I hate) for the struggle over immigration in our country. It is important, however, to remember that this drama is being lived in every state, city, and town in this country. Learn about Arizona, but then learn about where you live.

2) The Sound of Silence: A Book of Meditations - by Raymond John Baughan (41 pages)
The Sound of Silence was the UUA meditation manual for 1965. [I'm currently behind on my project of blogging my way through the meditation manuals, but I will post a link to the review here when it is up.]

1) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - by Stieg Larrson (563 pages)
I read the first two volumes of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy in the fall of 2010. I don't tend to read a lot of thrillers and the series gets more and more far-fetched at every turn, but for some reason I couldn't put any of these three books down. Like the second book, Hornet's Nest was not as good as the first book in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, the third book in the series reads like a long resolution of all the threads left dangling in the second book. Additionally, Hornet's Nest was astonishingly devoid of plot twists and turns. But, it was still a guilty pleasure.

Interesting note: The hardcover version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest puts the apostrophe between the "t" and the "s" whereas the paperback version puts the apostrophe after the "s". Go figure.

Total Pages: 11,993