Friday, September 30, 2011

Sermon: "Overcoming the Denial of Death" (Delivered 9-25-11)

From The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Often psychotherapy seems to promise the moon: a more constant joy, delight, celebration of life, perfect love, and perfect freedom. It seems these things are easy to come by, once self-knowledge is achieved, that they are things that should characterize one’s whole waking awareness… [But] only angels know unrelieved joy – or are able to stand it… I’ve never seen or heard [anyone] communicate the dangers of the total liberation that they claim to offer, say, to put up a small sign next to the one advertising joy, carrying some inscription like “Danger: real possibility of the awakening of terror and dread…”

Camus said, “The weight of days is dreadful.” What does it mean, then,… to talk fine-sounding phrases like “Being cognition,” “the fully-centered person,” “full humanism,” “the joy of peak experiences,” or whatever, unless we qualify such ideas with the burden and the dread that they also carry?... What joy or comfort can [be given] to fully awakened people?

What is the ‘best’ illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness?... I think the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity, and hope a given illusion provides.”

Sometimes, despite a mortal minister’s best efforts, a sermon does wind up sounding an awful lot like a book report. There is just no way to say what I want to say without starting out with a bit of a book report. It won’t stay a book report, but it will start out that way.

One of the books I read this past month was a book that was highly recommended to me by a wise religious leader who I have a lot of respect for. The book is called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. It was a book that made an impact when it was published. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. And, it is a book that is still somewhat influential today. A few years ago, Bill Clinton included it on his list of favorite books. Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but there is no denying that he is among our most well-read presidents.

Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist by training, but his field of study also included psychology, philosophy, theology and the humanities. In The Denial of Death he draws from the theories of Sigmund Freud as well as the work of several disciples of Freud, such as Otto Rank and Erich Fromm, who carried the psychoanalytic project forward. Becker also draws from the theology of Soren Kierkegaard as well as from Albert Camus and other existentialist thinkers. This is to say that it is a weighty, meaty, challenging book.

Becker’s book argues the following: He says that civilization, religion, and culture have been engineered to help us to avoid or to deny the reality of death. Becker says that our psychological formation is not centered on the repression of sexuality, as Freud theorized, but on the repression of the awareness of death.

The problem we face in modern times, Becker argued almost forty years ago, is that the old religious myths about death are no longer fulfilling. The teachings about heaven, the immortality of the soul, the second coming, and the resurrection of the dead don’t satisfy as they once did. Similarly, the old cultural approaches to life are no longer fulfilling. Becker writes that in previous times the vast majority of people could be handed a script for life: here is your job, your culture, your role, your duties. Don’t question any of it. Just do it.

Now that the old religious ideals are less powerful and now that culture is no longer as prescriptive, we’re faced with a much more individualistic challenge. Because death is too scary to face, we have to develop what he calls our own immortality project, or, what we might call our own hero project. The challenge is to find a hero project that is good. Becker writes,
What is the "best" illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness?... I think the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity, and hope a given illusion provides.
The danger, of course, is that it is possible to choose an immortality project that proves destructive. On the large scale, imperial designs, making war, and the amassing of grotesque sums of wealth all have at their root the conviction that these projects will lead to a kind immortality. But other heroic projects are really worth embracing. Becker writes,
The two… motives of human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one’s whole existence to some higher meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality.
What Becker is saying is that death is too terrifying to face directly. In the face of the terror and dread, it becomes necessary to create a project of heroism worthy of the gift of our lives.

I might say just two more things. First, at just about the time that The Denial of Death was published, Ernest Becker was diagnosed with an aggressive and painful form of cancer. Just after his book was published, Becker was forced to put his own ideas to the test in the face of death. Sam Keen, then a young writer working at Psychology Today, interviewed Ernest Becker on his deathbed. Keen described him as embodying a kind of courageous heroism and called him a wise physician of the soul. I think that it is really quite admirable that he practiced what he preached.

The other thing I might say is that nearly forty years after his death, there is an organization in the Pacific Northwest that is dedicated to continuing the project of his thought. The Ernest Becker Foundation brings together doctors, psychologists, social scientists, religious leaders, and scholars of the humanities to think together about everything from physician-assisted dying to how the denial of death at the cultural level impacts public policy. For example, the Foundation’s fall conference this year will be on the relationship of the denial of death and climate change denial. But anyways, I mention this foundation because I think its mission statement is a spectacular synopsis of Becker's thought:
The Ernest Becker Foundation seeks to illuminate how the unconscious denial of mortality profoundly influences human behavior, giving rise to acts of hate and violence as well as noble, altruistic striving.
I’m not here to convince you of the rightness of Becker, but I do think that his thoughts are interesting. I don’t know if he is right, but I do know that it is common for us to face the existential reality of death with fear and trembling, with horror and dread, with a troubling sense of anxiety. Does the idea of death cause you to experience panic and anxiety? Is it something you go out of your way to deny and avoid? And, if you avoid it, what do you turn to in order to help you avoid it?

I have had some experience with people who are dying, with people who are close to their own deaths. And, I’ve always puzzled over something. I’ve known deeply faithful Christians who have faced death with poise and courage. And, I’ve known deeply faithful Christians with a deep faith who have faced death with panic and existential fear. I’ve known atheists and humanists who have faced death with courage and confidence. And, I’ve known atheists and humanists who have faced death with dread.

What my experience suggests is that even though questions about the meaning of death are theological in nature, how we respond to the knowledge of our mortality is not purely a matter of theology and belief. I’d like to think that theology is a part of it, maybe even a significant part, but I think there are other factors. Those other factors probably include personality style, affect, disposition, and overall psychological well-being. Our relationships and connections probably have a lot to do with it. Our own life story certainly is influential. And, I would also say that another factor would be the illusions by which we live and the hero projects we have taken upon ourselves.

In the time that is remaining to us, I’d like to share two views about death that I find helpful, or maybe even promising.

It would seem to me that one possible answer to the question of death’s meaning would be a kind of radically honest naturalism. And, if that naturalism is honest enough, I’m not sure that one could call it an illusion. What do I mean by radically honest naturalism? Let me say what I mean using the words of a folky song by the group Poi Dog Pondering,
A lifetime of accomplishments of which the dirt knows none,
only in death can one truly return
Return the carrots, the apples and potatoes,
The chickens, the cows, the fish and tomatoes.
In one glorious swoop, let the deed be done
and bury me deep so that I can be one […]
The song continues
For the dirt is a blanket, no fiery tomb,
No punishment, reward, or pearly white room
And you who say that in death we will pay,
The dead they can't hear a word that you say.
Your words are not kind, sober, or giving,
They only put fear in the hearts of the living.
These words are at once stark and direct, unembellished and unadorned. There is a plainness to them that is both radically honest and, to me at least, somewhat calming and soothing. It is an image that I find utterly absent of terror and dread.

For those of you who might find such radically honest naturalism unsatisfying, I might recommend Forrest Church’s book, Love and Death, which essentially is a Unitarian Universalist minister authoring his own hero project.

In October of 2006 at the age of 58, Forrest Church, the minister of All Souls Church in New York City, was diagnosed with a particularly difficult to treat form of Esophageal Cancer. As he was battling it, he wrote a book about his pastoral theology of death. The cancer went into remission but then returned a few short years later and proved terminal. In a pastoral letter to his congregation announcing his diagnosis he wrote these heroic lines,
I can also happily report that the theology I have hammered out in your good company – religion as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, and the purpose of life being to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for – offers the same comfort to me during my own time of trial that I pray it has given you in yours. As for my mantra – want what you have, do what you can, and be who you are – I practice it every day, feeling myself blessed beyond measure.
Here is how Forrest Church responded to receiving a diagnosis of cancer on a Friday afternoon with the doctor telling him he probably had just months to live,
In retrospect, the most staggering thing about my reaction is that I cut straight through to acceptance. I embraced the diagnosis at its grimmest and began girding myself to die. No disbelief. No anger. No bargaining. In fact, if anything, I walked about in a pink cloud, feeling my death, getting used to it, finding my sea legs in what turned out to be remarkably gentle waters.
I couldn’t wander too far into myself, for I had an immediate task at hand: the sermon. I changed my topic, as I always do when the world turns in a different direction than I had been intending to go.

This is striking, isn’t it? He gets a call, telling him he has only months to live. He responds, “Now, let me go rewrite my sermon.” And he thinks, “My diagnosis will be a great story to put in the sermon. Talk about a hero project! There is something inspiring about that willingness to stand in the full presence of death, moved by not shaken.

Doubtlessly there is other good counsel I might offer, but this morning let me reiterate the good counsel offered by Becker and Church: Find your own hero project, a project that creates more freedom, dignity, and hope for more of the world’s people. Embrace that hero project, knowing that the purpose of life, as Forrest Church said, is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. And know also what Forrest Church said, “the one thing that can never be taken away from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sermon: "Living After Trauma" (Delivered 9-11-11)

Call to Worship
Come into this place if your heart is full of love; come into this place if you have affection and gentle kindness to share with those around you.

Come into this place if your laughter and smile can soften the hardness of another’s pain.

Come into this place if your faith is strong, if you feel called to service on behalf of all humanity and of this planet.

Come into this place if you are moved by beauty; come into this place and give attention to what is beautiful.

Come into this place if you are hurting, if loss and pain weigh heavily on you. Come into this place and allow yourself to be held.

Come into this place if you feel hardened against the world. Come into this place and begin to discover an inward stillness, begin to loosen the bands securing the armor you wear.

Come into this place if you feel adrift, if you search for purpose, if you are not sure how you can make a difference. Come into this place of discernment, seeking, and learning.

Come, let us worship together.

from Proverbs of Ashes by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock
Many years later, Rita and I reflected on [the many stories of profound trauma we had witnessed]. We talked about the power of presence to heal some of the effects of violence. Reliable intimate relationships can help people survive profound violence, terror and despair and enable them to live beyond their own personal pain. As Judith Herman notes in Trauma and Recovery, “Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community. Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, or worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection to others.” Restored, people return to ordinary life and expand their concern to others-not as self-sacrifice but as self-possession. Present to themselves and to the reality of others, they do not live in denial of violence but in remembrance of presence. They have embraced a greater knowledge of the world, of evil. When we come into such presence of ourselves we are able to take responsibility for our actions and lives, in all their ambiguity. And in that process of taking responsibility, we turn the corner toward the practice of loving, the practice of transforming the world.

I grew up in the small, safe town of Wayland, Massachusetts. The shelter of the town was evidenced by a game we played as children. My friends and I would read aloud items from the police report in the weekly town newspaper and then add the words, “And that’s the boring town where we live.” Our favorite went something like this: “On Thursday afternoon a Wayland resident reported that a turtle was crossing the street along Old Connecticut Path. Police were unsuccessful in locating the turtle.” And that’s the boring town where I lived.

Each year on the Sunday after Labor Day, at Wayland’s Unitarian Universalist First Parish, we sang, “May nothing evil cross this door, and may ill fortune never pry about these windows, may the roar and rain go by.” The sheltering walls of my childhood did not feel thin. Hate was kept out. Love was kept in.

This past summer there was a murder in my hometown of Wayland, the town’s first murder in a quarter-century. The victim was a young woman with her whole life in front of her. She had just graduated from high school and was preparing to leave town to attend a fantastic college. The suspect charged with the murder is a young man who had his whole life in front of him. He had just graduated from high school and was preparing to leave town to attend a fantastic college.

In the midst of a family’s trauma, a school’s trauma, a town’s trauma, something remarkable happened. The father of the girl who was murdered is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wayland. With my parents he attends a peacemaking group at the church. Somehow, in the midst of his unimaginable and horrific loss, this man has made himself the voice of profound compassion.

His reaction has been so profound and powerful that it was the subject of an editorial in the Boston Globe.
In the aftermath of his profound loss, he has shown something else almost unimaginable in these circumstances: compassion… Victims can set the tone for how a town deals with tragedy… [His] apparent concern for the suspect’s family and - yes - even the suspect himself creates an atmosphere of unification rather than inciting fear and revenge.
In the face of such a horrific loss, I think we could imagine understanding just about any type of response. Totalizing depression, paralyzing grief, utter seclusion, even all-consuming anger. We can even understand responses that we would not condone. If this man announced that he was determined to avenge his daughter’s death, we’d understand it, even though we wouldn’t condone it. If anything, the hardest response to understand is this man’s gentle and compassionate response.

I cannot imagine what this girl’s father is going through. I can’t imagine myself in his shoes. And, I cannot pretend to know how I would fare if, God forbid, I should ever find myself facing a similar trauma. I’d like to believe that I would be a force for healing and compassion and reconciliation, but I don’t know.


The subject of this morning’s sermon is trauma. It is a subject that I’ve selected due to the obvious significance of this day. I want to tell you from the outset that while I want to contemplate the religious and theological significance to trauma, I want to be very careful not to dress trauma up in pretty clothes or fail to take it seriously. My thinking about trauma tends to approximate my thinking about a similar word, crisis.

For at least the last fifty years, motivational speakers and authors in the field of spirituality have repeated a saying. They’ve said that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” is a combination of two other Chinese characters, the Chinese character for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.” They’ve said that we will have success or peace or enlightenment if we only treat moments of pain as opportunities for learning and growth. However, this saying is based on bad translation. According to leading Sinologists, the character for crisis does not mean danger and opportunity. It actually just means danger or, to be more precise, “a time of danger.”

It is perverse to suggest to a person that has experienced a trauma that the experience is an opportunity for growth. It is heartless to tell victims and survivors that this is an opportunity for learning. And, and, and, there are countless examples of people who’ve bravely lived through trauma or crisis or suffering who do say that they learned something from the ordeal, who can say that they grew as a result. But, let’s not deny for a second that nobody goes out in search of trauma, that the pain and suffering are most real.

We gather this morning on the ten year anniversary of a day deeply traumatic to the psyche of our nation. But, we also know that trauma can take many forms. Trauma can come in the form an act of violence against us from someone close to us, from a stranger, or from a terrorizing other. We can experience it when we ourselves or when the members of the larger community are the victims. Trauma can also come as the result of an accident or an act of nature, a tornado or hurricane, a flood or earthquake. An illness or disease can be traumatic as well. With the diagnosis or the symptoms of disease come an unsettling of our lives, a deep disruption of our days, and an awareness of our mortality. Or, trauma can come in the form of so many different kinds of loss.

Poise, grace, and strength in the face of trauma are all the more remarkable when we consider that some sorts of trauma can be exploited. There is a side to trauma that is filled with immense danger. Social scientists have developed a term, “collective trauma,” to describe traumatic events are shared across a society.

In the build-up to the horrific war in the Balkans in the nineties, Serbian leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic told and retold, again and again, the story of an historic battle that had taken place 600 years earlier, in 1389, in which an army of the Ottoman Empire had conquered a Serbian stronghold. The rhetoric was one of victimization, of humiliation, of having suffered to such an extent that they were justified in taking any step to avoid future suffering. This powerful propaganda evoked a sense of collective trauma that would later be used to justify acts of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity. They were told that they were justified in doing anything to avoid suffering another humiliation.

In Germany, following World War I, the Nazi party came to power through emphasizing the traumatic humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. We must defend ourselves. We must never again be victims. The rhetoric of collective trauma was used to summon support for fascism.

Following September 11, this same sense of collective trauma was evoked as justification and sanction for the suppression of civil rights, the violation of human rights, and every subsequent act of violence. Images of suffering, death, and destruction – the collective trauma of the memory of that day – could be conjured up to justify whatever needed justification.

Listen again to what Rebecca Parker writes, “Traumatic events can destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and a sense of larger community.” Trauma can sever our awareness of connectedness. It can create a sense of smallness and separation. But, Parker writes, “Restored, people return to ordinary life and expand their concern to others – not as self-sacrifice but as self-possession. Present to themselves and to the reality of others, they do not live in denial of violence but in remembrance of presence.”

She tells us that both the healthiest response to trauma and the path towards own healing is found in relationship, connection, and all that reminds us of the bonds we share with others. The unhealthy response to trauma, the response that perpetuates harm, will be one that divides and excludes, that severs relationship and denies connection.

If there was a lesson I would lift up from the September 11 memorials and retrospectives from the previous days and weeks, it is that the September 11 heroes that are memorialized for giving their lives in the effort to save lives come from extremely different walks of life. They were of different classes and races and ethnicities. The leaders of the passenger uprising aboard United Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, included a conservative Christian man from New Jersey and a gay man from San Francisco. The victims from that day also included Salman Hamdani, a Pakistani-American from New York City who was an EMT and a police cadet. Hamdani died during the collapse of the towers; he had gone to the scene to attempt to save lives. In the days after September 11, his family received no condolences. Rather, they were interrogated. The tabloid press published fabricated reports, saying that he had gone into hiding with a terrorist cell or that he was being held in a secret detention center by the US government. The remains of Hamdani the hero were in fact discovered six months later amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center. [Hamdani’s story is included in the recently published oral history collection Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice.]

If Parker is right, if the way towards healing and wholeness comes through connection, then we would also count as heroes all those who in their living help to demonstrate and build the connections between people, all those who speak of the interconnectedness of all humans, all those who continued to invoke the network of mutuality to which we belong.

A colleague of mine speaking on the topic of forgiveness once said, “You are not only the worst thing you’ve ever done. And, you are not only the best thing you’ve ever done.” Today, we might also say, “You are not only the worst thing that has ever happened to you. And, you are also not only the best thing that has ever happened to you.” Our mistakes and our triumphs, the pain we suffer and the good fortune we enjoy, these are all a part of us. They’ll forever be a part of us. But they don’t completely define us.

Trauma is a part of life. We will all face it, though to different degrees of severity. The danger of living after trauma is an always present danger. It is the danger that we will separate ourselves, harden our hearts, severing and denying the relationships and connections that make us fully human. The opportunity is always there as well, not only in times of crisis but all the time. It is the chance to recognize the immediacy and the expansiveness of our connections. So may it be.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sermon: "Some Assembly Required" (Delivered 9-4-11)

On the one hand, my words this morning may seem a little presumptuous, a little like putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse. On the other hand, what I’m going to talk about – our potential move to a new location – is what many of us are thinking about. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. I beg your indulgence as I put the elephant before the horse.

If next week’s vote is to go ahead with the purchase of the Bonjour School, it will not yet be time to celebrate. There will still be the need to secure financing, to do all of the necessary due diligence. If it is the will of this congregation, then the closing date will be the day to celebrate. Or maybe it will be the date of our first service. Or maybe it will be the building dedication ceremony. Actually, all of these will be celebrations. If it is the will of this congregation. And, if all of the other inspections and negotiations work out.

But, this morning, on this Sunday before Labor Day, I do want to put the elephant before the horse. I thought I wanted to speak to you about vision. Now, let me tell you, I am a vision type of person. I am a dreamer. I am an imagination type of person. And, I could speak to you about vision. A vision of programming. A vision of being able to have dedicated space for social action non-profits with which we partner. A vision of a giant community garden, or acres of tall grass prairie restoration area with walking paths, or paved parking spaces – praise Jesus – or the ability to host meaningful events to which we can invite the community, or even adequate space for the members and programs we already have. But this morning I don’t want to so much lead with a vision of the future of this congregation. I want to tell a few stories about our history.

A few weeks ago I officiated at a memorial service for a man who had been a founding member of this congregation. A few days before the service, I met with the members of his family in the living room of Saeger House. We were joined by a close friend of the man who was also a founding member. Sitting in the living room, the old timer’s eyes glanced at the passageway between the living room and the kitchen in Saeger House. He grinned. As soon as he opened his mouth I knew the story that was going to come out. It is a story that I’ve been told many times.

When our church purchased this property more than 40 years ago, Saeger House, the white farmhouse across the way, was configured very differently. There was a wall between the living room and the kitchen. One day a group of early church members were having a workday and they got to talking. They decided that it would be nice to have an opening between the living room and the kitchen. They were fairly sure that this wall wasn’t load-bearing. The next thing you know, one of them had grasped a sledge hammer. Soon the group of guys was taking turns demolishing the wall.

The farmhouse and the barn on this property were built in 1913. At that time it was a two-hundred acre dairy farm. By the 1930s and 40s, parcels of farmland was being sold off for the development and the farmers had retired on what remained of their land. In the mid-60s they sold the remnants of the farm to a Christian Church that turned around and sold it over to us shortly thereafter. The Christian congregation had done a bit of work on the place, but not a lot. They had, however, constructed a steeple on the roof of the Barn Chapel.

Early in my ministry I was shown a picture of a group of early members of this congregation. The picture shows them standing in a semi-circle, brandishing their tools. They were standing around the fallen steeple that they had torn down, smiling like hunters celebrating the killing of a large animal. Ah, Unitarians. I heard a rumor that they enjoyed tearing down the steeple so much that one of them suggested that they remount it so they could tear it down again!

The stories of those early days are remarkable. The building was disgusting, layered with trash and manure, detritus of both organic and inorganic character.

One more story. One day maybe five or six years ago I was sitting in my office. I think I was the only staff person in that day. This is before we had a paid facilities staff person. A member had driven up and parked out of view. This was normal. I bet he was someone just doing something around the building. It was the middle of the day and I was planning to go grab a bite to eat for lunch. I went downstairs, walked out the front door of Saeger House, and found that Bob N., the founder of this church, had positioned an extension ladder against Saeger House and had climbed all the way up to the height of the upper roof, where he was inspecting the guttering. At eighty years of age! I nearly fainted. There is a reason I believe in God.

Now, let me get to what I am getting at. Did you like the stories? Good stories, right? They are kind of romantic stories in a way, but only in a certain way. But, what is romantic is not the wiring, not the gutters, not the walls, not the steeple, and certainly not the animal waste caked to the floors and walls. Do you follow me? What’s romantic is the spirit of a group of people who took a funky, ramshackle property and turned it into something inhabitable.

The basic theology of the Unitarians of those days is no longer the dominant theology of today. For them, tearing down the steeple was not a facilities project. It was religious education. We’ve mellowed a little bit. We’re not as iconoclastic as we once were. I’ve heard all the stories about the early days of this congregation and back in those days, nothing, and I mean nothing was sacred.

But, the lesson that we can take away, the lesson we can learn is this: the Unitarianism of the late-60s and the Unitarian Universalism of today have something in common. These faiths tell us that some assembly is required. Some assembly is required. In other words, our faith requires some work on our own behalf. The answers don’t come pre-packaged. The loose ends are not all tied up. Ours is not a pre-fabricated religion. There is some assembly required. Am I right?

That is why we teach a class called Building Your Own Theology. This is why we don’t teach a class called Receiving Your Own Already Assembled Theology. Because nobody is going to build your theology for you. You are going to have to build it yourself. Some assembly is required. And, we would not have it any other way, am I right? None of us want to be handed a list of answers.

In the Christian theological tradition there is a term called “works righteousness.” If you ever hear the term, it is probably being used to criticize something. In traditional Protestantism, works righteousness is rejected. What “works righteousness” refers to, basically, is the mechanism through which a person becomes chosen for salvation. And, in traditional Protestantism, you are saved by faith or by grace, not by works. But, we Unitarians have always had a side of ourselves that has emphasized righteousness by works.

(As an aside, I think you can critique this. I’m not sure that works righteousness is always healthy. There are pitfalls. For example, when I visit someone who is quite ill, a person in their last days in hospice or in the nursing home, I have noticed that the angst and agony that the person feels is connected to not feeling useful. I’ve actually had people ask me, “If I can’t do what I used to be able to do, then what good am I?” It is gut-wrenching. This is something I could say a lot more about, but for now let me say that works righteousness has a shadow side. We talk about work giving us a sense of purpose, identity, and meaning. Try visiting an old school Unitarian in a nursing home and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

Works are very, very much a part of our identity as Unitarians. Just consider the reading from Vanessa Southern, the title piece from her meditation book This Piece of Eden. What is Eden? How do we create Eden? For Southern, Eden is something we plant and tend ourselves, affixing a sign to it that we've painted ourselves. Eden is something we create. That’s works righteousness, if there ever was. In the New Testament Epistle of James, there is the famous line, beloved by us Unitarian Universalists. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

When the old-timer sat with me in the Saeger House living room and told me about smashing out the walls, he was not at all possessive of this work. In fact, the opposite was true. He thought it great fun, a real community builder, a humdinger of a story. Everyone should have that experience.

Our faith is not something we are handed, completely formed. It is something that we build. Our facilities will never be handed to us completely formed. They will always be something that we build.

The sacredness of our journey is not at its beginning. It is in the community that is created along the path. Out of something neglected we can create a piece of Eden.

The work to which we will apply ourselves will not involve tearing down steeples, thankfully, or cleaning out animal stalls, thankfully. There will probably be a wall or two to tear down. It isn’t time to pick up the sledgehammers and paint brushes and shovels and rakes and implements of destruction quite yet. Tomorrow is Labor Day, after all. But soon. But soon, I hope, but soon.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Concert Review: Bon Iver at the Uptown Theater

Bon Iver’s second album, and certainly the concert tour to support it, represent something rare and daring: a complete reimagining of the sound that made his first album an extraordinary masterpiece.

The almost Thoreauvian legend behind the creation of Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, is known well by fans of alternative music. For Emma was recorded in an isolated hunting cabin in rural Wisconsin during a long, harsh winter. The album is short and Spartan; its nine songs clock in at just over thirty minutes. The delicate, stripped down songs were not much more than Justin Vernon singing in falsetto and playing an acoustic guitar. Released by an independent label in 2008, For Emma came seemingly out of nowhere and received extraordinary critical acclaim. He fronted only the essentials and produced what was considered to be an essential album.

In touring to support For Emma, Justin Vernon invited the audience to step into his cabin. His stage presence evidenced a gentle charisma and a deep humility. He passed out lyrics for the audience to sing along. His demeanor communicated a sense of, “Aw, shucks, I’m surprised you’d come to hear me play music.” His backup musicians seemed entirely superfluous at times doing little more than clapping along. Were those on stage with him his band or true fans who had come to the concert with instruments? (To see what I mean, check out this clip of Bon Iver playing “Skinny Love” on Letterman.) His music was extremely confessional. Though his lyrics were often obscure, Justin Vernon bared his heart with every note he played. Those Bon Iver shows created a sense of intimacy. Company and Society were invited to sit in a chair right next to Solitude.

With the release of his second album and his tour to support it came obvious questions. How does a musician follow up on something so raw and personal? How would the intimate feeling he created playing to one hundred fans work now that he was playing to one thousand?

Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore release declared that Justin was more than a heart-sick and liver-sick guy in a cabin. Justin keeps his (often auto-tuned) falsetto as well as his mellow style. But, Bon Iver is rich and deep. It feels emotionally expansive. Most of the songs on the second album are named after geographic locations, both real and imagined: Perth; Minnesota, WI; Michicant; Hinnon, TX; Calgary; Wash. While still a guy with deep emotions, he was no longer a recluse.

Justin Vernon took the stage last night at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City backed by an eight piece band. The stage was crowded not only with musicians, but with instruments: 3 electric guitars, electric bass, 3 keyboards, 2 drum sets, a percussion stand, bass saxophone, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, clarinet, 2 trumpets, French horn, trombone, violin, and viola.

The concert began with three songs from the new album. They opened with the beautiful “Perth” which came across as a tight soundscape with Justin’s auto-tuned falsetto soaring above it. This was followed by “Minnesota, WI,” “Towers,” and “Brackett, WI” from the Dark Was the Night compilation. The turning point in the concert came with the fifth song, “Blood Bank,” which the band turned into a hard-rocking number. This was followed up with Holocene, a song that is quickly becoming my favorite from the new album.

Next came “Flume.” At last, Bon Iver was playing a song off For Emma. The amazing thing here is how nine musicians took a delicate, sensitive song and transformed it without strangling it. The songs from the first album were almost enhanced by the full band. They enhanced the cathartic ending of “Creature Fear” with an overwhelming noise solo. The most collaborative song from the first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago” also benefitted from the support. There was also enough of a hint of the old style with the band exiting the stage, allowing Justin Vernon to play “re: Stacks” alone with just a guitar. ("re: Stacks" is my favorite Bon Iver song, not only because it is absolutely beautiful but also because it is the only song I've ever heard that makes reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls. "This my excavation and today is Qumran.")

What was most impressive to me was the way the band managed not to overwhelm the delicate quality of the songs. As I listened it was clear to me that the songs were breathing, not suffocating. I think part of this had to do with the decision to make woodwinds a part of almost every song. In particular, the bass saxophone was a daring and wonderful choice. The bass saxophone is a rare instrument. It is gigantic and visually intimidating. (I had a chuckle noticing that the lead sax player, Colin Stetson, was wearing a ripped Iron Maiden t-shirt.) But the sound is one of breath.

All throughout the show it was possible to pull out delicate sounds that were glorious to my ears. During “Wash.” the percussionist tapped out a beat on the valves of a trumpet. On a stunning, joyful cover of Bjork’s “Who Is It?” he beatboxed while Justin Vernon added finger cymbals. On the 80s inspired “Beth/Rest” the percussionist had a field day, at one point playing the cymbal with a string of pearls.

The musical evolution of Bon Iver is necessary and also brilliant. To continue to pretend that he is surprised that anyone would show up to hear him would be inauthentic. His heart-ache gave us one of the best albums of the last decade. It would be sadistic to wish upon him any more of that quiet desperation, of that genuine meanness that drove him into a corner. In a cabin in the woods Justin Vernon discovered life. Now he is living it. And it is dear.

The best songs of the night: re: Stacks, Blood Bank, Wolves Acts (I & II), Holocene, Who Is It?, Wash., Creature Fear, and For Emma, Forever Ago.

Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards was the opening act. She had a very enjoyable stage presence and played a short set of catchy songs with country, blues, and folk influences.