Monday, February 20, 2012

Sermon: "The Good Life in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 2-19-12)

I was as surprised as anyone to receive a Facebook friend request from Frank in Holmes’ Prairie.  Of all the people you wouldn’t expect to have a Facebook account.  Knowing Frank as well as I do, I should have known that trouble was on the way.  The next time I logged in I discovered that he had posted more than a dozen home videos of people’s dogs to my page.  There were dogs jumping into swimming pools, dogs jumping on trampolines, dogs jumping on other dogs.  I gave Frank a call to tell him to knock it off.

“Glad I got your attention,” Frank told me.  “I wish I had created one of these Facebook accounts years ago.  Now all I have to do to annoy someone is to push a few buttons on the computer from the comfort of my own home.”

“Just what the internet was designed for,” I mumbled back.

“Well, I’m glad you called,” Frank told me.  “I could stand to talk to a pastor.  I’ll buy the coffee.  What do you say, preacher boy?”

“Frank, you know I’ve always got time for a trip over to Holmes’ Prairie.” 


Pardon my lack of manners.  There are probably a few of you of who have never heard about Holmes’ Prairie.  Well, Holmes’ Prairie is a small town, way out on the Kansas prairie, going the way that small towns go.  It is a town known for its stifling neighborliness and its overbearing decency, a town where nothing ever changes because nothing ever happens.  But, if you can open your eyes, you’ll find that there is a lot going on for a small town where nothing ever happens.

If you’re trying to find Holmes’ Prairie on a map, you’ll find it well to West of Wichita geographically but well to the right of Liberal, geographically and politically.  If you’re traveling by car, just wait for the radio stations to turn to static and be careful not to blink,or else you’ll miss it.  On a map it is far away.  And, most of the time it feels even further away.  But, you’ll also find if you can quiet your complaints, put aside your cynicism, and let go of your own self-importance that Holmes’ Prairie is closer than you might think.

I should probably also introduce you to Frank.  Frank is the town curmudgeon of Holmes’ Prairie, a veritable fount of criticism and blasphemy.  He’s never met anyone whose business wasn’t his.  Frank doesn’t really have a religious home though he’s been known to attend the three houses of worship in Holmes’ Prairie.  There’s the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie led by Pastor Solomon J. Samuels.  Pastor Sol has seen it all, and the years he’s spent living out on the prairie has turned him into a Christian existentialist.  There’s also St. John’s Catholic Church, shepherded by Father Diaz.  And, there’s the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a lay-led group with ten members, twelve committees, and their sensible leader, Mabel Pool, who keeps them whipped into shape.  Frank tells me that he chooses where to go to church each week based on who he feels most like arguing with, but I suspect that his choice actually depends on who puts out the best lunch spread.

After the Facebook episode with Frank I rolled into Holmes’ Prairie, parked on Main Street, stretched my limbs and walked into Annie’s Coffee Shop where Frank had settled into a corner booth and Annie had a fresh slice of apple pie and a cup of dismal coffee waiting for me.

“So, Frank, what’s on your mind?”

“Llamas,” Frank replied.

“You had me drive half-way across the state for llamas?  I don’t know the first thing about llamas.  I went to seminary, not agricultural school.”

“Eat your pie and let me talk,” Frank interrupted.  “It’s actually this new family, the Walters, Ed and Lisa.  Just moved to town, which is strange enough.  People aren’t supposed to move to Holmes’ Prairie.  People are supposed to move away.  Follow their dreams away because this is the place where dreams go to die.  But, this couple bought some land out on the edge of town, and set up a farm with two hundred llamas.  As soon as they moved here you could be sure that every good neighbor and gossip in the town was knocking on their door, offering them a jar of preserves or a basket of muffins, and asking after their business.  Of course, I went by with one of Annie’s apple pies and do you know what Ed told me?  He said, ‘We were living in the city.  We both had business careers.  And, I guess one day we just looked at each other and told each other that we wanted something different from life.  So, we sold everything, cashed it all in, and bought this farm and the llamas.  Now we’re living the good life.’”

Frank continued, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the words ‘the good life’ and Holmes’ Prairie in the same sentence.  To each, his own I suppose.  What do they see that I don’t see?  There’s no good life in Holmes’ Prairie.  Hey preacher, help me out here.  What is the good life, anyways?”

“Well,” I answered, signaling Annie for a warm-up while trying to think on my feet, “I’d say the good life partly has to do with asking questions about the impact that our lives have and also challenging popular assumptions about what makes us happy.  It also has to do with awareness of life in the here and now.  I think of Henry David Thoreau asking hard questions about his own culture.  ‘Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?’  What does it mean to live deliberately?  What exactly would it look like to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life?  And, I think of words by William Henry Channing who wrote about living contently with small means and letting the spiritual grow up through the common.  They told us that the good life was often closer to us than we recognize.”

“So, preacher,” Frank asked, “You’re telling me that your church is full of people who are content?  That sounds pretty boring.”

“I suppose some are more content than others.  They’re troubled by different things.”  I replied.

Frank smiled at me that devilish smile and I knew he wanted to push me into an argument.  “I didn’t know that there such a thing as a content Unitarian Universalist.  I thought you were all like Mabel Pool over at the UU Fellowship.  Every day she has about four different petitions she’s collecting signatures for, everything from closing down Guantanamo Bay to having a women’s history month display at the public library.  She has more bumper stickers than I knew it was possible to fit on a car.  ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’  That kind of stuff.”

“You’re right, Frank.  Some of the most alive people I know are discontents.  The people who speak out about sexism, racism, and homophobia.  The people who work to combat poverty and protest injustice.  But, that spirit of discontent is not narrow.  I remember hearing about John Wolf, the really famous minister of the Unitarian Church in Tulsa.  He was really well known for being the outspoken liberal in that town and not just when it came to racial justice or women’s rights or religious freedom.  He’d speak out on just about anything.  Back in the 1970s Tulsa was debating about whether to spend public money to build a performing arts center.  John Wolf had an opinion about this so he decided to preach a sermon throwing his support behind the performing arts center.  It caused a bit of controversy, probably because he gave his sermon the title, ‘Tulsa is a Hick Town.’  True story.  Imagine that on a church sign.”

“Let’s make sure we don’t tell that story to Mabel over at the Fellowship,” Frank interjected.  “I can’t even imagine what she would put up on a church sign.  Great God almighty!  But, tell me this.  How can people see what’s good and right in one moment, but not also see the better parts of life, even if it’s right in front of their faces?  I remember this story that Pastor Sol posted on his Facebook page before he defriended me.”

“Dogs on trampolines?” I asked.

“Far worse,” he answered.

“I don’t want to know,” I said.

“You’re better off that way.  Anyways, Pastor Sol posted this true story that ran in the Washington Post a couple of years ago.  A reporter wanted to do a social experiment, so he arranged to have this violinist play for forty-five minutes at a Metro stop around rush hour.  The reporter wanted to see who would stop to listen to this busker playing the violin.  Only, the violinist the reporter gets to play was only disguised as a busker.  In reality, he was one of the world’s most accomplished violinists, a world-renowned musician who has played with all of the world’s major symphonies.  At the Metro stop he played selections from Bach on his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin.  He played the same selections that he had played the night before at a sold-out show where tickets were a hundred dollars a seat.  More than 1,000 people walked by without noticing him.  Sixteen people put money in the hat.  Seven people stopped to listen for more than a few seconds.  One person recognized him as a famous violinist and, with a knowing wink, put a twenty dollar bill in the hat.  The violinist’s total haul was thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents.  What makes you think that we would recognize the good life if it jumped up and bit us on the nose?”

“Good point, Frank.  I think the good life is telling us that we should have another piece of pie.”


The sun sets on a long day in Holmes’ Prairie.  Pastor Solomon J. Samuels is putting the final touches on his sermon about the Biblical stories of abundance, like Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana and the multiplying the fishes and loaves by the Sea of Galilee.  Pastor Sol is troubled, questioning his own faith, wondering if those stories of plenty still speak to us today.

Meanwhile, Father Diaz over at St. John’s Catholic is making preparations for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, that drama of life’s goodness and life’s hardship as two sides of the same coin.  And, over at the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship, Mabel Pool is working to perfect her vegan jambalaya recipe for the Fellowship’s Mardi Gras party and social justice fundraiser.  Despite the prevailing politics of Holmes’ Prairie the Fellowship fundraisers are always a big success, mostly due to the fact that Holmes’ Prairie sits in the heart of a dry county and the Fellowship understands freedom of religion as giving them the prerogative to violate every liquor law in the state of Kansas.

On the outskirts of town, Edward and Lisa Walters come inside after a long day of work.  As they take their evening rest they pause for a moment of awareness and memory.  They remember the books they had read that had gotten them interested in llamas in the first place.  They had learned about the history of South America, how the good life had meant something to the Andean tribes and something different when the tribes were joined together as part of the Incan Empire.  The good life had certainly meant something different to the Spanish conquerors who came carrying disease and warfare, hungry for as much gold and silver as they could force the tribes to dig out of the earth.

The good life had meant something to the first nations of this prairie land, the Osage, Pawnee, Kiowa, and Kansa.  The good life had meant something to the immigrants from central Europe who came in search of the land they would never have been able to own in their homelands, land subsidized here by act of Congress.  And, the good life looks different now, in the age of big agriculture and globalism, with manufacturing jobs shipped overseas.

The good life had meant something to Edward and Lisa in their previous lives.  It was something they questioned.  Is this the good life?  For whom?  Who shares in it?  Who is excluded from it?  What are the trade-offs, the small print, the hidden costs?  Is it real?

On the outskirts of town, Edward and Lisa turn towards one another.  “The good life,” they say to each other.  I’ll let you decide whether they were telling or asking.

That’s the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out on the Kansas Prairie, West of Wichita and far to the right of Liberal, a sleepy town where nothing ever happens, unless of course you slow down and take the time to see what is happening all around you.

Sermon Notes
I preach about one Holmes' Prairie sermon each year.  My discovery of Holmes' Prairie was only possible because of my internship supervisor, Rev. Dennis Hamilton of the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, TX, who introduced me to the town of Bodacia, Texas, during my internship year.  Similarities between the two towns may not be coincidental and may indicate a "blood relationship."

John Wolf's "Tulsa is a Hick Town" sermon is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for All Souls in Tulsa.  The Washington Post piece about the master violinist playing at a Metro stop came from a friend's Facebook page.  My understanding of Holmes' Prairie has also been impacted by a recent reading of several anti-racism books by Tim Wise.  Finally, a bit note of thanks to Frank.  I sit down to catch up with you for an hour at Annie's coffee shop and I leave with most of the sermon finished.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sermon: "Love is Concerned" (Delivered 2-12-12)

Love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home.
Love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.
- Alice Walker

When I meet with the worship committee, I often throw out a topic that I’m thinking of preaching about, and then sit back and listen while the committee reacts, brainstorms, and wrestles with the topic.  It is like handing the group a chunk of unformed clay and watching them begin to knead and shape it.  At the last worship committee meeting I put a hunk of clay on the table in the form of saying, “On the Sunday closest to Valentine’s Day, I’m going to say something about love.”  The reaction was interesting.  The concern was expressed that whatever we decided to form out of the clay would turn out to be trite or cliché or overly-sentimental.  There was some sincere cynicism expressed.  I wondered what this reaction was all about.

I think what they were saying to me was to be careful, to use caution.  To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “No one should be made to feel like something the cat dragged in.”  For every person here who experiences tender love, there is someone else for whom love is a tender subject.  Some of us here are in a deeply fulfilling relationship with a partner or spouse.  Others have yet to find love, or are trying to pick up the pieces after love has faltered, or have reached a stage in life in which romantic partnership is not a prevailing concern.  And, if we look beyond the love of a partner, things only become more complex.  Some of us come here mindful of the love of children, or grandchildren, or parents, or siblings, and feel profoundly blessed.  Others of us feel challenged, troubled, or hurt.  Some of us are in love with life.  Others of us feel embattled.  Some of us are passionate about justice, seeing this work as the fulfillment of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Others of us, whether by distancing or despair, have a more restrained or constrained experience of love.  And most of us, I would guess, fall somewhere in the mixed-up middle.


It has been pointed out that the English language is lacking when it comes to love.  Just as the proverbial Eskimo has many words for snow, it has been suggested that it might be helpful if we used an expanded vocabulary for love.  Speaking of the challenges of a limited vocabulary of love, Rob Bell puts it like this, “We get incredible mileage out of this tired, old, English word ‘love,’ don’t we?...  I mean, I love my wife and I also love tacos.”  If we return to the classical world, we find three or four or more words for love in the Greek language.  In the Greek there is philia, which refers to loving friendship; there is agape, which refers to a devoted, self-sacrificing form of love; and, then there is eros, which refers to romantic love.  C.S. Lewis added a fourth kind of love, storge, which refers to familial affection, perhaps a more tribal form of love.

If you peruse the web you can find many good-hearted Evangelical Christians who have turned to another ancient language, Hebrew, to speak of different forms of love.  They describe raya, which is much like philia or friendship.  There is ahavah, which corresponds to agape, and emphasizes depth and commitment.  And, then there is dode, which refers to steamy carousing.  If you continue to read these evangelical Christian writings on Hebrew words for love, you typically find some conclusion saying that love becomes perfect when the three – raya, ahavah, and dode – come together to become one.  There is something undeniably Trinitarian in such thinking, and it disregards the fact that in the Hebrew language there are at least several other words for love, perhaps none more important than chesed, which means lovingkindness and refers to a kind of moral and ethical love that recognizes the divine necessity of caring for our fellow human beings.

It seems to me that while it is possible to criticize the English language for being vague and imprecise when it comes to love, it is also possible to criticize the ancient world for seemingly promoting forms of dualism (mind and body, body and soul, rational and emotional, spirit and mind, etc.) that have been relied on to support injustice and oppression..  One does not have to go very far to find attempts to justify sexist and racist positions that make reference to such dualisms.  I’m thinking of historians of sexism, racism, and colonialism who have shown that the white, male, European perspective has been equated with reason, rationality, and an intelligence that transcends the body, while women, people of color, and native peoples have been regarded as emotional, spiritual, superstitious, unintelligent, and “enslaved” by the body.  Just consider Rick Santorum’s assertion last week that women should not serve in combat because their emotions would compromise the mission.  The CNN headline writer seemed to have some fun with this comment, giving the story a headline that read, “Female ‘emotions’ worry Santorum.”

I worry about people who suggest that there is a hierarchy of forms of love.  Such thinking often leads to the suggestion that there is a hierarchy of types of people.  I’ve digressed.  I bring up the Greek words and the Hebrew words, and the history of oppressive thinking because I think that love is properly regarded as not just an emotion, not just a feeling, not just a thought, and not just a biological function.  Rather, I think love is best regarded as incredibly messy, complicated, and wild.  It is a combination of mind, body, and brain, of the mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual.

I recently watched a really cool video, a short film called, “The Love Competition.”  The competition features seven contestants who each spend five minutes in a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological imaging.  The contestants are given the instruction to “love someone as hard as they can” while the MRI measures activity in the areas of the brain that produce the neurochemical sensation of love.  The winner of the love competition is the person whose brain has the most love activity.  This is fascinating.

In the film, the contestants introduce themselves and describe who they plan to love.  The contestants include Kent and Marilyn, both age seventy-five, and married to each other for fifty years.  There’s also Milo, age ten, who explains that “love is like a feeling that you have for someone you have feelings about” and explains he’ll be thinking about his newborn cousin.  Tiffany, age 23, tells us that she plans to think of, quote, “puppies, and other cute things… oh, and my boyfriend,” while, Morgan, age 24, is unsure if she has ever been in love and decides to do a form of Buddhist meditation focused on love for all sentient beings.

Watching this short film I was deeply moved by two things.  First, there was the sheer amazement of watching people’s brains light up as their brains become flooded with dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin.  Second, it is amazing to note that as the contestants exited the MRI machine they all claimed that the experience of “trying to love someone as hard as they could” for five minutes had been profound and moving.  The contestants, male and female, adult and child, partnered and single, reported feeling flushed, glowing, and pleasantly light headed.  One contestant described it as a feeling of sweetness.  They all had huge smiles.  [For Valentine’s Day this film was made available for free on  I saw it when I received the newest issue of Wholphin, a quarterly DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films.  I’ve subscribed to Wholphin from the beginning and have enjoyed all 15 volumes.]

Do not get me wrong.  I’m not saying that love is as simple as brain chemistry and I’m not saying that brain chemistry is simple.  Rather, I think love is best regarded as incredibly messy, complex, and wild.  It is a combination of mind, body, and brain, mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual.  I happen also to like Alice Walker’s description of love as, “warm, frisky, moist-mouthed, eager, and [able to] swim away if forced to do so.”

So, amidst all of this trying to avoid saying something trite, cliché, or cynical, amidst the typologies of love observed in ancient Greece and ancient Israel, amidst love contests and surges of neurochemicals, I thought to myself, “What is the truest, most authentic thing I could say about love?”  Nothing like putting a little bit of pressure on myself.

As it would happen, while I was thinking about what I know to be true about love, I conjured in my mind Alice Walker’s short poem from our hymnal, which, in its entirety, reads,
Love is not concerned
with whom you pray
or where you slept
the night you ran away
from home.
Love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.
It is a fascinating poem.  I think its meaning is something like this:  Love is not concerned with being “right.”  Love is not concerned with doing things the right way, praying in the right way (whatever that is), saying the right words (whatever those are), or keeping the proper company, (whoever that is.)  Love is not about an exact formula.  And, love is certainly not about your own perfection, or innocence, or blamelessness, or lack of shame.  No, actually it is the opposite.  Love is about accepting those parts of yourself and someone else that are tender and vulnerable and challenging and imperfect.

I recently read an interview with a director from Canada named Nadia Litz.  She had directed an amazing and beautiful and bizarre independent film, also from Wholphin volume 15, called “How to Rid Your Lover of a Negative Emotion Caused by You!”  In the interview she had these amazing lines.  She said, “The need to force-purge people of their more complicated parts is not love.  Rather, sharing in your partner’s imperfections is a sign of love.  [The most romantic thing I’ve ever done is] being vulnerable despite being fearful.”

Alice Walker says something very similar in her poem “Listen.”  “Listen, I never dreamed I would learn to love you so.  You are as flawed as my vision, as short tempered as my breath.”  What if our capacity to love was one and the same with our capacity to tolerate our loved one’s shortcomings and imperfections, and to freely, openly, and vulnerably admit our own shortcomings and imperfections?  What if love is really not concerned with our failings or the places of our own shame and hurt?  What if the most romantic thing a person could do is simply to be vulnerable despite being fearful?  What if the love contest is not won with skill, or good looks, or intelligence, or sophistication?  What if the only way to win was to dare and decide to play, and to go into it not as if armed for battle but rather with our defenses totally down and heart totally open?  And, what if this was true not only for romantic love but also for friendship, for the love of family, for community, and for acts of love and justice on behalf of your fellow human beings?

If you’ve been coming to this church for a while you’ve probably heard a refrain that I’ve spoken many times but that I probably cannot speak often enough.  The church is both the house of the holy and the home of the human.  These two realities are not in conflict.  The human allows for the presence of the holy and the holy allows for the presence of the human.  Which is to say that churches are made up of real people with our own peculiarities, our warts and blemishes, our hurts and fears.  Community is that place where we make ourselves vulnerable.

Love is not concerned with how you pray, or who you pray with, or who you pray to.  Love is not concerned with getting it right.  Love is not concerned with your past, even if that past is filled with trauma, filled with mistakes, filled with regrets, filled with embarrassment. 

But love is concerned.  Love is concerned with your future.  Love is concerned with the enlargement of your heart to greater love, greater justice, greater healing.  “Love is concerned that the beating of your heart should kill no one.”  Love is concerned that your life points in the direction of wholeness, lovingkindness, and peace.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

2012: A Year in Reading [Under Construction]

This blog entry contains a list of books I’ve read so far in 2012.  Check back as this page will be updated periodically.  Interested in books I’ve read in previous years?  Click here for links to older reading lists.


21) Love, An Index – by Rebecca Lindenberg (88 pages)
This is a special book, a dazzling and deeply affecting poetry collection.  The poems deal with the poet’s loss of her partner, the poet Craig Arnold, while he disappeared hiking a volcano in Japan.  These poems have to do with memory, loss, and grief.  The title poem provides an index of their relationship.  It is a collection that manages to be both heartbreaking and beautiful all at once.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

20) State of Wonder – by Ann Patchett (353 pages)
The latest Ann Patchett novel was the selection of the SMUUCh book club for the month of May.  In this novel, a medical researcher for a large pharmaceutical company travels to the heart of the Brazilian rain forest to investigate the death of her lab partner and the progress of a lead researcher working to produce a fertility drug.  Like most Patchett novels, this one introduces a number of eccentric characters.  I was engrossed by the author’s writing and by my own memories of traveling in the South American rainforest.  A fun book.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

19) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – by Michelle Alexander (268 pages)
Since its release, this book has generated a lot of buzz.  It is surely one of the most important books on the subject of anti-racism to be released in the past decade.  In this book, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that the War on Drugs and the criminal justice system in the United States functions intentionally as a system of racial control and oppression not all that different from the old Jim Crow system.  It is truly a powerful argument and an important book.  I plan to preach on it in June, and several of my colleagues, including Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle, Rev. Mark Stringer, and Rev. Marlin Lavanhar have already preached on it.  If you are inclined to agree with Alexander, you may find her writing to be a bit tight, the work of a lawyer exhaustively proving her point over and over again.  If you have any doubts about her thesis, her style is meant to make her case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars

18) McSweeney’s Volume 7 (340 pages)
This year I am continuing to read all the back issues of McSweeney’s that I haven’t previously read.  I’ve got five issues left to read.  Volume 7 is fantastic, a collection of nine separately packaged stories.  My favorites included a story about cancer by A.M. Homes, a charming postlude to Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay, and a tremendous novella about bowling and relationships by Courtney Eldridge.  This volume also contains a 100-page case study about Islamic terrorism in Thailand, excerpted from William Vollmann’s seven volume study of violence.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


17) When I Was a Child I Read Books – by Marilynne Robinson (208 pages)
Clickhere to read the review.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!

16) Embryoyo – by Dean Young (91 pages)
Dean Young’s poetry is distinctive and challenging, a little bit beat and often absurd.  He’s a Tony Hoagland on hallucinogens.  Sometimes he misfires, but at other times his poetry is absolutely striking.  I cannot help but reprint a small excerpt from one of his most orderly poems, entitled “Ten Inspirations.”

You decide to make a god.
Don’t have no commandments,
no Renaissance altarpieces, no
relics, tax-sheltered televangelists,
funny hats.
You do have yourself.
Wow, god acts like Walt Whitman.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

15) Hot Pink – by Adam Levin (199 pages)
One of my favorite books from 2011 was Adam Levin’s incredibly ambitious (1,000+ page) and glorious debut novel, The Instructions.  This follow-up collection of short stories (published by McSweeney’s Press) is not as grand or as ambitious, but it is almost as hard to put down.  In “Scientific American,” an earnest suburban couple is baffled by a crack in their bedroom wall that oozes slime.  In “Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls,” a disabled college student experiments with liberation.  In “Hot Pink,” an adolescent trip to a cookout turns into a comedy of errors.  The stories of Hot Pink are replete with original characters as well as Levin’s clever dialogue that is practically Midrashic at points.  (Consider especially “The Extra Mile,” a story about a joke between the Jewish residents of a retirement center.)  This is a collection of ten highly inventive short stories, and most of them succeed.  With the completion of this book, I’ve now read 76 of the 150+ books published by McSweeney’s press.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

14) McSweeney’s Volume 6 (193 pages)
This old volume of McSweeney’s was a lot of fun and very unusual.  It was an “art” issue, combining more than a dozen very short stories with articles about and reprints of various pieces of art.  The best thing about this edition is an amazing essay about art and culture by Breyten Breytenbach.  This literary quarterly came with a CD of original music by They Might Be Giants to accompany the stories and art.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars

13) McSweeney’s Volume 5 (280 pages)
Not all of the contents of this issue of McSweeney’s worked for me, but there was still plenty of parts to enjoy.  Highlights include a “failed genius” article by Paul Collins about a Renaissance attempt at creating a universal language based on musical notes.  (Paul Collins has written several fascinating historical articles about failed geniuses, affectionately known as his “Profiles in Discourage.”)  Paul LaFarge’s short story “The Observers” is great as well.  However, the best part of this issue is the inclusion of David Foster Wallace’s amazing and obnoxious short story “Mr. Squishy”, here included under a pseudonym though he fooled no one.  Too much of the rest was filler.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars

February 2012

12) It Chooses You – by Miranda July (216 pages)
In this artsy book published by McSweeney’s, artsy independent filmmaker Miranda July finds herself struck with writer’s block as she revises a script for a movie she’s not sure will even be greenlighted.  In a fit of procrastination, she begins answering ads in the Los Angeles PennySaver, sort of a print version of Craig’s List for people without computers.  With a photographer in tow, she goes to interview and learn the stories of people selling unusual stuff:  bullfrog tadpoles, an antique hairdryer, a suitcase, leopard cubs.  These interviews reconnect Miranda July with the human spirit and with her story, and they impact the film in surprising ways.  While the premise of this book seems a bit forced, through the force of July’s personality the book turns out to be touching and sweet.  I can’t wait to see The Future, the movie she was working on that led to this book.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars 

I’ve now read 69 of the 150+ books published by McSweeney’s.  In case you’re interested those 150+ books include:
40 issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary quarterly that began in 1998 with the idea that it would publish only works rejected by other publishers.  It turned into a leading literary journal known for its outrageous packaging and amazing content.  I’ve read 31 issues. 
 37 works of fiction (novels and short story collections) that range from Adam Levin’s 1,000+ page debut novel The Instructions to a 55 page novel by Jonathan Lethem.  I’ve read 15 of these books.  
18 books of artwork of which I’ve read 3.  
4 children’s books as part of McSweeney’s new McMullen’s imprint.  
8 works of non-fiction, of which I’ve read 6.  These works include a wonderful collection of essays by Michael Chabon, Darin Strauss’ amazing Half a Life, and William T. Vollmann’s gigantic, 7 volume, 3300+ page treatise on violence entitled Rising Up and Rising Down.  You can buy it for me from my Amazon wish list.  
8 books from The Believer series.  McSweeney’s also publishes a monthly arts and culture magazine called The Believer, which gives only positive reviews.  I don’t subscribe to The Believer, but I have read the three anthologies of Nick Hornby’s columns.  
8 books in McSweeney’s Voices of Witness series.  These books use oral history to document human rights abuses in the United States and around the world.  I’ve read one book in this series on the experiences of undocumented immigrants.  Other oral history collections deal with those wrongfully imprisoned in the United States, those whose rights have been grossly violated by the Patriot Act, and victims of awful regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.  
16 works of humor (I’ve read 9) that range from six short board books by Lisa Brown that constitute the Baby Mix Me a Drink series, to the awesome Future Dictionary of America (with its proceeds going to in 2004), and collections of children’s letters to the Obamas.  
4 volumes of poetry, of which I’ve read one.  
7 books in the Collins Library series.  Paul Collins is an amazing historian of weird history and literature.  Collins caught my attention for a series he published in McSweeney’s literary quarterly of “Profiles in Discourage,” stories of failed geniuses and eccentrics.  The Collins Library reprints forgotten curious works from a bygone era.  I’ve not read any of them yet, but I’m planning to read the reprint of a story called The Rector and the Rogue.

11) Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful – by Alice Walker (81 pages)
I picked up this volume of Alice Walker’s poetry because I was interested in learning the context for her wonderful poem, “Love is Not Concerned,” that is reprinted in the hymnal.  I wound up using that poem and two of her other poems from this collection for my sermon on Love back on February 12.  Walker’s poetry weaves together personal stories of motherhood, friendship, and family with larger concerns of racism, sexism, and environmentalism.  A truly powerful volume of poetry!
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

10) The Pharmacist’s Mate – by Amy Fusselman (84 pages)
I picked up this slim book published a decade ago by McSweeney’s at a charming, independent bookstore just off the UC Berkeley campus back in January.  Fusselman’s short book – memoir? fictionalized memoir? – was surprisingly powerful.  In it, the author writes about grieving her father’s death and going through fertility treatments and living her life for a time with these two realities weighing on her consciousness.  Her memoir is interrupted by the inclusion of short passages from her father’s journal from his time as the assistant pharmacist aboard a naval vessel during World War II.

With the completion of this book, I’ve now read 68 of the 150+ books published by McSweeney’s press.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

9) Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-racist Reflections from an Angry White Male – by Tim Wise (357 pages)
With the completion of Speaking Treason Fluently, I’ve now read all six books written by Tim Wise.  This may be his very best.  This book anthologizes more than 40 short essays penned by Wise between 2000 and 2008 on the subjects of white privilege and anti-racism.  Some of the essays are general and scholarly while others are more rhetorical and are concerned with the current events.  The best essays are the ones that bring an anti-racist analysis to news stories.  The Jeremiah Wright “scandal”, the Duke lacrosse rape case, school shootings, Barry Bonds homerun record, Don Imus, Bill Cosby, and more – Wise sees our society for what it is.  The best essay in this collection involves Wise asking the question of why the audience at Ronald Reagan’s funeral was lily-white.  I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.
Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

8) Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity – by Tim Wise (184 pages)
Why doesn’t Obama ever talk about race?  According to Wise, it is a cynical strategy born out of the political calculus that speaking openly about matters of race would alienate a greater number of whites, at least more whites than are alienated by either outright or concealed racism.  Colorblind documents the social reality of “Colorblind Universalism” or “Post-racial Liberalism,” movements that are committed to equality but refuse to discuss race.  Wise refutes these positions using both logic and a plethora of research studies having to do with psychology, sociology, education, economics, and law. 

If Dear White America was a work of polemics, Colorblind is more the work of an academic.  Accordingly, it does drag at points.  However, many of the studies Wise cites are extremely fascinating.  There is actually a psychological test that evaluates your level of racial bias.  Two groups were chosen, each group having people with significant racial bias.  The subjects are given copies of an identical health care policy.  Some are told that the policy was created by Bill Clinton.  Others are told that it was created by Obama.  Sixty five percent approved of the “Clinton” plan.  Forty one percent approved of the “Obama” plan.  Another study showed that mentioning race directly causes people to make less biased decisions whereas failing to mention race makes people more likely to make biased decisions.
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

7) Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority – by Tim Wise (145 pages)
Tim Wise’s newest and shortest book is a polemical work of a leading anti-racist educator whose rhetoric has never been sharper.  It begins with Tim Wise imagining showing up at a patriotic Fourth of July celebration and asking people, “Why can’t you get over it?  Quit living in the past.  I mean, that whole Revolutionary War thing happened a long time ago.”  From there, Tim Wise is off, showing the predatory racism at the heart of the Tea Party, the overt racism of Fox News, and the race-baiting on the part of the front-runner for the GOP nomination.  Everyone I know should read this Dear White America!
Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

January 2012

6) Donald – by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott (106 pages)
I will let the back-cover speak for itself:
What would happen if Donald Rumsfeld, former defense secretary and architect of the war on terror, was abducted at night from his Maryland home, held without charges in his own prison system, denied a trial, and kept in a place where no one could find him, beyond the reach of law?  Donald is a high-wire allegory that answers this question, in equal parts breakneck thriller and gradual descent into madness. But it is also a novel rooted in the harrowing stories of real people caught in America’s military campaigns. And while there are those who would try to convince us that war is full of uncertainty—of knowns and unknowns—Donald reminds us that there remain things we know to be wrong.
This very short book is most unusual.  It is troubling and disorienting.  It has moments of humor and satire but isn’t funny.  It is a revenge fantasy that makes you feel uncomfortable.  Though the idea is ambitious, the execution was lacking.
Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

5) St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – by Karen Russell (244 pages)
While Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! tended to drag along, this collection of short stories is just about perfect.  Russell, in her magical and fantastic stories, creates a style that we might call “South Florida Gothic.”  Each one of these short stories is more dazzling than the next.  Wow!
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

4) Vicky Swanky is a Beauty – by Diane Williams (106 pages)
I try to read everything that is put out by McSweeney’s Press.  Most of the time I am delighted.  Occasionally I am disappointed.  I picked up a used copy of Vicky Swanky at a bookstore in Berkeley and found this collection of 50 ultra-short, super-minimalist short stories to be a miserable reading experience. Yawn!
Rating:  1 out of 5 stars

3) Swamplandia! – by Karen Russell (316 pages)
In buying this book in early 2011 (and saving it for almost a year) I did something I don’t often do:  I bought a book for its cover, and its title!  There had been some buzz about this book, but I hadn’t really tuned into it.  This is an ambitious, visionary novel by a young, dynamic, up-and-coming writer.  The book deals with a trio of siblings trying to figure out their own coming of age against the backdrop of a rapidly changing landscape, with the soulless suburbs encroaching on the no-longer enchanted world of the swamp.  The characters are sometimes thin, but they populate a dark, swampy, magical, haunted landscape.  In the final third, the story seems to crumble under its own weight.  I’d still read anything that Karen Russell publishes.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

2) Mockingjay – by Suzanne Collins (390 pages)
1) Catching Fire – by Suzanne Collins (389 pages)
Last summer I read the first installment of The Hunger Games trilogy of young adult novels.  I found it to be surprisingly thought-provoking, rather addictive, and problematic.  In the end, I knew I would wind up reading the second and third books of the trilogy because I was interested in what was next for Katniss, Peeta, and others.  Unfortunately, the second and third books lack the philosophy of the first but continue many of the more annoying aspects from the original.  Probably the most interesting thing about the trilogy is its imagining of a world in which all thought follows the patterns of so-called “reality” television.  The world it imagines is disturbing.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Total Pages: 4,638 pages 

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sermon: "Apples and Oranges are Round and Sweet" (Delivered 2-6-12)

The reading comes from Stephen Prothero’s book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter,
There is a long tradition of Christian thinkers assuming that salvation is the goal of all religions and then arguing that only Christians can achieve this goal.  Huston Smith, who grew up in China as a child of Methodist missionaries, rejected this argument but not its guiding assumption.  [He wrote] “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not the next.”  It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved.  But this statement is confused to its core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek.  Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin.  But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it.  And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim….  
A sports analogy may be in order here.  Which of the following – baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf – is best at scoring runs?  The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term [entirely] foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike.  Different sports have different goals:  basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink puts.  So if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start.  To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them.  It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball…  The real question is not which is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking. […]  
What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  And where they begin is with this simple observation:  something is wrong with the world…  Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it…  If practitioners of the world’s religions are all mountain climbers, then they are on very different mountains, climbing very different peaks, and using very different tools and techniques in their ascents. 

As I developed this sermon, my mind kept returning to a humorous image from the television show The Simpsons.  In the episode Homer the Heretic, Homer Simpson’s house catches on fire and the flames are put out by Springfield’s religiously diverse volunteer fire department which includes Ned Flanders (a Christian), Krusty the Clown (a Jew), and Apu (a Hindu.)  After the flames are extinguished, Homer grows dejected, thinking the fire must have been a form of divine punishment.  Reverend Lovejoy offers a different way to look at the calamity.  “God,” Reverend Lovejoy tells Homer, “was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid, be they Christian, or Jew, or miscellaneous.”  To which Apu responds, “Hindu!  There are 700 million of us.”

This morning’s sermon is on the impossibly large topic of engaging world religions.  While this sermon is going to be complete in and of itself, it is also a test drive in a way.  One of the stories I hear from the longtime members of this church is how much they enjoyed a program that ran here in the 1970s on the religions of the world.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about what sorts of series we might run once we move to our new building and it has occurred to me that it might be interesting to do a series on world religions.  I’d welcome dialogue on whether this would be of interest to you.

Setting all that aside for the time being, as we go forward this morning we remember the humorous scene from The Simpsons, and with it the awareness that even when people’s hearts are in the right place, they often manage to dismiss, devalue, offend, or slight.  I remember as a college student taking an introductory class on comparative religions.  One of our assignments was to go the library, find books that compared the religions of the world, and detect the biases of the authors.  Looking through the stacks, it was clear that there was a lot of arrogance in the ways that religions of the world have been approached.  Scanning the titles, I found that one book might consider the seven great religions and that another might consider the nine great faiths.  (Should we conclude that Shinto is only semi-great?)  I found books with titles and subtitles that spoke of the great religions as compared to the lesser religions, the great religions as compared to the primitive religions.

Browsing through the library shelves I came across a book by one of our own.  In 1871 James Freeman Clarke, a Unitarian minister, published a very large book entitled Ten Great Religions.  It was an expansion of a series of articles he had published in the Atlantic Monthly a few years earlier.  The ten great religions that Clarke explores are Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, the religions of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, Germanic and Scandinavian folk religion, Judaism, and Islam.  You may notice that one religion is missing: Christianity.  Actually, in each chapter Clarke compares his subject to Christianity.  Clarke also includes an eleventh chapter dealing with Christianity, and not just Christianity but Unitarian Christianity, as superior to the others, calling it the religion of progress and universal unity.  From our perspective today, Clarke’s book contains a lot that is cringe-worthy, dated, and arrogant.  But, in its own day, it would have been considered progressive religious scholarship.  [Click here for an essay on Clarke including a description of this book.  The book is available on the web.]

Over the last century and a half, good people whose hearts have been in the right place, have revised their thinking about how to approach religious diversity.

One approach has been to disregard differences and to focus on similarities.  The thinking goes that if our differences separate us, our commonalities connect us.  There are an abundance of beautiful and exquisite metaphors that play on the idea of our particularities being subsumed into a larger common unity.

Stephen Prothero, in the reading earlier, makes reference to the image of an enormous mountain with the different world religions being different parties of hikers and mountain climbers, each traveling a different route to the top of the same mountain.  Another beautiful image speaks of the world religions as a multitude of streams and rivers seeking after or flowing into the same sea.  And then, of course, there is Forrest Church’s image of the Cathedral of the World.  The late Forrest Church, the most influential Unitarian Universalist minister of the past fifty years, asks us to imagine all seven billion people on the planet standing together under the roof of an immense cathedral.  “Search for a lifetime (which is all you are surely given) and you shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with your gaze.”  Church continues,
Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows without number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through. 
 Because the cathedral is so vast, our time so short, and our vision so dim, over the course of our pilgrimage we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of darkness and light through a few of its windows. Yet, by pondering and acting on our ruminations, we discover insights that will invest our days with meaning. 
 A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one light and many windows offers its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth claims of absolutists. That is because fundamentalists claim that the light shines through their window only...
 Many paths up the same mountain.  Many rivers flowing to the one sea.  Many windows and one light.  I recognize these metaphors as beautiful and compelling.  But, Stephen Prothero warns us that these metaphors are not that helpful, that in fact they might be harmful and dangerous.  I happen to think that these metaphors are false, but also true, and also false beyond their truth and true beyond their falsehood because they are metaphors and metaphors are both true and false and neither true nor false.  I should probably explain what I mean.

Take the metaphor of the different paths up the same mountain.  We might imagine a mountain the size of Mt. Everest with a group of Muslims climbing the south face while Buddhists climb the north face and Jews ascend the east face.  Prothero points out that if you helicoptered in, interviewed each of the climbing teams, and asked them where they were headed, the teams would all have a different idea of what the summit they are hoping to reach would look like.  And, moreover, if you interview the Buddhists who talk about nirvana as their destination and then go over and tell the Jewish group that they are actually climbing toward nirvana, you will receive some odd looks.  So, the metaphor is false.
But, if you look at the metaphor a bit differently, it also seems true.  Our own beliefs may be subjective, but there is at least some objective reality that we all share.  The mountain or the cathedral might be our Earth, a planet with seven billion human passengers, hurtling through space and orbiting the sun.  Prothero admits such common ground, “All [religious people] are human beings with human bodies and human failings, so each of [the] religions attends to our embodiment and to the human predicament, not least by defining what it is to be fully alive.”  So, in other words, we are all climbing different mountains.  And, we are all climbing the same mountain.  And, none of us is actually climbing a mountain.  But we are.

These questions of religious difference and sameness, particularities and universalities, are not just abstract.  They are practical.  This year is the 50th anniversary of an important Supreme Court case dealing with religious diversity and religious freedom.  The case, Engel v. Vitale, dealt with prayer in public schools.  It is a case that is frequently cited today by religious conservatives who continue to be sore about the decision.  The case involves a public school district in New York that composed an official prayer for recitation at the beginning of the school day.  Jewish and humanist organizations challenged the school district claiming that the prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The thing you may not know about the case is that the prayer that the school district crafted was a lousy prayer.  The school district knew that if the prayer were sectarian it would not be allowed, so they crafted what they thought was a general prayer.  "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.  Amen."

In the Supreme Court case, the school district argued bizarrely that the prayer should be allowed because it was so non-specific and vague and general that it didn’t actually establish anything.  The Court rejected that argument saying in its decision that while some faiths recognize an almighty God, other faiths do not, and that the prayer therefore established those that do over those that do not.

Today, when the religious right advocates for school prayer, you can be sure that they are not advocating for something vague and watered-down.  They have in mind a specific kind of prayer, with a specific theology, with language and meaning that includes some and excludes others.  We know this.  We know this because we know how the religious right would react if a system of school prayer was proposed that was pluralistic.  Imagine it with me.  On the first day students would recite a prayer in Hebrew.  On the second day students would face Mecca and perform salat.  On the third day students would sit in zazen meditation.  On the fourth day students would worship before a shrine to Shiva.  And on and on, 180 school days each with a different religious activity:  chanting, casting circles, Tarot card readings, Yoga, sacred dance.

Of course I’m being facetious here.  But, we know that this sort of solution to the prayer in school question would so infuriate religious conservatives that it is fun to imagine.  It also would be impractical, and hollow, potentially insensitive, and, if nothing else, at very far remove from the purposes of public education.

Imagining this spectrum running from fundamentalism to pluralism can help us to clarify our own thinking regarding religious diversity.  The Kansas City Star has a feature in the Saturday religion section in which a question is posed to two religious leaders who come at things differently.  Back in 2006 they posed this question to a rather liberal Christian and a very conservative Christian:  “How far should Christian tolerance of other faiths go?”  There is very little honor in writing a two hundred word answer to a question that isn’t even that good of a question.  For the liberal side, they had my friend Bob Hill of Community Christian Church on the Plaza.  Bob is a great minister and is exceedingly bright.  Bob wrote, “There are some adherents in every faith who demand that the faith expressions of others be inferior. Such demands are of a human and not a divine origin.”

For the conservative side The Star chose the since-fallen Jerry Johnston.  Johnston wrote that truth is exclusive.  “We know that the God's Word is true… Anything more, anything less, any alternative religious system cannot also be true.”

Of course, I think that Jerry Johnston is absolutely wrong.  The position that I hold, the way that I approach religious diversity, the way that we as a church largely approach religious diversity, stands in sharp, sharp contrast to not only the conservative position, but also to what so often passes as the mainline position which actually continues to resemble James Freeman Clarke’s project from the 1870s.  Here is one well-known, mainline Christian author writing today,
“If I understand religion to be the human response to spiritual yearnings, needs, and experiences, then I also must understand that some of these responses are closer to the truth than others.  In fact, some truth claims are mutually exclusive… I believe that Christianity offers the most complete and authentically human way to live.” 
 It is a line that James Freeman Clarke might have written.  Such a stance tacitly accepts the black-white, yes-no, true-false duality of the conservative position.  It is a limiting and unimaginative world view.

Truth is not exclusive.  I do not accept the argument that truth is exclusive.  Let me explain what I mean.

Here are two fruits.  These fruits are in some ways very different.  One is red.  The other is orange.  One comes from an apple tree and the other from an orange tree.  And so on.  We could spend a long time listing all the ways in which they are different.  If you tried to tell me that all fruits are really the same, it would be a false statement.  But, there are also some similarities.  Apples and oranges are round and sweet.  Apples and oranges are healthy for you.  Apples and oranges are delicious.

The truth of the apple’s existence is not in conflict with the truth of the orange’s existence.  That the apple is sweet does not make the orange any less sweet.  The truth that the orange is good for you does not mean that the apple is any less good for you.

Here are two religions.  Some would say that they are so different that to try to compare them would be like comparing apples and oranges.  (But you can compare apples and oranges; apples and oranges are round and sweet.)  Some would say that the existence of one religion invalidates the other, that both cannot be right and whole and true.  Some would say that different religions are mortal enemies that cannot coexist.  People say a lot of stupid things.