Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sermon: "Ministers & Ministry" (Delivered 1-27-13)

Call to Worship
“A Parable for Pulpit Committees” by Clinton Lee Scott

Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad. And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, what manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest? And they answered and said unto him, we seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that put the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed. And the elder in Israel answered and said unto them, when I have found such a priest I will indeed send him unto you, but you may have to wait long, for the mother of such a one has not yet been born.

Sermon, Part 1
I’m somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, somewhere in the middle of a road trip.  I’m 21 years old and I’ve just been accepted to the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School.  I’m in the car with Tim, my minister and friend and mentor, and he’s taking me along on a weekend preaching trip to a small UU Fellowship.  Tim and I will co-preach the sermon for which I’ll receive a $25 honorarium, my first paid ministry gig.  I don’t think I was worth that much.

Tim was brilliant.  He had five degrees: a Bachelor degree, a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard, an MFA in creative writing (with Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard as his advisor), a Master in Interdisciplinary Studies (with Marcus Borg as his advisor), and a Doctorate in history.  He served churches in Texas, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and Maine.  He died from cancer a few years ago and I miss him.  So, we’re in the car and Tim is holding court, professing about the vocation of ministry.

Tim observed that in medieval times, religious leaders were the ones within society who were educated and literate.  Disciplines that we understand to be entirely secular today were once extensions of theology and philosophy, available only to those who knew how to read Greek and Latin.  Civil law was an extension of ecclesiastical canon law; medicine was learned alongside theology; universities were established to train religious leaders.

Now, I don’t want any of you to get the wrong idea here.  I’m not holding up medieval society as a model.  I think the bumper sticker that says “Religion ruled the dark ages” makes a valid point.  And, especially at this moment in history when theocracy is ascendant in Kansas, when the separation of church and state is under attack, when science and reason and medicine and law are being willfully ignored, I don’t want you to take what I’m saying the wrong way.

All I am saying is that the ministries of many of those priests and monks and theologians from centuries ago were anything but narrow.  Take Michael Servetus, the Spanish theologian who wrote a Unitarian theology and who also was the first medical doctor to correctly describe the workings of the circulatory system.  British Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley advised Thomas Jefferson on religion and political philosophy and his science laboratory helped to advance science’s knowledge of the chemistry of gasses.  This is to say nothing of fascinating lives of hundreds of Roman Catholic cleric-scientists who advanced scientific understanding over the course of centuries.  The Trappist monks brew beer.  A broad definition of ministry, indeed.

I’ve begun with this long digression about ministry in the middle ages to make a point about ministry in a roundabout way.  When we think of ministry narrowly, we miss the point.  At Harvard Divinity School I was surrounded by hundreds of students preparing for ministry, but most of them were not preparing for careers as parish ministers.  The exceptions here were the Unitarian Universalists and some of those who belonged to liberal Christian denominations such as the United Church of Christ.  Many of my classmates who belonged to conservative or even mainline denominations had issues with the politics or the theological orthodoxy of their denominations, and the gate to serving the local church was the most tightly guarded gate.  Many of my classmates wouldn’t bother to seek ordination; some were barred from it outright on account of their gender or sexual orientation.  My classmates from Harvard went on to find ministry outside the parish, becoming chaplains, community organizers, and international activists.  Large numbers went on to become the CEOs or the Executive Directors of non-profit organizations and agencies.  One of my friends became the executive director of Boston’s largest domestic violence shelter.  Others graduated from the Divinity School and ran food banks or youth anti-violence programs or AIDS charities or hospice care centers or international human rights organizations.

According to my friend Tim, parish ministry is one of the last true generalist professions.  In the course of any given week I write sermons, design worship services, teach classes, counsel parishioners, visit people in their homes or in the hospital, officiate at weddings and memorial services, work with committees of volunteers, and do all kinds of behind the scenes management and administration.  I also work with and speak on behalf of local organizations whose values are aligned with Unitarian Universalist values.  If that is not general enough for you, consider these recent examples of ministry: a family in our church invited me over to decorate Christmas cookies and answer their young children’s questions about death; before the November elections and the August primaries I received calls from members of the church on both the Kansas and the Missouri side asking me for whom they ought to vote; a manager of a successful company came to my office to talk through a difficult personnel decision and its ethical implications.  When the phone rings, there is no telling what I’ll be asked.  I may never have been asked to make a scientific breakthrough as relates to our understanding of the circulatory system – I’ve never been asked to brew a Belgian ale either – but there are many years left in my ministry.

This first part of the sermon is about my ministry, and I have to say that one of the things that suits me particularly well about parish ministry is that it does ask me to be a generalist.  The demands of the work are diverse.  The work includes solitary study, research, writing, and reflection and public speaking in front of several hundred people and teaching and facilitation of small groups and meeting one-on-one.  It demands interactions with people of all ages.  The work is done in the minister’s study, in the sanctuary, in the hospital, in people’s homes, in the program spaces of the church, in public, and, well, just about anywhere.  I also should confess that I really do like that the work is largely self-directed, well, self-directed and God-directed, but that is another sermon.

Another thing that makes me a good match for parish ministry is the fact that I really like the church as an institution.  That may seem obvious, but it’s important.  I’ve met people who thought they would like teaching, but couldn’t stand students.  I’ve met parish ministers who’ve discovered that they don’t like parishioners.  I like church people.  I do not have any illusions.  There is no such thing as a perfect congregation just as there is no such thing as a perfect minister.  Every church, even this one, has its share of warts and blemishes, its challenges and frustrations.  But despite all that, I like congregations.  I like the way they bring together a pretty startlingly diverse collection of people and asks them to go deep together, to be vulnerable with each other, to be a community.

So, I’ve just said why I think parish ministry suits me.  But, I haven’t actually shared what exactly I understand ministry to be.  The very first hymn we sang this morning, the lovely “Wake, Now My Senses,” with its lyrics by UU minister Thomas Mikelson and its lilting Irish tune, is really a hymn about ministry.  And, I think it is points at what I see as the essence of ministry.

The first verse begins, “Wake, now, my senses, and hear the earth call.”  The hymn is about receiving a calling.  The second verse announces, “Wake, now, my reason, reach out to the new; join with each pilgrim who quests for the true.”  So, perhaps the calling is to be a teacher, a professor.  The third verse continues, “Wake, now, compassion, give heed to the cry; voices of suffering fill the wide sky.”  Now the calling is different.  The hymn is describing a doctor, a practitioner of the healing arts.  But then the fourth verse changes the calling again.  “Wake, now, my conscience, with justice thy guide; join with all people whose rights are denied.”  The fourth voice is about the calling to be a lawyer.  So, is the calling to be a professor in search of truth, a doctor in search of healing, or a lawyer in search of justice?  Which is it?  The fifth verse, answers with a resounding, “Yes.”  “Wake, now, my vision of ministry clear.”

And, just like that we’ve come around to my friend Tim’s point about the generalized medieval figure of the minister, overlapping with scholarship, medicine, and law.  Understanding, health, and justice.

Learning, healing, doing justice: these are not in conflict with one another.  However, they can be in tension with each other.  And, ministry is there in that tension, and, also, somehow above it.
That’s what I want to say for now about my ministry.

“Anyone’s Ministry” by Gordon McKeeman

Ministry is

a quality of relationship between and among human beings
that beckons forth hidden possibilities.

inviting people into deeper, more constant
more reverent relationship with the world
and with one another.

carrying forward a long heritage of hope and
liberation  that has dignified and informed
the human venture over many centuries.

being present with, to, and for others
in their terrors and torments
in their grief, misery, and pain.

knowing that those feelings
are our feelings, too.

celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit
the miracles of birth and life
the wonders of devotion and sacrifice

witnessing to life-enhancing values
speaking truth to power
standing for human dignity and equity
for compassion and aspiration

believing in life in the presence of death
struggling for human responsibility
against principalities and structures
that ignore humaneness and become
instruments of death.

It is all these and much, much more than all of them, present in
the wordless
the unspoken
the ineffable.

It is speaking and living the highest we know and living with the knowledge that it is never as deep, or as wide or as high as we wish.

Whenever there is a meeting
that summons us to our better selves, wherever
our lostness is found
our fragments are united
or our wounds begin healing
our spines stiffen and
our muscles grow strong for the task

there is ministry.

Sermon, Part 2
The first section of my sermon began with medieval clerics.  The second part begins with the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther.  One of the core organizing principles of the Protestant Reformation was the idea of the “priesthood of all believers.”  This meant that people could experience God directly, without the mediation of a priest.  It also meant that people could be trusted to read the Bible on their own and discover God’s word for themselves.  The Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, expanded on Luther’s idea, speaking about the “prophethood of all believers,” essentially saying that the work of justice making is shared among us.  This second section of the sermon is about your ministry and our shared ministry.

I spoke about my ministry existing in that space of confluence and tension between the seeking after understanding, the healing of hurts, and the work to advance justice in our world.  Interestingly enough, our congregation’s mission statement touches on these three:  spiritual growth, caring community, a peaceful, fair, and free world.  Your ministry?  I would say that your ministry is exactly the same:  to grow deeper in understanding, to tend to each other’s pain, and to work for a more just world.  This description seems to work as well as any.

I asked members of the church to express what ministry means to them.  One member wrote, “My online dictionary gives one broad definition as ‘to attend to the needs of someone’. In that sense, as members of the human species we are called to that level of ministry for each other. Religion codifies what that might (should) look like, and church gives us an opportunity to know what needs are out there, and the collective inspiration, coaxing, and courage to step up to the plate and do what needs doing.”

If ministry is the advancement of understanding, healing, and justice, it follows that each of us, in our own differences, might feel particularly drawn towards one of these more than the others.  However, any one of these, on its own, may become grotesque and unhealthy.  Those who seek only after truth may become paralyzed by inaction.  Simply being right may not save us.  The search for healing can become about simply feeling good.  And, the pursuit of justice can become an ineffectual martyrdom.

Ministry, writes Gordon McKeeman, means speaking and living the highest we know, uniting our fragments, healing our wounds, and stiffening our spines.

In Unitarian Universalism, there was a term that began to be used in the early 1990s.  The term was “shared ministry,” a term that described the relationship between the minister and the congregation, and between the members of congregations themselves.  I’m interested in why this term emerged when it did.  This term was developed by a Protestant woman named Jean Trumbauer whose concepts were carried into Unitarian Universalism.  It’s been pointed out to me that it was at about precisely this time that Unitarian Universalism as a whole began to become more comfortable with theological language.  Many lay people began to see their service to one another and the world as ministry.  Earlier in our history, many ministers even rejected the concept of ministry!

One of the biggest programs of the UUA during this time was the extension ministry program, a program designed to help small, lay-led congregations to be able to get a professional minister.  The UUA matched ministers with congregations seeking their first minister and then gave the congregations a considerable amount of money.

This program had its share of successes as well as its share of failures.  The ones that were successful were the ones that had a shared and expansive sense of ministry while the ones that failed had a limited sense of ministry.

The ones that were successful saw it this way:  What a boon!  What an opportunity!  Now we have the capacity to create and develop and experiment with and explore all these new avenues for ministry.  We rejoice in these possibilities.  They reacted to the presence of professional minister by feeling liberated to develop their own ministries as members of a congregation.  This was the path towards expansiveness.

The ones that failed saw it differently:  now that we have a professional minister, we have someone to do all the work of ministry.  This ministry is important, so let’s make sure we manage our minister.  She represents a big investment, so let’s watch her closely.  This was the path towards smallness and frustration.

In the words of Gordon McKeeman, “Ministry is a quality of relationship between and among human beings that beckons forth hidden possibilities…  being present with, to, and for others… celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit… witnessing to life-enhancing values and speaking truth to power... all these and much, much more than all of them.”

As long as there is truth to be discovered, as long as there are hurts to be healed and pain to be lessened, as long as there is justice to be pursued, there is the need for ministry calling us, calling all of us, on.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sermon: "Dear White America" (Delivered 1-20-12)

Call to Worship
As we gather for worship on the Martin Luther King day weekend, let us begin by listening to these words by James Baldwin:

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.  And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed.  Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

We gather this morning in a changing world, an America that is demographically and culturally growing more multicultural, and a world that is becoming smaller and more interconnected.  We come together this morning to celebrate these changes and to better understand our place in this new world.

King once said that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  And this morning we affirm that this garment is like those multicolored banners, pennants, streamers, plumes, and bandannas of which we just sang.

King once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This morning we seek to learn so that when we “smile and shake hands and say ‘hello’” we do so with integrity and openness.

Let us commit ourselves to listening and learning, to understanding and discovery.  Come, let us worship together.

The reading this morning comes from the 2012 book Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority by Tim Wise.

“The fact is, things are changing in America, and in many ways we haven’t been prepared for those changes.  To be white has been to take a lot for granted over the years, and to assume that our normal was everyone’s normal; that our way of seeing the country and the culture – and that our experiences within both – were the ones that mattered, and were normative for all.  We could take for granted that political leaders would look like us, as would the cultural icons:  they would all have salt-of-the-earth biographies and chiseled jaws and wear cowboy hats like John Wayne…  They would all be Christians.  We could take for granted that our communities would be filled mostly with people who looked like us, and whose cultural and religious traditions were similar to our own.  We would not have to see or think about people of color too often, let alone rub shoulders with them with them daily, on the job or in the supermarket.  We wouldn’t see signs printed in languages other than English.  We wouldn’t even have ‘ethnic food’ sections in our groceries…  Above all, we could take for granted a certain level of economic security, and rest assured that our narrative about the country – what makes us great and what we stand for – would be a narrative over which we would have ultimate control.

“But now, white normativity is being challenged, and only on one front, but on four: political, economic, cultural, and demographic.  And each of these, in turn and especially together, poses a direct challenge to whiteness on yet a fifth front, the narrative front, by which I mean that battlefield of ideas within which the national character and story itself are defined and told to others.

“For a people who have been able to take our fundamental Americanness for granted, to suddenly be faced with the realization that we will have to share that designation with people who look different and pray differently and whose primary language may be different from our own, can be quite jarring for some of us.  The club is no longer exclusive.  The membership rolls are being opened up.  In the process, the sense of ‘specialness’ that American identity once held for us is being bid downward by the inclusion of some within its ranks who never would have qualified in decades and eras past. Within perhaps a decade or two, it may no longer be automatic that we envision a white person from the so-called ‘heartland’ when the terms ‘all-American boy’ or ‘all-American girl’ are used; rather, we might envision a first-generation Latina immigrant in the Southwest, a Hmong farmer in Wisconsin, or an Arab Muslim in Dearborn, Michigan.  How does that feel?  Be honest.”

In several of the books and essays by author and speaker Tim Wise, he cites theresults of several Gallup polls taken during the 1960s.  In 1963, for example, Gallup conducted a poll where they asked people whether they thought whites and blacks were treated equally in their communities.  Let’s think back to 1963, fifty years ago.  It was the height of the civil rights movement, the year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March on Washington and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  It was almost a decade into the Civil Rights movement, the year of the march on Birmingham, Alabama, calling to mind those images of fire hoses and police dogs being turned against non-violent protesters.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had not yet been passed.

So, in 1963, when asked whether blacks and whites were treated equally, 2/3 of whites responded, “Yes, I believe that blacks receive equal treatment to whites.”  One year earlier, 1962, Gallup polled whites, asking, “Do white children and black children receive equal educational opportunities?”  That year, 85% of whites said that they thought black children and white children had the same chances to receive a good education.

In 1969 Gallup conducted another poll that concluded that 44% of whites thought that blacks had a better chance than whites at receiving a good paying job, while 42% percent of whites thought that black children had a better chance for a good education than white children.  The results of these polls showed that only about 20% of whites, roughly one out of five, thought whites had better chances of a good job or a good education than people of color in the society of the 1960s.

What do you think is the right way to characterize the results of these polls from forty and fifty years ago?  The findings of these surveys reveal a mindset that we might safely characterize as delusional, as so out of touch with the world in which these respondents lived that it seems no small miracle that these people were able to function at all in the course of their daily lives.

This morning, my reflections are going to introduce the work and the thinking of Tim Wise, one of America’s leading white anti-racist educators.  He is the author of hundreds of essays and six books:  Affirmative Action, an anti-racist analysis of affirmative action programs in education; White Like Me, a personal exploration of how white privilege operates; a collection of essays entitled Speaking Treason Fluently; two books, Colorblind and Between Barack and a Hard Place, that challenge the idea that we are living in a post-racial society; and, most recently, Dear White America, a polemic essay about what it means to be white in contemporary America.  I have read all six of his books as well as many of his essays.  For the past nineteen years, Tim Wise has traveled the country speaking at more than 750 universities and high schools.  It is estimated that more than a million people have heard him lecture.  I have heard him speak twice, once at UMKC and once at Johnson County Community College.  Tim Wise was also featured as a speaker at the 2011 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He has spoken at UU churches and his books have been studied by racial justice groups in UU congregations.

There are a number of things that I admire about Tim Wise.  One thing is that his analysis of oppression is geared towards racism, but also towards sexism, homophobia, and other forms of systemic injustice.  He challenges not only white supremacy, but also male supremacy and straight supremacy.  The other thing I really like about him is that he pulls no punches.  In his role as a white, anti-racist ally, he claims the liberty to be aggressive and confrontational.  He claims the sort of righteous anger that people of color are too often criticized for demonstrating.  He defends his role as a white, anti-racist educator by pointing out just how bad the dominant racial group in this nation has been, whether in the 1960s or today, at listening to and being willing to trust the experiences of people of color.  (Remember, in 1963, two thirds of whites told the pollsters from Gallup that they believed African-Americans received equal treatment.)

Here is how Tim Wise begins an essay from 2001:

“Just a few years ago, a public opinion poll indicated that only 6% of whites in the U.S. believed racism was still a "very serious" problem facing African Americans. While larger percentages believed racism to be somewhat of a problem, only this anemic share of the white community saw it as an issue of great importance.  When you consider that twice that number – or as many as 12% – have told pollsters they believe Elvis Presley is still alive, it becomes apparent that delusion has taken on a whole new meaning among the dominant racial majority. Apparently, it is easier for whites to believe that a pill-popping, washed-up lounge singer faked his own death and is playing midnight gigs at some tropical resort, than to believe what black folks say they experience every day.

By the way, if there is one thing that I would hope that you would take away from my thoughts this morning, it would be that being able to listen to another’s experience, even when it is unpleasant, even when it is difficult, even when it accuses you, is a deeply spiritual practice.  To be able to listen non-judgmentally and non-defensively and non-reactively to that person and trust how that person characterizes their own experience is a deeply spiritual practice.  As Unitarian Universalists, when we are at our best, we are able to do this.  We need to be able to listen to another person describe a spiritual experience or a theological insight that flies in the face of our own, without needing to argue with or dismiss that person.  And, we need to be able to listen to another person describe the particularities of their own lived experience without paternalistically dismissing their story.  When someone says “ouch” we need to recognize our role in wounding them, not tell them to grow a thicker skin.  If you take nothing else away this morning, this is it.

Tim Wise’s Dear White America advances the argument that our nation is experiencing a perfect storm of change in the present moment.  Our nation is changing politically, economically, culturally, and demographically, and, taken as a whole, these changes are disrupting the dominant narrative of what it means to be an American.

That our nation is undergoing political changes related to race is evident.  One need only look to this week’s presidential inauguration.  But even the race of the man elected to our nation’s highest office does not tell the whole story.  One website states, “The 113th Congress will be more representative of the United States from race to religion, and from gender to sexual orientation. It will look more like America with 4 new African American representatives, 10 new Latinos, 5 new Asian Americans and an additional 24 women in the House or Senate.  It will believe more like America with the first two Hindu congresspeople, the first Buddhist senator, and the first non-theist to openly acknowledge her belief prior to getting elected.  It will love more like America, with 4 new LGBT congresspeople or senators, including the first openly bisexual congresswoman and the first openly gay congressman of color. And it will be younger, with four new congressmen born in the 1980s.

However, these changes are not necessarily due to the racial enlightenment of the white voting populace.  Wise points out that 700,000 fewer whites cast a vote in 2008 than had voted in 2004.  Rather, these political changes reflect people of color voting in larger numbers, and changing their voting habits.  For example, in the year 2000 George W. Bush captured 70% of Muslim American votes; in 2004 he captured just 4%.  (This statistic appeared in a fascinating article about Muslim American politics by Rany Jazayerli.)

Demographically, the racial composition of America is changing.  Wise writes, “According to projections, by no later than 2050, whites will cease to be the majority in the United States… In several states, this population shift has already happened, with whites comprising half or less of the population.”  Such racial diversity is matched by cultural diversity.  “Now it is fair to say that American culture is thoroughly multicultural, with each thread of that cultural garment being intrinsically interlaced with the others.  From the foods we eat to the music we hear to the clothing styles, there is no way to separate the various cultural and ethnic threads any longer…  Even small towns now have Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, authentic Mexican food and bodegas.”

Cumulatively, Tim Wise argues, these political, economic, cultural, and demographic changes challenge some of the narratives that are held most commonly among us.  He actually begins his book by sharing a wild fantasy about challenging that narrative.  He fantasizes about going to a fourth of July firework show, and finding the person wearing the most red, white, and blue on his person, and remarking, “Why can’t you just get over it?  I mean, why do you insist on living in the past?  That whole ‘breaking away from the British’ thing was like more than 200 years ago.  Isn’t it time to move on?”

Okay, so his fantasy involves being obnoxious.  If you fail to see the humor here, this exact thing – “it was a long time ago”, “get over it” – is frequently said to people who would have us remember the more shameful episodes of our history.  Remember the revolutionary war, but not slavery.  Remember Pearl Harbor, but not the Japanese internment.  Remember the Alamo, but not the genocide of the Native Americans.

The new America that is evolving as we speak demands a new narrative.  It demands, as James Baldwin put it, that we surrender dreams long-cherished and privileges long-possessed for the sake of higher dreams and greater privileges.

When Tim Wise speaks to white audiences, he tells them that his goal is not for them to feel guilty, but to feel responsible.  “I know we aren’t to blame for history – either its horrors or the legacy it has left us.  But we are responsible for how we bear that legacy, and what we make of it in the present…  Guilt is what you feel for the things you have done, but responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are.”

Just as we talk about the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we just as surely understand responsibility in this sense, of being born into interconnection with others.  We have the responsibility to listen to the experiences of others.  We have the responsibility to realize our own interconnectedness.  We have the responsibility to understand, how, in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”  It is this responsibility that frees us, that liberates us for higher dreams and greater privileges.  So may it be.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sermon: "The Race to the Bottom" (Delivered 1-13-13)

The reading comes from this website.

To our great shame, among industrialized nations, America now has:
§  The highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
§  The greatest inequality of incomes;
§  The lowest government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product on social programs for the disadvantaged;
§  The lowest number of days for paid holiday, annual leaves, and maternity leaves;
§  The lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
§  The worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index;
§  The lowest social mobility;
§  The highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion of Gross Domestic Product, yet accompanied by the highest:
§  Infant mortality rate
§  Prevalence of mental health problems
§  Obesity rate
§  Portion of people going without health care due to cost
§  Low birth weight children per capita (except for Japan)
§  Consumption of anti-depressants per capita
§  The shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);
§  The highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
§  […]
§  The highest military spending as a portion of Gross Domestic Product;
§  The largest international arms sales;
§  […]
§  The lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal and Italy) (and far down from the top in both science and reading);
§  The highest high school drop out rate (except for Spain);

This is exceptionalism we don’t need. Thankfully, America is also Number 1 or near the top in a number of positive indicators, including in the United Nations’ overall Human Development Index. But we are also far down the rankings, though not (yet) at the bottom, on others also not listed here. For example, the U.S. ranks only 13th on The Economist’s Democracy Index, right below the Czech Republic.

Many observers find these results troubling for what they portend for U.S. competitiveness in the world economy and our national influence abroad—our so-called “soft power.” But the results are even more telling for what they say about our care for each other and for future generations of Americans and, even more, for what they say about our political leaders.

These deplorable consequences did not just happen as the result of economic and technological forces over which we have no control. They are the results of conscious political decisions made over several decades by both Democrats and Republicans who have had priorities other than strengthening the well-being of American society and our environment. Many countries, notably in Europe, took a different path, one that was open to us also. America may have invented the middle class, but while others improved on our grand idea, we let it slip away.

It’s not too late to begin climbing out of the basement on these issues, but sweeping them under the rug in celebration of American exceptionalism won’t allow that. And since we’re Number 1 in both low taxes and military spending, it is clear where we can find the money we need to invest in our future.

A year and a half ago, along with several leaders in our church, I attended a meeting of the Board of Education of the Shawnee Mission School District.  This was the meeting where they voted to sell us this building.  We were the happiest people in the room that evening.  Immediately before the sale of the school on the agenda, the Board received public comment about crowding in Kindergarten classrooms.  A parade of moms came to the microphone to testify that their children’s Kindergarten classes had too many children, that instruction was being compromised, and to ask the Board of Education to enforce class size standards.  A member of our congregation who was sitting next to me, and who had sent her own children to Kindergarten in this district a decade earlier, turned to me and whispered, “Even if they get the Board of Education to follow the standards, that’s not really a victory.  That’s still too many children for one Kindergarten classroom.”

At the micro level, we see things like Kindergarten class sizes creeping upwards.  At the macro level, we know that Kansas is a state that has cut and cut and cut the services it provides to its citizens year after year, and then turned around and passed tax cuts, creating projected deficits that threaten even more additional cuts.

This is the reality that I’m going to talk about this morning, a state of affairs that I think can be aptly called the “race to the bottom.”  What I’m going to talk about this morning is a political and economic and social reality, for sure.  But, I’m also going to speak this morning about how it is a spiritual affliction and a sickness of the soul.  It damages our society, our well-being.  And, when we accept it we damage our own humanity and morality.

Over the past several weeks I have spoken with members of this congregation who work in the fields of public education, public health, and for various social service providers supported by public funding.  I haven’t spoken with everyone who works in these fields, but I trust that if you work in one of these fields, your experiences will be in line with what I am about to describe.  As I spoke with our members who work in fields that have suffered cuts, the first thing that stands out to me is how dedicated and devoted they are.  They really believe in what they do.  They are passionate about the education of children.  They are committed to serving the mentally ill.  They care deeply.  They are helpers by nature.  And the first round of cuts comes and they all think, “Whatever we do, we can’t cut services.”  So they trim from administration.  They disinvest in their infrastructure.  The workplace is allowed to become dirty and rundown.  More cuts come and the workers begin to make personal sacrifices to sustain levels of service.  Stress is felt throughout the organization.  The workplace becomes a place of overwork, anxiety, fear, resentment, cynicism, and despair.  Another round of cuts comes and services are reduced.  Services are prioritized resulting in competitiveness and the loss of a holistic and collaborative vision for service.

A member in our congregation spoke to me about working at a mental health center that serves a particularly vulnerable population within our metro area.  When he started there, the center offered a rich variety of programs, comprehensive services, and it initiated creative programs to meet the mental health needs of the community.  Moreover, it was able to offer a sliding scale of fees so that no one was turned away, including those completely unable to pay.  After several rounds of cuts from Topeka, the services offered by the health center were decimated.  Half of the counselors were laid off, including the member of our church.  Community programs were abolished and the focus shifted from comprehensive care to triage for mental health crises.

Earlier this week Governor Brownback stood in front of this mental health center whose funding he had slashed and announced that $10 million would be reallocated for mental health crisis care, however, apparently those funds would come at the expense of other mental health services funded by the state.  Depending on the source you consult, mental health services in Kansas have been cut by between $15 and $19 million over the past three years.  One member of our congregation characterized the Governor’s announcement this way, “It’s like the playground bully stealing your bat, ball, glove, homeplate, and cap, and giving you back your cap and expecting to be thanked for his generosity.”

In the race to the bottom, Kansas made larger cuts to its mental health budget than 45 other states over between 2009 and 2011.  We’re 46th!  And, even though it is challenging and subjective to try to rank states by the quality of their public schools, one recent report ranked Kansas 39th in the nation.

There are all sorts of words we might use to characterize the race to the bottom.  Heartless is one word I’d use.  Unchristian is another.  I would be tempted to add foolish, although to rise to the level of fool one has to have good intentions.  But, if we charitably assume good intentions, then foolishness is the proper diagnosis.  Untreated mental illness will take its toll on society.  The court system, jails, and emergency rooms are all much more expensive than preventative mental health care, not to mention far less effective and far less humane.  It deserves to be mentioned that an earlier budget cut forced the mental health care center to cut the innovative outreach program it took into local schools to promote early intervention in the area of mental health.  An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

Author Marilynne Robinson, writing about investing in education, makes this very same point.  “Those in earlier generations,” she writes, “who intended the benefits of education for me did not intend them any less for my great-grandchildren.  But the new ideology seems to assume that the public as such cannot legitimately own anything or obligate the living to anything – for example, to providing the same access to education we have enjoyed.  Education is associated with prosperity, so there is every reason to assume our shortfall [in educating them] can be monetized in reduced prosperity for our children or grandchildren…  If we educate them well, we give them the means to create a future that we cannot anticipate.  If we cheat them, they will have the relatively meager future we have prepared for them.”  As the bumper sticker puts it, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

On Friday, a panel of three judges ruled that the Kansas legislature is underfunding public education in violation of the state’s constitution and ordered the legislature to increase base student aid by around $600 dollars per student.  The state legislature will appeal the court’s ruling, and, if unsuccessful, may seek other means – up to and including changing the constitution – to avoid having to pay.  We may draw a direct line between the political standoff over school funding and the mothers testifying at the Board of Education meeting about crowding in Kindergarten classrooms.

Walt Whitman, writing after the civil war, said, “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down.  But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me.  [They] own no law but their own will [and so grow] more and more combative [and] less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood.”

Whitman continued, “The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort, a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth…  A great and varied nationality… were firmest held and knit by the principle of safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners.”

Just as there has been a race to the bottom in the public sector, a systematic disinvestment in those services that benefit the common good and help to provide “safety,” “endurance,” and “general comfort,” so too has there been a race to the bottom in the private sector.  Take for example states that have passed “right to work” legislation, a type of law that weakens the power of unions.  These laws were originally passed in the south in the hopes of attracting factories from the north.  Move your business here and you can make greater profits by paying your workers less.  The effect of such laws has been lower wages, fewer benefits, and less health care.  Now such laws exist in 24 states.  As more states pass such laws, any relative advantage these laws confer to the business owners will be diluted and we’ll wait to see who will be the next to lower the bar.  Such is the race to the bottom.

Chris Hedges, in his most recent book, describes what the bottom looks like in the race to the bottom.  In one chapter he takes us to Immokalee, Florida, where workers from Central America and the Caribbean pick produce.  The workers are Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Haitians.  Human rights abuses, including slavery and sex trafficking flourish in this deregulated environment.  Hedges describes the tomato and cucumber pickers as “model workers in the corporate state…  [They have] no job protection or security, no benefits, no medical coverage, no overtime, no ability to organize, no Social Security, no food stamps, no legal protection, and when their employers do not need them, they are left without an income, a place to live, or something to eat.”

Hedges interviews a human rights advocate in Immokalee who works to combat slavery.  “Forced labor doesn’t happen in isolation,” says the human rights activist, “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It is part of a continuum, the end of a whole range of labor violations…  Florida in the past two hundred or three hundred years, there’s never been a time without slavery, or a form of forced labor…  Agriculture has always had it.  And what’s interesting is that other industries are actually now more prone to it, industries that didn’t used to have it.  This shows you that when an industry devolves from being an industry with a fulltime work force with benefits and overtime, pensions, or whatever, to a sub-poverty minimum wage workforce you start seeing more cases of forced labor.  We are starting to see labor trafficking in the garment industry and in hotels and construction.  It devolves.”

Chris Hedges, always provocative, argues that we are all harmed by the race to the bottom.  He writes, “The suffering of the other… is universal…  The indifference we showed to the plight of the underclass, in Biblical terms our ‘neighbor,’ haunts us.  We failed them, and in doing so we failed ourselves.”  Hedges means this in a very literal, very actual way.  Chris Hedges’ message here is that if you care about your benefits, your health care, the education of your children, you better care about the working conditions of field workers and coal miners.  You had better care about those who are served by and work for mental health care centers and public schools.

When we accept the race to the bottom, we’re harmed in terms of the quality of our lives, if not in the present then certainly in the future.  And, we’re harmed morally and spiritually.  Frederick Douglas once said, “Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Our souls are injured when we accept injustice as the way of the world.  Our souls are injured when we accept cynicism and call it reality.  Our souls are injured when we lose hope for a world better than the one we know or when we lose the courage and the will to demand it.

There is, of course, an alternative.  It is an alternative that is easy to see, but challenging to make happen.  The alternative is to say that the race to the bottom is unacceptable, to demand better and be willing to pay for it.  This is the race to the top.  It requires the courage to insist that we pay for education and social services and achieve a better society through worker protections.  It is a race worth running because the destination is a worthy goal.

Friday, January 04, 2013

2012 Year in Review (Books)

2012 Year in Review (Books)

Each year I set a goal of reading at least 52 books and at least 12,000 pages.  In 2012 I reached both these goals.

Notable Fiction and Short Fiction Read in 2012

The two best novels I read this past year were Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King and Karen Russell’s imaginative debut novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer.  The Eggers novel, a New York Times notable book, tells the story of an American businessman on a quixotic journey to Saudi Arabia.  He is determined to strike one last business deal to save his failing career but discovers that he is the victim of a globalized economy he helped create but that has rendered him obsolete.  Swamplandia! is a very different novel, but somewhat similar at the same time.  It tells the story of three siblings, the heirs to an alligator theme park where the business has dried up, who struggle to come of age and find meaning in the midst of a world that is changing.  Swamplandia!’s magical realism, Russell’s wonderful South Florida Gothic styling, makes her novel mesmerizing.  Other novels of note I read this past year include John Brandon’s A Million Heavens, a good read but nowhere nearly as good as his previous novel, Ann Patchett’s Amazon novel State of Wonder, and Kevin Brockmeier’s provocative and underwhelming novel The Illumination which deals with a sudden unexplained phenomena in which all human beings emit bright white light from the places where they experience physical pain.

I am a lover of the short story format and the book I most enjoyed reading this past year was Karen Russell’s amazing collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  Her second collection of short stories is due to be published in early 2013 and I am eagerly awaiting reading it.  Adam Levin’s short story collection Hot Pink was also spectacular.  I also completed my goal of reading every issue of McSweeney’s Literary quarterly by reading two new issues and eight old ones.  (I am now working on reading every book published by McSweeney’s Press and have read almost two thirds of the 180 books they’ve published.)

Notable Non-Fiction Read in 2012

In early 2012 I read three books by anti-racist educator Tim Wise (I’ve now read all six titles he’s published)  including his new short polemic essay Dear White America, an earlier book of his entitled Colorblind, and a collection of his essays entitled Speaking Treason Fluently.  Staying on the theme of anti-racism, I also read Michelle Alexander’s powerful The New Jim Crow, which was selected as the UUA’s Common Read book for this church year and which I preached on last spring.  Rounding out my anti-racist reading, I also read Patriotic Acts published by the Voices of Witness project.  This book was a collection of oral histories dealing with civil rights abuses of Muslims and others in post-9/11 America.

The single best book I read in 2012 may have been the newest essay collection by Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books.  No contemporary author writes a better paragraph than Robinson and her essays deal with the place of humanistic Christian thought in American history and the role the humanities and theology can play in speaking to the human condition today.

However, the most powerful book I read this past year may have been Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco.  No writer is writing more powerfully and urgently about corporatism and American empire than Chris Hedges.  A more hopeful tone may be found in John Horgan’s hopeful The End of War.

On the lighter side, I found Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, a fascinating exploration of the creative process, collaboration, performance, the economics of recorded music, and the role recording technology has shaped the music we hear.  The first chapter reprises Byrne’s magnificent TED talk and is a fitting beginning to a book that is excellent from beginning to end.

However, the award for the weirdest book I read this past year goes to the remarkable Rector and Rogue by W.A. Swanberg.  This book is part of the Paul Collins series of bizarre books of yesteryear that deserve to be returned to print.  Swanberg, writing in the twentieth century, tells the story of an enormously complex and mysterious prank played on New York City’s most austere Episcopalian rector nearly a century earlier, a prank that might still echo today.

Notable Poetry Read in 2012

I did not read very much poetry in 2012, but a couple of works stand out.  Jane Hirshfield’s newest collection Come, Thief is extremely good.  However, no poetry collection was better than Rebecca Lindenberg’s heart-breaking Love, an Index, a poetic encapsulation of the grief of her experience of losing her love who died at a tragically young age, and of the memories of him that will endure.

Here is a list of books published in 2012 that I read in 2012:
Vicky Swanky is a Beauty by Dianne Williams (short fiction)
Dear White America by Tim Wise (short polemic essay on anti-racism)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin (short fiction)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (essays)
Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindenberg (poetry)
McSweeney’s 40 (short fiction and non-fiction)
McSweeney’s 41 (short fiction and non-fiction)
In My Home There Is No More Sorrow by Rick Bass (non-fiction)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (fiction)
The End of War by John Horgan (non-fiction)
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (memoir)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon (fiction)
Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank (non-fiction)
Between Heaven and Here by Susan Straight (fiction)
Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass (non-fiction)
How Music Works by David Byrne (non-fiction)
Emmaus by Alessandro Barrico (fiction)
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges (non-fiction)

Here is a list of some of the other books I read in 2012:
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (fiction)
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (short fiction)
Speaking Treason Fluently by Tim Wise (non-fiction)
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful by Alice Walker
It Chooses You by Miranda July (non-fiction)
McSweeney’s Volumes 5-12 (short fiction)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (non-fiction)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (fiction)
The Rector and the Rogue by W. A. Swanberg (non-fiction)
Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield (poetry)
No Silent Witness by Cynthia Grant Tucker (non-fiction)
Patriot Acts edited by Alia Malek (non-fiction)
Local Wonders by Ted Kooser (memoir)
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (fiction)