Monday, May 27, 2013

Sermon: "The Good News About Peace" (Delivered 5-26-13)

Last spring, in his commencement speech at Harvard University, Fareed Zakaria told Harvard’s graduating class that we live in an age of progress.  Here is a short excerpt from his optimistic address:

The world we live in is, first of all, at peace — profoundly at peace. The richest countries of the world are not in geopolitical competition with one another, fighting wars, proxy wars, or even engaging in arms races or “cold wars.” This is a historical rarity. You would have to go back hundreds of years to find a similar period of great power peace. I know that you watch a bomb going off in Afghanistan or hear of a terror plot in this country and think we live in dangerous times. But here is the data. The number of people who have died as a result of war, civil war, and, yes, terrorism, is down 50 percent this decade from the 1990s. It is down 75 percent from the preceding five decades, the decades of the Cold War, and it is, of course, down 99 percent from the decade before that, which is World War II. Steven Pinker says that we are living in the most peaceful times in human history, and he must be right because he is a Harvard professor.

How does this quote strike you?  When Zakaria says that the world we live in is profoundly at peace, does that seem right to you?  Do you say, “Yes, Mr. Zakaria, I too feel the same way?”  Or, do you say, “I’m not sure if we’re living on the same planet.”

Before I go on, I want to introduce you to the literature I’ll be referring to in my message this morning.  When Fareed Zakaria mentioned Harvard professor Steven Pinker, he was making reference to Pinker’s newest book, a 700 page behemoth entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  Zakaria was actually understating Pinker’s thesis.  Pinker not only writes about there being less war; he says that there is less violence of all kinds.

To be honest with you, I did little more than skim Pinker’s doorstop of a book.  I did however pick up a book called The End of War by John Horgan.  At a much more civilized two hundred pages in length, Horgan offers a meditation on human nature and about the assumptions and excuses that people make in claiming that war is natural or inevitable.  And, less you think that I’m some kind of slacker, skimming the long book and reading the short one, let me also add a third piece of literature that informs this sermon.  In 2003 William T. Vollmann published a massive, 3,000 page, seven-volume treatise on violence entitled Rising Up and Rising Down.  One of my reading goals for this year is to read it in its entirety.  Vollmann doesn’t consider the end of war or violence, but his book is a study of the ways that human beings attempt to justify violence.  His book stands as an enormous reminder that our human history is a long history of violence.

That’s the literature I’ll be speaking about this morning.  But let me return to that provocative quote with which I began the sermon.  How many of you would describe the world as profoundly at peace?  Are we living in the same world?  Look around our nation, look around our world, turn on the news, and what do we see.  We see news of the terrorist bombing in Boston and a grisly murder in London.  In less than a year we have witnessed mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin, an elementary school in Connecticut, and a Mother’s Day parade in Louisiana.  According to one website that tracks such things, in the less than six months since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School there have been at least 4,364 (and counting) gun related deaths in the United States, a rate of more than 25 shooting fatalities per day.  (Those figures are probably low.)  And, we might also note that in places in the world like Syria and Afghanistan, violence is a brutal part of everyday life.

In 2003, right after the US invasion of Iraq, John Horgan went to speak at an Episcopalian Church about whether there was a genetic basis for violence.  John Horgan was a senior writer for Scientific American for more than a decade and is a specialist in science journalism, in helping the public to better understand scientific ideas.  He writes, “When I asked the sixty or so audience members if they thought humanity would ever abolish war, only a dozen – hesitantly – raised their hands.  This was no anomaly.  Ever since that evening, I’ve obsessively asked people whether they think war will ever end, once and for all.  I’ve carried out polls whenever I have a captive audience.  Over 80 percent of those I’ve queried – liberal, conservative, male, female, affluent, poor, educated, uneducated – say that war will never end.”

Young people, Horgan says, are especially pessimistic.  When he teaches a course on “War and Human Nature” at his University he sends out his students to poll their peers and 90 percent say that they believe war will never end on Earth.  Horgan notes that even many of the optimistic answers he receives are actually pessimistic in nature.  War will end on earth only when all people are converted to the same religion.  War will end on earth after the nuclear apocalypse when there are no humans left.  War will end on earth when humankind joins together in the common cause of defending the planet from alien invaders.  In his course, Horgan goes one step further and has his student pollsters ask a follow-up question.  Why?  Why will war never be abolished?  Here is where it gets interesting.  As it turns out, none of the justifications offered for war being necessary or inevitable have any kind of scientific validity.  As a good scientist Horgan is led to conclude that there is no scientific basis for saying that war must exist.

In the 1980s a group of twenty of the world’s leading scientists in fields like genetics and neuroscience met under the auspices of the United Nations and issued a statement that war lacks a biological or genetic basis.  Their statement began with five declarations:

1) It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.
2) It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature.
3) It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior.
4) It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a “violent brain.”
5) It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by “instinct” or any single motivation.

Lacking a compelling scientific basis for war’s necessity – history proves that not even resource scarcity leads necessarily to war – Horgan is left to conclude that human capacity for the exercise of free will means that war is by no means inevitable.

If John Horgan’s short book “The End of War” operates mostly in the realm of reason, rhetoric, and argument, Steven Pinker’s long book brings the evidence.  Making use of chart after chart, graph after graph, Pinker shows us a world that has become less war-stricken by magnitudes over the past century.

Steven Pinker refers to the period in which we are living as “The New Peace.”  He writes, “It may always be something, but there can be fewer of those things, and the things that happen don’t have to be as bad.  The numbers tell us that not only war, but also genocide and terrorism have declined over the past two decades – not to zero, but by a lot…  Millions of people are alive today because of the civil wars and genocides that did not take place but that would have taken place if the world had remained as it was in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  The conditions that favored this happy outcome – democracy, prosperity, decent government, peacekeeping, open economies, and the decline of antihuman ideologies – are not, of course, guaranteed to last forever.  But nor are they likely to vanish overnight.”

I’m not sure I can do justice to this with just a quote, or just describing Pinker’s analysis, but in graph after graph he depicts fatalities from war, from genocide, and from terrorism, and in every single graph it shows that the closer we get to the present, the less of this sort of violence there is.  This is even true if we include terrorism.  Between 1980 and 2001 the four years with the least amount of terrorism were 1998, 1999, 2000, and, yes, 2001.  Over the past decade, terrorism has continued to decline.

But that’s not all the good news.  Steven Pinker also describes the historical era in which we are living as the era of the “Rights Revolution.”  We are living in the era of civil rights, an era in which our society has decided to address lynching and hate crimes.  We are living in the era of women’s rights, an era in which our society has decided to address rape and domestic violence.  We are living in the era of children’s rights, in which our society has decided to address infanticide, child abuse, and bullying.  We are living in the era of gay rights with a decline of gay-bashing and the increasing worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality.  And, we are even living in the era of animal rights, in which we as a society have decided to address cruelty to animals in many forms.

These are all extremely modern phenomena.  The notion that one partner should not be allowed to beat the other, that a parent should not be allowed to beat a child, that rape is not boys being boys, that bullying is not a normal aspect of childhood, and that violence directed against vulnerable minorities should be taken seriously by law enforcement – these awakenings are actually sadly recent within our society.

If I can introduce a moment of levity here, I might mention one example of how this sensitivity towards violence has permeated our culture.  Some years ago, but after I had graduated from elementary school, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education introduced a new standard that declared,

Dodgeball is not an appropriate activity for K-12 school physical association programs.  Some kids may like it – the most skilled, the most confident.  But many do not!  Certainly not the student gets hit hard in the stomach, head, or groin.  And it is not appropriate to teach our children that you win by hurting others.

Some of us may decry this, pronouncing this to be political correctness run amok.  But, on the other hand, we might also ask questions about authority (school teachers) making compulsory an activity in which children are made the targets of projectiles hurled by their peers.

This example about dodgeball may seem trifling, but it is a part of a larger point that Steven Pinker makes.  The pronounced decline in violence the world has seen over centuries and decades has actually been the result of greater awareness of suffering, diminished tolerance for violence, and greater reverence for human life.  We’re more sensitive, but that is not a bad thing.  Pinker writes, “The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality in ages past, and our notion of universal human rights would have been thought almost incoherent.”

The good news about peace is that war is less, genocide is less, terrorism is less, and, according to Pinker, violence on the whole is less.  The bad news is that it has not been completely eradicated.  And, finally, the news that is both good and bad is that the decline of violence has not left us joyful and contented, but rather increasingly restless, less tolerant and less accepting of the violence that continues to exist within our midst.  I invite you to embrace this restlessness as a spiritual gift, a characteristic of the evolution of human society and human progress.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sermon: "Faith's Future, Humanity's Future" (Delivered 5-19-13)

Call to Worship

[This call to worship was read by a member of the youth group.]

Good morning.  My name is Reverend Thom Belote.

Today I was going to preach about the future.  So I built a time machine to see what the future would hold.  I made a mistake and crossed the wires by accident, and sent myself twenty years into the past.

This is me in 1992, twenty years ago, a youth saying the opening words at a UU church.

Twenty years ago the United States was withdrawing troops from Iraq following a war, just like today.
Twenty years ago the Rodney King trial showed us that racism and the criminal justice system were serious issues in our country, just like today.
Twenty years ago the Rolling Stones went on tour, even though they seemed to be getting a little old for touring.  They are touring North America right now.
Twenty years ago there were one hundred and fifty thousand Unitarian Universalists in the United States, the same number there are today.

But some things have changed in the last twenty years.

Today twelve states recognize gay marriage.  None did twenty years ago.
Today there is greater diversity in politics, business, and education.
Today smartphones, Facebook, Skype, and Twitter change the way we communicate.
Today our church is more than twice as large as it was in 1992 and worship is held here instead of in the Barn Chapel.

While you think about what the next twenty years will hold, while we worship together, I’m going to see whether time travel is reversible.

My thanks to Jim C. for purchasing the right to assign me a sermon topic at last November’s Auction.  Here is what Jim requested from me in the sermon.  He wrote, “I've been thinking about the sermon I purchased at the auction and I have an idea for your consideration: ‘Welcome to the Year 2038.’  I'd like you to consider what life will be like 25 years from now.  What will life in the U.S. look like?  Will current trends of income inequality plunge us into a land of nobles and serfs, or will we have overcome our greed-based economic system?  What will the religious and racial makeup of our society look like?  Will SMUUCh be a mega-church, the rest of the world finally realizing that loving support of our individual paths is the way to true spiritual growth and fulfillment?  Will there be air to breathe, or will we be purchasing it in portable tanks in order to survive?  Think you might get out your crystal ball and have some fun with this?”

A funny thing happened right around the time that I received Jim’s sermon idea.  Right around that time I picked up a copy of a book by Nate Silver entitled The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t.  Nate Silver began his career as a wayward mathematician, spending his nights earning a living playing on-line Poker and his days mostly failing to devise a better mathematical model for predicting the performance of baseball players.  In 2008 Nate Silver started a blog using math to predict the outcomes of elections.  He was wildly successful.  In the 2008 presidential election, he called 49 out of 50 states correctly.  He missed Indiana.  He went back to the drawing board, improved his model, and went a perfect fifty for fifty with the 2012 presidential election.  In my circle of friends a saying emerged, “Keep calm and trust Nate Silver.”

Silver’s book looks at a number of fields that are in the business of prediction, everything from meteorology to seismology, from sports betting to investing in the stock market.  One of the main take-aways from Silver’s book is that for the most part human beings are abysmally bad at making predictions.  Sorry, Jim.  I have a favorite example of prediction folly.  Starting before the year 2000 the New York Times paid a so-called football expert to predict the exact final score of every NFL game.  In the year 2000, a journalist began tracking these predictions.  That year the author went a perfect zero for 256 with his predictions.  The next season the column returned and he went zero for 256 a second year in a row.  The third year he still had a job and in the middle of that season he finally made one correct prediction.  For a period of several years Nate Silver tracked the political predictions of a panel of talking heads on The McLaughlin Group, a political talk show.  He found that they were all very bad at making predictions.  Any of them could have just flipped a coin and not done any worse.  So, I hope that you are at least entertained this morning by my misguided predictions.  I certainly won’t be giving you hot stock picks or telling you to lay your money on the Spurs in the NBA playoffs.

Turn on the news, open the paper, or read a book about current events and you may find yourself convinced that the world is doomed and that humanity is utterly hopeless.  Or do the same and you may find your spirits buoyantly lifted as you regain your faith in the progress of humankind.  I wonder if this happens to you.  You hear about a shocking act of senseless, wasteful violence and you despair for the human condition.  You learn that marriage equality wins in Delaware and Minnesota and your faith in humanity is restored.  Then a ridiculous law is passed in Topeka or Jefferson City and you swear the world is ending.  But then great piece of legislation is passed and you allow hope to creep back in.  You learn some catastrophic information about global poverty or global climate change but then you learn about a groundbreaking development in medicine or clean energy.  Which way do the signs point?  Towards a world going to hell in a hand basket?  Towards a nobler world than we have known today?  Or do the signs point to the status quo, nothing new under the sun, same as it ever was?

Historically speaking, Unitarian Universalists have tended to embrace a more positive view of the future.  Writing in 1886, Unitarian James Freeman Clarke wrote his answer to what Unitarians believe.  He said Unitarians affirm “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or, the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  Theodore Parker claimed that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.  Search our hymnal and you will find an entire section of hymns under the theme “In Time to Come.”  The time to come imagined by these hymns sounds pretty good to me.  “These things shall be: a loftier race than e’er the world hath known shall rise, with flame of freedom in their souls, and the light of science in their eyes.”  “Hail the glorious golden city, pictured by the seers of old: everlasting light shines o’er it, wondrous things of it are told.  Wise and righteous men and women dwell within its gleaming wall; wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme o’er all.”

This bright optimism is one of the distinguishing characteristics of liberal religion.  It is one of the many things that differentiates us from the brand of religion that declares the end is nigh, that the rapture is coming.  We have hymns called “Now is the Time Approaching” and “Soon the Day Will Arrive,” but the future they imagine is cheerful, not doom and gloom.  It occurs to me to ask, are we as a religious movement still as sunny in our disposition as our forebears from decades and centuries ago?  Does their faith in “onward and upward forever” strike us as naïve, or does their hope still inform our own?

In my own life, I am a person who tends towards optimism.  But what about you?  Where do your predictions lie when it comes to the future of humanity?  Are you a person who imagines things getting better – do you imagine human well-being improving on our planet and human suffering diminishing?  Are you a pessimist – do you see things growing worse for more of the world’s people?  Do you predict an increase of human suffering?  Or, are you one of those people who believe that past is prologue?  Do you think that the amount of misery and happiness in the world will stay more or less level in the future?  And, when it comes to the future of faith, do you see liberal religion as a vanguard, actively moving the world forward, or as a rearguard, doing what we can to hinder the inevitable rising tide of injustice, dysfunction, and destruction?

In his chapter on predicting the weather, Nate Silver makes an interesting observation.  He says that despite the jokes we make at the expense of meteorologists, computer models that predict weather a few days in advance are actually among the best predictions we have.  However, these models take into account so many variables, so much chaos, that more than a handful of days out the predictions become very inaccurate.  Silver points out that the best predictor of weather more than a week away is actually the long-term historical average for that day.  So, if we can’t predict the weather more than two weeks in advance, except to say that the best we can say is that it will be an average of what came before, what chance do any of us have of predicting the future twenty five years from now?

As I was researching for this sermon I ran across a number of predictions that seemed hopeful and positive, as well as a number that were much less so.  Nate Silver recently updated his projections about marriage equality in the United States.  Four years ago he predicted that all 50 states would support marriage equality by 2024.  I also encountered several studies about war.  These authors claim that there is less war today than at almost any time in recorded human history, that warfare has been steadily declining for the last six decades, and that a world without war is a likely possibility within our lifetime.  These predictions were so fascinating that I decided to make them the subject of my sermon next week for Memorial Day weekend.

That’s the good news.  The bad news, as Jim pointed out in his questions, is that recent trends in the environment and in economic inequality show us heading in the wrong direction, trending towards increased suffering for more of the world’s people.

In environmental terms, here is what I see in the next 25 years.  I see an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather and I predict this will have a harmful effect on different populations across the globe.  I see a rise in movements of environmental counterculturalism, of backyard gardens and urban farming.  And I see some of the more cataclysmic possibilities being mitigated in part by new technologies and human adaptability.  We are very flexible creatures and we’re going to have to be.  Many future crises could be lessened or even averted if we saw immediate major behavioral changes among the populations in developed, developing, and third world countries.  Unfortunately, it is really hard to change human behaviors.

As far as economic inequality, the widening gap between rich and poor, I predict that if this trend is to be slowed down or even reversed, it won’t happen because of a sudden spiritual and ethical awakening of those who hold and control gross amounts of wealth.  If it is to happen, it will happen through a sustained and serious revolution on the part of the poor, lower class, and the declining middle class.  It will take a movement exponentially larger than occupy Wall Street.  It will require organized resistance and organized non-compliance.  What if the victims of predatory home loans refused to move out of their homes?  What if students refused to pay back their loans?  For such a revolution to succeed public perception would have to change; the media must no longer serve the interests of the corporate state.  And, for such a revolution to succeed, the agents that serve corporate interests would have to decide to side with the people.  I do not see massive restructuring of the economic systems of our country happening except through revolutionary dissent.  [Note: the shape of these remarks more than likely has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading a book about the rise of socialism in Russia during the first half of the 20th century.  To quote Leo Tolstoy, “It is not necessary to kill Tsars Nicholas and Alexander… but only to leave off supporting the social condition of which they are the product.”]

But Jim also asked about the changing face of religion in America and about my predictions about America’s religious future.  Probably the biggest religious story of the last decade has been the decline of religious participation in America.  Most historic denominations are shrinking.  Presbyterianism and Congregationalism have each shrunk by 25% over the past decade.  The Episcopalian Church and the Lutheran Church have each shrunk by nearly 20%.  Membership in the United Methodist Church has declined by 7%.  Even the Southern Baptists are shrinking.  Meanwhile, Unitarian Universalism has stayed pretty much exactly the same size.  Only a handful of religious traditions are growing.  Roman Catholicism is growing slightly.  Pentecostal denominations, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also growing.

Some might predict that this trend will continue and that the decline of the mainline will continue.  Evangelical and mega-churches may already be showing similar signs of decline.  Some might see the trends and predict that in the coming decades American religion will move in the direction of religion in Europe, will be more and more tiny and mostly ignored.

My prediction is that the decline in American religion that we’ve seen is not a sign of what is to come.  Rather, I see religion continuing to play a major role in the American landscape although some religious movements are sure to thrive while others decline.  Religion will still be a big thing in 25 years and the reasons for this are several-fold.  For one thing, the contemporary American landscape is designed to promote private space and commercial space and to minimize community space and civic space.  Human beings, however even us individualistic American loners, long for connection and community.  We want to escape isolation and loneliness and we can’t do that in our homes and we can’t do that at strip malls.  Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, and Zen centers are leading institutions for providing civic space focused on questions of longing and meaning.  They are also significant providers of social services in a nation that is radically underinvested in the services it provides to its citizens.  There is a need, but there is also a need for congregations to understand what that need is all about.

So, what of Unitarian Universalism?  Jim asks will we become a mega-church when our community realizes that we offer a path towards personal fulfillment and true spiritual growth?  Unitarian Universalism is doing better than the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and even the Methodists.  However, there are pretty much just as many UUs in the United States today as there were a decade ago.  In fact, there are pretty much as many UUs in the United States today as there were 50 years ago.  Unitarian Universalism, on the whole, has been frozen in place for the last half century, a fact that has proven vexing, frustrating, and upsetting to the national leaders of our faith.

Our church, at least for the past decade and a little more, has been one of the congregations that has bucked this inertia.  As far as I can tell there are three UU congregations in our district that have exhibited significant growth within the past decade.  Three congregations out of more than fifty.  One of those congregations, in suburban Minneapolis, the fastest growing, has grown from around 400 members to around 800.  Another, the UU church in Des Moines, Iowa, has grown from around 300 to more than 450.  And, in the past decade or so, we’ve grown from a little under 200 members to a little over 300.  We’re the only three.

About six years ago I participated in a UU growth consultation held in Louisville.  I was one of twelve ministers of growing churches from all around the country selected to be a part of the gathering.  (Then afterwards I edited a book on what we had learned.)  I remember a couple of things vividly.  One thing was that we were different in all sorts of ways.  Some of the congregations were more humanist, others more theist.  Some had an organ; others had a rock band.  Some were social justice leaders in their community, really out there on the front lines.  Others emphasized community and spiritual growth more than social justice.

What they all had in common, what we all had in common, was that we resisted seeing growth as a technical problem to fix.  As Rev. Christine Robinson of Albuquerque writes, “My congregation in Albuquerque has doubled in size in the past 25 years, outperforming the Methodists (30% decline), the UUA in general (flat), and the population of the city (up 50%)  And could I tell you, even in retrospect, how my budgets each year contributed to that growth?   I cannot.  The best I can do is make some educated guesses.  Bringing on a second minister, for instance, was clearly a part of our growth, although it had to be not only the right line item but the right minister to work.  Funding a church band was probably helpful.  On the other hand, our numbers of children have gone up and down without regard to the money we have poured into our RE program.   All my prospective guesses about what might bring those elusive guests, growth and vitality, into our church have been just that.  Guesses, Hopes, Optimistic plans…”

Rather, when the twelve of us gathered we talked mostly about attitudes that growing UU congregations need to embrace.  Those attitudes, among others, include the belief that the church is offering something important and promoting the type of transformation needed in society, an attitude of radical hospitality and welcome, an embrace of change and innovation, and a sense of pervading love.  [These themes are echoed in the book of essays I edited following the growth gathering.]

Twenty five years from now may seem like a long time, but I happen to believe that the spiritual issues with which we wrestle are perennial and universal.  Transformation and welcome and change and love will be needed in the future as much as they are needed today.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sermon: "Spirituality & Motherhood" (Delivered 5-12-13)

Call to Worship
[Inspired by the lyrics to hymn #311 “Let it be a Dance.]

Welcome partners,
welcome dancing partners,
welcome to this dance of life,
this dance of spring,
this dance of the human family

This is the dance of joy and pain,
the dance of gratitude, disappointment, and forgiveness.
This is the dance of learning and growing,
of opening our hearts wider than we could imagine,
of increasing love by magnitudes.

This is the dance of courage and leaping faith,
challenging us to lead in one moment and then
asking us for the trust to allow ourselves to be led in the next.

Welcome dancing partners as in the middle of these dances of life and love, we also turn our attention this day to the dance of motherhood, a dance that cannot be perfectly choreographed but requires improvisation, intuition, and responsiveness.

Hold to your chest.  Hold in your lap.  
Hold on your hips.  Hold by the hand.  
Let go.  Let go again and again and hold always in the heart.

Come dancing partners.  Share the laughter.  Bear the pain.
Round and round we go again.
Let us worship together.

Disclaimer #1:  While for many Mother’s Day is a joyful day, for many others it is a day that brings some measure of pain.  Everything I’m going to say this morning is said with an awareness that in our community there may be mothers who have lost a child, who are estranged from a child, or who feel some other hurt related to motherhood.  There are others for whom Mother’s Day reminds them of having lost their mother or of estrangement or hurt in their relationship with their mother.  And, there are still others who grieve not having been able to have a child, for whom this day is painful too.  This sermon is given with awareness of the emotional complexities that surround Mother’s Day.

Disclaimer #2:  All the obvious disclaimers about consumerism and the commercialization of our emotional lives and the societal pressure to express sentiments such as love, admiration, and appreciation through greeting cards, brunch, flowers, chocolate, et cetera, et cetera.  I’m aware of all of these protestations and that’s just not what this morning is about.  (Now would probably be the right time to mention that Mother’s Day has transcended its status as a holiday driven by the greeting card industry.  A survey done a year ago asked 1,000 Protestant ministers what days of the church year had the largest attendance.  Easter was first.  Christmas Eve was second.  Mother’s Day was third.  In other words, following the resurrection of Jesus and the birth of Jesus, Mother’s Day has become the third most important Christian holy day.)

Disclaimer #3:  It has been said that in a Unitarian Universalist church the minister can expect that, whatever subject he or she chooses, there will be someone in the congregation who is an expert on the subject, whose knowledge far exceeds the minister’s.  Well, this morning I’ve chosen a subject that so many of you in the congregation know infinitely more about than I know.  I’m just being real with you here.

On October first, a few short and exhausting weeks before our last service at our old building, our move, and our first service in our new building, our baby Lydia was born.  I became a dad and Anne became a mom.  Back in the fall I had an awareness that when Father’s Day rolled around in June I would probably want to say something about my new identity as a father.  Then I thought that it wouldn’t be right to make a big deal out of Father’s Day and slight Mother’s Day.  So, I decided that on Mother’s Day we should hear from the newest moms in our church community.  For half a minute I considered writing this group of women and asking them to create a worship service on Mother’s Day but then I realized that this might be a bad idea.  Hey, I know you’re sleeping way fewer hours than is humanly possible, that sometimes showering and brushing your teeth on the same day is a daunting task, that a trip to the store requires the development of a strategic plan, but do you think you could develop a worship service and present that service on Mother’s Day, which is supposed to be your day and all?

What I did was send all the new mothers in our congregation an email asking them if they would share some reflections about how becoming a new parent has changed their identity and what motherhood has meant to them spiritually.  And I plan to do the same thing with the new dads in the church for Father’s Day.  New dads, the pressure is on.

I want to share with you what these new moms in our church community wrote about their feelings and experiences of motherhood, about how their identity has changed, and about motherhood as a spiritual experience.  I invite you to listen as I share from their reflections, to listen for differences and commonalities, and to allow yourself to be touched by the wonder, the worry, the hope, and the courage that accompanies the beginning of all brave new adventures.  These are the words of new parents with a child a little over a year old or less than a month old.  Some of their children are firstborn and others have a brother or sister a little bit older.  Some of these email responses were sent to me during the day, some during the evening, and a few at three o’clock in the morning.

One of the things that I believe is that our identities have a sacred quality to them.  In my correspondence the first question I asked was whether becoming a mom changed your identity, your sense of who you are.  One new mom wrote, “I am amazed that I am even a mother at all. In many ways, where I am now in life is a complete 180 from where I saw myself in high school… Growing-up I just knew in my gut that there would never be time in my ‘conquer the world’ life for anything as time consuming as family… For my high-school graduation gift I asked to have my tubes tied.  My mother thoughtfully requested that I wait a few years and then reconsider.  In the first hours of [our daughter’s] life, as she was becoming more real to me, a part of me was slowly dying. Life was no longer about me, it was about her and becoming the best parent that I could be for her.”

Another mom responded quite differently.  “I don’t know that being a new parent has changed my identity,” she wrote.  “The driving force of my life is a desire to care for others, so being a mom slides right into my identity.”

How has the experience changed you so far, I asked.  “Being a mom has pretty much obliterated all my inhibitions that once kept me from making a fool of myself,” one respondent wrote.  “There are nearly no limitations for what I will do for a smile, or even more so, a laugh, from my little guy. Who needs beer to dance like a monkey or contort your face into pure ugliness?”

Another wrote, “I feel like the contrast has been turned up on my life. There are definite low moments when you're really exhausted or frustrated (often bedtime, for us) or honestly bored of pretending to be a my little pony for the nth time. Self-doubt when you are trying to decide how to parent. Then there are the lovely warm wonderful feelings you get when your baby smiles at you like the sun shining on your face or your child makes you proud by being a doting, sweet sister or cracks you up with her tricky chicken dance moves.”

Several wrote about feeling more deeply connected with others.  “Becoming a mother made me look at other parents with a new realization, a new feeling of solidarity. They, too, have gone through this crazy/wonderful thing.”  Another wrote, “Motherhood immediately increased my awareness and awe for single mothers. There have been so many days that I would never have showered, slept, or eaten a meal were it not for dad being there.”  She continued, “Becoming a parent has most certainly increased my patience and compassion. It has raised issues regarding my capacity to love and care for children. At this moment, I can't imagine how people have multiple children.”

Interestingly, more than one person wrote about trying not to let motherhood completely swallow her identity.  “I'm occasionally concerned that I am a less interesting person to talk to because my entire world revolves around this little person. I used to talk about world news, food, music, and local politics…  I continue listening to NPR… to try to ensure that I'm armed for non-baby conversation about the rest of the world.”

I also asked about how becoming a mother has changed your view of Mother’s Day.  I received some different responses to this question.  “My pre-motherhood thoughts about Mother's Day [were that it was] an overly-commercialized, superficial holiday. Now having an infant, I look forward to receiving cute little homemade cards and art projects from my son.  I will happily accept any kind of gratitude for the 3 a.m. feedings, sleep deprivation, and other sacrifices of motherhood.”  A different mother responded, “Personally, since I actively chose to bring this child into the world I think being a good mom is the least I can do, and I don’t need to be celebrated for it.” 

UU minister Jane Rzepka, in a piece she wrote called “Humanizing Mom,” identifies with this latter view of Mother’s Day,

In my family, mothers do not suffer any more than other mortals, nor are we particularly unsung. We complain when we trip over shoes on the living room floor, and we expect a little praise for carrying the daily Grand Accumulation at the bottom of the stairs up the aforementioned stairs.

We do not deserve or expect devotion from our children. We wanted to have children. It was our idea. If they come around from time to time when they are grown-ups, we are ever so glad. But if they live their lives as secure and independent souls, we value that.

I also asked many of new moms to share with me how motherhood has affected them spiritually.  The answers I received ranged from being more aware about the impact of choices, to having a larger concern for the world, to cultivating a greater ability to be present in the moment.

One person wrote, “There has not been one decision I have made that hasn’t been focused on how it would affect them.   I recycle like crazy now because it’s good for THEIR world.  I eat better for myself because I’m THEIR mom.”

One wrote, “I’ve found myself more concerned about all the bad things in the world – violence, environmental problems, world economic problems.  Will she be safe and happy?”  Another wrote, “Now that I am a mom, I find horrifying events, such as terrorist attacks or the Newtown mass killing, even more horrifying. My worries have substantially multiplied. Morbid thoughts can easily reign if I am not careful to keep them in check.”

On one hand, motherhood brings a heightened vigilance, a greater sense of urgency, and a feeling of gravity.  On the other hand, several mothers wrote about how interacting with their child makes them feel present and even whimsical.  Motherhood asks them to be in the moment and to regard even simple, everyday objects with awe and fascination.

Taken as a whole, how should we regard these shared experiences and perspectives?  If, as one mom wrote, motherhood means feeling like your heart is walking around outside of your body while at the same time feeling like your heart is expanding three sizes, Grinch like, I wonder if listening to these reflections might cause our own heart to expand.  Does our concern for the world grow, does our compassion increase?  Can we live life with awe and fascination?  Can we be present to our fellow beings?  As you go forth today, I bid you go forth with appreciation and admiration, with the intention to grow a larger heart, and with compassionate care for our always interconnected world.

This is the dance of joy and pain,
the dance of gratitude, disappointment, and forgiveness.
This is the dance of learning and growing,
of opening our hearts wider than we could imagine,
of increasing love by magnitudes.

This is the dance of courage and leaping faith,
challenging us to lead in one moment and then
asking us for the trust to allow ourselves to be led in the next.

It is the dance of mothers and it is the dance of parents of all kinds, and of aunts and uncles, teachers and guides, friends and companions.
May it be so.

Hear this last line written by one of the new mothers in our congregation:
“Baby is laying down now, wish me luck! She's a little wiggly. Preschooler is still running around getting water and fighting for more stories, requesting that tomorrow be Christmas morning. Good luck to you for a good night of sleep.”  Amen.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Sermon: "Daring Greatly" (Delivered 5-5-13)

The original title I selected for this sermon was “A Book Everyone Is Reading.”  Kind of a misleading title, I know, but it sets the scene for how I chose this morning’s topic.  Following a sermon I gave earlier this church year several members of the church asked me whether I had ever seen the TED talk given by Brené Brown.  Just so we are on the same page, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design and began as an annual conference on California’s central coast in which powerful thinkers in diverse fields such as science, art, business, technology, the humanities, and more are invited to give talks of 20 minutes or less and offer ideas that stimulate, provoke, challenge, and ultimately change the way we see the world.  These TED talks became extremely popular and spun off a number of regional TED gatherings.  (Most of the talks are available for free on the web.)

In 2010, Brené Brown’s talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” was a runaway hit and became one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, with more than 9 million views to date.  Like I said, I had about a half dozen members of the church ask me if I had seen her talk.  I kept running into her name seemingly everywhere I went.  My wife Anne read all three of Brené Brown’s books and recommended them to me.  I noticed that Brené Brown was being referenced and quoted in sermons in Unitarian Universalist churches across the country.  Last week during church I announced that I’d be talking about her most recent book today and by the time I had the chance to check my email after the service, a member of our church had sent me a video link to a sermon from another church where Brown was mentioned.  UU minister Rev. Naomi King says of Brené Brown’s bestselling book Daring Greatly, “Faith leaders and faithful people need to read this book and take it into home, congregation, and community.  We need vulnerability to really lead lives of steadfast love.”

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead may not be a book that literally everyone is reading, but after running into mentions of it time and time again it certainly felt that way.  So that is why I decided I’d pick it up, read it, and preach on it.

Brené Brown has a master’s degree and doctorate in social work and is a researcher who studies people’s stories.  She explains the trajectory of her research this way.  “I wanted to develop research that explained the anatomy of connection…. Connection is why we’re here.  We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”

She continues, “Studying connection was a simple idea, but before I knew it, I had been hijacked by my research participants who, when asked to talk about their most important relationships and experiences of connection, kept telling me about heartbreak, betrayal, and shame – the fear of not being worthy of real connection.”  She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

The course of Brown’s research led her to focus on studying shame.  She wanted to learn about shame operates as a barrier to connection, but she found out that it was difficult to come at shame so directly with her research subjects.  So, she turned the topic on its head and asked a different question, “What do the people who are the most resilient to shame, who believe in their own worthiness – [she calls] these people the Wholehearted – have in common?”

As it turned out, in her research of Wholehearted people who live lives of courage, compassion, and connection, she found a common trait they all shared.  “The willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted.  They attribute everything – from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments – to their ability to be vulnerable.”

And, just to carry the story of Brené Brown’s research a little bit further, when she discovered that vulnerability, the ability to be vulnerable, was the common denominator shared among people who lived what she called wholehearted lives, she was upset.  She hated being vulnerable.  It was uncomfortable.  It was potentially embarrassing.  It was terrifying.  She had cultivated a professional persona as an expert, as a clinical researcher.  Vulnerability was something she went to great pains to avoid feeling and now her research was telling her that vulnerability was something that she would have to practice and even embrace if she was going to live into the fullness of the connections that make human life worth living.

So, just a couple of quick questions.  I don’t need to see a show of hands here.  How many of you are really uncomfortable with vulnerability?  How many of you struggle with it?  How many of you go out of your way to avoid it?  How many of you establish elaborate defenses to minimize your vulnerability?

Brené Brown writes, “Our rejection of vulnerability often stems from our associating it with dark emotion like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment… What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of my research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences we crave.  Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.  It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”

One of the ironic things about vulnerability is that even when it is a trait that we try to avoid, we find ourselves drawn to others who practice it.  Two weeks ago, we lived this in our church service.  Four members of our youth group spoke in a deeply personal way about the vulnerabilities they faced as teenagers.  I think just about everyone in the room was drawn towards their openness, their courage.  And, if we turned the tables, how many of us would be willing to stand up here and speak so vulnerably?  I don’t mean when you were fifteen.  I mean now.  Or, you go to a concert and the band you love says that they’re going to play a new song they’ve been working on but have never played it live before.  That’s vulnerability.  That’s risk.  And, we’re drawn towards this in others.  Both the examples I’ve given have to do with being vulnerable in front of a large group of people.  Vulnerability has to do with putting yourself out there, whether in a pulpit, or on a stage, or in a meeting, or with your beloved, or with something you’ve created.

Why is it so hard to be vulnerable?  Vulnerability is both necessary for creating those real connections that we crave as human beings, and it involves the risk of being rejected for the true and vulnerable selves that we might share with others.

In Daring Greatly Brené Brown has an entire chapter on habits that we cultivate to avoid being vulnerable.  Let me share a couple of them with you and you can sort of evaluate whether you identify any of these habits in your own life.  One of the habits that she mentions is practicing what she calls “foreboding joy” which basically means that in the midst of experiencing something that we should find joyful and fulfilling we instead turn on a message in our minds of all the things that can go wrong.  This hedging our bets distances us from connection and gives fear power over our vulnerability.  Another way of resisting vulnerability is to practice numbing.  Numbing can be anything we turn to in order to take the place of our authentic connections with other human beings.  Numbing can take the form of an addiction, a compulsive behavior, or any tried a true way of distracting ourselves from our connections.  A third way of resisting vulnerability is perfectionism.  Perfectionism isn’t the same as having high standards.  It is insisting of having control over all the variables before you open yourself up.  It is a way of removing all elements of risk.

Reading this chapter on ways we armor ourselves against vulnerability, I found myself feeling, well, feeling vulnerable.  To tell you the truth, I realized that I turn to all three – foreboding joy, numbing, and perfectionism – but especially perfectionism.  Man, she had me nailed.  In reading this book I saw how I practice perfectionism in ministry as a way of resisting vulnerability.  A situation will come up where I have to respond to something difficult or challenging, a question will come up that’s hard to answer.  And the voice inside of my head will say, “Thom, you should know the answer to this question.  Only a fraud wouldn’t know the answer.”  These questions are not like, “Do you know the combination for the lockbox to get into the church?”  These questions are like, “What is the nature of God?  What is the meaning of life?  Why do people suffer?”  And the voice inside of my head will demand that I not only offer an answer, but that the answer must carry the wisdom of the ages, must be brilliant, must be original, must be spoken poetically and with confident assurance.  No fumbling.  No hemming and hawing.  And, in the quest to come up with the perfect answer, what I sacrifice is vulnerability.  The ability to admit that these are hard questions.  The willingness to admit struggle.  Comfort with embracing mystery.  Connection is increased by the vulnerability to wrestle openly.  Connection is decreased by the insistence on having the right answers.  It’s one of the ways I struggle with vulnerability.

All this discussion of vulnerability, shame, connection, and resistance can be applied to us as individuals.  But, it also could apply to church communities and even to our Unitarian Universalist theology.

One UU church in the Midwest actually declared several years ago that helping its members to grow in vulnerability was one of its core objectives.  It said, “Our members cultivate the ability to go deep quickly in small groups and to connect with others across differences.”  That’s the language of vulnerability if I’ve ever heard it.

Goals like these are not only tied into helping us to live full lives as individuals, but they are also an expression of theological ideas about the nature of God and the Universe.  The God of Universalism was a God of connection who condemned no one to hell.  Such an understanding of the divine sees human vulnerability as strength rather than mortal weakness.  John Murray, the father of American Universalism, is quoted as saying, “Give them not hell, but hope,” an appeal to a religion of connection rather than a religion of shame, fear, and judgment.  Our UU seventh principle affirms that connection is the nature of our universe, that each is inextricably bound to all.  Our place in the web of all existence is a place of connection.

I want to conclude this sermon by asking several questions:  Are we a church community, are we a congregation, that fosters and promotes vulnerability?  Are we a place where it is safe to be vulnerable?  What would that look like?  What would it look like to say “The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church” is a vulnerability leader in the greater Kansas City community?  How would we regard failure?  How would we regard error?  How would we regard the sharing of ourselves?  Where does shame live in our community and how do we become better resistant to it?  Brené Brown’s book has me asking questions like this.  I’m interested in your risky questions, your daring sharing, and the connection that vulnerability makes possible.