Monday, December 30, 2013

Sermon: "The Religious Year in Review" (Delivered 12-29-13)

The reading is from an editorial about Pope Francis by E.J. Dionne that ran in the Washington Post.

Pope Francis has surprised the world because he embraces the Christian calling to destabilize and to challenge. As the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Southern Hemisphere, he is especially mindful of the ways in which unregulated capitalism has failed the poor and left them “waiting.”

His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” is drawing wide and deserved attention for its denunciation of “trickle-down” economics as a system that “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It’s a view that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and has created “a globalization of indifference.” Will those conservative Catholics who have long championed tax-cutting for the wealthy acknowledge the moral conundrum that Francis has put before them?

But American liberals and conservatives alike might be discomfited by the pope’s criticism of “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era,” since each side defends its own favorite forms of individualism. Francis mourns “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism,” not a phrase that will sit well with all on the left.

And in light of the obsessive shopping on Cyber Monday and Black Friday, here is a pope who paints consumerism in the darkest of hues. “We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase,” he writes. “In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

Yet this critic of our age refuses to be gloomy, scolding “querulous and disillusioned pessimists,” whom he labels “sourpusses.” I like a pope who takes a stand against sourpusses.

Francis makes many liberals swoon, even though he is not, in a conventional sense, a liberal. He also has split American conservatives between those trying to hold fast to him and those who believe he is, from their perspective, up to something dangerous.

It’s quite true that liberals who love Francis need to come to terms with aspects of his thought that may be less congenial to their assumptions… Meanwhile, Conservative Catholics… are torn between expressing loyalty to a pope who has captured the popular imagination and fretting over whether he is transforming the church with a speed that few thought was possible.

Most news outlets, in their rush to attract readers during the month of December, run lots of year-in-review stories this time of year. Some of these pieces inspire discussion and debate. Why was that book snubbed on the New York Times best books of 2013 list? Others help you to remember things that you forgot, or inform you of things you never even knew happened. One of our church members, a writer for Forbes magazine, compiled a list of eleven great space exploration moments from 2013, which is ten more than I could name. Whether it is to fuel nostalgia, to incite debate, to educate about recent history, or just to generate advertising revenue, we’re awash in these countdowns and best-of lists this time of year. It isn’t surprising that some news sources have decided to compile lists of the biggest stories in religion from 2013. You can find such stories over at the HuffingtonPostReuters, and elsewhere.

One religion story from 2013 that generated significant conversations among Unitarian Universalists was the birth of the Sunday Assembly. Founded by two British comedians, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, in January 2013, Sunday Assembly was their attempt to create an atheist church. These Sunday Assemblies, first held in a deconsecrated church in London and later in a concert hall, attracted several hundred atheist Londoners once a month to come together to fellowship, sing pop songs, and listen to a talk about how to live a better life. Sunday Assembly became international news when Jones and Evans announced plans to travel the globe establishing Sunday Assembly franchises throughout the English speaking world and to raise £500,000 to help spread the movement. We’ll have to wait and see how many of the franchises take root. Various news outlets sensationalized Sunday Assembly with bold headlines about an atheist mega-church. (I will be the first person to tell you that a couple hundred people on a Sunday morning does not a mega-church make.)

But while the reporting was overblown, discussions of the Sunday Assembly movement among Unitarian Universalists were fascinating. Were they our allies? Were they our competition? Were they a threat? Were they our future? Other Unitarian Universalists asked, insecurely, why they’d never heard of us. Why don’t all these people just attend their local UU church? The truth, and a sad truth it is at that, is that exclusively atheist and humanist gatherings have not fared well in recent times. Whether Sunday Assembly has any staying power will remain to be seen, but it is definitely fighting against the current.

In this past year we met a brand new hero of faith and freedom and said goodbye to one of the last century’s greatest leaders of liberation. In 2012, fifteen year old Malala Yousafzai was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan. She had resisted and openly defied the Taliban by pursuing an education. Despite being shot in the head and neck and spending several weeks unconscious following emergency brain surgery, she made a splendid recovery and is using her fame to advocate for education for all girls and to showcase her faith in a way that is impressive beyond words. This past summer she spoke before the United Nations, appeared on the Jon Stewart show, and finished as a runner-up for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Her advocacy for women’s education is impressive, but even more amazing is her poise and the faithful way in which she lives. During her speech at the United Nations last summer, she said,

“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”

As we look back at 2013 we also said farewell to the last of the twentieth century’s great liberators, Nelson Mandela, who died at the beginning of this month. Reuters listed his death as one of the top ten religion stories of the past year, writing that Mandela was hailed as a “modern-day Moses who led his people out of racial captivity.” Unlike Gandhi and unlike King, Mandela actually became the official leader of his country. It is one thing to be the prophet, the loyal opposition, the outsider pressuring those in charge to be better than they are. It is another thing entirely to be the leader of the whole country, to be the one charged with trying to hold the whole country together, to have to work constructively with the same politicians who had ruled during the apartheid regime, and to have to balance so many competing interests. Which is really an amazing accomplishment, isn’t it? In January I plan to deliver a full sermon about the life of Nelson Mandela, but now we might say that the loss of one the world’s most inspiring leaders was both one of the biggest news stories and biggest religion stories of this passing year.

There is no doubt about the biggest religion story from 2013. Without a doubt it’s the Pope. Last February, Pope Benedict resigned, the first Pope to resign in 600 years. It will surprise no one when I say that I wasn’t a big fan of Pope Benedict. I am a religious liberal, after all. But even if I could set aside my biases, it didn’t seem to me like very many people liked Josef Ratzinger all that much. There was the business of his having been a member of the Hitler Youth. There was his job as thought police of the Catholic Church, censuring and punishing those who wavered from church doctrine. And, there was the fact that he didn’t know how to smile.

In March, the college of cardinals selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th Pope. He was the first Jesuit Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first Pope in 900 years from outside Europe. There could be no greater contrast between Benedict and Francis. Pope Francis is informal, personable, and conspicuous in his humility. Plus, he seems like a joyful person. He smiles a lot. “I like a Pope who takes a stand against sourpusses.”

While Catholic doctrine has not changed, what the Pope emphasizes has changed. He gives his attention to things like economic justice, poverty, charity, and interfaith dialogue instead of things like sex, sexuality, and doctrinal orthodoxy.

As religious liberals, how should we regard Pope Francis? One response, I suppose, is to be cynical. Well, it seems the Vatican has finally hired a competent publicist. Another response is to maintain a stance of criticism. Look at all the things that are still the same. Women are still barred from the priesthood. The church is still exclusionary of gays and lesbians. Their teachings about sexuality are still harmful. And yet, I think it is also fair to point out all the ways Pope Francis is a step in the right direction for the Catholic Church. And, I think it is fair to be cautiously optimistic that more and greater changes may be in store over the coming years. I think mixed but optimistic feelings are in order.

The other thing I want to say about the new Pope is that I think he provides us with an important lesson about very large institutions. There are something like 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. And, the Pope is clearly, by definition, the most recognizable and influential and powerful person within the Catholic Church. But there are limits, of course, to his power and reach. I want you to take a moment to imagine various Catholic organizations in our metro area. Think of our neighbors, Holy Trinity, across the railroad tracks. Think of the Catholic schools in our metro area. Think of Avila or Rockhurst University. Think of Catholic charities or the Catholic run medical institutions. In what ways are any of these institutions different now than they were a year ago when Pope Benedict was the guy in charge? This is not criticism of any of our local institutions. All I’m saying is that none of these local institutions changed the moment white smoke came out of chimney of the Sistine Chapel. At the same time, it is not entirely true to say that who the Pope is doesn’t matter at all. Saying that doesn’t make sense either. All I’m saying here really is that who the Pope is doesn’t necessarily determine what a local Catholic parish or institution is like.

This leads me to think of another institution where the national governing body does not necessarily determine the quality of the local group. Here I am actually thinking of the Boy Scouts of America. For more than a decade, the leaders of our larger denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, were in conflict with the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America. The conflict was over the exclusion of gay scouts and gay scout leaders, and also the exclusion of atheists. So, on the national level the UUA and the BSA were in conflict. And, that meant very little for scouts and Unitarians here in Kansas City. At the local level, parents in our congregation sent their boys through scouting if it was something they wanted them to do. I even officiated at Eagle Scout ceremonies in our church building for atheist scouts and nobody batted an eye. Clearly, some local troops were more open than others and parents had to search to find a troop that more closely aligned with their values.

I mention all this as a way to transition into the last religious news story from 2013 that I want to talk about. Just over a week ago, in Utah of all places, a court struck down the state’s ban on same sex marriage. As couples flooded the offices of county clerks all across the state to apply for marriage licenses, county employees willingly skipped their lunch breaks in order to process as many marriage licenses as possible. And there, at one of the county offices in Salt Lake City, were Boy Scouts delivering pizzas to those who were stuck in the long lines and to those behind the desks skipping their lunch in order to serve the people of their community. A local group that belongs to a homophobic national organization delivered pizzas in support of couples applying for marriage licenses in one of the most conservative states in the country. Only in America.

For me, one of the biggest news stories of the year was that eight new states – eight! – joined the ranks of states with equal marriage. 2013 saw marriage equality come to Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, California, New Jersey, and Illinois, with New Mexico, and Utah – of all places! – just slipping in before the end of the year. That brings the number of states up to eighteen. Maybe there’s hope for us here in Kansas after all.

Not every story about same sex marriage had such a happy end, however. Only days ago, in Pennsylvania, a Methodist minister named Frank Schaefer was defrocked for having officiated at his own son’s wedding to another man in Massachusetts. Reports say that he stood defiantly through his church trial, saying that if he had it to do over again, he’d do nothing differently, would keep breaking the rules of the church because the rules are wrong. Good for him. He’s on the right side of history. Meanwhile, the tide is turning in this country and turning faster and faster, still not fast enough, but faster and faster in the direction of marriage equality.

Around the world there are still wars fought and acts of violence committed in the name of religion. Rights are still denied and oppressions sustained in the name of religion. There are also, though, heroes of peace and liberation doing work in the name of faith. There are new institutions forming, the heads of old institutions changing, and local groups of people following their own sense of what is right in the name of their values and their faith. May it be in 2014. May this new year be a blessing to us. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon: "Transcendence" (Delivered 12-15-13)

From Passage to India by Walt Whitman

O Thou transcendent!
Nameless—the fibre and the breath!
Light of the light—shedding forth universes—the center of
Though mightier center of the true, the good, the loving!

Thou moral, spiritual fountain! affection’s source! thou
Thou pulse! Thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastness of space!
How should I think—how breathe a single breath—how speak—
if, out of myself,
I could not launch, to those, superior universes?


Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not groveled here long enough, eating and drinking
like mere brutes?
Have we not darkened and dazed ourselves with books long

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail.

Last week my sermon was on the subject of music and, more specifically, about why we sing, why we sing together. Last week I gave you a bit of a teaser for the sermon this week when I talked about going to see the indie alternative rock band Bon Iver in concert. I’m a huge fan of indie rock music. When I went to see them in concert, the lead singer introduced the last song of the show as a sing-along. He asked the audience to repeat the same line over and over again as the music got louder in a glorious crescendo that reached its peak with everyone screaming a primal scream together. It was a religious experience. No, I’m not kidding.

The line we were asked to sing over and over again was, “What might have been lost?” We repeated this line 16 times. These lyrics probably have a specific meaning to the song’s author, but the lyrics are also vague enough to allow each person to listen and sing his or her own meaning in them. Its meaning – what I take it to mean at least – had to do letting go of regrets, with letting go of wishing that the past might have been different.  It had to do with accepting the grace of this moment. Stuff like that.  Singing this line all together in the presence of 1,000 other people felt religious.

And, here’s the thing: it seems like every time I go to see a band in concert, the concert ends the same way, with the band leading a sing-along and having the audience sing the same line over and over again, a line that allows each member of the audience to listen their own meaning and significance into it.

Death Cab for Cutie, a great band with an awful name, ends their concerts with the beautiful song Transatlanticism which ends with the line, “I need you so much closer,” repeated twelve times.

I regret that I didn’t go to see The Postal Service in concert this past summer when they came through town, but I do know they end their shows with Ben Gibbard singing the line, “Everything will change,” eight times in a row.

And even The National, who can come across as a bit darker, a bit more coolly cynical, ended their October show at Starlight with an intimate sing-along. “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.” We repeated and repeated those lines as well, eight times in fact.

These experiences were all similar. Similar musically. Similar lyrically. Repetitively similar. And, similar emotionally. Frankly, it is a bit embarrassing for me to stand up here and profess my love for alternative rock music. OK, your minister is kind of a big music dork. At the same time, as I was preparing for last week’s sermon about music, about why we sing, I remembered these experiences of concert sing-alongs as saying something important about why we sing. We sing because we seek transcendence.

The latest issue of UU World magazine contained an article that made me feel a lot less self-conscious about my adoration of indie rock. The magazine sent one of its reporters to attend a gathering of the Sunday Assembly in Boston. Sunday Assembly was founded in London by two British comedians in their attempt to establish an atheist church. (Don’t they know an atheist church will never work?) This past fall they launched a world tour, hoping to plant Sunday Assembly franchises throughout the UK, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Here’s UU World correspondent Doug Muder talking about the music at Sunday Assembly Boston,

Aided by a three-piece band and screen-projected lyrics, we sang pop songs that you might dance to at a wedding reception or sing at a karaoke bar: “Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and other examples of the genre [Sunday Assembly co-founder] Sanderson [Jones] calls “power cheese.” The point seems to be to let go and join in… My church’s music director would throw a fit if we shifted to a program of pop-song karaoke.

I’m going to stop talking about music now. No more indie alternative rock. No more “power cheese.” What I’m going to talk about, instead, is a certain kind of experience, perhaps the experience of letting go and joining in. Or, we might call it the experience of transcendence.

According to the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association, “the Living Tradition we share draws from many sources.”  The first source that is listed is, “Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit.”

UU minister Galen Guengrich, senior minister of the historic All Souls UU Church in New York City, recently wrote a book entitled, God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age. In an interview about the book he says something interesting about transcendence.

I think we're hardwired for transcendence. I think if you look at how we as individuals are related to everything else, you eventually get to a point where you need some way of talking about those relationships, and in my view the best term we have is "God." I think the instinct of wanting to understand how we are related to everything comes from the same sense of wanting to know who we are and where we fit in. It's a part of human nature.

The principles speak of a direct experience of it. Galen Guengrich says we’re wired for it. So, what is it? What is transcendence, exactly? In academic theology the concept of transcendence is often contrasted with the idea of immanence. (Christmas, by the way, at least from a Christian theological perspective, is a celebration of immanence. So, I’m kind of giving this sermon in the wrong season.) Christmas is about immanence. O come, O come, Emmanuel. The word Emmanuel means, God is with us. If immanence is the idea of God’s presence and closeness, then transcendence is the opposite, God’s beyondness. It’s the idea of that which is surpassing, that which is eclipsing. As Whitman puts it, it’s “where the mariner has not yet dared to sail… O farther, farther sail!... O farther, farther, farther sail.”

If you have a hard time making sense out of the concept of transcendence, you’re certainly not alone. I once took a course in graduate school on the theology and philosophy of transcendence and my memory of the class was that much of the material was intellectually impenetrable. As hard as it may be to wrap our brains around, few seem to doubt that the experience of transcendence is real. There’s the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder of which our sources speak. Galen Guengrich says that we’re hardwired for transcendence. We sing about it in church, sometimes. As one of our hymns (#300) puts it, “With heart and mind and voice and hand, may we this time and place transcend.” At Sunday Assembly they sing “Build me up buttercup” in order to help people to let go and join in. And then there are the rock concerts.

My former colleague across town at All Souls UU Church, Kansas City, Jim Eller, once preached a sermon on “Types of UU Transcendence” in which he described seven types of transcendence that we can relate to even if we don’t believe in a deity. The seven types are:

1) Personal transformation that happens through exposure to extremes. Something major happens in our lives and we are changed.
2) Experiencing the intersection between the ideal and the real. By this I think he means the experience we have of, say, hearing one of Martin Luther King’s speeches or winning a victory for human rights.

3) The ability to be awake, aware, and present. This is the ability to behold the world from a fresh perspective.

4) Finding connection to that which is greater than ourselves.

5) The experience of play.

6) Growth, discovery, or becoming our best selves. This is individual transformation and change as a form of transcendence.

7) The experience of becoming whole again when once you were broken. This is the experience of salvation as transcendence.

I don’t think his list is exhaustive, but I do think his list is actually really helpful in helping us to imagine a concept that we may have a hard time imagining. However, I might shorten and simplify this list and say that transcendence is simply being able to let go and join in, as the Sunday Assembly people put it. It is the ability to let go of ourselves, to let go of what we are holding onto so tightly. The experience of transcendence is the liberation that we experience, that we feel, when we are able to let go.

“Build me up buttercup.” Let go of your self-consciousness and your fear of looking foolish.

“All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.” Let go of the idea that you can love and not experience heartbreak.

“Everything will change.” Let go of the idea that you can stop the future from happening.

“I need you so much closer.” Let go of the distances we place between us.

“What might have been lost.” Let go of regrets, of wishing the past had been different.

What do you think you need to let go of? What do you struggle to let go of? What do you wish you could let go of? What is it hard for you to imagine letting go of?


When I speak about transcendence in a Unitarian Universalist church, it is only natural that I should say something about the 19th century movement with a name that includes the word transcendence. Transcendentalism was a spiritual, intellectual, literary, cultural, and social reform movement. The Transcendentalists, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and their many friends, are many of our favorite Unitarian ancestors. What were the Transcendentalists transcending, exactly? Depending on who you ask, you may get different answers. My reading of the Transcendentalists is that one of the things they saw themselves as transcending was the Enlightenment. They were transcending the idea that the world is material, mechanistic, and orderly. Not rejecting. Just moving beyond. Jim Eller quotes Emerson as saying,

We are a part of the Oversoul… Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One… When it breaks through our intelligence, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affection, it is love.

Maybe this idea of transcendence resonates with you. Maybe you seek out opportunities to let go and farther, farther, farther sail. Or maybe you’ve never had an experience of transcendence and this whole concept befuddles and frustrates you. Or maybe it scares you.

Regardless, I invite you to pay attention. To pay attention to those moments that invite personal transformation, those moments of glimpsing the intersection of the ideal with the real. Look for opportunities to play and pay attention to those moments when you feel awake, aware, and present, those moments when you feel connected to something greater than yourself, or challenged to grow.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sermon: "Why Do We Sing?" (Delivered 12-8-13)

Call to Worship

Why do people sing?

Anthropologists and musicologists hypothesize about the primal origins of singing, suggesting it may have originated in animal mimicry or mother-child connection.

Educators tell us that exposure to music and music education positively influences the brain development of the young.

Gerontologists tell us that singing assists the memory of the old.

Mathematicians point out that the relationships between the notes of the diatonic scale reoccur throughout the natural world.

In religion we find praise bands, cantors, boys choirs, chanting monks, sung mantras, and ecstatic song. Religious people the world over turn to singing as a means of worship, praise, and spiritual practice.

Activists note that singing helps protesters to stand courageously and powerfully against injustice.  We shall overcome.

This morning, come and open your hearts and minds to music and song.  Do not worry if you think you cannot sing like angels or speak before thousands.  You can still change the world with your love.

Now let us sing.  Now let us worship together.


About a year ago the acclaimed recording artist Beck Hansen, best known for several of the ‘90s’ best alternative rock songs, released a new album, (sort of.)  What he actually did was publish 20 original songs in sheet music form and challenge his fans to interpret and perform the songs for themselves.  It was, as he put it, “an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.”  The songs had a definite old-timey flavor to them and the liner notes asserted that people relate to music differently today than they did many years ago.  Beck writes,

I came across a story about a song called “Sweet Leilani” that Bing Crosby had released in 1937.  Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold 54 million copies.  Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past…  Learning to play a song is its own category of experience; recorded music made much of that participation unnecessary… The opening-up of the music, the possibility of letting people work with these songs in different ways, and of allowing them a different accessibility than what’s offered by all the many forms of music available today, is ultimately what this collection aims for.

What I hope to do this morning is weave together a number of different ideas and observations related to making music in order to talk broadly about the role that participatory music plays in our lives and about why we create space and place for participatory music in our worship services at church.  I’m certain that the sermon this morning is going to blend into the sermon next week – a mash-up if you will – when I will speak on the subject of transcendence.  I know I plan to talk about music as a gateway to transcendence.

The first observation I want to share with you is to re-state the point that Beck makes, that our relationship with music is probably very different today than it was in 1937 or 1887. A piece of sheet music is lucky to sell, I don’t know, maybe 54 thousand copies today, but certainly not 54 million. In the age before the web, before computer games, and before television, people made music together to keep entertained.  Today, between Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and iTunes, practically every piece of music ever recorded, not to mention every movie and television show ever made, is available more or less instantaneously to us wherever we are.  As a result a lot of people sing less with others today than they would have if they had lived a century ago.

I only own two collections of printed music: a hymnal and Beck’s album.  In any given week I sing three songs with other people: an opening hymn, a meditative hymn, and a closing hymn.  A couple times each year, if I’m lucky, “I’ll sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch along with several thousand other Royals fans at Kauffman Stadium.  (In the bottom of the sixth Garth Brooks comes on the Jumbotron to lead Royals fans in singing, Friends in Low Places, but I usually pass on singing that one.)  In contemporary culture, it’s rare that we sing with other people.  If you don’t attend church, or go to sporting events, or belong to a civic choir, do you ever sing with other people?

Last month we sent a worship and music survey to the congregation asking for feedback about the worship life of this congregation.  More than 100 people took the time to respond and the only result that I found surprising was that more people than I expected told us that they didn’t like singing hymns.  Hymns came in second to last when we asked what types of music people most enjoyed in the worship service.  Seven people wrote that they wished we sung with a faster tempo and more energy.  A couple of respondents wrote that they desired more immediacy in singing.  Put the words up on a screen rather than having our noses down in a book, they implored.  But many said they just didn’t like singing, period.  Consider these comments:

I don't enjoy singing, but I know that others do, so I just keep participating.

Too many hymns

Two hymns would be enough

I don't particularly enjoy the hymns, affirmations [and the participatory parts of worship] but the rest of the congregation seems to.

Fewer hymns

Others said that they found singing hymns to be challenging,

Occasionally some new hymns are tried which are difficult in nature -- foreign language, tricky rhythm, etc. These may just be beyond the capabilities of some Unitarians to pick up in one Sunday morning without rehearsal and may not be worth it.

Some of the hymns are too wordy and difficult to sing.

And others wrote about a time when participating in worship made them feel self-conscious.  One person wrote,

Please, please, please stop with the interpretive dance sessions. There was one time when many of us were saying how embarrassed we were because we had visitors there for the first time and oh my.... what a typical hippy, dippy thing to do!

Now, let me say that comments can have a way of cancelling each other out, or at least revealing that differences of opinion do exist.  One person wrote that my sermons are too long; someone else wrote that they wished they were 40 minutes in length instead of 20.  Someone wrote that they wished “Spirit of Life” would be sung every week and another person wrote, “I know ‘Spirit of Life’ is the UU fight song but I really can't stand it! Please give it a break!”  There’s no pleasing everyone.

But, for the purposes of contrast, let me describe a church that takes a different approach to music.  When I spent a year living in Dallas, Texas, I decided one afternoon that I would attend a worship service at one of that city’s largest mega-churches.  Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, is one of America’s ten largest churches with an average weekend attendance of roughly 20,000.  Its worship center, at least in 2002, had the architectural charm of a Wal-Mart.  It was a warehouse, basically, without any natural light.  All the seats were theater seats, the kind that automatically close if you stand up.  But there was no standing during the service.  A band began the service by playing a couple of songs on stage.  The minister came out and delivered a prayer.  Then the band played another song.  (I remember the song because I found the selection kind of puzzling.  The band played a secular, bland, inoffensive rock song that was at that moment ubiquitous on Top 40 radio, the song Drops of Jupiter by Train. Not only does the song contain the line, “heaven is overrated,” – did they change the lyrics? – but the song reaches its climax at the bridge when the singer belts out “the best soy latte you’ve ever had” without irony.  Not a fan of this song.) Next came a 40 minute sermon.  I actually left during the sermon, which is its own story, but I doubt that they sang a closing hymn.  Through the first hour of the service there had been no singing, no standing, no reciting a creed, no participation in any way whatsoever.  There certainly were no interpretive dance sessions.  And there were no hymns.

Almost exactly a year ago, at the same time Beck published his non-album, David Byrne, the former frontman of the Talking Heads, published a fascinating book called How Music Works.  In the opening pages of the book he makes an interesting claim about the creative process which is that music is created, is composed, to work within the limitations of the context in which it is enjoyed.  Music is created for its context.  He remarks, “Birds of the same species in the same place adjust their singing as their habitat changes. Birds in San Francisco were found to have raised the pitch of their songs over 40 years in order to be better heard above the increased traffic.”

Byrne also points out that hip-hop and rap music is largely written to be heard in a car and, if you have a good sound system, by the other cars around your car.  While for many years popular music had tended to occupy the middle registers, hip hop moves to the extremes, combining a pulsing low bottom with a “strong and precise high end as well.”  It does this because the noise of your car’s engine occupies the mid-range of sound.  Rap music sounds the way it sounds because it’s written to sound good in the car.  [The other day I switched over to Hot 103 Jamz Kansas City in my car and they were playing a vulgar song by 2 Chainz.  Here's the beat.]

Byrne also points out that the other leading music venue in contemporary life is the personal digital music player.  Popular music is now written with the idea that the speakers will actually fit inside your ears.  Music is composed to be dynamically flat; “extreme and sudden dynamic changes can be painful on a personal music player.”  But music is also written to accentuate extreme detail and subtlety, tiny details that would be lost in the atmosphere in even an intimate live venue.  “You can hear breath intake and the sound of fingers on strings.”  [Check out Birdy’s cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love to see what I mean here.]

Weaving all these threads together, we might say that if we live in a society in which collective singing and collective music making is increasingly infrequent, and if our culture is trending towards thinking of listening to music as an individual experience rather than as a social experience, then the act of singing hymns, singing songs that live in the middle registers and go out of their way to avoid musical complexity and subtle detail, will be experienced as increasingly awkward, discomforting, old-timey, and passé.

In other words, we have a choice to make.  It is a cultural choice.  We can go the Fellowship Church mega-church route and reject or minimize participation in the service, including doing away with hymns.  Or we can go against the grain of our culture and keep singing hymns even though doing so may feel increasingly odd in our society, and may feel embarrassing or awkward, especially for those in younger generations who are less inclined towards collective singing.

As you may know, I’m a huge fan of indie alternative rock music.  One of my favorite bands is Bon Iver.  Their first tour was as a small ensemble featuring a really stripped down sound.  During their concerts they were known to hand out lyric sheets, transforming the show into a sing-along.  When I went to see them on tour two years ago, the band’s lead singer spent two and half minutes giving instructions about the audience’s singing part on the last song of the performance. [Here's the instructions.  Here's a good sounding live version of the song.]  He introduced it as if it would be a very strange thing that we should sing along.  Even though it was scripted, it was a still a powerful, transcendent experience of collective singing.

My point here is that our acts of worship that we create together are actually fairly unnatural and represent ways of being together that are increasingly uncommon in our culture.  Sermons are weird events.  Where else do you find preaching, except on Sunday morning?  Where else do we listen in this way, without PowerPoint presentations, multimedia clips, and so on?  Where else in our lives do we recite things in unison?  Where else do we hold even a minute of silence among others?  Where else do we sing together?

Why do we sing?  We sing because the words of hymns are poetic articulations of our values.  Even if we can’t memorize the seven principles, we can still memorize a couplet that expresses our values.  We sing hymns because it is how we deepen in UU identity.

Why do we sing?  We sing because it is a spiritual practice.  There was once a gathering of UUs together in a room at General Assembly.  Inside the room, someone had a heart attack and collapsed.  Paramedics were called.  As the man was attended to, the gathering spontaneously sang “Spirit of Life.”  It was their way of coping with the shock and trauma of what they had experienced.  I know members of this congregation who sing “Meditation on Breathing” when they find that they could use a bit more peace and love.

Why do we sing?  We sing because it helps us to access parts of our brains and parts of our spirits that are sometimes hard to reach.  Music opens up emotion.

Why do we sing?  We sing because singing reminds us of the courage we need to work for justice.

Why do we sing?  We sing because we seek transcendence.

Why do we sing?  We sing because we want to be together and singing together builds community and helps us to feel our connection with one another.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Sermon: "Uncomfortably Numb" (Delivered 12-1-13)

Before I begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to do something I don’t often do which is to advertise next week’s sermon.  A month ago we sent out a survey about the worship life of this congregation.  Now that the feedback has been received and the results tabulated, there was one finding that I found surprising.  We received a lot of responses that were critical of hymn-singing.  There were comments about wanting hymns sung faster, or fewer rounds, or less of a particular hymn.  But several people commented that they didn’t like singing period and implied doubt about congregational singing altogether.  Which, to me, raised an interesting question: Why do we sing?  Why do we sing in church?  Why do people sing together at all?  I don’t know if I’m successfully selling this to you or not, but I think next week is going to be really fun, and different, and I’m going to talk about a singer-songwriter named Beck and about the Talking Heads and hymns and music of all sorts.  I’m excited about it so you should be excited too.

But you’ll have to wait until next week for that sermon. Now back to this week.

While talking with Anne about the topic of this morning’s sermon, she told me that my topic reminded her of a memoir she’d read recently.  Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild describes the author’s solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, a hike of more than 1,000 miles.  The author had been suffering through a period of pain and loss.  Her mother had died when the author was in her early twenties and this was soon followed by a period of self-destructive decisions that alienated her family members and wrecked her marriage.  The hike she took was about finding herself again.  Listen to what she says about her trek:

The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do.  How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.  As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.

I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure what the deal with the bull is; I’m not that far along in the book.  But what jumped out to me in this passage was the idea of being without distraction, of having to face problems head on without the distraction of excuses or escapes.

It has been my tradition for much of my ministry here to kick off December, to kick off the Advent season, by talking about a challenging emotion.  In previous years I’ve preached on subjects such as loneliness, anger, depression, jealousy, disillusionment, alienation, and fear.  I promise I’m usually cheerier than this.  This year, however, what I want to talk about is not an emotion, per se, but rather a practice of avoiding emotion, the practice of numbing ourselves.

In the passage from Cheryl Strayed that I just read, she mentions two things that she turned to in order to avoid the pain in her life: booze and sex.  There are all sorts of behaviors that it is possible for a person to turn to in order to numb himself or herself.  There’s drinking and drug use, obviously.  There’s sex.  There’s eating.  There’s shopping.  And then there are all the things that it’s possible for a person to do in order to lose himself or herself in front of a screen.  There’s television watching, videogame playing, web-surfing, and social media scrolling.  If we spent some time brainstorming together, there’s no doubt we could come up with a much longer and more exhaustive list of numbing activities that people turn to in order to avoid feelings they may be struggling with.

What exactly do I mean by numbing behavior?  How do I define it?  There’s certainly a “know it when you see it” aspect to it.  One of the ministers I knew way back when I was a student minister told me that for several years he dealt with the stress he was under by pouring himself several fingers of whiskey as soon as he walked in the door after a day at church.  That’s clearly numbing behavior.  His habit concerned him and he quit it and cultivated other healthier and more productive ways of managing stress.  Imagine instead that he had said something like, “Every day when I come home from work I take the dog for brisk walk around the neighborhood and I also make sure to schedule a massage at least once per month.”  Would that also be numbing?  What is the difference between numbing and unwinding, between numbing and relaxing?

Speaking personally, I will tell you that I take part in activities that I find relaxing, perhaps not as often as I should, and activities that I would have to describe as numbing, perhaps more than I should.  Here’s an example of the latter: There is a website called Sporcle that contains thousands of on-line quizzes.  In four minutes name the 20 largest potato producing countries in the world.  In ten minutes name every American League baseball player to win the Most Valuable Player award.  Sporcle claims that it offers “mentally stimulating diversions.”  It really offers a complete waste of time.  If I’m being honest with myself, I’ll tell you that it also offers temporary escape from whatever happens to be bothering me at the moment.  Which I suppose is fine in moderation, but isn’t nearly as good when I get sucked into a game and ignore the larger demands of life and family.

What is the difference between numbing and unwinding, between numbing and relaxing?  Let me see if I can describe the difference.  I think that you can tell one from the other in terms of the impact the activity has beyond ourselves, externally, and in terms of the impact that it has on us internally.  Externally, we might ask if an activity have a net positive or a net negative impact on the lives of the people we care about?  If it improves the quality of the lives of those around you, it is probably not numbing.  If an activity detracts from your life and makes others’ lives worse, it may be numbing.

Another way of looking at it is to ask whether it is effective at addressing the inner moods and emotions that you’re dealing with.  Does it actually help you to feel better or does it just temporarily help you put off feeling bad?  If I’m feeling irritated or antsy, a good half-hour of internet quizzes only numbs how I’m feeling.  It’s like anesthesia that wears off quickly.  It’s like freezing my brain only to have it thaw soon after I stop playing.  I don’t go forward with my life in a way that’s less annoyed or irritable or whatever it is that I happen to be dealing with at that moment.  Just as martinis and heroin didn’t help Cheryl Strayed, just as a tall pour of whiskey didn’t help my colleague, numbing doesn’t fix anything.  It just postpones what you’re hoping to avoid.

I want to be clear here.  I’m not saying any this to be Puritanical.  I’m not claiming that idle hands are the devil’s playthings.  I’m not standing up here and casting judgment on those of us who fill out crossword puzzles or zone out in front of bad television or get lost in video games.  There is a place for all of those things.  I’m all in favor of meditation and napping.  Please don’t think that I’m telling you to get rid of all your mentally stimulating diversions.  That’s not what I’m saying.

In fact, those sorts of things may actually be necessary for our brains.  I came across an article entitled, “The Holy Trinity of Inactivity: How Boredom, Distraction, and Procrastination are Vital to Healthy Living.”  Isn’t that a fantastic title?  This article synthesizes stories that ran in a variety of publications including the New York Times, The Guardian, Psychology Today, The Journal of Neuroscience, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others.  This article cites research that claims to show that boredom can stimulate creativity, that distraction can help us get unstuck, and that procrastination can be a form of careful discernment.  The article says that being inactive rather than overstimulated can be good for our brains.  Here’s a quote from a New York Times piece on boredom that the article cites,

Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information – as an increasingly sensitive spam filter. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive.

It’s not quite right to say that walking the Pacific Crest Trail is a form of being inactive.  But, it certainly is monotonous, and that monotony and boredom were probably an important key to Cheryl Strayed being able to reach the insights she reached.

Our brains are utterly remarkable things.  They are probably the most amazing things that exist in the universe.  And, at the same time, sometimes it seems to me that the challenges of life are overtaxing our brains.  The brain is churning through the pain of grief and thinks:  “Aha! A couple of drinks might alleviate this pain.”  The brain is racing with worry and stress so it switches over to guessing after the world’s largest potato producing countries.  This is understandable, even though it may not be good for us.

Taking the example of the brain struggling to cope to its most dramatic and devastating extreme, I’m reminded of something that one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, once wrote.  A few years after he wrote the words I’m going to share he took his own life during a lapse in the treatment of his own mental illness.  His life was a battle with his brain.  These words happen to come from a piece in which David Foster Wallace talks about how to cultivate habits and disciplines of thinking that allow us to live better lives.

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.  This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head.

Now, it is important to remember that I am a minister, not a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, not a neurobiologist, not a brain surgeon.  I’m a cleric.  Nothing I’m about to say is at all intended to replace the insights offered by science and medicine, disciplines that also try to understand the workings of the mind.

From a religious perspective, I wonder if it might be helpful for us to imagine a soul in addition to a brain or a mind.  I’m not making any claims about the reality of the soul, just asking us to imagine one.  If you’re a humanist or an atheist, you can maybe imagine the soul as your truest self, your best self.  If you are a theist, you can imagine the soul as an eternal aspect of the self, never separate from God.  In any event, it’s possible to know something about the soul even if you don’t actually believe in it.  Imagine a soul alongside a brain, an aspect of the self that is impervious to numbing, not tempted by mentally stimulating diversions.

If a brain wants to be numbed, a soul wants to be soothed.  If you are a person that numbs, maybe ask what you could do that would be soothing rather than numbing.  Connection is soothing.  Meditation is soothing.  A warm bath is soothing.  A visit with a good friend is soothing.  An embrace is soothing.  Just as we could brainstorm a list of activities that are numbing, we could just as surely create a list of activities that are soothing.

May we develop practices that are soothing to our souls.  May we be good to ourselves.  Amen.