It was 1984, and it felt like it. I was in high school, trying to be a radical. Out in the world, the Soviet leader du jour and Ronnie (the other one) were playing at who could bring us closer to the nuclear brink. As a hostage situated midway between New York City and Electric Boat in New London, I figured it was likely that the means of my death would be nuclear war and the time would be within the following 20 or 30 years, probably even sooner. The United States seemed to be on the wrong side of every struggle for freedom: backing apartheid in South Africa, funding rape, torture, and murder in Central America just like the bumper stickers said. I carefully lettered “War is Peace / Freedom is Slavery / Ignorance is Strength” below a photo of Reagan looking jubilant, and glued it to the front of my notebook. I split my school days between my suburban high school, in Hamden, and ECA, the New Haven arts magnet that served surrounding towns as well as the much grittier, much cooler city. I was a member of my high school’s only left-wing political group, Students for Nuclear Disarmament, and making a list of colleges known for activist students.

Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near were coming to New Haven to play at majestic Woolsey Hall, but in between the booking and the performance date, the clerical and technical workers of Yale had gone on strike. Woolsey Hall was part of Yale University. And there was no way these two were going to cross a picket line to sing. So they found an alternate venue a few miles north: the gymnasium of Hamden High School.

When the night arrived, there I was, in a room redolent of the unhappiness, if not the actual sneaker stench, of gym classes, gazing up at these two icons of subversive activity. An entire lineage was there: Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, who’d sung with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); Holly Near of the next generation, her protegee and spiritual heir; and, another generation along, us.

I did not grow up on this music the way some of my friends did. I barely knew who the Weavers were (my friend Seth had been appalled to learn that I didn’t know “Goodnight, Irene”). I don’t know how I even came to have tickets to this event, and I didn’t anticipate how gloriously incongruous it would be to hear this concert at my high school until they started singing. “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida,” “Two Good Arms,” “Harriet Tubman,” “Mary Got a New Job,” “Perfect Night.” Heroes and martyrs, rabblerousers and activists, lesbians, even, were being sung and celebrated right there in our gym!

Holly and Ronnie led us in “Singing for Our Lives,” the first time I heard that song, and the tears rolled down my cheeks. We were, we were singing for our lives–they understood! They set our struggles to music! Right under the noses of the assistant principals and all the other petty tyrants of Hamden High, who–if they did not actually endorse the dictators and juntas whom we’d recently discovered and vowed to oppose, and if they didn’t even vote for Ronald Reagan (that HUAC toady)–seemed to be arrayed on the side of repression. Most of the authorities in our world wanted us to be good little students, sit tight, date straight, not stir up trouble, not have any opinions. In the midst of political repression and standard adolescent turmoil, imperfectly and self-righteously, but with earnest hope, we were trying to sing our own song. And here were our convictions, my convictions, being given harmonious voice by these two tough, joyous women.

We sang “Goodnight, Irene” and went home. The concert was over. But the music played on. It’s never stopped, and it never will.

RIP, Ronnie Gilbert.

As I drove to work today I was musing about a new installment in my very occasional series of appreciations of Ursula LeGuin. When, a little later, I saw her photo in my Facebook page, I thought, “Oh no! She’s died!” (Sorry, Ms. LeGuin. I have a morbid turn of mind.) Fortunately, she was just being cranky about Amazon, and this is not a eulogy.

As a teenager and earlier, I read my share of teenage-problems books, about people my age dealing with such issues as divorcing parents, homosexuality and homophobia, friends who shoplift, siblings who bully, hypocritical adults, you name it. But one of the problems I struggled with most was absent from all of them: the growing realization that I cared about ideas, that I was in short an intellectual, and that this was not all that common. In fact, if any of the kids in these books were even interested in ideas, it must have been one of those background characters, a girl reading in the last row who didn’t even get a character description. I’m not blaming these books; they were busy with other matters, and many of them handled them beautifully. I’m just giving some background about why it was a gift and a revelation to open up one of LeGuin’s least-known novels, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, and discover Owen and his friend Natalie.

Owen is an intell9780553128642ectual. He’s not only good at math and science, but loves them. He’s not only going to go to college, a bright kid taking the expected next step; he’s looking forward to being part of a community of scientists doing experiments for the sheer passion of finding out what is true. His parents don’t understand this, and expect him to go to State, which is local, affordable, and familiar; one of the chief conflicts of the slim book is his difficulty sharing with them who he really is and what he longs for. I didn’t share that particular problem–my parents enthusiastically encouraged our intellectual explorations–but I was perfectly aware that to much of the world, and especially my peers, I was an oddball. One teacher who gathered together students who, in his words, cared about a “life of the mind,” gave me a haven, and others did too, both teachers and friends. Still. Just being offered that phrase, tasting it on my tongue, was like a secret pleasure hidden away from the grim hallways of high school, where we were supposed to do well in class but we were viewed with suspicion if we actually loved the life of the mind. And here was a book about loving it.

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Oddballs find their own communities in time. The kid who thinks no one else loves railroad trains finds the rail club; the girl who wants to not only play the viola, but compose music for it, connects with other musicians who take her seriously. We grow up to see a world beyond our families and the 29 other people in our class, and find kindred spirits there. Sometimes, when that hasn’t happened yet and we’re confined to a world with such a small population that very few people in it seem to resemble us, we find our communities in books. Somewhere out there, this short novel assured thirteen-year-old me, there were people who shared my passions. It might be very far away from anywhere else, but I’d find Owen there, and Natalie, and Ursula LeGuin herself.

(Available through my local indie bookseller, and yours)

There’s a store selling a t-shirt with an upside-down United States flag on it. Those who hold the flag sacred are outraged and boycotting the store. Many, like me, who have a nuanced and ambivalent view of what the flag represents, think the shirt is rude. I wouldn’t wear one, and I find their window display childishly disrespectful.

Now, what if a couple of people, not content to protest or boycott, went off the rails about this and bombed the store? What if they actually killed people who wore or created the shirt?

Judging from current events, we would then see waves of people buying the shirt, holding “lampoon the flag” drawing contests, and being hailed as anti-terrorist heroes.

For my part, I still wouldn’t wear it, for a simple reason: millions of people consider it rude, people who would never threaten me for wearing it, but would just be hurt and offended. Decent people seek not to cause unnecessary offense. Why would I insult the many people who are hurt by an upside-down flag, just to show I’m unbowed by a few nutcases who get violent at the sight?

Yet that’s what I’m seeing from supposedly calm, considerate people when it comes to “Draw Muhammad” contests. For example, someone on Facebook commented about such a contest, “I would prefer if it was a comic drawing of/about all religions and ideologies – Islam included. But I would back it as it is. The only way to undo the presumption of a right not to be offended is to offend.”

“The only way to undo the presumption of a right not to be offended is to offend”? That lacks imagination; I can think of six other ways before breakfast. But more to the point, very few people do presume they have a right not to be offended. They’re just like me; they would rather be treated politely than rudely. They don’t want people walking up to them on the street and spitting on their shoes, they don’t want to be called nasty names, they don’t want their sacred symbols stomped on, and they would never respond with violence to anyone who did those things. They would just feel bad.

Someone who goes out of their way to make these folks feel bad is not heroic. They’re just having an adolescent tantrum, trying to pass off nastiness as courage.

Sometimes when you plan for the Sunday service, you’re not thinking about the impact on Saturday night. I just went to an event at church (Mary Pipher speaking about how to do sustainable, hopeful, joyful citizen activism) and saw the brand new bulletin board–which I’d asked our administrator to create–in a new light. We’re going to fill it with our elevator speeches, so its heading is “Unitarian Universalism, Briefly,” and below that: nothing. Nada. That’s brief, all right.

The service came about because in last year’s “question box” service, someone asked, “Can you give your ‘elevator speech’ about Unitarian Universalism?–please don’t use the word ‘don’t’.” So that will be the bulk of the sermon: concise, positive answers to the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?” or “What do you all believe, anyway?” or the like. Since I was brought up on poetry, of course what popped into my head was “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Unitarian Universalism,” and that’s how many I wrote. We’ll end with many more than a baker’s dozen, though, because everyone present is going to have a chance to write down their elevator speech and take one copy home, and leave another copy on that board. That way, the people who come to the next event at UUCPA won’t think we have nothing to say about ourselves.

The third shift in my writing and preaching in the past several years can be summed up simply: more courage. I’m accessing deeper truths in myself and speaking about the things that I see as most important to me. When the writing gets scary–when it’s leading me to question things I’ve taken for granted, or to say things that might be hard to hear, or to feel scary emotions–instead of backing off, I keep going. On my best weeks, I’m giving people the most important things I’ve discovered.

This is not to be confused with self-revelation, which can be a trap for preachers. It’s easy to think that simply by talking about incidents from our own lives, we’re being brave, when sometimes we are just dumping stuff on the congregation that would be better aired to our therapists or best friends. (Sensing the distinction is one topic in the seminary course I outlined but haven’t taught, “Preaching on the Edge.”) You can’t preach well week after week without revealing a great deal about yourself, but it’s not necessarily about anything you’ve done or said. It’s about depth of soul and being willing to dig deep to that treasure and share it with others. For me, courage comes into it because I’m afraid they’ll reject my offering, or sneer “That’s all? That’s what’s in the treasure chest?” or one way or another, find my gifts inadequate. But I think the best sermons come out of that risk, because when I don’t risk it, I’m hiding what is most valuable.

I learned a lesson from Allen Ginsberg back in the mid-90s, though it took a good many years to filter into my preaching. Recordings of fifty of his poems and songs had just been released (Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Rhino), and I went to hear him read. This was an era of nudity. Madonna was breaking barriers by strutting onstage in her lingerie. Yet she never seemed very raw or vulnerable to me; on the contrary, her act felt like an act, the skimpy clothes a kind of emotional armor. Ginsberg was just the opposite. He kept all his clothes on, a 60-something-year-old man standing on a modest stage in thick glasses, a button-up shirt and khaki pants; for the most part his content was PG-rated; despite the ego required to recite one’s poetry to a crowd, he didn’t give the sense of putting himself forward in any way; and for all that, he was utterly naked. He peeled away all pretense and allowed us to see his soul. Watching him, listening to him, I realized a person can share the most intimate thoughts and feelings in a way that says not “Look at me!” but “Here, let me help you take a look inside yourself.”

True vulnerability invites vulnerability from others. That takes courage. I don’t know how others develop it; for me it’s been by doing things that scare me.

Joy said about the drawing I posted earlier, “All self-portraits have that same expression.” True–it’s the expression of someone concentrating. Just to prove it wasn’t the only option, I did this one just now, working fast and having fun, though my tongue started to feel dry.

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Robert Arneson actually did this years ago.

I didn’t go to drawing today; it’s rare for all three of us in the family to have a weekday off, and we preserved it as a family day. I did some drawing at home, though, which I seldom do in any sustained way, so I’m pleased.

Usually I have my paper propped up on my knees, but this time it was flat on the table. As a result, what looks pretty correctly proportioned at the angle at which I drew it–

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–shows all its distortions when propped up perpendicularly:
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This was also a foray into Bristol vellum-texture paper; I’m looking for something as smooth as the newsprint I’m accustomed to, but of more archival quality. It’s close.

I also spent some time with Munchkin’s Hawthoria succulent, until the attention to detail was driving me squirrelly and I stopped.

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The second shift in my sermon writing and preaching was one of intention and attention. Anything can become a routine, and preaching was often a routine for me–an excruciating, four-in-the-Sunday-morning routine, sure, but still, routine in that I’d lost touch with the reason to preach, the reason people sit and listen to a sermon in the first place. It flared up in my preaching, I’m sure; it wasn’t entirely absent; but in many of my weekly struggles with writing, it had ceased to be central.

Maybe something began to shift when I began to open every service with an eight-word mission: “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world.” Another thing that brought it back now and then, brought my heart back to what was most important, was others’ great preaching. I would go to a service–typically, someone’s ordination, or the short worship services ministers lead for each other during our retreats–and the preacher’s words would rock my world. I would walk out of the service remembering what my life was about, “This, this!” and know once again, in my bones, that I needed to reorder my priorities to put the people I love most at the center (thank the departed Mary Harrington for her sermon “A Lifetime Isn’t Long Enough”); that I wanted to wake up before my short time was over (thank you, Erik Walker Wikstrom, for a sermon you gave just before your departure from Brewster, MA, in the summer of 2008). These sermons transformed me, personally. This is what I could do for the members of my congregation.

Around the same time, Christine Robinson’s Berry Street Essay, i.e., sermon, spoke to my soul by reminding me that my job was to speak to others’ souls: to allow them to be “touched to the core of [their] being.” She spoke about an experience of holiness she had on a ride at Disneyworld, and I was pressed back against my seat–it felt like 2 g’s–by these words: “The only thing you’ll really have to work with . . . is yourself and what you are willing to share of your own, precious and always threatened spiritual life.” Another wake-up call. Was I sharing of the core of myself, and was I speaking to the core of those gathered on Sundays?

Then I read Kay Northcutt’s book. My congregation, mostly atheists, humanists and naturalistic theists, might be nervous to know the title (Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction), but the fact is that whatever they love about my preaching in the past five years owes a great deal to this book. The message I took from it is: whatever your text for the week (and Northcutt, like most Christian preachers, follows a lectionary and has Biblical texts as her reading), prepare for writing by meditating and praying on that text, yes, but even more, meditate and pray on the spiritual needs of your congregation, individually and collectively. What is happening in their lives right now? What is happening in their world? What are they hungry for, frightened of, longing for? These are the “texts” for your study, preacher. Northcutt spends significant sermon-prep time each week contemplating the heart of her congregants’ being, and she says to all preaching ministers, Go and do likewise.

I had forgotten. I had been writing as if my job were to present twenty minutes of coherent and occasionally eloquent argument. Coherence and eloquence are important, but they’re just the craft of writing, and while craft is often underrated, if you’re an artist it’s intended to be the servant of meaning, and in church, the meaning is our lives. A preacher is an artist, meant to create something that is not just well-crafted but beautiful: something that will touch the core of our being.

I know why I’d forgotten this. It was a convenient amnesia, an avoidance of something that scared me. So what I needed to do, if I were to write and preach in a way that would speak to people’s spirits, was to move through my fear.

Next time: Doing the thing we think we cannot do

My writing and preaching have changed dramatically and for the better in the last several years, and as I find it instructive to read other people’s accounts of changes to their writing, here are three quick posts on how I changed mine. They are not a recommendation to do anything except listen to yourself and go with processes that will bring your work closer into line with what you envision. As to the specifics, they vary so much from writer to writer, preacher to preacher, that blindly adopting someone else’s approach is bound to steer you wrong. Try it out by all means, but don’t expect that every experiment will work for you the same way it worked for others.

Several things happened to me in the space of a year or two that drove the change, two of which had to do with departing from a word-for-word text and preaching from notes. A colleague shared how Mark Bellettini, well known as a riveting preacher, would take all of his thoughts and ideas for a sermon and turn them into about a half-page of notes, which is what he took into the pulpit. Some people can deliver a sermon from a word-for-word text and make it sound spontaneous, but as I couldn’t, I needed to try something else. I had been frustrated with my preaching, feeling that it lacked the immediacy and liveliness of my non-preaching speech, and I resolved aloud to try Mark’s approach.

I don’t know if I would have done it, though, if I hadn’t been thrown into the deep end by accident. I was having printer trouble one Sunday around that time, so I did something I’d done before and e-mailed myself the text to print out at church. When I got to church, I turned on my computer, found the e-mail I’d sent myself an hour earlier, opened the attachment, and sat staring. It was the wrong attachment: the order of service for that morning, not the full service with sermon included. My home was 20 minutes’ drive away; my wife was with me; there was no one at home to send the correct file, the cats being notably unhelpful in this department.

I was at church without a sermon. All those anxiety dreams, in the flesh. After I’d finished gaping at the screen, rereading the same useless document several times, and gasping for breath, only ten minutes remained before the service.

So what else could I do? I asked Chaz, the person who was to ring the bell to start the service, to hold off until I came in–I wouldn’t be long–and I grabbed a notebook and jotted down the points of my sermon. I had time to recall the beginning and end and the basic outline of the points in between, and like Mark Bellettini, I went into the pulpit with nothing else. I felt naked.

No one but Joy and Chaz knew about the mishap, and they said after the first service that the sermon had gone well. For my part, I could have done without the adrenalin rush–to this day the memory makes my heart speed–but there was no question that I spoke differently than usual: less as if I were reading something I had written, more as if I were speaking ideas to which I’d given a great deal of thought. I was excited. It was the beginning of a transformation.

Next time: Remembering why I preach

This year, our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, and I have been talking a lot about the congregation’s ministry to and with teenagers. He and members of our Children and Youth Religious Education Committee will be leading a town hall-style forum on youth ministry in our congregation next week. Since there’s also been a lot of conversation on the topic among people in our district, at the retreat of the district ministers last week I and a couple of colleagues shared models of how youth ministry looks in our congregations. I didn’t have enough time to talk about all of the programs at UUCPA because they are burgeoning.

A core of our youth ministry–and the part I’m most frequently involved in–is the proactive inclusion of teens in the leadership of the congregation. In the past few years, teenagers have been on the Board, Membership & Growth Committee, and Finance Committee, and have taught Children’s Religious Education. They are responsible for the wildly popular, very well-run Children’s Auction every year during the congregation’s auction, our biggest fundraiser. Rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders can be CITs in our pilot Ecojustice Camp.

This year, two representatives from the “Purple Class,” early teens, made a proposal to the Board for $250 to install an experimental rain barrel on church property. The Board members listened carefully, asked good questions, and voted unanimously to support the project. In fact, none of this leadership development would be possible without the support of our adult leaders, who are enthusiastic about youth taking on leadership and treat them with the respect of any congregational leader, and accommodate the particular scheduling issues of teenagers. For example, our Board terms are three years, so if a teenager doesn’t come onto the Board until their junior year, they will probably not complete the term. The Board and Nominating Committee are fine with that.

One of the most important and visible leadership roles in the congregation is that of the Worship Associates (WAs): they write and deliver a 3-5-minute reflection, confer with the service leader to help choose the readings and music, play important roles during the service (speaking the chalice lighting words, etc.), and if the speaker is a guest, emcee and coordinate the entire service. The Worship Associate’s reflection is frequently the most meaningful part of the service for the rest of the congregation. This year we have ten WAs, three of whom are under 18. This is leadership development for the teens, but face it, it’s to the congregation’s benefit as they hear the insights of the youth leading the service, and to my benefit as the minister responsible for services. I’m always looking out for good Worship Associates, and these people are good. I have my eye on so many articulate, responsible young people for next year’s Worship Associate team that if I invited them all, we wouldn’t have enough adult representation among the WAs.

Youth ministry also, of course, takes the form of groups and classes especially for youth. A Senior High Youth Group, quite independent in its leadership though there are adult advisers, meets every Sunday night. Our Whole Lives (OWL), the sexuality curriculum that we teach at all age levels and make freely available to the wider community, also meets on Sunday evenings for the 7th-9th-grade level; it’s been so popular that we are planning to offer that level every year from now on. (We need more facilitators, so we’re hosting the upcoming training.) On alternate years, we have a Coming of Age group, mostly composed of 8th graders; this is one of those years, so I’ve led three of their Sunday-evening sessions, including the planning session for their ever-popular Sunday service, coming up on May 17. They articulate their own beliefs in a written credo (Do they believe in God? What are their values? What’s most meaningful to them?) The junior-high age kids also have a Sunday morning program–their curriculum is Neighboring Faiths, where they learn about other traditions through visits and interviews–and many attend both. Youth are welcome in Adult Religious Education classes, something I realize we need to make more explicit.

This July, nine teens are going on a service trip to Belize, where they’ll be doing real, needed work rooted in the longtime relationship one of our members (now a parent of a teenager) has there through the non-profit she co-founded, Teachers for a Better Belize. They will paint one primary school, help install solar panels on another, plant an environmentally-friendly demonstration garden at a third, and stock children’s books in the libraries of several schools; they’re currently soliciting book donations and raising the funds to ship the books and buy the supplies, and they successfully petitioned the Action Council and congregation to make this project the recipient of the 10% of our offering that we give to one justice partner each month (again: congregational support for youth ministry). In the process, they’ll learn about the culture of Belize’s poorest region, where most of the people are indigenous (Mayan in this case), like so many of the Latin American residents of our own area. In recent years, other service trips have taken teens to Los Angeles and New Orleans. One of Dan’s and my goals for this aspect of our program is to fund enough scholarships that travel costs are not a barrier to any teenager who wants to go.

One of the needs we perceive is family-based youth programming: church activities that teens and other family members, especially parents, can do together. Teens need space apart from their parents, and we provide that; but they also need to negotiate the changes in their relationships with their parents, and family-based programming helps facilitate that process. We’ve been thinking about what kind of Sunday evening worship we might create, for example, that would engage parents and teens while they are here for the increasing number of Sunday-evening groups. The Adult Religious Education Committee is looking at supporting this direction by offering more of its programs on Sunday evenings–the parents could go to them while the teens are in OWL, Coming of Age, and Senior High Youth Group.

All of this is a matter of saving lives and saving souls–not from Hell, since we’re Universalists, but from the earthly hell of fear, pain, and meaninglessness. Since long before Palo Alto’s woes hit the New York Times, our congregation has grappled with the stresses that our local culture puts on teenagers. They suffer a high level of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, worry incessantly about school, lose sight of passion and joy, and not surprisingly, report that the stress levels cause them physical pain, chronic sleep deprivation, and missed periods. How can we, as a faith community, ameliorate these problems and offer a counter-cultural alternative to the high-pressure world of Silicon Valley teenagers? We know that a positive peer group, connections with caring adults in and beyond their families, meaningful opportunities to serve the community, unconditional support for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and a religious community where they can search for truth and meaning are all developmental assets that help teenagers thrive. That’s what we’re doing when we do youth ministry.

I know the Town Hall participants and attendees will add more.

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