Ten minutes each:
Twenty minutes each:
So much frustration. But mostly only when I look at them afterwards. While I’m drawing, I’m at peace.
Finding the sacred everywhere. Thoughts on religion, art, books, politics, philosophy, and life in general from a Unitarian Universalist minister.
I read your very thoughtful blog entry, UUA, Why Aren’t You Nurturing My Spirit? right after General Assembly. I hadn’t attended, myself, and I had plans to listen to the Service of the Living Tradition and Sunday morning service and Ware Lecture and other treats from the week. As a humanist, I read your piece with growing trepidation, especially when I got to your characterization of Marlin Lavanhar’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition.
In Marlin’s story . . . I am the oppressor. I am his oppressor because he did not feel comfortable being open about his authentic self.
After that, I was braced for a rough half an hour watching his sermon. But instead, in what I agree with you was a wonderful sermon, I didn’t hear “you are the oppressor” at all. I heard his discomfort, but I didn’t hear him blaming it on anything but his own failures of courage and integrity. I do think, and it’s clearly implied by Marlin’s sermon as well, that there is some blame to go around. It falls on each of us when we let it show in our faces: “you believe that?”
We are each other’s oppressors. We can try to stuff each other in the closet with a look, with a roll of the eyes, with a “maybe you should try the UCC church down the street,” or “the Buddhist temple,” or “the Unity church,” or “the Humanist community.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, sadly. But I was looking hard for a finger pointing at humanists for shooting down theists, and what I saw was a little different from this:
What is wrong with Unitarian Universalism and what is holding us back from growth is our failure to embrace those who embrace God.
I really tried, I really expected it, but I didn’t see quite what you saw. Marlin did focus particularly on how hard our congregations are for those who embrace God; we do focus on it quite a bit these days, and there’s a good reason for that. If I may use an even more loaded metaphor than the closet (Marlin used it glancingly also), affirming God-believing UUs is like affirming the value of black lives.
“Black Lives Matter!” a person declares.
“Why do you say ‘black lives matter’?” the reply shoots back. “Don’t all lives matter?”
Yes, all lives matter, and since our judicial system and so much else about our country keep saying that black lives don’t count in that “all,” I’m gently, persistently pointing out that they do. And I am saying “We need to embrace those who embrace God” (lovely phrase, by the way) because in my congregation, although we say all theologies are welcome, we do convey, too often, that theist theologies, in particular, aren’t included in that “all.”
Thus the pendulum. Though I’m pretty tired of it too. I agree that it would be lovely if the pendulum were to stop swinging. Where would we like it to stop?
When I discovered Unitarian Universalism after decades of being a “None”, I was amazed and happy. It truly was amazing to this former Catholic — a place where I could take my authentic self and my Humanist family and be loved and supported in ways that I thought were only available to theists or others who could accept the supernatural.
My experience too! It sounds to me like we’re in a pretty good stopping place for humanists. What else do we need to do to nurture your spirit? Well, you spell some of it out.
So, where are the GA sessions on Grief Beyond Belief? Where are the services that take their inspiration from our creation story, the universe story, and the truth that we are star stuff and part of a grand, magnificent, messy, wondrous, interconnected world? Where is the advice for what to tell my son when he can’t sleep because he’s afraid that he is going to die some day, or that I might die and leave him alone? Where is the training in UU seminaries of how to minister to people like me who need to rely on human hands and human love to find hope and purpose? Where is the sense of mission to reach out to people like me who have nowhere else to turn for solace and inspiration and community because we don’t fit the religious norm? Where is the joy, and the celebration of life and love from a humanist perspective?
I know the answer to your question, and I hope it makes you happy: these things are to be found in UU congregations. I don’t know about the GA workshops—I haven’t done more than scan those for a couple of years—so maybe we do need more distinctly humanist presentations at GA. But the rest? Either I am particularly lucky, or you are particularly unlucky, because I have found those everywhere. Not only in my own congregation, not only in my collegial gatherings with ministers whose theologies do not all agree with mine by a long shot, and in the nondenominational Christian seminary I attended, but in every UU congregation I’ve belonged to. In fact, I’ve never attended a UU congregation that made me feel as if my theology were unwelcome. They might have said the Lord’s Prayer or mentioned God, they might have sung a hymn whose theology I find irksome, but I’ve always found lots of room for my beliefs and my preferred language and symbols. And I know for a fact that the ministers were not always of my theological stripe.
In fact, we have very few congregations in which the dominant theology is liberal Christianity. I’m glad they’re there, anyway—King’s Chapel should remain its badass high-church Christian self—even though I wouldn’t want to attend every week and they would certainly not want me as their minister, nor would I want to serve there. It’s fine that we have a few congregations that are explicitly atheist, pagan or Christian. But all in all, I much prefer the ones that try to be a home to all of those folks and more, and that is the kind in which I always hope to serve.
Will all humanists feel welcome in such a multitheological congregation? I fear not, because what I hear from a few humanists—not most—is that what they need for their spirit to be nurtured is to be in a place where everyone appears to believe as they do. I’m sorry to report this, because I’m a humanist myself, I don’t believe in God except in the sense of religious naturalism, and I most emphatically do not want people like us to die out. But from a few, particularly outspoken folks, I hear: “You have to stop using that ‘language of reverence’ or I don’t feel welcome here.” “Why use words like ‘God’ or ‘spirituality’ at all? Why not just use words we can all agree with?” “That was a great sermon except for the bit about Indra’s net. I don’t know why you need to talk about gods.” In other words, in order for these folks to feel “nurtured” in our congregations, we must all act like humanists all the time—and, more than that, we must act like a very particular strain of humanist, one who does not use any term that sounds “religious,” including the term “religious,” and also “sin,” “grace,” “redemption,” and indeed, “spirit.”
Like the great humanist Universalist Kenneth Patton, I like all those words and find them deeply meaningful. Others, I would rather leave out. You may not like any of them, and I’m not going to compel you to. But Maria, when you ask, “Where is the nurturing of my spirit that is in my language of poetry and nature and human relation that isn’t based on traditional religious words and symbols that have no meaning for me?” I have a question to ask you in response. It is “Why is your spirit only nurtured when you are spared all words and symbols that have no meaning for you?”
See, I get the nurturing of my spirit in the language of poetry and nature and human relation in a place where it’s mixed right in with the traditional religious words and symbols that have meaning for other UUs. That mix is how it has always been—which doesn’t mean it’s how it has to remain, of course, but let’s not rewrite history. The mythical time when you could spend a lifetime in Unitarian Universalism without ever hearing the words “Jesus Christ” except when the sexton tripped over his bucket, is just that: a myth. It never happened.
And even if it had, all those words and symbols belong in our congregations because all of us belong in our congregations. Oh sure, there are theologies that will probably never belong there. But do you flunk the UU test because you believe that there is a creator of this universe who can appear to us in human form and save us from our worst tendencies? Do you flunk out for believing that there is some kind of life after this one? Do you flunk out for believing that the universe is just, an idea I criticized in no uncertain terms in my most recent sermon? I hope to _______________ not (fill in the blank with the term of your choice). I want to be in community with all those people. I’ll come back to why in a few paragraphs.
I love that you want an option besides “organs and pews, hymns and sermons.” We might need to set them aside for liturgical reasons—that they don’t resonate with the practices people find most inspiring. However, we don’t need to set them aside for theological ones. There is nothing, nothing at all about a sermon or a pew that is incompatible with humanism or atheism.
And I love this: “You are not serving my needs, UUA, by having the only two options be gospel or classical, speaking in tongues or reading a science journal, listening to a sermon or listening to NPR.” Amen! These wouldn’t serve my needs either. But are these really the only two options you’ve found at UU churches? Please, come to services at my congregation. But more than that, come to services in Santa Monica, CA, Brewster, MA, San Francisco, CA, Warrington, PA . . . all of them have offered me a third alternative.
Most of all, what they offer me is connection to other people, whose hearts are so close to mine even when their theologies, practices, and beliefs are not. There’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut—then honorary president of the American Humanist Association–that’s been rising up in my heart recently, and so when Marlin began his sermon, my eyes welled up as I recalled it again. It’s from Timequake, in which Vonnegut appears a great deal as a character—the author as Himself–and he is speaking of his real-life first wife, to whom he remained close all of their lives, even after their divorce. She was a devout Episcopalian and she died of cancer. He writes, “She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.”
I am so glad Marlin walks with God. Why? Because I love him. I would like to hear about his experiences, his attempt to have just a closer walk with his god, for many reasons: because they would undoubtedly illuminate my own spiritual path, because I would learn so much to help me in my own struggles to walk more closely with my own deepest highest realest best thing (which I do not call God except when translating to another’s theological language). I hope he will preach from that experience and that longing, because when preachers preach from their longing, I hear my own and that helps me. But most of all, I want it because I love him. I want him to be able to bring his full spirit for its own sake: that he may thrive, that he may live fully, that our congregation may be a place of wondrous transformation for him.
Sometimes I don’t feel quite so welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with others’ longings. Oh dear. Marlin walks with God? Is he going to be telling me he speaks in tongues, too? Or believes that there’s a grand design to this universe and that there’s a starring role for our species? I worry that I won’t be able to listen to those cherished beliefs with an open heart. I worry that my inner judgment will appear on my face.
But there’s one thing I don’t worry about; I don’t worry that Marlin is going to tell me that I should believe in a God who walks with us, that I should speak of my longing for the holy with the anthropomorophic language that he uses himself, because it’s all over that sermon and his ministry that he doesn’t want to do any such thing. Bless him, he wants to welcome me exactly as I am. So what’s really uncomfortable is the challenge to me as a minister, as a Unitarian Universalist, as a humanist, as a person trying to live out the promise of love: will I do the same for everyone who crosses our threshold with a thirsting spirit?
Let’s keep talking. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.
My wife and daughter put their heads together for a really excellent birthday present for me: bringing our collection of Agatha Christie books to completion, including her memoirs and the so-called “romances” published under the name Mary Westmacott.
I left the latter unread for years, thinking of Harlequin romances, but they’re not romances in that sense, nor even all primarily about a romantic relationship, and when I finally picked up Absent in the Spring I was delighted. I’ve read two more since, and like Absent, they contain some of her best writing. In them she goes into all the detail of characterization that she usually skips in the mysteries. With her whodunnits, she relies heavily on types–often playing them up in order to pull the wool over our eyes, but still, there they are: the likeable rake, the bright young career woman, the buttoned-up solicitor, the taciturn retired Army officer from the far reaches of the empire, the maid named Gladys with bad adenoids and nothing much upstairs. Writing as Mary Westmacott, she delves into character with surprising subtlety. Absent in the Spring remains my favorite of these so far, as it was Christie’s; she described it as “The one book that has satisfied me completely.” The Rose and the Yew Tree stands out for its treatment of politics, an area of life that, in her mysteries, Christie usually gives a comically cursory treatment. In the spy novels, especially, you can almost hear her shrugging her shoulders (“Must give them a bad guy”) as she dashes off a description of some dastardly (and unlikely) coalition of Communists, Fascists, and international drug runners. In The Rose and the Yew Tree,she actually gets into the dynamics of a political campaign, and seems to both respect those inner workings and know what she’s talking about.
We owned almost all of the mysteries already, but many were cheap paperbacks so decrepit that the covers came away in your hand and you would occasionally get to the final pages only to discover that they’d gotten lost. Munchkin helped Joy work through the list and pulled out books that needed to be replaced. She is so pleased with her role in this drama.
Instead of presenting me with the gift, they appropriately gave me a puzzle: “Your present is hidden in plain sight in the house.” It took a few hints for me to get there (“Okay, which room?”), and then I noticed something that I was pretty sure hadn’t been there before.
“Wait, did you buy all the missing Westmacott books?” I asked. “Is that my present?”
Joy said, “It’s not so much a book as a concept . . . ,” and the penny dropped.
So now I’m enjoying reading classics I had been reluctant to pick up because the pages didn’t stay put, and marveling at her genius. Often, some minor weakness obscures the excellence of the book; rereading it reminds me just how good the book is as a whole. Yes, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! relies on a Marple ex machina to extract a confession from the killer, so that the book ends on a whimper more than a bang, but the mystery keeps you guessing right up until that moment, leading us down the garden path and giving us one of Christie’s many pleasing non-recurring main characters, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Yes, Poirot is incapable of going on vacation without stumbling over a corpse, but at least The Labors of Hercules does show that he is actually a private detective who occasionally learns about crimes from being hired to solve them. I love her short stories, and these are funny, full of twists, and completely devoid of Hastings. Hastings is such a Watson that he makes Watson look like a genius. Christie so longed to be done with the “insufferable” Poirot that she wrote the account of his death in the late ’30s, putting the resulting novel into a vault to be published posthumously (in fact it was published shortly before her death); I wish that she had given Hastings the push at the same time. It would have been a great gift to her devoted fans for us to see him die, preferably from his own thickheadedness, the same quality that inflicted so much pain on us. But again, the small weakness can make me forget, in retrospect, how great the book is. Even while I’m rolling my eyes at Hastings, his creator is doing some of her best stuff, as in Peril at End House and Lord Edgware Dies.
And as I’m reading, I’m noticing how many different ways she goes about the problem of narration, adapting it to the mystery at hand. Maybe she ditched Hastings early on (he doesn’t appear for 35 years) because, once having broken away from the tyranny of Arthur Conan Doyle, she realized she seldom needed a first-person narrator. She elevated the unreliable first-person narrator to the status of legend–anyone who thinks it’s “cheating” for the narrator to deceive the reader would be happiest staying away from Christie–but third-person narration also serves the aim of deception. In And Then There Were None, with no detective and every character very actively a suspect, being able to move from one character’s point of view to another, as third-person narration makes possible, allows her to suggest multiple red herrings (it’s also by far the best use of one of her favorite tropes, the nursery rhyme). Cat Among the Pigeons, which I recently reread, also moves quickly from one point of view to another, creating a sensation of having the magician flash a card just a bit too fast to be properly read. You know the evidence is right before your eyes, but you can’t quite see it. By the time I found out who’d dunnit, my paranoia had reached fever levels. It made the solution deeply satisfying.
And now we have them all (minus a couple of hard-to-find holdouts that the family detectives are still tracking down). Now, which one to read next . . . ?
White supremacy is maintained this way: An African-American family saves for years. They move into a nice apartment in a better part of town. Some white people are outraged. They threaten the family, they destroy their possessions, they torch the building, they riot in the streets. The message goes out far and wide: Don’t challenge white supremacy, black people. If you do, it will strike back with double force and worse.
Or it is maintained this way: Millions of black people leave Southern states for better opportunities than a sharecropper’s life permits. Some years later, one of the children of these families comes back to visit the ones who stayed behind. A white person makes a deadly accusation against him: he has addressed a white woman inappropriately. The mob doesn’t allow an inquiry, or ask the boy what he did, or heaven forbid consider that whistling at a woman is not actually a punishable offense, because the people in the mob are not concerned with the truth but with keeping black people in their place, and they know how to do that. They kill him, first torturing him to the point that his corpse is barely recognizable as a human body, to send the message: We say when you leave. We say when you come back. We say how you act. Dare to do otherwise, and we will punish you with every brutality the human mind can invent.
Or it is maintained this way: A bus full of Freedom Riders is attacked, and the police let it be known that not only will they not pursue the perpetrators, they’re on the side of the perpetrators. The white supremacists are the community’s police, firefighters, sheriffs, and judges. In seeking justice, African-Americans have no recourse but to appeal to the very people who committed the crimes. With the criminals as prosecution and defense, judge and jury, the reign of terror is complete.
Or this way: A white supremacist murders nine people in a historically black, historically resisting church, reportedly attempting to start a race war. Things have progressed to the point that the police arrest the perpetrator and charge him with murder. The story is told all over the country, and far from a race war, the overwhelming response from white people is sympathy for the victims and solidarity with their black neighbors. The president of the United States delivers the eulogy for the minister. The outrage against the symbol beloved by the killer, the Confederate flag, is so intense that the states of South Carolina and Alabama stop flying theirs, at least to some extent. The white supremacists cannot let this kind of resistance stand. Once again, they exert their power of intimidation and terror, this time burning black churches, one after another. In the span of ten days, it appears from initial investigation, at least half a dozen are torched.
The arsons we have been grieving are not a coincidence nor an isolated tragedy, and wringing our hands is not enough. They are the latest chapter of a long history of white supremacy wielding power through murder, rape, bombings, and burnings, and it will not change until white people change. If black people did not have to stand alone–if the wider community, especially the wider white community, stood with them against the powers of white supremacy, then the supremacists would eventually lose. But often, the wider white community has been complicit and cowardly.
In my congregation, we don’t hold special collections except on Christmas Eve. When an extraordinary disaster comes along, I simply send an e-mail encouraging the people to give to a relief fund such as is frequently set up by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. But these arsons demand a different response. It is past time for all of us, and especially a mostly-white church in a mostly-white denomination, to stand with historically black churches and the communities they serve. I asked our Finance Committee for a green light for an offering this Sunday devoted entirely to the rebuilding of these churches, and got an enthusiastic “Yes, please, thank you!” the very next time I checked my e-mail. I love these people.
If you won’t be at the service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, you can give directly to the Rebuilding Churches Fund. (At the time of this writing, UUCPA isn’t yet listed among the congregations holding special collections, no doubt because the web manager is overwhelmed with requests.) We’ll be taking other action as well–more on that later today.
We can change the sad story of white supremacy in our country–end it at last–by us non-black people responding as too few of us have done so far: linking arms with black communities and saying, fearlessly, unceasingly, if you want to beat them into submission, you’re going to have to fight us too.
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 intellectual. 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.
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)
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.
Robert Arneson actually did this years ago.