February 10, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
I recently finished reading The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. It’s a love story. A tragic story. A deeply human story. And I would say to those of you who have ever lost a spouse or partner, there is plenty in this book that will move you in ways that are authentically and emotionally true. It’s not self help. It’s not overwrought in some kind of contrived, emotional way. It’s simply a woman talking about the death of her husband. I recommend it.
Elizabeth Alexander is a professor at Yale University. You may remember her as the poet selected by President Obama, because she composed and recited her poem at his inauguration “Praise Song for the Day.” Her memoir is not poetry. But it is deeply poetic. So kind and gentle and honest about loss and grief. More than anything, she demonstrates the power of remembering, holding onto her dear husband by way creating a narrative from the past into a sustaining presence for herself and her children.
In the book she quotes a little poem by Langston Hughes that goes like this . . .
I love my friend
He went away from me
There’s nothing more to say
The poem ends,
Soft as it began —
I loved my friend.
January 29, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
This coming Sunday at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles I’m going to preach one of my favorite kinds of sermons. I’m preaching a sermon about Thomas Merton. I’ve titled it “Merton 101.” Sunday would have been his 101st birthday.
One of the best things a minister can ever do is introduce people to other people who are important guides for the spiritual journey. I’ve preached sermons about the poet Mary Oliver, the mystics Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich, as well as writers like Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and Alice Walker. I’ve even preached a sermon about Van Morrison.
Why are these kinds of sermons important? A couple of reasons. Most of us are desperate for spiritual direction in our lives, and so to introduce people to what the poet Robert Bly calls “wild knots of energy” is one of the best things we can ever do for our congregations. Merton was a wild knot of energy, and in fact, still is. We need these resources for the journey.
There’s another reason why I like these kinds of sermons. People love to hear people talk about what they love. I think back to when I was in college, and the professor might be droning on and on about something until he or she came to a certain point in the lecture, and you could almost feel the whole room shift gears. Suddenly, instead of covering syllabus material, the professor was talking about his or her passion. I loved it when that happened.
Sometimes I have to step back and say to myself — My church cannot afford for me to merely cover the material; they need me to bring my passion and engagement, my understanding of faith as it intersects with the world. That’s where the energy can be found. And then I Take a Breath. And then I remember again that where the energy is found God is found.
January 28, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
I woke early in the morning with this dream . . .
I was in my grandmother’s house, but it had been transformed into a high school locker room. There were friends from my high school there and all the guys were putting on football uniforms. My old friend, Jimmy Lewis was there and said, “You look good in your uniform.” I reached toward a wooden locker and it had a brass plate with my name on it. I opened the locker and everything was perfectly in place. Towels. Toiletries. But also some art work. I thought to myself, “Wow, everything is in place!” I then saw my high school friend, Terri Agan, sitting on a sofa. I stood there talking to her and it was so nice to see her. She then took off a pair of diamond earrings and handed them to me. She said, “Here, hold these for me.” When I reached out to take the earrings, I touched her fingers and I could feel a kind of electricity pass from her to me. It was a surge of magic. I then put my football helmet on to go out into the backyard to play a game. End of dream.
I share this with you, not because my dreams mean anything to you, but because I hope you will linger with your own dreams. Dreams are the language of the unconscious. They rise to the surface. Float into conscious reality. And they should be understood, not as literal messages, but as symbolic indicators of that which is worthy of our attention. Sometimes our dreams baffle us. Sometimes they bring new insights. And yes, sometimes they frighten us too. But we never waste our time paying attention to our dreams, because to pay to attention to our dreams is to pay attention to our spiritual depths.
What should I make of this particular dream?
I’m really not sure. Thoughts include . . . my grandmother’s house is home, but it’s home connected to play, as in playing football. A friend affirms that I “look good in my uniform.” Is this suggesting that I should / need to / must put on a uniform of playfulness? Is this suggesting that playing and home and home and playing are connected? And what about Terri Again? Strangely enough, I dream of her every now and then. She was a girl I knew all through elementary school and high school, but I feel some kind of electricity when I take the diamonds from her. Diamonds. Hmm . . . what does that mean? Something precious. Something important. Something of a treasure. Is the dream pointing me to the the reality that to connect playfulness and home and home and playfulness is a genuine treasure? That it’s a diamond worthy of attention and embrace? How easy it is for home to become heavy industry. Groceries. Cleaning. Repairs. Kids. Dogs. Rushing in and out, always onto to something else. What would it be mean to play at home?
Take a Breath. I’ll take one too. I just looked at my calendar and I don’t have any obligation tomorrow night. Friday night. It’s free. Really free. I think I’ll stay home and play.
January 22, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
Today is the day — Marti Sweeney — it’s your birthday, and not just any birthday but a big birthday, and while people can do the math and figure out how big, I’ll just leave it at this — you were born in 1956. This is my way of saying thank you, thank you for the journey we’ve shared (and do share), and thank you for the many “marriages” we’ve experienced throughout our adult lives. We met when we were teenagers and you were the prettiest girl in the church youth group. We dated. Broke up. Dated some more. And then marriage. And then children. (Three kids in four years.) And then graduate school. And jobs. And schools. And churches. And through it all each of us tried to become ourselves while trying to hold onto one another. When you marry as young as we married, well, let’s be honest about it, you’re clueless. That’s a fact. But through it all we have tried to find our clues, clues to becoming our true and real selves, while at the same time trying to understand the other. Sometimes we have helped one another. Sometimes we did not do so well. But we have always been tethered at the heart, and I can only speak for myself here, but you’ve always made my life better. Always. I thank you. I’m the one who has been along for the ride. We walk into a room and I would like to become wallpaper or Benjamin Moore paint. Not you. You move toward people with grace and love and generosity. Time and time again students and faculty and friends from your past reach out to you, and they say what a positive impact you have had upon their lives. This does not surprise me at all. People have counted on you for honesty and good humor and compassion. They have turned to you because you instinctively know how to help people get from point A to point B. While I enjoy pondering the meaning of points A and B, you know how to get from point A to B, a skill that I admire. I see in our family the élan vital you have in life. Three wonderful kids — Matthew, Drew and Katie. They owe you everything. Everything. Two wonderful daughters-in-law — Laurie and Marta — oh how we hit that jackpot when it comes to those two young women. And of course our sweet Caroline who turns 5 next week. Today is your birthday. The stars aligned for David and Jewell Sweeney. Your dad was quiet. A farmer. A good man. Your mom lives with wonderful vibrancy and optimism. I thank you — Marti — and I love you. I hope for you many more adventures and experiences. You touch the world in so many different ways; we are all better because of it.
January 20, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
The French existentialist Albert Camus (I love beginning a sentence this way.) once said: “One of the most generous things we can do in life is to give something our attention.”
I thought of of this quote recently, because I was in Peets Coffee and ordered a medium non-fat-extra-hot-one-raw-sugar latte, and the young woman making my latte was giving it such care and attention. She had a pleasant look on her face, even while she was concentrating steaming my milk and pulling my shot of espresso.
I said to her. “You were giving that drink so much attention. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
She smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”
I then pulled out my French existentialist quote from Albert Camus, about how one of the most generous things we can ever do in life is to pay attention to something, and she came to life and said, “Yes! Yes! You’re right.”
She went on to say, “I was on a date last week and the guy took a business call right in the middle of having dinner with me. It was so rude!” She was aghast at his lack of attention (read generosity), and then we both started talking about how easy it is to bury our nose in a phone, rather than looking into the eyes of a person sitting across the table from us.
All of this is a way of suggesting that we Take a Breath and implement a little generosity into our lives. Pay attention — genuine, authentic, lovely attention — to another human being or even a worthwhile task. It’s the right thing to do. It’s a God thing to do. It’s a human thing to do. And for those of you out there in the dating world, I suspect it’s a pretty good relationship strategy as well.
January 11, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl for years. First as the restaurant critic in The New York Times, and then as the editor of Gourmet magazine. She’s an excellent writer. She loves food. And she also has a way of making the connection between food and life.
When the recession hit in 2008 Gourmet magazine, a 70 year institution, was closed down. Suddenly, this talented editor and writer was without a job. Where to turn? What would she do?
Rather than writing about fancy restaurants or the latest culinary trend, Ruth Reichl headed to her kitchen. She started cooking. And cooking. And then cooking some more. She has recently come out with a cookbook titled Ruth Reichl: My Kitchen Year. There are some wonderful recipes in the book I intend to try in the upcoming months, but that’s not what really impressed me.
Running throughout the book is her story of how she coped with a year of being unemployed, living in a house in upstate New York, looking at her calendar and realizing she didn’t have any appointments because no one wanted to meet with her anymore. What do you do when life marginalizes you? When you break your ankle? When you go from being important to unimportant. In Reichl’s case, she went to the kitchen and began experiencing the joy of cooking meals for her family and friends.
I’ve often thought that cooking is a way of practicing prayer. You cut. You chop. You build flavors in a pan. You plate. You serve. You clean up. Sometimes you prepare a meal for yourself. Sometimes you share it with your friends. Cooking is a way of caring for the world. It also requires three things essential to the spiritual life: creativity, attention and generosity.
Take a Breath today. If you are a cookbook person, and if you only buy one cookbook this year, then buy Ruth Reichl: My Kitchen Year. And if you don’t want to buy a cookbook, no problem, but at least head to the kitchen and enjoy cooking something. Eggs. Toast. A grilled cheese sandwich. A casserole. A meatloaf. Mashed potatoes and creamed peas. Tacos. Cook what you love. Cook what you want to share.
And here’s a little secret – You can find God anywhere, but you can especially find God in the kitchen.
January 11, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
I just learned of the passing of rock musician David Bowie, and I find myself happily thinking about many of his songs. I could begin the list with his song “Heroes” and then move to “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and “Rebel, Rebel” and of course “Ziggy Stardust.” Bowie was a creative, talented musician, but he was also daring, too. Daring in the sense that he recreated himself again and again, and also fused different styles and cultures to create a voice that was uniquely his own. I love artists who dare to do something different, especially after they’ve been successful.
I’m thinking about David Bowie for another reason, too. I was in my thirties, visiting New York City and staying at the Essex House on Central Park South. I stepped on the art deco elevator to head to my room, and who was there but none other than David Bowie and his wife the supermodel Iman. I’m riding up the elevator and feel like I need to say, want to say something, but don’t really know what to say. And so when we stopped, the door opened and I said, “I love your music.” He smiled and said, “Thank you, man.” I walked off and he and Iman continued on to what was no doubt a much nicer room.
Take a Breath today. Over the course of a lifetime we all build a soundtrack. David Bowie was part of mine. Maybe he was part of your soundtrack too. And to borrow a quote from him: “May God’s love be with you.”
January 9, 2016
by Dr. R. Scott
My neighbors across the street are moving. In preparation for their move they have been doing all kinds of repairs on their house. A beehive of activity. Painting. Landscaping. Cleaning. Why do we put so much work into making something nice for the next owner, but fail to make it nice for ourselves? Why do we settle so easily with the flaws of our own places, only addressing them when it comes time to pass them along? Is there something that makes us think we don’t deserve it? Is it strictly an economic decision? Or ask this question: What it would mean in this New Year to actually clean, repair, landscape, remodel, create, organize or improve something for our own happiness? Take a Breath today. Pretend like you’re leaving. But stay.
December 31, 2015
by Dr. R. Scott
One of the most profound questions we will ever ask is this: Is something new still possible for my life? I’ve been doing a good bit of stewing on this question lately, and in fact will talk about it in my sermon on Sunday, but the reason for the question is unusual. I’ve been thinking about newness because of books I’ve been reading. I just finished the marvelous memoir by Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road. It’s a book about travel, how meeting new people, listening to people, seeing new places enriched her life. And then I think of the new book by Patti Smith, M Train. Again, it’s a fabulous book, but it’s really about understanding one’s life through travel. Not so much seeing tourist destinations, but in terms of following interests and ideas and artistic inklings. I’m Taking a Breath on this last day of the year. I hope you will take one too. Here’s what I want for this New Year . . . I want to travel. Not merely going places . . . but I want to honor my intellectual and spiritual curiosities . . . I want to create pathways for my interests . . . I want to ask the second and third and fourth question . . . I want to push the boundaries of my spiritual vision . . . I want to open my heart and mind wider and wider. And then, if I’m lucky or blessed or both, I’ll experience what T.S. Eliot said: “The still point of the turning of the world.” Happy New Year friends. I love you all.
December 29, 2015
by Dr. R. Scott
I just learned of the passing of Meadowlark Lemon. If you’re a basketball fan, you recognize the name immediately. He was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. I grew up watching the Harlem Globetrotters on television, and even saw them play in person a time or two. They were a combination of great basketball talent and hilarious entertainment. And no one was better than their star player — Meadowlark Lemon. Even though he was a clown on the court, the man had serious game.
The Globetrotters were of another era. Before civil rights and integration and sociological insight into systemic racism, there were the Harlem Globetrotters. They introduced black culture to white America. They were not Malcolm X. They were not black leather gloves raised during an Olympic ceremony. And they did not protest in the face of a racist America. They simply did what they did — they played entertaining basketball and provided buckets full of good will.
I mention all of this because sometimes I am reminded that there are many ways of changing the world. Some lead great revolutions and make dramatic speeches. (And there’s a time and place for protest and revolution!) Others, however, go to work with quiet dignity in the face of adverse circumstances. They smile. They live with courage. They practice kindness and compassion. And in the end they change the world by becoming the kind of people the world needs. I have a hunch this was true of Meadowlark Lemon.
Take a Breath today. We’re on the verge of a New Year. There are many ways of changing the world. Including shooting a hook-shot from center court.