I was told that divinity school would change me. I'll describe the process, and offer tips for deepening the discipline of your own personal growth and social justice work.
The complete sermon can be read below:
I used to study physics. Perhaps you can picture me sitting in a sparsely decorated classroom, hunched over my notebook. I scribble down notes as the professor writes a long, complex equation on the board, and then another, and then another. I need my notes to be clear and accurate, to be able to do the weekly assignments. One mistake could make a whole question seem impossible. I need to be perfect. I memorize every equation. I master every trick. I enjoy the challenge of it all, and even sign up for extra courses. But then, after two years of hardcore discipline, I burn out. I drop out of school.
Fast forward a few years. I discover a passion for improvisational dance and move to an improv dance centre. Improvisational dance means living in the moment. It means being fully open to whatever is happening. Being unattached to outcomes, unattached to understandings. I stand at the centre of a sunny dance studio, feel my bare feet on the wooden floor, and let my body move however it wants to move. My breath fills with life.
I got discipline from physics, and I got spirit from dance. Both can be captivating. But neither is enough. And in my life, they were miles apart. It felt like the movie School of Rock.
In the opening scene of the movie School of Rock, you hear rock music as the camera moves you through a bar, to focus on a band playing on stage. The lead singer stands still at the microphone, efficiently belting out the lyrics. Another member of the band, played by Jack Black, screams for the volume to be turned up, and then, as he riffs on electric guitar, he leans way backwards, bumping into the lead singer. The lead singer shoots him a look but keeps playing. Jack Black embodies the rock music by kicking his legs in the air and spinning wildly around. A guitar solo takes him onto his back, and then he leaps up, rips his shirt off, and dives out onto the crowd. Much to his surprise, the crowd is not interested in catching him. He crashes to the floor. He is done for the night, and he is kicked out of the band.
The next day, desperate for money, he takes a job as a substitute teacher at an elite private school. His rock and roll outfit is replaced by a jacket and bowtie, but his spirit is not replaced by discipline. He approaches a chart displaying which students had earned gold stars, and he crumples it up. He tells the class to relax for the rest of the day.
Now I don't blame Jack Black for doing what he needs to do to make a living in a way that feels right for him. It can be a tough world out there. It's not easy to find work where you can bring your full self to the job. Too many jobs require you to leave your personality at home. If you are personal with your coworkers, there is a risk of too much drama. If you are unpredictable with clients or customers, your boss might get swamped doing damage control. To protect themselves, institutions can be heavy on discipline and light on spirit.
Many people in Canada and the United States are separating discipline and spirit when it comes to immigration policy. Come on, say the left-wingers, there's a spirit that connects us all! Open our borders to refugees! No, say the right-wingers, that's too risky. We need rules, predictability, boundaries.
It can feel like there is no sane communication. You offer your neighbour your enlightened political opinion. Your neighbour isn't convinced. And so you start posting on Facebook, using all capital letters, trying to get the message through. You demonize people who disagree with you. Maybe you're not doing that, but a lot of people are. Facebook is a nightmare these days, reflecting a real political nightmare. There is a panic in the air, as people are fighting to hold onto the gains that we have made around women's rights, queer rights and cultural diversity. There is a panic in the air, as people are fighting to protect the environment from a runaway carbon train.
It all feels like too much. It is so tempting to do whatever we need to do to simplify. Demonizing a politician is so simple. So much simpler than actually reaching out to someone you disagree with and having an actual exchange of information.
The first lesson I learned in divinity school is that we need to listen. The church has learned the hard way that we cannot assume that we know what other people need. Residential schools were a disaster wrought by a command and control culture that believed in forcing, not listening. I am lucky to be at a divinity school that teaches a culture of listening.
In the movie School of Rock, I left off where Jack Black was giving his students the day off. He refuses to listen to their pleas to learn. When he finally hears that they want to learn, he chooses to lecture them on the problems of this world: bad corporations, bad government. The kids aren't interested. It takes a depressed student to motivate him to ask the students their problems instead of telling them their problems. There problems are actually bullies, chores, not getting an allowance. Jack Black's character is a rock and roll musician, and so he makes up a rock song about their problems, with full voice rhythmically telling off an imaginary bully. The students love it.
So that's the first lesson in divinity school: we need to listen. Listening is a discipline that we need to practice, if we want to make the world a better place.
The second lesson I got in divinity school is that we need feedback. We can have surprising opinions about our own abilities. We can be oblivious to our impact on other people. Getting feedback helps us to see ourselves more fully, both our weaknesses and our strengths. And yet there is a fear of feedback. You're talking to your neighbour when you realize that they have a piece of broccoli stuck in their teeth. Do you tell them? You know that they would want to know! And yet it can be so hard to point out someone else's reality. There is a discipline in saying to your friends, "Please tell me if I have broccoli stuck in my teeth. And while we're at it, what else should I know about?"
One of my favourite conversational topics now is talking about how the conversation is going. Oh, you were bored by what I just said, and thinking about your laundry? Thanks, that's helpful feedback. There are so many people in this world who have a hard time connecting with others, and I think that a reason is that we don't have a healthy culture of feedback.
In the movie School of Rock, when the students take an interest in rock music, Jack Black takes an interest in giving feedback. He compliments a classically-trained guitarist on having perfect technique, but informs him that he needs to loosen up to play rock and roll. The drummer, on the other hand, needs to tighten up his beats. Feedback brings the band to life.
The third lesson I got in divinity school is that we need to self-reflect. Our first assignment in divinity school was to write down key experiences in our lives, and how they shaped who we are today. Every year we have to re-submit the assignment, and it is amazing how much the story of your life can change from year to year. Knowing yourself is a huge step towards knowing others and helping others. It takes discipline, though, to look in the mirror and see yourself for who you are, to look at yourself in the mirror and love who you see, while also imagining who you might become.
The fourth lesson I got in divinity school is that we need to be awesome. In the movie School of Rock, Jack Black's top priority is to create awesomeness. One great rock song, he says, can change the world. Creating awesomeness has two key ingredients: You need discipline, and you need spirit.
When Jack Black gets his class to play rock music, he starts simple: He asks the bass player to play a G note repeatedly, on a steady beat. He tells her to keep it rocking. Every beat is an opportunity to bring the song to life. Right here on Sunday mornings, every note we sing is an opportunity to bring the morning to life. Every breathe we take in meditation is an opportunity to fully connect with everything that breathes. I believe that every thing we do here is an opportunity for awesomeness. How we greet newcomers. How we give each other spiritual support. How we show up as allies for social justice. However you are participating in this congregation, you can raise the awesomeness level by making sure that you have the two key ingredients: discipline, and spirit.
I'll repeat for you the first four lessons of divinity school: Listen; get feedback; self-reflect; and be awesome. That might sound like a lot, especially with so much on the line right now. The good news is that a challenge can be fun. And more good news is that our Unitarian Universalist principles can make all of this come naturally, once we get in the habit.
Our principles call us to listen to and connect with others.
Our principles call us to get feedback, because we can handle the truth.
Our principles call us to self-reflect, because our own experience is part of the interdependent web.
Our principles call us to be awesome, because love, justice and community are awesome.
I'm going to give away the ending of the movie School of Rock. Jack Black inspires the class to be disciplined, spirited musicians, and they put on an amazing show. They put on an amazing show, not because they want the gold stars, but because it is what they are called to do. When I watched it, tears of joy filled my eyes.
Now it's our turn. We are called to connect our discipline with our spirit, to make things better in our hearts, in our congregation, in our world.
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