Leader of the Band (sermon; 050619)

How many of you have heard of the rock and roll band, The Grateful Dead?  How many of you ever attended a Grateful Dead concert?  How many of you think that the band and its followers are a symptom of all that was wrong with the 1960’s and ‘70’s?

I am told that people are still talking about my sermon on the religious humanism of the Grateful Dead which I preached two years ago on my internship at the UU Society of Geneva, Illinois.  It was, by far, the most popular—and by far the least popular—sermon I gave that year.

We’ll get into the history of the band, and why I think their music is a distinctively American style of religious humanism, over a series of sermons this summer.  But first, let me finish the story about Geneva.

We did not have a choir that day, but a few of the members put together a band, and played music from the Grateful Dead before and during the service.  Some of the music may have gotten a little too loud, which was the first source of complaint.  On the other hand, some of the congregants thought it was just  right.  Perhaps listening to all that rock music as teenagers had affected their hearing, after all!

The main source of delight—and despair—was not the music or its volume, however.  It was the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead itself.  Coming out of the ’60’s, the band espoused a kind of personal freedom, and individual responsibility, that was unfortunately misunderstood, and abused, by many of their fans.  Many philosophers and theologians, throughout history, have discussed similar themes,

but they did not have the advantage of thousands of watts of amplification to get their message heard.  The band did, and people came from all over to listen and dance to their music.

Some of those dancing got the “freedom” part of the music without really understanding the corresponding “responsibility” part, and they caused trouble for others and for themselves.  A few of the millions of fans actually died in the process.  Whether the band did enough to prevent that, or whether the young people may have followed a similar path anyway, is a question we’ll discuss later in the summer.  For now, I will ask you to leave the question open, and accept that there might be a bit of wisdom in the band’s lyrics even if some of their followers got into trouble.

It might seem like overstating the case, but a common principle of our liberal faith is that “revelation is not sealed.”  We believe that the holy is still active in the world today. As one bumpersticker puts it, “God speaketh, not spake.”  I humbly submit that God could speak through rock-n-roll lyrics, if she chose to.  If  you don’t want to go that far, that’s okay.  I think it’s still valid to approach the phenomenon of the

grateful Dead as a type of sociological study, a Rorschach test for our United States culture in the late 20th century. As we will see, the band’s lyrics demonstrate a rugged individualism coupled with a pragmatic form of hope that is typical of our society.  As the novelist Ken Kesey once said, “this is the Grateful

Dead telling me about myself.”  I have learned a great deal about myself, by listening to their lyrics.  I hope that you will, too.

As we explore the ideas of the Grateful Dead, we will compare them with other philosophers and theologians.  One of those philosophers is Ken Wilber.  But before we get into his work, let me set it up with a story.

This is the title story from I Thought My Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR’s National

Story Project.  In it, Robert Winnie recalls his childhood in Oakland, California, at the end of World War II.  He writes,

“…what I remember most is Mr. Bernhauser.  He was our backyard neighbor. 

He was especially mean and unfriendly to kids, but he was also rude to adults. 

He had an Italian plum tree that hung over the back fence.  If the plums were on our side of the fence, we could pick them, but God help us if we got over the fence line.  All hell would break loose.  He would scream and yell at us until one of our parents came out to see what the fuss was about…


[T]his time it was my father.  No one liked Mr. Bernhauser very much, but my father was particularly against him because he kept all the toy and balls that had ever landed in his yard.  

So there was Mr. Bernhauser yelling at us to get…out of his tree, and my father asked him what the problem was.


Mr. Bernhauser took a deep breath and launched into a diatribe about thieving kids, breakers of rules, takers of fruit, and monsters in general.  I guess my father had had enough, for the next thing he did was shout at Mr. Berhhauser and tell him to drop dead.


Mr. Bernhauser stopped screaming, looked at my father…

and slowly folded to the ground[, dead].  



I thought my father was God. 

That he could yell at a…man and make him die on command

was beyond my comprehension.”


Of course, it is beyond our comprehension, as well.  We know that the little boy’s father did not cause Mr. Bernhauser’s heart attack.  Yet even as we may grieve for his death, we can also understand his neighbor boy’s confusion.  When we are children, our parents are as gods to us.  They provide food, and clothing and shelter.  They set down laws, and reward and punish us according to our behavior.  Certainly, some parents are more consistent than others; some are more kindly and some are downright cruel, but these things are true of gods, as well.

As we grow up, our opinion of our parents can change.  At some point, they are no longer gods, but they are still very powerful people.  Speaking only for myself, when I was a teenager, my parents were no longer all-powerful, but seemed positively misguided and/or clueless, much of the time.  As I have grown older, I have come to realize that my parents knew a lot more than I suspected, and that they were right about many of the things about which we argued. Has anyone else had this experience?

Ken Wilber has combined the research of many different thinkers, to show that our opinions of our gods can change in ways similar to our opinions of our parents.  Both as individuals, and as a collective, we may go through similar stages: we think of god as all-powerful, we reject god and think the concept foolish, we eventually accept an imperfect god, or come to terms with our own incomplete understanding of god, and learn to appreciate the guidance and wisdom that is available.

Wilber is quick to point out that no one concept is “better” than another.  In fact, he says that we need a wide range of ideas about god, in order to make our earth the best possible world it can be.  As long as a particular concept helps a person to live her or his life successfully, we should honor and support that concept.  And we should create ways for people to grow within one tradition, or to bridge from one idea to another, to facilitate any movement that does occur.  Wilber says that it is not necessary to push people toward certain understandings, or to judge them as deficient, if they believe differently than we do; he tries to accept people where they are, and to help them change if they really want to.

For example, I have heard many people condemn fundamentalists as intolerant or simple-minded.  But there are people who identify as Catholics, or Jews, or Muslims, or Baptists, who embrace the idea of an all-powerful, jealous god, who are loving and tolerant and splendid human beings.  Their concept of god might not work for me, and my understanding might not fulfill them.  No one concept or ideal can encompass god; to expect so is idolatry.  It is our task to learn what works best for us, and to challenge ourselves to engage with others, as best as we can, wherever they are and whatever language and metaphors they use.

Again speaking only for myself, I find it more appropriate to follow the spirit, not the letter of the law.  Rather than learn the ten commandments, and the full catechism, and follow the rules as rules, I find it more satisfying to live into the spirit of those laws.  I try to follow Mrs. Stanley’s essay, to live well, laugh often and love much, to leave the world better than I found it, to look for the best in others and give them the best I have.  But I try to honor the choice of others, if they are better motivated by rules than by poems.

One of the founding members of the Grateful Dead was the late guitar player, Jerry Garcia.  When Jerry was only six years old, he stood on the bank of a river and watched helplessly as his father drowned.

Such a tragedy will undoubtedly change a person.  Young Jerry’s understanding of god, and of his own place in the universe, was certainly transformed on that day.  We cannot know that this was the single, or even the most important, factor in his psychological or religious development, but we can see correlations in his music later.  When he sings about transience, about the necessity of finding joy in the moment, we can imagine that we understand where that came from.  When we hear his compassion for the characters in his songs, when we ourselves feel sympathy for them, for the men and women, the lovers, the warriors and the addicts, even for the murderers and conmen, we see that he was able to move through his own pain, to find a deep compassion for his fellow human beings.  His example inspires us to deepen our own compassion for others on our path.  As you might guess, Jerry sings more about transience, and about the cycles of life, than he does about permanence or eternity.

In our second reading this morning, we heard:

There comes a redeemer,

and he slowly too fades away

There follows a wagon behind him that’s loaded with clay

And the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom,

and decay

The night comes so quiet, and it’s close on the heels of the day

I find that a bittersweet, beautiful description of the impermanence of life, the cycle of birth and death of  which we are all a part.  It does not feel tragic, but natural: we all bloom in our time, we all die and decay, and that is the way it should work.  Combined with the image in the first verse, of “winter’s summer home,” it provides the hope that the cycle will continue.

In the next verse, we are reminded that the transient nature of life often means that we must be self-reliant:

Sometimes we live no particular way but our own

Sometimes we visit your country and live in your home

Sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone

Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own


There is loneliness and melancholy here, but also a certain defiance, a determination to live as best as possible, according to the beat of the drummer only we can hear.  This is the independent spirit so celebrated in our United States’ culture.

But even in our independence, even amidst the cyclic seasons of our world, the refrain shows that we are all connected, all part of a unified whole, all one in the life of god:

Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the World…


The whole world is looking out of my eyes!  What a wonderful concept. Whatever I do, I am part of this grand and glorious cosmos.  It reminds me of another phrase, that through us, the universe has evolved a conscience. It may not have been there at the Big Bang, but it is present now, and through us, the universe has the power to dream a better future.  We are the eyes—and the hands, and the conscience—of the world.

I find that to be genuinely hopeful, as is another line from the song’s refrain:

Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings


Just as the night comes on the heels of the day, so does the dawn come again, and we are the song that the new morning is singing.

Jerry Garcia might have lost his father, but he found a place for himself in the living, evolving world.  He discovered a oneness with all creation, and he sang about it to whomever would listen.

Mickey Hart joined the Grateful Dead in 1967, and fit right in as the band’s second percussionist.  Mickey’s father volunteered to act as the band’s business manager.  He managed their affairs for a while, but they discovered that he was stealing money from them. He took off, and Mickey, embarrassed and ashamed, quit soon after.

However, a few years later, Mickey rejoined the band, and stayed with them for the rest of the band’s existence.  Mickey almost never wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, so we have few of his words to read.  We can interpret his lived example.  He demonstrated that we can survive through difficult times; that we can reconnect with people from whom we’ve been estranged, and that our relationships can be made stronger as we struggle through such adversity.

We have heard two stories about band members and their imperfect relationships with their fathers.  In each case, the son was able to work through his difficulty, was able to learn a lesson from the experience and ultimately thrive.  Both became good people.

It is the same with god.  Even if our relationship with the holy is not perfect, we may still be able to learn and grow.  According to process theology, which the Rev. Dr. Smith talked about here recently, god is not omnipotent, but is evolving along with us.  The process god does not enforce laws, but provides a lure toward the good, and encourages us to develop deeper compassion for our fellow beings.

Or perhaps you believe that god is perfect, but our understanding is as of yet incomplete.  Then it is still our responsibility to improve ourselves; to listen to the voice of god in each of us, and to act on what we feel and hear.

Either way, we human beings can be said to be “co-creators” of our world.  Just as we are the “eyes of the world,” I have also heard that we are the only hands that god has.  We are responsible for working to better our world, to make it more just, more beautiful and more truthful.  The universe may provide some guidance, but we must do the work.

In my experience so far, god has been quite willing to reveal itself to me.  Through family members, through books, through life experience and yes, through Grateful Dead lyrics, the holy has guided me through all sorts of decisions, has supported me in difficult times, and has challenged me to go further in the work I do to improve myself and my world.  I have learned that there are pretty firm guidelines about what will work and what will not, but there is also some wiggle-room and forgiveness there, too.  In that way, my relationship with god really is like the relationship I would want with my father.

I know that some of us experienced some truly bad fathering.  There are men out there who are so damaged themselves that they do grave harm to their families or to other people.  Without denying or downplaying that reality, most fathers are doing their best to be good humans.  Whether they are “natural” fathers, stepfathers, foster or adoptive fathers; whether they are mothers or uncles or friends filling in as “fathers,” most of them are struggling along with the rest of us, trying to make the world a better place.

There are those who have lived well, laughed often and loved much, those who leave places better than they find them, those who look for the best in others, and give the best they have to give.  There are those whose life is an inspiration.

To all those people, and to our “heavenly father” with whom we are co-creating this glorious world, I o

offer my heartfelt appreciation.

Happy Father’s Day.

So may we be.

No comments yet to Leader of the Band (sermon; 050619)

  • Kevin Khayat

    Hello Chip

    Perhaps you’re a fellow native of Ohio but I stumbled upon your name and blog after googling (that is a verb, isn’t it?) ‘grateful dead’ with ‘unitarian universalist’. Although I’ve listened to the Dead since the early 80s and made it to two shows (Columbus ’88 and London ’90) they’ve become a real focus over the last two years, coinciding with a spiritual journey that has led me to UU as it’s perfectly harmonious with its principles. I retain my lifelong atheism but with a fervent grasp of the love that binds us all across time and space – captured neatly by R Hunter in both Ripple and Eyes, two clear favourites specifically for their spiritual dimension. I’d be interested to hear your take on the mock-but-real devotional tone of Estimated Prophet as well as the best known of Mickey Hart’s few (as noted) contributions – Fire on the Mountain. Surely a few good UU points in those?! Best wishes for Christmas and New Year.

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