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Empowerment Risk and Reinvention

The Power of Words

Last Sunday I was honored to receive the John Haber Award for the Arts from the University of North Carolina. I was the twentieth recipient. The first recipient, comedian Lewis Black, was in attendance to give the award. Below is an excerpt from my ceremony comments. I hope you enjoy them.

While I got a great education at UNC, I can’t remember specific classes or professors . . . except one: rhetoric. Yeah, yeah, I know what you are thinking: “Wow, now THAT sounds interesting.” But the fact is it wasn’t just interesting—it changed my life.

I entered the course my first semester of sophomore year in 1985. Our teacher, a vibrant, charismatic young Associate Professor named Robbie Cox, taught us—a bunch of privileged white southern kids—the basic principles of argument and persuasion. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, he introduced an unexpected source. He asked us to read the text of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. Most of us had heard clips of it (the speech had been given twenty years prior), but never actually read it.

We spent the next several weeks analyzing his masterpiece. We examined how Dr. King anticipated and debunked opposing arguments, how he used logic, statistics, data and emotion to reach the broadest possible audience, and how he carefully crafted and layered his arguments so as to lead to only one conclusion. We also studied his use of tools like alliteration (“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation”) and repetition (“Let freedom ring,” and “I have a dream today”) to engage and persuade his listeners.

Finally, the day came when our professor showed us the film of the full speech. We watched the grainy black and white images of Dr. King mesmerizing the massive crowd gathered on the Washington Mall, and of listeners wiping away tears. We heard his powerful ringing voice delivering the words we had studied so carefully. When the film was done, Dr. Cox stopped the projector, pointed at the frozen image of the crowds on the Mall, and said, “that—that my friends, is the power of words.”

I left class that day knowing my calling: Like Dr. King, I wanted to learn to wield the power of words (written and spoken) to change the trajectory of people’s thoughts and opinions, to lift people up, to bring hope.

I’ve spent the last thirty years doing just that. I’ve studied words through a law degree, a Master of Divinity, and years of comedy training. But while I’m still learning, the goal remains the same: to use words to bring hope and joy where there may be none.

And please understand, this is not just my calling, it’s our calling. It’s a calling that we can all claim . . . because words—our words—can change the world.

Hope Laughter

Don’t Postpone Joy!

I write this early Monday morning in front of a roaring fire in Vermont reflecting on the beautiful weekend I just spent wallowing in joy. Friday night I enjoyed a Sabbath sermon by my dear friend Rabbi Bob Alper entitled, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” Saturday evening Bob and I performed a comedy show for a packed house at Israel Congregation of Manchester which raised over $20K for the Puerto Rican Relief Fund. And Sunday, I preached a lighter take on the Easter message entitled, “The King Lives: A Study of Jesus and Elvis.”

I love my job.

Why am I sharing this? Because I believe this weekend (and Bob’s sermon) offer us all an important lesson: “Don’t Postpone Joy!” Oh, we try not to, but life gets in the way with stress, and work demands, and difficult people. But time is ticking. Days pass that we can never get back. While we may think we have time, none of us know what tomorrow brings. None of us have the luxury to put off anything. Especially JOY!

Here are three quick ways we can avoid postponing joy framed in an acronym that spells, “N-O-W.”

N – NEVER ignore an opportunity to smile (or laugh, or sing!) It’s the most important healing tool we have. No matter what your circumstances, opt for the smile and watch the transformation of all those around you. As Louis Armstrong sang:

“When you smilin’, when you smilin’
The whole world smiles with you.
Yes, when you laughin’ oh when you laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through.”

O-Observe. Many times, we opt for anger or resentment over joy. But if we would observe the situation a little closer, we may choose differently. The next time someone says something that makes you mad, ask yourself: “was it out of malice or ignorance?” If malice, then walk away (and protect your joy). If simple ignorance, then laugh at the mistake, correct them if necessary, and go on your way. Either way, you choose joy.

W-Wallow in gratitude. No matter where you find yourself in life, there are things for which we should be grateful—even if it’s just opening our eyes in the morning. Focus on the things that are good in your life. Think about the things that bring you joy. That’s all that matters. Everything else is rubbish.

This week, remember “N-O-W!”


And most of all, let us remember these words from the Talmud that Bob shared in his sermon: “When we are called in front of our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy we ignored.”

If you are looking for a great read with heart-warming stories to help you stay in a place of joy, please check out Rabbi Bob Alper’s book, “Thanks I Needed That!” It’s truly a work of the heart.

Empowerment Hope Religion and Spirituality

Open the Sunroof

(This piece was also preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.)

I don’t know how it’s been where you live, but for us in New York City, it feels like we haven’t seen the sun for, oh – ten years? Every day for the past week it’s been overcast or rainy or snowy. It’s been damp, dank, dark. It’s like New York City has suddenly become Seattle without the Sky Needle.

Sometimes I wish we could just reach up and push away the clouds – like opening the sunroof on our old Chevy Avalanche. The truck sits around at our cabin in Wisconsin, all closed up. So, the cab can become like our weather – dark, dank and musty. But then, you open the sunroof, and it completely transforms the environment. You look up through top of the cab and see the blue sky, breathe in the fresh air and feel the warmth and light of the sun streaming down.

The bad news is that the weather doesn’t work that way; we can’t just push away the literal clouds in the sky like opening a giant sunroof. The good news? We can push away the clouds in our hearts. And the way we do it is through prayer.

To me, prayer is like opening a sunroof. Every day we ride around in a dark, stale, musty environment of our own creating. It’s called life. And when our sunroof is closed, our world is limited, contained in its little box. It’s full of the clouds of self-doubt and fear. It’s a stale world, devoid of fresh air, warmth and light.

But when we pray, it’s like opening the sunroof. We reach up, push away the clouds and open our hearts to the light and warmth and power that is waiting to stream in. I once read that prayer is like joining our “natural” abilities with God’s “supernatural” abilities. That’s the power we can access. And we can access it anytime.

Case in point. We get periodic crank calls at the church. But this week we got one of the funnier ones. Here’s the replay:

Caller: Is this the house of God?
Brian (our church Administrator): Yes.
Caller: Well, can I speak to God.
Brian [long silence]: You don’t have to be in the house of God to speak to God.
Caller: Click.

We all surrounded by light—from birth to death and past. A light that you can access anytime, anywhere.

You never need to feel afraid. You never need to feel alone. All you have to do is push away the clouds and open the sunroof.

Empowerment Justice Laughter

World Peace Through Pulled Pork

This piece was written as a column for GateHouse Media.

I hail from a state that offers a no-fail plan for world peace. It’s not from politicians or pundits, peaceniks or pedagogues. No, my friends, the secret lies in how the people of North Carolina have learned to live with a difference of opinion so deeply ingrained that’s it almost genetically encoded. The bone of contention? Barbecue sauce.

If you didn’t have the privilege of being raised in a BBQ-centric state, this may seem a bit far-fetched. But those of us who have lived with the tension, endured the heated debates, and been dismissed or demeaned because of our sauce preference know better.

To paraphrase Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, there is no clear line between religion and [North Carolina barbecue]. And religion is something you don’t monkey with.


The sauce saga began over 300 years ago with the introduction of a tangy, vinegar-based sauce—a vestige of Caribbean and West Indian influences that included vinegar, salt, and black and red pepper. The turning point came in 1876 when Heinz introduced a new-fangled concoction called ketchup. Soon after, the western part of the state led by German immigrants in Lexington, North Carolina, began experimenting with a different, sweeter tomato-based sauce. Like a Baptist church that stopped lovin’ Jesus, this was the ultimate blasphemy.

Brother began to turn against brother, family against family. Everyone jumped into the fray, and the name calling continues to this day. For example, Dennis Rogers, a columnist, western sauce advocate and the self-appointed “Oracle of the Holy Grub,” once publicly referred to the eastern recipe as “imitation BBQ.” At the other end of the spectrum, author Jerry Bledsoe, a rabid eastern sauce advocate, and the self-professed “world’s leading, foremost barbecue authority,” once wrote in the Raleigh News and Observer, “”People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything.”

This is war, and it’s a war not unlike many of our modern headlines. In fact, most of our global problems break down into the same formula as the NC barbecue ruckus: someone is trying to mess with something that is “holy” to someone else.

Some people treat money like it’s holy. Others give holy status to land, power, oil, truth or barbeque sauce. Given this parallel, perhaps our global leaders might consider studying how North Carolinians have engaged in a generations-old fight without annihilating each other.

Our solution is quite simple. Step one: we remember what we have in common. North Carolinians may fight over the sauce, but in the end, we are all lovers of what it enhances: pulled pork. What if Democrats and Republicans tried this approach? Our two parties fight over, well, everything. But in the end – Democrats or Republicans – we’re are all Americans.

Step two: North Carolinians realize that while we disagree on the means, the end goal is the same: we are all just trying to make a better barbecue sauce. What if we gave the same consideration to those who walk a different path? What if we assumed the good intentions of those who are different and offered them the benefit of the doubt?

Step three: We put all the sauces on the table and share a meal together. Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” I found out the truth of this statement growing up in Charlotte, the war-torn border of the barbecue wars, which meant we knew a thing or two about compromise. For example, during holiday dinners family members gathered around our table would include people from eastern and western North Carolina, South Carolinians (who worship a completely different, mustard-based sauce), and even, gasp, Texans, who prefer brisket to pulled pork. My mother, always the diplomat, would place all the different meats and sauces on the table, give one of her “looks” to the gathered barbecue enemies, then announce like a general on a battlefield, “Now sit down and eat. And let’s agree to disagree.”

And that, my friends, is how you accomplish world peace. Like mixing a beloved barbecue sauce, it just takes a dash of diplomacy, a pinch of patience, and equal portions of empathy and respect. So, the next time you feel your blood pressure spiking over the daily news, imagine pulling up a chair, putting all the sauces on the table, and enjoying a meal with those with whom you disagree.






Empowerment Gratitude Hope

Changing the World

On Sunday, December 3rd, we gave everyone in our congregation a five-dollar bill. The members could choose anything they wanted to do with the money as long as it lifted someone up. In short, they had to “pay it forward.” And so those $5 bills went out into the world and lifted up people from every walk of life.

Last week we gathered to share what people did with their money . . .

One person gave it to the street vendor outside their apartment to help offset the cost of fruit that someone had stolen from his cart.

Another person went to Dollar Tree and used the money to buy mittens for kids in an inner-city school in the Bronx.

Someone gave their five dollars to help a struggling artist performing in Grand Central Terminal.

One member used it to fund supplies for a woman in Afghanistan so that she might learn tailoring skills and eventually start a business

And one person gave it to their waitress at lunch and said, “take $5 off your next bill, then tell the customer why, and invite them to pay it forward in their own life.”

It was a powerful lesson on how to do a lot with a little. We don’t need tons of money or a huge foundation or an army of people to change the world. We can help others with tiny, personal gestures that show we care. Sometimes just making someone feel acknowledged or heard can heal.

Try it this week! Take a five-dollar bill and see what you can do to “lift someone up.” Hopefully, they will be inspired to do the same. And eventually, one kind gesture at a time, we can leave this earth better than we found it. As the author, Margaret Mead said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever has.”