Sunday, March 28, 2010

"our constant companions"

this is one of the reasons I enjoy living on the rim. on my way to church in eau claire this morning I stopped to gas up the car, and after I finished I heard a whoosh above me that sucked the air between me and the sky out. a bald eagle took off from the pump shelter as I looked up and then wheeled over the interstate and on into an adjacent field. I wonder if they have the same experience as I imagine the people living in the irregularly-spaced farmhouses I see along the highway have: that their ancestors settled in fifty-some years ago with the expectation of having no neighbors around, utter solitude, and then woke one year to discover there were hundreds of cars each hour zooming within earshot.

I attend what's become my home congregation at least once each month, usually when my friend wendy is preaching. this was my second visit there this month, however, as I'd gone a few weeks ago in order to hear michael perry, local author and minor regional celebrity, and also a member of the congregation, speak. mike's talk, about growing up in a fundamentalist xian household, was pretty good and more spiritual than I might expect someone who's written about chickens and trucks ought to be. but I was going to hear him speak with the same intention I have of going to listen to robert bly or terry tempest williams speak, and that's not especially for the same reasons I go to hear a sermon; and while I could argue that listening to gary snyder speak is a spiritual practice too, my attending a sermon satisfies a different thing.

the eau claire unitarian universalist church is a fine old one. each time I go there I arrive a little bit early so I can sit in my favorite spot: there is one end of one pew that gets full-on sun for almost the entire hour, and I sit back and bask in that light like an old dog. but it is a unitarian universalist church and so I never really need show up early, since early for uus means "after the hymn and before the sermon." today was no different: I counted roughly 50 people in the pews when the bell was rung, and when I counted again a half hour later, the congregation had swelled to at least 80 (not including the children and teachers in the basement). it's always good to see a sizeable attendence at a uu service, especially since we're constantly arguing with ourselves over whether we'll die out this month or next.

for xians today was palm sunday, but for us it was psalm sunday, and wendy focused on the roughly 40 psalms that make the point that no matter how lonely it feels during our dark nights of the soul, we aren't in fact alone. during her sharetime with children she showed them her great-grandfather's breviary whose existence, while it may have meant nothing to them beyond its age, gave me a delightful shiver. she didn't wander into the xian's fields, using the j- and g- words, but was secure in her humanism: we are here for one another, we should take comfort in one another, and it is to one another we ought to turn. her title was "so you thought you were alone in the universe?" and by the end it was clear that no one was, or no one ought to be. it was a good reminder that for every psalm 137, there is also a psalm 98, for every thin-skinned god there is a god in which we can be refreshed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

god is "yes"

it's true that all politics is local and it's true that budgets are moral documents. at the very least they are not moral-neutral. the message of matthew 25:40 is potent. we put our money into what we care about, whether a health care system inclusive of as many people as possible or a rock of crack. money, symbolic as it is, has an enormous weight and the uses we put it to give an outward sign where our values lie. that we've opted, as a nation, to put its weight behind a law that expands health care coverage and thus opens the arms of health wider rather than closing them to embrace only a few, says good, honorable things of us.

how do we pay for it? we pay for it. that's all, we pay for it. we always find a way to pay for police and fire protection, for military weapons and protective armor, for street and roadwork and government administration, expensive and sometimes galling as they can be to pay for. it is necessary to put off things we want in favor of things we need. we see the results of not doing that in congregations and churches and temples all the time: a short-sightedness that demands we hold tight to the resource we have because to let some of it go is to have less. I love good beer and am willing to pay top dollar for it, but between buying a good beer and paying a higher tax so a neighbor's kid can go to school for free, I'll opt for the latter every time: that decision will last much, much longer, and more importantly it's the right thing to do. put simply, taking an action that helps someone is always the right thing to do. contra advertising, we haven't done anything to deserve putting ourselves above others. it's in taking care of other people--our children, our friends, our neighbors, but just as importantly strangers and folks we'll never meet--that we experience our greatest fulfillment of who we are.

the arguments against expanding healthcare to the poorer among us, the less deserving, the junkies and slackers and self-destructive, are at their best selfish ones, based on the premise that health or our care is economic. that there is only a finite amount available, and anything you take from the supply means there is less for me and mine. that simply isn't the case, but even if it were, other people are worth it. to say they are not is to deny the essential specialness of existence. the best of religions and beliefs are based on this inclusiveness: I have found peace by this way and I want you to experience that peace too. the fight against that inclusiveness is simply trading "no" for "yes." god, reality, existence are not "no."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

a choir was singin' down at the kingdom hall

like most people, my primary experience with jehovah's witnesses has been through their visiting me. unlike most people, I let them talk. I understand their primary impulse is to witness to god in the world and whether I agree with them or argue with them is unimportant--it's the act of witness that matters to them and I'm rarely doing anything important enough to keep me from being a witness to that. there are places further on the rim than we are and one of them is the college town 20 miles east of us. this is where I had served a uu congregation until last june, and since I left it, I've made a practice of visiting different congregations from different faiths each month, and this week's visit, by my wife and me, was to the kingdom hall in menomonie.

the folks there were unfailing polite and solicitous. if your group has a reputation among outsiders as time-wasting, inconvenient proselytizers, you're likely to want to counter that misapprehension by treating outsiders well when they visit. all the women, even the little girls, wore skirts and all the men, including the young boys, wore ties. every male over the age of 6 or 7 wore a suit. their dress struck me more as the "sunday-go-to-meetin'" outfit one wears in order to display respect for god's message than an outfit to show off to co-parishioners (although in every group there're probably some for whom the plainest dress is meant to convey the flashiest soul). I was reminded of my childhood among the adventists, whose services always required a clip-on tie.

sitting directly in front of me was a guy who reminded me of a midwestern protestant norman mailer, and who had a single cowlick above one ear. I was tempted to lick my fingers and reach forward to smooth it down. it's been a long while since I've attended a jw service and I don't think I'd realized just how teaching-based their services are. it was the least effective kind of teaching--purely rote and repetition, with correct answers and definite, unspoken, incorrect ones--but education-based nonetheless, and with a solid moral lesson. the men who stood to address the congregation--and they were all men, taking the lessons of 1 timothy 2:11-12 seriously--were uniformly soft spoken and sedate, sincere in their belief and unafraid of voicing it. in fact, one of today's lessons was to speak up boldly and decisively about their beliefs and let others know how they stand. in their singing (which was described by my wife as "humbly" and me as "mumbly") and in their public declarations they strike me as a group of introverts forcing themselves to learn to be extroverts.

it was not an unpleasant way to spend 2 hours on a sunday morning. the chairs were comfortable and the company friendly and accommodating--perhaps too much so in some instances, as when the woman responsible for coordinating our visit answered my wife's question whether women speak before the congregation became uncomfortable referring to 1 timothy, as if she knew it was frowned on in the wider world and was aware my wife might have a contrary opinion--but we felt genuinely welcome and it was obvious the congregants, of which there were nearly 100 and who the interlocutor called by name during the question-and-answer portion (no one wore badges), were fond of one another. we meant it when we said we might return for a future service.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

a quote from an essay I'm reading

"When I refer to 'God,' I mean the inner force of existence itself, that of which one might say, 'Being is.' I refer to it as the 'One' because it is the single unifying substratum of all that is. To speak of Being as a religious person, however, is to speak of it not detachedly, in scientific 'objectivity,' but rather with full engagement of the self, in love and awe. These two great emotions together characterize the religious mind and, when carried to their fullest, make for our sense of the holy. A religious person is one who perceives or experiences holiness in the encounter with existence: the forms of religious life are intended to evoke this sense of the holy. In a mental state that cannot be fully described in words, such a person hears Being say, 'I am.'"
--from "Sacred Evolution: A Radical Jewish Perspective on God and Science" by Rabbi Arthur Green in the March/April issue of Tikkun. Emphases in the original.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

effing the ineffable

I think I was happiest the nights I was making bread. I don't mean happiest in the sense that that time of my life was the happiest I'd ever been, but I think that the hours I spent baking bread while working overnights at the Van Kirk group home were the most fulfilling hours I've ever spent.

this is like trying to describe the undrescribeable. (it was nearly 30 years ago, after all.) I took to mixing, rolling, and pounding dough as if I'd been born to it. I loved coming up with new versions of different breads--sweet breads, herb breads, doughy breads--and it was one of the few consistencies of my life then that I could do it each night and enjoy doing it. as I remember it came about as an accident--I was the only one interested in making the bread the administration insisted we bake on the overnights--and got to be quite good at it. years later, working at b&n, I spent a part of a year just baking bread, making it the skill I could count on when all other things had collapsed.

I think it is in doing things like this that we become closer to what we think of as god, particularly if the bread is for people who depend on us. it's like my once-buddy snake said about the beneficence of meat: that people he did not know bought the ham whose slaughter he'd cleaned up after to put in their mouths, not knowing that it came from him or anything about him, and that somehow that was a holy thing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reviewing Xianity for the Rest of Us by Diane Butler Bass

It’s important for me to say that Butler Bass’ book resonates with me because I am interested and anxious about what a successful church and congregation looks like, since I’m not convinced I’ve ever seen one. Even in my visits to churches and temples I’m certain will still be going fifty years on, I wonder if what I’m looking at is a healthy group. I’m sure what these groups are doing is healthy for them, but I wonder if any Xian or any religious group in what it does is healthy. We are self-congratulatory of our successes, the number of people fed, clothed, housed, educated, of what Butler Bass calls our stitching of “new connections of heart and head, creating an entirely new pattern…[and losing] all…illusions of religious grandeur,” (193) but we seem to lose track of some grandiosity that ought to be the central question: if religion can meliorate these things, why are we still doing them millennia after the advent of congregations and covenants?

There’s the story of the babies in the river and the group dividing between those who want to keep pulling the babies out of the water and the group that wants to find the people throwing the babies in and make them stop. I waver between these camps myself. To pick particularly on Xianity, if it’s about making real the kingdom of god through justice, why hasn’t the kingdom of god been made real? I know, it’s all about god’s time, but surely there’ve been enough good, earnest, hard-working, justice-seeking souls in two thousand years to have eradicated at least hunger? We’ve had emphasis on racial and gender equality in the US for almost a century, those must be about solved. It took less than thirty years to make Wal-Mart the preferred place for Americans to shop: that can’t be easier than bringing women to full economic equity or ensuring there are at least as many African American men in college as in prison, especially since we all know those are the right things to do. While “Doing justice” may go “beyond fixing unfair and oppressive structures,” while we are “engaging the powers—transforming the ‘inner spirit’ of all systems of injustice, violence, and exclusion,” (161) what has stopped us from fixing those wrongs? In our quest to make people think, have we ignored making them do?