Tuesday, January 31, 2012

feed the birds

I've been having a disagreement with a friend of a friend on the role of government and at 1 point he said, "The government wasn't designed to be a charity Bob. If I want my money to help people with disabilities or feed the hungry or provide funds to people who need it, I'll donate my money to those people. And what people don't realize is that when you subsidize things, the prices go up. I.e. health insurance, expanding the money supply. How about drug testing people before they can receive a welfare check?"

well, the drug-testing question I answered quickly. but the rest of what he said left me thinking about what charity is all about. as I quickly explained to him, he might be willing to give his money to those worthy groups (although almost anyone who makes this argument seems to hold that "if" in abeyance so that he doesn't actually have to do it, making it more capriciousness than responsibility), but most people aren't, and it's an obligation of government to provide for the people who aren't covered by other people's charity. charities are designed to provide only for a small group of people--those who apply to it--and they tend to be people who need it but only in the short run. what about those people who need it for the rest of their lives? and what about those people who aren't very pretty charity cases: addicts, the mentally ill, criminals? these are members of our society as much as they're members of our families, and just like in families, many of them are shunted off for someone else to deal with or to sink or swim on their own. it's a rare family that doesn't have at least 1 member of each of those categories.

in the midst of all this I fed the birds. which provided my answer. I've written before about the responsibility I feel to help trapped birds and I reflected that when I do that, or put out seed and corn for them, I'm not only doing it for the songbirds or the chickadees which are cute and provide aural and visual pleasure. I put it out too for the jays and the grebes and the crows and the countless noisy, ugly birds that crowd around and gulp it down and fly off somewhere else. I can't discriminate, only letting some eat and others not. I put the food out and they come by and eat and when it's gone I put out more.

a better example may be the rabbits and mice I put cracked corn and peanuts and sunflower seeds for. they are actually a hassle in the spring and summer in my gardens and I might argue myself happy if they pulled up stakes and cleared off. but then they're someone else's issue, and besides, I like the sight of rabbits early in the morning eating on the deck. I'd feel as if some aspect of my life were missing if they weren't here, something inarticulate and inexpressive. I can't explain what they add to my life but I can say I would feel a void in their absence. I can't let them starve when it's in my power to help them. I don't feel a responsibility to answer to an outside power but if I did I would have a hard time justifying allowing that to happen.

government is in the same position. its responsibility is to all the birds and the critters, metaphorically speaking, not just the "deserving" 1s that others might care for. its role is to collect monies to distribute to people who will otherwise die. if the cost of other things goes up in relation to that (a tenuous connection that requires a lot of givens, but I'll pass on arguing the point), then that's the price we--by which I mean all of us, even those to whom the monies go; most people tend to forget they don't suddenly pay less than anyone else, it's just that we help to subsidize their share--must be willing to pay. history shows private charities can't help everyone, and sometimes they only help 1 or 2 people, usually those setting up the charity. if there is a single good trope to religions it is this: that most of them make an obligation on the part of those who have benefitted from society to help those in worse straits. distribution is a necessary government action.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

deacon blues

on the drive home tonight I heard a steely dan song I hadn't heard in a while: "deacon blues." what it put me in mind of was driving home some 32 or so years ago while living with my parents and in my late teens. it was a delicious feeling, driving in the dark on country roads, the headlights focusing on trees and snow and casting ghostshadows up branches. what it reminds me of too is the feeling of something to look forward to. I was one of those new york-mad teens who made it worth bookland's effort to keep issues of apartment life and after dark in supply. we thought of ourselves as growing up sophisticated and leisurely, as experiencing the smooth life we coveted. it was a lovely feeling, that sense of what could come, and the song, with its brass and piano that conjured up the sensation of ease and comfort and always being warm and full, still leaves me happy and content and just a little sleepy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

why don't we pray?

here is a sermon from 2 weeks ago that I'm just getting around to posting. the topic is 1 I covered originally in 2007 when I was serving the menomonie congregation and I was asked to speak on it again this year at 2 other minnesota congregations. it's a trifle longer, at 11 pages, than I'd like it to be so I need to edit it prior to its use in willmar in march.

HOLY, HOLY, HOLY: WHY DON’T WE PRAY?

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it still surprises me. Nearly every class I’ve taken part in at seminary begins this way. The teacher enters the classroom, says a few words to students, and then sits down or stands at a podium and says, “Let us pray.”

At first, I thought this was the norm only at the first meetings of classes. It made sense, calling on god at the opening of a new course in, say, Older Testament or Theology. But I’ve experienced this as well in my classes in American Religious History or Church Management and Budgeting.

I’m not a person who prays, or at least who doesn’t pray the same way I see it done by others. I don’t bow my head or close my eyes, so whenever someone leads a prayer I use the opportunity to look at what everyone else is doing. In my seminary classes, even some people who are diehard Unitarian Universalist humanists and who probably don’t pray in their congregations, bow their heads and fold their hands and close their eyes. This is the way we’ve come to be expected to pray, and my compromise, since I don’t believe in a god who would expect me to abase myself before her, is to set both feet on the floor and observe silent observation.

This seems perfunctory. It is expected at a church service or even a seminary class that the authority will ask us to bow our heads in prayer, and the correct thing to do is to assume the position. But every once in a while, on the faces of some of these people, I glimpse something very like what I’d identify as transcendence. There is, if only for a moment, a hint that something, or someone, has touched them very, very deeply.

I’m reminded of my father, who really isn’t a praying man, but who puts his all into it when he’s asked to do it. It’s as if he’s Jacob wrestling with some aspect of a physical god, and it’s getting the better of him. His eyes screw up, as if it was his life if he opened them, and the veins stand out on his forehead and his neck, and he grimaces. His hands are welded to one another as if each was in a wrestling contest with the other. His shoulders, which are already frail and narrow, become blades. This is the type of prayer I associate with his forebears, Tennessee Appalachian holy rollers who were only a generation away from taking up serpents.

But he isn’t that. In fact, my father and my late mother were Seventh-Day Adventists who took seriously the admonition in Matthew not to pray in public like the hypocrites do, but behind closed doors. As a child, I remember asking my mother, who was a teacher, about whether it was right for me to pray every morning at school before the Pledge of Allegiance with the rest of the kids, like we were expected to do. Many of you are my age or older: I’m sure you remember having to pray before reciting the Pledge in school. Her answer was to the effect that, “if this is all they ask you for, give it to them.”

Older now, and capable of my own decisions, I haven’t prayed, if prayer is like that, for decades. There are, of course, other ways to pray. Orthodox Jews sing their prayers. American Indians and some Sufis dance. Some Buddhists and most Muslims chant their prayers. I’ve bowed my head and gotten down on my knees and clasped my hands or clasped hands with another person, and I’ve directed comments to a disembodied “other” who may or may not be listening, but I’ve done those things because I’ve been asked to, not because I’ve believed in their efficacy or their benediction.

I suspect it’s like that for most of us. We were probably taught to pray or forced to pray when we were younger and in the clutches of another faith, and now that we’ve found one that’s comfortable or that’s got something we want, we don’t want to muddy the water with fairy tales and silly requests for a pony or curing someone’s cancer. That’s all prayer is, isn’t it? Asking for things? Maybe not for yourself, but it is all about the asking, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s all about the hearer, or the not-hearer as the case may be. After all, if we don’t believe in a god or a goddess or an ultimate reality or a hearer of some sort, there’s no point speaking to what’s not there. “Prayer,” we need to remember is one of those words, like “love” or “god,” whose meaning depends on how the person saying it defines it. “Work” is a similar word: when I say something about “my work,” you might hear me saying something about my ministerial duties, but I might as easily be talking about my teaching responsibilities or my responsibilities to my wife or my family or I might even be talking about the chores I do around the house. So let me define, for this sermon, what I mean by “prayer.”

Like those other words that can get us into trouble, we think we know where the word “prayer” originates—it was always associated with religion. But like with everything else we know, it ain’t necessarily so. It entered Middle English around 1290, admittedly in a book of services called The Early South-English Legendary, where it appeared as preyen, prayen and preien, and it meant simply to ask earnestly of someone. It entered through the existence of the Old French preier “to request,” which itself first appeared around 880. Prior to this appearance, we are less certain: it is etymologically related to Latin of course through the French, which has precor, precari, prex and the prefix prec-, all of which mean “to entreat,” “to wish well or ill,” “to request” and “to address another with a wish.” None of these had a religious or worshipful tone to them. They simply referred to a strong request.

There are also three ways of emphasizing my subtitle. The first is a simple question: “Why don’t we pray?” Why don’t Unitarian Universalists, this congregation, this denomination, this faith, pray? We are, after all, oriented toward it. On both sides of the aisle, Unitarian and Universalist, we started out as Christian sects centuries ago, and while we’ve dropped off the trappings of most of that history, we still carry some. We meet on Sunday morning. We have a minister. We have rituals and symbolism, from chalice lightings to Child Dedications. Why don’t we get down on our knees or put our hands together or at the very least close our eyes and pray to, well, to god? What we often mean by this type of prayer is called intercessory prayer, in which we ask god or Jesus or Mary or some other intercessor to step into our lives and problems and give the solution we ask for. For every one of these in which the intercessor seems to respond positively, there are thousands of examples in which this same intercessor would seem to have had his mind elsewhere. What else are we to make of the deaths of dozens of Nigerian Christians over the course of 24 hours of sectarian violence late this week, or the arrest Friday of Alabama’s 1993 Teacher of the Year who has admitted sexually molesting at least 20 girls, some as young as 9, over a 25 year career, or the death of my young friend Alex, age 26, from stomach cancer? Any number of people prayed for help and a positive end to those situations, and none of them will be written up for the “Prayer at Work” section of Guidepost magazine.

That last one is a flub, by the way. Alex was in so much pain even I stepped into the Basilica in Minneapolis and lit a candle, asking that she die quickly and in as little pain as possible. I can’t see it was answered except that she did die eventually, although it was weeks after my prayer.

We see the answer to this one quickly: Unitarian Universalists aren’t asking anything of anyone. Not for forgiveness, not for world peace, not for understanding, not for a pony. We know none of these things will be given to us. We have to earn them, and even then there is a question whether we will ever really “get” them. Except maybe the pony. If you open your eyes and a pony’s there, then you got the pony.

At the nursing home/rehab center where I am doing my clinical pastoral work, I am often asked to provide prayers similar to this, although not often for the benefit of the person asking for the prayer. You might think, given the number of degenerative diseases I work with and the people who are in constant, unyielding pain, their prayers would petition God for help or relief; but the prayers are often for family members or caregivers or for people at large, that they stay safe and are at peace. I like to think, if someone must pray for intervention, that this is the prayer she would indulge in.

Margaret Guenther Cowley reminds us that our “prayer makes a difference in who we are and who we become.” There’s another way to read “prayer” and that’s as a form of communication rather than a supplication. This is the way it’s often used by Jews and Muslims: you do this in a group—in Judaism it takes a minyan, ten adult men, to make it official, although women can join the prayer, and in Islam it can be as few as two people—and the larger the group, the louder the prayer. The prayer in these traditions doesn’t “ask” for anything, they are done several times daily as simple recognition of god’s existence and praise and appreciation for all she’s done. Talmudic scholars have said god created people so he’d have someone to talk to, and it’s this idea that this type of prayer speaks to. You are in conversation with god, although admittedly it’s pretty one-sided—god is not expected to answer, at least not in the way god’s been addressed. This prayer can often take the form of application—“god, please do these things”—but more often it’s viewed as a way of saying, “hey, god, nice going, good to see things happening, just wanted to say ‘hey’.” This is the sort of prayer we should all practice with our elected officials. “Hey, good bill, keep it up.” This is often called an experiential approach. Through this prayer we catch a glimpse or a sense of god or the divine or ultimate reality. It’s similar to an educational form of prayer in which we become more aware of the universe’s being by concentrating on the myriad tiny ways it works through its inhabitants.

Thus, the second way of saying my subtitle: “why don’t we pray?” This is not so easy to answer, since UUism is so composed of many, many ways of seeing that which is outside ourselves. Some say god, some goddess, some divine or holy, some ultimate nature. Some say there is nothing outside us at all. Former UU minister Davidson Loehr uses this as an example of how we are destined to fail as a denomination for the simple fact we can never get everyone on the same page the way, say, Catholics can—although if you know your Catholicism you know they’re never all on the same page either, although often they’re in the same chapter. In contrast, UUs are rarely holding the same books. It may be true, though, that although we ascribe to separate beliefs, we often end up more or less in the same section of the library.

This is by the way a roundabout way of saying that actually, we do pray this way. When we meditate as a group, when we gather together and direct our thoughts in the same direction by listening to the sermon or poem or singing the same song, we pray. Some of us might take exception to that idea—“I’m listening, I’m not praying”—and I respect that exception. I can’t do much more than suggest that maybe, in some small, conversational, educational way, when we sing “Spirit of Life” together or we announce “Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law,” we’re praying this way. If there is something bigger than all of us, this is something that might be heard. Kind of like in Horton Hears a Who, in which Jo-Jo, the tiniest Who of them all, provides the necessary volume lift to make their combined voices heard. After all, “a person’s a person no matter how small.”

This is slightly different although related to the way prayer is treated in Buddhism in which it supports meditation and study. You’re meant to contemplate what you have learned while in silence or by chanting a mantra. One form of this is popularly known as the prayer of the Bodhisattva: “Sentient beings are numberless, I will save them all. Delusions are inexhaustible, I will put an end to them. The Dharma is endless, I will master it. The Buddha Way is unobtainable, I will obtain it.” You aren’t asking the universe for anything in particular, other than the enlightenment of all beings, but you’re mulling over, conversing with the universe as it were, the things you’ve found and looking for insight into them.

My mentor, reverend Eleanor Rice, asked me one afternoon in response to some problems I’d laid out for her, “how’s your prayer life?” I was taken aback, partly because Eleanor of course is a UU and UUs don’t pray, and partly because it seems like a remarkably personal question, like asking someone when his last bowel movement was. I stammered something to the effect that I don’t have one, expecting that to be the end of that line of questioning. But Eleanor wouldn’t let me off that easy—part of the reason she was a good mentor to me—and kept probing and questioning. “Isn’t there,” she asked, “a time when you feel peaceful, at one with your surroundings and your spirit, and content? Do you meditate?” I said I hadn’t meditated as such in years, not since enforced practice at Dharmapada, the monastery I visited in the late 80s, although I have done a form of walking meditation for decades.

She said, “That’s not quite it. Isn’t there a time when you’re totally concentrated on something other than yourself but you feel in touch with both it and yourself?”

I thought about it. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve purposely called on something outside myself for answers or help. They haven’t been spectacular successes. When I’m asked to say grace at family gatherings, as I am at times, I usually say something along the lines of, “It’s good that we’re all here and we’re healthy and happy. We’re fortunate to have food to eat and family to be with, and we’re grateful for that.” No one says “amen” after that, although I think that’s a mighty profound statement.

But then I twigged into what Eleanor was getting at. There is a time when I feel at peace, at one with the world and the people in it, in communion with something larger than myself. That’s when I am laying on my back deep in the recesses of solving a difficult crossword puzzle.

I offered that to her and explained that, when I’m working on a puzzle, I’m not me, I’m not a teacher or a preacher or a student or a man or a husband or a father to dogs. I’m simply not. Or perhaps the way to say it is that I’m all things, all those things and other things I can’t even think of. I lose my sense of self as I’m solving a puzzle and it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside the puzzle or even in the puzzle. If I don’t answer it, I don’t answer it, but if I do, that’s a mitzvah. A good thing.

I used to spend time with a group called Direct Centering back in the 80s and they were a bit of a scam operation but they were also onto something with their notion that one should detach from stressful situations. Their rationale was that by detaching you would be okay with any result to the situation, and sometimes that led to a sense of helplessness or powerlessness, but I think what they were getting at was this sense of being separate from the result, in the way Buddhists think. That is, knowing you have done all you could to bring a satisfactory answer to the situation, and now that you’ve done so, you will be satisfied with the result. It may be life, it may be death. It may be a pony. You have done everything you could and you are secure in what you’ve done as, not necessarily the right thing, but the thing you’ve done. There may be room for correction. There may not. This is why, I suppose, I do crosswords in pen. There is no disgrace in writing over something.

Eleanor said, “That’s your form of prayer.”

I don’t want to romanticize this idea. All I’m doing is scratching words on a piece of paper. But just as prayer invests mumbled or thought words with holiness by the prayer’s intent, so it is the intent of the person doing the action—a crossword, feeding animals, knitting, singing—that invests the action with prayer. Like Yeats, we are no longer able to distinguish the dancer from the dance.

Finally, the third way of reading my subtitle is as an invitation. “Why don’t we pray?” In a UU World article from 2007 Kimberly French calls “Spirit of Life,” which is number 123 of our hymnal, our Doxology, our “Amazing Grace.” It’s become so prevalent in UU services and circles almost everyone knows it by heart. Carolyn McDade, the author of the song, says of its composition that she was faced with a difficult situation made more difficult by difficult people. “’I [felt] like a piece of dried cardboard that [had lain] in the attic for years. Just open wide the door and I’ll be dust.’…I walked through the house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written but prayed…I thought of it as a living prayer…” Will you join me now in standing as you’re able and speaking or singing the words to the prayer “Spirit of Life?”

[“Spirit of life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of life, come to me. Come to me.”]

Thank you.

Monday, January 23, 2012

"we can't always use pandas and tea"

this is the sort of writer I've always wanted to be, not necessarily the voice of a nation but the writer who can direct readers to that voice, the writer who makes note of what the nation has become and points up both its foibles and its beauty. han han, who I had not heard of until I'd read this essay (my link is to the digital new yorker copy from last july and may prove unnavigatable and you may need to go to the paywall at the new yorker website), is publishing in english soon and I look forward to finding his essays, perhaps his fiction. I love too that in his native china he's better known as a racer than an author. shades of buckaroo banzai. I'm currently in a fiction mode, reading novels that make a comment on their times, from les miserables by hugo to neuromancer by gibson. these are the sorts of works that move down the centuries.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

pastoral clinical week 15

CPE REFLECTION WEEK 15

I met with one of my residents at her mother’s viewing and funeral this morning. It was as good an experience as I could have hoped for and helped me to recognize some of the ways in which I’ve been privileged during this experience.

First, the preparations for making her aware of her mother’s illness and death were more complicated than they needed to be. But this should be expected, I suppose, when dealing with a family whose relationships are as riven with bitterness and suspicion as those between her sister, the resident’s husband, and the resident’s children are. The complications were magnified by distrust between the sister, her other sister, and her husband, each insisting someone else should be the one to tell her about her mother’s illness and death, but none willing to let an outside source do it. Finally, her husband visited and told her about it, and then we went into the question of whether she wanted to attend the funeral and who would take her.

But this morning’s experience made all that moot. She was welcomed into the grieving group in a way I wasn’t entirely expecting. I have sometimes wondered if her husband is behaving lovingly toward her in response to what he hopes for others to see; but I saw some behaviors between them that seemed genuine, and I didn’t think he could know anyone was watching or listening to him. They were little things, like his gentle wiping of the drool that pools in pools in the cleft between her chin and chest (which is something I also do repeatedly, thinking of her dignity) and running his hand soothingly over her hair. At one point, while he took her to use the bathroom and I was watching outside the door to ask anyone approaching to wait a few moments until she was finished, one of her sisters-in-law said she had to take her child in to throw up, and in the moment when she opened the door, I could see her husband slowly and carefully lowering back into her chair. I am convinced that he is genuine in his dedication to her.

Similarly, a woman who grew up with my resident, went to college with her and with whom she shared an apartment for years, and who is a nurse now in Buffalo, came directly to her when she walked into the funeral home, got down on one knee to be at her level, hugged her, and then spent most of the funeral talking with her, running down memories and experiences, and at times crying with her. The affection in her eyes was wonderful to see.

Her children, with whom there are apparently many issues—I discovered in talking with them that both had spent the intervening years since her debilitating aneurysm living with their father—most particularly their unwillingness (according, separately, to both her sister and husband) to visit her, attended the funeral. (My resident has three children and a fourth adopted daughter whose name has not come up and I didn’t think it was prudent to ask about her. The two who live closest came.) Her eldest son came directly up to her when he came in but awkwardly stood next to his father while he said hello, and then just as awkwardly stood around during the viewing, the funeral, and the social time afterward. Her daughter, who lives in St. Paul, pointedly ignored her mother when she came in, managing to catch her dad during one of the times while I sat with my resident alone while he mingled, and then passed without looking at her when she went in to sit down. (She was looking at me out of her single good eye then and didn’t see her walk past.) But after the funeral she came over to her mother and took her hands and got down on her knees to hug her. She looked up at me as if to tell me, “My daughter. This is my daughter.”

If she didn’t have a good time, which I doubt anyone can say they have when they attend their mother’s funeral, at least she didn’t have a bad time. This whole experience affected me profoundly, as I felt privy to a few hours’ window into the intimate and previously functional life of someone who’s entered my life as a person in need of constant, sometimes overwhelming, care.

On my drive back to the facility, I reflected on how many intense but common experiences I’ve been allowed to share with residents during this CPE. I’ve visited people in the hospital, spent time with them while they were most vulnerable and afraid of death, sat their bedsides while they were in the process of dying and then handled their bodies after they died, talked with them about their families and their relationships with other residents, talked them down when they’ve been angry or frustrated. Outside of birth and marriage, these are the most intimate and bewildering experiences most of us have and most ministers go through with their congregants, only I have been privileged to see them in the course of a few months’ time. I am humbled by their power.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

vagabondage

this is a mashup I've created as part of the worship service during my site visit tomorrow at my CPE facility. my didactic is about homelessness, a condition several of the people on my floor and my site have faced or are afraid they'll face once the move from the current building to a smaller one is begun, and while I've tried and failed to secure a guest speaker on the topic, my supervisor (and my group) argued that, as I had been homeless, I could be a persuasive expert on the subject. I'll emphasize to them, of course, that even within the broad definition of homelessness I was a particularly advantaged individual and that my experiences can't be taken as either the norm or anything like universals. however, as they have pointed out to me, I can speak to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual elements of what it's like to be homeless, and that's a step beyond what they know. I'm looking forward to this with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, as I guess I look forward to everything I suspect I'll enjoy. video

Monday, January 9, 2012

pastoral clinical week 13

CPE REFLECTION 12

This last Friday was the last day for the Music Intern at my site. We’ve had a cordial relationship, having a few conversations mostly about her concerns about having no work lined up for the immediate future and uncertainty about moving back to Iowa, and she’s served as the music accompanist for some of my chapel services. Which is to say, we’ve had a good, cordial, and professional relationship. So when I stopped by her office to say goodbye on my way out, I was completely taken aback by her suddenly hugging me.

Make no mistake, I’m no stranger to hugging goodbye. Back in New York, it’s often the way people take leave of one another whether they expect never to see one another again or to see them in an hour. I tried keeping that tradition after moving here to the Midwest in the early 90s and came to the conclusion after a few years and marrying into a Midwestern family that the correct procedure is that people who are related or have experienced some important and nigh life-changing adventure together are all right to hug. Outside those criteria, hugging is strictly frowned upon.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but the fact remains that I was surprised by her hug. I hadn’t thought of her as a hugger or someone sentimental about the few experiences we had shared. By the same token, I was surprised at how the Nurse Manager on my floor took time from rushing off to yet another management meeting to discuss with me her recent decision to move from management back to fulltime nursing. I had stopped her on the stairs momentarily to ask if she was comfortable with her decision, and her first answer was a quick, “Yeah, yeah, I’m very okay with it.”

We’ve had many conversations over my months here and so I followed that with another question that might not have been thought within the boundaries we’d set. “I wondered if, given what you said a few days ago about the comments your boyfriend had made [these questioned her decisions to sometimes stay late in order to talk with residents and staff when they had concerns and he had argued she’s not as important as she thinks she is], if that had anything to do with your decision.” I expected a kind of perfunctory, “No, it hadn’t,” response but instead she took a moment to gather her thoughts, looking off for a moment into space, and then launched into a solid five minute explanation of what went into her decision-making: her years of considering the loss she feels moving away from practice into supervision, the doubts she has about her efficacy in management, her need to feel as if she’s doing something immediate with residents that doesn’t have to filter through other people, her desire to feel a part of things again. Finally, she said, “When the list of nursing positions at the new place opened up, I looked at it and thought, ‘Maybe this is my chance to go back to what I really love to do.’ I thought that might not happen again, so I took the chance.” I came away from that conversation feeling very confident she had made her decision over the course of years rather than moments and it wasn’t in reaction against some experience, as I’d feared, but in response to something inside her.
Similarly, while our schedules matched only a few times, another intern and I had several fruitful conversations during the couple weeks when only the two of us were here at the facility. Often they were theologically based, usually asking one another about subtleties in our different religions. These were in-depth questions about dogma and practice and I think we both came away from them with a better understanding of our respective faiths. Most of my questions hinged on events or situations I’d read about and wondered, while most of his seemed to revolve around questions about Unitarian Universalism he’d considered for a long time. They were good questions and good opportunities.

It’s surprising to me that I’ve made these connections with people I hadn’t expected to because of the shorter time CPE is happening (as opposed to the eight months my wife is taking to do her CPE) and to the lesser time I have spent with staff and other interns. Most of my time of course is taken up on the floor and so I expected to have strong connections with the residents I saw and talked with everyday. But I’ve been surprised by the joy I’ve experienced coming into community with these other people I likely will never see again I’m not certain if it’s a case of lowering my guard (or of theirs) or the shared sense of change that being thrown together encourages in most people, but it is a benefit of the CPE experience I hadn’t expected.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

sunday night reading

here is an interesting essay concerning the religious impulse in the us. it doesn't come to any new conclusions or make a staggeringly new case for the hypocrisy between what we preach and what we practice, but it does provide a startling series of statistics in which, unless you've taken care to pay close attention to everything, you're likely to find something you hadn't known before. as for me, the following is among the more disturbing information.


In one area, the United States is indisputably No. 1. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. Currently more than 2 million people are incarcerated; and according to the most recent figures, 1 in every 31 adults is in prison, on parole or probation, adding up to a total of 7.3 million at a cost of $68 billion annually. Criminologist Shawn Bushway at the State University at Albany reports that “by age 23, almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime.” Our nearest competitor for the No. 1 spot is China. Although China has a far greater total population than the U.S., its prison population is half a million less than ours. Next is Russia with 846,967 imprisoned.

there are many links to author bernard starr's sources available in the original and I encourage you to visit some of them. the essay itself, prone to the problems of most blogs--lack of editing and poor word choice as well as rampant grammatical issues--is still a fine read and should experience a greater audience.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

new year reflection

yesterday in my supervisory meeting my CPE supervisor suggested that my reflections had been resident-driven rather than focusing on what was going on for me and that I might want to try concentrating on my own internal experience. I might do that, depending on what happens between now and my next reflection deadline, but I thought I could at least try doing that here. it's rather fitting, too, as I haven't posted since the new year began, and altering my view a little, from outside to in, might be an interesting, if shortterm, change.

while my wife has noted that this is the 1st midwinter break she hasn't dreaded my descent into my usual sunless funk, which may be a greater testament to the change in my medication than to anything in me, nonetheless I've still experienced a lot of internal roiling over my immediate future. the short of it is I'm worried I won't have a chance to return to the work I love doing: teaching, and now ministering.

it's not that there aren't any jobs available, although there are fewer than there used to be. it's that teaching college english, which used to be a pretty good hedge against unemployment, is glutted--really, in my adult lifetime, when hasn't it been glutted?--and especially here on the rim and closer to the hub, where there are both hiring caps and closing schools. because of our continued seminary schooling, and the fact that my father-in-law stubbornly--I almost wrote "selfishly," which should give an indication where my mind starts traveling when the weather gets brass monkey cold--clings to life, we aren't moving from the rim anytime soon, so I need to focus all my efforts at finding employment here.

and I do need to find employment in the near future, not only for monetary reasons but because I go a little crazy when I'm not around other people for long. while I continue to draw unemployment, and that frankly pays better than any of the local minimum wage general labor jobs--and thank you, schools that hired me for years and paid me a lot of money to teach their kids--that will end around the start of the summer. and while at one time I could reliably drown myself in booze and travel and outside adventure for years on end--my experience of most of the mid to late 80s--I can't do that anymore, not only because I'm married now and have a house and dogs and cats and responsibilities, but because I've found that I really, really like working with people.

I liked working retail. I saw new people every day and I think I was pretty good at dealing with them. but I don't want to return to that. there is something to be said for the holiness of serving people that way but I'm not the person to say it. the recession too has served to make clerking less a human-centered activity and more a product-driven, unit-moving enterprise, and that's really always been the case but even from the outside I can see it metastisizing.

I don't want to return to retail. or outside, shortterm labor. or food service. and especially not to social services (shudder). but I fear I will need to, just to make money (note I did not say, "make a living"). what I fear most is that the work I've concentrated on the past 12 years, serving people as a teacher and a minister, is gone for me, all that I've worked at to better myself in those roles and the skills I've found I'm really, really good at is like so much achingly-remembered dream from which I've been woken to do my shift at the factory.

does this sound like so much navelgazing? I also fear that. because the truth is I'm better off than a lot of other people, even a lot of other people who live around me. I have a wife who makes a lot of money doing what she does (even if she hates her job and would like to leave it for something more appealing, like chaplaincy) and living off whom would not have troubled me 25 years ago. and she has said that we can afford this spring for me to finish my classes so that I can graduate in the fall. but she hates her job and while she's decided she can stomach it at least long enough to keep at it until she's finished herself with seminary in another year or 2, I can't fight off the niggling fact I couldn't do that myself. how can I let her do it?

sometimes what I want more than anything else is to return to the easier, cheaper, lonelier life of my thumb stuck out on the side of the road. somedays I drive toward the hub with some errand in mind, my face toward the setting sun, and I think, "I could just keep driving, further and further, until the car runs out of gas and I sleep by the side of the road until someone picks me up and then I go back to bumming and blowjobs for rides and swiping food from mom-and-pops and being a cheap kerouac, a poorer genet." but that's sentimentalizing and besides I'm over 50 now and sex on offer is a dwindling commodity and I can't sleep without a pillow anymore and would rather not bathe than dip in a cold stream and where would I get my medication?