Tuesday, December 24, 2013

the twelve holy days

A sermon given to the

Dakota Unitarian Universalist Church

Burnsville, MN

December 22, 2013

Scholars are well aware now that Jesus, who probably existed either as an individual or as a group of men and women over the first centuries of the new millenium, certainly was not born on December 25 or anywhere in December, at least not according to the New Testament’s testimony.  It would be sometime in the spring according to the gospels, which makes a good deal more sense metaphorically, Jesus as the lamb of god and bringing in the spring of Christianity and all that.  Interestingly, the First Day of Christmas in the popular song we sang earlier is not Christmas.  In most chronicles of the twelve holy days, Christmas is considered the pre-day, day zero if you will.  It’s the day for celebrating the birth of Jesus among Christians, but it’s also associated with the births of Mithras, Attis, Aion, Horus, Dionysus and the Unconquered Sun.  Mithras you may be familiar with.  The Persian god of light, his name means “Friend” and he is often synonymous with the Sun who protects man after death.  Attis or Atys is not to be confused with Attic which means having to do with Athens, but was a young man laid claim to by the hermaphroditic fertility goddess Agdistis who was so maddened by her jealousy he castrated himself in frustration and before he could cut his throat was changed by her into a pine tree.  Agdistis herself, by the way, was also made wholly female by castration.  Aion is the Germanic term of personification for the age of the universe, an eternal being itself personified.  Horus is familiar as one of the Sky Gods as well as a Sun God and is often represented as having the head of a falcon.  Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is the god of wine and good times.  His name in Roman, Iacchus, comes from the Latin for “shout” and is thought to have originated as an epithet for the rowdy, noisy god.

            The Unconquered Sun is an interesting character because it is both a stand-in for any of the above gods as well as a euphemism for the thing itself.  The unconquered sun is what we see in the sky along about this time.  It is equally connected with the Reindeer Man, a sort of Green Man of the North, a pagan mix of Sintaklass and Odin, who appears at this time of year with the gift of deer.

            Why twelve days?  The number twelve pops up a lot of places in both Abrahamic and pagan beliefs.  Twelve apostles, twelve months of the year, twelve zodiac signs, two twelve-hour segments to a day, the twelve of the Circular Council to the Dalai Lama, the twelve members of the Arthurian Round Table, the historical Twelve Peers of France, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve imams in Shi’a, the twelve principle gods of the Greeks, the twelve cranial nerves in the human cerebellum, the age 12 when a Jewish girl matures and receives bat mitzvah, the twelve sons of Odin, and even the twelve function keys on my PC keyboard—F1 through F12. 

            The true first day of Christmas is Boxing Day, so-called from the British custom of giving a servant a Christmas box the day after his masters have celebrated.  It’s also associated with St. Stephen, the proto-martyr associated with horses—it’s said his body was returned to his people on the back of a horse—and with wrens.  It’s said that to kill a wren on any day other than Boxing Day is to invite bad luck.

            The second day, December 27th, is given over to Mother Night or MotherCarey or Mother Christmas.  She is the Anglicized version of the German Frau Holle or Holda or Hulda, a figure of fertility, abundance and justice.  She was often seen, originally, as a beautiful woman in white and with a golden girdle or a sash, dispensing gifts from a sleigh pulled by her dogs.  She probably physically resembled the evil character Mrs Colter played by Nicole Kidman in the film The Golden Compass, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Phillip Pullman based this character on her. 

            But far from the nasty Miss Colter, who Pullman chooses to personify the less savory aspects of Christianity, Frau Holle, whose name means “kindly one,” was a gentle goddess specializing in the care of children.  It was up to the early church to turn her to a witch who stole unbaptized children.  But at midnight on the Eve of Epiphany, it’s said that a man walking home heard voices, many voices, behind him and stepped aside in time to allow Frau Holle and her passel of children and her flowing white train to pass him, the children laughing and running beside her.  The last of the children, the smallest, kept falling behind from tripping over his nightshirt.  The man gave him his own belt to tuck the shirt into.  Frau Holle saw this and rewarded the man with a gift that his own children would forever be without want.  It is important that we recall Frau Holle or Mother Night or Mother Carey or Mother Chrismas as a mother.  She is both nurturing and kind and a shrewd judge of character and it’s for these aspects we honor her.

            Following is Day three:  the Day of Holy Innocents.  In the Middle Ages this day of Childremass was considered particularly unlucky; nothing begun on December 28th would be completed, since children have remarkably poor attention spans and tend to wander around abstractedly.  The practice for this day is an ancient one that survived until the 18th century: regularly beating children on this day.  The idea was that by mercilessly flogging and smacking children on the 28th, one would both drive out the evil spirits that had lodged there the previous year and serve as a surrogate for any deserved beatings the following year.  The practice evolved into a call for ritual, painless token beatings between children and parents, husbands and wives, masters and servants.  On this day we honor children and correspondingly honor both our wishes for what they will become and our recognition of the reality of who they are.  We also recall our lives before their arrival, although it’s probably best not to think of that before we whip them.

            The fourth day is one we might be a little familiar with.  This is the Feast of the Fools, celebrated in the Hunchback of Notre Dame and a few other novels and a MASH episode.  This is the day when the normal order of things is reversed.  Servants become masters, pupils become teachers, women behave like men, and the fools rule.  Naturally, this is my favorite day.  Parties were held, masques given, general mayhem encouraged.  It was a ritualistic method for blowing off steam, the opportunity for people who lived by the strictest restrictions to behave in the riotous, cavalier way they had foresworn in order to keep their places in the community.  At one time, this day was more celebrated and better-remembered than Christmas.  So when someone tells you that we ought to put the Christ back in Christmas, you ought to remind him to put the Fool back in Fool’s Day.

Day five is the Feast of the Boar’s Head.  On this day, two ceremonies are honored:  the Scandinavian tradition that Frey, the god of sunshine, rides across the day atop Gulli-burstin, his golden boar, whose spikes are the rays of the sun.  The second is the older, now lost, tradition in England of the boar’s head, whose meat graced the Christmas table until probably the mid Twelfth century when it disappeared, being brought in as the final remnant of the sacred meal and distributed among the revelers.  It is meet we should remember the boars, now gone in both England and here, by leaving for them a small offering to their memory, an apple or orange, in the event one is still snuffling around.

New Year’s Eve, that most festive of drinking holidays, is day six, and in many places supersedes the celebration of Christmas itself.  In Gaelic Christmas is called An Nollaig Mhor “big yule” and New Year’s Day An Nollaig Bheag “little Yule.”  And why not?  The change of year has sturdier and more aged roots than the ostensible birth of the Christ.  Still, how anyone might have guessed this day would become the night when everything switches off for one year and switches on for the next is a feat of mathematical dexterity I couldn’t begin to fathom.  Nevertheless, December 31st’s feast is known as Hogmanay and it was the day when the Druid priests cut the sacred mistletoe and distributed sprigs among the people.  Hogmanay itself is a corruption of the French term au gui menez “lead [us] to the mistletoe,” and in some parts of France children still celebrate the day with a race during which they cry, “Au guy l’an neuf, au guy Gaulois” “to the mistletoe, to the French mistletoe.”

This is the day when we take care of the things we have missed taking care of throughout the year.  The trash is taken out and fresh sheets placed on the beds.  Socks are darned and brass and silver shined.  Pictures are hung straight.  This is the day for Reclaiming Unfinished Business, clearing up all those things we neglected the rest of the year.  Everyone experiences a new beginning, a new clearing of the old.  After sunset, juniper branches and fresh water were brought into the house.  The branches were dried out overnight, and in the morning the head of house drank the first sips from the water and sprinkled everyone else with some.  Then the dried juniper was lit, the doors and windows latched, and the house was fumigated with the burning branch.  This ensured the gifts of the new year were appreciated appropriately.  The new year’s blessing was brought by the first person to cross the threshold to visit, called “first footing.”  All the lights were put out except for a single candle, and then that first visitor must step outside, protecting the candle from the elements.  At the stroke of twelve, he reenters, is given a mug of eggnog, and sets about relighting all the candles and lanterns of the house, blessing the house with new light.  Often that person also gives a handsel, a gift of coal or whiskey to make the blessings concrete.

Day seven of course everyone sleeps in.  This is the Kalends of the new year, the hopefulness of the new day.  The old year is now officially dead and while we may not immediately see any benefits yet to the new, there is always a reason to be thankful, even if it is our ability to have made it through another year.  In contrast to New Year’s Eve day, nothing is taken out of the house this day—trash, bones, excrement, they are all left inside until the next day, to ensure blessings of the first footing do not escape. 

One of the nostalgic traditions we think of as Christmas in origin is caroling, but this is actually done on the Seventh Day and is referred to as Wassailing.  Wassail is a heated, alcoholic apple cider and is meant to be shared with the trees of the orchard as well as with the visitors who sing.  Robins are the guardians of apple trees and it was them that the wassail was intended to provoke, cake pieces and bread pieces soaked in the wassail being stuck to branches to reward them for their past year of faithful service.  On this bleak day it is beneficent to intone, “The luck of the year, it is the bird-quiet hour, the midday contemplation of the sun.  On this bleak day, when no sun shines, what wraps the birds in silence, what power blankets their song?”  It’s the day of prophesying and divination—weather divination especially, as you can imagine from a people reliant on weather for their well-being, and one saying from Scotland runs, “Wind from the west, fish and bread; wind from the north, cold and flaying; wind from the east, snow on the hills; wind from the south, fruit on trees”—and the first day’s water drawn from the well is considered especially blessed and called the flower of the well. 

The Eighth Day is the day for sitting inside to contemplate and reflect on snow.  It’s imperative that we remain on snow’s good side, since to be in opposition to snow is to be in opposition to winter and that’s simply a waste of energy.  We pay our respects to snow on this day, for its cancelling out the darkness at midwinter and its transformation of even the bleakest spaces into places of wonder and enchantment. 

The Cherokee have a story about the Ninth day, which is devoted to evergreens.  The Druids of course revered the oak and during Kalends yew and juniper play a major role.  In the middle ages there was a well-known play about the Paradise Tree, a descendant of the original Tree of Knowledge, which Adam smuggled out of Eden and planted in the outer world, where it grew to huge proportions and provided the wood for the cross on which Christ was crucified. 

Back to the Cherokee.  When the Great Mystery created all the trees and plants she wanted to give something to all of them.  But she couldn’t decide among them who best deserved it, so she proposed a contest.  Whoever could keep watch for seven days and seven nights would receive the gift.  All the trees were atwitter to be given such an important duty and had no problems remaining awake the first night.  But on the second night they found it hard to stay awake, and the flowers were the first to fall asleep.  By the third night, the birch and grasses were drooped, and by the fourth night the elms were snoring.  On the fifth and sixth nights, the maples and even the oaks had drifted off, until, by the eighth morning only a few—the pine, the cedar, the spruce and fir and holly and laurel—were still awake and watchful.  “What great endurance you have!” cried out the Great Mystery, and so she gave them the gift:  they would remain green forever and keep guard throughout the winter while all the others sleep.  The evergreens, this story says, are always awake.  And always watching. 

            Day Ten is interesting because it is two different days for men and women.  For both it was the day when each had to return to the drudgery of work after the luxurious time off afforded by the festivities of midwinter.  In the case of women who in these preindustrialized times were often employed as weavers and spinners, it was known as St. Distaff‘s Day, while for the men who were also expected to return to work, it was known as Plough Monday.  Whether the day itself fell on a Monday or not wasn’t important, it was simply another Monday in their eyes.  This became the excuse for another day of celebration as mummers, the bemasked players who appeared throughout the year at festivals and feasts, now sped through town blessing the ploughs and spindles.  Today Plough Monday has been given its own day in England, January 8, separate from the twelve holy days, but it’s thought to originate in another ancient Roman celebration, Compitaline.  In this ritual a small shrine was built where four estates met to the four directions, with a miniature plough and wooden doll set on each alter, and then the first earth-breaking of the new year was done on each property. Until now we are living in Liminal Time, the threshold between extraordinary and ordinary events that for pagans began in late October or early November with Samhain. With St. Distaff’s Day we begin a return to normalcy, what Christianity calls Ordinary Time. 

            The Eleventh day of Christmas, January 5, is the Eve of Epiphany and the Festivalof the Three Kings.  This day is given over to the Magi whose journey is often a microcosm of the journey we ourselves make spiritually.  Consider, they were themselves seekers after something and doing what felt right to them to do, going where their inner compass told them to go, and for so many of us, here today in this church, we have traveled so far and so wide only on the basis of our own compasses, be they in our hearts or our heads.  As the Magi found what they sought in the form of a child, may you find what you seek here. 

            This is the day to consider too the gifts that so often become the major focus of these holy days, forgetting as we do that we are ourselves the recipients of a gift.  I quote now from JohnMatthews: 

At a time when the commercial Christmas has a tendency to swamp the sacredness of the season, we ask and are being asked, ‘What do you want this year?’  There are certainly things we would quite like, things that we hope will be brought for us, but these are not the same as our wants.  True wants are not small things satisfied by prettily wrapped parcels:  they are the immense needs of inner space that can be overwhelmed by all our little wants and yearnings.  To consider our real needs—the things we lack in our lives—is often too frightening, opening up an abyss of need that calls our very existence into question.

Our real wants eat holes in us:  never resting, never loving, never greeting, never finding, never seeking, never being satisfied deep down.  These ravenous wants define our treasures…they create a Christmas list that no store could supply:  time to stop and really enjoy, in a space of quietness and contentment all the things we were put on earth to do.

Space to give and receive love reciprocally.  The grace to seek and find our spiritual joy.  Freedom from the tyranny and burden of other’s expectations, of what others think.  Acceptance of ourselves as we truly are.

            This then is the gift afforded us on the twelfth day.  Epiphany.  It means manifestation, making an appearance, and refers theologically to the appearance of Christ to the Three Kings.  But it’s a lot more than that.  In literature James Joyce gave us another meaning in an early draft of what would become Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  He describes it as a sudden insight, an instant when reality shines through an ordinary object, when “its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.”  It’s the appearance of what we need.  Perhaps not what we want, because that’s always going to be something good, something we like, and our epiphany is more likely to be something we haven’t considered and don’t want and, god help us, we don’t like.  For me, epiphany is often the realization that the shift from dark to light carries with it a responsibility not to continue hunkering in but, like a bear or a vole, to start the stirring for the reawakening I undergo each spring.  For you it might be a recognition that you’ve had all your needs met and now it’s time to meet them for other people.  For others it may be exactly the opposite:  it’s time to consider yourself a while rather than others.  There’s no one size fits all when it comes to epiphany.  It can come in any number of ways:  in someone’s smile, in the smell of woodsmoke where we thought there were no houses, in the sudden, unexpected taste of a good wine, in the sound of voices where we expected to be alone, in the touch of flesh on flesh that reminds us we are with one another.  These tiny moments bring us out of ourselves and into the wider world. 

            Like anything artistic, epiphany can be ruined by over definition.  Let’s take a minute of silence to reflect on what we have been given. 


Monday, December 16, 2013


I seem sometimes to know a lot of dead people. I suppose it's a result of knowing a lot of people. But this dead person wasn't, herself, a friend but the daughter of a friend. I attended her memorial, the way I think many people do, not from a sense of obligation to the deceased but out of love for the living.

I have, at best, a complicated relationship with suicide. I don't understand the overwhelming hopelessness I presume it results from. Overwhelming hopelessness, this I understand, but my own experience of it suggests that ending life only guarantees things never get better, and as depressed as I get, I never completely forget that everything, even hopelessness, changes.

But it isn't about my experience. It's the experience of someone for whom only the unknown brings some comfort, and who may ultimately be braver than the rest of us. There are experiences of life, I'm certain, that only ending it can soothe. And while we struggle to figure out what to make of such decisions, we are most honest when we admit we never will.

On my drive further out of the rim for the service I heard John Lennon singing "Imagine" which itself always fills me like a good hymn. The service was full of people I know but hadn't seen for long whiles and the family whose hurt I'd come to share. We spoke and hugged and chanted. But mostly we sang.

It was in that I felt most connected. I have a rough, uneven voice that is unpleasant to hear, I know, but I love nonetheless to sing and sing loud with others. The songs were deeply steeped in the generation most of us were a part of, some Lennon/McCartney, some Dylan, the almost obligatory soulful "I'll Fly Away."

And then one I didn't expect but fit the tenor and the mood of yearning to receive and give comfort: "Hallelujah." With his nicotine and whiskey rasp Leonard Cohen is the songwriter for the funerals of junkies and suicides, and I surprised myself by the lyrics I'd memorized by listening intently even when I didn't realize I had been. The mournful strains we attempt at hitting the right notes on the chorus, and the inability of most of us to do so, is as good a simile for our lives as any.

I keep coming back to my drive there when, in the snowsquall that had started and turning down the radio that was still playing "Imagine," I pulled over to a car stopped on the side of the road to ask if everything was all right. Everything was and in the world I imagine we take time and effort to ask that question, especially when we know the answer will not be "yes."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"I know the way out"

I've used this story several times in sermons and essays. It's an amalgam of two stories I really like, the parable of the good Samaritan and this story from The West Wing. It's an accurate reflection of what I see as our responsibility to one another--to be on the lookout for the needs of others--and of my personal responsibility. As I mention in the original sermon this is from, I'm not as good a storyteller as the Luke writer, so I've added detail.

Guy’s walking along the Red Cedar Trail and he’s not looking where he’s going and he falls down along one of those spots where the ground is soft and he slides almost to the river.  He’s pretty banged up, he thinks, maybe a broken arm, maybe his leg is at an angle a healthy leg oughtn’t to be.  He’s laying there a long time.  When he wakes up he notices the slope is almost perfectly sheer and even if he could get up, about halfway up the sand breaks away and he’d be right back down at the river, hurt even worse.

            Dude comes by.  He’s a local teacher.  He’s a good man, responsible, keeps his commitments.  Guy down by the river’s edge, he sees him, waves one pitiable hand at him, shouts, “Hey, brother, can you help me up out of here?”  But the teacher, he’s a jogger and this is his running time.  He’s got his headphones on, doesn’t even hear this guy, he’s not looking down, doesn’t see him waving.  He goes on past.

            Guy’s getting pretty nervous.  It’s going to be dark sooner than later and it’s late in the year.  This could be bad. 

            Another dude goes by, local minister.  He’s a pretty good person, too—everyone in this town is an okay person.  Guy down at the river’s edge waves and says, in a weaker voice, “Hey, pastor, can you help me up out of here?”  But the minister, he’s got tomorrow’s sermon due and he’s taking a walk to clear his head.  His mind’s full of what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it and he doesn’t hear the guy either.  He just walks on.

            Now the guy’s getting really worried.  It’s about quarter to seven and the cold is already creeping up his spine.  He might live through the night from his wounds, but he’s going to be exposed to hypothermia and if he does have broken limbs he’ll probably go into shock and that can be fatal.  He cries a little.

            One of the local kids comes by.  Guy down at the river recognizes him.  He used to hang out down by the Acoustic where he sold weed to the college kids.  He got picked up by the cops, cleaned out, spent some time in prison, got his act together.  He’s been out a couple months, has a hard time finding a steady job, the story is he’s been turning tricks to live day to day. 

      Guy down by the river practically whispers up, “Help.”

            Kid hears him, looks over the edge down at him, yells, “Can you move?”

            Guy tests himself out.  He can move.  It hurts like hell and he’s going to have some nasty bruises and a scar, but turns out nothing’s broken.  He crawls to his feet and says, “Yeah, I can.”

            Kid slides down the cliff to where the guy is.  Guy’s thinking, “Oh man, this kid’s going to rob me!”  He whimpers, “I said get me some help, now we’re both stuck down here.”

            Kid puts his arm around the guy and holds him so the guy can stand and walk.  Gingerly, painfully, but he can walk.  Kid says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Shane McGowan Wishes You a Merry Effing Ho-Ho

[Given the season, it seemed appropos to post this essay I wrote as an example for research classes several years back.]

            I was driving my usual commute during the first week of November.  I hit the “scan” button on my radio and various music and talk shows faded in and out.  My attention was caught when dulcet tones sang, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

            I knew those dulcet tones.  That was Perry Como.  When I was a kid my folks were avid listeners of what’s now called Adult Contemporary Music but in my childhood was simply referred to as Elevator Music.  Perry Como, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Kate Smith, Rosemary Clooney.  I’d learned to know those singers in the first couple notes as a child by repetitive play on the stereo.  But the novelty of hearing the late Honeyed Voice in the Sweater on the radio was soon overtaken by the realization that I was listening to a Christmas song.  On the radio.  The first week in November.

            Now, when I was a kid, Christmas was my favorite time of the year.  I didn’t have to come up with excuses not to go outside if I didn’t want to, and the cold nipping at my exposed nose on waking was neat.  Plus it was wonderful to lie on my belly and read a junk novel by the bottom lights on the Christmas tree with a plateful of cookies and some hot chocolate.  I’d start playing Christmas albums around September and not cut it out, despite firm requests from my family, until about the first week of January. 

            But that stopped when puberty kicked in.  Here were adults—Professional Adults!—programming Christmas music when everyone’s Halloween candy was still fresh.

            Rather than ranting and raving about it, I decided to look into the reason for this.  There had to be a reason.  There were several.

            No radio station exists as an island.  Every station, whether owned by a conglomerate like Clear Channel or Fred over at the Fish Shack, exists as part of a market.  The market can be as small as a city and its environs—the Twin Cities, for example—or as large as a region—the Iron Range, which is the full upper third of Minnesota from Bemidji to the Canadian border (excluding Duluth).  There is an unwritten agreement between radio stations that one station, generally the Adult Contemporary or Lite station, within the market will provide twenty-four hour, seven-day-a-week Christmas music starting in November.  On December 24th, every station is welcome to play as much Christmas music as it chooses. 

            The reasons this agreement came about are diffuse.  Some argue it is because, well, someone has to do it, so it might as well be the station whose listeners are accustomed to listening to Easy Listenin’ Music.  If the station is an oldies station, whose listeners are accustomed to the sounds of the classic Christmas songs from mid 20th Century—Patti Page, Mitch Miller, the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, Sinatra, Como, Torme—so much the better.  It should come as no surprise then that the most often played Christmas song is Nat “King” Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” but what should surprise us is the number of popular songs with at best a tangential connection to Christmas, often merely a mention, that also pop up regularly in rotation, such as Joni Mitchell’s “River,” the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” and DanFogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” (this last divorced not only from the holiday but from reality:  how hard is it to find an open bar on Christmas Eve?), while ignoring several more controversial ones with secure roots in the holiday, like the Kink’s “Father Christmas” and ThePogues’ “Fairytale of New York.”

            The difficulty may come when a market has only, say, country and rock stations.  One of them will likely take on the duty, but this will often be a choke for regular listeners, since there are comparatively few Christmas-themed country or rock songs, and certainly not enough to program twenty-four hours a day for nearly sixty days.

            This is the interesting part to me.  While it’s been a given of every generation to bemoan how quickly the Christmas season begins, as if its generation could wait longer, and while I thought I had some memory that this was an omnipresent condition, radio stations starting earlier and earlier until we’d finally reached saturation point with Halloween, that isn’t the case.  While some stations make a practice of starting earlier—KOSY in Salt Lake City, Utah, is apparently the earliest, beginning its Christmas rotation Halloween night [although this has changed only this past January]—the practice used to have as a common starting point the day after Thanksgiving. 

            Until 2001.  Yes, 9-11 changed everything.  That was the year George W. Bush asked us to help America remain solvent by spending money, and one of the ways gleaned by merchandisers and radio programmers in tandem was to begin the Christmas season early, two weeks before Thanksgiving.  The practice has simply escalated and the dates fallen back since then.

            And here we come to the dirty secret why radio stations, especially Adult Contemporary and Oldies stations, fall all over themselves to be the first to begin the Christmas season:  Stores and shops generally play Christmas music for their customers, the better to suggest “buy early and buy often.”  A few stores, like Walmart and Kmart, have their own radio systems, and some big chains, like Best Buy and [late, unlamented] Circuit City, use piped-in Muzak.  But aside from the big boxes, the majority of stores and shops rely on the good old fashioned free radio signal to accelerate buying habits.  Naturally, the mix of garlanded shelving and spruce-scented spray with tchochkes and knickknacks with the background fuzz of Herb Alpert and His Tijuana Brass and their version of “Sleigh Ride” is a marriage made in Retail Heaven.  Most importantly, these stations are played at least for the operating hours for the store and occasionally simply left turned on for the cleaning crew.  This is a bump in Arbitron ratings for a station, sometimes as much as three points.  Arbitron ratings are an important part of a station’s profile.  The place each fits on the scorecard for its market determines how much it can charge advertisers for 10, 20, and 30 second spots.  In a market of ten stations, getting bumped from number 6 to number 3 for the year can mean a bump of tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue. 

            It doesn’t matter, of course, if anyone actually listens to this stuff.  The stations provide “ears” to the advertisers, and they’re selling potential sales.  It isn’t important if the employees end up by the third week of November muttering x-rated versions of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on its tenth play of the day.  What is important is that at least ten times that day, different customers have heard it and their desire for, say, another twenty dollar stocking stuffer for Jimmy has been pricked. 



Works Cited

·         Virgin, Bill.  2007.  On Radio: All-Christmas format is a ratings gift for KRWM-FM, boosting it to first.”  Seattlepi.com.  Last Accessed November 25, 2007, at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/tv/300965_radiobeat25.html. .


Monday, December 2, 2013

holiness smiles sleeping under a blanket

[Instead] of conceiving of the church as bound by the physical space of a church building, we should think of the church as beyond walls. Just as the Occupy movement claimed the power to redefine space and create new cultural forms, the church of the multitude should also imagine creatively and not be bound by rigid traditions. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri remind us, "The movements of the multitude design new spaces, and its journey establishes new residences." In the Occupy movement, the Jewish Kol Nidr service took place in open air...Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and pagans shared the use of space in the faith and spirituality tents. The image of the "tent" reminds us of the moving tabernacle in which God dwelled among the people of Israel, instead of stone buildings with high steeples and stained-glass windows. Occupy Faith uses all the spaces the groups can find, meeting in church halls, university lecture rooms, seminaries, and open park spaces. The protesters have also occupied churches, in the sense that they were housed by churches after they were evicted from various campsites...
With new digital and Internet technologies, we can connect with one another and build relationships that were not possible before. BK Hipsher [writes]: "Now we live in a world where it is possible to experience remote location relationship at a level never before understood in a faith community context. Now we can participate in church from our living rooms..." The virtual environment makes the demarcation of "sacred" and "profane" increasingly complicated. A helpful way is to see virtual reality as multiple worlds, creating possibilities for people to share information, relate to one another, and build online communities in numerous ways. The church may leave a whole new generation out if it does not harness powerful modern forms of communication and visual art forms...Some people may still prefer to see physical bodies gather for worship and for action, but churches increasingly use the Internet and electronic devices to connect with people, to form online communities, and to engage the world...
Instead of "going" to church, we will focus on "doing" church or "forming" church and building relationships. Instead of fencing off Christians from the world, as if they alone are the "holy" people, the church of the multitude is firmly in the world, transforming it to usher in the reign of God...[Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote], "It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith...In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world." When churches pay more attention to maintenance instead of mission, and when they turn inward and function more like middle-class clubs, the presence of the divine is not felt even in what is supposed to be "sacred space"...
If sacred space needs to be reconfigured, sacred time also needs to be infused with new meanings. Traditionally, Christians have often thought that sacred time refers to Sunday worship, which is set apart from ordinary time. Moreover, salvation history is seen as separate from secular history, such that Christians are told to be concerned about spiritual things and not to bother too much with the temporal order. But Jesus subverted this understanding of sacred time when he said, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."
--from Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude by Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-Lan

I think that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Even when I was a kid, I looked forward to the third Thursday of November as a special time outside gift-giving times like Christmas and Easter and my birthday. I like the food, of course, but mostly I like the getting-together. The sitting down with one another. The breaking of bread and drinking of wine for one great feast.

I have a lot of happy memories about Thanksgivings past--the ones with multiple previously unknown locals who had nowhere else to go and showed up at our massive meal on the floor, the one  in Louisiana with tamales and chili rellenos with the laborer family who'd taken me in, the one near which I witnessed a burial at the Woodstock cemetary that looked like a funeral staged by Arthur Penn, the one when I was a kid and my mom dressed up my sister and me as pilgrims in construction paper hat, collar and bonnet, the community meal in Woodstock where I met my sabra linebacker--but I think the one I like best was when my wife and I were in our second year of living in New York after marrying. We were miserable, living in a converted army barracks dropped upstate without being winterized. We heated the place with an iron stove we'd found for free that smoked so much that when we moved and took up the carpet from the living room, we found a separate layer under it made entirely of ash.

I'd got back in touch with several old friends and I found one of them living in an abandoned barn in New Paltz. I'd been after him for months to come stay with us, but he refused. But he had no plans for Thanksgiving so I said we would come get him and bring him to our place, and he'd at least stay the night. He kept refusing the stay, but I could enforce that easily since we lived ten miles from town.

I don't remember what we had for dinner, it might have been turkey but I doubt it as he's a vegetarian, but I do remember the sight of him curled up under blankets sleeping hours and hours with our little black dog snuggled next to him the next morning. That was the Thanksgiving it rained all day and when I got up into the attic space to try stopping some of the leaks I misstepped and put my foot through the pressboard ceiling. The one before the Easter when I saved up money and bought my wife a dozen Dunkin Donuts and spent an hour putting little paper bunny ears on each one only to wake up Easter morning to find the mice had taken a bite out of each one.

Sacredness, like hell and heaven, is of our own making. Like everyone else, I forget that and have to be reminded, sometimes by books, sometimes by music lyrics, sometimes by dogs or cats laying on my lap, sometimes by a smile on the face of a warm, sleeping friend under a dog. Holiness isn't outside us but what we confer or recognize in others, sometimes in ourselves, and always there. The moments we're reminded of that are sacred. Thanksgiving is one long moment to remind us of that.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

enlightenment is dog piss

"Being a community" is thinking small. Our ultimate goals and purpose cannot simply be about ourselves. Unitarian Universalists, like members of every other religion, are trying to change the world by encouraging people to live a different way. By word and by deed, Unitarian Universalists are trying to change people. It is time for us to acknowledge and proclaim this, and to see that building a religious community is but a means to that larger end...
What I am talking about is related to the "missional" trend in Unitarian Universalism, in which people are committing themselves to living out our values in real, embodied, particular ways in specific communities, "to love the hell out of the world"...Our purpose is to cultivate people who can feel such passion...
The contemporary understanding of Unitarian Universalism is in truth a utopian and demanding vision of community: we are trying to gather not the community that is, but the community that ought to be...The religious community to be built...[is] one that deliberately includes the formerly excluded. Our goal became to build on the experience of...people who...realized that they could be themselves in this church. It followed that everyone should have that experience: the historically marginalized and oppressed, the disabled, the mentally ill, the chemically sensitive. Even those on the margins of traditional religious community--the children--are to be brought to the center...
Inclusion has been our goal. But inclusion is about "bringing in." We should now be thinking about "going out." Now we should turn ourselves inside out to turn the world upside down.
--From "Religious Community is Not Enough" by Tom Schade in the Winter 2013 issue of UUWorld

We must turn ourselves inside out to turn the world upside down. That is, and should be, a frightening proposition. I know I'm scared. I'm scared shitless of it. I've been turning inside out the past two years (at least) and all it's brought me thus far is depression and frustration. Sometimes I see Something, Something That Is I miss and most people miss, and it's a great moment. And then the crushing reality of How Things Are--the need to make money just to live, the fact that I'm in my 50s and my time left on the earth is finite and growing smaller by the minute, and the overwhelming  effort of work like that (and the fact that it pays no money)--overtakes it and leaves me eating ice cream in the middle of the night because I need to get numb and I don't want to get drunk.

But I keep returning to it, I keep turning myself inside out because I know that it's work worth doing, maybe the only work worth doing. The Real Work Gary Snyder called it. It's tough to admit to myself I want to turn the world upside down. I don't want to rock the boat. I want people to like me. I ought to just keep my head down and get along, I got my own shit to worry about. Paying the mortgage, keeping the house warm in the winter, getting the smell of dog piss out of the carpet. There's nothing more crushing when I'm trying to meditate and get myself together than the ripe, fishy reek of dog piss.

But when I'm honest with myself that's what I want to do. Turn the world upside down. At least one small part of it, the part I'm in contact with. It's a tiny, tiny part but the recognition I came to yesterday was that working at the microcosmic level is where the real action's at. It's where real change can occur. I haven't a clue how or what the change looks like. But change is needed and it's already begun with me. And that's horrible because what it does is open my eyes to injustice and wrong all around me and know there's a better way to be. When I was in Montreal in sesshin I spoke with the abbot one day and said, "I think I've made it, I've become enlightened." And he appraised me and looked really sad and said, "I'm so sorry."

That's where the depression and frustration and anger come from, this open-eyed, frank regard of the world as it is and how it ought to be and how wide the margins between those posts are. And how much work that is and how little time I have left and how can I find meaningful work that pays me enough to help us live on and GODDAMMIT! I can still smell dog piss.

In my best moments I know that smell of dog piss keeps me grounded but it also distracts me. My frank admission is that I know I have gifts and the urge to share them and I know how--or at least imagine some of the ways--but I'm either too timid or cowardly or caught up in my own shit to take whatever the next step may be. Some days I imagine the next step is to bake bread and take it to places where the homeless gather and share it. Some days it's to just sit down in the sun and meditate.
Some days it's to visit friends. The issue becomes recognizing all those things and not acting on any of them because it's a lot easier to surf websites while waiting for the vinegar I've soaked into the carpet to work. Turning myself inside out has led me to falling into a First World Problem: I've got the shits and I'm faced with two dozen different remedies. I know better than to think someone will come along and say, "This one," or to think that's what I want. But the varying claims and prices and dosages keep me occupied until suddenly I have to go again. I waddle off to the public toilet thinking, "Next time I'll pick one."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

my communal fantasy

Last week I performed a funerary service for an infant and made contact with a small group of mostly young, mostly organic farmers. Since then I've been indulging in a fantasy imagining myself in a commune with them or people like them whose warmth keeps me happy. I'm fully aware that as a farmer I am a total flop, but I'm a good pair of hands and shoulders, and in my fantasy I am the public face of a group of introverts, doing the shopping and appearing at zoning meetings and such, and being the spiritual advisor and confidante of the group, providing direction and counseling when I am not digging up potatoes. Sometimes I have the sense that the future of religious folk lies in becoming small intentional communities who covenant together--such ideas come naturally when one reads Irresistible Revolution and Occupy Religion--and it's in those moments I feel warm and hopeful.

Friday, November 15, 2013

our children are not our own

On Tuesday night I came home from work to find a message. One of my friends, who is a midwife, had given my name and phone number to her clients who had just delivered a set of twins, one of whom died a few hours after birth. I was being asked to provide a graveside service for him. I met with the couple, organic farmers who live about a half hour to my north, and the following is the order of service and eulogy I wrote and delivered this afternoon. I have done many memorials and funerals but this was the first I've done for a child, let alone a newborn, and my voice caught a few times when I delivered it.

November 15, 2013

Amery, Wisconsin

Welcome/Opening Words

Reading 1: “We Have a Beautiful Mother” by Alice Walker

Reading 2: “A Child Said, What is the Grass?” by Walt Whitman


“Your children are not your children.” There is never a time when the words of Khalil Gibran are more true or more cruel than when a child dies. Rabbinic wisdom says it’s in moments like this that people understand how God feels. It’s horrible, it sucks at our soul and gives us reason if we want it not to go on.
            But like God, the universe, and reality, we go on. Eventually the sting of [___] death will feel less and less like our own, and while we aren’t likely to forget it, it will become part of the mosaic of our past that we can look back on and not feel as if our world ended. The bitter taste on our lips, the ashes in our heart, will fade and then there will be laughter on our lips again and delight in our hearts. That’s as it should be. The Ecclesiast says, to everything there is a season. Grief and tears give way in their time to dancing and lovemaking.
            [____] are aware of this. As farmers, they’re aware of the time of year, the quality of the soil, alert to the wind and sunlight, rain and heat. This is how they live. [____] told me that last year was their best year ever, and this was their worst year ever. That’s how it goes, this cycle of day after day after day. There is no guarantee that the next day will be better, just that it will be. You can’t live only in the good days, can’t stay in bed on the bad days, you do what needs doing. And when you’re free gather with your family, warm in the comfort and presence of each other.
            Physicists have calculated that the amount of matter in the universe has remained stable since the moments after the Big Bang. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Everything goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.” It changes. Our children are not our children. We are not our own. We are each other’s. We have our season here and then we are somewhere else. But while we are here we are precious and it is among this precious company that [____] spent his season. Poet Mary Oliver says it best:  “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
            [____], hold one another. Keep each other warm and safe. Grieve how you will as long as you will. Remember [your other children] are shelter for you too. Be gentle together. Know that in this precious company you are safe. You are home.

Reading: “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein


Reflections, Memories, Thoughts


Reading: “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran

Ending: “I am Goodbye” by Bonnie Prince Billie

Benediction: “Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: You are not alone.”

“Our service together has ended. May your individual services continue.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I've been everywhere, man

I've been putting together a new packet application for residencies for clinical pastoral experiences and rewriting some of the essays I'd done a year ago. This is actually a revision of both that one and one I'd written originally for my admission into seminary six years ago. I'm pleased with it.

I’m like the trucker in Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” only on a theological rather than a geographic level.  My parents were Seventh-Day Adventist—after my mother died my dad returned to his native Methodism—and I was raised that way.  They attended one of the German denominations, which is a pretty strict sect, although they weren’t as observant as they might have been—we ignored the ban on meat, for instance, and I don’t remember ever praying over a meal except when someone from the church was there.  My sister was baptized among them but I never was.

            When I was allowed to make my own choices regarding churches I opted not to attend one.  I’d read about Thomas Jefferson being an agnostic, and since that seemed to mean he didn’t attend church, that’s what I was.  Adventist churches can be a dismal affair, or at least they were in rural New York in the 1960s.  Agnosticism was attractive:  like most young adults, I was uncertain of a lot of things, and it seemed only right to question a divine presence along with everything else.

            My first wife was Lutheran.  We attended church a few times a year with her family.  When Barbara and I split I underwent a profound questioning of the meaning of my life, what I was intended for, how I was intended to live, and where I stood in relation to everyone else.  After a brief flirtation with nihilism and atheism, denying there was a purpose to any of it, I fell into radicality.  I’d been studying Jesuit education for a class, and the intense devotion to god suddenly made sense to me and seemed right.  The ritual and drama of the mass was comforting, as was the prescription that god had to accept me in return for confessing my sins.  Like Frost said of home, heaven was where, when you went there, they had to take you in. 

            Catholicism didn’t stick beyond two intense years.  Too many questions, too many strictures, too much solidity and order.  I’d had enough of order, I wanted chaos.  But in New York, where I was, even if you weren’t Jewish you were a Jew, and I became attracted to the controlled chaos of Jewish women. I was really attracted to the symbolism and mystery of Judaism.  I lived eventually with two Jews at different times, one Reformed and the other Orthodox and a sabra, and kept a kosher house with each.  That was an interesting experience, looking to the domestic to for the order daily worldly experience denied. 

            Eventually the desire for uncertainty moved me out of an apartment and into the streets.  I spent several months in New York City, alternating between people’s couches, some people’s beds, and the safe and relatively warm crawlspace beneath a fenced-in trailer on the Grand Central Overpass.  I visited the Hare Krishna kitchens downtown often and the Sri Chinmoy kitchens in Brooklyn, and listened to both while they filled my ears with chanting and my belly with rice.  I eventually wound up at the Krishna commune near the Newburgh airport for a month, sorting out what remained of my life and trying, unsuccessfully, to get sober.  My parents bought me a station wagon and I disappeared for three years into the US, visiting communes and churches, reservations and tiny communities.  I loved those years:  they were full of exploration, especially spiritual exploration.  I attended Rainbow Gatherings and Powwows, Festivals of Light, ashrams and intentional communities.  My consciousness expanded, as did my intake of drugs, which I saw as gatekeepers to the Absolute. Or something like that. 

            I read up on Buddhism all the time.  I tried peyote with a small Native Church congregation.  I dropped acid as often as possible, consulted Mescalito, took vision quests and Long Walks.  When I was camped for a month atop Wildcat Mountain in the Catskills I had a vision that involved Brother Blue, a storyteller I’d studied with.  I kept a milk crate in the back of the car full of books by Alan Watts, Stephen Diamond, Ram Dass, Carlos Castenada, Sun Bear, D.T. Suzuki, Krishnamurti, Robert Thurman, Robert Pirsig.  My copy of Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways is so well-thumbed I have to hold it together with a rubber band. 

            I never made my intended goal of Arcosanti in Cordes Lakes, Arizona.  Eventually, however, I found my way to sesshin at Dhammapada in Montreal where the abbot, a tiny wizened Japanese man, explained my deficiencies to me in terms even I could understand.  When I left there I was humbled, but no closer to finding some cogent spiritual sense.  I hung out with Santerians I knew back home, kept my head shaved, went to work in a health food store in Woodstock where I met up with cross-country skiing devotees of Ramtha and the community-sharing confrontational lovers of a man named Gavin who called himself Bayard Hora, and converted my upstairs two-room apartment into an electricity-less shrine to discipline.  I ran the four miles each day into work and back in the snow and cold, and eventually found my way back on the road, where I discovered I really belonged. 

            When my mother insisted I either join the Army or attend graduate school, I knew she was onto something. In Mankato, Minnesota I met my second, or as she puts it, my last wife.  Jayne was Methodist at that time, soon to return to Lutheranism and finally to settle among the UCC, and after we married and moved back to New York, she started carting me along to different churches, insisting that I ought to be grateful for the life I’d been given, even if it wasn’t everything I wanted.  I made contact with two delightful Dutch Reformed ministers who made me realize it was possible to be both clergy and relevant, and read Daniel Berrigan. 

            In 1996, returned to the Midwest, and getting a handle on both my drinking and my hitherto undiagnosed depression—I am a poster boy for the wonders of Prozac—I found the White Bear UU Church online.  I’d attended a few UU services back east in my wandering years and hadn’t been terribly impressed.  But something about the photos on the White Bear website suggested I should give this a try.  My first sermon by Christa Wolf, the interim minister, used the terms “Jungian” and “eschatological,” and hearing those I knew I was home.

            Years later I joined a different congregation in Menomonie, Wisconsin, smaller, in greater need of help, and trained as a Commissioned Lay Leader.  I became more and more involved in the ministerial aspect of the CLL position and had an affinity for it. Like Cash’s trucker intimates, Unitarian Universalism may not be where I stay.  I might continue to move on and find my journey takes me elsewhere.  The congregation I served housed Christian UUs, UU atheists, and UU devotees to Kryon, a channeled being. I came to love the difficulty of making current events relevant and comprehendible to their different sensibilities and found a calling among them. I’ve since left that congregation to serve another in the Twin Cities where the makeup is composed of secular and Christian humanists.