Thursday, May 30, 2013

the cry goes up, "how can we survive?"

Progressives...see feeding the body as an act of hospitality.  We give aid because we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, because each person is made in the image of God and is a person of dignity, because we are trying to be servents of God.  We maintain that proselytizing the needy in conjunction with helping them can lead to the cruel manipulation of vulnerable populations.  We would never ask anyone to listen to a sermon or recite a prayer before they could get a shower and a hot meal.
The understandable outcome is that the poor we help rarely become the poor alongside whom we worship.  We are used to working with the poverty "out there," but sometimes our only real contact is the benevolence check that we write.  By the time a person walks into the door of a mainline church, he usually has his financial portfolio in pretty good order.
Another awkward truth is that some members of mainline churches can show subtle but harsh intolerance toward middle and lower classes.  I joined the Presbyterian Church in my early twenties while I was employed in a retail position, and...I'm surprised that I stayed...I'm [surprised] the front entry on that presitigious downtown church [didn't] become a revolving door, spitting me out as fast as I'd come in...
I have learned, after some embarrassing experiences, to be careful taking minister colleagues to a restaurant where I am friends with one of the wait staff, because I'm afraid I'll leave in shame at how the employee was treated.  Somehow the mainline church's healthy passion for education can become a boorish disdain for those who never attended college, or for those who have a PhD and yet find themselves waiting tables.
These notions drown out Jesus, standing on the Mount, telling us that the poor are blessed.  Instead, we have the idea that anyone who does not make it into the upper-middle-class is undisciplined, vaguely immoral, and needs to put in some more hours to make ends meet.  We see poverty as an issue of personal responsibility, not a systemic problem, and if a person is struggling, then it is she who must be bad or lazy, not the social system.  There must be an easy solution to the problem, we think.  If only she'd cut back on the lattes or quit spending so much with her credit cards.  She needs to look at her budget and stop thinking about that iPod.  She just needs to work a little harder--like the rest of us.
--from Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt (my emphasis)

Now that I have completed my seminary education I'm rereading this book in light of what my future might involve.  When I read it the first time, about four years ago, it was with the expectation that I was heading for parish work.  But now I am looking at chaplaincy as my practice and ministry and thinking about some of the ideas from that perspective.  (Oddly, and this is not to take a dig at Howard Merritt, but the book has taken on a different life in my memory, full of more examples and greater emphasis on change there than it has on the page.  I suspect it's my filling in gaps with what I have learned and thought since.)

I take issue with a couple things in this passage--that "never" in the first paragraph is belied by the history of the Social Gospel which did exactly that (and lives on in the Salvation Army, hardly a bastion of liberalism any more); I think she presumes too much about the order most Protestants (or anyone else) find their portfolios in today; and I would hope she'd leave any restaurant or establishment, indeed any church office, feeling shame at the way some ministers treat people, not only those where she knows the offended person--but in the main she is correct.  One of the great shames of today's churches are their insularity, a situation that makes no distinction for denomination or belief.  People of faith already tend toward a propensity for navel-gazing and add to that the problems we experience in the larger community and economy, and the cry goes up, "how can we survive?" 

Not "how can the single mother working at the convenience store survive."  Not "how can the immigrant father who came to collect a week's worth of food at the food shelf this afternoon survive."  Not "how can the Libyan family that miraculously lived through the waterlogged journey in a leaky boat to the Italian coast, only to be packed off to Germany where they now expect repatriation back to their dangerous homeland, suvive." 

This emphasis on ourselves is understandable but doesn't speak well of our compassion or our understanding of our place in the world.  To experience those it may be necessary that our congregations and churches and faiths don't survive.  If the Christian message is that death is necessary to a greater rebirth, then perhaps Christian churches, and by analogy all progressive congregations, need to die.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Like most old farmhouses in the midwest, ours has several big, sprawling lilac bushes, some purple and some white, at the borders and center of our front lawns.  The two intertwined in the center are the largest and oldest:  they are thick, intricately braided and give off pungency like a pair of flatulant old lovers.  Last month's freak 16+ inch snowfall broke off several of the big, gnarled limbs, and a friend of ours brought his chainsaw to trim them into carrying-sized pieces (as well as to topple a half dozen other dead trees that fell or were snapped in the wind and weight).  Last year I also lopped off many doddering heads from the brushy stuff growing along the road.  Now with our late spring--or is it more a longer-lasting winter?--the new growth is just coming in and the smell is incredible.  It's sweet and heavy but not cloying, like an herbal wine.  The blossoms are expolding from dark to light and the bees surround them like jealous lovers.  It's a feast of three senses, sight, smell and sound.  This afternoon, coming back with my dogs from a walk on the trail in the rain, I stood in the middle of the road for a moment taking it in.  It is times like these I am reminded how glad I am sometimes to be here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

what might save u(u)s

 “What Might Save Us”

            A moment first about my background which has a lot to do with the direction my suggestions would take our movement.  I spent the last years of the 1980s homeless, partly by choice—I could have returned to my parents’ home at any time, and sometimes did when things were really tough, but preferred to live on the road and for a short while on the streets—and during that period I noticed two important things concerning religion.

            The first was that the people who were kindest and most willing to be with me, besides other homeless people, were adherents of fringe religions.  Christian fundamentalists, Hare Krishna members, Santerians, followers of Sri Chinmoy and G.I. Gurdjieff, Buddhists, and people who never told me what their religion was beyond helping other people, often fed and clothed and housed me, rarely asking for anything more than my attention in return.  They lived their spirituality as a daily practice and when they worshipped they made a joyful noise and moved a lot and then had a huge meal afterward.  They rarely missed the opportunity to eattogether.  I never asked but each one probably would have described him or herself as a minister or priest in the faith, living it out by action rather than by sermonizing.

            Secondly, nearly all of them were working poor.  Most of them rented apartments or trailers or property, and the few who did own their own home tended to farm (as nearly all the Santerians did) or owned it in common (as the Hare Krishnas and Gurdjieffians did).  The individuals with the least to spare often shared food and clothes and sometimes money with me.  I am aware that as a white man I am presumed less dangerous than others, but I am also an able-bodied white man in good condition, and while some people asked for work in return for what they gave me—a quid pro quo I offered—most simply helped me out with no thought of recompense, and if I mentioned it would say, “Help the next person you see.”

            One large reason for the dramatic drop in Universalism’s numbers, and in the numbers of Unitarian Universalistsin the recent past, has to do with greater acceptance by other, more mainstreamdenominations of the bulwark we built our movement around.  While it isn’t a platform of most denominations, ask anyone attending any mainstream (and many evangelical) church services if the people they know or children in other parts of the world or victims of terrorism or famine or natural disasters will be saved and the answer, especially as the question becomes more specific, will be “yes.”  This has been called the reason for the failure of Universalism but it may in fact be its greatest success. 

That isn’t to suggest we need to simplify our message or terminology.  I am an elitist of the first order from way back.  At my first UU service at Mahtomedi many years ago, I heard the words “eschatological” and “Jungian” spoken by then-minister Krista Wolf and said to myself, “I’m home!”  But in his book Letting Go, Roy Phillips writes about the divide between religion and religious education as uneasiness, as lacking a center.  It “hurts religion to associate with the kind of education that functions primarily as a way of adding to a person’s accumulating stock of information and concepts.  Religion gets to be a matter of ideas about religion rather than the living of religion.”[1]  This is probably where Unitarian Universalists sin greatest and most often, and probably the aspect we are least willing to change.  We tend to be lifelong learners and often mistake worship for an opportunity to learn something new rather than to celebrate something, even if it’s our own community.  Even I’m put off by the number of services I’ve attended (and that I’ve written) that are better described as public lectures than as sermons.  Many ministers, myself included, pad our sermons with minutia.  At least a part of this is the imposed need, following our Puritan past and our more recent attempts at being a G.I. Bill spirituality, for twenty minute sermons that seek to integrate “the humanities and religion with pragmatic debates about politics, social issues, and psychology…Unitarian [Universalism] offer[s] the opportunity to join a high-achievement, thinking elite.”[2]

Much of this is a response to the general settling over the fifty years since merger.  Given the decline in Universalism prior to the merger, the lesson we learned was that the focus ought to be more on the mind than on the heart.  The Unitarians definitely won the day in terms of their primarily intellectual view both of liberal religion and of worship.  And while “Religion for Smart People” is an accurate description of Unitarian Universalism, that slogan wouldn’t gain many adherents.  Again, that’s not to say our faith can’t be smart or that we can’t talk smartly about it.  But maybe we’re going about the conversation wrong.

A related issue probably responsible for our damnation by other denominations as a perpetually suburban congregation is our discomfort talking about money.  It is a very middle class attitude, this idea that everyone is giving his fair share and so to ask for more is to overtax her.  This is reflected in our centralization of governance, both local and national—some might argue it’s a repudiation of our polity history—for which a portion of a congregation’s tithes should go to pay for national and regional resources.  This is not a bad thing.  Too many small congregations find it too easy to see themselves as alone in a vast sea of hostility.  But a result of centralization is that we require many steps for ordination, including the results of tests of emotional fitness which come at considerable cost, culminating in two very expensive trips to either one end or the other of the continent for interviews that could, in this digital age, be as easily done by Skype.  There is a need for gatekeepers—in a movement about which others say derisively that it’ll accept anyone, it’s necessary that its representatives present consistent competence—but the costs for gatekeeping are passed onto the potential minister.  Add to this that many congregations who are willing to sponsor a potential minister during the required one year parish residency pay no or minimal compensation.  True, there is financial help for students in the form of grants and loans, but even after successful completion of the hoops a would-be UU minister must pass through there is no guarantee of full-time oreven part-time employment.  In fact, with the closing down of many congregations and the reversion of others to being lay-led because of finances, there is no guarantee of employment at all.  Can we seriously wonder at the scarcity of working class clergy in Unitarian Universalism?

What would I suggest in its place?  If I were devising a new movement intended to appeal to as many people as possible there are important aspects of Unitarian Universalism I would be sure to keep.  We pride ourselves on being an inclusive rather than an exclusive faith.  Particularly today, when many seekers look outside the traditionalspiritualities their parents brought them up on (or didn’t), a religion can be more often than not a place to land and settle for a few seasons than for life.  It’s been said that working people today are likely to have three or four careers over their lives rather than the single one their parents had.  There is no reason not to move across denominations, spiritualities, and practices so a seeker can find what she seeks.  We see it as a failure when people leave our congregations but that may be the new epitome of success.

            I would keep trained clergy and I would continue to train them in social justice issues in addition to (and maybe with greater emphasis on) theology.  As the large number of our clergy involved in the successful Minnesota same-sexmarriage legislation and nationwide ecological and immigration issues suggests, we are making tremendous strides in spreading our message.  We are a felt presence at rallies and protests and public celebrations and mourning.  In 2005 I attended Camp Wellstone in Madison, WI, and I remember the lesson brought to us by a Lutheran minister at one workshop:  Bring clergy with you and make sure they’re seen.  It’s a major reason I decided to become ordained.  Our visibility shouldn’t change. 

What is our message?  Do we have core beliefs that can be summed up in as lovely and compact a manner as the lawyer responding to Jesus’ question in Luke 10:27?  I think we do.  It can be summed up as “Love all life as if it were your own.”  This reflects many of the pre-merger beliefs that leaned heavily on Christian interpretation—some would argue persuasively it predates interpretation and goes straight to the heart of Christian religious sentiment itself. But can that be separated from any other liberal religious faith?  Can it be used to differentiate UUs from progressive Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Ba’hais, Secular Humanists, or anyone else?  Perhaps not.  But that may not be a problem.

            To be sure, there are problems.  To echo Reverend Egbert Brown, “I [am] surprised, disappointed, disillusioned as I [face]…that the failure or success of a religious venture [is] based on the number of members enrolled and the amount of dollars collected.”[3]  Congregations live anddie by whether they can collect enough to put on programs and hire a minister or, if unable to do so, to hire enough speakers to attract people to visit, then remain, then contribute in order to upgrade the process.  This isn’t just in our movement, of course; all faiths are experiencing this to some extent.  But in our case one rationale is that we suffer worse partly because of our smaller footprint and partly because, except for congregations in New England, we rarely benefitted from the past social expectation that members of a community would attend and contribute to a church.  It’s true we aren’t flush at the national level either, and not at many congregations, even among the larger ones.  But as Brown also argued, what is needed is “a religion of the present and the practical profoundly concerned with this world.”[4]  In seeking this we need to decide where to focus our efforts, whether it’s more important to have many small lay-led congregations or a few large, minister-led congregations.  We can have both but eventually one will drown while the other will barely keep its head above water (reinforcing the complaint against us, that we’re an elitist faith attractive to only a few metropolitans). 

            We are also too beholden to our Christian roots in our method of worship.  We meet on Sunday mornings, a time that is convenient for an increasingly diminishing population, and focus our service on the homily or sermon, putting its message at the center.  I love writing and delivering sermons and I think I do a good job of it, but fewer and fewer people are eager to sit for a twenty minute lecture even if followed by an opportunity to respond.  They can read and comment online.  Perhaps services should have an adjunct in which visitors can listen to a recorded weekly message while our actual time together in body is taken up with singing, dancing, conversing, arguing (we love arguing; we will never lose our fondness for arguing), and eating.  Such services don’t rely on a consistent day or place to meet. 

            Perhaps the time for Unitarian Universalism is past, not as an idea or a way of thinking, but for our existence as a separate movement.  Perhaps what we ought not to do is continue as an independent faith just like all the other faiths that, with one or two, admittedly, sometimes major differences, believe much the same thing we do.  Perhaps what we ought to do is join with like-minded progressive religions into one large, multi-churched, multi-service faith whose pastors are flexible enough to minister to multiple spiritual needs.  Such a denomination would look like nothing we have seen before.  But such a denomination could answer needs we have never had before. 

[1] Phillips, Roy.  Letting Go:  Transforming Congregations for Ministry.  Alban Institute.  1999:  80.
[2] Buehrens, John.  Universalists and Unitarians in America:  A People’s History.  Kindle ebook. 2011:  Loc 2368.
[3] Morrison-Reed, Mark.  Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.  Skinner House Books.  1994:  51.
[4] Morrison-Reed, Mark.  Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.  Skinner House Books.  1994:  84.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


I don't know if it's our late spring or early summer or never-ending winter but I have seen so many egrets lately, much more than I usually do, and it seems as if every body of water more than an inch deep has at least one biding its time somewhere along its edge.  My heart sings at the sight of their great white bodies against the mud and the coffeeshaded water, and I feel like I've just seen an old friend after a long absence.

Monday, May 13, 2013

lionesses' teeth

“Lionesses’ Teeth”
Homily presented to the
Dakota UU Church of
Burnsville, MN,
            Normally during my celebration of Flower Communion my contribution is a freshly-plucked dandelion.  Taraxacum officinale.  I use it because we all recognize it in its omnipresence, as indestructible as love. 
            We have yet to see them this year because of the incredibly late winter we’ve experienced—only a week ago my wife and I were stranded because our driveway had sixteen inches of snow unceremoniously dumped on it by whatever malevolent snow-god or whatever sleeping spring-god there might be —but I guarantee you they will be coming and they will be everywhere.  The dandelion is the cockroach of flora.  They existed long before our species rose up from the proverbial swamp and after we return to the dust they will continue to be here. 
The name “dandelion,” which I’d always assumed referred to the yellow mane of the flower and its seeming vanity, actually comes from the French dents de lion, “teeth of the lion,” and refers instead to the deeply serrated rosette of leaves that poke up from billions of lawns, in abandoned lots, between the cracks in concrete, in the clefts of mountain crags and skyscrapers, and sometimes tufting out of the useless chimneys of houses where no hearths have burned in decades.  They are perennial and rely on bees and flies to pollinate, and when they’re ready, the wind carries their seeds on tiny parachutes to new places.  Sometimes they fly as much as several hundred meters.  They do not need us at all.
            Dandelions are often used as a medicine, usually involved with blood, the liver, and gall bladder.  Its juices aids detoxification and bile flow, promotes lactation and the immune system, and helps reduce eczema and cough and asthma.  The root can be dried and ground up and added to coffee, like its close relative chicory, and the leaves are often delicious in salads (although I’ll admit I have to add a lot of butter to make them palatable).  And most of us are of an age when we have had dandelion wine.
            Had Jesus been born in, say, Kansas rather than in the Middle East, the Sermon on the Mount might have included the following: 
Consider the [dandelions,] how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 
             Now don’t mistake all this information for anything like love for the dandelion.  I relish nothing more this time of year than to walk barefoot among my lawns, swiping the heads off these parasites with a few well-aimed kung fu kicks.  There is a deep, satisfying, bottom-of-the-gut joy that comes with yanking a 3 foot long dandelion root from my gardens.  Few things are as pleasurable as watching the beasts disappear under the deck of my lawnmower.  I do not love the dandelion.  I tolerate the dandelion.
            Because, try as I might to eradicate it, the dandelion remains as much a part of my life as a part of my landscape.  I cannot escape its existence.  I mow and weed and even spray the lawns, and still they come back up.  That is their unique power. 
A story now, a contemporary one, about motherhood that serves to relate how people are like dandelions.  Our relationships with our mothers, with either parent actually, can be pleasant and problematic at best.  I had what I think was a pretty good relationship with my late mother and with my dad, secure at all times in the knowledge that, no matter what, they loved me and wanted nothing but the best for me.  Those among us who are mothers or parents likely have that same assurance that they, too, love their children no matter what. 
            This week we saw the end of a news story that adds a different, more complex concept to this topic.  I refer of course to the story of the three girls, now three women, in Cleveland, the first of them abducted nearly eleven years ago, the last of them nearly nine years ago, all three found alive and relatively healthy in the home of their presumed kidnapper. 
            We can have only the barest inkling what Melissa Knight, Amanda Barry, and Gina DeJesus experienced over the past decade.  We should be thankful for that.  Worse perhaps, we are even less capable of imagining what the six year old daughter of Amanda Barry and her captor, whose name has yet to be released, has experienced.  If she is fortunate she herself will retain little memory of what her life to now has been. 
[Note:  In illustrating this post I purposely chose a photo in which her daughter's face is blurred.  There are many images available where it is not but I think she should be allowed as much privacy as possible.]

            There are so many things to be said about this situation, about the Castro Brothers’ activities and what they hoped to accomplish [update]; about the women’s years in captivity and in physical, emotional and sexual abuse; about how this situation happened in a neighborhood of a major American city and not in some Hills Have Eyes outback; about the unwillingnessof police, despite what are supposed to have been multiple reports by neighbors, to investigate beyond the front door of Castro’s home; and most especially, there are things yet to say about Charles Ramsay and his willingness to expose his own past—because in this brave new networked world there are no past sins that can’t be found—in order to do the right thing. 
            But what I’d like to talk about is Amanda Berry and her daughter.  And how what little we know might suggest about motherhood and resilience.  The story as it’s come to us is that a week ago today Ariel Castro left his home to eat at a local McDonald’s.  If he did this on a regular basis we don’t know, and if he didn’t why he chose this day to do it, no one apparently knows, but when he did Amanda Berry took the opportunity to scream as near the door as she could until someone responded.  Charles Ramsay did, and it’s a testament to his heroism that this man, who partied with Castro, eaten BBQ with him, played music with him, didn’t say “It’s a domestic matter” and turn around, and after listening to her story that she was being held against her will kicked the bottom panel out of the door.  Berry, carrying her child, squeezed through the broken panel, hugged Ramsay, begged him to take her to his house to use his phone, and then called police.
            Some of us might routinely play a mental game with ourselves in which, if we were caught in a disaster and could save only one thing, what would it be.  To make it more interesting we often presume that there are no people or animals involved, to make it a specifically material question.  What thing would we save?  Amanda Berry did not have the luxury of pretending or of there being no person involved.  The material object she left with was her daughter.
             To put this decision in perspective, consider what myriad complications must have been involved over the past six years.  Berry was just under seventeen when she was abducted.  After years of sex with her abductor and probably his brothers—we presume the middle brother, Ariel, is the abductor because it’s his house the women were found in but the abductor could be any of the brothers[see update above] or, worse yet, someone we’re not even aware of—she is pregnant at twenty and delivers a daughter into the dark, airless, sunless existence she’s come to figure will be her future.  We don’t know if she wanted this girl or feared for her existence, born into the same situation she’d been held captive in, and it’s likely it was a combination of both sensations and any number of others.  She may have wanted to abort the fetus, although we have heard suggestions from one of the the other women that Castrobeat her when she was pregnant to spontaneously miscarry.  So what we are left to guess at is that either Amanda fought vigorously to have this child or that Ariel, who DNA tests have proved to be the father, had a change of heart over this pregnancy and decided to allow it to be brought to term. 
            This girl, born into a situation her mother was abducted into, and raised only in the company of the other two abducted women and the Castro brothers—what can be going through her head?  She is six years old, she has known only these six people in her life.  Two of them are her parents.  One of them carried her out of her world into the unknown, into what she can’t possibly know.  So while we can’t know what Michelle, Gina or Amanda has gone through we can, with some certainty, know what Amanda’s daughter is experiencing now:  Absolute, unqualified, quaking fear.
              It seems to me, as an outsider looking in on parenthood, that this is one extreme part of what it means to be a mother:  To deliver your child into great uncertainty and, when the time comes, to help her escape into greater uncertainty.  But that is what you must do. 
            It’s well known that among lions it’s the female, the lioness, who hunts and who is really the fiercer of the species so it may be that the distinctive feature about dandelions—their serrated leaves, the dents de lion—may more accurately be termed the dents de lioness.  Perhaps the natural reaction as mothers, as parents, even as proponents of religious liberalism, is to emulate the dandelion—stubbornly resistive to any attempt to root us out, to burn us out, and even to the natural tendency of entropy to crumble us from within. 
            Our message, the message of religious liberalism, the message of people who see great complexity to parenthood—that it is better to be alive than to be dead, that to treat anyone as less than the glorious being that he or she is is itself an evil, that children and the people we’re responsible for need safe food and safe water and safe places to live, and that these are not starry-eyed ideals but necessities—must be heard.  We must endure for these messages to be heard.  We must become ubiquitous and obnoxious, unwilling to be pressed from our perch.  We must be willing to grow quietly beside the more beautiful and cozened strawberry and rose and lily so to suck up some of their excess nutrient and water until we can elbow those more popular petals aside to take the place we’ve earned.  To endure as a faith and as a people we need to be as tough, as resilient, and as uncompromising as the common dandelion. 


Monday, May 6, 2013

a congregation of one

"Every man will have a creed of his own," wrote [Needham, Massachusetts] pastor Stephen Palmer..."I have mine, but have no right to impose it upon others, nor have others any right to impose theirs upon me...He who thinks he has no more light to receive, has seen but little; and he who is not open to conviction is in bondage to himself."
--from Universalists and Unitarians in America:  A People's History by John Buehrens

This idea, if not this quote, opened up an intense discussion in a small group forum during our UU polity class last week.  We had assembled to discuss whether our principles and purposes are a contemporary help or a hindrance.  Early on the question "why don't we have a creed?" came up and from there the better question, "are we afraid of a creed?", was spoken.

The answer to the first question is suggested in Palmer's quote:  Unitarian Universalists as a group don't have a creed because we aren't free to impose our own convictions on others and they aren't free to impose theirs on us.  The distinction between agreeing with a conviction and insisting on it being the way people ought to behave is a fine one that seems lost on so many who would insist on the US being a Christian nation.  I agree with a number of Christian convictions--treating others as we'd like to be treated and obeying god (as I conceive god to be) are only two examples--but I don't identify as a Christian because I don't accept a supernatural force outside existence.  (Besides which, there is the issue of "which" Christianity some people are arguing for.  In terms of sheer numbers, Protestants are the predominant Christians.  But "Protestants" are a huge umbrella term, incorporating everyone from the Latter Day Saints to the United Church of Christ.  If we are talking just a single denomination, the US is far and away a Roman Catholic nation.)

The answer to the second question, according to many UUs, is "no."  But I think it's "yes," although maybe "afraid" isn't quite the right word.  We have these terrifically anodyne Principles which are and read like they are written by committee and fulfill a lot of functions.  They give us something to point to when asked "what do you believe" and something to rally around when we sense our rights as citizens of faith are threatened.  But to paraphrase Walter Royal Jones' famous question, No one asks to have the Purposes and Principles read to him on his deathbed.  They're a package of words most of us can agree to, but a Mission Statement will itself never be included as a prophetic source.

He "who is not open to conviction is in bondage to himself," Palmer writes, and insofar as his earlier point, that individuals need a personal creed, he is right.  The problem lies in that my personal creed may countermand yours and neither one of us really wants that.  None of us would, or should, want to belong to a congregation consisting of one--one person, one thought, one mission--and despite claims that are made in its favor, and the beauty sometimes of its language, that is precisely what a creed does:  Reduce a congregation to one.  Yes, we are "afraid" of a creed--if by fear we mean a wariness brought on by history and experience--but it may be good to be so afraid.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

the strawberry of memory

That's my friend Rich's voice on the soundtrack of this video.  He died earlier this week, a 37 year old victim of heart attack.  The story of the monk and the strawberry, while it has a lot of history behind it, particularly for Buddhists, also has tremendous import for me.  Decades ago, while still taking myself seriously as a bhikku in training, I determined I'd live my life by its lessons.  It held at least equal resonance for Rich.

This is a video he produced for an arts project at the seminary we attended together and I'd seen it twice, once as he prepared it and again in a class on Zen we took.  He is--was, I have to remind myself--an odd person even among the denizens of my congregations.  He had, even by my standards, an interesting life:  born (and, I think, baptized) a Mormon, converter to Unitarian Universalism, converter to fundamental Christianity, converter to Buddhism, graduate of Liberty University.  Volunteer in the military, veteran of the Bosnian Conflict and the First Iraq War.  Chaplain in training.  World traveler.  Learner of Japanese.  His first marriage ended very badly and bitterly and it was in chewing over the bitterness and learning to accept the hot taste of it that we bonded.  His second marriage to a Japanese woman five years his senior he met at a Buddhism conference.ended with his death. They were married a month.

In a week my seminary will hold a memorial for his memory.  We are very good at memorials, fitting for people whose primary purpose, no matter what we tell ourselves, is to comfort the dying and the surviving.  I am trying not to mourn Rich's death but merely, as I think he would express it, to accept it.  He was a good man who got on my nerves at times--he talked too much at times, pressed his presence on people at times, made too much of his Buddhism at times, refused to observe his own faults at times--but do we know anyone (besides ourselves) who don't get on our nerves at times?  That, as much as dying, is a part of life.

The story of the monk and his strawberry doesn't mention anyone acknowledging the monk's death.  But like the rest of us monks need a community; a monk may live a solitary life but one isn't a monk by oneself.   That's what distinguishes her from a hermit.  Someone notices the monk's absence.  Someone has a moment of silence or a brief word for his life and death. Someone recollects the monk's life.  This reflection may be the sweet part of someone's life, the strawberry plucked, not by the monk but by the monk's survivors, enjoyed in contemplation.

If I could play the guitar or sing I would play this for Rich.  But as I can't do either I'll go to the original.