Tuesday, July 30, 2013

bringing peace to babylon

Here's my vision: Unitarian Universalism accepts a future as a tribal congregation and pioneers such a future by basing its identity on that. I envision a temple-tent with the best elements of the CALM tent at Rainbow Gatherings, thick rugs and pillows, incense, chimes, backrubs and massage. Constant music with a spiritual theme: Matisyahu, kd lang, Ray Lynch, Enigma, Sleater-Kinney, Van Morrison.  Books and other literature would be available for borrowing or for reading there.  Someone would be  available in the tent for 24 hours a day, one of two or three ministers whose job is essentially to be a presence.  Each morning, noon, and evening one would conduct a ritual (and these would be different each time, sometimes Christian, sometimes Muslim, sometimes pagan, sometimes Buddhist), and each day there would be a time set aside for guided community dialogue on a question noted on a chalkboard in front of the tent.  This tent would appear at Gatherings, Phish concerts, hobo camps, festivals, occupy events, protests:  anywhere people gather for the purpose of being together. Each person would be given something with the Unitarian Universalist Association's website address on it so they could follow up by visiting and possibly joining a local congregation wherever they settle.

Here's the hard part.  The UUA would have to fund this entirely--the cost of gas and trucking the tent to all these events around the country--as well as paying a stipend to the ministers (and yes, I envision myself as being among them) who would travel with the tent.  This is hard because of two reasons:  we don't have a tradition of missionary activity and so there is little experience to fall back on (on the other hand it means there is no tradition there against which we would need to struggle); and because most congregations, who would see no membership benefit to themselves, would balk at paying to fund this project (many already balk at the idea of paying dues to a national organization whose sole existence, in their eyes, is to collect dues).

Money will always be tight and will always be an issue.  But here's the hardest part:  these people whose experience will have been through Gatherings and such will expect the same type of experience at the local level.  In early Christian, Rasta, and Rainbow Family terms, it's bringing peace to Babylon.  Local congregations will have to learn to accept these folks, fresh off the road and smelly and dirty and sweaty who will come with their dogs and their packs and their ganja and who won't be much interested in UU history as in what UU says about them and the world today, who will come for a meal and may stay a week in the community, living in the park or sleeping on someone's couch, and may take off halfway through the service and head for the freeway with their thumbs out. But the first group will tell another group and they will tell another group.  And they will come, not all at once and not at first.  But they will come.  Their inclusion will force us away from a safe, middle class, suburban church and back into something dangerous in the best way: a fellowship made up of real experiences, few of which will be exactly alike.  I see this as the future of Unitarian Universalism.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

alternatives to church: dying in wisconsin

My dad who lives in The Thick has been visiting us here on The Rim for the past two weeks and this morning he and I attended a local church service. It was a Lutheran service, ELCA, and while he enjoyed it or at least didn't find it offensive, I was disappointed by it. 

It wasn't that it was offensive in some way--to the contrary, my impression was that the visiting pastor was taking pains not to be offensive to anyone Christian--and even someone like me, who my wife calls "a good Christian if it weren't for all that divinity stuff," found nothing offsetting.  And that may have been the problem:  it was so desperately inoffensive no one could object.

The message was "we should pray," and during it he made note of recent scientific suggestions that there is a piece of the human genome that seeks something greater than ourselves.  There is nothing wrong with that, but that was the only contemporary information he used.  Otherwise the sermon might have been given ten, fifty, or a hundred years ago.

Nothing else suggested anything beyond the early twentieth century either.  The hymns, except for one from the 1600s(!), were all from the 1800s; his children's sermon was talked at rather than with them, and was itself about what "hallowed" in the Lord's Prayer meant (what kid younger than a precocious 16 year old would care? and why not ask them something, anything, instead of telling them? While he did have the rapt attention of the youngest, a baby, she was staring at the movement of his mouth and the redness of his face, not taking in, as he suggested, his message); and while I counted nearly one hundred fifty attendees--and that is a remarkably small number in a town of 1300 with only three churches in a predominantly Lutheran state--fewer than a half dozen were younger than 50. 

My dad, who is going deaf in one ear, was impressed that despite his having left his hearing aid in the car, he could hear the entire service well because we sat near one of the post-mounted speakers, so there's that.  And the stained windows and vaulted arches and wood interior was tolerable eye candy.  The organist was fine and the solo pianist was pretty good, and while the guitar player, who affected a folksy, Hank Williams charm was also competent, the teenager who accompanied him on sax was barely that, and her singing was worse. 

When the collection came around I gave them a dollar.  I want this church, like most churches, to continue but not for long.  After we left my dad complimented the service but said it went on too long.  I pointed to my car clock:  it had lasted only an hour.  His watch was a half hour fast:  "That's all?  It seemed so much longer!"  This service and this congregation make a compelling argument for the swift death of American institutional religion.

Friday, July 26, 2013

the pastor of porn

I rarely talk on this site about personal things going on in my life, primarily because I don't think that's the business of or of interest to most readers.  Having said that, it has been a hard two years since my last full time employment, and this past week I've stepped up my applications to places that aren't in my fields.

One of these has been a place closer in on the hub, in the river town Hudson, and around the corner from one of my favorite libraries.  It's called Left of Center, and it's one of those remnants of the looser 70s and early 90s, a store that specializes in sex toys, printed and video porn, pipes and other smoking accessories, lighters, gambling equipment, and lingerie.  I'm secretly hoping, although the guy I spoke with told me they aren't hiring currently, that I'll get a call from them.  This is the sort of place I'm comfortable in and with whose people, secretive and anonymous as they often are, I'm comfortable. 

My role as a minister, albeit part time, is featured prominently on my resume, and in my imagination it's this that would encourage the owner to hire me.  What better argument at contentious zoning and ordinance meetings than that the store is so safe it has a minister working at it?  I've even played around with titles I might use in relation to there:  "Pastor of Porn;" "Preacher of Paraphernalia;" "Hierophant of Hemp;" "Lay Clergy."  (As an interesting aside, I've typed "pastor of porn" into Google Images and much of its returns (NSFW) are mugshots of preachers arrested for child pornography and publicity shots of Ron Jeremy, who famously traveled the country debating Ron Gross of Fireproof Ministries, as well as the usual crotch shots. And yes, I'm aware the image I use uptop is from XXXchurch.com, whose message is diametrically opposed to my own, but the image is too good, and too right, not to use.)

So I recognize, and wouldn't be opposed to, my being used in that way.  But it's also a valuable way to be with the people I see as my primary congregation, the people who aren't covered by most preachers:  lowlifes, addicts, the lonely, the desperate, the fearful.  My wife pointed out to me that by working outside my teaching or ministerial roles I could be ministering to people without their even knowing it, and that's exactly where I hope my road takes me.  So if you're of a mind to, pray or think good thoughts for me to find full time employment at the porn shop.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

recent wedding homily

In preparing for a wedding I'm performing this coming August, I discovered that I had neither made the edits to the final copy of the wedding from June nor posted the homily.  This then is the opportunity to do both.
Wedding Homily

             There’s been much discussion in the past couple years about what marriage is.  There have been a lot of interesting and some truthful things said about it and a lot of sound and fury.  But like with all definitions, the way to look at what marriage is is to determine what it is in action and try to explain that.  Marriage is a commitment between two people who love each other deeply, honestly, and unconditionally.  Marriage is a covenant between two people who chose to become intimate in all senses of the term and who honor each other by declaring it publically. 

            It is not only the coming together of two separate people becoming a single unit but of two different people who, no matter how close they become, no matter how accurately they might mirror one another’s thoughts or moods, remain two different and individual people. 

            We are born separate and separate we remain.  That’s the way of this animal.  But we take pleasure in coming together.  In forming a singular unit composed of two people. You don’t choose your parents or your siblings or your circumstances but you do choose your spouse.  You do choose who you love and who you opt to live with for the rest of your life. 

            [My friends], in the time I’ve known you I’ve loved hearing your story.  Like all stories, it’s a good one.  If I was writing your story as a novel I couldn’t make a better plot point than to have you miserable in the rain, sharing a campsite together although alone with individual friends and at a Christian music festival while neither of you is Christian.  And I couldn’t write a better line of opening dialogue than, “We’ve been sharing this site for two days and we haven’t been introduced, but my name is [One],” and the followup by [Two], “He seems nice, let’s hang out with him.” 

            [One], by breaking the ice you broke some barrier between your two worlds.  In the Venn diagram of your lives the circles between [One's] friends and [Two's] friends merged into a new circle of [One and Two].  In your immediate future you’re breaking another barrier.  Both of you are returning to college after years of work.  As a former professor, I can tell you that’s exciting.  I don’t have to tell you how scary it is too. 

            I can also tell you college is a place where a lot of change happens.  Right now you’re just beginning to settle down into a pattern, not a rut but not something totally unpleasant either.  Learning is like marriage, it involves a lot of personal, individual changes, and not all of them will be comfortable.  Change, like marriage, isn’t meant to be comfortable.  If it was we wouldn’t have reason to change or to marry.  We could just stay home, playing Minecraft by ourselves. 

            Much as we might wish it otherwise, a lasting and growing love is not guaranteed by any ritual, even this one.  The foundations of your life together are the devotion you have for one another, not just for now but for all your years together. Treasure the hopes and dreams you bring with you today.  Promise yourselves and one another that your love will never be blotted out by what is common or obscured by the ordinary.  Faults will surface where you now find sure footing, cracks will develop where you now see only security.  It is not for lack of love these things happen, it is because, like a muscle, love does not change without tearing down a little what was there before, rebuilding the torn part to make it stronger. 

            Here is my charge to you:  Always remember that it is better to be happy than to be right.  The person beside you will, through all the changes he and she will go through, remain the person who is on your side.  The best way to do that is to go through life holding one another’s hand. 



Monday, July 15, 2013

mourning the lives that ended that night

I'm aware that in contrast with a majority of people I'm pretty fortunate.  For example, despite my nearly-two year state of being mostly unemployed, my wife's job has afforded us not only to continue paying the mortgage on our home on the rim and the occasional night out with friends but also the luxury of two cars and a subscription to satellite radio.  This last has been helpful since the weekend as I've used it to listen repeatedly to Krishna Das Yoga Radio devoted to ragas and chants and traditional Hindi calming music which has helped me to stay calm, focused, and my disappointment and anger at tolerable levels.

Like many, I was caught flatfooted by the verdict of "not guilty" in the George Zimmerman case Saturday night.  The determination leaves me feeling betrayed and confused by the American justice system.  I have spent the ensuing hours trying to understand what it means.

Unlike many of the people on the Internet who over the course of this trial have become legal critics and scholars I don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of the charges against Zimmerman, the strength or weakness of the case brought against him, or whether Trayvon Martin or Zimmerman initiated a fight, or whose voice was recorded calling for help, or the intricacies or need for Florida's "stand your ground" law.  I'm not convinced that, as some have said, "the verdict was legally correct and was the only verdict the jury could have reached," but I could be wrong about that.  But I am convinced of this, that a law that considers a man who does not deny he shot an unarmed boy and who does not deny he did nearly everything he could to provoke a confrontation "not guilty" in that boy's death, is a bad law.

George Zimmerman is a private citizen--not a cop, not even a security guard--who armed himself and who, when he saw a young black boy walking the streets, assumed the boy did not belong there and was planning a crime.  He was wrong about that, but he was within his rights to call the local police to report Trayvon Martin's presence.  That should have been the end of it.  But for his own reasons, and I would not want to guess at them because like George Zimmerman I could guess wrong, Zimmerman took his gun with him and got out of his car to follow the young man.  There are conflicting accounts from Zimmerman, Rachel Jeantel and Jonathon Good of what happened next, but for the result we have the mute incontrovertible testimony of Martin's body and Zimmerman's confession:  George Zimmerman shot an unarmed 17 year walking home.

There may be something in human nature that causes us, when faced with tragic circumstances, to seek someone to blame.  This may be why some have blamed Trayvon Martin and even President Obama.  George Zimmerman himself said it was God's plan.  But it does not strain credulity to place the blame squarely and fixedly on the man who could have avoided the situation.  George Zimmerman did not have to leave his vehicle.  The police had been alerted to the situation and no matter what someone thinks of their response time, a private citizen does not have the right to place himself or a potentially innocent person in a dangerous situation.  Sanford, Florida, is not Tombstone in the 1870s and George Zimmerman was not in a Batman movie.  At the very least Zimmerman is guilty for having exacerbated an already questionable situation into a lethal one.  There should be consequences for that.

There are, of course.  Two lives ended that fateful evening.  No matter what his defenders say, Zimmerman is no longer a free man.  He will have to live with the stigma of what he's done for the rest of his life, and because of the emotions his acquittal raises, he may have been safer in prison.  Ironically, he will live the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion similar to the one he placed Trayvon Martin under that evening.  Except that, unlike his victim, he is guilty.  Nonetheless, we should mourn the loss of his life too.

There may be something societal to blame too.  Our young black men are dying and not all their killers are George Zimmermans.  Some are other young black men; some are the young black men themselves.  We need to determine why a young black man in 2013, if it's not true that he's more likely to end up in prison than in college, nonetheless is populating prison at nearly three times the rate that he populates the US.  I don't accept the notion that it is because he is likelier to do criminal acts and neither should you.  We deserve a better explanation.

In the midst of this I attended a vigil held at a synagogue in the hub for people who, like me, felt adrift and angry and betrayed, and who wanted to come together to sing our grief.  Shortly before leaving I sat on the deck surrounded by my dogs and listening to my wife placidly tapping on her laptop in the three-season porch.  As I started out by saying, I recognize how much more fortunate I am than many people. 

I was reading Walking towards Walden:  A Pilgrimage in Search of Place by John Hanson Mitchell. 
 Mitchell writes about a sixteen mile hike he and two friends made in the 1990s from a burial site in Westford, Massachussets, to downtown Concord.  The book is full of digressions about history, geography, literature, biology and botony, previous hikes the three have done, and this meditation on the friends' Ideal Place to Live. 
We would setttle outside a village ina small stone house with a flag terrace and half-wild gardens.  From the terrace you have a view of the distant hills.  The land to the west is unpeopled and wild and rises into sharp, unscaled peaks.  To the east, within view of the terrace, is the village, the essence of the place.  There is no traffic in this area, in fact we would be happy if there were no cars.  You walk to town.  In Thoreau's words, you saunter there, poking along as you go, looking at things, listening to birds.  The town is small but intelligent.  People read books there, and they sit in the cafes and talk about things, and furthermore, they are there all day and late into the night so what whenever you want some company, you have but to saunter along the thicket-lined track into town and find them.  And whenever you want the abiding peace of nature, you can walk back to your cottage.  If you want wilderness, you walk west to the mountains.  Sometimes friends from the village wander out to your house for dinner and you discuss things late into the night, and sometimes they fall asleep on the couches.  You find them sprawled there in the morning.
Mitchell insists "Such places exist."  Many of us have been there but for reasons we can't quite explain we end up leaving.  He describes his own experience of such a place on the island of Corsica. 
It was a good place.  You could lose yourself there, you could forget that you ever had a past or a future and simply fall into that idyllic, dreamy state the locals called la dolce fa'niente, and within a few weeks I became a sort of adjunct to the place and stayed on longer than I had intended.  I washed dishes and cleaned fish, peeled vegetables, helped with the table when the restaurant was crowded...Other than that I was free.  I read books, I went for walks, and at night I eavesdropped on the local gossip.  Mostly I stared into space and waited for something to happen.  For hours, for days, weeks, finally for months, I simply gazed out across the harbor to the green slopes of the hills and the high, jagged peaks beyond.  I rarely left the little island.  The Hopi would say I had found my tuwanasaapi.
My reflection was that, like Mitchell says, I had found that first place and, like everyone else, I left it.  I can't explain why.  But like he writes, I have also found, in some ways, my tuwanasaapi, my centering place.   If someone asks why I attend vigils like last evening's, why I mourn the lives of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, why I believe, with Martin Luther King, Jr, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, I will answer:  Not everyone has an opportunity to locate his or her centering place.  Some, like Martin, aren't given the chance to find it and some, like Zimmerman, actively deny it to others.  I want everyone to experience what I have.  There is more than enough to go around.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

warning: this is a photo of a dead body

Yesterday morning one of the websites I normally visit published a photograph of Trayvon Martin's dead body that it had received from another person who happened to save it after it accidentally appeared on the MSNBC website and before it was taken down.  If you do not want to see this photograph, don't advance any further below or click on the following link.  Adam Weinstein, the reporter who recieved the picture and spoke with the reader who had saved it, put it on the main Gawker page where it has opened a massive can of worms.  By the time I post this, a little over thirty hours later, 94 comments have appeared with another 671 waiting to be cleared by the administrator.

I want to take a moment to explain why I think it's important for Adam Weinstein and Gawker to publish the photo and for me (and I hope other bloggers and writers) to publish it too.  I grew up as part of the generation that watched the Vietnam War play out on our television screens and about whom it was reported we had seen x amount of violent acts, real and fictional, on television by adulthood (I cannot locate the number, but it has been increased in recent years and in 2004 stood at 8ooo acts, mostly without remorse, by age 11), as well as real violence among our peers and our families, and so was argued that we had lost our sense of disgust at real instances of violence playing out before us or at least our shock at it.  Somtimes, to an extent, I think that too, at least in my case.  I have seen people die and I have grown up seeing dead bodies in photos and videos.  I'm of the generation that fetishized the gore of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the squirm-inducing rape sequence of The Last House on the Left and topped those off with repeated watchings of The Faces of Death series.  I can open a newsmagazine or a website to be faced with photos of dead people and continue to eat my cereal without blinking.

Does this suggest that I, and by extension many people of my generation who've had similar experiences, have become inured to horrible death?  Perhaps.  I think often I've lost my shockability, and that may not be a bad thing.  Sometimes, when shock becomes the status quo, not to react may be the more transgressive act. 

But it does not mean we are immune to reacting to the photo or the death behind it.  I'm still profoundly affected by the filmed deaths of Nega Agha-Soltan and some unknown desparate jumper and, before them, the photos of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (who did not die) and Thich Quang Duc (who did).  These four instances alone are enough to reduce me to a state of distrust of human capacity for goodness if not tears.  The photograph of Trayvon Martin minutes after his death, while I did not bat an eyelash on seeing it, has worked my guts in such a way I can hardly explain.  Except to say this.

We are anesthetized to death, especially to the deaths of strangers or people who become famous for their deaths.  That doesn't mean we don't feel them but we often are placated by the implications they suggest of permanance.  Lee Harvey Oswald in an eternal flinch.  Saddam Hussein mouthing what may be prayers or deprecations with a noose around his throat.  The almost beatific posed dead of Matthew Brady's Civil War.  We act as if those deaths are closed or their acts don't continue beyond the moment recorded, as if they don't have loved ones who mourn them loudly.  To do so is to open something uncomfortable in us because they take on a greater realism than the deaths of family or friends we aren't privy to might have.  Once we recognize they have lives outside the frame we are in danger of feeling profound loss.

These images ought to affect us that way.  They ought to make us angry or depressed or frustrated or any of a number of other things.  What they should not make us is numb.  This, finally, is the truth of the trial of George Zimmerman that we need to be reminded of.  Whatever verdict is returned, whether he is found guilty of muder or manslaughter, whether it's believed Trayvon attacked him or Zimmerman incited him to attack, whether the "stand-your-ground" law is a mistake and whether the justice system in Florida is biased, this is what the trial is about.  A 17 year old unarmed boy is dead by another person's gun.  The looks on our faces when we say that ought to be as surprised, as disbelieving, as the look on Martin's.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


About a year ago I picked up a pair of hitchhiking sisters who I convinced to stay with us a few days while they had the kitten they'd found treated for infections.  While here, they turned me onto a website I'd never heard of called Lookatthisfuckingoogle.tumblr.com.  It's primarily a spot for train kids to post photos.

Since then I check in on it at least once a week and it's become a place where I can waste hours a day.  I've seen all the photos, but attached to each are often notes from members liking the photo or making a comment.  Each member has a tumblr and clicking the link leads to multiple pages of odds and ends.  Notes, gifs, pics, quotes, all chosen by idiosyncratic people in their idiosyncratic ways.  It's a reminder that, as we drift ever further apart as individuals, we remain ensconced in a larger community, and even if I never meet any of these people, I feel attached not to them but to the same thing they're attached to.  The site acts as an umbilicus between us.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

"then we saw that guy in the american flag coat with the monkey"

About two summers ago I picked up a remaindered graphic novel at one of the B&Ns in the hub.  Today, being Independence Day, seemed like a good day to read something titled The Star-Spangled Adventures of Captain Freebird by a pair known as The Fillbach (with an umlaut above the "a") Brothers.

These fellas have become pretty well-known in the comics world for their artwork on a Star Wars offshoot for Dark Horse but this was their first book, and it appears to be a collection of what were probably five and six page comics that they produced in the mid to late 90s.  The blurb on the back name-checks Vaughn Bode, Hunter Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, and David Lynch, and certainly all of them are in there.  But their art also showed a lot of influence by Rick Geary and Bill Sienkiewicz, as well as some straight-up homages to R. Crumb and Gene Colan.  The story bursts with references to song lyrics, Beat writers, oaters, Carlos Castenada-flavored shamanism and the work of Ed McGaa, the Grateful Dead, everything from the 60s and early 70s, Watergate, Vietnam, the self-help movement, The Lone Ranger, and too many others to list. 

The writing, which is not always up to par with most of the artwork (sometimes literally, with odd British spellings like "flavour" and multiple instances of the misuse of contraction "it's" for the possessive), reminds me most of the glorious Apaloosa Rising by Gino Sky.  There was a time in my life, just two decades ago, when I also tried writing free-form hippie-inflected narrative and I can't say I was successful, but the story the Brothers Fillbach tell lends itself to that style, and so I forgive the misspellings and such, the way one might an older relative's occasional wearing mismatched shoes.

I loved this sucker.  It ends with a hell of a lot of loose ends, and it's obvious the bros intended to follow up with a longer narrative called Broken Heroes: A Fantasy.  That never appeared.  As recently as 2010 they announced they were planning a return to Freebird, but that's also never appeared.  The Freebird saga may be best left as one of those unfinished masterpieces.