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.


Monday, November 11, 2013

maybe it is about the numbers

I completed reading two books of spirituality today: Walking a Literary Labyrinth and Irresistible Revolution. While I really enjoyed Nancy Malone's writing--it often reminded me of the best work of Karen Armstrong or Thomas Merton--between the two the one that's likelier to stick with me longer is the Shane Claiborne book because it irritated me over and over again like an infection. You tend not to remember why you have a scar fondly but you remember it nonetheless.

But what won me over--although to be fair, the fact I kept reading it despite my repeated annoyance with it confirms I was won over long ago--was the following in its final pages:
Certainly, thousands were added to their number in the early church--the poor, outcasts, people fed up with the world. They were the scum of the earth...Our context is quite different. We live among the wealthiest people in the world (top 2 percent), a tough mission field. We are preaching a gospel that declares that it's easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom. But look on the bright side. After we preach the crowds down, we will not need such expensive buildings...
And yet whether it's the Prayer of Jabez or the war in Iraq, many Christians seem to be hoping that the kingdom of God will come in triumphal greatness, expanding God's territory and taking over the world with glory and power--shock-and-awing the masses, if you will. But that's the very temptation Jesus faced in the desert, the temptation to do spectacular things like fling himself from the temple or tun stones into bread, to shock the masses with his miracles or awe them with his power. And yet he resists. The church has always faced the same temptation, from the time of Constantine's sword to now. We are tempted to do great things like rappel from the rafters in the newest church gym or throw the best pizza party so that kids might bow before the altar.
But amid all the church-growth tacticians and megachurch models, I want to suggest something a little different: God's kingdom grows smaller and smaller as it takes over the world...
Despite the fact that God's Word insists that "God does not dwell in temples built by hands," we insist that God should...God just digs camping. No wonder when I think of my most powerful encounters with God they seem to involve camping of some kind...That is where I have met God. God still dwells there. No doubt there is power in corporate worship, and there are times when I feel God among the masses (and during Masses), but it has had nothing to do with the color of the carpet or the comfort of the chair...
As we build our buildings, human temples are being destroyed by hunger and homelessness. The early prophets would say that a church that spends millions of dollars on buildings while her children are starving is guilty of murder...The more personal property is retained as private space, the more corporate property becomes a necessity. And the cycle continues, for as we enlarge the territory of corporate property, private property remains comfortably sacred...[We] find ourselves less likely to meet in homes and kitchens and around dinner tables. We end up centralizing worship on corporate space or "on campus." Hospitality becomes less of a necessity and more of an optional matter, a convenient privilege...
One of the underlying assumptions is that money from the offerings or tithe belongs to the church. But the Scriptures consistently teach that the offering is God's instrument of redistribution and that it belongs to the poor. Giving to the poor should not make its way into the budget; it is the budget.
Now, as I've pointed out, there is a disingenuousness to an organization with directors and marketing people like Claiborne's Simple Way calling "85 percent offerings is used internally, primarily for staff and buildings and stuff to meet our own needs...border[ing] on embezzlement." But simply because an organization finds itself unable to meet the ideal doesn't mean the ideal isn't worth trying or is inherently worthless. It just means they haven't figured out how to do it yet.  It may be that in smallness and simplicity such ideals are more likely to be realized.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

when god was a little girl

This is quickly becoming a week of Africa-themed posts. Since yesterday's posting about the lyrics for "Preserve Uganda's Future Hope" (which I retitled "Uganda, the Beautiful"), I've come across David Weiss' project for a book called When God was a Little Girl.

It's not a new idea, the femininity of the devine, the matrilineal deity, because truth be told the confluence of the feminine with creation is probably among the first theological thoughts. And as a pantheistic panentheist, it's one I could certainly be comfortable with. One of the most important words David used in his lyrics is the replacement of kin-dom for the more traditional kingdom. This exchange is old hat for many of us already versed in liberal religion, a de rigeur example of inclusive language. But the notion, despite biblical precedent, can be heretical for others more closely invested in patriarchal terminology.

What if, rather than a patrilineal deity, we acknowleded one that was maternal or, more to the point, one that was absolutely sexless or both sexes? A hermaphroditic god is hardly new either, and certainly if we can accept it in clown fish, snails and flowers, we can accept it in our god. Plato may have been onto something in his concept of the origins of love Aristophenes forwards in his Symposium.

But more importantly, what if we rid ourselves of the notion of a hierarchical god altogether, a god that is part of a kin-dom, with all its resultant relational focus intact, rather than a king- or queendom that relies on a higher order of anything? What if we accepted a horitzontal god rather than a vertical one? A god that is not only open to peer-relationship with reality but is co-created as reality expands. Traditionalists might argue against this idea as it can't exist with a reality that is itself created by god, but that only depends on the acceptance that creation is finished, and I just don't think that's true. That revelation is not sealed is a tenet of Unitarianism. We accept the expansion of the universe. Why not the expansion of reality? There's a legitimate argument to be made, I think, that what I'm really describing is the expansion of our knowledge, that I'm guilty of confusing what is with what we understand. But I'm willing to conflate the two, recognizing as well that god's masculinity and vertical ordering of reality is based on information collected a couple thousand years ago.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

uganda, the beautiful

These are the lyrics written by David Weiss who is hosting Reverend Mark Kiyimba (for whose chapel service I rewrote a couple African prayers). We sang it today as a group at chapel. It's sung to the tune of "America, the Beautiful."

Beneath these bright and gracious skies, where hope is freely lent,
Yet children watch through vacant eyes, as families are rent.
Be merciful, bring justice now, O hear our urgent plea:
Preserve Uganda's future hope, and set her people free.

By missionary zeal first sown, as hearts for Christ were claimed,
But now against its flesh and bone, is hatred thus inflamed.
Be merciful, bring justice now, O hear our urgent plea:
Preserve Uganda's future hope, and set her people free.

O gracious God, take back your word, from preachers on our shores
Whose lust for blood goes undeterred, and on your children pours.
Be merciful, bring justice now, O hear our urgent plea:
Preserve Uganda's future hope, and set her people free.

In Africa, your soul delights, so make her leaders brave,
And guide the path toward human rights and all your children save.
Be merciful, bring justice now, O hear our urgent plea:
Preserve Uganda's future hope, and set her people free.

At last may dawn the day we seek, where love has naught to fear
And every lover truth may speak, and find your kin-dom near.
Be merciful, bring justice now, O hear our urgent plea:
Preserve Uganda's future hope, and set her people free.

David has called it "Preserve Uganda's Future Hope," which is very ungainly, so I'm retitling it here simply as "Uganda, the Beautiful." I'm rarely touched by songs like this, I admit, probably because I have an aversion to recycling familiar songs in order to get across a message that might be opposite to the original intent ("Forward Through the Ages" for "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is one of the few I really appreciate), but I felt moved by our singing and while that may have been partly because the lyricist was in attendance I suspect it was also because the lyrics were appropriate to Mark's message about acceptance of diversity and the difficulty of preaching it in Uganda. I experienced a thrill of being someplace something important was happening.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

the bark of children like hot rain

My alma mater is hosting a worship service with Reverend Mark Kiyimba of Uganda this Tuesday and I've been asked, probably by dint of having the largest world literature library, to provide a prayer and perhaps a reading. I've chosen two potential prayers, both of which needed some revision to fit our purposes, and a reading culled from a great Ugandan novel.

The first prayer is itself Ugandan, but was originally fashioned as a plea for children. It required some editing.
You elders, you ancestors, you older people,
Today we give you your food.
Give us health and wealth.
Let everything evil leave with the setting sun,
Let it go far away.
Elders, our homestead is now silent.
We like the sight of old people dancing,
We like the sound of young men and young women laughing.
We like to hear the bark of children like hot rain on a tin roof.
The eigth and ninth lines are purely my invention, as is the second half of the tenth line (I am really proud of that turn of phrase). The second is actually a prayer from neighboring Sudan. But my reason for including it as a possibility is that it's from the Dinka people who have just this week opted to join South Sudan in its independence from Khartoum. It is a more general prayer about life.
In the time when God created all things, god created the sun.
And the sun is born and dies and comes again.
God created the moon,
And the moon is born and dies and comes again.
God created the stars,
And the stars are born and die and come again.
God created people,
And people are born and die but do not come again.
This only needed the exchange of "God" for the traditional "He" and "people" for "man." Finally, I've included a couple pages from the novel Snakepit by Moses Isegawa. It takes place during Idi Amin's solidification of his reign in the 1970s. I've been told that Isegawa's description of that nation is unparalelled.
There were days so fine, so suffused with bright light falling from high-domes skies, the beauty of delicate clouds, the perfume of gentle winds, the gloss of exuberant vegetation, the sheer delight of living in a bubble of peace amidst and inferno, that Bat [Katanga] felt totally in tune with life. He was not a religious man, but once a month he accompanied his wife to church. She chose the best suit for him, the darkest shoes, the best tie. For herself she picked the finest midi- or maxi-gown, matching accessories and a subtle, expensive perfume. They would emerge from the house and stand on the steps surveying the flower bushes, red and purple bougainvilleas; the towering thousand-year-old trees, majestic, their branches spread high above, the lake, a broken marble surface linking them to neighboring countries in a fraternity of water…They would descend the steps and drive away.
            At church they would mingle with well-dressed men and women who worked in the beleaguered civil service, the diplomatic corps, the remnants of the aviation service, and the armed forces. In mufti, the soldiers and the spies tried to make themselves as invisible as possible. Bat liked the fact that these days the church had turned into a human rights podium. Priests spoke out directly or indirectly against the disappearances, the killings, the abuses. The clergy had felt the bite of the bayonet, the sting of the bullet, and it made a difference. The words rolled off the priest’s tongue with conviction, steeped in pain. Bat liked to sit there and think of good memories, his achievements, because his captivity had taught him how precious and luxurious the fine moments were.
            On such days he liked to be surprised by uninvited guests who turned up to interrupt and enrich a day he had offered to the whims of time, to his wife, to leisure. If it happened to be his sister, they would talk about her son, her work, the state of the country. Living in a rural area, she would have a different view, a down-to-earth vision..
            When [his wife] Babit’s people turned up, he would drive them round the town, to the zoo, to the airport, to the Botanical Gardens, to the landing point at Katabi where food and fish came in from the islands. Standing there always reminded him that Entebbe was a peninsula, almost choked by water, which in places was just a few meters from the road to the city. It was not hard to imagine floods rising out of the lake or crashing out of an angry sky, submerging the town for weeks, and receding to reveal a new island or clutch of small islands…During these visits Babit led the conversation, and Bat enjoyed watching her and her people interacting