Sunday, December 28, 2014

the robin hood bandit of walton's mountain

This is one of my favorite Christmas movie moments: the scene in which the audience discovers that Charlie Snead, friend to the impoverished Walton clan, is the Robin Hood bandit the local sheriff seeks. I remember quite distinctly watching The Homecoming on TV in 1971, the first year it was shown and before all the 70s hoopla about The Waltons, and freezing the image of Charlie, singing "She'll be Comin Round the Mountain," driving one of the few cars on the mountain through the snow, and looking behind him into the back seat to admire the number of stolen turkeys resting there. It was, for me, a humbling moment that was difficult to process: stealing and putting oneself at risk only to give the stolen item to someone else, maybe even a stranger. I can't find a video of that moment but I have located a promo that includes Charlie thumping one of his revolution turkeys on the Walton' s table. For me it's a lovely reminder of the moment a concept became important to me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

two reasons i don't weep for this generation

There are actually many reasons, among them increased involvement in protest politics and recognition of the impact climatic change will have on their future, that I have faith in the millennial brood, but these are two that are personal to me.

1) The kids I work with are ages 12-18, with an average of 14 or 15. One evening at the girls' facility one of them made a comment about what she expected her future college career to look like, one-on-one interaction with her instructors, heavy and cultured class-participation, small classes-essentially her experience with groups at the facility. I disabused of that notion. She said, Thanks for shitting on my fantasy, and I flippantly responded, That's why they pay me the big bucks. And the same girl said, No, you get paid to tell us the truth.

2) Last night I was talking with a.couple of the boys about musicians they like and one was running off a list. Ozzy, AC/DC, Guns n Roses, JJ Cale. I did a double take. I said, How do you know JJ Cale? He said, My stepdad plays him all the time. He's really good. I've got a bunch of his music on my IPod. We spent a couple minutes talking about blues artists and their morphing into rock. He told me some Cale tunes I hadn't heard.

Monday, December 15, 2014

the chapel of the Holy Wheel

I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and I suppose it's a sop to my Puritan ancestors that the church I've been attending lately runs to six hour services. As I've mentioned in the past, we are in the process of moving from the rim to a hub on the other side of Wisconsin, and my wife and animals are already living there. As a result, my Sundays are spent driving back to the hub to minister to the kids I work with. I think of it as attending at The Chapel of The Holy Wheel.

I have my elements. My liturgy is made up of the BBC news and political shows I listen to, my hymns the music, some sacred some profane, mostly blues, I scroll through. I attend mass, partaking of the Eucharist with the crackers and grape juice I keep in the car for communion at the girls' facility (the boys are much less interested in any kind of religious services, while some of the girls want me to do almost nothing else). There is a calm that comes over me in my rolling tabernacle. I have always loved to drive, and combining the acts of reverence and of moving strikes me as a kind of mega variation on moving meditation. As if my body, ensconced in the safety of my vehicle while it hurtles down the road, mimics my body hurtling through space on the larger vehicle that I don't, can't drive. My prayers, such as they are, are for the people surrounding me. That they arrive relaxedly, like me, wherever they're going. If I succumb to grandiosity t's in seeing in myself some of the Holy Fool Neal Cassidy exhibited in his best moments.

Monday, December 1, 2014

no one should still be protesting this shit

Guys I knew in high school have posted links on Facebook, from notes of solidarity with soon-to-be-former Officer Darren Wilson to strenuous denunciations of the Ferguson black community and Michael Brown and his family. I've responded to many of them, sometimes letting my frustration and anger show. I would love to simply sit back and let their remarks flow over me like it is water and I am a duck' s ass. But as I pointed out, that is the definition of privilege. And I am prodded by the words of Desmond Tutu, that if we try to be neutral in the face of oppression then we have joined the side of the oppressors.

What galls me, not only in relation to the arguments they've put forward, but about similar arguments that regressives as a group have parroted, is the idea, as if it has never occurred to them, that what they accuse Michael Brown-and it is severely fucked up that anyone would use that term, willfully blind to the notion a killed black kid should be accused of participating in his own death-of doing is exactly the same as many of them have themselves done in the past, or have known people who have done similar things. No one deserves to be shot for having stolen from a store. No one who is unarmed deserves to be shot for charging a cop who is hundreds of feet away. (And despite the claims of Fox News, neither question is settled.)

If there is a people in America who should least have to protest against still having to protest this shit, it should be black people. Yet we are here, over two centuries after a revolution declared all Americans free, a century and a half after the last slave-bearing ship entered an American port, after a destructive Civil War, nearly five decades after passage of acts devoted to reconciling civil rights, and nearly a decade after a majority of Americans elected and then reelected a half black man with a funny name, still, still, protesting this shit. I like to think the sons and daughters of these guys with whom I've been arguing will not have to hold a similar sign or have similar arguments, but I am learning that hope, in addition to being feathered, may also be vain.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

maigret and the white privilege

[The old vagrant's] murder must have been premeditated, since people do not as a rule go around [modern cities] with...firearms in their pockets.
--from Maigret and the Loner by Georges Simenon

I have loved mystery novels from an early age, and in my early adulthood I discovered Georges Simenon's Maigret series. This is a police procedural involving a rumpled, middle-aged superintendent in late century Paris who does not always get his man, but always locates him. The books are short, often less than 150 pages, and rush along. Simenon wrote them for money, in as little as a week sometimes, and they are legion (his output hovers at around 200 novels; it is uncertain as even he forgot some of the pseudonyms under which he published). The English translations, fittingly, are often fast and loose with meaning, and where there are cultural differences a Parisian reading them would easily understand, there is no attempt made to accommodate a young American also from the late 20th century. Their titles are always, invariably the same, Maigret and the..., as if the superintendent is not seeking an individual but a class or a type. They are my comfort food.

I have been following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, pretty closely, from Michael Brown's death to last night's announcement that there would be no charges filed against Officer Darren Wilson. I'll admit, I had made up my mind already that Officer Wilson was culpable. I hoped that the grand jury would see the evidence that way and he would be held responsible for the shooting, but I also had made up my mind that was unlikely.

On my way back to where I am staying last night I listened to the press conference on one of the stations I often listen to, Urban View, which airs shows by Reverend Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, Karen Walker and Joe Madison (The Black Eagle, my favorite), among others. When the announcement was made that he was not going to be indicted, I turned off the radio for four minutes and thirty seconds, a request made by Brown's parents memorialize the four and a half hours their son's body lay open in the street after the police arrived. Then I switched it back on and listened to the people calling in to make their opinions known.

Yes, opinions are like assholes and all that, and most of them said exactly what I assumed they would say. But what came across to me was the anger and sense of betrayal they felt. These were the words and immediate reactions of a people who had climbed their way out of a cynical belief that maybe, this time, things would be different. Like the Trayvon Martin case, it had taken the outcry from social media for the police even to do the minimum investigation and to hold the self-admitted killer of a teenaged black boy to some form of accountability. They had made their way to the upper layers of hope, and had been sunk by the announcement down again into cynicism and despair. Nothing, every one of them said in varying words, Nothing has changed. Black murders don't count. We live in a police state in which we can be picked off for as simple a threat as walking down the center of the street.

I allowed myself, after reaching my in-laws' home, to take advantage of my privileges and turn off my computer and radio and sink into the comforting embrace of Maigret.

I have listened to the evidence that's available and I understand how the grand jury can find Officer Wilson's account believable. My own belief, for what it's worth, is that the situation unfolded at least in part as he reported, but grew terribly, terribly larger than he expected. I don't pretend to know what happened. But as a person who worked in direct care with adults with enormous mental deficits, I know that he is not the first person to have had a situation backfire on him, overreacted to the situation and someone was hurt, and then relied on the privilege his status automatically gave him to downplay his own responsibility as much as possible, and put the fault on the victim. I am convinced that is what happened here.

Perhaps the grand jury is correct. Perhaps Officer Darren Wilson is not at fault. Perhaps he was only acting on what his training, his communities--police, geographical, cultural--and his prejudices had told him were the right ones. Perhaps it is those, and thus us, who are at fault. Of course, as someone once said, when everyone is at fault, no one is at fault.

The voices on the radio were right, nothing has changed. And nothing will change in the immediate future. As with the aftermath of the release of George Zimmerman and the incredible amount of time (admittedly, this may be a good sign) devoted to the grand jury in the case of the chokehold death of Eric Garner, the hoopla will surge for a few days, maybe a week, maybe longer. But eventually it will disappear down the memory hole we seem to have for people killed for complicated reasons by people we are told we should see as protectors. And when it happens again Michael Brown's name will be listed with Emmet Till, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, Amidou Diallou, and many others who have been killed by people who know better but who chose to treat them as if their lives were, at best, less important than other people's. And we will cry and protest and perhaps even riot again. And nothing will change.

Until one day, for better and for worse, it suddenly will. Woe to us all then.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

god is brittany maynard

There aren't many completers of suicide who get their pictures on People magazine, let alone getting them on it before they commit it. Brittany Maynard, who at least one commentator has referred to as giving "physician-assisted suicide a very public, and in her case, young (29) and attractive face," has achieved that, however. But we shouldn't hold against her either her attraction, her publicity savvy, nor even her lack of outward signs of the brain cancer that would kill her more slowly but as surely as whatever method she used to complete her decision.

As ever, I'm conflicted about this decision. As with all personal, life-changing ones made by others, it really isn't up to me to even have much of an opinion on it, but in my head there is more than enough death to go around. We don't need to add ourselves to the ever-growing heap.

But some of us feel like we do, and we make those decisions, I accept, without rancor, clear-headed, perhaps even without the expectation of the incredible vacuum our decision will make in the lives of our loved ones (and even those we are certain don't love us) left behind. Yes, some of us do this almost like life is an afterthought. But most don't. I don't believe for a moment Brittany Maynard's decision was either haphazard or born in anger. It struck her, and most of those around her, as rational and maybe inevitable.

I've said before that no matter how bad things have been in my life, I haven't thought of ending it (at least since my teens when, like everyone else, hormones raged through my body like the Russian Army advancing on Moscow). But just because it isn't an answer (or even a question) for me doesn't mean it shouldn't be either of those for others. I respect that most people who approach this decision do so with a clear and sober head and with an understanding of what effect their act will have on the community surrounding them. People may ask, "Where's god in all this?" as if the decision in question is made secretively, out of god's sight. My answer is that it's god making the decision, rightly and wrongly.

Perhaps that's the key: that, like Maynard, people don't make the decision in the quiet desperation of their own minds but in full view and with the feedback of their loving community. Their community may be composed of people (like me) whose job it is to dissuade them from the act, but that doesn't make our response to them any less loving. It's true what Donne writes, that no man is an island. But it's equally true that no one lives in a vacuum.

Read more here:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

we would experience god in the everyday

I have been reading this book for a few days, and while some of it strikes me as very weak (both in writing and in theology), some, like the following, gives me hope. As someone who is, by virtue of working as a pastor to a community of teens who are both desperate for spirit and wary of it, trying actively to achieve a new type of worship service, this is good reading whose real life application is difficult to determine.
During the last few decades, there has been no small amount of controversy in Christian churches over worship style. As those who advocated for maintaining "traditional" worship and those preferring "contemporary" forms struggled against one another, many started referring to the conflict as the "worship wars." Churches within the emerging Christian faith, however, appear to be moving beyond the worship wars. They are discovering a "third way" in worship, one that cannot easily be categorized as either traditional or contemporary...The third way very much appears to be a dismantling of the Tradition for the purpose not of abandonment but of reerecting it in a new place...[They] refer to what they do as "ancient-future worship" or "emerged worship" or "experiential worship" or "incarnational worship...

Although incarnational worship takes a very wide variety of forms, several common threads hold it together. First, it is centered on experiencing God incarnate in everyday life more than learning about God...Rather, worship leaders start with the question, "How do people experience God as Creator in everyday life" The whole world then becomes a palate from which leaders work to open people up to experiencing God as Creator in worship. The idea is not to manufacture an experience but rather to open participants to the possibility of an experience. Incarnational worship operates on the assumption that God's Spirit really is alive and well in this world and will not hesitate to stir the soul if people's hearts are open and attentive...

Second, incarnational worship tends to be mediated through a wide variety of multisensory elements, which may range from quite ancient to postmodern. Participants are as likely to experience worship through smell, taste, and physical touch as they are through sight and sound...[Prayer] and contemplative forms of Scripture reading, such as lectio divina...may be interwoven with film clips, jazz or rock music, and hands-on artistic creation.

Emphasis on the arts and artistic expression, in fact, is a third unifying element... Practitioners...feel that worship should be as artistic as it is scripturally based...[Churches] of the emerging Christian faith [may] eventually [reclaim] the church's more ancient role of supporting the arts and artistic a new way.

Finally, incarnational worship is frequently created by clusters of people rather than by single individuals or pairs. Pastors work with a worship team made up of both clergy and laity for generating ideas, creating the service, and carrying it off. In this we may be seeing the Reformation principle of the Priesthood of All Believers practiced on a larger and deeper scale than it ever has been before.

--From The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity by Eric Elnes

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

we are not hedgehogs: progressive in a season of despair

Many of us are waking this morning to the news of the overwhelming victory by republican tea partiers in states and at local levels. This, their resurgence, after we have been promised that they were dying, a dinosaur interest group struggling one last time against pull of the tar pits. For those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, this has become a season of despair, a Fall.

I will not lie to you, it is bad. In my own state, the governor who easily beat back a historic recall effort has won reelection by a wide margin. Regressive candidates won handily in a state whose watchwords not so long ago were "there is strength in a union." A congressman whose primary strength is his name recognition as a member of a reality show, won a third term.

On a national level, Wendy Davis, in whose campaign many of us saw a grassroots effort to turn around the deeply regressive state of Texas, lost in a landslide victory to a candidate who boasts of the two dozen lawsuits he's pushed against the federal government whose policies he must administer. Republicans not only held the House of Representatives, but won control of the Senate. A conservative friend has posted on Facebook, "[With Harry Reid no longer Senate leader,] America will see Obama is the real obstructionist." And I'm sure, from her perspective, this is true. If, as they've promised, the Tea Party members put forward impeachment proceedings against him, attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, draconian Mexican border rules like the infamous Arizona "Where are your papers?" law, and similar attempts, then yes, they will see that Obama is indeed obstructive.

There are, of course, small victories, most of which are the retention of incumbent Democrats, and the defeat of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett. That's about it. I wish I could say these Tea Party victories (and they are Tea Party victories, despite the strenuous effort of Republicans to deny their influence) were the result of mass fraud, disappeared ballots, or deliberate intimidation. But I can't. The truth is that their supporters turned out in greater numbers than ours did. And while many Americans decry the complacent, worse-than-useless politician, it is always the other guy's representative who needs to go, not mine. While the numbers for voter turnout aren't available yet, the chances are that they will mirror previous midterm election years, when people show in smaller, more centralized numbers (although if anecdote is allowed, the turnout in my little corner of the hub had already reached number 107 when I voted at 9:45 a.m., a heavy showing in a township of about 500 voters.

It is a hard time. We will see advances rolled back, people who rely on the government for help more marginalized, if not fully scapegoated as under Reagan, the further erosion of the remains of the middle class and greater emphasis on what the upper classes want, more scandals, greater instances of hypocrisy, angrier turning inward on ourselves and villainizing the outer world. Progressives could be forgiven our cynicism, if we turn hedgehog, burrowing into our dens to hibernate until the sweet resurgence of spring.

But there is no such promise. Unlike spring, progressivism isn't a given, a season naturally following the winter of despair. It will not come on its own and all we need to do is duck our heads and wait. We are not hedgehogs. Spring is not guaranteed, we must bring it, bud by bud, thaw by thaw. We can no more give in to easy cynicism than we can dig a hole in the backyard and curl up in it. We will not survive in either case. We must call shit for what it is, and we must continue, despite the odds, despite how unseemly it may seem, despite how much we must ourselves pay for it in terms of public and personal condemnation, to fight and fight hard. When Barack Obama won the presidency nothing was settled, we knew we would have to continue working, sometimes in opposition to him. Nothing has changed. We must be underdogs victorious.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

goodbye, village voice

I don't remember when I first read the Village Voice, let alone when I first saw it. But growing up in New York it was ubiquitous. I remember buying copies when I could find them upstate from the mid-70s through the 80s, and for a time when I lived in New Paltz, I had a subscription that, I remember, promised--and made good on--delivery by Saturday after new issues came out on Tuesday.

Here's what I remember best about it. There was a sense that, by cracking open the pages, you were plugging into a source, if not of Truth, then of Questing. I learned about new things, new outrages, new music, new movies, new books, new ideas that I couldn't locate anywhere else. It's the reason why if I'm in any new town I look for the local cultural weekly. And while I couldn't always take part in them--rarely did films like The Little Theif make it upstate--sometimes I could. I took the trip down to The City (and reading the Voice you always thought of it as The City) to see that Truffaut, and somehow Stranger Than Paradise made it up there. When it did I knew I was seeing a movie by a new talent with absolutely new ideas about filmmaking and what constituted a story. By age 24 I'd seen enough explosions and guns going off. I was ready for nuance.

I read all the greats in the Voice: Mailer, Christgau, Sarris, Hentoff, Bastone, Feiffer, Stamaty, Mack, Willis, Goldstein, Johnson, Plachy (okay, I looked at her stuff, but I drank it in like it was written), Barry, Rall, Barrett, Hoberman, Brown, Indiana. Listen how those names trip off my tongue! I knew I was part of a special constituency. I read Ellen Frankfort's histrionic The Voice and Kevin McAuliffe's Great American Newspaper (which was already sounding the Voice's death knell in 78). I stuck with it through the Murdoch years and when it was funded by the sales of flea collars. I stuck with it through the disgraceful firings of Eddy, Christgau, Goldstein, Hentoff, Feingold and Musto. I even stuck with it through the painful constrictions online as it became a watered-down spacewaster where, at best, one could mine it for little nuggets of tough observation.

But no more. The final sole reason I've continued to read it online, Roy Edroso's weekly Exploring the Right Wing Blogosphere, has departed, vanished, disincorporated. It is a late column. Runnin' Scared, the blog where Edroso's column appeared, is still there, and one can read archived columns. But it's not the same. I'll continue to occasionally skim Runnin' Scared, because I like seeing what the miscreants back in The City are doing. But as a regular weekly destination, as a place where I will wait up til 10 on a Sunday night because 11 east is when he updated, it will no longer exist for me. Village Voice, I shake the dust of you from my shoes.

Monday, October 13, 2014

our chameleon lives

Another eulogy, this one from last Sunday morning, when I officiated for the mother of a former student.

Calvin Trillin once wrote that when people die, windowshades go up. We learn incredible things about them, no matter how well we might have known them in life, that surprise us. Of such discoveries we usually say, “Well, who’d have thought it?”
It’s a cliché to say that death comes for us all.  We personify the unknown because it is unknown and to say of something as final as death that is as if it stalked us and hunted us down, as if otherwise we would live forever, is an effective way of making the grief we feel when others die more palatable.

But that it’s a finality we all face is true nonetheless.  We all die.  That’s the thing about life; not one of us makes it out alive.  Our lives are intimately tied up in others, for better and for worse. So when the others die we’re tempted to think it’s for the worse.  Someone we love, we’re accustomed to seeing or talking with regularly, someone whose face or voice or touch has become a given in our lives is gone now.  The chair she sat in is empty. We grieve that emptiness.  We will never get her back.  It’s hard, grieving.  It should be.  Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed.  Nothing will be the same and everything is all too familiar. 

When Marie died a few weeks ago, the shades came up. But that image suggests we’re privy to nasty secrets we shouldn’t have known, and sometimes that’s true. But it’s not that what we newly find out about people is bad. What we find more often than not is that someone we thought we knew like the proverbial roadmap of our hometown, and whose moods and ideas we thought we knew so well they could have been tattooed on our brains, was someone entirely different with other people. Perhaps more easy-going. Perhaps angrier. Perhaps less judgmental. Calmer. Icier. Happier. More frustrated. A different Marie for different situations.
That’s not unusual. Most of us are what used to be called “social butterflies,” chameleon-personalities flitting here and there, changing our moods with our change of circumstance. It’s not a bad thing. It’s how we are. Human beings are complex, erratic creatures, and frankly, as I can testify from experience, none quite so as middle-aged people.

If we’re fortunate, while we do finally face death alone, we don’t face life alone, and life is scarier.  After all, we don’t know anything about death—it’s the last great unknown territory and it’s that very ambiguity that powers both our grief and our acceptance—but we know everything there is to know about being alive and what we know should scare the pants off us.  Surviving is easy—breathe in, breathe out—but living is difficult.

 If we’re fortunate we collect companions to deal with this frightening life with us.  We get them from multiple places and do that by multiple means. Take a moment to look around you.  The results of such a collection by Marie can be seen here today. If you read her obituary you might have noted that Marie is survived by nineteen different people. Looking at the memorial pamphlet, I count over thirty. And those are just her immediate family.
If it’s true that every person’s death diminishes us, then the opposite must be equally true:  that every life expands us.  It’s natural for an animal, when it’s hurt, to withdraw from others, to curl in on itself and not let others know it’s weak.  If there is something that separates us from other animals, it’s this:  That we gather together when we’re at our weakest to share our pain.

We gather together to share grief.  We gather together to pass love.  We gather together to look into one another’s eyes and hug one another’s shoulders.  We gather together to hold one another up.  We gather together to mourn and cry.  We gather together to celebrate life.

We gather together today to honor the Marie each of us knew. The mother who raised us. The mother figure who took us in. The friend. The co-worker. The little girl we grew up with. The woman we loved. There are as many Maries in this room as there are people. Whether we knew Marie only as an occasional figure hurriedly glimpsed at the other end of the adult table at family get-togethers or as a woman we knew all our lives, we come together to pay attention to the impact she had on our lives.

In lieu of a spoken prayer I’ll ask you to take the hands of the people on either side of you.  Feel the warmth of each other’s hands, the coolness of some, the moistness of some hands, the crisp dryness of others.  Concentrate for a moment and you’ll find yourself feeling the insistent thrum of other peoples’ heartbeats.  Our lives are as fleeting and as real as that sensation.   We’re each allotted exactly the same amount of time:  a lifetime.  No more, no less.  Enjoy it. It fades all too fast.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

eulogy for a homeless father

About a week ago I was contacted by a friend on behalf of his friend whose homeless father's body had been found in a park in the hub. Both his death and his homelessness was a surprise to the two families he had left behind: other than sporadic phone calls, no one had heard from him in fifteen years and had no idea where he was. His son had contacted my friend, a Lutheran minister, for a suggestion of someone to perform the funeral who was "not too religious." My friend suggested me because of my own bout of homelessness.

After a couple meetings, we held the memorial yesterday in the son's apartment. The two families--a first wife and her adule children, and a second and her teenage children--came together for the first time in a decade and a half to mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man none of them knew what had become of.

I'm not only a minister but also a member of several online homeless and vagabond Facebook groups. I put to their members what they, as people for whom exactly this situation might happen, thought I should tell the families. Their responses, numbering a couple hundred, inform the following eulogy.

We don’t know what the last hours or days or even years of Jonathon’s life was like. We do know some things. That he had multiple health problems, including heart and lung issues, that he was addicted, at least for a while, to alcohol, that he was fending for himself in a losing battle against the entropy all of us are heir to, to the extent that this man, a mere 49 years old, could be discovered dead and that it could be considered a natural death. It is fitting that the person who discovered Jonathon’s body was also probably homeless. In the final analysis, each of us has only each other. 
It’s easy to mistake pride for self-sufficiency. As most of you are aware, I was myself homeless for several years, so I feel comfortable telling you that while it might be tempting to think of Jonathon’s last years in terms of unremitting pain, depression, and desperation, that isn’t all there was to it. Those elements were there, certainly, but just like we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of charred toast, his life was undoubtedly leavened by the sweetness of life. Gratitude at the kiss of warm sunlight on his face when he least expected it. Appreciation at the gifts of money and food and shelter offered him. Warmth in his belly at the taste of liquor or cigarettes, the delicious succulence of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sweet release of lying down to rest, the wonder of dreams. He felt love, perhaps a little ashamed at the families he left behind, but also perhaps relief in, in his mind, rescuing them from the burden of his deterioration.
Enough with idle speculation. What we do know is this: he was ill his last years, he lived on the streets here and maybe spent time in shelters, he died from the combination of his diseases and exposure, and he did not reach out to anyone here for help. Those are hard, uncomfortable truths. Perhaps they should be. Not that anyone should feel bad at not having provided help or feel anger with Jonathon because he didn’t ask for it. They’re hard because people, like life itself, are complicated. For whatever reasons, to conquer whatever demons, Jonathon made the decisions he did and accepting them and him is the final dignity we can give him.
Loving him in death is the best we can hope for. Or, if not love, acceptance of the way he chose to live his last years. We are all each other has got, and trying to change anyone, in death as in life, only leads to frustration. Jonathon’s life and death, for all the ways it hurts us, has dignity to it, as all life has dignity. We are born, we live, and we die. A single known sandwiched between two portals to the unknown. Buddhists tell the story that the earth is made up of ocean and a single ring floats on it. Every thousand years an ancient tortoise crawls from the bottom mud and rises achingly for a breath of fresh air. He breaks free of his resting place, journeys to where the sky can be seen, gulps a single lungful of air, and descends rest again in the mud. They say as often as that tortoise crests the surface with his head in that ring during each thousand year event, just as often are we born. To be born is rare and lucky. It must be honored. Jonathon’s life was no more or less dignified than any of ours. You are lucky to have known him, to have loved him.
In my faith there’s a ritual we sometimes perform at the death of a member of our community. Will you gather in a ring and take hold of the hand of the persons next to you. We sing the words but since you don't know the tune, we'll just say them together. Please repeat after me: “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of Life, come to me. Come to me.”
 [Prayer] God of tears and the mysterious silence, God of suffering and God of hope, you have made for everything a season. This is the season of our sorrow, of our grief, and we pray for grace to deal with what seems impossible to deal with. We remember the promise made to those who mourn, yet too often it seems that comfort is beyond our grasp. We know that we cannot bear this burden alone. Should we pray for our grief to be transformed or, is the purpose of our grief to transform us? Will our sorrow lead somewhere unexpected? Might it lead us back to life if we follow it? Is it a reminder of the precious reality of life and love? The death of Jonathon has created a vast, empty space within our lives, a great longing within our hearts. Can it ever be filled? Can it be healed by the sacred memory that makes Jonathon forever a part of us?
So many questions, O God, and so much silence. May we be patient toward all that is unanswered in our hearts. And may others be patient with us, with our sorrow, our anger, our fear and our questions. We are those who mourn. We seek the comfort that we can offer each other and the blessings of divine love and grace. Amen.

[Benediction] Take courage, friends. The path is never clear, the end is always in doubt, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. Deep down, there is a greater truth: you are not alone.

Monday, September 29, 2014

early morning driving

We are in the process of moving from the rim to another hub across the state. My wife, who is also a minister, but with a different denomination, has accepted a call to pastor to a small congregation in a Wisconsin village of about 1500. This weekend we moved her and two of our dogs to a small room she'll rent until we can buy another house out there.

But this time, instead of living on the rim and working in the hub, which we've done since moving west in 1994, we'll be living in the hub and she'll be working on the rim. This is a different sort of plan for us; while both of us have lived in cities before, and even in one city together, we've never done so while having our beasts (now numbering eight). Fortunately, her sister is buying our house here on the rim, and will retain her dog that we've been hospicing for nearly a year (no one expected her to live this long: she has a spinal disorder that most of us estimated would have progressed to the putting-down phase by now), so the number will be reduced to seven, but that remains six beasts more than we had during our previous city stay.

Yesterday, as I had chapel services at work starting at three o'clock, I left the room she and the small rat terriers are staying in at six and managed to get back here by noon. But what's compelled this post is the interview I picked up shortly after leaving. It was a roundtable discussion hosted by Krista Tippett and comprising the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, and Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. The topics ranged from happiness to suffering, from god to the divine in people, from the mind to the body's role in it, and focused not simply the similarities but on the differences too between the four religions. What I was most impressed by was their exhibited personalities. The Dalai Lama often laughs at his own comments (which has given him a reputation for having a sense of humor often lacking in relligious leaders), but Rabbi Sacks had an impressive British dry wit and nearly every comment was evidence of that (favorite examples: asked about happiness, "Reading through Hebrew scripture and history, perhaps 'happiness' is not the first word that comes to mind..."; and in condensing the teachings of scripture, "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat"). Strangely, to me, as I have read and heard more from them, Nasr and Schori were almost subdued in the presence of these two. Neither, I thought, seemed cowed by the company they were in, but neither did they seem elevated by it. Their comments were dry and so low-key as to have been overwhelmed by the othere two.

But the discussion was fascinating and I resolved to reread Nasr's books I have and find something by Sacks, whose speaking style I hope will be as enjoyable rendered in print. But the early hour, the coffee I drank, the radio signal getting fainter and fainter the further I drove, the large vehicle I was piloting (we'd borrowed a friend's van) and the road stretched out before me for miles and hours was missing only a cigar to have completed my experience of living on the road. For a while I was back there and then, and that felt very good.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

if someone asks, this is where I'll be

I have had multiple ideas for postings lately but the difficulty has been an inability to get to the main computer at home from which I can post. First world problem, yes. In the meantime, here is a new mashup I've created for chapel services.

Monday, September 1, 2014

everything is everything

This is the mashup I did for yesterday's chapel service. The kids on my "bad boys" locked unit, all of whom have at least misdemeanors and gang connections, asked me last week to begin regular chapels again, saying they missed the opportunity to be in god's presence. Well, how can I deny them that?

Friday, August 29, 2014

would I follow black jesus?

To the extent that, if there is a historical Jesus, he was likelier to look like this than like this; and, as I respect and honor his teachings; and, as I also accept James Cone's theology of a Black God, I already do. But I'm actually talking about a more contemporary black jesus. I'm talking about Aaron McGruder's Black Jesus.

I love The Boondocks, the cartoon series to some extent, but primarily the comic strip, which I first experienced in the later 90s, possibly in one of the paper's out of the hub, possibly in a national magazine, but which I was drawn to like little before. My favorite character is Caesar.I'm sorry McGruder chose to end his strip, prematurely in my opinion, but I can dig it. He was courting controversy, and while I loved him for it, I imagine it's not easy to live that way day to day. In that light, a ten year run is pretty impressive.

MacGruder's new project is Adult Swim's Black Jesus. We don't have cable TV out here, so I try to keep track of it via episodes posted online. The concept, what if Jesus returned as a black man in Compton?, fascinates me (although I think a contemporary Jesus seeking an experience of personhood would live hard and die early as a Chinese single mother). The show tries too hard at times--I can do without the miracles, the robe and crown of thorns, the constant references to his dying for "our" sins (though I agree that, if that's true, we ought to be more grateful)--but I appreciate Black Jesus plays for laughs. It's a satire and sometimes satire has to be played big to be recognized.

I think a perpetually baked, cognac-swilling, "my nigger"-addressing Jesus (though that last makes me cringe every time) is probably accurate to how the historical Jesus would act if he were brought forward to today, and I think the point is that Black Jesus, as he's played by Slink Johnson, ought to be challenging, both to the people in his neighborhood and to us. (And it's also appropriate that the actor playing him is best known previously for his role in a video game.) Jesus' message, in the first century or today, should make it hard for us to live our lives comfortably. When he calls his friends "my nigger," while it makes me cringe, I also recognize the love in the phrase, the acceptance in his "my."

If I was a black man in Compton, would I accept and follow this black Jesus? Hell, yes. If I was a white man who heard about this black Jesus, would I cross the country to find and be with him? I sincerely hope so.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

4 keys and an office

I've never seen myself as a person on whose shoulders anyone should put a lot of responsibility. My view of my responsibility when someone asks me for advice is to say, "sure, I've screwed up my life, let me help you do the same for yours."

The photo to the left is of the keys I have as part of my work (the flat gray tab is electronic). Now, I've had keys to where I work before, usually to the store when I worked retail or to my office and classrooms when I taught, but those were never more than a single key (two in the case of office and classrooms). With this new work I have doubled, if not quadrupled, my burden of responsibillity.

It's funny, as I feel no pressure about having responsibility for something as nebulous as the souls of seventy or eighty residents and staff; but give me something physical of keys and a place with the solidity of an office and my anxiety rises exponentially.

I use the keys each week as they are to the units I visit. I visit my office perhaps twice a month, usually to use the computer when on-campus. All my materials are in the trunk of my car, ready to hand, and I spend all of my workdays at the units, generally having a leisurely walk between buildings (it helps me to keep my life and thoughts slow). My wife's advice is to get over myself, to recognize that I've grown up and can be trusted with such things, and accept it. It's ego, I know, my self-image of myself as someone ready to split when the going got hard. But as my mentor once pointed out to me, "when was the last time you ran from a situation?", and the answer was sometime in the late 80s. Despite my cutoffs and armless tees and sandals, I am a deeply responsible square now. One of the girls I minister to even convinced me I would be a really good dad.

As if to add insult to injury.

Monday, August 11, 2014

oh, such a perfect day

Here is a mashup I made over the weekend as a part of my once-a-month approach to chapel. After reading a bit from Nancy Wood, I showed it and then asked the attendees--surprisingly, more this time at the boys' campus than at the girls'--what their perfect day would consist of and who they would spend it with. All said family in some way (and some boys, raging hormones fully engaged, also specified that after family time would come time spent with "certain ladies"), after which I asked what they needed to accomplish to make that perfect day happen. It was a good, solid service, and I felt I'd done a good job.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

how I got off the road

I think everyone realizes at some point in his life that there are things he has to change in order to either make it better or just to survive. These can be great changes that involve a lot of planning and effort—a move to another state or going back to school to learn a new craft or the decision to stop drinking—or they can be little, almost invisible changes that are so subtle no one except the person making them even knows that they’ve happened—getting up fifteen minutes earlier or cutting sodas out of one’s diet or counting to ten before responding when angry.

Most cultures have a ritual period during which someone needs to look closely at her life to determine if the path she is on, as religious leader Krishnamurti put it, has a heart. Nearly all Native American tribes put their young people on a vision quest. Natives of the Amazon River basin regularly undergo ritualized experiences to ensure they are doing what their gods require of them. Aboriginal peoples of Australia visit the Dreamtime while going walkabout. And this past Friday was the start of Ramadan, the month-long annual fasting period when Muslims are expected to examine their lives closely and make necessary changes.

I remember driving along a back road in rural Arkansas listening to the radio and a Bruce Springsteen song came on. It was “Hungry Heart,” which was a few years old at that point. This is a small decision that led to a bigger one. The smallest decision was to leave that song on; I wasn’t partial to Bruce Springsteen and especially not to something as loud and as sentimental as “Hungry Heart.” But I said to myself, No, leave it on, and before long I was singing along with it.
It’s almost funny how, even though you never pay attention to it, a song on the radio heard often enough comes to get stuck in your head, its words floating around making a mental picture, and you end up remembering them as you let your thoughts wander. That’s how it was with “Hungry Heart.” I was roaring out these lines—“Everybody needs a place to rest, / Everybody wants to have a home. / Don’t make no difference what nobody says, / Ain’t nobody likes to be alone”—without having noticed what they said before. And I realized with a fierce pang that I was lonely. Three years into having been homeless, living in my car and on the streets, I wanted a place to rest, a home, and despite my saying so to friends, no matter how often I denied it, I really didn’t want to be alone any longer. 

I pulled my car over to the side of the dusty road and I wept like a beaten child. All the anger and the frustrations of years alone and solitary experiences came bubbling out of my gut and my mouth. The single, simple truth was that I was very, very lonely. I had denied it to myself for so long and so hard that when I could admit to it, it was like someone had taken a sliver of ice out of my neck and I could slump down with my head nearly on my own lap to cry.

After fifteen or twenty minutes I turned the radio and then the car engine off and sat there quietly, peacefully, staring off into the horizon which was a series of hills leading north to the Missouri border. I had no clue what it was I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. All I was certain of was that I didn’t want to be alone any longer. I didn’t want to drink myself into sleep at night because I was alone. I didn’t want to drive into another state or another part of the country, telling myself I was doing it for the experience, not admitting it was because there was no one whose presence kept me in one place. I didn’t want to go into towns and cities and walk the streets and talk to everyone I met hoping I would find someone who could join me or at least leave me feeling like I had been with someone for a little while. I wanted to go out each day and do things with someone else and then go home with her and curl up for a peaceful night’s rest together.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, or maybe I thought it would follow a different sequence of things I had to do, but I needed to give up drinking so much and doing drugs so often and not working for more than a few days at a time and being angry and belligerent. What it would also mean was giving up thinking only about me, making decisions that only revolved around my needs or wants, and doing things that I thought only affected me. I discovered all of those things I had to get under control, not before I found someone, but before she wanted to stay around me. If I had known it, I would probably have been too scared to make a move, certain as I was that the solitary life I lived was the one I was most adapted to.  But the first decision had been a little one: to leave the radio on at a song I wasn’t sure I liked. The second decision had been a little bit bigger: to pull over and cry. The third decision had been the biggest: to admit to myself that I wanted to change. The fourth and fifth and hundred seventeenth decisions were yet to come and I had no clue what they were. But for now the third decision was the one I needed to keep warm.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

another lesbian wedding homily

As it's summer here on the rim, and as it's also been a rainy one, I've been outside as often as I'm able, and so I am woefully behind on posting. But last Saturday my wife and I were the officiants for the wedding, or more accurately the renewal of vows, for friends of ours (not the couple above; that's a stock photo whose joy I really like). This is the homily I wrote for them.

Vows are important. They show seriousness of intent for doing or agreeing to something. Renewing vows, it can be argued, are even more important because they take place after the doing or the agreeing to the thing has already happened for a time, so the people taking them can’t be accused of not knowing what they’re getting into.
_________________, the vows you took together years ago were taken seriously by you, even if the state where you took them eventually decided it didn’t. But the people of the state of Minnesota, in their wisdom, have realized that the vows you take together are as beholden as anyone else’s vows. So we come together, your friends and family, the people most important to you, to reaffirm those vows.

You’ve told me you don’t remember what it was like not to be in one another’s lives. I suspect, although I don’t know, that it was like this: lonely. I’m sure you enjoyed yourselves alone and with the friends and family gathered here, and you may not have known it. But there was, somewhere deep down, a ______- and a ______-shaped hole at the core of who you were. And you may not have felt it immediately filled when the two of you met, but for years you have recognized that you complete one another.

Nonetheless, there remained another important hole in your lives. The two of you have been accepted as a couple but not as the married couple you knew yourselves to be. It is to fill that metaphorical hole that we come together today.

Those of us who are married know that, after the ceremony, if we have been a couple for a long time, outwardly nothing changes. We go on living together, making meals together, being seen together, raising dogs together. But we know that inwardly everything has changed. It may be hard to put into words but I think that what runs through our minds when we continue to do those things and we happen to glance at the other person, we think, to paraphrase what God said about Jesus, “This is my wife, with whom I am well-pleased.”

There is, we know, a point to life and it is to make connections with one another. ____________, look around you at the friends and family gathered here to celebrate your vows, and know that you have made connections, together, with each of them. Now look at one another and know you have made the deepest connection with her.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

seed in the wet dark

Warm, rainy summer mornings like today remind me of one of the perks of living in my car. Sleeping with the windows cracked for fresh air, my first concious breath of the day would be full of the heavy moisture-filled breath of Gaia, blowing gently into my nostrils. That scent of moist earth fills me with the sense of promise, as if I were a seed in the wet dark. Like Whitman, I long to be a part of it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I am a fire extinguisher

In yesterday's counseling session I came up with a metaphor for what I do during most of my work. I teach, yes, at least for a little while each day, or facilitate group sessions. But that's only for an hour at a time and I spend at least three hours each week at each unit. Otherwise, what I do mostly is sit or stand around, sometimes talking, sometimes observing.

I explained the concept of the nonanxious presence which I had learned from my teacher Bob Albers and that he learned from Rabbi Edwin Friedman: the idea that sometimes the best one can be is simply present to another, the eye of calm in the midst of physical or mental chaos, the person who has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, no one else to see. Someone who is there completely and attentively for the person in chaos. I see my role during most periods of my time on the units as maintaining a presence, someone who is calmly there. I'm not bored at these times, even if nothing is going on. I'm just there in a relaxed state, my presence unnecessary in the sense that I'm "not needed" at these times but at the ready if I am needed.

For instance, on Monday I was at one unit having dinner with the boys there as usual and after I put my plate away one of them came up and asked, "Do you have time to talk with me?" I said of course, and we sat down in a little-used room and talked for the next half hour easily and casually about a very troubling subject. True, I do have some experience already with this kid. We've talked a little before, usually after he's had an explosive episode and I'm there to remind him he's in control of his emotions and actions despite what his mind tells him. But there was no indication he was feeling anxious, or no more so than usual, but he was underneath his stoic exterior. He was experiencing an anniversary of an especially traumatic event and admitted blaming himself for it happening. I explained to him, no matter what he'd been told or what he felt, he was not responsible for what happened (he was a victim of this trauma, not an actor in it) and if he wanted some sense of closure from it. He said he did but didn't think he'd experience it. We talked more and he confessed he didn't feel comfortable talking with his therapist about what he wanted from him, especially relating to his emotions about the trauma. I asked if he wanted the opportunity to talk with me before his next appointment (which is today) and he said, yes, and could I come in with him to the appointment? I said I would, if it was all right with his therapist.

The only reason he was comfortable, I think, approaching me in the first place to unburden himself and ask for help (he isn't someone with a reputation for nuance until after he's become violent and then it's only to say he'd wanted help before), is because I'm a known quantity to him, a relaxed resource he's come to see at about the same time every week, doing about the same things for about the same length of time, and not being hurried or impatient in them. I see myself as resting against a wall (sometimes literally) until I'm needed. I am a fire extinguisher.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

rethinking church

This past Sunday, for my solstice service, I had the largest audience at both boys' and girls' facilities that I've had at either before--seven at each--but I'm troubled. Two of the boys were--well, staff called them disrespectful, but I think it was more like I wasn't giving them what they expected or wanted. I'm not sure they could have articulated what either was, although both made references to "real church" and said things that smacked of traditional black worship: "Can the congregation give me an amen?" "I feel the spirit coming into me. I gotta preach." I don't think either wanted a more traditional worship service, although one asked me point-blank, "Why aren't you standing up and yelling?" becuase neither was a churchgoer in their lives outside, but that they were reacting to uncertainty by reaching for elements they had experienced.

The girls were more respectful, by which I mean more polite, but they were coloring or scribbling and occasionally chatting quietly to one another throughout the service, which wasn't distracting but did get me wondering what they were getting from those activities they were not getting from the service. (Possible answer for both: participation?) What this experience has led me to is a realization that my services need a major restructuring.

I've already reduced my order to one that is as listener-friendly and participatory as I thought necessary, but one that remains recognizable as a contemporary Christian or UU service: welcome, candle lighting, hymn, reading, message, silence for prayer or meditation, benediction (with the replacement of conversation for other prayers or hymns). On its own without dialogue the service lasts about twenty minutes, which is probably as long as I can expect any of them to sit as possible. But my point is it remains recognizable, which may be both a strength and a failure.

I've often advocated for a radical restructuring of service elements, and even with all my study and contemplation I still have a hard time imagining what that would look like without those basic elements. I've thought about replacing the message or the hymn or both with a mashup like I've done in the past, but I'm not entirely convinced it's worth the effort (although I already spend a couple hours writing my message and searching for an appropriate song and reading, so I don't think I'd be losing anything). But I'm also loathe to make another element that's just like watching TV. True, I can still have dialogue, and there would be more time for it if I reduced both the reading and message to a single three to four minute song. And true, my reading of Steven Johnson would suggest that my reaction against it being "just like watching TV" is heavily influenced by the culture and the generation I grew up in, and may not take their experiences with learning into account. After all, when I teach I use visuals to make a point or an idea better understood. Why should I assume that spiritual ideas can only be understood through words?

Monday, June 16, 2014

what if I gave a sermon and nobody came?

A self-important minister got up one Sunday morning to discover that about six feet of snow had been dumped overnight on the town. He didn't have much trouble getting to church, of course, living in the attached parsonage, so he hurried over to prepare for the morning service. It was about fifteen minutes before service began and he looked out at the pews. There was only one person sitting there: Fred, one of those bachelor farmers of the area, and still bundled up from milking his herd.

The minister dawdled around in the back rooms until it was five minutes to service and then looked out again. Fred was still the only one sitting in the pews. No one else being there to do it, at ten o'clock the minister himself pressed the button that rang the bells in the steeple. They rang a little muffled but enough to be heard. A minute after ten he looked out. Still just Fred. At quarter past ten he looked out again. Just Fred.

Finally, at ten-thirty the minister stepped out from the back rooms and walked to the pulpit and said, "Listen, Fred, as you're the only one here, I suppose we ought to just cancel today's service."

Fred pulled down his muffler. He said, "Parson, when I call in my cows and only one shows up, I still milk her."

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's dreaded the empty church on a Sunday. A couple Sundays ago just such a thing happened which, if I was doing a sermon on it, I'd title "What if I gave a service and nobody came?"

For the past month I've been working at a pair of facilities for at-risk and troubled teenagers, one for boys and the other for girls. The boys' facility, with four units, is on the far end of the rim to the northwest of us; it takes me an hour and a half to drive there. The girls' facility, with two units, is a half hour drive to the southeast. I do the boys' service at four and the girls' at six.

As it turned out, the reason no one showed at the boys' facility was a miscommunication in the daily calendar for the units. But the lack of attendants got me thinking. I give a pared-down service, one heavy on participation and conversation, since each service is likely to trigger some response on their part. This below, for example, is the order of service for that day's chapel.

Sunday June 8, 2014
Joys and Concerns
Reading: A Fable by Rumi
Song: “What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye
Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today - Ya

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going on
Ya, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Father, father, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what's going on
Ya, what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on - Uh
Right on baby
Right on baby
Minute of Reflection or Prayer (Music by Henry Saimo)
Congregation Dialogue
Benediction: Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. Deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.
Our altar is a simple affair. I cut some flowers growing around my house or on the nearby trail and put them in a glass vase, then set a small, flickering LED candle behind it. This is the message I wrote that was undelivered. It's about five minutes to deliver.
For people my age—for many of you I’m talking about your grandparents and for some of you I’m talking about your parents—1971, the year this album came out, is an important period in American history. All sorts of things were happening that no one had experienced before, much of it pretty bad. You hear some of it reported in the song. “Too many of you dying.” “Picket lines and picket signs.” In 1971, the US was years-deep into an unpopular war in Vietnam that would last another four years before the US declared itself spent and got out. The year before members of the Ohio National Guard at a college called Kent State opened fire on students protesting that war, killing four students. This wasn’t the first time American authorities had killed otherwise peacefully protesting civilians—the previous decade had seen many, many violent responses to demonstrations against the war or in favor of civil rights for blacks or better conditions for people in poverty. And the year after a burglary at a hotel called the Watergate in Washington, DC, would lead to the embarrassing resignation of President Richard Nixon and a cynical, distrusting view of government and politicians that, if anything, has only gotten worse in the following decades.
Everywhere kids like me turned, it seemed there was little point to growing up because society was shredding. Families were breaking apart, drug use was skyrocketing, cancer rates were spreading, as were crime rates and unemployment rates. Outside, the way we’d learned the country was a place of eternal beauty and resources was having the lie put to it. Our rivers and oceans were being polluted by industries that found it easier to dump poisons into the water than to pay for proper disposal, killing off fish by the millions. The fish not killed made it onto peoples’ plates, poisoning us. The pesticides intended to help farmers win the battle against harmful insects and agricultural diseases were also killing the birds that ate infected worms and pets that ate the birds or rolled on their carcasses, and the herbicides we relied on to keep corn and wheat and apples healthy were killing our lawns and fields and burning trees from the inside out.
Something we hope for as humans is that things that are bad will eventually get better. Have things improved in forty-one years? It’s hard to tell, sometimes. Late last month a young troubled man not much older than you posted a very angry document on the Internet blaming women for his problems and then went out to shoot several people, eventually killing nearly 10, including himself. America is still fighting two wars, one of which has lasted longer than all other wars we’ve ever fought. Last week was the 25th anniversary of events in China’s Tiananmen Square where the military suppressed a student-led demonstration so forcefully that at least hundreds, and maybe thousands, of people died. We argue whether the world’s climate is changing for the worse and whether people are responsible for it. Our reserves of coal and oil are rapidly depleting and some scientists say will disappear in the next 20 or 30 years and the companies that make money from coal and oil discourage development of other resources. Little is being done to change these circumstances, and the next generation, which is you, is being left to either come up with a solution or learn to live with the consequences.
This is an important weekend celebrated by two faiths, called Shavuot by Jews and Pentecost by Christians. Both celebrate the same thing: a time when god gave them the means by which they could live in the world they found themselves in. Jews celebrate the day Moses came down from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the holy laws that explain in short form how by not killing or stealing you can live a righteous life, and Christians celebrate the emergence of the Holy Spirit among them, helping them see through the minor differences between them like language or the way they look to see each person’s inner Christ.
How do we live rightfully in a world where people are killed indiscriminately by wars or new diseases or angry people with guns, where because of greed the world changes before our eyes while the people responsible for the changes deny it, where jobs and careers are disappearing and the ones that remain pay so much less than the ones they replace that it’s hard to live at all on what they pay? Jews say the answer is to do justice, to be merciful, and walk humbly with God. Christians say it is to love God with your heart and soul and love other people as much as you love yourself. Those are both very good answers. It’s hard, though, to understand how to do that on a daily basis.
But make no mistake, there are very good things happening in the world too.  People are being born and falling in love and taking care of one another all the time, and just to make it personal and specific, between Bar None and Avanti there were four successful discharges just this last week. People in treatment are getting better and you know some of them. Good things happen all the time all around us, often in very small, very personal ways. In the midst of the painful stuff happening in the world, how do we keep from forgetting the good stuff?
It is, I hope, a teen-friendly and especially fidgety teen-friendly type of service. While they're very curious about traditional religion and ask questions about it all the time, they're also distrustful of traditional answers, traditional ceremonies, church, or anything sounding like piety.
But here is what I got to thinking about. After about twenty minutes, when I realized no one was coming, I started cleaning up around the old chapel where I hold services. I looked out at the late spring afternoon and saw boys canoeing, fishing, playing frisbee, and just walking around. If I were them I wouldn't want to spend a beautiful day in Minnesota indoors, either. I started toying with the idea of holding chapel on a weekday evening, at least during the summer and fall months, when there's more to do on the weekend. Another idea playing around my brain is taking chapel to them. One of the arguments for holding services in the chapel, besides the rather nice rustic charm of the old spare building, is that it gets the boys off the unit for an hour. But when I go to the units to hold groups I have much better attendance that I suspect is both from nearness and from interest in what those who don't start out with us hear from their rooms. It may be, too, that my service format, already scaled-down to take from twenty to forty-five minutes, depending on their interest in talking, needs even further paring. I'm open to doing that if it means greater participation.
And it may be, too, that the idea of chapel is so foreign and even repellent to these kids, who may have been forced to attend their parents' churches in the past, that there is no amount of change in how it's done or on what it focuses that can get them past that resistance. From a purely mercenary perspective that's not an issue for me: I'm paid for having been there whether anyone attends or not. But I'd rather think I am accomplishing something.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

who do I resemble?

I'd gotten this idea from a blog post elsewhere and was intrigued by its implications. Except that, instead of using fictional characters, which are, after all, static personalities, I'm using real people with all their attendent complications.

So, what clergyperson do I most resemble?

Religious person I most physically resemble:

Religious person whose impact I'm most like to resemble:
I'll have more, I'm sure, to say about this in the near future, but for now I'm just getting back into the habit of blogging prior to starting my workday.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

my truth

I've begun a new position as the spiritual coordinator (read: chaplain) at a pair of boys' and girls' residential treatment facilities and next Sunday I hope to initiate my first chapel service for them. I don't know if I'll be able to read the following message, but after several weeks of trainings, meetings, observations, and time spent with the kids, I've been moved to write this as the overriding message I want my ministry to reflect.

            Ten years ago I was teaching college English at prisons in Minnesota. I really like doing that. It was important work. During break one night an inmate came up and told me he wanted me to know what he’d done to be sentenced.

            Now, I don’t know if it’s as important a thing here as it is in prison, but you don’t ask someone what he or she has done in prison. It’s a private, personal secret in a very public place, People jealously guard it and sometimes it’s literally dangerous for other people to know how you broke the law.

            So when this guy said he wanted to tell me what he’d done I said, “I’d rather you didn’t.” He asked, “why not?” and I said, “right now I’m your teacher and you’re my student and I like you. But if I find out what you did I might not like you so much anymore.”

            But he took the chance and told me. And although it was something nasty, I still like him for who he was. It doesn’t always work out like that but sometimes, when you’re lucky, it does.

            I know why you’ve come to chapel, what it is you want. In addition to a break in your day, you want the answers. You want someone to tell you what they are, about god and the afterlife and heaven and hell. Most of all, you want someone to tell you it’s all worth it.

            I’m here to tell you the not-so-good news but it’s the truth. I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t think anyone knows. Some people come to what they think are the answers for everyone but at best they’re just the answers for them.

            That’s not to say you won’t find answers. For some of you, you might find answers in the Bible or the Koran or the Buddhist Sutras. And those are legitimate answers but they’ll be your answers and nobody else’s and you’ll only find them after you’ve looked a long time and really hard at them.

            You want to know what the secret is and that all the crap you’ve gone through, all the worst stuff you’ve done and had done to you, is worth it. That at the end of the day the good outweighs the bad and you are happy and satisfied and the world is smiles and rainbows. That might be the case. It’s not the case for me or most of the people I know. The world is sometimes a beautiful place and sometimes it’s hellish. Most of the time it’s a balance between the two. I hate to be the one to tell you it never really does get better or easier. Not in the way you want it to: you find the pill or the therapy or make the breakthrough that makes that possible. I used to look for those and it might work for a little while. But eventually you see through that and realize it wasn’t the real answer you wanted.

Life is hard. Maybe it’s meant to be. Maybe it’s better that it’s harder for some of us than for others. I can’t promise you it won’t get harder. You’ll make breakthroughs and you’ll backslide, sometimes worse than before. That’s how life is. Someone once said the only constant is change. A Greek philosopher named Heraclitus famously said you can’t step in the same river twice. The truth is that that’s the truth. You might feel crappy as all hell today and tonight feel like yours is the best life in the world. And tomorrow you might feel exactly the opposite. I can’t promise that won’t happen all your life.

            But I can promise you one thing. This is unchanging, no matter how much you search, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how many dead ends you end up following, no matter how many times you scream and fight and curse god and those around you. There will always be someone who will help you. Call it god, call it reality, call it staff, call it the divine in other people, but there will always be people who are willing to be with you. To explain things, to tell you what you might find ahead, to comfort you and remind you that, while the bad things you’ve gone through may or may not be worth it, you are worth it. This is my truth, my good news. No matter how you feel, no matter what anyone says or how the world treats you, you are worth it.