Tuesday, February 25, 2014

do we want to be gated?

As America grows more liberal, conservatives are retreating into a variety of isolated subcultures and, when necessary, making or manipulating law to insulate them from contact with the masses. Like a cultural manifestation of Going Galt. Welcome to white America’s waiver society.

For years I've noticed, on the periphery, the carving out of small enclaves of privilege and paid-for security on the margins of big cities and thought it only the backlash of a wealthy, formerly dominent class. Sort of reverse Bantustans. But this essay also suggests the attempt to inoculate some groups from the rule of social laws they're increasingly uncomfortable with. As the author points out, it's of a piece with stand-your-ground laws and Affordable Care Act opt-outs, as well as proliferation of members-only communities where private security services operate as if they're in a Green Zone. Such a development should be offensive in America. We justifiably pride ourselves on everyone being equal before the law, and while that's not always true, and maybe never has been, it's an ideal worth seeking. "I want my country back"? It's debatable it was ever yours to begin with, but beyond that it excluded far, far too many people from its largesse. We are better than that. Good pride, like good religion, should be inclusive.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

an underappreciated breakup album

Yesterday I was driving to an appointment and had reached satiation with songs on the radio, so I grabbed the top CD off a stack I keep in my car for just such emergencies. As it happened it was Til Tuesday's final 1988 album Everything's Different Now. Most of the songs chronicle Aimee Mann's breakup with Jules Shear.

I was instantly transported to that period when it seemed all my relationships were, at best, practice at what not to do to be in a relationship. The late 80s was an especially rich sexual time for me when I experienced as much fucking as I could stand, and then more. Men and women were completely open to me, so much so I actually turned some interested parties down, which for a formerly fat kid with a complex was something I never thought I'd do.

But I tried steering some of those short-term escapades into more permanent waters and one of them was something I called The Great Marybeth Romance. Marybeth was much younger than me, 18 to my 27 (ironically, I think, for as much overthinking as I engaged in about the dicrepancy between our ages--and she wasn't even the partner with whom I had greatest age difference--I ended up marrying a woman born the same year as Marybeth and who keeps me honest [whether I want to be or not]), and our coupling was the result of sharing a bed on a weekend New England sojourn to hike the snow-covered trails with another couple.

I don't remember when I first heard music from the Til Tuesday album or where I acquired it, but when Marybeth and I inevitably crashed and burned a month or so later, I played the hell out of the tape. True, some of the songs were too specific to Mann's experience for me ("J for Jules," "Limits to Love," "Long Gone (Buddy)"), but I realized yesterday how much I had taken in all those decades ago. I could sing "Everything's Different Now," "Why Must I," "The Other End of the Telescope," and "Rip in Heaven" word for word, matching Mann's voice inflection for inflection, pause for pause.

The most deliciously painful is "(Beleived You Were) Lucky" whose message I imagined addressed to Marybeth as she sat quietly in a dark room, fantasizing (so I imagined) all the things we could have been and that (for reasons I genuinely can't remember but may have been partly because of our ages) we could never be, a heartfelt and disjointed stream-of-consciousness letter she was writing me abandoned at her feet. (And the album version has the gut-wrenching shift in one word so Mann sings how life "would be fucking great.") Two years later, enough time having gone by to allow a one-night reconciliation, the mix-tape I gave her (foolish romantics still did things like that then) did not include the song, however.

The phrase "deliciously painful" is accurate as I think anyone experienced in this can attest. Even now, there is a luscious hurt composed of equal parts shame, anxiety, pride, wish-fulfillment, and any number of other terms you'd like to add that comes bubbling up at the confluence of such a song and such memories. Some people never have that experience and I simultaneously envy and pity them. It is one of those tightly-held, jealously-guarded, queasy emotions some of us have access to and, for the lucky ones, delight in. For us, the emotion of the breakup is our best memory.

Friday, February 14, 2014

this is what valentine's day means to me

My wife and I used to keep track of our years the same way most people do--by holidays and anniversaries and birthdays, and by the gifts we'd gotten for each other. But in the past few years, between the financial hits we've taken and the lessening of whatever capitalist sense we may begun with, important times have come instead to be tracked by the animals we took in.

Thus, my birthday in May is when we took in Beans; late summer is when we allowed Chicklet to move in. Easter is when Nilla came to live with us, and Boxing Day is the day she drove to the southern rim of the Cities to keep Mango from being euthanized. Late January, perhaps MLK Day, is Pappy's anniversary of taking up residence in our our comfy lives; and this year my birthday came around full circle to be the date Taffy became our baby. Similarly, Jesse came to us at Thanksgiving and Magellan was taken in near Father's Day. I could locate all the other animals we've ever taken in to some other day celebrated differently by other people.

Except for the cats and Beans, all of these beasts were intended to be short-term occupants. Now Olga has come to live with us, hopefully for only a week, on the night before Valentine's Day, prior to going on to live with another family. As much as our ministries have come to be for other people outside our home, inside it is a ministry of beasts. We see ourselves as a couple meant to either save an animal from death or provide it with as good a death as possible. As I have said for our two decades together, we don't get a happily-ever-after; for some animals, we are the happily-ever-after.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

UUs have a thinking problem


A Message Delivered to the

Bismarck Mandan UU Fellowship and Church

On February 9, 2014


            I hate this place.

            Understand, I’m not talking about this fellowship, to which you’ve so kindly invited me to return, or Bismarck, or even North Dakota. By “this place” I mean the Midwestern midwinter.

Those are the words I greet almost every day with at this time of year.  I ask myself constantly, what am I doing here?  It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s smelly.  Recently, an illustration appeared on Facebook in which a bundled up child is saying, “The wind hurts my face. Why do I live somewhere the wind hurts my face?” When the sun does shine, it’s almost blinding, and it’s a sour sun since if I go by how brightly it shines and how warm it feels to sit in the window and let it beat down on me, and then I go outside, I’ll be tricked into stepping out and freezing portions of my anatomy I’d prefer not to have frozen.

            I’m talking about my fingertips. 

            What am I doing here?  What are we doing here?  People were not intended to live under these conditions.  Look at us—we don’t have fur or feathers to puff up.  We are a species meant to be basking in the sun day after day, rising only to get another mango from the tree or another pina colada from the cooler.  It’s been said UUs are god’s frozen people, but this is overdoing it.  This place is simply too cold.  If I believed in hell, I’d say this was it. 

            Not all Christian traditions describe Hell as a hot place, by the way.  In Dante, hell’s concentric circles lead to the figure of Satan at the exact center, stuck in a crucible of ice, and the closer one gets to him the colder it is.  I would say we’re in about the third ring. 

            Many people ask why UUs don’t meet during the summer. It gives the devil time to catch up.  Alternatively, it may be Unitarian Universalists are the only ones god trusts enough to be out of sight for a while. 

            We are guilty, I suppose, of not taking hell or punishment seriously. Three clergymen were bathing in the lake of fire and one turned to the others and said, “Well, I guess I’m here because I was a Baptist minister and although I was married I guess I just liked the ladies a little more than I should have.”  The second said, “I understand.  I was a rabbi and even though it’s against the kosher law, there’s nothing I loved more than a ham sandwich.”  The third clergyman just glared at them and said nothing.  They said, “Come on, we were honest with you, tell us why you’re here.”  But he just glared at them.  They kept at him until he sputtered, “I’m a Universalist minister, this place is not hot, and I am not here.”

            It’s been said that after we die we’ll find ourselves on a road, a new spiritual journey, that comes to a fork. At the fork there are two signs, one saying “This way to Heaven,” and the other saying, “This way to arguing about Heaven.” And all the UUs are going down the latter road. Overthinking is a problem we’re often accused of and I guess it’s something we give into often.  It can be a serious UU problem.  You might have a thinking problem if you crave at least three thinks a day.  Or if your thinking begins earlier in the day than it used to.  Or if you think at a specific time each day.  Or if you’ve blacked out as a result of thinking.  Or if your thinking caused you to do something that you later realized was incredibly stupid.  Of course, just because you don’t think every day doesn’t mean you don’t have a thinking problem.  Many problem thinkers go for days or weeks without thinking, only to eventually find themselves unable to keep from going on that inevitable three or four day thinking binge.

            Unitarian Universalism is where all your answers are questioned. We walk hand-in-hand which is why we don’t often see eye-to-eye. One fellow I know, a hellfire and brimstone fundamentalist of the old school said to me once, “I hear you folks let in a lot of weirdoes. Pagans, atheists, the unchurched…” I said, “That’s true. We even let in Christians. We’re very open-minded.” I used to teach in prison and one of my students was imprisoned in Illinois where he heard about this one con on death row.  It was coming up on the poor guy’s sentence date and the warden came in and said to him, “Son, you’re going to be heading homeward soon.”  The con says, “Yes, warden, I suppose.”  And the warden says, “Well, most fellows are comforted knowing what it is they’re heading into.  Would you like me to ask the chaplain to come by the day before and give you a little counseling?”  The con says, “Well, warden, that’s awful kind of you, but it wouldn’t be of much use to me.  I was raised Unitarian.”  The warden isn’t deterred by that, he asked, “Well, would you like me to ask the math teacher to come by then?”

            We are a contentious people. A friend of mine, a rabbi, told me once, “You know, we Jews are pretty argumentative. You’ve got two Jews, you’ve got three opinions.” And I said, “How do you get such unanimity?” There are things we’ll agree on. In this town I used to live in, a fire broke out on Church row. The priest ran into the sacristy and brought out the communion wafers and wine. The rabbi ran into the synagogue and ran back out with the Ark of the Torah. The UU Board ran into the flames, held a discussion group about what should be saved, and came back out carrying the conference table. The minister had already saved the Holy Book, Roberts’ Rules of Order.

There’s a recorded incidence of Jesus and a proto-Unitarian Universalist meeting.  It runs something like this:  “Jesus said unto him, ‘Who is it that you say that I am?’  And the UU replied, ‘You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.’  And Jesus said, ‘Huh?’” Some scholars hold that Pontius Pilate was the first UU since he asked “What is Truth?”| and didn’t stay around to hear the answer.

            I recall being in second grade and we were asked to bring in something related to our spiritual tradition. The first kid got up and said, “This is a crucifix and I’m Catholic.” A girl stood up and said, “This is a Star of David. I’m a Jew.” The third kid stands up, says, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist and this is hotdish.” A UU is an atheist with children, after all. Or another way, a UU is a Quaker who can’t shut up.  Unlike Quaker meetings, which might last four or five hours with no one saying anything, UU meetings often have one person talking a long, long time, saying nothing, nobody listens, but everybody disagrees.  My mom, a staunch Seventh Day Adventist, walked with me into a church I was serving and she said, “Now isn’t that nice? There’s a woman in that pew on one knee with her head bent. And here you told me you don’t pray in this church.” I said, “Momn, she’s tying her shoe.” There are a number of us who take our Bible courses seriously, although we’re rarely looking for inspiration so much as loopholes. 

            Of course, there are differences we’d be foolish to deny. There was a little boy out on the steps of the Catholic Church with a big box and a sign saying “Catholic puppies looking for a good home.”  A few days later at the Methodist church there was the same little boy with the same box but a different sign.  This one said “Methodist puppies looking for a good home.”  A few days after that the same little boy was in front of the UU Fellowship with the same box, and this time the sign said “Unitarian Universalist puppies looking for a good home.”  I asked him, “I’ve seen you for days with these puppies.  Weren’t they Catholic and Methodist puppies before?”  And the little boy said, “Yes, but their eyes are open now.”

Which isn’t to say we don’t try to capitalize on those differences. An unchurched fellow, before he died, got a vague feeling he needed to join a church, just about any church, so he spent a day investigating different ones in town. He went to one and asked, “What church is this?” He was told it was a Catholic church. He asked, “Can I join?” He met with the priest who told him all about the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed and what he’d have to study, and then, to see how much the man might know, asked him, “Where was Jesus born?” The man said, “Pittsburgh.” The priest yelled, “Get out, you heathen!” So the man went to the next church and asked, “What church is this?” He was told it was Southern Baptist. He asked, “Can I join?” So he met with the preacher who told him he’d have to learn certain Bible verses and give up dancing and drinking and other sins, and then, to see what he was working with, asked the man, “Where was Jesus born?” The man, a little wary now, says, “Philadelphia?” The preacher yeslls, “Get out, you heathen!” So the fellow goes on to the last church on the block and asks what kind of church it is. He’s told, “This is a Unitarian Universalist church.” Man asks, “What do I have to give up or believe in to join?” He’s told, “You don’t have to do those things, you just sign this card and join a few committees.” The man says, “Then I’ll join! But listen, tell me, where was Jesus born.” He’s told, “Bethlehem.” The man says, “Dang, I knew it was somewhere in Pennsylvania!”

I had an argument with a friend in seminary who said, “Prove to me there is no God.” And I said, “You can’t prove something like that. That’s one of those things you have to take on faith.” This was after a batch of us were in trouble with the UUA in Boston after we’d gotten together a roaming group of UUs we based on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, except we knocked on people’s doors and asked them what they believed. This was unpopular as it had come to close to the one Unitarian Universalist miracle when someone in Texas saw Ralph Waldo Emerson’s face in his tortilla.

            The title of my message is “Cold Comfort.” You may know what that means. What it usually refers to is a result that’s of dubious comfort to someone dealing with a larger misery. Now it’s true that, given our presence in the more glacial climates, UUs have been referred to as the Frozen Chosen. So if you’ve wandered in here this morning to get out of the cold, first, you are welcome. But you may not be certain that you are a Unitarian Universalist, which of course means that you are. But if there are still some doubts, let’s go over our creed, as it were.

            We are an angry, friendly people.  If you’re not friendly, get the hell out. We’re a genuine people.  Even our phonies are real phonies. We’re absolutely sincere no matter how much we have to fake it. We aren’t quite sure how ambivalent we should be. But we are a tolerant people who hate intolerant people. We are optimists.  People who don’t look on the bright side depress us. We are much more non-competitive than other groups. Every UU is a feminist, so he’d better watch his language. Our organization is run democratically because the leadership insists on it. It’s true we have our critics.  They are paranoid. And we are promptly being late to services.

            I knew myself to be a Unitarian Universalist when I attended a retreat at a UU monastery where we were counseled to spend the weekend in absolute silence. Unless we thought of something really good. Of course we all believe in the four UU sacraments:  dedication, marriage, memorial service, and argument. 

            If you’re still not certain whether you’re a UU, this might help.  You might be a Unitarian Universalist if  you believe in the Ten Suggestions; if you’re unsure about god’s gender; if you’re unsure about god; if your holy trinity is “reduce, reuse, recycle;” if instead of a bible you bring your day planner to church; if you’ve ever found yourself in an argument over whether breast milk is vegan; if you’ve been invited to join a bible study and bring your own bible and pair of scissors; if your communion is coffee hour; if you believe in life before death; if you address prayers, “to whom this may concern;” if you dress for a formal evening in a little black dress, pearls, and Birkenstocks and your wife thinks you look terrific; if your idea of a Holy Day of Obligation is the Sunday it’s your turn to come early and make coffee; if you know at least two people upset that trees had to die so this fellowship could be built; if you gave up pot because you weren’t certain it was organic; and finally, if you receive email from committees you didn’t know you were on.

            Our comfort, cold as it may be, is that we’re a faith that refuses to take itself seriously.  How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb? UU’s aren’t afraid to sit in the dark.  How many UUs does it take to change a light bulb? The board at one of my churches came up with this answer:  “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb.  However, if in your own journey you have found light bulbs work for you, that’s fine.  You’re invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb to present next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service.  At that time we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, long-life, tinted, and three-way, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.” 

            Finally, it’s true that Unitarian Universalists are the world’s worst singers and there are two reasons for it. The first is that we’re reading ahead to see if we agree with the next line. The second is that if we don’t we’re changing the wording. This song is a result of the latter.

“I am the very model of a modern Unitarian

            I’m not a Cath’lic, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew or Presbyterian

            I know the world’s religions and can cite their roots historical

            From Moses up to Channing, all in order categorical

            I’m very well acquainted too with theories theological

            On existential questions I am almost wholly logical

            About most any question I am teeming with a lot of views

            With many fine ideas that should fill this church’s empty pews

            I quote from Freud and Jung and all the experts psychological

            I’m anti-nuke, I don’t pollute, I’m chastely ecological

            In short, in matters spiritual, ethical and material

            I am the very model of today’s religious liberal


            “I use the latest language, god is never Father or The Lord

            But ground of being, Source of Life, or almost any other word

            I never pray, I meditate, I’m leery about worshipping

            I serve on ten committees, none of which accomplish anything

            I give to worthy causes and I drive a gas-conserving car

            I have good UU principles, although I’m not sure what they are

            I’m open to opinions of profound and broad variety

            Unless they’re too conservative or smack of right’us piety

            I can formulate agendas and discuss em with the best of em

            In short, in matters spiritual, ethical, and material

            I am the very model of today’s religious liberal.”

Monday, February 3, 2014

johnny thunders died for your sins!

I'll be upfront and say that I'm jealous of this essay from the Orange County Weekly, both in its writing and its subject. I would prefer to be known as the punk pastor.

Having said that, I will admit the writing, by Nate Jackson, is done well. He allows enough of Joe Furey's (great name, that, for a punk) conflicted nature and the conflicts of interest between who he preaches to and the theology he preaches from to speak for itself. Furey is another in that line of preachers who have found a personal savior and want to make others aware that this same salvation can be theirs too. I can't fault anyone for wanting to spread the good news, as it were.

The story I would like to hear, however, is that of his wife, Therese. She has stayed with him nearly full-time from his early days as a catastrophically bad drug runner to his new days in the collar, raising three kids, often without help from him, and losing the eldest, her son, to an overdose. Her trust in life giving her what she needed and her ability to rise each morning is worth listening to and it's unfortunate that this isn't her story.

Which isn't to say Furey's story isn't interesting or worth telling. But it's another in a long spate, reaching back to Augustine, of libertines tamed by the Word and who make their life's work the spreading of that Word to the people they used to be. I can't complain about that, either, in that it's exactly what I want and hope to accomplish. As he comes across in the essay and in the single video I could find, he sounds like an amiable, avuncular, kind presence, and there's a lot to commend about that.

But what I'm uncomfortable with is the theology behind Furey's sermons. It's one that accepts what the Bible says as the end to all things, that there is a good and a bad and that if you would be one of God's People, you must change from one to the other. I don't credit that. It strikes me the Jesus of the Bible didn't seek out the homeless and addicts of his time because he wanted them to change in order to hear his teaching but because they were the ones most willing to hear and credit it. You were encouraged to change--"Go and sin no more"--but actual change didn't come from no longer drinking or hooking. Actual change was harder to accomplish (Matthew 19:22-4). Some people, of course, want to stop drinking or come off the road and they should be encouraged. But others don't. And they shouldn't be discouraged.

If there is a Good News to the messages of Jesus and Buddha and other teachers, it's that people  already have dignity, are of "God's People," through the virtue of being alive. They should be accepted as they are, unconditionally. End of message.