How To Be Good: Forgiving and Unforgiving

I’m becoming less forgiving and less tolerant.

It’s not a pleasant development, but this is a time of injury. No matter how skilled the healer, some wounds fester.

I would love to tell you that we can forgive all those who wrong us. I would love to tell myself that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. A comforting lie is a lie nonetheless, so instead I bring a not-entirely-bitter truth.

Every day, unforgivable things happen all around us. Every day, people forgive them or unforgive them. Sometimes they forgive the unforgivable. Sometimes they are right to do so, sometimes not. Sometimes people break each other over trivia.

This election has been particularly bitter. The stakes were higher than in recent memory. One of the candidates ran as a strongman rather than a politician and that candidate won. History teaches us to avoid what we now have rubbed in our faces.

Many people helped cause this problem.

Some of them couldn’t have known any better. Some of them should have. Some of them knew better but should have done better. Some of them were careless. Some of them didn’t care. Some of them are bad people doing bad things on purpose.

Who do we forgive? There’s no question there’ll have to be forgiveness going on. Too many decent people made bad choices for us to just cut them off. Even if it were practical, it would be wrong.

This is going to be a hard question for people to face. I have my own lines drawn, but I wouldn’t recommend copying my work. My life has been too particular for my pattern to fit your equally particular life. But I do have one thought.

So many people I know have separated themselves from their families of birth. One would hope that would be an unbreakable bond. A bond one would not want to break. And yet for so many people, the bondage of such intimate ties is unbearable. Something has gone wrong where things are supposed to be right. Sometimes it’s abuse, whether physical or mental. Sometimes it’s lack of acceptance. It’s always someone’s human folly or flaw, nestled like a knife against your most personal, tenderest places.

So people choose to break such bonds. It’s not a choice to wish on someone. Neither is it a choice to second-guess.

As it is in miniature in the family, so it is in the large in society. The fundamental human bonds that make it possible for us to live together and sometimes find a little comfort and joy in doing so, those same bonds can be turned toxic and demand to be destroyed. From a trusted loved one or a dear friend to a total stranger in your face on Facebook, sometimes the only decent and humane thing to do is to cut a tie and walk away and not look back.

So this is the one thing I have to guide you in forgiving and unforgiving:

If a total stranger takes a political action which will endanger your life, restrict your freedom, does something so vile, so awful, so unbearable that you do not find forgiveness in your heart for it,

Think of your dearest relative, your closest friend, your sweetest partner. Think of that person doing the thing you cannot decide whether to forgive. Think of that person doing to you what you cannot bear forgiving,

And if you would forgive your dearest for such a sin, then I say you should forgive a casual acquaintance, a total stranger, an annoying co-worker, whoever else might commit that sin against you, for that particular sin.

That works both ways. If someone otherwise unknown to you says or does a thing you find unforgivable, that is a thing you must find unforgivable in your loved ones.

I didn’t promise much. What I do have for you, I will stand on.

There is certainly power to be found in just, righteous anger. You should seize that power when it comes to you. You should wield it for good. Seeking it out, though, is asking for trouble, a fool’s game at best and the road to hell at worst.

I assure you, even if things go relatively well the next few years, you will have endless reasons to be angry, crimes and cowardices not to forgive. You may have reason soon enough to hate. There’s no reason to hurry and every reason to wait.

There’s a certain symmetry in anger, an almost balance that instead escalates anger and conflict. If you can’t control your anger, if it uses you instead of you using it, then it stops being helpful and starts becoming its own problem. The chances are good that it will be through with you before you are through with it.

If we are to care at least somewhat for every human being, then we have to consider doing so fairly, then in matters concerning society or humanity or any necessary complete idea made flesh, we have to think of all people simply as fellow human beings first.

So forgive the forgivable things and hope the unforgivable people can redeem themselves. That’s generous enough to everyone.

How To Be Good: An Introduction

In troubled times, it’s often good to get back to the basics.

These are the sorts of troubled times which I dreamed of, as a foolish and romantic child. Times in history when things were uncertain and exciting and up in the air and one well-timed move might bring the whole circus down.

That’s an easy dream to get behind until you learn intimately just how hard it is to build anything, any damn thing at all.

But we learn things, even in the playgrounds of our dreams, about how to live, and the fantasies of my youth might have taught me a bit after all, especially since I fed them as much history as I could cram in with the stories and songs.

So I’ve been reading various stories, each one true in at least some senses, about people in difficult times and hearing what they are telling us, over the distance of culture and time, over the border of myth and fiction and even history.

“The problem is always how to live in a decadent society.” Not entirely true, because sometimes the decadent society can’t be lived in. Then what? Now, surviving a decadent society is a different matter. That’s a thing to learn.

So I have just a few thoughts worth sharing about how to be good in a bad time.

UU 102: “A conversation begins with a lie…”

Of all the dangers I ever wondered about in the marriage equality movement, it was the possibility that the GLBTQ community would collude in the silencing of these queer notions of love and desire.   When I used to read those alarmist articles about queers wanting to change marriage, and straight (and also gay) liberals defending our upstanding intent to slip unassuming into marriage as-is, I used to think – No.  We do want to change marriage.  I hope we do. 

Me, too, friend. Me, too.

Dear American Family Association, Please add us to your “Bigotry Map”

Dear American Family Association,

I am pleased to see that you have created a “bigotry map”. For some time, I’ve wanted a comprehensive list of those against whom you are bigoted. Your map is even better than a list! Well done! I know people in both the groups in Little Rock who you have mapped. Thank you for recognizing their virtues.

However, you have also greatly offended me. My church is not on your Wall of Honor. What do you have against us?|

Please add us to your map immediately. Failing to do so may result in my taking legal action on my own behalf. Here is the information you need to correctly recognize us:

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock
1818 Reservoir Road
Little Rock, Arkansaw 72205

You can spot us by the rainbow banner out front.

Sincerely yours,

Johnnie B. Zip

P.S. I am unable to embed your map here on my blog. Your help in doing so would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

UU 102: My one wish for today, the second anniversary of the Newtown Shooting

I wish we Unitarian Universalists were more willing to simply let our hearts break when they ought to break:

(The language gets worse, so turn the sound down now if need be. I expect I’ll turn autoplay off tomorrow, but today it stays.)

I remember the three steps in which the Newtown shooting became terribly real to me. The first was thinking, “Sandy Hook? Isn’t that where Scooter was the caretaker for his step-grandfather?” You Little Rock folks know who Scooter is.

The second step was reading my friend from  Fayetteville, Geri, had moved to Sandy Hook–did I remember that she’d moved there? I sure won’t ever forget it–and that her son was right down the hall from the killings.

Then step three was a one-word post on Facebook from Lee Tomboulian–“No”–at the news that the daughter of someone in his circle of New York City jazz musicians was killed, and at that point, it all got very intimately inside my heart and head real.

We intellectualize when, and what, we should feel. How many victims–twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight? Good question. Here’s an answer: Who cares? Isn’t this terrible enough without quibbling over the details? Can’t you just let your heart break?

I’ve tried since then to read everything her parents put on Facebook about Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, to let it sink in and try to imagining what this must be like for them and their son, and to repost it with “Never Forget”.

I missed some, but I’ve tried, and now here is a bit of what her mother had to say for this anniversary:

I remember my six year old’s last words: “There’s something for you under my tree!” This is what she told the bus driver in the last moments before her death. The final words of a first grader. . . .

Sweet Caramel Princess,

Today I feel like I have an apple stuck in my throat. I am having trouble breathing as the memories come in like a flood. Two years ago we were waking up on a day like today to a nightmare that has still not ended. Your daddy went to take out the trash and there were reporters lurking in the bushes. Isaiah was huddled in his bed with a far away, glazed look in his eyes unable to get warm. I was unable to feel my arms or legs. You were not in your bed. The sound of the helicopters above made our small house shake and made conversation impossible.

The lump. The lump in my throat is knowing I can only have you as an angel when I just want you in my lap…

…We would trade everything to have you back. Even for ten seconds. I would give my all to kiss that sweet spot under your neck. . . .

I take comfort in the things we taught you in the short years we had you. Your life was well lived. You knew how to love. You knew how to live. I am so glad we let you make messes. I am so glad we gave you lots of hugs and kisses. You indeed lived a Beautiful Life . . .


Your Apricot Mami

Ana Grace loved Jesus, people and food. She also loved dancing, music and fun. She loved Canada, CT and Puerto Rico. She loved the sun. She was a real girl who was really murdered on December 14th, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

That it was necessary to say “a real girl who was really murdered” is  disturbing. A mutual friend of mine and Geri’s, a nice guy despite being around the bend on conspiracy theories, told her the killings were a hoax. His “evidence” trumped her and her son’s eyewitness.

Skepticism is so valuable, valuable in particular when it is turned on itself. Rigorous self-honesty and constant critical thought can help you know where you embraced logic yet abandoned reason, where your skepticism became the worst form of gullibility.

When UU theologians refer to the “idolatry of reason” (a term I so dislike), this is typically all or part of what they’re talking about.

Emotion is sometimes dangerous when it disregards reason, but reason sometimes goes off the rails when it disregards emotion. The gut check of conscience can solve ethical problems our conscious mind evades or ignores or refuses to confront.

Sometimes that refusal to confront reality is based in pain or fear. UU theologian Sharon Welch put me onto the wonderful fiction of Toni Cade Bambara. I can do no better than to quote them:

Minnie Ransom [a character in Bambara’s The Salt-Eaters] sees such an avoidance of pain frequently in her work at the infirmary. She tells of an incident in which a woman came to the infirmary “clawing at her hair, wailing to beat the band, asking for some pills. Wanted a pill because she was in pain, felt bad, wanted to feel good.” The woman was overcome with pain because her mother had died. Minnie was appalled: “Her mama died, she’s supposed to feel bad. . . . Bless her heart, just a babe of the times. Wants to be smiling and feeling good all the time. Smooth sailing as they lower the mama into the ground.”

Which is not that far from Mike Cooley’s vision of the fundamentalist endgame:

So be it if they come to find out feeling good’s
as easy as denying that there’s day or night at all
til what it takes to feel a thing seems so far out of reach
they just claw their skin and grind their teeth and bawl

But I didn’t have these resources–Cooley’s song, Bambara’s novel, Welch’s theology–two years ago. I had to push through a day of grieving people everywhere with what I had at hand. I mean, there was at least one grieving person inside me. It felt like more.

That night, Patterson Hood and the Downtown Rumblers were closing out a tour. As a courtesy to fans who can’t attend, they let a show taper stream his signal on the internet so those of us at home could listen along. It was a lovely, heartfelt performance.

I know the song “A World of Hurt” very well and have been comforted by it on more than one hard occasion. When that intro started, I knew that what had to come that night finally was coming and that I was going to cry like a baby. It was exactly what I needed.

I cried all through writing this, too, through listening to that performance a few times, through writing about it, through thinking back on that dreadful day, through thinking about what the future might bring–

–and right on cue, there’s my daughter, feeling bad, so I must pause and take her temperature–

–and she’s okay–

–and while I remain ultimately optimistic, I’m was pretty sure then and just as sure now the crying isn’t over, by a long shot.

So what do we have, anyway? Three chords and the truth? A majority of people in a society run by a majority of money?

We have a lot, and one thing is the ability of art to bring us through life.

What Patterson Hood did for that crowd in Nashville–and for all of us who were connected to them that night, and for all of us who are connected to that performance right now, here in this age of local loneliness and world-wide connectivity–is sacred work. You don’t have to believe in the supernatural–I don’t–to believe in the sacred. Neither do you have to believe the people who do sacred work are anything more than ordinary human beings. Talented folks, or brave folks, or determined folks, beautiful soulful folks who do The Work.

What we do is who we are.

When anyone works with the raw material of people’s hearts and minds and lives, and transforms crushing grief, perhaps, by filtering it through persistent joy and turns it into something both beautiful and bearable, a bandage worn over a wound like a badge of honor.

And that is sacred work. No matter how it’s done, no matter what the intent, no matter how banal or strange or boring or downright freaky the method. Method just doesn’t matter. What counts is lives lifted up and hours filled with mercy, beauty, and joy.

UU 102: My method

I thought it would be useful to explain what I understand (or think I do) which underlies my UU 102 effort, so:

  • Regardless of the intentions of those concerned, the 1961 merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists produced the possibility of a new religion. We are living out that possibility right now. The future is unwritten.
  • By deferring rather than engaging theological differences, a giant empty space was left where a religion usually has a theology. While we have continuities both organic and artificial with the past, that negative space defined us.
  • That space was left empty, open, and inviting just as massive change occurred in the world. Change sought empty space and filled it with practice. While ideas and theories were present, it was peoples’ actions that mattered most.
  • We now face the task, should we decide to accept it, to find or build a theology out of and among our current practices. We have the sources and the norms to do so, and enough practice to make respectable first runs at saying what it all means.

So I am looking among people’s practices and holding up the items which seem to me to face our common future. While it may not be necessary to have some common theology, I believe it is both possible and desirable to have one.