Category Archives: Unitarian Universalism

Sermon or Song? Kesha’s “Here Comes The Change”

In a sexist world, a woman who attempts an equal partnership with a man is likely to be shortchanged. Even a strong woman. Even a feminist woman. It can be done, but the odds are against her.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, like Nancy Pelosi, like Liz Warren, chose to partner with good men who put her career first. They were lucky to make a good choice young.

Kesha, like Tammy Wynette, like Tina Turner, chained young to shitty men who put her career last, chose to break those chains at great personal and artistic cost, for greater personal and artistic freedom.

So ends the lesson of today’s Sermon or Song?

Donald Trump Understands The Constitution. The 9/11 Killers Understood Airport Security.

It’s really this simple:

Building on fire

If you have a can of gasoline, you understand architecture just fine.

If you have an atomic bomb and the plane to carry it in, you understand Hiroshima well enough.

If you can aim a gun, you understand human anatomy splendidly. And if you aren’t any good with a pistol, there’s always a shotgun.

Complaining about Donald Trump being stupid and ignorant while he’s kicking your ass shows he understands playground rules better than you do. Who do you think is going to save you from the bully if there is no teacher on the scene?

I don’t care for horror movies. I don’t watch them. But I read about everything, and I know they teach this lesson:

When the call is coming from inside the house, no one can save you but yourself.

Don’t take that too literally. Horror movies set it up so that the heroine–that’s you, in the current horror show–are stripped of your friends, your family, all the cloud of support around you. That’s how moral fiction works, stripped to the essentials to teach a lesson.

In This Real Life? You have friends. You have family. You have the kindness of strangers. You have human solidarity, one of the three foundations of my own spirituality.  Thanks to all that, you have agency and power. You’d best use them.

Or lose them. It’s up to you. It’s always been you, my love.

Keep On Moving Forward

There are two separate steps in what we call “impeachment”.

The first is impeachment. It’s carried out by the House. That’s the investigation, the preparation of a case. It’s like a grand jury, where evidence is presented and an indictment can be issued. It doesn’t have to rise to the standards of a criminal trial. Since the last House abandoned its oversight duties, the onslaught of oversight requests are the beginnings of that process. Whether there’s a formal impeachment at the end of it, we’re having that now.

Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and Andrew Johnson were all impeached, and rightfully so. Nixon committed actual crimes; Clinton creepily perjured himself; Johnson helped the South regain what it had rightfully lost. All of them committed grave irresponsibilities while in office. There’s no doubt in my mind Donald Trump’s misdeeds rise to that standard. His venality combines the criminality of Nixon, the faithlessness of Clinton, and the disloyalty of of Johnson.

I expect Trump will be impeached, just as those three were.

The impeachment itself is a significant punishment. It has stained all three men’s reputations, not from the vote to impeach, but from the public exposure of their unfitness to hold office. It ended Nixon’s political career. It should have ended Clinton’s–the party should have demanded his resignation once the process was over, so Al Gore could have run as an incumbent, unchained from a shitty man–and it did damage him. Johnson was already weakened.

The second step is trial. It’s carried out by the Senate. No president has ever been convicted by the Senate. Neither will Trump be, barring some smoking gun we don’t know about. He’s obscured the record by obstructing justice.

Nixon deserved conviction. He only avoided it by resignation. Clinton didn’t. His shittiness was revealed to be ugly but truly small, like him. Johnson…I have no strong opinion about what fate he deserved. His misdeeds were purely political.

But that process of trial in the Senate, that is important, not least because it focuses national attention on a process more easily understood than investigation. It allows the facts to be laid out, much like a trial, for judgement.

I’ll follow Pelosi’s lead on whether to impeach. She’s a fighter who’s been Trump’s most effective political opponent.

Till then, keep on moving forward. Forward with investigation. Forward with the next election. Forward with building a fighting Party that doesn’t roll over and pee itself when threatened. Forward with popular mobilization to ensure that.

Keep on moving forward.

A Meditation On A Ritual: Concert Wristbands

I got asked a question today in the form of a statement: “Tell me about a favourite ritual”. I was just going to write a sentence, but I kept adding comments. Here’s what I finally said:

After a great rock show or other event, I keep the wristbands on till they fall off.

We have Drive-By Truckers Homecoming at the 40 Watt, where the coat checkers write the number of your item on your wristband with a Sharpie. I play with the numbers, whether they’re in order, whether the order is rising or falling, how they factor, what they might signify. This year, I got:

  • 168–the hours in a week
  • 93–the passengers who fought back
  • 111–a sixth of the way there

It also lets me have some idea where I was in line each time. 😉

In the days after that in particular, I play with the wristbands, stacking them on my wrist, in date order sometimes, but really in whatever order they fit my arm best, the largest furthest up, each other slid under the next largest, a little showing of each.

They’d last longer if I didn’t, but then, so would I.

The Hermit of Walden Pond Meets the Sage of Tuscumbia, Alabama

This morning in church, the responsive reading from Singing the Living Tradition was #660–just six short!–“Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?” from Henry David Thoreau. I do and did respond.

The call: “I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear,”

The response: “Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.”

You Are On Fire

It was a pleasure to burn.

The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Susan Frederick-Gray wrote a thoughtful call to action, Time for cold anger. It’s a quick read and worth your time. It contains several pointers to useful actions, and one piece of false hope when it says:

Anger is the legitimate response to pain, but it can become destructive. Turned inward and swallowed, it can consume us with shame, self-destruction, and despair. Turned outward, it can be explosive and violent. But when we understand the concept of cold anger—an anger that burns without consuming—we understand that anger can be the fire and the energy for action, for organizing, for creating justice. (emphasis added)

Right now, you are on fire. Every breath you take pulls oxygen in to burn in your guts; every exhalation puts out the carbon dioxide generated by the sacred trash fire that is our body. Every moment consumes a tiny bit more of us, some moments eating more than others. When we stop that burning, we are dead.

Take it from an anger swallower who wants to fly: There is no form of anger that does not consume you. Everything we do has a cost, even if it is only–only!–seconds of our life. Sometimes hot anger slices through stone cold bullshit like nobody’s business, saving precious time. Saving precious life. Precious lives.

Great Artists have told us this about fury and anger.

There’s anger that costs more and anger that costs less, and anger that gets more done or less done. We all pick our way through these choices and burn a little of ourselves every step of the way. Some of it is conscious choice–a slow and cautious way–and most of us run on habit and reaction and inertia. Sometimes you have to burn your way out of a rut.

Not that burning is a pure good. It’s not. Fire is a great refiner, a wonderful source of heat and light, all that. And if you’ve ever spent a fun night around a trash barrel with friends and a six-pack, you will remember that “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”

But the quote continues, “He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.” If I were asked to give an example of Evil without violence, burning books would be a good choice. There’s a special terror in seeing what isn’t built to die–unlike a human, for whom death is just another punch on our ticket–die anyway. A book, a painting, a hope, an idea. They don’t die like we die, though in the long term they do die as we die. We live short term and save what we can.

So accept that you are on fire, that you are burning as we speak and will eventually go out. You may rise again like the phoenix, disperse like smoke, or settle like ash. You may just be a process that ends, or you may be one more cycle round the center. No one knows for sure, and I think most of those who claim they do harbor secret doubts.

Go ahead and burn as you wish, hot or cold, fast or slow, over under sideways down. Here are two opportunities to Catch Fire, two of many Great Ways To Burn:

Walk through the fire
Fly through the smoke
See my enemy
At the end of their rope

I can’t believe that the axis turns
On suffering when you taste so good
I can’t believe that the axis turns
On suffering when my head it burns

You don’t have to pick one or the other, or either one. You just have to choose something.

The Mathematics of the Soul

In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner published The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. The gist of it is in the title: Math is weirdly good at describing the physical world, good enough to seem unreasonable.

At the end, Wigner says:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning. (emphasis added)

I could’ve cut that off after the first sentence, but that phrase: to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement. I’ve had that feeling with math, when something click click clicked into place and made the most wonderful, most unexpected kind of sense.

What, then, is the mathematics of the soul?

It can’t be mathematics, because the soul

  1. isn’t physical, and
  2. doesn’t exist.

So let’s ask the question this way: What is unreasonably effective at expressing, communicating, shaping, and preserving the fruits of the human heart? What carries those precious things through time and space and past the death of the individual?

Beauty. Art. But most especially song and story, story and song.

Song and story intersect at rhythm and narrative. Song has harmony and melody; story has plot and character. Song slices through reason like a sharp knife through the butterlike-brain; story marinates and soaks and dissolves and precipitates thought from reverie.

Song and story are unreasonably effective in transmitting and preserving culture, persevering when written word and graven image do not. What’s sung and said is the most Permanent Record. Erasing that takes genocide, and even that doesn’t always work.

I could not accept a theory of humanity, a theology or a philosophy of life, without song and story as one of its foundations. Along with human solidarity and grateful wonder at the world, it is one foundation of mine.

A Different State Cluster Meeting

My state’s congregations have dropped our twice-yearly cluster meeting to once a year in the hopes of increasing participation.

A typical Cluster Meeting

  • Friday evening
    • Dinner
    • Opening Talk
    • Activity
    • Closing
  • Saturday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Opening
    • Business discussions
    • Session on Church Operations
  • Saturday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Session on Church Operations continues
    • Business Discussions and Announcements
    • Closing
  • Sunday morning
    • Do whatever the local congregation does

There’s nothing wrong with a meeting like that. It’s functional and useful. It’s also not going to appeal to people whose primary interest in church isn’t running the church.

Here’s a proposed variant event schedule. It was inspired by my personal observations and by this Call for a UU General Conference. It’s short and well worth your time. One recommendation from that report is “that the Unitarian Universalist Association schedule general conferences on a regular basis, perhaps in biennial rotation with General Assembly business sessions.” I think our twice-yearly schedule would be supportable if one of the two meetings was primarily a general conference and the other primarily a business meeting.

An ideal Cluster General Conference

  • Friday evening
    • Dinner
    • Announcements
    • Opening worship
    • Covenant
      • Build at first meeting
      • Review and maintain thereafter
    • Closing
    • Activity
  • Saturday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Opening worship
    • Discernment (and Professional Development)
  • Saturday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Discernment (and Professional Development)
    • Announcements
    • Closing worship
    • Dinner
  • Saturday evening
    • Activity
  • Sunday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Do whatever the local congregation does
  • Sunday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Work sessions for specific goals

That’s the ideal schedule. There’s one type of big variation that’s easy and likely. The Sunday afternoon work sessions could be done in parallel with discernment and professional development on Saturday. There’s overlap between the work sessions and the professional development–I’m thinking of that almost exclusively for church administrators, since ministers, religious educators, and music directors already have significant opportunities for professional development–so that’s doable. Those sessions are specialized and specific and task-oriented. Most folks neither want nor need to attend them. Professional development-type things could move to Sunday as well.

There’s another variation that’s a little more difficult and might be best stirred into a cluster business meeting: A local service project. This could be outwardly-directed toward the community, or inwardly-directed toward the hosting congregation. It’s hard to say how to make it work without having an outline of the service project in mind.

Design points

  • If necessary, hire a musician to make sure there’s lots of singing.
  • One broad topic.
  • Facilitated, not directed, conversations. People can tell when they’re being led.
  • Parallel work tracks to
    1. Take fullest advantage of the meeting preparations,
    2. Provide something useful for church administrators, who are not necessarily Unitarian Universalists, and
    3. Give people uninterested in or who already have “Answers to the question: “What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”” something to do.
  • Use the full Friday evening for covenant building, especially the first time around, to set both a pattern and an example.
  • Many short worship services of varied styles. Give people a taste of what they don’t often see or experience.
  • Make the trip worth it. If people are willing to stay the whole weekend, or must arrive late or leave early, give them something for their time and effort.
  • Fund it via congregational support rather than individual admissions. Don’t make people ask for support.
  • Use home hospitality and sleeping in the church as the primary lodging option.
  • Over-prepare food with the expectation of giving leftovers away to the homeless.
  • Did I mention getting a musician to make sure there’s lots of singing? Maybe two of them, just to make sure.

Why?

Most of it is in the Call for a UU General Conference, which is short and which you should read. Here for emphasis (and not to save you the effort of reading that short article) is the most relevant part:

The ecclesiastical body is an intentional community of delegates who come together for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment. The ecclesiastical body is responsible for discerning the religious movement’s ultimate and broad purpose. Ultimately, the ecclesiastical body asks and discerns answers to the question: “what is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”…Every effort should be made to make these conferences affordable, so that attendees are not limited to older people of means. Further, so that these conferences can build for the future of our movement, we should actively engage youth, young adults, UUs of color, and other historically under-represented groups…

Comment: This proposal is built in part to address our inability to “engage youth [and] young adults”, both those in our congregations and the many more who’ve left them.

We also strong urge the systemic reexamination of the roles and responsibilities enshrined in our current bylaws as we know this organization to have been derived from explicitly racist, sexist, and classist principles. The standard non-profit organization structure, first evolved in the early 19th century, was itself a copy of the business corporation, and specifically, a small New England business corporation that saw virtue in consolidating power to a limited number of patrons. The 1825 establishment of the AUA was very much a part of this milieu (see The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England by Conrad Edick Wright), and while there have been many changes since that time some core patterns of distributing power remain the same. Indeed, in many ways the UUA maintains much of the structure given it by Samuel Atkins Eliot (American Unitarian Association President, 1900-1927; some even call the UUA the “House that Sam built”). Eliot did work to deliberately match the AUA organization with that of business models, especially in terms of disempowering the Board, along the lines of successful “banks, insurance companies, and mills.” Of course, in doing so, he was also bringing the AUA even more in line with how wealthy New England families were accustomed to running New England charities. Eliot brought this same lens to his work as a Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner, where his stump speech was “From the Scalping Knife to the Can Opener,” a statement about how only assimilation to white culture would save Native Americans from their own “barbarism.”

Comment: I have seen the equivalent of violence done to people by treating a church like a business. That’s why I put this whole paragraph in. I hope it will shock you. There is corruption in the current model all the way down to its base and all the way out into the often genocidal society our forebears helped build.

The Task Force was charged changing the culture of the UUA from one of a member services administration to one of mutual covenanting. After over a year and a half of deep discussions, we have realized that this culture of covenant was precisely what was created by the conferences and conventions of our past, as they were designed for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment (emphasis added)…The nature of business meetings, governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, is fundamentally adversarial rather than covenantal.

Here we reach the heart of the matter:

  1. Mutual strengthening of the congregations
  2. Creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability
  3. Theological discernment

I would suggest those are in reverse order. To strengthen each other, we must first know each other; to know each other, we must first know ourselves. So we begin with discernment.

There should also be an end in mind. The Arkansas UU Cluster can have a purpose, just as the UUA does. Currently that purpose is poorly-defined. That figures, because we haven’t talked among ourselves about what we want and why. I would suggest there are many things the Cluster could take as a goal. We could involve ourselves more directly in the Justice ministry which spun off from the Cluster. We could work together to plant a congregation in a likely spot–Russellville, Fort Smith, Joplin, Arkadelphia, or Pine Bluff. Somewhere with a concentration of people and at least half an hour from the nearest UU congregation. We could buy a piece of land and build a camp.

But before we know what, we have to know why. So we begin with discernment.

What’s left out?

I intentionally left out families and child care. My kid is in high school, nearly old enough to join the church, and attends adult activities. My concerns aren’t those of younger parents. The way to proceed with them is to ask every one of them in our congregations what would make a gathering worthwhile for them and then do that thing. The best way to proceed would be for congregations to allocate money to do this and ask their youth and young adults to plan it, to make the decisions about it, and depend on the rest of us to help faithfully implement their ideas. I’m not sure we’re mature enough to do that yet, but we’d best get there. As Marcus Aurelius said via Jim Whitehead:

The time is near at hand for forgetting all; near too,
the time for all forgetting you.

What’s next?

You tell me.

Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services

Everyone knows this one, right?

Rev. Meg Barnhouse‘s lovely variation on the words of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and the first woman known to have written a book in English.

This is one of the songs, and links to a song, I keep in my back pocket for troubles, my own and others. It helps me. When I think I know when it will help a friend, I apply it to them gently. It seems to work; I don’t think it harms. It heals by virtue of being beautiful, in many different ways.

When I first encountered the next song, I’d passed through my first period of fascination with mystics and visionaries–Smart, Blake, Sor Juana, and St. John mostly*–so I didn’t see Julian of Norwich in it. Probably the authors didn’t either; I find the ways of the Spirit are even more mysterious to us atheists than to any believer. I was also far too hip to like anything Big On The Radio, and this whole record was big! Big! BIG!! It took my great and wasted friend Orlis to make me actually listen to the damned thing–on a cassette, no less, in a house stuffed with vinyl records–and discover it was really good. It took listening since him to see how it was great. Continue reading Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services