Category Archives: Unitarian Universalism

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

Good Riddance to Anthony Kennedy, Who Was Not Going To Save You

It might be better if Anthony Kennedy stayed on the Supreme Court, but things would still be so dire that better is not quite the right word for it.

With Kennedy on the court, this week was still one long bummer. A single Fourth Amendment case was firmly decided on the side of liberty. Every other case was either decided for bad or was sent back to return another day, to a more conservative court. One political gerrymandering case was crafted to show that its target matched Kennedy’s detailed description of a gerrymander that violated First Amendment rights. Kennedy voted to send the case back on narrow grounds. If it returns to the Supreme Court, he won’t be there.

Some say Kennedy punted.  That’s fair.

Who will win this game?

I say he went onto the field on third down, seconds remaining, to win the game with an easy field goal. The snap is good. Kennedy runs. And he kicks half a yard to the left of the ball, missing it completely as the other team swarms the holder.

TIme runs out! Kennedy leaves the field untouched, his dignity held high. He’s kept himself above the fray, yet determined the outcome.

The team doctor is still working on the holder. Poor Charlie Brown. Poor you.

Kennedy is a conservative and a believer in civility and compromise. He’s spent his career on the Supreme Court splitting differences in the interest of compromise.

(Except on issues which determine who controls the government. There he votes consistent conservative.)

In his last term, he gave up on compromise. As Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern point out:

There have been 13 5–4 decisions so far this term that have pitted the conservative justices against the liberals. Kennedy went with the conservatives all 13 times.

This is the true Anthony Kennedy: A Reagan appointee whose older, more genteel style of conservatism is next-door neighbors with hard-right radicalism, when push comes to shove, when it comes to who holds power. As Dahlia Lithwick says,

To the extent we wrote paeans to Kennedy, it was for his occasional defections in areas that materially affect the lives of millions of people—women, minorities, LGBTQ couples, voters, Guantanamo detainees. And to be sure, each of those votes was well worth it. But we knew that for each such vote, there was a Bush v. Gore, a Citizens United, a Shelby County.

Each of those cases was about who holds power. There, Kennedy was a conservative’s conservative, yet in “fan fiction…Justice Anthony Kennedy was a moderate centrist”. Does any other living conservative politician besides John McCain have such a hold on the wishful liberal imagination? And so here we are, “In Nineteen-Nineties Orlando with Trumpy and Stormy!

Mark down Justice Anthony Kennedy as one more thing which will not save you. Institutional power will not save you, either. We will have to save ourselves.

The UUA Call for the Abolition of ICE and This Weekend’s March

Last weekend, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2018 General Assembly passed this Action of Immediate Witness: End Family Separation and Detention of Asylum Seekers and Abolish ICE.

It includes a call to “Participate in the June 30th nationwide Mass Mobilization”, whose lead organization is Families Belong Together. In Little Rock, several organizations, from mainstream liberal to near left, are sponsoring a rally at the State Capitol.

I spent Thursday afternoon at a spirited  demonstration at the State Capitol, sponsored by local groups and the national group Mijente, with whom the UUA is partnering, as part of their Chinga La Migra/Abolish ICE* tour.

They and we are calling for the Abolition of ICE:

#AbolishICE

Families Belong Together is calling for Defunding ICE:

#DefundICE

The UUA has been most successful in producing justice over the years when it has taken a visionary approach to issues. Line 51 in the Action of Immediate Witness, in which we are called to “Host interfaith vigils to lift our prophetic voices”, claims a theological grounding in our Second Source, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”

We have a choice about how we participate in this weekend’s rallies. We can pick up the call to #AbolishICE or to Defund ICE or make some more general call. We can show up and blend in and not be visibly Unitarian Universalist. We don’t even have to show up.

What are you going to do? What is your congregation going to do?

Have you spent time working together to discern what you believe in common? Where you differ? What you can do? What you will do?

If not, then you have another chance to do so, this time under the pressure of time and events. It won’t get any easier if you wait.

*A language note: “Chinga” does not literally translate to “Abolish”.

“Babies in Cages”, by Patterson Hood

I used to mock Deadheads. Now I’ve seen Drive-By Truckers and various members over five dozen times. Below are two reasons why.

This Is What Resistance Looks Like, Too.

Babies in Cages

The world wakes up this morning
I’m sorry for the news
Wrapped up in a tinfoil blanket without any shoes
Babies in cages

I’m sorry to my children
I’m sorry what they see
I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me
Babies in cages

Are we so divided
That we can’t at least agree
This ain’t the country that our granddad’s fought for us to be
Babies in cages
_______________________________________________

Surf’s up in the cities
Where the next wars will be fought
I’m sorry we’ve forsaken every word that we were taught
Babies in cages

I bang my head against it
Smash guitars and scream and shout
Standing on the beach watching the tide go out
Babies in cages

Standing in the darkness
To answer for our sins
Children changing each others diapers in a pen
Babies in cages

Copyright Patterson Hood – Dunwoody GA. June 19, 2018

It’s Not A Silver Lining. It’s Just Hope.

Over a decade ago, I first read about the rock-bottom level of W’s support at 28% as a rough estimate of current bugfuck crazy levels. I took that to heart and have repeated it as wisdom, so I’m not shocked that there are people cheering for caging children.

(Afraid? Yes. Still.)

What has been a pleasant surprise is seeing people building capacity to resist. That capacity wasn’t nearly enough during 43’s term to hold him back, and it wasn’t there to sustain the Occupy movement.*

Now we’re a third of the way through a Presidential term, and people successfully pushed hard enough to make a public policy change. It’s still a bad policy–I’ll still be at a pro-immigration rally after work today–but the spiritual boost people get from publicly backing an authoritarian down and the corresponding morale drop on the other side is pure power. If it’s used well, if politicians don’t drain all the effort into electoral politics only, this can be a turning point.

It’s not a position I’d’ve chosen to get into. The suffering at the border and elsewhere isn’t “worth it” for change. But it’s not a position we chose, is it? It’s where we’ve been forced to by cruel humanoids. That suffering is on their heads.

If we miss this moment, if we fail to learn electoral politics can’t be won without a robust non-electoral political movement to maintain us during the times we are out of power–and to remind politicians who claim they are on our side that they can’t pee on our leg when they are in power and expect us to thank them for the rain–then the suffering from that will be on our heads, and quite a few of us will fully deserve what we get from it (though most of us will not).

This is not the 2018 I’d hoped for, but it has great potential. Or you can call it high stakes. Pretty much the same.

*The Occupiers themselves weren’t the problem. They were plenty determined. It was a support failure.

He Doesn’t Mean Us. We Take The Summer Off

But everybody else better search their consciences: If Your Church is Silent This Week—You May Want to Leave it

Standing on the corner, suitcase in my hand

If you’re a member of a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other spiritual gathering place, and the leaders there don’t specifically reference children being caged by our government and push back hard against it—you should ask them why they aren’t.

Ask them directly, and if you aren’t satisfied with their answer, seriously consider leaving then and there. This may be your greatest spiritual declaration, the most concrete affirmation of your beliefs that you’ll ever make.

If you are keeping company with polite cowards and smiling frauds whose faith is quiet, you may need to empty the pews and exit the buildings, and go loudly speak the words of truth and compassion and justice that need to be spoken right now.

If History Won’t Save You, What Will?

I fondly remember the death of Richard M. Nixon, on Earth Day, 1994, like the planet finally taking out trash gone rancid decades ago. It’s rare that a death makes me happy, but this one did. He was an actively evil man who got away with it and died old and free with a clear record.

Get caught with a nickel bag brother-man
Get caught with a nickel bag sister-lady on your way to get your hair fixed
You’ll do Big Ben, and Big Ben is time
But the man who tried to fix America will not do time

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those words and he did not die free and clear.


In the liner notes to Winter In America, Gil Scott-Heron made the earliest on-record call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon that I am personally aware of. There may be an earlier one, but I haven’t seen it, though I have seen later ones which claimed to be first. The same country that showed Nixon mercy because he had phlebitis showed Gil Scott-Heron–who said of phlebitis, “Rats bite us. No pardon in the ghetto”–to prison for crack addiction. Gil Scott-Heron died too young on parole with a felony record.

Continue reading If History Won’t Save You, What Will?