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.

UU 102: The Power of One

Here’s one way to do it, courtesy of the Rev. Shelley Page:

I called each and every African American church in Ogden on the morning after the Ferguson non-indictment, expressing solidarity and sorrow…

“Hello. I am Rev. Shelley Page, interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden and I’ve only been in town since August.  This is a message for Pastor ________. We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet, but I want you to know that I am heartbroken about the decision in Ferguson.  And my congregation is heartbroken, too.  We wish to express our sorrow and our solidarity at this difficult time.  If your congregation plans any public witness events, please let us know. We will be there beside you, standing on the side of love. Here is my personal cell phone and email if you would like to contact me. In the meanwhile, know that you are not alone. We stand together in love.”

“So,” I hear those voices asking, “how’s that working out for you?”

I didn’t hear anything, although I offered a Ferguson Vespers on Wednesday evening for my congregation.

“Which only figures,” those voices smirk sympathetically. “You know how people are.”

Why, yes. Yes, I do know how people are:

Then, I received a call earlier this week that New Zion Baptist was organizing a Community Peace March and they wanted us to come along with them. I spread the word to my congregation and beyond. Today about 100 people of many colors joined together in a peaceful march and prayed on the steps of City Hall here in Ogden, Utah, including at least 20 from my church in their yellow Standing on the Side of Love shirts.

The New Zion Baptist minister told the crowd that he was inspired to do the march because an unknown clergy colleague had called him expressing solidarity. He felt it was a sign from God that now was a time to stand together, as a new beginning, to address these issues. When I met him for the first time in person today, he embraced me like a long lost friend, and told me that my call made the difference, gave him heart.

I walked at the front of the line hand in hand with him and three other African American ministers.

We don’t always have to take the lead. Sometimes our best acts of leadership constitute calling the other folks and saying, “You’ve got this, right? Tell us what you need from us.” And when you do that, sometimes that’s what makes things happen. You may even end up at the front of the march.

UU 102: The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals

I won’t speak for Peacebang (aka the Rev. Victoria Weinberg)–she does a great job of doing so for herself here–but speaking for myself as a leftist and not a liberal, she has put her finger directly on the question:

Where in America would a white 12-year old boy walking around on a cold afternoon in an unpopulated area and idly waving a toy gun be shot by a police officer literally two seconds after that cop got out of his squad car? Two seconds on the clock. Imagine that happening in your neighborhood…

White men wave real guns around crowded areas in America and are taken into custody alive.  Tamir Rice, carrying a toy gun in an open carry state, wasn’t white. His parents are apparently not law abiding citizens, so one Ohio resident suggested to me yesterday (and this is a quote) that it was a good thing that Tamir was “put down before he got a real gun.”  I fail to see a significant emotional and spiritual difference between the callous bigot who celebrates the murder of a kid and the white liberal who says it’s all really sad, but he shouldn’t have been waving around a gun. Both responses are distancing and victim-blaming: one pathological and the other quite ordinary and therefore, often unquestioned and uncommented upon.

Let me repeat the part I bolded there for those of you who might need it emphasized:

I fail to see a significant emotional and spiritual difference between the callous bigot who celebrates the murder of a kid and the white liberal who says it’s all really sad, but he shouldn’t have been waving around a gun. Both responses are distancing and victim-blaming: one pathological and the other quite ordinary and therefore, often unquestioned and uncommented upon.

So, if that’s where “we” (cue the Tonto joke here) are, then where do we go from here? It’s not the first time that question has been asked. Or even the second. We’re going somewhere, whether we want to or not. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

So as Alice said, “Which way? Which way?”

UU 102: Hiatus regretted, future predicted

Life lives its own schedule, not the one I try to impose on it. But I’ll do my best–and there are longer draft posts I’ll be finishing up soon. There’s also a study guide for the next local UU 102 session forthcoming:

In accordance with the December ministry theme of Wonder and Delight, we’ll look at two marvelous modern ways to get the news. One is this story in the Winter 2014 UUWorld,
Community news can nurture civic health (page 50 of the print issue). The other is Doug Muder’s Weekly Sift , “making sense of the news one week at a time.”
Discussion questions will be provided. Watch the
weekly email for a link and further information.
For those of you in central Arkansas, this is Sunday, December 28th, 10 AM, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock at 1818 Reservoir Road. It’s part of our long-running Forum series of weekly discussions on varied topics.
The next two sessions are tentatively scheduled for January 25th and February 22nd and will cover (in some order–I’m still thinking about that) these articles and probably some additional blog posts to go with them:
Selma’s Challenge, by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed (page 33) and Up To Our Necks, by Rev. Meg Riley (page 9)
Embracing Change, by Donald E. Skinner (page 6), which has a nice discussion guide provided by the UUA we’ll use, at least in part