Thursday, August 31, 2006

Joys of Long Ministry

I'm stalling on writing an eulogy for tomorrow's memorial service, for a beloved man in the congregation. The service will include the musical group in which he sang for 45 years and the telling of how he and his wife lived next door to the forest rangers of Capitan, New Mexico, who rescued a baby bear from a forest fire and nursed it back to health to become the posterbear of the "Only YOU can prevent Forest Fires."

An injured orphan bear healed and became an inspiration to children and adults everywhere to take care of the forests we live around. Likewise, Frank's life story is one of facing great difficulty and pain and staging a recovery into happiness and productivity.

On Saturday, I'll be officiating at the marriage of a couple whose first spouses died at about five years ago. I presided at Janet's memorial service, and feel now so privileged to be a part of launching Charlie and Glorya's life together. (well into their 70's, they met on-line, and their love and joy is palpable.) And on Sunday morning, we'll dedicate and welcome the adopted second child of a church family whose profoundly handicapped first child we dedicated a year and a half ago.

It is touching and inspiring to me to see people through the ups and downs of their lives. May I remember, when it is my turn to suffer outrageous fortune, that as long as there is life there is potential for healing, learning, service, and joy.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Cost of Democracy

Freedom isn't free, they say; it sometimes takes money, blood, and commitment to a long hard fight.

Only a few radical pacifists would not agree with that in the abstract, and Donald Rumsfeld takes aim at a straw dog when he argues as he did yesterday. Plenty of folks have pointed out that the issue at hand is not whether we should fight for our freedom or not but whether this particular war could reasonably be called a fight for our freedom, so I'm going to point out something else.

Freedom isn't just costly in terms of the need to fight for it, it is costly in terms of the need to protect truth and debate. It is not just soldiers who protect our freedom through courage and bloodshed, politicians, media, and ordinary people protect our freedom by having the courage to speak the truth and to be respectful of differing opinions. Only when the people know the truth and can debate their opinions does a nation have a democracy worth defending.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Blogger's Block

Here's a funny start to a Monday morning! Thanks, Vance!
('s hard to read. the gist of it is that the restless writer can't find anything to say, and when she walks off, her companion shrugs and says, "bloggers block.")

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Women Clergy; There and Here

Today's NYT has an interesting, sad article about the state of women in Ministry. You can read it here , but the upshot is that in most denominations women's ministry is truncated; women can serve in small churches but not large ones, can teach but not preach, can serve as staff ministers but not as senior ministers, can be spiritual leaders to women, not men, and so on. That's in spite of more than 100 years of ordaining women by most Liberal Protestants. That letter to Timothy which says that women can't preach, and how it trumps Jesus' evident attitude towards women seems to be the cause, but we all know that the cause is much deeper than that, and that Timothy is only an excuse. It's a sad and depressing article.

The writer looked into the history of the ordination of women, so she must have come across the fact that the Universalists and the Unitarians paved that particular way in the 1880's and 90's, and seem to be thriving while having a vastly larger proportion of women in religious leadership, serving as senior ministers to women and to men, and in larger congregations than other liberal denominations. Our pioneering and our success don't figure into that article about Christian clergy, but I just want to say that I feel very lucky to be where I am. (But it does make me wonder what the percentage of women clergy in our larger congregations is. I know I'm not alone, but the review of large pulpits I just completed in my head suggests that I'm one of 10%. I will check on this matter and report.)

Of course, UU women, while we never get beaten with Timothy, get regularly beaten with the deeper issues that depress gender equality, so all is not well. There's a never absent static for women in ministry that just makes things a little harder all the time and hugely harder during storms. And it's all the worse for being invisible and forgotten.

For some reason lately I said in a group that my predecessor in this ministry was a man who, while he worked for the American Unitarian Association in the 1960's, refused to place the few women clergy in pulpits, and a bright and competent (male) student at an extremely progressive UU theological school overheard and expressed his shock that this could have happened in our always progressive denomination. Can it be that UU schools are teaching about systemic oppression without reference to women these days? (judging by my glance over our current intern's coursework, it seems to be all about race, class, sexual expression minorities and the third world now). That bodes ill for the next generation of women in ministry, who had better be prepared to deal with those deeper issues or they'll drop like flies in the bugspray. And those deeper issues don't just effect women and men who work with women, (that would be all of us) they are a bedrock of the human psyche and have everything to do with other kinds of oppression.

It would be sad and depressing, except that it also gives just a little extra boost of meaning to my own ministry, a visible success for women in larger churches, proof that it is possible, even if sometimes too hard.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Elevator testimony

Lizard Eater (here) comments that as proud as we are of our "elevator speeches" (short answers to the question, "what kind of a church is UU?") much more important and much more potentially transforming, is a testimony, which answers the question, "What has belonging to a UU church done for you?" She gives some guidelines for this sort of a speech which boil down to, keep it short and keep it personel and keep it focused. And she suggests that we write our speech down and memorize it.

An interesting Challenge...lets call it the Elevator testimony. Here's my first crack:

I've been a UU all my life, and belonged to five UU churches. They were very different, but all of them offered me the opportunity to grow in spirit while belonging to a religious community that encouraged and facilitated that growth. We believe that an infinite deity has many names, and no name, and honor religious diversity. That means that everyone is exposed to a variety of religious understandings and hears about many different kinds of religious experiences and practices. I've been an atheist, and I found a God I could believe in. I've been an agnostic, but when I had a mystical experience that began a relationship with God, I didn't have to change churches, because that kind of personal and spiritual growth is something we value as UU's. It's a very rich place to be a person of faith.

You try!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Monsoons and graffiti

When we moved to New Mexico 18 years ago, we were told that "June is hot, then come the Monsoons, and it cools off." Coming from South Carolina, where it knows how to rain, we were bemused when "Monsoons" turned out to be mostly humidity punctuated by a few (very welcome) brief thundershowers, for a grand total of about 3 inches of rain in 6 weeks. In the desert, you enjoy every drop, but somehow, "monsoons" seemed over-descriptive.

Well, this year, we've had Monsoons. We're in our 8th week of nearly daily rain, downpoors, and floods. (and most trying of all, humidity levels topping 50%, which renders our evaporative coolers ineffective. We complain a lot about this.) My little rain gauge has logged over 7 inches, and it underreports. The last downpoor backed up the sewers at the church, so today all is in an uproar as carpets are replaced.

That would have been bad enough, but last week, we were hit with a wave of vandalism. Nearly 30 windows on our campus, most plate glass types which cost about $300 a piece to replace, were ruined with etched script. Not Really graffiti, we were told by the police; just kids. And then, on Saturday night, we were hit with a spatter of gunshots, cracking windows and damaging frames. The police assured us that we were probably not the target; if the shots had been aimed at us, they would have done far more damage.

We have insurance, of course, so our out of pocket expenses will probably only $2,000, but that's $2,000 that won't be available to paint walls or do the planting of cactus that the police recommend for the beds in front of our largest windows. It's enough to make one believe in bad Karma, making me wonder what we're not doing that we should be doing, and my Administrator to talk about bad energy, the cure of which, in her opinion, is banishing negative talk. She'd probably frown on my fantasies of catching a few kids red handed and sitting on them until the police came, but such is my anger about their vandalism. In the meantime, the staff is going to have lunch together on the back patio, far from the bad smells and chaos in the office. If, that is, it doesn't rain.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Calming Effect of Religions Tolerance

Time Magazine explains some reasons why (besides support for Israel and war on Iraq) there has been more terrorist activity in Britain than here in America. Why are British young Muslims more violent than American young Muslims?

Well among other things, American Muslims are, overall a smaller and better integrated part of the nation's population than anywhere in Europe, tending to be better educated and better off financially than the majority of Americans. In Great Britain and even more in other European nations, Moslems tend to be poor and live in enclaves. I tend to put a lot of stock in this first explanation, myself. There's nothing like few prospects of a good life to interest people in desperate measures, something that our society should be taking seriously as we move further and faster into this "winner take all' economy.

Another factor in "Muslim America" is that Muslims here tend to come from many nations and are, as someone commented yesterday, of different races, and include our homegrown Black Muslim brand. All that Moslem diversity makes it more likely that isolated groups will assimilate into the mainstream rather than clump with other Moslems.

Another factor Time mentions is that in Europe, religiousness of any kind is viewed with disdain, as a threat to secular values. Moslems there feel pervasively misunderstood and sneered at for what is most precious to them, their faith. Here in America, we have our disagreements about faith, but we're accustomed to a larger public square of tolerance about the issue, and Moslem faithfulness fits in better.

Sometimes Americans, especially those whose own values are secular, assume that their way is the peaceful way and "religion causes so much violence in the world." While there's no doubt that religion is one source of violence, it seems likely that appreciative tolerance of the variety of human religiousness has a calming effect.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Blackmail and Policy

Leaders of Islamic communities in England last week wrote an open letter pointing out that government policy and programs are infuriating young men and are in part, the cause of terrorism. British leaders responded that that was blackmail, and that governments couldn't possibly make decisions in order to prevent terrorist attacks.

So...let's just unpack that interesting statement.

First of all, blackmail happens when someone secretly threatens an illegal or immoral action unless the receiver accedes to a demand. (pay money being the classic demand). Blackmail by definition doesn't happen in public. It by definition is an illicit activity, a kind of bloodless terrorism. And it only happens between two parties. If I say to you that if you don't stop doing X, someone else will take revenge, that's not blackmail, that's a warning. Warnings may be unwelcome communication, but they are not blackmail.

So it was plain old racist of British leaders to respond to leaders of the Muslim community's letter by calling it blackmail; that was implying that those leaders were themselves responsible for the illegal and immoral activity of a few young men. Nor do I think that Christian leaders would have been called Blackmailers under similar circumstances; such nasty words are used only for the despised.

And as to the question of whether a nation should take into account the activity of terrorists in forming and executing its foreign policy... in the "new normal," they should, do, and will. Not necessarily give in, of course, but count the costs, in advance.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

New Normal

Caner patients are told, after the drama and difficulty of treatment is over, "Welcome to the new normal." During new normal, you adjust to your losses and to your heightened sense of mortality, you recover your strength, you cherish whatever gifts were given on the journey through illness. You take up your responsibilities again, and move on into all that is your life.

Some things will be different, many will be the same. You will be different, but also the same. Your future happiness and effectiveness in life depend on finishing grieving the "old normal" and adjusting to the "new normal".

We Americans have now had nearly 5 years to adjust to the post 9/11 "New Normal". By and large, the people of our nation have done pretty well at it. We learned a lot about Islam and about the Moslems amongst us. We started to travel again and put up with inconveniences that would have been intolerable 5 years ago with patience and good humor.

Our government, on the other hand, has not done so well. Like the person whose cancer treatment ended years ago but who works their medical history into every conversation, our leaders continue to insist that we are "at war," and that soldiers and military might can make us safe again.

But it's not a war, it's a new normal. We adjust to our losses, learn what we need to learn, put up with what we need to put up with, and get on with our lives, determined to be neither a whining victim nor a fool in denial. To keep on going to war and provoking war is to be like the impatient cancer patient (and physician) who keeps asking for exploratory surgery, further traumatizing what is hopefully healing, spending precious resources that are needed elsewhere, and doing true harm all around.

Our national, "new normal" includes the fact that there are terrorists and that we must be vigilant against them. It includes the fact that the only way to keep ourselves completely safe from terrorists would involve an intolerable trade off of rights we cherish, just as keeping ourselves safe from (the much more likely) traffic accident would be intolerable. We may not like this new normal, but it is a fact of our lives. The better our basic health, the quicker we adjust and get on with all that is our lives.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Defending Yourself

One of the great tragedies being played out on the international scene these days is the presumption that there exists an absolute right to "defend oneself." If there are terrorists in the world who are out to do damage to Americans, someone proclaims that we have a right to defend ourselves. If an extremist group in Lebanon kills Israeli Soldiers, Israel had a right to defend itself.

We're buying this because, to the person on the street, it feels right. If somebody tries to drag me into their car, I have a right to defend myself, to kick and scream and do them damage...even to kill, if necessary.

Not all ethical systems buy this; Jesus, for instance, was flat out against it. (remember, "turn the other cheek?") Judaism is only a bit more liberal; Jews are enjoined to take only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and not a bit more. Taking an eye for an eyelash, which is what they are doing at the moment, is considered wrong by Biblical standards. But American law upholds the right of a person to defend themselves, even if they do considerable damage to the one trying to hurt them.

So if a guy is trying to abduct my child, I can hurt or even kill him. That's defending myself(my family actually, but that's ok, too.)

What I can't do is chase him out the back door and then shoot his wife who is waiting in the car on the street. Even is she's almost certainly a part of the plot, I can't do that. Nor can I chase him into my neighbor's house and set fire to the house. I can't even chase him into HIS house and set fire to the house. Why not? because for one thing, a house on fire is a danger to the entire neighborhood. And for another, because that goes way beyond defending myself. It moves into the terribly dangerous realms of revenge and taking the law into my own hands.

Nations are not persons, and the systems of international law which would make it unnecessary for a nation to take the law into its own hands are still in the development stage. Still, the national right to "defend itself" has to be limited for the same reasons the personal right to defend oneself has to be limited. It is not moral even by the most liberal standards of morality to wreak death and destruction on an entire nation of mostly innocent people because one feels, or even actually is threatened by a small subset of those people. To begin to address this problem, Catholic moralists developed a theory of Just War. It's one of the best things they've done for the world.

Even President Bush must know that the right of nations to defend themselves does have limits. That's why he brought out the "weapons of mass destruction card" at the beginning of the Iraq war. For if it really is not moral to burn down the neighbors house because a bad guy took refuge there, it might be ok to do that if the bad guy is about to blow up the entire neighborhood.

But we were duped on that one.

And now it is time to say to those who say, that we, or anybody else has a "right to defend ourselves, " some things like, "What about turning the other cheek?" "Is this a Just War? and "What about an eye for an eye (and no more?"

Or the neighborhood that is our world could go up in flames.