2013-09-30

The Gym and the Infirmary

A serviceable mission:
  • is neither trite, on the one hand, nor incomprehensible, on the other;
  • is short and memorable;
  • captures the core of what the congregation is all about yet provides meaningful guidance as it goes forward.
The project of articulating such a mission requires that we think about "mission" in some ways to which we may be unaccustomed.

1. Not the consumer’s mindset. The relationship of a member to a congregation is not primarily the relation of a consumer to a product. The question isn't "what do I want the congregation to provide to me?" Though there are definite benefits of congregational life, that's not the main question in thinking about mission.

2. Not a strictly service orientation. Nor is the relationship of a member to a congregation primarily the relation of a servant to a cause. The question isn't "what can I give to the congregation?" Though the gifts of your time, talents, and treasures are necessary for the life of the congregation, that's also not the main question in thinking about mission.

To paraphrase JFK: Ask neither what your congregation can do for you, nor what you can do for your congregation.

Instead, think about the ways you'd like to grow, learn, deepen, and develop that congregational life might, conceivably, help with. This will involve some service to you from the congregation, and it will involve some contribution from you to the congregation, but not in a way that the receiving and the giving can be easily or neatly separated. It will also involve you doing your own work: much of it on your own, while guided by your congregational connection.

When we ask how you'd like to grow, learn, deepen, and develop, we aren't implying that you aren't good enough already. You're plenty good enough. You are, in fact, perfect -- exactly the way you are. So now what? What are you going to do next with your wonderful, perfect self? What's next for you in your ongoing growth?

Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Victoria Weinstein, has written:
"If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: “Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.” This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what church is for. “Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.” (See the full blog post here.)
Let us really listen to our own hearts and see if we can articulate what sort of direction our perfect beings are urging us to move in now – which muscles we’re out to strengthen at the faith gym called church. Who would you like to be more like, that your congregation might help with?

To say that a church is a spiritual gym is not to forget that often the church is also a spiritual infirmary. There are times in life when we come to church sick at heart, soul weary, broken-spirited. Before we can think about the exercises and disciplines which cultivate and strengthen our wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, we just need to be cared for. We need replenishing rest. Yes, the church has that pastoral function in addition to its prophetic task. Yes, the church is there to comfort the afflicted as well as afflict (encourage in the spiritual disciplines) the complacently comfortable.

So: Who would you like to be more like, that your congregation might help with?

One UU told me that his aim was to “remain just as I am now.” I resonate with this poignant yearning. There is a part of my heart that would like to stop time, make everything permanent. The heart knows that desire. But, alas. There are a lot of things a faith community can help you with, but stopping time is not one of them. We could choose a mission that was focused on maintenance of physical and mental health -- we could orient our programming toward exercise and diet classes, and programs to help us keep our minds sharp. Such programs would help us remain healthier for longer -- but no matter how hard we work at it, individually and collectively, we won't remain exactly as we are.

A good mission statement will, in about three phrases, capture the yearnings that are most alive in us. Here’s one pretty good mission that one Unitarian Universalist congregation came up with:
“Healing spiritual disconnection by helping each other Listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts, and serve needs greater than our own.”
That’s short enough to remember. It has an even shorter way to remember it:
Listen, Open, Serve.
If you can remember "listen, open, serve," then with just a little practice, you can remember the rest: Listen (to our deepest selves), Open (to life’s gifts), and Serve (needs greater than our own). Then you only need to remember the lead-in: "Healing spiritual disconnection by helping each other . . . "

This mission statement meets the criteria:
  • It is brief and memorable.
  • It identifies the work each member is there to do.
  • It says how the members of that congregation want to be changed.
The congregation that adopted this mission statement (the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester, NY) used their mission to organize every program and every policy toward being a place where people are transformed, where people learn to listen (to the deepest self), open (to life’s gifts), and serve (needs greater than our own).

A congregation’s effort to articulate its mission is likely to yield a result which, even if supported by a consensus, is one to which a few of the members just don’t feel called. And that's OK. Even if there are members who aren't interested in the congregation's mission -- even if there are folks who don't want to be intentional about the changes that are coming anyway, those folks will always be welcome. They’ll be able to continue enjoying what they have always enjoyed about congregational life.

It’s just that those who yearn to move forward should not be held back back those are comfortable not moving at all. The world needs – cries out for -- those who do choose to accept a mission of embodying a spiritually deepening liberal religion.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Mission: Possible"
Previous: Part 4: "Becoming Partly Intentional"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Vision Thing"

2013-09-27

Becoming Partly Intentional

What kind of person would you like to be more like -- and that an ideal congregation would be able to help you be? For Unitarian Universalists, the seven principles are important – yet the principles are pretty general. If we could say how we wanted to be changed by affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person; how we would hope to be transformed by affirming and promoting justice, equity, and compassion; what we thought it would do to us to affirm and promote acceptance of one another, or the free and responsible search for truth, or respect for the interdependent web of existence; then we would know two really cool things.

First, we would know we were serious about those principles. If I expect my commitment -- to the goal of world community, to the rights of conscience, to encouragement to spiritual growth -- to change me, that’s a meaningful commitment. If I don’t expect it to change me – if I don’t expect it to make a difference to who I am -- then I’m just paying lip service to those ideals. I’m just saying, “Yeah, that sounds good,” but I’m not expecting it to change my life, which means I’m not expecting it to really mean much to me.

Second, if we could say how we expected the work of upholding our principles to change us, then we would have a much better idea of how to specifically embody those rather abstract and general principles and ideals. We don’t need to spell out details of the meanings of the terms of our principles. If we know what kind of people we are resolved to be on a path toward being, that will tell us what we need to know about how we’re going to affirm and promote inherent worth and dignity; peace, liberty, and justice; respect for the interdependent web.
To what will you commit? Who is the person you hope your congregation and your commitment will help you become? What kind of work -- inner and outer -- are you ready to do, and which your congregation can guide?

I need to be clear: this is not about what’s wrong with you that needs to be fixed. You are not broken and you don’t need fixing. You are perfect exactly the way you are.
I learned about human perfection almost 32 years ago on the day my first child was born. I held her in my arms, and she was perfect. And she grew, and she was challenging, and she became a teenager, and that was sometimes difficult. But if I stopped to ask myself the question, where along the line of her years did she stop being perfect, I would have to answer she never did. Her unfolding, her growing and changing, her challenge and difficulty, were a part of her perfection. Even when it was appropriate to identify a particular behavior as a mistake, it was a perfect mistake. It was exactly the mistake she needed to make to learn what she needed to learn in the ongoing unfolding of her perfection. If she never stopped being perfect, then, I realized, neither did I. If I never stopped being perfect, then neither did you.

I believe in your perfection. I also believe that perfection is not static. It is a dynamic blossoming and unfolding. We can let that unfolding happen accidentally. It is inevitable, in any case, that accident will play a large role. Or we can bring a measure of intentionality to our growth and unfolding.

It is the function of prayer to give voice to the yearnings of our own becoming. In prayer, then – and in journaling and meditating and soul-searching and conversation with other earnest seekers -- let us seek the articulation of a mission which is ours, the articulation which will marshal our resources to unfold our perfection in a partly intentional -- rather than wholly accidental -- direction.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Mission: Possible"
Next: Part 5: "The Gym and the Infirmary"
Previous: Part 3: "Name the Change"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Vision Thing"

2013-09-26

Name the Change

Sometimes a congregation could use more clarity about why it gathers, maintains a building, pays a staff. Not that there aren't already some good words about what the congregation is all about. It's very rare for a congregation to have to start from scratch on this. Most are off to a good start.

Unitarian Universalist congregations have the seven principles. These say quite a lot about what the congregation exists for. The seven principles – the principles for all Unitarian Universalists -- are a covenant to affirm and promote:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
  • The free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
What does any UU congregation exist for? It exists to affirm and promote those seven principles, that's what. Even so, a little more clarity could help.

You may have noticed, the language of the principles is all rather general. How exactly shall we, for instance, affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning? How exactly are we to work compassionately for peace, liberty, and justice. And how can we tell if we’re doing it?

If those are the things we’re here for, are we doing them? Are we doing what we say we’re here to do? If I had to answer that question, I'd have say, “Well, kinda.”

It’s not that more details are needed. I don’t think that would help. Details are subject to endless quibbling over and too easy to ignore in any case, too hard to remember. Details don’t capture the heart and fire the imagination.

What we've got is language that's general and abstract. Yet adding specific details isn't the way to go. So what would help?

Here's what I think would help. Each member asks herself/himself this question:
"How would I like to be changed?"
A congregation can get some clarity on what it's here for if it can identify how the members would like to be changed. What kind of people would they like to become? Our seven principles don't answer that. They don't say how the people living by that covenant will be, or would hope to be, transformed by adhering to the principles.

The central question for each of us is this: On what path would I like to see myself? In what direction is that path headed?

Naming the change we seek -- not adding more specific detail to our abstract and general principles -- is how Unitarian Universalists can get clearer on what they're about.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Mission: Possible"
Next: Part 4: "Becoming Partly Intentional"
Previous: Part 2: "Atone = At One"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Vision Thing"

2013-09-25

Am I an Atheist?

In the May 22 post on this blog, "The Class Atheist," I wrote:
“It goes back to when I was in fourth grade, and I first heard the word ‘atheist’ – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one.”
That May 22 post went on to describe how I have, since fourth grade, slowly come to appreciate spirituality – as have a number of atheists. While these “spiritual atheists” maintain an identity as atheists as well as spiritual people, I wasn’t clear, in that post or subsequently, about my own self-identifications. Certainly, in fourth-grade, and pretty much on through middle school and high school, I was atheist-identified. But am I now? No. Neither do I identify as theist.

Am I a Marxist? I don’t know how to answer that question in a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ This is not a matter of not knowing what I believe, not a matter of being "agnostic" on the issue. It's a matter of not wanting to identify my beliefs with a word that has so much baggage that it will obscure whatever I might be trying to say. Marx had some insightful analysis. There were also areas where I think his approach is not helpful. I guess I’m a Marxist in some senses of the term and an Amarxist is some senses of that term. Better just to say that I identify myself neither as Marxist nor Amarxist, but as someone who sometimes invokes Marxist language and sometimes invokes Amarxist language.

Similarly, when I (now) decline to self-identify as either atheist or theist, it isn’t because I'm agnostic. This isn't about not knowing what I believe. It’s because the baggage of those words will obscure whatever I might be trying to say. Those words, "atheist" and "theist," in the present cultural context, are inescapably tribal – i.e., the words are used to signal tribal identification in an ongoing culture war. I don’t care to be a warrior in either tribe. That’s just not a fight that I want to be a part of. My calling is to minister alike to members of the atheist tribe, members of the theist tribe, and those who, like me, prefer not to choose sides in that fight. (Though there are plenty of other fights in which I do choose sides.)

The word “God,” has a very long history of referring to a source of mystery and meaning, an origin, a basis for values and commitment, an ultimate the contemplation of which cultivates well-being, humility, peace, and an ethical vision. Sometimes I want to refer to those things. I’m comfortable saying “God” to make that reference, and I will often talk about God for that reason from the pulpit on Sunday morning. “God,” better than any other word, clearly and directly specifies that what I’m talking about is indeed an ultimate ground of both concrete values and commitments and at the same time incomprehensible, mysterious, full of powers we can but dimly apprehend (e.g., dark matter, 128 dimensions, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, reproduction, immunological response, consciousness): a reason for living, and a beauty beyond reason.

I also need to reach people for whom the word “God” is nothing but a distraction. I want to reach them with a spiritual message, and while “God” would be a helpful way to convey that message with many UUs, it’s also a stumbling block for others. So sometimes I avoid the word when I'd have been comfortable using it.

UUs are a diverse lot. I try to make sure that over the course of a number of Sundays everybody gets their turn. I also ask my congregants to stretch themselves a bit and hear the message as it would be in their language even when I’m speaking it, for that Sunday, in “the other side’s” language.

2013-09-20

Atone = At One

On Yom Kippur, the one thing, the only thing, for which we really have to atone, is all the times we weren’t awake, all the moments we didn’t approach with the awareness that that moment was the complete fulfillment of everything. We atone for all our lapses, our naps, our falling into the dream-delusions of separateness, by returning to being at one: at one with the dirty dishes, at one with the traffic jam, at one with your persnickety client, at one with your capricious boss, at one with your child’s tantrum, at one with every disappointment. It is a wonderful and dead-on accurate fluke of English that “atone” is “at one.” We atone for our mistakes by being at one with them -- and with every aspect of our lives.

In this context, the question of mission, the question of articulating a church mission, is the question of how we can be together in a community in such a way that:
(A) Our church is at one with the things, responding harmoniously to what arises, and
(B) We all help each other to develop the sense of vision, of how to bring to each moment a creative engagement.

Unitarian Universalism puts a heavy emphasis on individual conscience. Yet sometimes in our lives our individual conscience is simply at its wit’s end. Grief and loss are headed your way – and mine. If they are not with us right now, they are headed our way. Meanwhile, our individual consciences have spent their life thinking about other things, will never see grief coming, have no idea by themselves how to cope with significant loss.

To learn to find peace with, to be at one with, all of life, even the difficult and painful parts, our individual consciences needs the resources of a community embodying a tradition – a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning even when all meaning seems to be gone.

How do we do become the community that can offer that resource to our members and to the world? On what shall we get to work in order that the tradition, teachings, and values of Unitarian Universalism can come to life, find embodiment in our doing, and thereby nurture spiritual maturity in us? In short, what are we here to work on? That's the mission question.

On what are we here to work? For what does a Unitarian Universalist congregation congregate? Why do we gather at Community Unitarian Church and contribute our resources to its support?

It’s awfully nice to the members and friends of CUC to all chip in to pay my bills, give me a nice house to stay in, pay most of the health insurance premium for my family, but what exactly is it with which you’d like me to help you?

What is it with which we’d like to help and be helped by each other?

Articulating a clear and helpful statement of mission is no easy thing. More clarity on what we’re trying to do here – so we can help each other do it – and I can add what I can – would feel good.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Mission: Possible"
Next: Part 3: "Name the Change"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Vision Thing"

2013-09-18

The Vision Thing

Mission! Impossible? Or mission possible?

A while back the business world latched onto the idea of mission, and the results have not always been pretty. Mission statements of businesses are prone to either state the obvious, or state nothing at all.
  • “Aspire to excellence.”
  • “Client-focused providers.”
  • “Aiming to exceed expectations.”
These are too banal to provide any help. Alternatively, mission statements fall prey to incomprehensibility. One cartoon shows two business people looking at a draft proposal for their mission statement – and some of the language evokes religious themes, but its so convoluted. The statement says:
“Manifest excellence beyond a paradigm of betterment with magnitude of probity and cohesion with coalescence and diversity of purpose steadfast, bounded only by our prescience and predestination as we gloriously emanate eminence for the divine unified triumph toward quintessential destiny.”
The one person is saying to the other:
“I’m not satisfied with the new mission statement. I can still understand parts of it.”
And then there are the sorts that are loaded with generically meaningless buzzwords. Dilbert creator Scott Adams parodies these with the "Dilbert Mission Statement Generator" which churns out such samples as:
"We have committed to synergistically fashion high-quality products so that we may collaboratively provide access to inexpensive leadership skills in order to solve business problems"
And:
"It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to quickly create principle-centered sources to meet our customer's needs"
And:
"Our challenge is to assertively network economically sound methods of empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based infrastructures"
Those are parodies. This one is real:
"The New Ventures Mission is to scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings."
Businesses are not congregations, and congregations are not businesses. We aren’t even a nonprofit business. Yet we have in common that we are complex organizations that have a lot of different things going on, and it's hard to sum up all those things in any way that provides meaningful guidance. So what often results is either banal or incomprehensible.

Community Unitarian Church is in the midst of a process for articulating our mission. Since we are not a business, we are a faith institution, a spiritual community, perhaps we can draw on spiritual wisdom to help us avoid the mission pitfalls into which many businesses fall.

For instance, our theme of the month for September is vision. "Vision" sounds like it’s about having a plan and goals: a “vision of the future” -- and sometimes it is. That sense of vision is not what I'd think of as a particularly spiritual resource. In a spiritual context, vision is about seeing who you are, what is your place, what is yours to do. The Biblical book of Proverbs (29:18) famously says,
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The very next words, though, give it a spin you might not have expected:
“but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (KJV)
Other translations render it as:
“Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint, but happy are those that keep the law.” (NRSV)
Or:
"When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful." (NLT)
Or:
"Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction." (NIV)
Proverbs is saying that vision -- a.k.a. prophecy, divine guidance, revelation -- is about perceiving that which shows us the way toward a fulfilling life. It’s seeing the context within which our lives make sense – seeing what we’re here for – and flowing with it.

It’s not that the picture of the future toward which you are working is entirely irrelevant . . . yet, from a spiritual standpoint, actually, yes, the picture of the future toward which you are working is entirely irrelevant.

Take a simple, quotidian task like washing the dishes. Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“We do not wash the dishes in order to get them clean. We wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”
This vision here is not a picture in my head of a tidy kitchen with all the dishes sparkling and neatly stacked in the cabinets. Rather, I would be bringing vision to my dishwashing insofar a I perceived that at that moment washing dishes was the best possible thing for me to be doing, and, indeed, the total fulfillment of the whole universe’s 14 billion years. That sudsy warm water. That slippery plate. My own wet hands. That’s what everything was for. That’s the meaning of it all, right there.

That’s vision. That kind of vision is indeed spiritual wisdom to draw on. If we could bring that kind of vision to everything we do, to every moment, then we'd be harmonizing ourselves to what the world presents to us. We'd be doing what Proverbs calls “keeping the law.” We'd be awake.

* * *
This part 1 of 5 of "Mission: Possible"
Next: Part 2: "Atone = At One"

2013-09-17

The Beat

Come, spirit, come, our hearts control.
Our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed.
By this we worship, and are freed.

-Hal Hopson

“By this we worship and are freed.” By what, exactly, are we freed? The evident antecedent of "this," in the context of the verse, would be: inward love guiding every deed. But what is that? Consider that "this" is whatever is right in front you, immediately present, right now. By THIS we worship and are freed. What do I mean? Here's a poem from one of the Beat poets that may help.

"Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier that Students of Zen"
by Gary Snyder

In the high seat, before-dawn dark,
Polished hubs gleam
And the shiny diesel stack
Warms and flutters
Up the Tyler Road grade
To the logging on Poorman creek
Thirty miles of dust.
There is no other life.

What "thirty miles of dust" are you in the middle of, wishing, maybe, that it would settle down or blow away or just come to its end? There is no other life than that very dust cloud. By this -- this thirty miles of dust that envelopes us, whatever the dust of your particular life may be -- we worship. By this we are freed. Nothing else can free us, for there is nothing else. "There is no other life."

We cannot escape the fact, though we retreat from facing it in various ways. And the very retreats away from it turn into pathways back to it. Just this. THIS! In all the grandeur of its plainness and all the specialness of its ordinariness, there is no other life, nothing but this, no one but us, no other sacredness, no other religion than one or another set of worn practices of directing our attention, over and over, to no other life than this.

We forget, get distracted, get lost in dreams and plans for some other life. Over and over, then, repeat the exercises of remembering. This! By THIS we worship and are freed.

When we approach the holy beyond all speech, our words drop away in chunks, until only one word remains: "This."

Then that word, too, drops away.

And in the silence beyond, or beneath, or over, all our words, we touch the unmediated and the real -- and perceive therein a quiet rhythm, a pulse: the Beat.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Beatnik Celebration"
Previous: Part 3: "Beat Paul and the Corinthians"
Beginning: Part 1: "No Other Life"

2013-09-13

Beat Paul and the Corinthians

(Cont. from "Riffing on Hymn #34")

Paul stood before those Corinthians. "What else? What else you got?" he asked again.

Some one said, "a strong work ethic."

Paul repeated the answer and added, "OK. And what else?"

"Fatigue," said someone else.

"Well, yeah, that goes with the work ethic. What did I tell you about those John Calvin books? What else?"

"Hope," offered a Corinthian.

"That's cool," said Paul.

"Anger."

"Yeah, you got that."

More answers were shouted out. Paul repeated them as he heard them: "Faith. Courage. Enough education, professional expertise, and a good bag of tools. That's all good stuff. What else?"

"Love," said one of those Corinthians.

"Bingo," said Paul. "You got love. You got love like an ocean in your soul." And just as the Corinthians were breathing a collective sigh of relief, Paul said, "Now get it out."

"What?"

"Get it out. Take love out of that box you carry it around in, that casket you call your heart, open up that box and take out the love you have."

"You said it was an ocean," objected one Corinthian.

"Yeah, you're mixing metaphors," added another.

"I'm not mixing them, I'm switching them. You gotta be quick. You gotta be nimble. C'mon, keep up with me. Now take it out."

"You mean, like, metaphorically?"

"Whatever. Just, let me see it." The Corinthians sat there, just looking. Paul said, "What's the matter, take it out. Come on. How hard could that be? Simply open up the box of your heart, and let your love out. Just do it."

Finally, one of the Corinthians said, "Paul, I'd like to, really, I would. And I know I have the love. I feel it glowing in there right now, and I have felt what it was like when the box opened, but I can't just open the box on command."

Paul said, "So you're a failure then." And the Corinthian was suddenly very interested in her shoes. "How about the rest of you?" But they were all interested in their shoes too. "You can't do it, can you? You can't say, 'I'm going to open that box,' and reach in and open it. You can't make that box open up so that your love can be unmistakably seen. Can you?" The Corinthians slowly shook their heads. "So you're all failures," said Paul. There was a long and awkward silence.

One of the Corinthians finally said, "So what do we do now?"

"So what do we do now?" repeated Paul. "We need your brave fire to burn with love, because there is such a thing as burning without it. Yet you can't make the love come out. You can’t, by yourself, make the love come out. It comes out when it is born out on the winds of spirit that are not held within you but which come into being among us and between us, the spirit that comes to be yours but first was ours. You made the love, but you don't open the box to let it out, to let it be seen and recognised and take effective form. You don't open the box to let out your love. We do. And we do even when we don't know what we're doing and don’t mean to be doing it. The spirit which is beyond our control but which our connection somehow mysteriously creates, takes control of our hearts, brings our love into the broad day. The spirit that is us brings wholeness to our fragmented, separate individual hearts and spirits. Then inward love directs all our doing. And when your love is set free, so are you."

"So...we're not failures then?"

"Oh, yes, you sure are. Forever do you -- and I -- fail. And, through each other, forever are you and I being redeemed."

A Corinthian said, "Paul, that's great. I'm just not quite clear on how that answers the question."

Paul said, "What was the question?"

"The question was, So what do we do now?"

"So what do we do now?" Paul repeated again. "What we do now is pray. Together."

"Pray for us, Paul," shouted a Corinthian in the back.

But Paul said, "Oh, no. You know the words."

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Beatnik Celebration"
Next: Part 4: "The Beat"
Previous: Part 2: "Riffing on Hymn #34"
Beginning: Part 1: "No Other Life"

2013-09-11

Riffing On Hymn #34

So this uptight dude from Tarsus named Saul, had a hobby of persecuting people. For his day job, he was a manufacturer of camping equipment. He had a website: "Saul Things Camping" ("The prices are fair, ya see.")

Yet Saul himself was an unhappy camper.

He made tents. He made everybody tense. He made himself tense. Until the day Saul scored some primo weed: "Damascus Gold." Opened up a whole new world for him. Made him three days blind, and when he could see again, he could see.

He said, "Whoah, dig it. I am all new. I need a new name."

So he changed his name to Paul. He was one hep cat.

Let me tell you about the trip he laid down on those brothers and sisters in Corinth. He went to Corinth, and when all the Corinthian siblings had gathered for Sunday morning worship, Paul spoke to the congregation. He asked them a strange question: "How brave does your fire need to be?"

These Corinthians, they were serious about their faith. They even came to church in August, when it was unfashionable to do so. They had studied at Asia Minor Theological Seminary. They could preach. They could whip up some decent inspiration, no problem. They could burn some pretty brave fire on a good day.

Paul said, "Groovy. Burn baby burn. Keep on burning, sisters. Flame on, brothers. But: how brave does your fire need to be?"

One Corinthian said, "Brave enough to burn up all the fear in the world."

Paul said, "All of it? Really? No, we need to be able to fear. You may not be a fear addict -- a junkie with the jones on for another hit of adrenalin speed; the short hairs on your neck standing at attention; pupils dilating to take in everything. Maybe you're not craving that it do so, but your body can fear, and that is a grace. You wouldn't want it not to be able to do that. Fear is a grace.
So I ask again, how brave does your fire need to be?"

No one made a second guess, so Paul said: "The brave fire doesn't sear out the body's wise danger signals. It burns the cobwebs of fear, hanging around, clinging and sticky, long after the body fear's gracious gift-work is done. That's a brave fire that can burn all that leftover, hanger-on fear, looping, sticking epiphenomena of fear. The brave fire burns what just isn't needed anymore, burns the conscience that doth make cowards of us all, burns us into our courage. Do you speak with that brave fire? Are you living your life with that brave fire? Have you ever? Maybe once? Well burn on, baby. That's great. Let me just ask you this. Right now, this morning, right here, each other, where's the love, man?"

Those Corinthians couldn't answer. Paul rested in their silence until he was sure he could see where the love was.

Then he said, "Look. No, really: look. What have you got? Look and see. Take inventory. What have you got? You've got possessions. OK. A house, a car, a closet full of clothes, bookshelves sagging with the weight of all those volumes. Throw it all out. If you want to. I mean, that biographical analysis of the theology of John Calvin? When are you going to need that again? That sounding brass that you got at that little gift shop at that spiritual retreat center because you thought it would be a cool thing to have, what are you still carrying that around for? Chuck it all. Or, heck, don't. Keep it. I don't care. I just want you to know that keeping it is useless and that giving it away proves nothing. So, whatever. What else? What else you got?"

To be continued.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Beatnik Celebration"
Next: Part 3: "Beat Paul and the Corinthians"
Previous: Part 1: "No Other Life"

2013-09-09

No Other Life

Before there was Gangnam Style,
Before there was metal, punk, electronic, acid,
before any rock could be called classic,
before any rock at all,
There was The Beat.
And The Beat, well, The Beat,
It goes on.
And the Beat says:
There is no other life.
(No other flame, no other chalice, no other us, no other life.)
We can stylize it and trivialize it.
We can say “man” at the end of it, and make it into a parody of Beatniks:
“There is no other life, man.”
And now maybe it’s funny.
Now it’s Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis, 1959 to 1963, played by Bob Denver before he became Gilligan.
Maynard G. Krebs, beatnik stereotype, with his goatee, hip talking, unkempt appearance.
“There is no other life, man”
Maynard might have said,
And the laugh track would have told us
Because we wouldn’t otherwise have been sure
That it was funny.
There is no other life.
You’ve heard that cannabis can make a person feel profound
Saying things trite, quotidian, unremarkable.
“Hey, man, the tiny atom is a model of the vast solar system
And the vast solar system is a model of the tiny atom.
Wow, man. That is soo heavy.”
But we are aloof from that, that scene.
We know that’s not heavy at all.
We know that’s just some ridiculous Maynard G. Krebs beatnik
Induced, by a couple tokes, to make some silly unimportant irrelevant remark
Seem all deep and important.
There is no other life.
How many layers have been thrown up to protect us from that truth?
Bundle it as humor.
Bundle it as something we’d have to be high to say.
Bundle it as a cultural phase from more than half-a-century ago, something America had for a few years,
but got over,
like the flu.

We have learned to say “been there, done that”
As if everything in the whole possible conceivable world was worth paying attention to exactly once and never again.
As if we needed a bucket list of things to do before we died because life could somehow be more thrilling than it is right now.
As if the measure of a life were the length of the list of things done once, rather than the integrity of things done over and over,
10 years, 20 years, 30 years,
until they shine with iridescent beauty and grow
fresher
with each repetition.
There is no other life.
Stop with the “been there, done that” and go back to that place you have been and that thing you have done.
Go back because last time you were there you didn’t stay.
Go back to what you know – but live as if you’d forgotten.
There is no other life.
Touch that familiar cloth, and the electric jolt of mad implication:

If there is no other life, if this is it, all of it,
All of it right here
Then that makes everything different.
If there is no other life, then life is other
Than the fog of otherness-craving we took it for.

Look around.
There is no other life.
Man.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Beatnik Celebration"
Next: Part 2: "Riffing on Hymn #34"

2013-09-05

Neecie

First Baptist: Waco's dominant social institution
through much of the 20th century
Let me tell you about Neecie Vanston. The story was referenced briefly in the latest issue of UUWorld (2013 Fall, p. 60, online here).

Thirty years ago, I was 24 years old. Neecie and I were members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas. Neecie was 70-years-old, which, you know, doesn’t seem as old to me now as it did when I was 24. She came up to about the middle of my chest. Neecie was a long-time and dedicated member of the Waco fellowship. In fact, the Fellowship began in her home in 1952 -- a time when social respectability "deep in the heart of Texas" was largely determined by which Baptist church one attended. I, on the other hand, had not yet been born in 1952, and I was newly returned to the UU fold after having been unchurched since high school.

Neecie believed in the seven Unitarian Universalist principles and that those seven are enough. She believed in a religion that welcomed theological diversity. She believed in ethics because what we do matters. She believed that the more she understood about the experience of different people – the different social experience of different classes and different races and different cultures, and the different spiritual experience of Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and the various forms of Christian – then the more she understood herself, the more she understood the ground of being, and the more she loved those different people, and acted on that compassion, the more she was whole. She believed – she knew – down to her bones from 30 years of walking the Unitarian Universalist path – that community based on this approach to religion saves us, heals us, sets us free. That’s what liberal religion is, and that was Neecie’s religion.

So there I was: a young adult who didn’t understand that distinction between the easy and lazy believe-anything-you-want-to and the disciplined quest to discern your own heart and mind’s dictates.

One Sunday in Waco, during our holiest sacrament -- the coffee communion after the service -- I made the mistake of blithely blurting, “We’re Unitarian Universalists. We can believe whatever we want to.”

Neecie overheard that remark. And she turned around. I will never forget it. It was a religious moment.

“You think I believe in what I do because I want to?” she said. “I believe this because I have to. You think here in Waco, Texas, my life wouldn’t be a lot easier if I could be a Baptist? But I can’t. My conscience won’t let me.”

Noticing that I was completely at a loss, she softened. “Meredith,” she said, putting a hand on my elbow, “the world is beautiful, and it is tragic. I believe we are here to cling together and make what light we can against the darkness. That’s hard work, because frankly some days I don’t feel all that clingy. And I don’t have much spark to offer. We are here to try to find out what’s true about ourselves and each other and this world. That’s hard work, too. It’s from that work that our beliefs come, and we don’t do it because we want to, but because we have to. We do it because we are commanded by God or conscience or something of greater significance than our convenience.”

“Oh,” I said.

Does not the world call to us for a religious response -- that is, a response which affirms dignity and justice and compassion and acceptance and searching and conscience and democracy and peace and interdependence?

Comerado, do you hear that call?

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Previous: Part 4: "Suspicion of Dualism"
Beginning: Part 1: "An Open Road Song"