Thursday, December 30, 2010

Concord at Christmas

A bit of a travelogue post here, maybe of interest to Unitarians who haven't had the opportunity to visit some of our historic sites...

Taking advantage of the sabbatical over Christmas, I inserted a week of vacation into December so that we might go to my husband's home of Rhode Island for Christmas.  While we were there, Peter (the aforementioned husband) really wanted to go to Concord with our daughter, and we hadn't had time over last summer's visit.  Our daughter really enjoys the Henry books by D. B. Johnson, which tell stories from the life of Henry David Thoreau through portraying Henry as a bear.  We have a complete set of the books, as does our church. 
Henry Climbs a MountainHenry Builds a CabinHenry's NightHenry Hikes to FitchburgHenry Works
Peter and I lived in Gardner, MA for two years (just beyond Fitchburg, where Henry hikes to in one of those books, which is how we got introduced to the books) and visited Concord several times during that period.  However, this was our daughter's first visit to Concord, and the first visit of Peter's mother, as well, although she's a Rhode Island native.  It's not as big a tourist spot for the Catholics as it is the Unitarians, it seems.  As the home of Unitarians Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, among others, it's a big spot for Unitarian Universalists to visit.  In fact, Peter had given some tours for UU youth groups during our time there.

It was a snowy day when we stopped by the woods by Walden Pond.  The state park was open to visitors without an entrance fee, so we drove in a little, but then drove back out to go first to the visitor's center.  The clerk there was impressed that our six-year-old recognized Henry David Thoreau, and gave her a free button.  I got a new blue water bottle with "Walden Pond" written on it to use at church, since my old one is showing some wear after I left it at a wedding and they didn't discover it for a few days, although I still love that it's insulated.  Peter got a pencil.  And we had a nice conversation with the clerk, who informed us that he had been to Jackson many times for the Civil War Muster.  He also plays Henry in their dramatic productions and has a picture of himself as Henry the Bear drawn by D.B. Johnson of the Henry books.  We were suitably impressed with this information.  We then went over to the reproduction of Thoreau's cabin and peered in its windows.  I hadn't seen it before, or hadn't remembered it if I had seen it.  The cabin is impressively small.  It's smaller than the sheds many people have just to house their outdoor tools.  The woodshed for the house was almost as large.  But, as Thoreau explains in the Henry books, the house it just for when it rains, the world outside is his real house.  Deeming it too cold to hike down to the pond, although it looked beautiful with the snow falling on the trees, we proceeded on to downtown Concord.

Every other time I've been in Concord I think I've run into other colleagues there, but this time was the exception, probably because it was so close to Christmas.  I expected Concord to be a bit more decked out of the holidays, but it had enough wreaths and greenery to make us feel holiday cheer.  I don't know what I was expected--I think I had some ridiculous unconscious expectation of carolers in top hats and bonnets and sleighs going down the street.  We parked near the Unitarian Church and had lunch after walking over to look at the monuments and find the small plaque amidst the large war monuments which marks where Henry David Thoreau spent his night in jail.  Since the jail period is the subject of one of the Henry books, it was of particular interest.

From there we hopped back in the car and drove up to the Old Manse, where Emerson and Hawthorne both lived.  Nathaniel Hawthorne etched some words in the windows we had learned on a previous visit, but we didn't opt for the tour this time, as it was less likely to hold a six-year-old's interest.  We did take a detour from Unitarianism into Revolutionary War history to walk across the Old North Bridge next to the Old Manse to see the statue of the Minute Man, and see the site of which Ralph Waldo Emerson would later pen in his "Concord Hymn":
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
My daughter deemed it too spooky to go to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are all buried, as well as other Unitarian figures (Emerson with an amusingly large huge raw chunk of marble and Alcott and Thoreau with small markers), and as we drove by it appeared closed.  Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing wrote the poem "Sleepy Hollow" for the cemetery's founding:
No abbey's gloom, nor dark cathedral stoops,
No winding torches paint the midnight air;
Here the green pines delight, the aspen droops
Along the modest pathways, and those fair
Pale asters of the season spread their plumes
Around this field, fit garden for our tombs.
It was not the season for pale asters, anyway, and it would've been cold, even though the road goes right up to Author's Ridge.  Last time I was there I saw Alcott's, Emerson's and Thoreau's grave.  I'll have to look next time for William Ellery Channing's marker and some others.

We then proceeded on to Orchard House, where the Alcott family lived and Bronson Alcott founded the Concord School of Philosophy.  I've been reading Alcott's Little Women to my daughter, in preparation for this Concord trip, although it's a bit old for her.  Here we learned that Louisa's sister May Alcott (who is most like Amy March in Little Women) was an artist who taught Daniel Chester French to sculpt.  French was also a Unitarian and he sculpted the Minute Man statue at the Old North Bridge and, more famously, Abraham Lincoln in DC's Lincoln Memorial.  French also sculpted Thomas Starr King, our famous Unitarian for whom Starr King School for the Ministry is named.  The statue of Thomas Starr King is the one that California removed from the National Statuary Hall in order to put in the statue of Ronald Regan, to the great dismay of Unitarians everywhere.  (French is also buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.)

Peter pointed out that of all the abolitionist transcendentalists we had visited this day, Louisa May Alcott was the only one who served in the Civil War.  The tour guide told us that Emerson had kissed the bride at one of Louisa's sisters' weddings, and that Louisa had been a bit jealous of that, saying something to the effect of although she was determined to never marry, apparently a kiss from Emerson would've been a tempting reason to do so.  Upon leaving, we picked up an abridged chapter book of Little Women more suitable for early readers in the gift shop.  Our local bookstore had not had such a thing before we left. 

Full of Unitarian history, we called it a day from there, driving out on the road Orchard House was on to wherever it went.  Where it went was Lexington, where we passed their Minuteman statue and their Unitarian church, but did not stop and tarry there, for it was snowy and we had miles to go.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

For World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day, so to create an opportunity to help people think about doing something for World AIDS Day, I'm going to tell you a story.  This is the story of how I first became involved in the issue.

Long before I knew that I knew anybody with AIDS or who was HIV+, long before I had the unfortunate honor of performing my first funeral for a man who died from AIDS, I recognized in myself a fear and a prejudice.  That was the start.  I knew that I was unreasonably fearful of people with AIDS, to the point where I feared I would act in a prejudicial manner towards somebody with AIDS.  My friend Manda and I had volunteered the previous year (1995) for a program called "Alternative Spring Break" and had spent our spring break working for the physical disability rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia the year before (we met during that program), and were both considering doing the program again.  I think it was Manda who first suggested that she was interested in the program that would volunteer at the Mobile (Alabama) AIDS Support Services.  At any rate, we both decided to apply to spend our spring break with a group of about 20 University of Georgia students working for MASS (now called "South Alabama Cares").  I knew I had this prejudice and fear about AIDS, and I faced the decision in myself about whether to confront it or whether to live with the prejudice and fear.  It wasn't consistent with my view of myself as a religious and moral person to leave this unchallenged.  Therefore, I decided that I had to go to Mobile.

ASB did a lot of training with us before we left to prepare us for the trip.  Honestly, I don't remember much of it.  I was the oldest student on the trip--all the rest were undergrads, and I was a graduate student.  We were mostly women, with, I think, two men in our group.  I remember late-night discussions about theology on the trip when one of the young men told someone that he didn't believe in God.  I was, and am, agnostic myself, so was right in the middle of the debate that ensued.

On our trip we encountered some sexism that I still remember.  Our van broke down with a flat tire when we were on a day trip to the beach.  Two of us in the group had experience changing tires, Manda and myself, and were preparing to figure out how to change the van's tire when along came a state trooper.  He decided to oversee the project and wouldn't let the two of us help.  Instead he insisted that two unprepared students--the two boys--complete the project.  Manda and I took a long walk on the beach instead, cooling our heads so we wouldn't get in an altercation with law enforcement.

Another memorable part of the trip was that when we were working for MASS the local television station did a story on us, as did the local paper.  A local businessman was so impressed with our service that he took us all out to a little seafood restaurant in the middle of nowhere along the ocean.  At the end of the meal he gave everyone a card of thanks for our work, and in it was a crisp new $100 bill.  The new $100 bills had just been released in March of 1996, and none of us had seen them yet.  It was quite a gift, and obviously still memorable to me.  It was amazing that a stranger would do this for us.

But nothing was as memorable as the work we did.

Honestly, I think MASS wasn't quite prepared for how much work 20 college students can accomplish in a week, and a lot of the time we were doing busy work.  I think one afternoon we just raked leaves.  Another large portion of one day was spent taking strips of condoms and tearing them into individual packages to be put in the bowl where people could grab them as they entered or exited the center.  We processed thousands of condoms in this way, and there are a lot of amusing pictures of us sitting or standing in these huge piles of condoms.  Sometimes we just did filing.  It was a lot of the same sort of stuff (aside from the condoms) that we could have done for any agency.

And then one day we told that some of us could go out to a home of a man who was living with AIDS.  This man was now blind, and having trouble taking care of himself between learning to live with blindness and with AIDS, all by himself.  Manda and I both went out on the crew that went to clean up his home.  And it was the hardest thing we could imagine.  That's where the fear I was holding in myself had to finally be addressed.  I had to know by the end of that day that I had come in contact with the virus, and that I was okay.  I knew intellectually how one contracts HIV, but inside myself I still felt fear about ordinary physical contact--shaking hands, hugging--with someone with HIV.  By the end of the day I would be able to if not put that fear inside me entirely away, at least put it into perspective.

The trip had a lasting impression on me.  When I got back to Athens, I started volunteering with the local AIDS support agency.  I would end up working on an AIDS-related topic for my master's thesis, as well.

In the end, I've learned a lot about HIV/AIDS, but by working, living, and worshiping with people with HIV/AIDS, I've learned a lot more about myself.

Addendum:  Manda has blogged back about her memories of that day in Mobile.  You can read her story here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ramblings and Rediscovering Christmas

Regular readers of this blog may notice I haven't posted in a month, which is unusual for me.  I'm on sabbatical, so my posting schedule will be pretty irregular for the next few months.  One of the reasons I timed my sabbatical the way I did--starting in late October and going through early April--was because one the areas I feel the most need to reinvent is the way I approach holidays, specifically Christmas.  I've been in ministry for 9 years now, and I'm finding little new to share in my approach to the message of Jesus' birth.  One of my main December goals is to go to other UU churches and see how they handle December.  My approach has been to have an every-other-year system where one year I'm doing a world-religions focus for December and the next I'm focusing in on the Christmas story specifically.  At this point in my ministry I've done Christmas sermons on the holiday blues, simplifying the holidays, Dickens, the historical Jesus, peace, hope, sharing and giving, holiday traditions, holiday spirit, and more.  I'm sure there's more to mine in the Christmas story before I do it all again, but I need inspiration.

Another way I want to experience Christmas this year is through living the experience of Christmas in a new way.  I went into ministry before I became a parent, and I'm a last-minute writer, so I haven't had weekends to do holiday activities with my child.  I'm hoping to have more time to experience the joys of the season than I've had in previous years where ministry kept me working six days a week.  My sabbatical rule: only work at most five days a week!  :) 

So in my experiencing of Christmas so far, we've gotten our tree up, and then I helped my best friend put her tree up last night--just assembling, not decorating.  It turns out, I've learned, that fluffing out the branches of an artificial pre-lit tree can take even longer than putting up a real tree and stringing it with lights, if you do it right.  While we did this, we had a discussion about believing in Santa.  Turns out a similar discussion has been happening on the UU blogosphere between uuMomma and Paul Oakley (in a comment of his on Facebook).

My discussion was triggered by a comment I made that a lot of holiday movies seem centered around the question of belief in Santa, and that having this as a theme of the movies themselves may make a child viewing it open up the question of belief in Santa.  The existence of people not believing in Santa in the movies points out that some people don't, in fact, believe in Santa, and might prompt a child to ask why that's the case.  Some examples:
  • Elf - We watched this recently with our Santa-believing daughter, which is what raised the question for me.  It's not the main point of the movie, but Santa gets his sleigh stuck because the magic has gone out of Christmas, and it takes more people believing to get it back in the sky.
  • The Polar Express - A little doubting boy is taught to believe in the magic of Christmas because of a special train ride.
  • And, of course, the classic Miracle on 34th Street, where the girl, her mother, and all of NYC don't believe in Santa Claus, until they get their Christmas miracles.
Right now my daughter does believe in Santa, and watching Elf was certainly not enough to break that spell.  She's pretty resistant to it, in fact.  She was the one who told us that Santa exists, not vice versa.  And last year when we tried to tell her leprechauns don't really go around leaving pots of gold in her school playground, and that it was really the teacher, she refused to believe us.  She was adamant that we were wrong about this.  I think if I tried to tell her Santa wasn't real and we ate the cookies, she'd argue us down about it.  Her belief in Santa includes space for the idea that some children don't believe in Santa, and that the guys in the mall in the red suits aren't really Santa, and yet Santa can still be real.  Eventually she'll be told by some friend in a convincing enough way that she'll stop believing, I assume, or she'll ask me outright and I'll tell her the truth.  Until then, her world is magical.  And that means sometimes putting up with leprechauns, I suppose.

There's a lot of debate about whether telling children the Santa myth is the right or wrong thing to do.  I've had some good debates about it in various circles.  I really believe there's good and bad both ways, and that no parent should be judged on their decision about this.  We went back and forth about it ourselves, so I have a hard time justifying either perspective completely.  Meanwhile, our child made the decision for us, and as long as she wants to believe in Santa, I'm content to let her.

Interestingly, and tangentially here, I've often said (and read other people who've also said the same for them), that I stopped believing in God when I stopped believing in Santa.  (I consider myself an agnostic, now, but I went through an atheist period.)  Right now, my daughter is also a firm believer in God.  That may change, or it may not.  I'm not trying to change it, and am okay with wherever her belief goes, outside of fundamentalism.  When we responded to her about her stance of, "I'm standing up for God," saying, "Well, sometimes we say we're 'standing on the side of love,'" she firmly responded, "It's the same thing, Mom.  It's the same thing."  And, after all, who can argue with that?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Freedom of press, speech, and religion

Juan Williams was fired from NPR this week because of comments he made on Fox News, where he’s a regular commentator.  His comments included the statement that he gets nervous when he’s on a plane with people who identify first and foremost as Muslim, as evident from garb.

I realized I have a particular perspective on this that might be different, and so is worth sharing. And I expect it is probably an unpopular opinion, as well. 

In this country we have a lot of freedoms, among them freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.  Sometimes these freedoms come into conflict.  And sometimes we voluntarily choose roles that curtail these freedoms.  We’re free to not choose those roles and retain the full exercise of our freedoms, and usually we know in taking up these mantles that we are thereby giving up certain freedoms.

As a minister, I’m caught up by the freedom of religion that also requires churches, as non-profit agencies, to keep the government free from their influence.  What this means is that the church is not to take any partisan position, not involve itself in campaigning for a partisan political candidate in any way, and not urge its members to vote for a specific partisan candidate.  The way I interpret this, although some differ, is that as a representative of the church--the “face of the church” in many ways--I, too, cannot publicly take any position of endorsing a candidate or writing a letter to the editor in which I imply that one candidate is a horrible choice.  I can take stands on issues and even behaviors, but the line is drawn between that and publicly taking a stand for a particular candidate.  And, as a public figure, this applies even when I’m off the job.  If I’m appearing on the news on TV or if I’m appearing in a quote in the paper, I’m known as a public figure and as a minister, so anything I saw will be perceived to be from the perspective on the church.  It’s something you do when you take up a public life--you lose your ability to be just another voice, a private voice, in public forums.

Last week when I found a stack of political bumper stickers in the church for a candidate that I personally think is pretty darn wonderful, I handed that stack of bumper stickers to someone and said, "These need to be taken out of the church.  Immediately.  Can you see to it?"

Now, I still do have certain rights politically.  I can still vote.  My personal interpretation of things is to say that I can still have a bumper sticker or a yard sign for a candidate--my house and car are not only still more private than my public voice, but also they’re shared by my husband who retains his political voice.  I have been known to even wear a political button when out and about (NEVER in the church), and to attend a political rally.  But I don’t speak up publicly (i.e. at the microphone) at political rallies.

Now, back to NPR.  NPR journalists, NPR argues, have similar problems to what I face in ministry.  Because their job is to uphold an image of fair and impartial reporting, it is a necessary aspect of their job that they, like me, relinquish part of their freedom of speech in taking up this important role in our society.  Any speech they make in a public setting with a microphone will be taken as coming from an NPR journalist.  NPR journalists, like ministers, know that in taking up this public role of journalism they are bound by its code of ethics which requires them to be publicly neutral in order for NPR to have a public appearance of fair and unbiased journalism.  Because of this, they cannot attend any political rally, something that made headlines recently when they decided that the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rally counted as a political rally, and therefore their journalists who were not covering the event could not attend

Essentially, NPR's Ombudsman argued in the wake of the firing, the problem was not so much Juan Williams' recent comments, but that a role as a regular pundit on Fox News was incompatible with the role of an NPR journalist.  NPR's Code of Ethics says this in the section on outside speaking engagements:

8. NPR journalists may not speak to groups where the appearance might put in question NPR's impartiality. Such instances include situations where the employee's appearance may appear to endorse the agenda of a group or organization. This would include participation in some political debates and forums where the sponsoring group(s) or other participants are identified with a particular perspective on an issue or issues and NPR journalist's participation might put into question NPR's impartiality.

9. NPR journalists must get permission from the Senior Vice President for News, or their designee, to appear on TV or other media. Requests should be submitted in writing to the employee's immediate supervisor and copied to . Approval will not be unreasonably denied if the proposed work will not discredit NPR, conflict with NPR's interests, create a conflict of interest for the employee or interfere with the employee's ability to perform NPR duties. The Senior Vice President or designee must respond within seven days of receiving a request. It is not necessary to get permission in each instance when the employee is a regular participant on an approved show. Permission for such appearances may be revoked if NPR determines such appearances are harmful to the reputation of NPR or the NPR participant.

10. In appearing on TV or other media including electronic Web-based forums, NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist. They should not participate in shows electronic forums, or blogs that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis.
 NPR's Ombudsman says:
It's not about race. It's also not about free speech, as some have charged. Nor is it about an alleged attempt by NPR to stifle conservative views. NPR offers a broad range of viewpoints on its radio shows and web site.
Instead, this latest incident with Williams centers around a collision of values: NPR's values emphasizing fact-based, objective journalism versus the tendency in some parts of the news media, notably Fox News, to promote only one side of the ideological spectrum.
Some have argued that this is an archaic view of journalism.  Arianna Huffington has said that this view of journalism is both archaic and untenable and that what's needed is not objectivity but transparency.  There's an argument for that--we know that journalists all have their biases, so why not let them show clearly so that we know what they are?  Currently, however, we're seeing the results of that on the cable news networks, where prime time is taken up not by news reporting but by pundits expressing opinion rather than fact.  I think we need more news sources like NPR and fewer like Fox News or even MSNBC.  If maintaining this level of journalistic integrity requires their reporters to give up certain public freedoms, I think NPR has the right to expect this of their reporters.  And in talking about rights, NPR has the right to fire a reporter for violating the terms of his employment and breaking the code of ethics.

Perhaps this should change, and ministers should have the right to endorse politicians from the free pulpit and journalists should have the right to endorse politicians on the free news.  I think that point may come in both cases.  And of course public has the right to put pressure on NPR if they disagree with the firing of a journalist for something he or she said, or if they want a journalist fired for something he or she said.  Boycotts and letter-writing and other forms of persuading companies are time-honored methods of achieving change in corporations.  Right now, though, I'm happy to have a news outlet that tries to achieve impartiality.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

One More

Like a lot of other UUs, I got the message about "Spirit Day" and wore purple yesterday, and pink, too, since that was the color being used in my community.  Hopefully the national show of spirit helped someone, somewhere.  But we know it's not enough.  That point is made eloquently by Melissa Pope of Oakland University who said:
While the national press has picked up this issue over the last two months, we have been losing high numbers of LGBT youth to suicide for decades. In recent years, we’ve labeled the cause as bullying. But the root cause goes deeper – it goes to the very core of our society that discriminates against the LGBT community on all levels, including the denial of basic human rights that are supposed to belong to every person.
This response from Pope comes following the news of the suicide of a young Oakland University student, Corey Jackson.

Meanwhile, I'm searching for answers after the death of this one young man that has hit close to home.  Sources close to him say that bullying wasn't the issue.  And the message of the "It Gets Better" project seems to be that it gets better after high school when you can get out of your smaller circle into the larger, more liberal, more supportive world of college.  I know, even as a heterosexual person, that it got better for me--high school was pretty miserable for a nerdy, awkward teenager, and once I got to a world where my intelligence was more appreciated and there were lots of other nerds, well, it got better.  For lots of lgbt youth, they get off to college and find a world with a social circle and a support circle that they can fit into for the first time, and it does, indeed, get better.

Corey's death and other deaths of young college men belie this "It Gets Better" argument as a cure-all.  For some people, it did get better. For some, like Corey or Raymond Chase or Tyler Clementi, apparently it did not. And I'm sure the support in Rochester/Detroit or Providence or New Brunswick could be stronger, but none of these are rural, isolated, or particularly conservative--Michigan, Rhode Island and New Jersey are all states that are blue or swing states.  There are resources and support networks in all these areas.  I'm sure all the campuses have support networks and probably offices dedicated to supporting lgbt students. 

It wasn't enough for these young men.
Everything we're doing--it's not enough.

We have to change hearts and minds of those who are sending out the message that gay people are less than human, are sinners and damned, are not normal and natural.  

After Zach Harrington's death, I watched the footage of the Norman, Oklahoma City Council meeting that he had attended on September 28th which debated whether to pass a measure proclaiming a lgbt heritage month for October in Norman.  That is, I watched approximately half of the three-hour debate.  That was enough.  That was enough in a city council format, wherein each resident can say their few minutes of their point of view, and there's not rebuttal or correction or debate with each perspective unless the next person who gets up says something to refute the previous statement.  I heard some really good people get up--one doctor, one minister, many other residents--and say some really positive, heart-filled things in favor of the measure.  And I also heard lies after lies and stereotypes after stereotypes, and I heard slippery slopes and special privileges and all sorts of logical fallacies.  The worst one comes at 1:42 into the video--this is the point where I started to just feel sick to my stomach.  The speaker pretends that he hasn't made up his mind, asking how many people have reported to the police that they've been harassed by the police.  Without having much time to respond, a member of the human rights council says that they have been gathering instances and hearing stories on this sort of thing at every single meeting, and that most of them go unreported, and the city council chair says that she does have the number of hate crimes reported in the city (6 in the last year).  The speaker then comes to what he clearly always intended to say, which is that he's a minister in the city and that "78% of them carry sexually transmitted diseases and die from it" and that he "loves them enough" to "teach them that that's a lifestyle that's destructive to them." 

Over and over the real opposition to homosexuality came out: religious beliefs.  It always really comes down to that.  As a country, I don't think we can, through the governement, be about the process of changing religious beliefs--I absolutely believe in freedom of religion from government involvement.  But as a a minister, and as a human being, I believe that we, people of a healing and loving faith, absolutely have to be about the work of changing these beliefs.  As Sophia Lyon Fahs said, "It matters what you believe."  And the truth is, some religious beliefs kill.  I don't believe in supporting or upholding religious beliefs that lead people to terrorism--I believe in changing those beliefs.  These beliefs may not have the effect of causing their believers bomb buildings, but these beliefs are killing these young men, one at a time. 

A year ago, Bishop John Shelby Spong, in a manifesto essentially declaring victory against a theology he now saw as irrelevant said:
I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured."
Spong believed:
The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us.
I had some skepticism at the time.  Now, much as I like him, I think he was flat-out wrong.  The battle isn't won, and we don't need to stop debating this theology in the public arena, we need to do it more.  We have to do it more. 

Everything we're doing--it's not enough.
We need to do more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It Gets Better/Coming Out Day 2010/Everything Possible

Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day, a holiday started over twenty years ago to mark a celebration for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth and adults who were coming out of the closet and sharing the fact that they’re gay. This year, the weeks leading up to Coming Out Day have been horrendous and sad as we’ve heard news after news of young gay people committing suicide because of despair in the aftermath of bullying or the accumulation of messages of hate they’ve received in their short lifetimes. Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Zach Harrington, and others before them and probably some other recent ones as well—a string of deaths of young boys who thought they had nothing left to live for.

It should go without sayingthat we do think their lives are meaningful and important, and cherished, and that whatever God there is or isn’t is a God of love. We think that people are born gay, and it’s not a sin, but a natural difference in a segment of humanity’s glorious diversity.

It should go without saying, but if we go without saying it, those needing to hear this life-saving message of our faith, literally life-saving message, won’t hear it. It can’t go without saying at a time when so many aren’t hearing it, and are desperate with the need to know that they are loved, and that we consider them whole and good.

So at this time, I wanted to say this, now, to all of our children, and to their parents and loved ones, that we love you, and that whoever you grow up to be, whether you decide that you’re a girl who loves girls or a girl who loves boys, or a boy who loves girls or a boy who loves boys, and whether you decide that you are the girl or boy we think you are now, or if you decide that no, I’m not a girl, I’m a boy, or I’m not a boy, I’m a girl, that we love you, and we will keep loving you and we think you’re wonderful the way you are, and we want you to be happy.

One of the best ways I know to say this message is with Fred Small’s wonderful lullaby that says you can be anybody you want to be. So if you're a parent, grab your child and cuddle up, and if you don't have someone who you can cuddle up with nearby, let this song be the arms of a loving community around you.

Adapted from homily given in worship 10/10/10 at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Open Letter to Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox

Dear Attorney General Mike Cox,

As a minister, a long-time Michigan resident, and also a University of Michigan alumna, I write to you imploring you to fire Andrew Shirvell for conduct unbecoming a State of Michigan employee.  Every Michigan employee has the right to their own political opinion and freedom of speech, and those must be protected, but Andrew Shirvell’s behavior has undoubtedly gone beyond mere political opinion and into the realm of hate speech, cyber bullying, and cyber stalking in his actions regarding the University of Michigan student body president.  As a state employee, he has lost the public’s confidence that he can perform his duties without bias.  Andrew Shirvell’s behavior is deeply troubling and unethical, and that he considers it within the normal realm of political discourse makes it all the more troubling.  Thank you for already recognizing his immaturity and lack of wisdom.  I hope you will take this matter further in the days to come, and urge you to consider the case that his conduct has crossed the line for unbecoming our great state which needs no further embarrassments like Andrew Shirvell’s behavior dragging it down.

Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum
Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty
Clarklake, MI

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wedding Tips - Part 2

(See here for part 1.)

Clergy know that in many cases we're just one more prop in the elaborate affair that is your wedding.  The problem is, we went to theological school for three to five years to learn our profession, and for us a wedding service is a religious ritual.  And it's demeaning to know you're being picked not because of your professionalism but because you have a nice building or because you have the right "look" for the wedding day or will look good in the pictures.  We know you're shopping around based on location and whether or not you like us, but try to hide that a little, please.  Basically, we want to be treated like professionals, and nowhere do we get treated less professionally, sometimes, than weddings.  And don't tell us something like, "Well, we want to be married by a priest, but we can't because it's our second marriage, so we had to come to you, but we'll get this blessed by a priest afterward."  Great--you've just told me that (a) I'm your second choice, (b) you don't really take either me or my religion seriously, so you'll have to get a secondary ritual done.  And, yes, I've heard this one--more than once. 

I know I'm taking something of a negative tone in these posts, and please take it with a bit of humor.  Most of the time we're delighted to help you achieve the wedding of your dreams.  But we're people too, and we get disgruntled and crotchety, and in writing this down I'm letting you see the dark side of the clergy--that we do grumble about some of the things that happen, we do exchange wedding horror stories, and we do have our pet peeves--mine are the aisle runners and the photographers.  Here's some others that I've either experienced or heard about:

1.  Wedding Planners - I haven't worked with these much, but I know from colleagues who have that there can sometimes be a clash of wills here.  We're used to running things our way, and wedding planners are used to running things their way.  It can throw us off our game to have an insistent wedding planner in the mix.

2.  Ring Pillows - Put fake rings on them, folks.  Stopping to untie tough knots that kept little ones from losing the rings can be pretty annoying.  So can chasing a wayward ring bearer down the aisle (okay, I've never heard of that happening--but I bet it has!).

3.  Ring Bearers and Flower Girls - Having little children in the service can be charming and adorable.  It can also be your worst nightmare.  Pick older children, and only have children if you're okay with something going wrong, because most of the time, no matter how adorable and obedient you think these children are, something will, indeed, go wrong.  Have the children walk down the aisle, and then go from the front to sit with a trusted adult.  Be prepared to go on with the show without them if they refuse to go down the aisle.  And, this is important, have that adult they're sitting with be someone who is prepared to walk them out of the wedding area to somewhere else, missing the ceremony if necessary.  You can even hire someone to be this person.  It would be a great idea. 

4.  The Bridezilla - We've seen the stereotype enough to know what I'm talking about.  Yes, it is your wedding day.  But we are not all here to serve you.  People are there because they're professionals performing a job, in which case they don't need you to be acting like you think you're a princess, or they're there because they care about you, in which case they're volunteers and friends and family, and you need to treat them with care and respect. 

5.  Groomzillas - Same goes for you, guys.

6. Drunkenness - All of us who have performed weddings have seen or heard of stories where somebody was drunk at the wedding and ruined the show.  Keep your bridesmaids and groomsmen and bridesmen and groomsmaids sober at the rehearsal, the night before the wedding, and at the wedding.  I won't perform a wedding if the couple themselves has been drinking on their wedding day, and I'll kick drunken attendants out of the show.  There's nothing worse, folks, than being drunk or hung over on your wedding day.  Why do you want to be miserable on the big day?  And if you do need to get drunk before your wedding, you should be thinking twice about getting married to begin with.

7.  Tardiness & Goofing Around - I know you think you're all cool and funny when you show up late for the rehearsal and then goof off the whole time.  This is only my time you're wasting, after all.  But ministers have families and partners and social lives, and we like to be able to do something else with our Fridays and Saturdays.  So be there on time, and focus in and pay attention, and let us get through the rehearsal.  If the rehearsal takes more than an hour, it's because you weren't doing your job, and you were late and/or goofing off.  I know how to run a rehearsal, and it can definitely take less than an hour. Wedding couples, think twice about who you're having be these attendants.  If you can get by with fewer, do so--a large wedding party makes for a lot more hassle.  I wish you would pick them based on their capability of doing the job they're being asked to do, rather than your affection for them, but I know that won't be the case.  But let them know that this show will go on without them, if they can't be there.  Showing up five minutes after the wedding was supposed to begin is not acceptable behavior from one who is supposedly in this service because they care so much about you.

8.  Something Goes Wrong - Always, always, something will go wrong.  Someday I'll tell you about my wedding day, if you haven't heard the story before.  It doesn't always go that wrong, but something will happen.  If you're being wound up about it being your perfect princess day where everything is perfect-perfect, this will destroy your day.  Don't let that happen.  Prepare yourself for the fact that something will go wrong, and when it does, laugh it off and roll with it.  It'll be the great story you tell later, whether it's a ripped dress or a toppled cake.  As clergy, we believe that a wedding isn't about the cake or the dress, but about the promises and vows.  The more you can remember that and believe that, the better your day will feel when the flowers turn up wilted or the pianist gets lost on the way there.

These are just pet peeves, of course, and they're annoying.  But what's truly saddening at weddings is situations that come out between family members.  And nowhere will the worst of your family dynamics come out more, unless it's at funerals.  It's heartbreaking to see the negative relationship between siblings get played out by a sibling deliberately sabotaging a wedding, or a parent showing the broken relationship with their child through deliberate snubbing or even lack of attention to the wedding ceremony.  There's nothing much I can do in working through the rehearsal and wedding to help you mend these relationships, and sometimes relationships are so broken they can't be mended, and for good reasons.  But do what you can before the wedding, and don't expect all those negative dynamics to go away just because it's your special day--if anything, they'll get more intense.  Weddings can bring out the worst in us all.

And now you've seen the ways in which weddings can bring out the worst in clergy--at least in this one, and make me peevish and ornery.  But on the day of your rehearsal, I'll be there to protect your interests--to do what you've asked me to, even in the face of wedding planners, mothers and fathers, and photographers, siblings and florists, all of whom think it should go the way they do it or dreamed of it.  I'm there to make it your day, not theirs.  And on the day of the wedding, I'm there to help you put all of the annoying details aside and focus in on who you are as a couple and what this ceremony you're going through is about.  Because it's not about flowers and music and rings and dresses and hair and nails and food.  It's about a lasting commitment between two people and their pledges and promises for what kind of future they want to create between them.  And I'm here for that.

To that end, one last piece of advice.  On your wedding day, I don't want you running around and dealing with the last-minute details and the things that are going wrong.  I want you to be able to be in the moment, thinking about what this is all about.  So find someone to handle those things that will go wrong, because they will--someone not in the wedding party, not a family member, but someone who is organized and who knows all your details and wishes.  If you have a wedding coordinator, that's actually great, even though I might clash with them, but if you don't, find someone to stand in in this role.  I want you to enjoy the wedding.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wedding Tips

I only perform a handful of weddings per year, but I've been performing them for over ten years, so that's plenty of time to see some of the best and worst examples of wedding behavior.  And every year lately I've been thinking of writing up this list of dos and don'ts, but I shy away lest a particular couple think it's all about them.  Trust me, folks, it's not.  Everything on here has been done by multiple people, and sometimes it's a colleague who mentioned the particular issue I'm listing.

1.  Entitlement & Importance - Your wedding is important... to you.  For your clergy person it's just another wedding, to some degree.  And for some clergy people who are barred from legal marriage due to lack of same-sex marriage in most states, it can be a bit of a thorn in the side that couples can have a sense of entitlement about their marriage without looking at the bigger societal picture.

2.  Religion - Presumably you've come to a clergy person rather than a Justice of the Peace because you want a religious wedding.  Therefore, it would make sense if you cared a little about the religion of the person who is performing your wedding.  Learn about our faith tradition.  If you're at odds with it, you're coming to the wrong person to perform your wedding.

3.  Taste - Just because you think it would be cool to get married in the nude or dance in the aisles or include your dog or jump out of an airplane doesn't mean that your clergy person is up for this.  We may have different attitudes of what is in good taste, so check with your clergy person ahead of time if you're planning anything unusual.  You may need to find someone else, so give yourself plenty of time with this.

4.  Thoughtfulness - Your clergy person most likely thinks that the most important part of a wedding is the wedding service itself; it's what makes you truly married, not the big party that follows.  Humor us in this, and show some thoughtfulness about your wedding service.  Think ahead about what your wedding means to you and what you want it to be like.

Those are some over-arching ideas and issues.  Now into the nitty-gritty:

1.  Aisle Runners - Personally, I hate these things.  I hate what they symbolize, which as far as I can tell is about the purity and/or nobility of the bride.  That's why the bride walks on the aisle runner and not the groom.  These things are tripping hazards, and they often are difficult to roll out correctly.  The nature of them is that you only want to do it once, so it can't really be rehearsed.  They interrupt the flow, and are quickly dirty and torn.  Enough said.

2.  Flowers - Personally, I'm allergic to them.  That's the only reason they're on here.  But avoid putting them under everybody's noses.  Lots of people have allergies.

3.  Music - I'm not a musician, first of all, so don't come to me with questions about what you should choose.  If you're doing recorded music, there are lots of nice CDs out there with wedding music choices on them.  Go to Amazon and type in "Wedding Music."  Just don't wait for the last day.  Oh, but don't plan to play it off your iPod.  Who is working your iPod on the wedding day?  Is it compatible with the church's sound system?  Just a plain CD will work nicely, thank you.  And in my church, you're responsible for your music.  If it's recorded music, you need someone assigned to hit "play" and "stop."  I can't do it, and you can't do it--we're already up front.  When you hire me and rent the building, you get me and the building.  You don't get extra staff people to push buttons.  Lastly on music, unless you're working with professional musicians who do weddings all the time, have your musicians or recorded music there at the rehearsal.  Seriously.  It needs to be rehearsed.

4. Photographers - No where in weddings do ministers have more issues than with photographers, in my experience and opinion.  Here's the situation: Ministers think they're running the show.  Photographers think they're running the show.  Sometimes we can't both be right.  So here's who is: Ministers.  We believe that the ceremony is about the ritual in the present.  Photographers think it's about how it will look later in pictures.  This can be the difference between thinking that something is a theater or is a movie set.  In a theater, the most important thing is the audience's enjoyment.  Photographers don't go walking on the stage to get the close-up.  On a movie-set, the most important thing is the perfect picture.  Getting right in front of the actor may be necessary.  Here's why the ministers are right: If it's our church, it's our decision, our rules.  If we say no flash photography, that means no flash photography.  If we say no moving up and down the aisle and in and out the aisle during the ceremony, that means don't do it.  Please convey your minister's rules to your photographer and make sure that he or she is prepared to adhere to the policy.

5.  License - I'm not running city hall, so it's not my job to tell you how, when, or where to get your license.  I just sign it, stamp it, and put it in the mail.  It would be nice if I didn't have to stamp it because you'd done that, however.

That's enough for Part 1.  Coming up in Part 2: late, drunk, and unruly wedding parties; screaming and kicking little children; bridezillas; and more!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Qur'an Burning Hits Home

Well, the Florida pastor decided not to burn a Qur'an last Saturday, but somebody in East Lansing did.  While the local Muslim group was out participating in peaceful interfaith work in the community, somebody left a burned copy of the holy text on their property.  Some are calling it free speech, others a hate crime.  Yes, it is symbolic action.  But this Qur'an wasn't just burned on a church's property and left there, it was dumped on the doorstep of the mosque.

I would protect your right to burn a Qur'an or the flag or the Bible or any other heavily symbolic item on your own property, as long as the burning is done within proper guidelines for fires.  Of course, I wouldn't defend your choice as a good one. 

However, that doesn't give someone the right to bring that hateful symbol they've created and shove it in the face of a community that it means a lot to.  As the article linked to above rightly points out, you can't paint a swastika on the walls of the synogogue, you can't burn a cross in the yard of a black church, and, no, you can't leave a burned Qur'an on the steps of the mosque.   Even in a free society your free speech ends where it meets up with other people's property and safety rights.

Beyond all this, however, I'm saddened and disgusted that something like this happened so close to home. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Islam, Fear, and Lies

I recently was in a discussion about Islam where a person said something like, "I had heard that the terrorists were just extremists, and the rest of Islam is peaceful, but then I got some e-mails that said that the goal of Islam is world domination, and that Muslims are allowed to lie about their faith if it serves the goal of spreading Islam, so how can you know what the truth is?"

I was a bit stunned into silence.  And the conversation moved on rather quickly, and before I gathered my thoughts, the moment was lost.  I'm still planning to go back to this person and see if we can have a longer conversation on Islam, one-on-one, or bring a presentation on Islam to this group that was meeting, but in the meantime, I'm, well, blogging...

I actually hadn't heard this particular myth that Islam was focused on world domination and that Muslims would lie to achieve this, so couldn't be trusted.  So I did a web search on "Islam world domination lie" and the first upteen sites that came up were like this one, which screams the headline: "Islam Permits Lying to Deceive Unbelievers and Bring World Domination!" 

What I'm finding is that these sorts of websites are very similar to, well, the "New Atheists."  Follow me for a moment here...

My major issue with the group of authors who call themselves the "New Atheists" is that they reject any sort of liberal religion as valid.  They point to the most extreme examples of religion, particularly Christianity, and say that this is what the scriptures literally says to do.  Therefore your extremists in Christianity are the real Christians, and your liberal Christians aren't really Christian.  Based on this logic, we can then condemn all Christianity as violent.

This view of Islam says, well, this is what the Qur'an literally says and if a group is interpreting, say, jihad as inner struggle, then they're not really following the Qur'an and not really Muslims and therefore all Islam is violent.

Folks, liberal religion exists in Islam, and it exists in Christianity.  And, yes, there are violent extremists in both.  There are people bent on world domination in both, and people who will lie to achieve this in both.

And the best way to fight extremism is not to fight the liberals of that faith, label them as equivalent to the extremists, and subject them to persecution. 

Here's an analogy to help out: Terrorists are to peaceful Muslims like Imam Rauf as that pastor in Gainesville is to Jim Wallis

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mosque at Ground Zero, Part 2

In my last post, I argued that it is arguably a mosque that is being proposed by Park 51 to be built on Park Ave near "Ground Zero," although it is not only or even primarily a mosque.  It is not, I argued, at "Ground Zero"--the real site of this community center (potentially including a mosque) is outside of the area most Americans would consider to be "Ground Zero."  And, finally, the Cordoba Initiative should definitely have the right to build there. 

However, I always argue that just because someone has the right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing for them to do.  So yes, the Cordoba Initiative should have the right to build a mosque anywhere that it's not in violation of local zoning--any place any other house of worship could be built.  But it is the right thing for them to do, or is it, as many have been arguing, insensitive?  After all, even the president, after saying they had the right to build it, came back and said, "I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there."

Here's the basic argument, as put forth by Pamela Geller, author of the blog "Atlas Shrugs" and a major player in all of this:
Ground Zero is a war memorial, Ground Zero is a burial ground. We are asking for sensitivity…It is unconscionable to build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the jihadist attacks at Ground Zero, right there. We are asking the imam Rauf and Daisy Khan to be sensitive. For mutual respect and mutual understanding that is demanded of us every day.
If it was a shrine to "the very ideology that inspired the jihadist attacks," I would, indeed, think it was insensitive.  What is the ideology of the Cordoba Initiative?
The programs at Cordoba Initiative (CI) are designed to cultivate multi-cultural and multi-faith understanding across minds and borders. In the ten years since our founding, the necessity to strengthen the bridge between Islam and the West continues to prevail. Cordoba Initiative seeks to actively promote engagement through a myriad of programs, by reinforcing similarities and addressing differences.
The imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been attacked as extremist and supporting terrorism is in fact a peaceful Sufi who has worked in interfaith circles for years, and, with Unitarian Universalism's own Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, co-authored "The End of Barbarism?  The Phenomenon of Torture and the Search for the Common Good."  In it they write that there are two great religious commandments, to love God and to love your neighbor, and:
...the core of Islamic law, the Sharia, is built on these two fundamental commandments, with the sole difference that “to honor God and neighbor,” rather than “to love God and neighbor," more accurately captures the nuances of these commandments in Islamic legal language... Even today in many parts of the non-Western world, to deprive someone of his dignity and honor, to make him “lose face,” is to make him suffer a fate worse than death.
There is, then, a code of behavior that is based on eternal ethical principles common to the Abrahamic faith traditions, namely, that if we would love and honor the Holy, we must treat our fellow human beings with basic respect. This principle in turn is fundamental to any notion of the “common good.” For the common good presumes that human beings share certain needs and values that transcend religious, racial or political differences.
The argument that building Park 51 close to the World Trade Center site is insensitive rests on the equation of this peaceful Sufi group with a history of both interfaith work and active work against terrorism and barbarism with the terrorists responsible for the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  It is an equation that is deeply insensitive itself in that it denies the differences that exist in Islam, ignores that Sufi Muslims are themselves often persecuted and targeted by those same extremist groups, and ignores that whereas the terrorists were not, these peaceful Muslims are Americans who have been living, working, and worshiping in New York City for decades--it is not a case of outsiders moving in and erecting a monument to something foreign, it is Americans building a house of peace in their own neighborhood.  It ignores that Muslims died on September 11th, too.  It ignores that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his congregation went and distributed water to the rescue workers after the September 11th attacks.  It ignores that the imam has worked with our government to understand Islam and to keep Muslim American groups terrorist-free.  It ignores that these Muslims have been victims of religious intolerance within their own country--America--and yet still care enough about our freedoms and our beliefs to want to create a center to help us explore our own stereotypes and learn to work more peacefully with them.

One of the saddest after-effects of September 11th has been the Islamophobia that has been demonstrated in our country, a country founded on principles of religious freedom.  I understand that a lot of Americans think that the building of this cultural center designed to create peace and understanding is "insensitive."  I also understand that there is a huge amount of ignorance about and prejudice against Islam in this country.  I've witnessed it both through knowing people who shared these prejudices and through hearing the stories of my Muslim friends.  The fact that the majority of Americans don't want this project to go forward near Ground Zero doesn't mean that they're right or that the creators of it are insensitive.  What it means is that there is a lot more education that needs to be done in this country about what our Muslim neighbors believe.  And it means that the Park 51 initiative is desperately needed.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Mosque" at "Ground Zero"

I've been in ministry nine years this August.  This means I started my ministry in August 2001, and was about a month in when the attacks of September 11, 2001 happened.  Like many people, I remember what I was doing and where I was when I heard the news--a member of the congregation called me.  Immediately, my question was about how to minister to my congregation and community in this situation.  I've talked with other clergy who began their ministries when I did, and they have a similar response--our ministries were shaped immediately, and perhaps permanently, by September 11th.  Immediately, September 11th, 2001 became about our religious response, both pastoral and prophetic.  The first response was about the pastoral--a vigil held at the church for a congregation worried about friends and loved ones and the possibility of future attacks on the city we were in, home of major oil companies and the George Bush Airport. I remember the next event in my schedule, I think the very next day, was a meeting with my clergy cluster, the other Unitarian Universalist ministers in the city, and we all talked about what we would be doing the following Sunday, and shared resources.  I'm still grateful for the advice I received that day from my more experienced colleagues whom I had barely met. 

Very quickly, the news came out that these attacks were the work of As-Qaeda, and the prophetic part of my ministry emerged.  We were contacted by a local Sufi group who had a visiting leader, and they asked to come and do a presentation on Islam at our church.  We had them come for an evening presentation and also a Sunday morning presentation.  The local paper did a very large article on the event, which was a plus.  As the country's attitudes toward Muslims in America grew increasingly hostile, and sometimes violent, it became clear to me that a very important part of the religious purpose of Unitarian Universalists right then needed to be in response to this, building interfaith dialogue and cooperation. 

Here we are, nine years later, and Islam and the attacks of September 11th, 2001 are back again in our news, showing that this need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation, as various people weigh in on the issue of "the Mosque at Ground Zero."

Let's get some of the misconceptions cleaned up first:

Is it a mosque?  Those who are against it are quick to call it a mosque.  Those on the other side respond that it's a community center.  Which is it?  Well, I think it's primarily a community center, but the site for  Park51 does say future plans include:
  • a mosque, intended to be run separately from Park51 but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
  • a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all
We need to stop pretending, on the left, that this doesn't include a mosque, when its own site clearly says that it does.  On the right, they need to admit that the mosque is not the primary function of the Park51 plan.

Is it at "Ground Zero"?  No.  It's really not.  The Park51 center would not be on the footprint of the World Trade Center.  It's on Park Place, one or two blocks north, depending on how you count.  This map may prove helpful:

View Larger Map

Also, take a look at this map, which shows where the buildings of the World Trade Center were.

Those who argue against Park51's placement need to explain the following, in order for their stance not to be hypocritical, anti-Muslim, or just plain silly:
  1. Do you believe that no religion should have a  house of worship at "Ground Zero," or are you just restricting Muslims from this wide geographic area?  If the former, fair enough.  If the latter, you need to explain how this is consistent with a land of equality and religious freedom.  There's a Catholic Church even closer at 22 Barclay St.  Of course, it's possible to believe that they should be allowed to have a mosque there but that the planners should just chose respectfully not to--similar to my arguing that we have the right to draw Mohammed, but I choose not to, for example.
  2. What span of land do you consider "Ground Zero"?  If you think this stretch Park Place is included in "Ground Zero," what does "Ground Zero" include?  If you just realized that your definition doesn't include the Park51 location, then your apology is humbly accepted.
  3. If you are restricting all religious groups from this large area of commercial land in lower Manhattan because this is hallowed ground in some way, by what reasoning do we restrict religious groups from creating houses of worship while still allowing everything from strip clubs to a "hookah lounge" in the same radius?  What should this hallowed land include?  Understanding that this is a huge piece of commercial land in the middle of New York City, what would you put there?  And how do we allow business but restrict it to only that which is palatable to all the victims' families? 
If I were to decide what was placed at the site of the former World Trade Centers, what would I put there?  I would include a memorial which would be carefully designed and thought out and probably immediately hated by much of the population.  And I would include some sort of center for peace and religious cooperation and understanding. Oh, wait, that's what Park51 is planning on doing!

Next post: I'll address this argument that putting a mosque within a few blocks of "Ground Zero" is distasteful and offensive to the victims' families and argue for what is most needed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday of the Living Dead

There have been several requests that I post a copy of this week's sermon, a sermon subject purchased at this year's auction: Zombies.

Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty
Clarklake, MI
August 15, 2010


Ringing of the Bell
Welcome and Announcements
Ringing of the Bell


Prelude: “Ase’s Death” from Peer Gynt ~ GRIEG

Opening Words: "Let Us Worship (with our eyes and ears and fingertips" ~ Kenneth Patton, #437 Singing the Living Tradition

Unison Chalice Lighting:

The torch still burns, and because it does,
There remains for all of us a chance
to light up the tomorrows and brighten the future.
…this is the challenge that makes life worthwhile.
~ Robert Kennedy, from We Light This Chalice, Rev. David A. Johnson

Hymn #1: “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”


Story for All Ages: Selections from Shel Silverstein's A Light In The Attic
and Where The Sidewalk Ends

Singing the Children and Teachers to Classes

Joys and Sorrows

Silent Meditation or Prayer

Hymn #209: “O Come, You Longing Thirsty Souls” (Verses 1 & 2)


Reading: Selections from Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry For Your...Brains by Ryan Mecum

Hymn #137: “We Utter Our Cry” (Verses 1 & 2)
Sermon: “Sunday of the Living Dead” ~ Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum

Every year I have offered at our church auction, an auction item of a sermon topic, where the highest bidder gets to decide what I will preach on for one Sunday during the upcoming year. Usually I preach this sermon shortly before the next year’s auction, but because of my schedule with my sabbatical this year, I wanted to preach this sermon right away in this new church year.

Each time I have gotten a topic from you, the members, it has been something that has challenged me, something that I haven’t thought about preaching on before, and something that I’ve learned from in my research. Last year Jon Hart had me learning and preaching on the cosmology of the Native American tribes of Michigan, and Ann Green challenged me with the words of Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank during the holocaust, about what it means to be a hero.

This year was an altogether different type of challenge, as a coalition of members banded together to give me a very unusual topic: Zombies. Many, many weeks when I type my subject of my sermon into google, even if it is not a particularly overtly religious topic, one of the first links that will come up is a sermon of a Unitarian Universalist colleague. I take it that we, as a group, have similar ideas about what would make a good sermon topic. But let me tell you, when you Google “Unitarian worship zombie,” you find that this is a topic that the web has no record of anyone in our movement ever preaching on before. Now vampires, that’s another story. Last year Matthew Johnson-Doyle, who I knew in seminary, gave a sermon titled, “Buffy, Sookie, and Who Wants to Live Forever.” Another colleague told me he recently did a “Vampire Vespers” service, complete with communion with the congregation saying in unison, “I vant to drink your blood.”

But zombies are a wholly different creature from vampires, less glamorous, less sexy, more menacing, and so there is a completely different message to be shared about them. In researching this subject, I watched the more recent zombie movies of Zombieland, and Shaun of the Dead, and the original 1967 zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, and peruses zombie books such as The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks, some zombie anthologies, and, of course, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! by Seth Graheme-Smith and Jane Austen.  (As an aside, I learned that to like this book you have to be a person who likes Jane Austen and you also have to be a person who likes zombies, and the intersection of the two is a very, very small group of people.)

What I discovered is there are a lot of messages to be found in the zombies in our culture. And what I want to share with you is a few ways that zombies really are important to us.

Zombies in Religion

First: Zombies as an element of misunderstood religion.
What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony. ~ Zora Neale Hurston, author and anthropologist (Zombie.)
Zombies are commonly understood to be an element of Voodoo religion. The Voodoo religion is perhaps one of the most misunderstood religions in our culture, right up there with Wicca or Witchcraft—it’s commonly characterized as a Satanic religion, as devil-worshipping, and evil. We see this Voodoo in popular culture all the time, even in something like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, where the evil “Shadow Man” character responsible for the froggy transformations is a practitioner of Voodoo. So it’s difficult to say anything about what zombies mean in Voodoo, since just about everything one can read on the subject is filtered through a biased lens by the time it gets into our mainstream culture. We saw a lot of misconceptions about Voodoo shared after the earthquake in Haiti, such as the quote from Pat Robertson who said that Haiti is cursed for making a pact with the devil.

So, as I said it’s difficult for me to say much about zombies in Voodoo without possibly spreading misconceptions. For example, in a book titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, the author, a physician, claimed that zombies were not just myth but scientific fact, resulting from the poisoning of individuals in order to give them brain damage and make them bend to the will of a master. This sounds like a scientific argument, on first glance. But his work has been greatly criticized and never corroborated. What I can say about zombies in Voodoo is that the word does seem to come from a West African word, Nzambi, which was the name of a God ("Voodoo Zombies"). In Voodoo, the zombie is the soul, removed from a person, not a person without a soul. Much more about this I cannot tell you, except to say to be wary of just about anything you read or hear about this vastly misunderstood religion that is a mix of Catholicism and African religions.

Of course, while the concept of zombie comes from Voodoo, people have combined the zombie idea with elements from other religions, as well. For example, one contemporary anthology of zombie short stories includes one titled “Lazarus,” where the Lazarus who Jesus brings back from the dead comes back a little, well, wrong.

Zombies as the “Other”

Second: Zombies as symbols of the “other”.
…zombies are a great metaphor. The great mass of humanity often comes across to us as unreasoningly hostile and driven to consumption, and the image of the zombie captures this perfectly." ~ David Barr Kirtley, author (Adams 2).
Zombies are the perfect metaphor for any group of people we see as other than ourselves, and that we fear in some way. We can see zombies as metaphors for minorities, for example. George A. Romero’s iconic movie, Night of the Living Dead, which created the genre of the zombie movie, does this with the issue of race. As Stephen Harper writes:
To many people, it seemed as though there might be a race war in America. Conservative, reactionary discussions of this possibility often focused — as they sometimes do today — on the possibility that "we" might soon be outnumbered by "them." The line in Night of the Living Dead "we don't know how many of them there are" highlights this racist concern with numbers and the fear of being outnumbered or "swamped."(Harper)
Zombies can also be seen as an AIDS metaphor. Ever since Night of the Living Dead, the image of a zombie as created by a witchdoctor has been replaced by the image of a zombie plague—zombies are created through some sort of initial virus, which then spreads to each person the zombie bites, creating new zombies that become a zombie plague. It’s easy to see the parallels that existed in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, where people didn’t know what was causing AIDS, feared that it would become a plague that would kill humanity. Richard Bamattre writes:
In many films the monsters are set on fire by the humans; this not only makes for dynamic filmic imagery, but references the burning of bodies during epidemics, particularly the Bubonic Plague. Other issues of viral containment are explored; the entire nation of Great Britain is transformed into a quarantine in 28 Days Later as global authorities hope to contain the virus until the infected die out. The concept of quarantine is distinctive in that it attempts to physically separate the kingdoms: citizens of the kingdom of the sick are imprisoned within the terrain of the healthy and are subjected to surveillance and often experimentation of a scientific or medical origin.(Bamattre)
Writer Nina Auerbach has said, “Every age has the vampire it needs.” Arguably, the dominant monsters of every age reflect the dominant fears of the society. And so, of course, Ramero’s original zombies reflected issues of racism, later zombies reflected issues of AIDS, current zombies reflect issues of illegal immigration. These are our fears, and we take them, label them other, and make zombies of them so that we can defeat them. As Max Brooks said, “"It's safe to do something like a zombie walk -- it isn't so fun to do a swine flu walk," Brooks said, “If, at a party, you bring up how you'd survive a zombie attack, you'd be the life of the party. But if you say, 'What would you do if super-AIDS came to America?' you'd clear the room" (Gross).  Mark Dery writes:
The zombie is a polyvalent revenant, a bloating signifier that has given shape, alternately, to repressed memories of slavery’s horrors; white alienation from the darker Other; Cold War nightmares of mushroom clouds and megadeaths; the post-traumatic fallout of the AIDS pandemic; and free-floating anxieties about viral plagues and bioengineered outbreaks (as in 28 Days Later and Left 4 Dead, troubled dreams for an age of Avian flu and H1N1, when viruses leap the species barrier and spread, via jet travel, into global pandemics seemingly overnight.(Dery)
Zombie Civil Rights

The flip side of this is our third perspective: Zombies as civil rights metaphor. 
"Live" Free or Die.

Throughout history, great men and women have had to struggle against dictators and tyrants who wanted to keep them from living the way these men and women felt that they should.

Zombies might not be "alive" or "living" in the traditional sense, but does that mean that they're letting anybody mess with them or keep them down? Hell no. ~ The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead, Scott Kenemore. (112)
A little while ago, when I was teaching English composition, a student of mine asked if for her argument paper she could write a paper on why zombies deserved equal rights to the living. I let her do it, and then another student jumped on board with the counter-argument. It was an interesting dialogue about the nature of civil rights, and how and why they get extended to the next group and the next group and the next group—to African-Americans, to women, to gays and lesbians, to immigrants, and to the undead.

It’s a humorous approach to zombies, but one that’s increasingly being taken as both a mockery of the left and of the right. For example, there’s Rising Up: The Story of the Zombie Rights Movement, and the movie American Zombie, both of which take a documentary-style approach to zombie rights.

What these examples tell us is that we use humor both to deflect arguments of real civil rights abuses, and also that we use humor to engage people in a real dialogue around civil rights.

Zombies and Human Death

Fourth: Zombies as our human fear of death personified.
The appeal of zombies is that it plays on everyone’s fear of death. A zombie represents death to the characters, and to readers and viewers. Death will always be in the back of their minds. It’s an unrelenting, unstoppable force, just like death. Zombies are out to get you; no matter how hard you try, eventually everyone has to succumb to it. It’s really an exploration of everyone’s natural fear of death. ~ Robert Kirkman, author of The Walking Dead Compendium Volume 1 ("What Do")
This is the obvious: the greatest, most ultimate fear of humanity is death. Our religions of the world are all about what is ultimate, but also what is after death—and we have a hundred answers for this greatest question—heaven, hell, purgatory, reincarnation, becoming one with the universe, becoming part of God, becoming dust. And so many religions and cultures give us examples of triumph over death, from the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, with Gilgamesh seeking eternal life, to figures who go down into the land of the dead and return such as the Sumerian goddess Inanna (or Ishtar), or the Greek stories of Orpheus trying to rescue Eurydice or Persephone who goes and returns each year to and from the land of the dead, to Odin in the Norse tales who dies and is resurrected, to Jesus of Nazareth triumphing over death both through performing miracles of resurrection and his own resurrection. Through our religions and our folk tales we are constantly telling tales of ways people triumph over death, or not.

Zombies are a portrayal of our worst fear about death—continued existence but without will, without consciousness. They are the inverse of other images of death, from angels to ghosts, where we retain consciousness, will, personality, and relationships and lose only our bodies. Zombies are our worst fears—no longer having our minds at our own control, falling apart physically, and yet remaining among us.

Through defeating zombies, we defeat death and celebrate life, giving a sense of our own immortality.

Zombie Invasions and War

A special metaphor that zombies represent is our fifth perspective: Zombie invasion as a metaphor for real-world wars.
…do we embrace these ideas as an indirect way of processing the horror that we feel at the reality of war and torture and death? The films that have covered the war in Iraq, its foundations and its consequences, have by and large been ignored by audiences, and yet during the height of our horror at the developments there, horror films that dealt with parallel subject matter in a setting and genre divorced from reality were hugely successful. ~ Christopher Golden, editor of The New Dead. (Golden x)
and a second quote:
"I will never forget that I am a member of the Living, fighting for freedom and life, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principle that keeps my country and earth alive. --Code of Conduct, from U.S. Army Zombie Combat Skills
Zombie movies are all about the battle, and they are popular at a time, like all times, when we have people out there fighting real wars, against real enemies. It is possible that the zombie movie is our way of dehumanizing our enemy, or, conversely, of making the real fights seem less real through our absorption of fake violence. When we watch a zombie movie or play a zombie video game, we can cheer at the decapitation of the enemy without guilt. We can rejoice in violence against an enemy that is unambiguously evil. Do we then extend that over to our real wars, and carry the dehumanization to the real enemies we fight?

Lest you worry too much, however, let me give you this quote from Seth Grahame-Smith, author of several books about zombies and other undead:
Anyone who's killed by a zombie ought to be ashamed of themselves. It's the equivalent of a fighter jet being blown out of the sky with a Nerf dart. Humans are superior to zombies in every imaginable way: We're faster, smarter, stronger, more adaptable, and better looking. And yet, in zombie movies, our so-called heroes hole themselves up in a highly vulnerable location at the first sight of a limper. They sit around scratching their heads and getting hysterical while an army of the dead amasses outside instead on simply planning a counterattack. (Graheme-Smith 108-109)
Our Zombies, Ourselves

Sixth: Zombies as ourselves.
Zombies don’t worry. Not about themselves. Not about others. Not about climate change. Nothing.
Zombies have “enough” of what they need in life (with the exception of living brains). Yet are, at the same time, “driven” with a passion and intensity that any CEO or motivational speaker would envy. Zombies don’t stop. Zombies don’t rest. And yet, zombies are at peace with this ceaselessness. You can be too. ~ From Scott Kenemore’s The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead (Kenemore 2).
Zombie is a term used in our popular culture for someone who is just going through the motions. We’ll say, “He was a total zombie at work today.” Many people today have a sense that what they are doing from day to day lacks meaning, lacks importance. They’ve become zombies in everyday life.

In the film Shaun of the Dead, we see this at the beginning of the film.  The film opens with a series of people going through their everyday lives looking like zombies, shuffling off to work or staring at the TV with glassy eyes.  Over and over they make the point that we're all going through life like a zombie.

Zombies are a pop culture phenomenon that’s very popular right now, with such things as zombie walks, where people dress up like zombies and go ambling down a city street together. There’s one scheduled for September 4th in Lansing, if you’re interested in becoming a zombie yourself.

But even if you don’t enjoy acting like a zombie, or reading about them, or watching them at the movies, there’s something to be learned from the fact that this pop-culture phenomenon has become as large as it is. Zombies are metaphors for what scares us most—the other in society, the wars we fight, the ennui we all face, the finality of death.

Here in our church, in our faith, I discovered, we preach a very un-zombie-like message: we talk about the sanctity of life, the purpose and meaning to be found in living life deeply—sucking all the marrow out of life, as Thoreau put it, rather than sucking the marrow of death as zombies do. When I read through our hymnal, I found that what we celebrate is life, life, life, and freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of action, and hope for the future no matter what the fallen state of the world may be.

In some of the most popular zombie movies the zombies have destroyed everyone in the end, or, like in Romero’s classic work, the people have destroyed each other. Here in Unitarian Universalism, we hold out hope that in the world such as it is, or in a zombie apocalypse, the truest side of human nature will prove to be the best side of ourselves, and that hope for life and future will illumine our path through all our tomorrows.

May it be so.

Gifts of the Congregation: “Trio”


Hymn #324: “Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads”


It is written in Deuteronomy:
I call heaven and earth to witness today
That I have set before you life and death,
Blessings and curses.
Choose life, so that you and your descendents may live.
~ STLT #707, adapted

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
And the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
You are not alone.
~ Wayne B. Arnason, #698 STLT

Unison Chalice Extinguishing

Unison Closing Song 

Works Cited

Adams, John Joseph. Introduction. The Living Dead. San Francisco: Night Shade, 2008. Print.

Bamattre, Richard. "Epidemic of the Living Dead - Zombies as Metaphor." Scribd. 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.
Dery, Mark. "Dead Man Walking: What Do Zombies Mean?" True/Slant. 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Aug. 2010.

Golden, Christopher. Introduction. The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010. Print.

Grahame-Smith, Seth. How to Survive a Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills. Philadelphia: Quirk, 2007. Print.
Gross, Doug. "Why We Love Those Rotting, Hungry, Putrid Zombies " 2 Oct. 2009. Web. 15 Aug. 2010.

Harper, Stephen. "Bright Lights Film Journal: Night of the Living Dead." Bright Lights Film Journal: August 2010, Issue 69. Nov. 2005. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

Johnson-Doyle, Matthew. "Buffy, Sookie, and Who Wants to Live Forever." The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL. 20 Sept. 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

Kenemore, Scott. The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead (Zen of Zombie Series). New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2007. Print.

Louison, Cole. U.S. Army Zombie Combat Skills. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2009. Print.

Mecum, Ryan. Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry For Your...Brains. Cincinnati, OH: HOW, 2008. Print.

Rojas, Carlos. "Our Embrace of Vampires Reflects the Needs of an Age." The Herald-Sun. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

"Voodoo Zombies." Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

"What Do Zombies Represent?" Ragnarfan's Blog. 2 Aug. 2010. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.

"Zombie." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 Aug. 2010.