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