Thursday, December 20, 2012

God's Role in All of This

There has been a lot of talk about God's role in the Newtown, Connecticut shootings.  I have no more (but no less) a direct line to God than anybody else, but these things I know about God.  Others have been saying these things before me, but they bear repeating.
  1. This tragedy in Newtown was not "all part of God's plan," and it didn't happen because "God wanted another little angel."  We as human beings have free will.  The shooter made his decisions to kill children and adults, not God.  We also have free will in how we respond.  Go listen to the early interview with the father of Emilie Parker: "The person that chose to act this way was acting with a God-given right to use his free agency and God can’t take that away ... that’s what he chose to do with it. I’m not mad [at God, I'm assuming]. I have my own agency to use this event to do whatever I can to make sure my wife and daughters are taken care of."  Robert Parker has it absolutely right.  I was so incredibly impressed with the strength of his faith and his clear understanding.  God wasn't there in the finger pulling the trigger--that was the absence of God, because it was the absence of love, the absence of mercy, and the absence of compassion.
  2. This tragedy is not a "punishment from God for being kept out of schools" nor was it "God's judgement."  God did not choose this.  See point number oneAnd God isn't in the schools?  What a small God that would be!  God was there. 
  3.  It's not true that "God never gives you more than you can handle."  Again, see point number one--God did not give you this tragedy.  Secondly, sometimes we do reach a point where something is more than we can handle.  But please know that you don't have to handle it alone--that's why we have church, and why we have mental health professionals.  If this is more than you can handle, reach out for support.
What is, then, God's role in this tragedy?  God is in the creation of love.  God was present in Victoria Soto when she died trying to shield her students.  God was there in Anne Murphy as she died cradling 6-year-old Dylan Hockley in her arms, dying in an embodiment of a pietà.  God is there in the outpouring of sorrow from this nation.  God is there in the people who are responding with every fiber of their being and their last drop of energy, whether it's standing in vigil, helping to bring the community together, counseling the survivors and family members, burying the dead, or just struggling to fix this broken culture of ours.  God is there in the lights we light in the darkness.  God is there in the touch of a friendly hand.  God is in the love we create.  God is in our response.  

Sunday's Prayer

This past Sunday our church had a pageant planned, that we went forward with.  Mindful that it was an intergenerational service, I carefully crafted a prayer that would address the tragedy in Newtown, but without explaining the context to young ears that might not have heard of events yet.  This is what I wrote:

Spirit of Life,
Our hearts are heavy and full, our minds confused and anxious, our spirits burdened and troubled.  At times like this, we are grateful to come together in religious community, to hold the hands of those we love, to see the smiles and laughter on the faces of the young, and to recommit ourselves to the work of the world, the task of building love in this community and elsewhere. 
We take comfort in the circle of community, and in the stories of helpers and heroes.  Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, said, in words that have been shared much recently:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers, so many caring people in this world."
We give thanks for the helpers and heroes in our world, those who labor to keep us safe and protected—the fire fighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, and, especially, the teachers. 
            Sure in our knowledge of the goodness of the world, and the inherent goodness of people, the kindness of strangers, the arc of the universe that ever bends towards justice, we rededicate ourselves to our community, we bind ourselves again to love.
            Blessed be. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thanks for Teachers

As we hear the stories coming out of Newtown, Connecticut, one of the stories we're hearing is about the heroism of teachers.  The stories are being shared of the teachers who died and how their last actions were to try to save their children, and the teachers who survived and how they ushered their children to safety, keeping them quiet, secure, calm, and safe in closets and bathrooms.

I have a school-aged daughter.  My husband and I made the decision to talk to her about the tragedy in Newtown, because she's old enough that she'll look over and read the headlines or hear someone talking.  We keep news sources around us--a daily newspaper, a weekly news magazine, a news radio station--and she was bound to hear about it somewhere.  Other parents, with different habits or younger children, might effectively shield their children from the news, but we knew we couldn't.  So she knew a little bit about it when we sent her off to school again this morning.  And it was a normal school day for her, although nothing feels normal anymore to me about sending my child off to school.  I imagine that's a feeling that will last for a while.

Much of the day, I was thinking about my child's teacher, and how much I appreciate her and every other teacher my child has had.  I know that they're dedicated and caring people.  I know they love our children.  I know they would shield my child with their life.  Teachers don't get enough thanks in this day.  This has been a tough week for teachers in Michigan -- a week that began with the passage of right-to-work laws and ended with Newtown.  We ask these people to love our children, take care of our children, protect our children, and educate our children, and we can't give them enough thanks.  They deserve more pay and more respect for the work that they do. 

And my child knows how much the teachers care, too.  Today, she told me, they made an announcement at her school, and the principal told the student body how saddened they were by what had happened in Connecticut, but that at her school the teachers and staff would do everything they could to keep their students safe.  My daughter said that some of the kids in her class didn't know what happened, so her teacher explained it to them.  "She didn't give details," my daughter said, "just a summary."  Apparently she's been learning about summaries lately, so she was very clear on this.  Some of the children gasped at the news, she said, when they heard that children had been killed.  But they weren't scared, thanks to the reassuring tone of their teacher.

Of course I hate that my daughter has to know about this.  I hate that schools have to think about policies about how people come in the building.  I hate that children have to learn lock-down procedures.  And most of all, of course, I hate that violence was committed against children.

But I'll continue to send my child off to school, scary as it is--mostly scary for me, not her.  She can't live in fear of the world, in fear of living her life.  And because I will continue to send her off to school, I'm thankful for the love and dedication of teachers.  One teacher from Newtown said that as she huddled with her children waiting for the police to arrive, she told them she loved them.  She didn't know if that would be okay with parents, but she wanted if these children were going to die, for them to hear at this time that someone loved them.  I know my child's teacher would do the same thing if she were there.

So I'm writing this today for all the teachers in my life--my daughter's teacher, my sister who is a teacher in Detroit Public Schools, my congregation members who are teachers.  Thank you for the work that you do.  Thank you for loving our children.  Thank you for being there with them in the joyous times of holiday parties, and the dark and scary times huddled in a closet.  Thank you.  We love you for loving our children.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Some Sci-Fi Recommendations

I spent last week at the minister's study group, Ohio River Group, that I attend each year (I've missed only once since joining in 2005).  This year's theme was "Space," and during our meeting a growing list of science fiction suggestions was posted by its members on the white board.  What follows here is that list, with my own personal notations when I have any.  For confidentiality's sake, I am not posting either who posted these works, nor some of their own comments about why that went up on our white board.

Robert Sawyer: Starplex, Calculating God, Factoring Humanity, and Flashforward
Of the things on this list that I haven't read, these will be first on my list.

Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake: A Novel, and The Year of the Flood
I've read some of Atwood's works (including The Handmaid's Tale, of course), and would consider myself a fan of hers.  I will be adding these two to my reading list, as I also heard a really interesting review of them on NPR some time back.

Ursula K. LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Word for World is Forest
The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic, and deservedly so.  It's considered the first feminist sci-fi work.  It's notable for its construction of gender, in particular.

John Carey: Faber Book of Utopias

Arthur C. Clarke: The City & the StarsAgainst the Fall of Night,and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (especially “The Star”)
I've read some Arthur C. Clarke, notably Childhood's End, and he's well worth reading, although not a particular favorite of mine.

Michael Moorcock: Behold the Man

John Scalzi: Old Man's War, Zoe's Tale - and his blog, “Whatever

Elizabeth Moon: The Deed of Paksenarrion: A Novel and others

Orson Scott Card: Ender's Game (Ender, Book 1), Speaker for the Dead (Ender, Book 2) (Ender Wiggin Saga), and the short story “Mortal Gods” found in Unaccompanied Sonata & Other Stories
I was once a big Orson Scott Card fan.  I've read more of his books than any other author in the genre.  However, I stopped reading him when I started getting fed up with the fact that they were always a boy or man with extraordinary power at the center of things, often saving the universe--a Christ figure, in other words.  I would still encourage people to read Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, because I think they are phenomenal books.  I just re-read Ender's Game, and I still love it.  But borrow them, buy them used, or get them from the library, as Orson Scott Card is also involved with NOM, and vocal and active against same-sex marriage. 

Octavia Butler: Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents
If you only read one book on this list, make it be Parable of the Sower, in my opinion.  It's a wonderful sci-fi exploration of process theology.  It's dystopian, but hopeful at the same time.  It's really, really good.  So good I've quoted it in sermons which have nothing else to do with science fiction.

Roger Zelazny: The Amber Series, i.e. The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 (Chronicles of Amber) and Lord of Light

Harlan Ellison: Deathbird Stories
I once did a whole paper in college on Deathbird Stories, which is a collection that has a lot to say about God, or gods.  It wasn't a very good paper, though.  I could write a better one now.

Sarah Zettel: No specific work suggested
Zettel grew up Unitarian Universalist, says the UU World when reviewing A Sorcerer's Treason.

Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow
I have never read a more  disturbing set of books than The Sparrow and Children of God.  That said, go read them.  They are phenomenal and profound.  They have much to say about manifest destiny and about theology.  Just be prepared for the nightmares. 

“Alien Planet” (YouTube)

Gary Shteyngart: Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Doing Time

This year the UUA's Common Read book is Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. In it, she chronicles how the prison system has replaced Jim Crow laws as a system of racism and segregation.  It goes far beyond the more widely understood fact that there are differences in sentencing laws to the question of why we have a "war on drugs" to begin with.

For those interested in reading more about the prison system and the problems with it, there are several additional books I could recommend, but I also wanted to recommend a blog of a fellow I know, On Doing Time.  This isn't a slick or professional blog on the subject.  What it is is a first-hand account by a former member of my congregation about his experiences in prison and his thoughts and musings about it after the fact.  In 1999, as a young adult, R.W. VanSumeren, in a period of desperation, robbed a gas station at gunpoint and then a bank.  And he was convicted and served time for armed robbery.  That's what the record shows. But then VanSumeren takes you beyond the surface story to understand how someone comes into that moment of desperation, what it's like to be incarcerated, and what the struggles are after release for a convicted felon.  It's not always PC, and it's sometimes raw, but it's very real, and worth reading.

Let me share a couple of examples to show you what I'm talking about.  In a blog post titled, "J.D. & The Mandatory Minimum" he tells the story of his cellmate, J.D., doing 12-88 years for possession of two ounces of cocaine:
The years are blurred, but I think it must have been around 2003 when the Michigan mandatory minimum laws were changed. One day JD got a letter from the state. The letter informed him that he would be released in a few weeks. JD showed me the letter. I congratulated him but he didn't seem that happy. I asked why he didn't seem happy. He said, "Goddamn, I've just done over a decade for what kids are getting two years for now. I missed my father's funeral.”
And then, in "Statutes and Limitations," VanSumeren turns from personal narrative to thinking about how he would personally reform the system.  He writes, simply:
I think that one's convictions should remain on one's record for no longer than the duration of the statute of limitations for that particular offense beginning from time of discharge after the successful completion of sentence. Thus, in the case of armed robbery, a twenty year felony with a twenty year statute of limitations, one's record should be cleared twenty years after the positive completion of incarceration and supervision, provided the offender commits no more felonies. And that's that.
His writing isn't for everyone, but it is something which deserves a larger audience.  It's real, and it's informative.  Enjoy.
 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Work of Ministry

"What do you do the rest of the week?" I was recently asked.  I don't mind the question.  Indeed, I welcome it.  It's a frequent frustration among ministers that, regardless of how hard we work, the perception exists that we really only work on Sunday morning.  I've heard this perception myself from members, visitors, and even staff during my years of ministry.  This perception can exist when we've really had an easy time of it, or on the week when we spent all of Friday and Saturday by a bedside and then got up to give the sermon on Sunday morning.  In fact, often the weeks people think are the hardest for me are actually the easiest, and vice-versa.  For example, I find as it approaches Christmas, my job gets easier.  Nobody wants to schedule extra meetings during this time, and some meetings get cancelled.  While Christmas programs are big productions, a lot of it can be the same from year to year, which requires less research and creativity out of me.  The problem is, when I was asked on the fly what ministers do, even having done this work for over a decade, I don't think I really gave a very good answer.  So, for the record, here is an arbitrarily numbered and completely incomplete list of things a minister might be doing on other days of the week, besides the obvious (blogging!):
  • Preparing for Sunday -- indeed, this may be the bulk of what we do.  In seminary, I often heard that 20 hours per week was the average amount of time a minister spends preparing for the Sunday service, mostly spent researching material and writing the sermon.  Why does it take so long after years of seminary study?  Actually, it takes longer the farther one is from seminary, I think, because you've used up the sermons on all those seminary book topics, and you have to dig further and research more to keep fresh.  If I relied only on what I learned a decade ago for my sermons, my sermons would be pretty stale.  No matter how much reading I get done in study leave, I still find myself needing to find good articles for readings and more data for sermons throughout the year.
  • Board and Committee Work -- How many committees does your church have?  Your minister probably goes to about n+3 committee meetings, then.  (Okay, n+3 was pretty arbitrary, and would totally vary by church size.  In a big church, there are more committees, but a smaller percentage are attended by the minister.)  In my church, I attend most of the committee meetings on most of the months in which they meet, with the exception of building and finance, which I'm happy to attend also, but often these particular committees meet at irregular times and I don't always hear about the meeting times until afterwards.  Some of the meetings may include advance meetings with the chair.  The board meeting I will write a report for, and that will take a certain amount of time.  Other committees may also have reports or preparation work to be done.  Some ministers may engage in the work of the committee, others see themselves as being there to represent the faith or provide a spiritual presence, others see themselves like a paid consultant or expert there to give advice and ideas.
  • Pastoral Care -- Perhaps the most important non-Sunday work of a minister in the eyes of a congregation, this kind of work arrives suddenly and can be very intense.  It requires of us that we drop everything sometimes and attend to what is happening with our members.  Occasionally pastoral care will also involve administrative work of rounding up resources for a member in need.
  • Rites of Passage -- Funerals and weddings, for member and sometimes non-members of the church are an irregular part of the work.  In the beautiful times of the year in our region, we may find ourselves working every Saturday on weddings.  In between weddings and funerals, there's also working with the people involved to plan the events, and then writing the service.
  • Religious Education -- A minister may write, plan, and lead religious education classes or programs for children, youth, and adults.
  • Administration -- A minister is expected to do a lot of administration work.  There's a reason why clerical and clergy are related work.  We answer e-mails, phone messages, compile reports, do filing, etc.  Sometimes we write pamphlets or webpages or blog.  Strangely, although I did secretarial work part-time through college, grad school, and seminary, and worked full-time as an administrator and in other paper-pushing time jobs for two years between degrees, this is the area I feel poorest in during my ministry years.  Of course, for most of that time I have not had a church secretary (a different thing from the secretary of the board), and I remind myself that it's actually in the UUMA guidelines that a minister should have access to a secretary...  Depending on whether there is a church secretary or not, the minister's skill in this area, and what committees a church has and how strong they are, a minister might be asked to create any number of different documents from the order of service to the newsletter to the pledge drive brochure to the entire webpage.
  • Staff Supervision -- The minister is often head of staff, which means meeting regularly with staff, supervising, handling problems or conflicts, and doing reports.
  • Fundraising -- Some ministers do some direct solicitation of funds, some do grant-writing, some organize and run fundraisers.  We're expected to know, understand, and be mindful of the church finances.
  • Community Service -- Some ministers see an important part of their work as being involved in the greater community and representing their faith in that role.  This might be through volunteering at agencies or serving on boards and committees, or running programs in the community, or through a number of other ways.  Some ministers volunteer to be on-call at the hospital, or for the police or fire department, certain nights per month.  Some ministers do programs in a local prison.  Getting out there into the world and representing our faith and our individual church while we do so is an important piece of ministry for some, but not all, clergy.
  • Social Justice -- Some clergy, but not all clergy, see social justice as an important part of a minister's role.  This may mean going to protests, lobbying at the state or national capital, writing our elected leaders, writing for the local paper, attending conferences, doing on-line work for social justice, and attending more committees and programs in the community or at a state or national level.  Clergy have a lot of different ideas about how to most effectively or most appropriately do this work, or whether to do it at all.
  • Denominational Work -- Often our work is to be the conduit, or one of the conduits, for connection to our denomination or district.  Sometimes this is work that is essentially required of us by the larger body, and sometimes it is something to which we feel a responsibility for and sign up for.  We might serve on yet more committees or task forces, or work to help in a particular area, or just maintain contact with various officials.  We might spend a fair amount of time reading e-mails, newsletters, blog posts, and websites to stay up-to-date. 
  • Work with Other Ministers -- Sometimes in our region we'll have a local interfaith or ecumenical clergy group.  We also probably have groups of colleagues we meet with periodically at a regional and national level within our denomination.  Sometimes this is something required of us, sometimes it is just something which we feel obligated to participate in as part of our role.  All of these bodies also have tasks, some of which we'll occasionally be doing, and boards and committees, some of which we'll occasionally be on.  We may also get called upon to do work with other ministers one-on-one, from teaching a particular skill to being a listening ear.  This is part of the work we commit ourselves to as ministers, to help one another. 
  • Study -- Not just for worship services, ministry, like all fields, requires that we keep up-to-date with information and knowledge, and this requires study and continuing education programs.  Sometimes "study" can also mean staying up with popular culture or the news--it's important for us to know what's going on out there in the world.
  • Spiritual Practice -- Ministry is a high burn-out profession because of the high demands.  It is necessary that we stay spiritually grounded in order to do this work.  But more than that, because we are spiritual leaders in our community, this is something we have to do in order to practice what we preach.  
I'm sure I've skipped dozens of things, including some big ones, among what we do.  But I hope I've convinced someone somewhere that ministry is about much, much more than just being in the pulpit on Sunday.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Election Sermon

I mentioned to some folks today that it's an old tradition to have an "election sermon," and some of the people I was speaking with had never heard of this tradition, so I thought I'd do a little research and write on it.  It turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought.  From how I understand what I'm reading, it seems there are two sorts of "election sermons" -- one is a sermon preached just prior to election day, and the other is called an "election sermon" but is preached before government officials but on inauguration day, which was called, confusingly, "election day."  So, for example, this "election day" sermon from 1790 --
-- was preached on "the day of general election," apparently before the newly elected officials.  Likewise, this Gad Hitchcock text from 1774 was preached to the elected officials on "election day."  Similarly, in 1830 Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing preached a notable election sermon, before the Massachusetts legislature in which he said the memorable words:
I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man mater, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven, which, whilst consulting others, inquires still more of the oracle within itself, and uses instructions from abroad, not to supersede but to quicken and exalt its own energies.
Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland describes the events:
It began in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 and continued until 1884. The tradition spread to Connecticut in 1674, to Vermont in 1778, and to New Hampshire in 1784....  It was one of the few public holidays in pre-revolutionary America. Stores and schools closed and the day was marked with parades, picnics, and an Election Day sermon delivered to the officials by a distinguished minister.
This seems to be the sense of the election sermon in Unitarian author Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter that the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale delivers:
Thus, there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale—as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could hereafter be. He stood, at this moment, on the very proudest eminence of superiority, to which the gifts of intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon.  
At some point, however, the tradition of preaching the election sermon to the politicians themselves ended, for the most part, and we began to understand the term "election sermon" differently, as one preached to the congregation shortly before the election.  Today, our understanding of the "election sermon" is definitely as a pre-election sermon given by the minister.  The modern understanding has become so pervasive, partly because of the confusion of the term "election day" that the Unitarian minister the Rev. Forrest Church wrote in an election sermon:

There’s a noble tradition in the ministry, going back to the 17th Century.
One or two Sundays before an election, almost every preacher in the land
devoted his sermon to the body politic.

It’s a great literary genre.  Often, the brimstone was so hot
that an Election Day sermon was the one sermon a minister might be remembered by....

Here’s how it went.  The world has gone, or is about to go to Hell.
The reason is simple. God is punishing you for your sins.
Whatever is wrong in this world is wrong because you are wrong-headed,
wrong-hearted, inattentive to God’s commandments,
 and God is watching and God is angry,
 and if you keep on messing up you will burn forever.
Until reading up on it, my understanding had been that the Unitarian tradition of election sermons was always, as Forrest Church suggests, as we practice it now.  But like most traditions, this one has apparently changed over time.  That doesn't mean that what we now do is meaningless, just because the tradition isn't "pure," but that we must find the meaning in it not from the sake of tradition, but because it is worthy in its own right.  For now, I think there's something important about speaking to the event at hand on the eve of an election, and am planning what I will say in my own this year.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Politics and Preaching

Watching the national political conventions is a great opportunity to study the art of public speaking--the rhetoric and the oration.  There's a lot one can learn about effective public speaking, and thus preaching, by listening to these top-level politicians.  Four years ago, I remember thinking that Barack Obama, love him or hate him, was the greatest orator of our age, and, as I sit down and wait to listen to him tonight, it's a good time to reflect on some of what I've heard in the conventions so far, not from a political standpoint, but from the perspective of public speaking.  Now, I didn't watch much of the RNC.  I haven't actually watched that much of the DNC, either.  So I really only have a few to speak about, so I'll give you my thoughts on those, ranking them low, middle, and high.

The best I've heard...

Michelle Obama

I think Michelle Obama's come a long way as a public speaker in her four years as First Lady.  I remember not being terribly impressed by her four years ago--thinking she was good enough, and all that, but not blown away.  This time around, her words were so finely honed that I just got over one bout of tears when she would send me into another.  I found her words were finely crafted to make me feel compassion, and to make me feel connection with her--she spun her role as "mom-in-chief" and as wife to this man she was trying to humanize with great skill.  As to her speaking style itself, she had a verbal mannerism that did distract me: "It matters th-that you don't take short cuts..."  This little stutter-step was something she did repeatedly throughout the speech.  And I found it distracting, but charming.  Because of this, I did have to wonder if it was done deliberately--it humanized her, made you connect with her, made you see her as an ordinary person.  It gave her style a feeling not of polish, but of intimacy--she's talking to you as a friend, as another mom, about her worries and how she's now confident in her husband's role as president.

Bill Clinton

Holy cow.  His speech made me remember why this man was so successful.  It didn't tug at my heart-strings at all like Michelle's, but it was logical, organized, persuasive, and effective.  He was charming, friendly, and had a great way of drawing you in.  His style of saying, essentially, "Now listen, this part is important," worked effectively to grab attention focus the next point.  Overall, high marks for style & content.  After that speech, it was clear to me this was why we kept this man in office for eight years.  He might be a better speaker than Obama.  Certainly, his charisma is overwhelming.  Holy cow.

The mid-range...

Joe Biden

While I like what he had to say (and that he kept mentioning Michigan and the automobile industry), it didn't grab me.  There were no obvious flaws in style or content, but it didn't command my attention either emotionally or intellectually.  He was at his best talking about family members, and I liked those pieces.  The starting off with the address to his wife was funny and touching.  I believe he believes what he's said about Barack Obama, but the shouting pieces didn't fire me up they way they're intended to.  And much as I like that GM is alive, I'm getting tired of hearing, "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."  We've heard that already, Joe.  I liked his phrasing of "the hinge of history."  That was a nice piece of rhetoric.

The Amateurs

I'd also have to put most of the "average Joes" that have been trotted out here--they're not professional public speakers, and that certainly shows, and many aren't ready for this stage.  But they're also not put out to make a great speech, but rather to make a great point, to be an example of something, be it the point that religious people or military people can love Democrats or minorities can love Republicans or "Romney killed my job" or the opposite or whatever.  A notable exception in this category would be Zach Wahls, who I heard a lot of praise for, but whose speech I haven't listened to yet, and thus can't comment on directly.

And now for the worst...

Clint Eastwood

Oh, I understand it was funny to people who hate Obama, and I understand why.  But, try to be objective here.  The device was the most literal example of the straw man fallacy I've ever had the misfortune to see.  The only way it could be more literal is if he filled the empty chair with a scarecrow made to look like Obama.  Seriously.  I can't support a speech built entirely around a logical fallacy.  The delivery was rambling and made you feel that this was off-the-cuff in the worst sort of way.  And the jokes weren't all that funny--it was mostly funny that he pretended the president was saying things that were a bit offensive and unrepeatable. 

I wish I could balance this out more by showing you poor oration in Democrats and good rhetoric in Republicans.  I just really didn't listen to much in the RNC--I'm sure they had some good speakers.  I just didn't hear any.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Politics and Staying Friends

One of the reasons I created my RevCyn Facebook page was so that I could post about religion and social justice issues without subjecting ALL my Facebook friends, which includes conservative relatives and high school chums, to the full extent of my politics and faith.  I then post such things less from my own account.  One exception, however, is that because I try to draw a fine line between partisan politics and my ministry, and because I see the RevCyn page, and this blog, as an extension of that ministry, I try to refrain from endorsing a candidate here, or making statements about Republican and Democratic candidates that could be seen as an endorsement.  But my personal Facebook account,  however, is where I do feel free to be political, just as I do in my front yard and the bumper of my car.  Thus, as the election draws near, I run into more and more occasions where I risk alienating the conservatives among my Facebook friends.  The liberals among my 754 Facebook friends vastly outnumber the conservatives, since the majority of UUs are liberal, and a large percent of that 754 is colleagues and church members.  Add to that the liberals in the Jackson community that I work with through various agencies, along with the fact that most of my college friends are liberal, and you've got a pretty big block.  And most of those people enjoy talking politics--the old rule that it's impolite to talk about religion and politics would eliminate the very things we're enjoying talking about the most.

Recently, one of my high school friends posted this picture:

It was picked up and posted by another high school friend.  I don't know either of their political leanings.  The picture speaks to the fact that with a hot election like this one, it truly has become harder and harder to be friends with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.  I personally find it hard to let a post slamming Obama and repeating what I believe to be lies go by without comment. 

I personally don't think getting heated up and arguing with people on Facebook ever does much good, despite what, I am sure, is the 100% completely logical, persuasive, and, let's face it, correct nature of my arguments.  What it does is alienate my conservative friends and push me deeper into my liberal enclave where I'm less likely to encounter, much less transform, people of different thinking, and where my conservative friends are less likely to have their thoughts challenged.  From what I'm learning through such works as The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality, sharing facts and figures is not persuasive to those who have made their mind up on the right (and on the left, as well, although arguably to a lesser extent, according to that author).  And certainly re-posting snarky internet memes can't be the most effective way to change a mind.

To that end, I'm making an effort to let people know that I'm happy to block them from my political posts if they're in political fatigue or don't enjoy arguing.  What I won't do is pretend I'm not a liberal and don't have my views, but I'm willing to not constantly subject all those Facebook friends to my personal political beliefs.

On the other hand, I'm still left with the greater question, which is how to have the truly meaningful and transformational conversations with people on the other half of the spectrum from me.  I would love to have regular, deep, face-to-face conversations with conservatives who are willing to engage in these conversations with me, but I don't know where to find such a connection or event. I think if facts and figures and my wonderful logical arguments aren't what changes someone, and reposting Facebook memes is not the right tool, the answer has to lie in personal connections and personal, emotional content.  The only way to have those deep conversations is to build a relationship first.

So for right now, I'm trying to put relationship-building ahead of politics with my Facebook friends, while still being true to who I am at all times.  Not everyone will be willing to build relationships with a LGBT-friendly agnostic Unitarian Universalist minister.  So that's all the more reason to be gentle and kind with those conservatives who are.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The New Jim Crow

The new UUA Common Read book for the year is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and I, for one, could not be happier with the choice.  I read this book and preached on it last year after reading a Leonard Pitts article about the book.  The book was revelatory, even for someone who thought she was pretty liberal on this issue.  Two other people who I encouraged to read the book have had the same response.  I was so pleased to have the opportunity to hear her speak this year at General Assembly, and the experience in the room was electric.  She didn't have to say it out loud, even, but the thought that the New Jim Crow applies to the immigration system as well was surely at the front of everyone's mind. I'm looking forward to the Discussion Guide that the UUA will put online in October.  There is a discussion guide written by a UU, but it's the discussion guide to a discussion guide written for Christian churches--a guide of a guide, and, as such, I think is more limited in its usefulness than what the UUA will hopefully provide. 

As someone whose church is in a "prison town," I look forward to the conversations that may occur as a result of this Common Read choice.  This is an issue that would be good for UUs nationally to turn our attention to.  If you haven't read the book, go read it, even if you think you know what it says.  It will still open your eyes even further.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The War on Women

This blogger has been suffering from writer's block.  The problem is, when I think about opening up a page and writing, there's one thing that's been on my mind to write about.  And when I think about that one thing, I've been so boggled and amazed by what's going on that I can't find a way to write coherently.

So, about this war on women...

Now, I can appreciate and respect a pro-life position.  It's theologically consistent, and has a clear and hard line: life begins at conception, and so abortion is murder.  Unless the life of the woman is at stake, so that it's one life vs. another, or unless the fetus is not viable, murder cannot be justified.  That makes sense to me as a stance to take.  I don't agree, but I respect it.  I understand that what the Republicans are trying to express is, in part, the perspective that while rape is horrible and wrong, it doesn't change that abortion is horrible and wrong. 

But there are whole other levels going on here which are not just about whether or not abortion is murder.  That may be what they're trying to express, but they're also expressing a lot more.  What's going on is, at best, a complete lack of understanding of women from certain politicians, or just paternalism mixed with disregard for them, and, at worst and perhaps more likely, a deep misogyny. 

Let's start here at home, in Michigan, where State Rep. Lisa Brown was barred from speaking in the house because of her statement, "I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina, but no means no."  This barring her wasn't about her being disrespectful (there's plenty of disrespect being thrown around there all the time)--this was about discomfort with women's bodies, and silencing a woman's voice on the issue.  It really was about the word "vagina," and a belief that talking about women's bodies is, well, dirty and bad.  Rep. Mike Callton said so clearly: "It was so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company."  We can't really talk about women's bodies--or rape (no means no)--EVEN when the bill on the floor is about abortion.  In fact, when the bill was in front of committee, they allowed no women to speak to it, and only three men (including my feminist UU colleague the Rev. Jeff Liebmann, who gives his account of it here).  This is a paternalism that says women are not capable of making decisions for themselves, and, what's more, they don't really have anything that we need to listen to to say about themselves, either.  To be fair, the press secretary for Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger said, "It was his judgment at the time that when she finished her statement by referencing her vagina, and then saying ‘no means no,’ that was drawing in a rape reference, and he felt that crossed the line."  So if it wasn't really discomfort about vaginas (and it so was), well, it was talking about rape that was over the line.  And we want to keep rape out of abortion debates, just as we want to keep women's voices out of debates about abortion--and probably just about always.  In all, it's important that we not allow women to be the ones to talk about rape.  That's a man's job.

You can draw a straight line from the situation in Michigan to the statements from Pennsylvania Senate candidate Tom Smith.  Tom Smith was asked how he would tell a female relative who was raped and pregnant from that rape to keep the child.  Tom Smith said he had a "similar" situation in that a female relative had gotten pregnant out of wedlock and had chosen to keep the baby: "I lived something similar to that with my own family. She chose life, and I commend her for that. She knew my views. But, fortunately for me, I didn’t have to ... she chose they way I thought. No don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t rape."  I wish he had finished that sentence in the middle--he didn't have to what?  There's a clear underlying understanding there of that he, the man, is in charge, and fortunately the woman, the lesser being, followed his wishes.  Her decision seems to have been about his views, in the way he sees it, despite his saying it was "fortunate" for him.  When pushed by the reporter if the situations of pregnancy from rape and other non-intended pregnancies really were similar, he said, "No, no, no, but put yourself in a father's position, yes. It is similar."  So what's similar?  The father's perspective, not the woman's experience.  I don't actually think he thinks rape is similar to consensual sex for a woman.  But that's immaterial.  We know and understand that for many people, and it's now in the platform of the Republican party, that rape is immaterial to the abortion issue, because abortion is just wrong, period.  But I really believe Smith is saying more than that.  He's saying that from a father's perspective a situation where a daughter gets pregnant from rape is similar to a daughter getting pregnant from consensual non-marital sex.  The experience of the woman, i.e. rape, is immaterial to his experience, which is all about the results and not about the experience of the woman, the wishes of the woman, the trauma of the woman, at all.  It's straight-up paternalism at its most extreme.  The man, the father, knows what's best for the woman, and her experience, knowledge, wishes, are immaterial.

What's the right answer to the question of what you would say to a daughter who was raped and was now pregnant?  The right answer might be that you wouldn't say anything at first--you would just listen, and care about her experience and her thoughts.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Brave -- The First Princess Tale Good for Mothers

I took my daughter to see Brave this week, and really loved it.  As I reflected on what I loved so much, I realized that this was almost the first "princess movie" I had seen with a positive (and living) mother figure.  The movie is the first animated movie I've seen with my daughter which is really a mother/daughter movie.  There are good father/son movies - Up! is an example of a father-stand-in and boy movie.  How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs both figure heroes who have strained relationships with fathers who don't understand them which get resolved through the events of the movie.  If you look to animal characters, you quickly see a strong father/son relationship in The Lion King and Finding Nemo.  But stories that tell about mother/daughter relationships are exceedingly rare in the animated film category.  First of all, as has been pointed out, this is Pixar's first animated film with a female star.  But there are plenty of Disney princesses, right?  However, if you think about it, the average movie princess has a mother who is dead and a step-mother who is evil..  It's the staple of Grimms' fairy tales, and nothing new.  But even while the Disney movies change up the Grimm Brothers' tales in many ways, they don't, by and large, introduce princesses with wonderful and living mothers.  Here's the list of Disney Princesses (including some that they don't always list):

Princess (Movie) - mother status
Cinderella - Dead, evil step-mother.
Snow White - Dead, evil step-mother.
Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) - Honestly, I can't remember.  Probably alive, but asleep the whole time?
Ariel (The Little Mermaid) - Presumed dead.  I don't think she's ever mentioned.
Jasmine (Aladdin) - Presumed dead.  Again, I think she's not mentioned.
Tiana (The Princess and the Frog) - ALIVE, and a positive figure, but not in most of the movie, as, well, she spends most of her time as a frog.
Pocahontas - Presumed dead.
Belle (Beauty and the Beast) - Dead.
Rapunzel (Tangled) - Mother alive, but Rapunzel abducted and raised by evil witch.
Mulan - Mother alive, but Mulan is away for most of the movie.

As you can see, only one of these princesses was raised by a loving mother who is still alive when the movie's storyline takes place, unless you count Sleeping Beauty.  And, again, aren't they all asleep for the most part?  And the two movies where we really see the loving and caring mother, the girls are away from their family setting for most of the movie. Tiana in The Princess and the Frog spends most of the time removed from her family setting and wandering as, well, a frog.  Mulan bravely goes off to war, and has some strong feminist elements, but her primary relationship even when she's with her family seems to be with her father.  My husband loves Mulan, because he sees it as a father/daughter relationship movie, so I don't think I'm exaggerating this.

And while a lot of the fathers are dead, too, in princess movies, we do have strong father/daughter relationships with Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle, and Mulan.  Not all of these daughters are removed from their father's care through the whole movie, notably Jasmine and Pocahontas.

For bad examples of mother/daughter relationships, Disney's Tangled really takes the prize.  Here we have a daughter raised by a woman/witch who keeps her locked in the tower and apparently just wanted her because the girl's magic hair keeps the witch young.  The mother/witch figure is truly disturbing here, because it is portrayed as a twisted version of real affection.  Whereas the evil stepmothers in Snow White and Cinderella are just flat-out mean and nasty, the witch in Tangled is not directly so for most of the film. 

Brave is so very different in that it tells the story of a girl asserting her independence and developing her own identity, but it does so while having her deal with a loving, caring, and living mother.  And, even more unusual, the heart of the story is really about the relationship between Merida, the daughter, and Elinor, her mother.  They want different things for Merida's life, and the tension develops from this.  They love each other, but they don't understand each other, and they don't know how to communicate and regain the closeness they had when Merida was younger.  In one heart-breaking moment, they each, in anger, destroy an object that is precious to the other.  Elinor realizes immediately what she has done; Merida takes much of the movie to understand what she needs to do to repair things, literally and figuratively. 

We need more of this sort of movie--stories that tell of girls developing their identity and individuality--and we need more with mothers who aren't dead or evil who are a part of these girls lives.  So while there's much to critique in this movie, my bottom line is thankfulness.  I think this is a story that will stand up as my own daughter reaches those ages where she needs to pull away more from mom.  It will be something that I can refer back to as a metaphor for our real lives.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

No Mas Muertes

I bought this pendant from a booth in the exhibit hall at General Assembly today.  This year the exhibit hall is different, in that they've invited some local groups to come and share their wares.  This pendant benefits the Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace), which provides food for children, adult education classes, and children's camps.  The Hogar Women's Cooperative makes these medallions.  One of the artists was kind enough to tell me the story.  I had her tell it to me twice on two different days (and bought a pendant each time), through an interpreter, to get some of the details, although I'm sure I've lost some of them already.  The second time I asked about the process of making the medallions, which I was told on the first day is a two day process.  After hearing all the many steps it takes to make these, I can see why it takes so long.  It was really complicated, and I couldn't possibly repeat the information, unfortunately.  I thanked her for the information, and with my limited Spanish explained that my husband is an artist, and would have many questions.


The woman pictured is Antonia.  She was a young woman, and the mother of a young son--a toddler or infant.  She didn't like having her picture taken, and so this is created from one of the only pictures of her as a young woman.  She was from Central America (my memory is saying Guatemala, but I'm not positive) and walked across all of Mexico and into the Arizona desert.  At some point, she couldn't keep up, and was left behind by the "coyote," the guide.  When they found her body, her son was still alive, staying alive by licking the last of her tears.  And this is all I know of Antonia's short story--all I know is this and her image on the medallion.

No mas muertes. 
No mas muertes.

Tent City

I'm outside "tent city" in Phoenix with about 2000 Unitarian Universalists and allies.   It is 99 degrees now that it is night time, down from 109 today.  In tent city, people who are rounded up for deportation are imprisoned out in this heat without  relief.  We are told that they can hear us in the tent city, as we chant and sing and cheer.

It is wonderful to have the UCC president (his title is different but I don't have it handy) with us tonight and telling us the UCC is with us in this fight.


Friday, June 22, 2012

GA Off the Grid

In the last two years, I've known some ministers who attend GA without attending GA.  That is, they come to the city of the General Assembly, but don't register for General Assembly.  In doing so, they save registration costs, but are still able to have lunch and dinner meetings with colleagues, or churches, if they're in search, or meet with denominational committees if necessary.  There are a few GA events that are open to the public, as well -- Sunday morning worship, and the Service of the Living Tradition, and the exhibit hall on Sunday.  This year there are even more, since any person can attend the witness events that are held outside of the convention center, and that includes more events this year.

There are always good UU events to be found outside of the General Assembly programming, too, and this year I find myself, although registered for GA, interested in attending more of it.  One high-profile example is an event hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee at the Hyatt tomorrow: a conversation with Bill Schulz (UUSC president, and former UUA president, and former Amnesty International president or director or whatever the top title is there) and Anita Hill (yes, that Anita Hill!). (3:30-5:00, Hyatt Ballroom AB)

Another interesting opportunity is the ability to see The Minister's War tonight, tomorrow, or Sunday evening, or screenings of the shorter version throughout the days. (Full screenings at 6, 8, and 10pm at 222 E. Monroe St.)  There's a suggested donation of $5 for this.

All this means is it's a good year to be even around GA, and there's plenty to do without registering.  But that opportunity to hear Michelle Alexander alone was worth the registration, in my opinion.  And, of course, I get to vote in the plenaries, which is important, although you can do that as an off-site delegate, but there was still a $100 fee for that. 

Still, I can see the possibility of saving money in future years by coming to the GA city, attending some events electronically and some events off-site, and just making the most of what's available.  I might actually get to see something of the city, too, if I did that.  Many years at GA there are suggested sight-seeing things to do in these interesting locations, and I've never taken the time off or added time on to do those things.  To take one day off in a full day of meetings is reasonable by work standards, but it's harder to justify when I've paid money to be at the things that are offered that day.  So, this is definitely something to think about more for future years as a viable option.

The New Jim Crow

Yesterday I went to hear Michelle Alexander speak about her book, The New Jim Crow.  I also went to a follow-up session with the author of a UU study guide. Sadly, Alexander.had time for only two or three questions, and I was about eighth in line.

I think to read this book, no matter how progressive already, is to have a great awakening--at least it was for me.

And hearing her speak here in Arizona, it became clear to me that our immigration system is also part of the new Jim Crow.  It is so similar in effect on a people to our prison system.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Study/Action Issues & Vaginas

Tomorrow we vote on what Study/Action issue to adopt for 2012-2016, and I haven't made up my mind yet which one I'm voting for.  I talked with a proponent of "CSAI 1 - Climate Action and Adaptation Plans: Why Greenhouse Gases and their Effects Matter to Us" today, who points out that if we don't save the earth, none of these other issues will matter.  Well, yeah.  That's a point.  And he also points out that some of the other issues are related to this one, particularly "CSAI 2 - Families, Population, and the Environment."  I've also seen that a lot of people I know are walking around wearing anti-slavery buttons and that there seems to be a lot of support for "CSAI 5 - Ending Slavery."  The advocate for CSAI 1 asked me, "Well, what is your congregation engaged in?"  We're engaged in all these issues to some extent.  Our JXN Community Forum series has often engaged in environmental issues.  Our members are individually involved in the Occupy movement, and might be very interested in "CSAI 4 - Exploring Class Barriers."  But what immediately came to mind is that our church has voted for Planned Parenthood every year for the last several years as one of the local agencies to donate to, and I've seen our members be strong advocates for that organization.  And it's going to be hard to convince this feminist that, with everything going on in my home state, that I shouldn't vote for, "CSAI 3 - Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling."  I stopped at the booth for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice today.  I said to the woman there, "I'm from Michigan."  And she gave me a look of pity and said, "Vagina! Vagina!"  (This may be a somewhat exaggerated story, induced by heat, but that's the way I remember it right now.  My apologies to the lovely RCRC woman if I've exaggerated her response.)

Things are going crazy in Michigan, folks.  Our legislators are considering severe anti-abortion legislation.  Our women representatives are being barred from speaking in the house because of saying things like the word "vagina."   This issue is alive and serious in the state of Michigan.  We're turning anatomical terms into dirty words that can't be spoken aloud, and the effect is the silencing of women on women's issues.  How many women got to speak to the House Health Policy Committee at their hearing of the bill?  None--three men only, although Rev. Jeff Liebmann did a fabulous job.

This morning at the Meadville/Lombard alumni breakfast, we heard, as always, memories from ministers who graduated 25 and 50 years ago.  The minister from 50 years ago couldn't be there in person, but sent his memories in writing.  He talked about creating an organization of ministers to help pastor to women and help them connect to illegal abortion providers, so that they could have safe abortions in the time before Roe vs. Wade.

I don't want to have to do that ministry--but I might have to in Michigan soon, if this trend holds.

So my mind isn't made up about the CSAIs--but I sure know what's resonating right now.  We're here talking about immigration, but for the first part of the week, my heart was still on the Michigan capitol steps, where the Vagina Monologues were taking place Monday evening. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A New Era in Ethics -- Finally

The UU Ministers Association voted today to pass new language for a year of study. This language would change our code of professional ethics from language that basically outlawed specific actions to a much simpler and straight-forward "19 words."  The new language reads:

"I will not engage in sexual contact, sexualized behavior, or a sexual relationship with any person I serve professionally."

Previously, the guidelines forbade sexual relationships with people one counsels, interns, married congregants, staff, minors, and, if married, anyone one serves professionally except one's partner.

The new language passed by a majority this year and must pass by two-thirds next year.  (This, incidentally, means it is harder to change the UUMA code of conduct than it is to change the state of Michigan's constitution--which is certainly more a problem for Michigan.)

I voted for this, although I was torn, as I have known colleagues who have met their spouse in their congregations, and have pursued those relationships is in ways that were non-exploitative.  Universalist fore-father John Murray met Judith Sargent Murray as a member of his congregation.  But times have changed.  And while we know there are significant differences between ministers and counselors, we now hold ourselves accountable in ways much more similar to other professions.

This also was controversial with some (but not all) of our gay members, who argue that for a gay minister in a small town, this is a much bigger burden, as all eligible single gay people might be in their congregation. The answer is simple but sad. Ministry involves sacrifice, and it is lonely, and for some of us more than others. There are expectations on ministers that affect us all, and yet for some that is especially difficult. We can sympathize, but it does not change the ethics of the situation.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Doing the Work of Social Justice

The thought shared today in ministry days is that doing social justice without having the models and training is like doing the work of religious education without renaissance modules and trained religious education professionals.

We do have models and structures out there that we can tap into, though.  In Michigan we have the Michigan UU Social Justice Network (MUUSJN), which recently brought a workshop on healthcare to Jackson.  We can network with other local (non-UU) congregations, and with other Michigan UU churches.  We need something like what we had in Jackson with the Jackson Interfaith Peacekeepers, but with a broader social justice platform.

I think one of the questions is: What do we want from our faith?  Are we looking for our religion to be a place from which we do social justice?  If so, let's start working on putting the structures in place to do that ministry.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Importance of Friendship

When I was a child, I went to a UU church that was a larger-sized church for a church in our movement.  The church religious education program was large enough to have paid staff, and a different classroom for every two grade levels through 7th grade, an eight-grade class of its own for coming of age, and an active high school group.  But a church that size often comes in a larger metro area, as was the case with Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills, MI.  And so, in my school, I was one of only a small hand-full of families with Unitarian Universalist children in our school district of Ferndale, and in my grade there was only one other UU.  I was lucky--I think my two sisters had no other UUs in their grade in our school.  When I got to High School as a freshman, there were still the two of us UUs in a graduating class of over 300, and three UUs that I knew of in the school, although I later found that there were two sisters who went to another one of the metro area UU churches.

Now I'm in a smaller church and a smaller city, and the situation is very much the same.  We have a smaller church school, with K-5 in one class.  As I think about our UU children and youth, I don't think we have any two families with grade-school children in the same school.  I think we have children in Jackson schools, Columbia schools, Hanover-Horton schools, Grass Lake schools, and a couple more school districts further north of Jackson, but no two children in the same school from different families.  At the High School level, it's possible that we have more than two families with children in the same school district, if we count members who are not active in the church and whose children don't come to religious education classes, but our few active teens are all, I think, in separate school districts.

What these two examples tell me is that the vast majority of UU children and youth grow up fairly religiously isolated in their school lives.  Before we get to college, where we're in educational systems with thousands of students, we don't have enough critical mass to, for example, form high-school-based religious club.  And it also means that our children in religious education classes pretty much only see each other once a week.  Occasionally strong friendships can form--some of my daughter's best friends are her church friends--but it's harder for our children to make friends with children from their own religion.

There are positive things about this, of course.  It means we raise flexible, tolerant children, who are good at being allies and bridge-builders.  It means our children learn quickly and early how to relate to people of other religions and appreciate and embrace that diversity.

But it has its drawbacks in terms of support for our children when they face religious intolerance, which they sometimes do.  And I think it's also a factor in retention.  My child wants to go to church so often for the primary reason that she loves the other children there and doesn't get to see them any other time of the week.  But if she hadn't made those strong bonds there, there would be much less drive from her to go to church.  And, as we see, our teens often start to get to be reluctant to go to church, and we lose them.  I continued to go to church as a teen despite any strong friends who were active in my youth group, because we had a strong program--it had a sizable group, it was fun, and it was engaging. But if you have a small group, and no strong friendships, it's a rare UU youth who will prioritize religious education in a busy teen schedule.

Unfortunately, this means rocky roads for most UU religious education programs -- there's simply no magic formula to making friendships happen so that children will want to come to church. The best answer I have is this: One of the primary reasons someone comes to a UU church for the first time is because the person has been invited by someone that person knows.  What better person to invite than the parent(s) of your child's best friend?  If it works, you gain a friend at church, your church gains a member, and your child gains a reason to want to go to church. 

I can think of no better way to help our children be less religiously isolated, to help grow our religious education programs and churches, and to build the drive in our children and youth to want to come to church.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Apparently Breasts Are Provacative

This week's Time Magazine cover of a woman breast-feeding her 3-year-old son sure has a lot of people talking.  My own feelings about the Time cover are conflicted.  On one hand, I think Time is making an important point, and the controversy surrounding it is ridiculous.  I vigorously defend the following ideas:
  • Breast-feeding is normal and healthy.  
  • Breast-feeding is normal and healthy for toddlers, including 3-year-olds like this one.
  • Breast-feeding is normal and healthy for boys, not just girls!
  • It is okay and normal to be a sexy woman and also breast-feed your child.  Women can be both mothers and sexual beings at the same time.
  • There is nothing wrong with breast-feeding standing up, either!
This cover does not show anything inherently sexual or abnormal or unhealthy.  The fact that so many people have looked at this cover and had an immediate negative reaction is about the ways we have hypersexualized women in this society, and see breasts, in particular, as only sexual.  It is also about how we have, correspondingly, not supported breast-feeding.  Our society has taken something that is normal and healthy, and made it something pathological--something so rare that women have to fight a ridiculous battle to engage in what our bodies are created to do.  Breast-feeding past three is the world-wide norm, and children continue to receive important nutrients for toddlers' developing brains and immune systems.  Breast milk actually adapts to a child's changing needs as the child grows--it's a pretty amazing thing.

The comments I have seen against this picture range from the uninformed, suggesting that there's absolutely no reason to breast-feed at this age and that the mom is just weird, to the downright ridiculous, suggesting that this boy will need psychotherapy, or the mom should be indicted on charges of corrupting a minor.  And overall the level of talk around this cover shows that as a society we are just profoundly screwed up on the subject of what should be seen as just a natural and good thing.  The controversy is an extension of the fact that women are routinely tossed out of restaurants and other public places in many states for breastfeeding, because women's breasts are viewed as inherently indecent. 

All that being said--and it's important, and comes first--I think Time did something of a disservice to the issue of making "extended breast-feeding" accepted in our society.  They took a picture that made extended breast-feeding look as freakishly weird as possible.  I say that while still supporting that there is nothing wrong with what is depicted.  But given that in our society extended breast-feeding is seen as unusual at best and as "wrong and perverted" as some comments have said about this picture, the cover photo is a picture that did everything it could to make the situation look even more abnormal and wrong.  It has a very tall-looking three-year-old as the child portrayed, and having him standing makes the picture look even stranger, and putting him on the chair extends his length, making him appear even older.  The picture doesn't capture the toddler's baby face, but makes him look older, and the fact that he's looking at the camera makes it weirder, as well.  Compare that photo to another one with the same mother and son, and it's easy to see that if this second photo were the cover story, a lot of the "shock" factor would be gone.
With both mom and son sitting, and the son's eyes closed, you can see how natural (and comfortable) they are. 

The other way, and to me the more significant way, in which Time does the issue a disservice is by the cover title, "Are You Mom Enough?"  The title does two things--both immediately sexualizes the mother to the viewer, and, simultaneously makes breast-feeding the latest battleground of the "mommy wars" perpetuated by magazines like Time for years.  The title sexualizes the mother by connecting the image to the saying "Are You Man Enough" which is often paired with sexy images in our society.  The viewer is instantly ready to see the woman as sex object, and the confusion of seeing her as sex object and also in a mothering role produces immediate discomfort for some viewers, who have placed women's lives into two separate categories of mother and sex object, with women not allowed to be both simultaneously.  As for the mom wars, by giving extended breast-feeding with this title, it both suggests that to not do extended breast-feeding is wrong, and, at the same time, suggests this woman has gone to an unnatural extreme with the subtitle, "Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes..."

What a magazine like Time could do, and should do, rather than look to shock and provoke is have an article on why extended breast-feeding should be accepted, and how this is just one of a range of acceptable choices for a woman to make.  Instead of creating mommy wars, we should acknowledge that there are a wide range of acceptable choices to make in mothering, and support all of them, as a society and as individuals. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I Speak for the Trees - Earth Day Sermon

Several people asked me if I would post my sermon from this past Sunday online.  I post it with some reluctance, because I think it won't hold up on paper as well.  It's a performance piece -- part of what made it so well received, I believe, came from the surprise of it, and the novelty of having the entire sermon in verse.  Once you have a chance to think about the fact that rhymed "lightbulbs" with "entitled" -- a rhyme so slanted it falls over -- you might think twice about my poetic ability.  And the meter is certainly a bit forced in multiple locations.  Actually, it's just completely uneven throughout.  But it was great fun to do, and something I've been wanting to try for a long time.  It's hard work to write an entire sermon in verse, because it is such a long piece when written that way.  I found that I had to write much more than I usually write in prose, because the rhyme and meter keep me reading it at a pretty good clip.  What I'm pleased with, in the end, is that I managed to keep the structure of sermon clear in this poem.  It has a very clear structure if you look at it -- opening, thesis, supporting facts about climate change, bringing in the Lorax theme, personal actions people can take, societal actions, bringing it back to Unitarian Universalism, and conclusion.  I might have written something very similar on the subject in prose. 

“I Speak for the Trees” ~ Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum

If you ask me what I’m passionate about
There’s a lot of topics, of that there’s no doubt.
There’s immigration, feminism, and gay rights
Dozens of issues on which I’ve fought fights
And while you’re thinking, you might say, "English grammar,"
And all the other topics on which I have hammered.
You could list science fiction and evolution
Each of you could make a contribution
This list of worthwhile subjects might go on forever:
Who knows what I’ll preach on?  It could be whatever!
Some critics might say, "Well, she once preached on the Force
From Star Wars, Monty Python, and Facebook.  Of course,
Who could forget zombies? I’m sure that sometime soon
It’ll be Hunger Games, or the video game Doom."

"But Earth Day," they say, "we don’t get every year,
Despite the fact our planet is decidedly dear.
Hey, for some UUs it’s a high Holy Day
And for some of us, if we got our way,
It’d be the topic for each season, each week!
More talk of environment, that’s what we seek.
Our planet is dying, while we guzzle up oil
For big SUVs, while the earth’s loamy soil
Is poisoned with lead, and the state of our seas
Is no home for the fish, and, if you please,
Consider the cutting down of our trees!
Deforestation to make palm oil for our food
Is no treat for the wildlife, beyond being rude.
Their habitats are dwindling, our list could go on
Of everything we’re doing to the earth that is wrong."

We’ll you’re right, gentle people, it’s quite sensible
That I speak more on our seventh principle.
The interdependent web of life needs attention.
And it’s very important, too, that I mention
This issue right now, for Earth Day,
And our forum raised issues that won’t go away
About recycling in Jackson, and about why
We still don’t have curbside (I say with a sigh).
And meanwhile the incinerator keeps on burning--
Burning our trash--and it keeps on churning
carcinogens, I’m sure, in our atmosphere
Affecting our health, possibly, we fear.

I know in the past that I’ve said nature I hate.
I know I’ve said that, but listen now--wait!
It’s allergies and asthma that are really the problem,
The springtime with pollen that drips from the blossom.
And unfortunately mosquitoes in summer quite love me,
And for that I still give no apology.
But I’ve nothing against winter; in fact I quite love it!
So I hope you won’t see this me as a hypocrite
When I speak for the trees, for the trees are important
And you think so to, or so I would warrant.
Our lack of green energy is warming our climate,
And for those who are not very short-sighted,
We can see that our winters will only get warmer.
Hey, I moved to the north, so I’m in this corner
Of wanting to halt global warming today,
So our wintery wonderland will continue to stay.

Do you want more details?  Well, here’s a go:
They say that on Mt. Kilimanjaro the snow
(That's Hemingway’s famous white peak)
Will soon be green.  Yes, I know it’s bleak.
The glaciers are thinning, the researchers have found.
There’s not much longer that they’ll be around.

More data?  More facts?  Is it still not clear?
I’m not saying the end of the world is near.
But I am saying there are some facts we need know.
Have you noticed that we don’t get as much snow?

Well, here’s just one more sign
That could be the canary in the coal mine
And when sea ice melts, the poor polar bears
Well, they are all caught unawares.
Because moms and their cubs swim out to hunt.
And let me now be perfectly blunt:
They now swim eight or nine miles to the ice.
Their future is grim; it’s really not nice.
The retreating ice and rougher seas
Are the warnings that science now foresees,
And believe me, they have the expertise
To know just how much ice will freeze
As our planet gets warmer.  So for poor polar bears,
Right now, let’s hold them in our prayers.

And so the message of a children’s book
Deserves us taking another look.
The Lorax was written in 1971.
To some it seemed like childish fun.
But Dr. Seuss, it was clear, had other another reason
(Though to many industries it seemed like treason).
His children’s books often had meanings--
War, political issues, and more gleanings.
The Sneetches tells of discrimination and race.
But the Cat and the Hat?  Well, on the face
Of that work there’s nothing deep to be found.
But then the Lorax, it came ‘round,
And this one really was quite new
More overt, more direct, for children who
Loved the truffula trees, and the little bears
And could easily see the that, really, who cares
About thneeds, and the smog was so clearly wrong
When it drowned out the beautiful bird’s sweet song.

Can you believe it’s been 41 years since first told?
The children who first heard it now have grown old.
I’m telling it now to my own little tot,
But yet the situation it's not gotten better--it’s not!

So we have to take action, it’s become very clear.
And it needs to be soon, because we do fear
That the time is coming when it will be too late
To turn back climate change, and then our fate
Will be a world that has become so warm
That ice caps will melt.  And then the swarm
of the Biblical plagues will seem like a treat,
When we live in a world with nothing to eat.

One concrete thing I can propose,
If I can be so bold, I suppose,
Is that we look into green sanctuary
(A UU program – no need to be wary)
Or a local effort to make ourselves green
Called Waste Watchers, which is more that it seems.
We can work on our own certification.
And hope that we see multiplication
On the local scene as our efforts grow,
And then we’ll really have something to show,
Some ground to stand on when we lobby
Our politicians to make this their hobby.

Personal actions are really quite helpful. 
And most of the things are really not dreadful
To do in your home, like change all your lightbulbs
Or just change your notion of what you’re entitled.
Compost your waste, and find ways to recycle.
Most of the actions are only a trifle,
And most won’t take you out of your way.
Once you have started you really can say
That you feel better about your consumption.
So start right away, if you have the gumption.

The problem here, though, is that we need a combination
Of personal action, and laws in our nation
Which prohibit industries from those greenhouse gasses.
But to make this take place, we must remove rosy glasses
From politicians who believe that the world is a garden
Given by God, and so their thoughts harden
Against science and facts that combat this worldview.
And also we need to convince persons who,
For reasons I cannot personally understand,
Believe pseudo-science which ought to be banned
For the falsehoods it tells which deny the real truth
Meanwhile people are saying, “I need more proof,”
When proofs have been given; scientists all agree
(Except perhaps one, or at most maybe three.
And they have motivation I question.
If you don’t mind me making that suggestion).

The other thing, it has to be said,
Which really does make me see red
Is the way we embrace the capitalist doctrine.
It really is quite a severe problem.
Corporations are not people, my friends,
And treating them so has brought us bad ends.
When we care more about their ability to make money
Than our health or our planet, it’s really not funny.
We need to be able to hold them accountable,
And I really don’t know if this problem’s surmountable,
Unless we really face the harsh reality
That our politicians are less concerned with morality
Than they are with their own financial status--
Something I tell you with great sadness.

Do you know which candidate believes in climate change?
Once you find out, you might want to arrange
To vote for that man, or even to campaign,
And if he wins, then toast with champagne!
Recent works have told us that the conservative brain,
Is not changed with facts, and I know that’s a strain,
To believe when the facts are really so clear.
But it’s the truth, and so as the time’s drawing near.
It’s important to know who stands there and who here--
Who’s grounded in science, and who’s grounded in fear.
(And not fear for our planet, but fearful of change.
"When it’s time to change, you’ve got to rearrange."
To quote the Brady Bunch, though you might wish I wouldn’t.
There are better quotes, but rhyme them I couldn’t.)

Anyway, my point is that the lines have been drawn.
And, to some politicians, we are nothing but pawns.
They don’t care how many are dying of cancer.
They don’t care if they have the wrong answer.
They don’t care if islands are going underwater,
As long as they have money for their daughter
And son to live on high ground, though it’s silly.
This is their planet too.  Yes it is, really.

At the end of this sermon, I hope something’s clear:
A poet I’m not, but the meaning is here:
That in Unitarian Universalism, we believe
The web of life is the gift we receive.
We are one strand, and it’s our responsibility
To do whatever we can, to our ability,
To preserve this earth for future generations,
Through our own actions, and lobbying our nation.

Dr. Seuss told us that the trees have no voice,
And so please raise yours –there’s really no choice.
We have only one earth, and it is all of our home,
And so raise your voice, whatever the tone,
And call for some changes nationally to be made.
This is more important than even Medicaid.
(Or how much you or I are underpaid.)
Before it’s too late we must stop this charade.

If you think my poetry is painful,
I invite you not to be disdainful,
But take that pain and create action!
If we can change our course just a fraction,
And provide over the earth’s wounds a suture,
Then there’s hope for the children’s future.

And so I end these words from me,
As I often do: So may it be.