Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger & Generational Mourning

The Rev. Erika Hewitt launched a long Facebook discussion this week with this tweet:

She later clarified and qualified that statement. But I think she was pointing at something that's important to remember, not unlike what I was saying a few months ago here.  The point I think is worth taking away from Hewitt's post is that while yes, certain people, Pete Seeger among them, were very important to history and have a strong connection to our Unitarian Universalist values, that it's not wrong or misguided or unfortunate to be someone who did not connect to Seeger's music, and that the sorrow that many are feeling at his death shouldn't be assumed to be universal, even among Unitarian Universalists.  The problem comes when people assume that their cultural memories are universally shared and/or more culturally important.  GenXers are sometimes quick to get frustrated about the larger Baby Boomer generation assuming their nostalgia and their cultural experience are either universal to all Americans or more important than any generation's experience before or since.  And yes, GenXers can be overly sensitive about this.  But that doesn't mean Boomers aren't sometimes guilty of this universalizing, too.  Pete Seeger's death is important, but it's more important to people who connected with his music, and it's okay if people didn't, folks.

Folks the Facebook threads about this are being quick to say that Pete Seeger wasn't a Boomer.  That's true.  But his music was more influential with the Boomer generation than those that followed.  Singers are often more influential to the generation that follows them in birth age, since they sometimes reach their popularity when they are of an age older than the high schoolers who listen to them.  Let's put it this way:  Simon LeBon was born in 1958.  That makes him a Baby Boomer.  But I'll be surprised if I hear anybody arguing that Duran Duran was Baby Boomer music, and important to their generation.  Of course, I'm not claiming Duran Duran has great cultural importance to GenX, either, but for those of us reaching our teenage years in the 1980s we may know more Duran Duran lyrics than we care to admit to, and more than the average Boomer does, as well.  Guess which other eighties star is a Boomer?  Bruce Springsteen (1949), Michael Jackson (1958), Madonna (1958), Sting (1951), Peter Gabriel (1950), Axl Rose (1962), Prince (1958), Adam Ant (1954), Morrissey (1959), Siouxsie Sioux (1958), Belinda Carlisle (1958), Jon Bon Jovi (1962), and Bono (1960).  I could go on.  We GenXers are heavily influenced by music by Boomers, just as Boomers were influenced by some music by people a little older. 

As a GenX person who grew up with early Boomer parents who weren't particularly connected to folk music and listened to country and jazz instead, if you had asked me last week to list as many Pete Seeger songs as possible, my list would've looked like this:
  1. If I Had a Hammer
The end.   I might not have gotten that far, as I often mix him up with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, who did a famous version of it.  They were more influential to me, because the album Peter, Paul & Mommy was released not too far before I was born, and so they had children's music when I was a child.  I would've thought "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" was theirs, too, since they did record a version of it as well.  I may have mistakenly guessed a Bob Dylan song or a Woody Guthrie song, like "This Land Is Your Land."   And I thought "Turn, Turn, Turn" was by someone in the Byrds.  This is despite hearing him play at General Assembly in Fort Worth, where the only song I remember much of is "Abiyoyo," which nearly bored me to tears, and which I wouldn't have remembered the name of.  Nevertheless, I do remember enjoying the evening, which I think I attended, but am not sure.  I dislocated and sprained my ankle one evening, which made most of that GA a blur of pain meds and pain.

Lest you assume that I don't think Pete Seeger's death matters, I do.  I've rearranged some of this Sunday's service in my own congregation to remember him.  I think he's important because of his history of activism.  I think he's important to remember in worship because of this and because he claimed something of a UU identity. What I think we should be careful of, however, is assuming that everybody likes Pete Seeger, that everybody knows who he was and why he's important to us politically and culturally, and that everybody is mourning his death.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Spread Like the Squash Plant

What follows is the text of a sermon I delivered on Sunday, January 19, 2014 at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, MI January 19, 2014.  I gave a very similar sermon at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty on January 12, 2014.  They were each tailored to those specific audiences, and the text for Jackson included how Jackson is now being seen as part of the Ann Arbor region, and was a longer version than this.  Earlier versions (without the Marge Piercy metaphor, and with several other substantial differences) were given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty in January of 2013, at as the winner of the Heartland Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association sermon prize at the Heartland District Assembly on April 13, 2013 just prior to our vote to become part of the MidAmerica Region, and the next day at the Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church in Southfield, MI on April 14, 2013. 

Good morning!  As Gail said, I am the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of East Liberty, which is about 45 minutes due west of here in the Jackson area, where I have been serving for ten years in a small, historically Universalist congregation that is 158 years old.  The view from Jackson of our faith is a little different, perhaps, than it is from here, and so I wanted to share with you some of what I’m seeing about the future of Unitarian Universalism from out there in the country, and from my perspective as one of your board members on the MidAmerica Region Board.  

In December, an older member of my congregation, a member of one of our founding families actually, asked me, at a holiday luncheon, “Cindy, do you see anyone in the younger families in this church who will do what we did?” No, I said, no one will do what you did.  The volunteerism in younger generations looks very different now, and what they want out of church is different.  But the church can continue on, if it learns to adapt and change.  The answer I think is in the Marge Piercy poem we shared as a responsive reading:

Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden…
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us it is interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.[1]
You see, this is not at all how we’ve been looking at growth, and change, in our churches and association.  But what Marge Piercy expresses organically is, I think, the same as something that I’ve been talking about in ways that are organizational, theological and missional.  So let me explain.

First, we begin with the fact that as a denomination, we are not growing.[2]  We’re stagnant at best, but shrinking by some measurements.  And, overall, this is true for other progressive religions, as well.[3]  And we’ve got to figure out how to, as a movement and as individual churches, stop this slide.  I’m cutting out a lot of the data that proves this and the anecdotes that illustrate it, in order to spend more time with the solution than the problem, so you’ll just have to believe me, or check my footnotes later.[4]  Churches are on the decline, the liberal protestant ones particularly so.[5]  My little church is at best stagnant – it’s been under 100 for 158 years.  Despite all the emphasis and talk about growth in our movement, and we’ve done that plenty in our church, the number of churches that ever do grow is relatively small. 

In America, there’s a shift going on in regards to religious participation.  A Pew Research study a couple of years ago showed that among Millennials, younger adults in their 20s and early 30s, a smaller percentage are involved in church life than preceding generations were at the same point in their lives.[6]  It’s not just that they’re waiting until they have children—they come less then, too.  It’s not because of a lack of faith—almost as many Millennials believe in God as did Gen Xers at their age.  It’s because more of them have been raised without religion, and they don’t see the purpose for it.  Their generational identity is one where they’re not focused on building and maintaining institutions.  They’re interested in mission – in being out there in the world and changing it. 

One way to understand this shift is using the concept of horizontal versus vertical identity, something explored by Andrew Solomon in his book Far From the Tree.  Vertical identities are those identity elements that you get from your parents—race, ethnicity, usually language, and a lot of our culture.  I think of this as growing like the tree—a family tree, a Michigan maple. 

Not every piece of our identity, however, is something which we share with our parent.  Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children are quite often born to heterosexual cisgendered parents.  This is horizontal identity, because we find our identity group among our peers.  This is growing like the squash plant, instead of the maple.  We search outside our family for connection around something that is core and important to us.

Religion in America, I would argue, used to be largely vertical.  Religion was something you inherited from your parents.  We still see some of that vertical identity of religion over in my little church—families who have been here for generations.  We’ve grown like the family tree trusting this would maintain, at least, our family church.  But it hasn’t in the last couple of generations.  Of the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of our eldest members in the area, only a small percentage come.  I understand that you have a few multi-generational families here, as well.  And that’s wonderful where it’s still occurring, but not the norm for most churches anymore.  Along those lines, I heard a joke that the Presbyterian Church USA has adopted a new slogan: Shrink Less Rapidly: “work in great unity and joy to lose only five percent.”[7] 

Growing generationally, vertically, like the tree no longer works.  It’s time to grow like the squash plant, grow horizontally, grow like a chat group, grow like a meme.  This is what we need to do, but aren’t doing yet.  Horizontal communities are proliferating, but their availability has weakened the perceived need for church to be one of them, and so we have the rise of the “Nones,” those who don’t attend any church.  It’s much easier today to build your community in other ways.  Andrew Solomon writes:
[T]he ability of everyone with access to a computer to find like-minded people has meant that no one need be excluded from social kinship. …. If you can figure out who you are, you can find other people who are the same.[8]

This reality is what our UUA President, Peter Morales, was responding to when he wrote in a working paper in 2012 titled “Congregations and Beyond”:
Congregations as local parishes arose in a different era. They arose in a time of limited mobility and communication..... When Unitarianism and Universalism were in their infancy, no one would think of belonging to a congregation ten miles away. Churches were the centers of community life in a largely agricultural society…. To be limited to a traditional parish form of organization in the 21st century is like limiting ourselves to technology that does not require electricity.[9]
The Rev. Phil Lund, who is one of our regional staff members, echoed this on his blog, saying that if we’re afraid to make changes we are “like the lieutenant in that opening scene of The Matrix…. as Agent Smith might say, ‘No reverend, your church is already dead.’”[10]

So if the old model of church is dead or declining, what is successful?  What can we look to?  Here’s where we talk about change, and get to the squash plant.   In this environment where churches are struggling to survive, there are things that are thriving.  Horizontal communities are proliferating, and are flexible, and are popping up everywhere in response to need.  For example, in March of 2012 there was a rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. that was the largest ever known gathering of atheists.  Atheism is starting all sorts of groups and movements and conferences across America right now.  Did you hear the recent report on NPR about the Sunday Assembly?  They’re starting a movement of things that sound a lot like churches that do something a lot like worship, and it’s growing like a weed.  It’s growing like a squash plant.  Why is it that they can get 8-10 thousand people to gather for a rally?  And can build dozens of new congregations?  They’re creating horizontal community, and they’re tapping into the changing and shifting cultural needs and they’re doing it well.  We have so much of the structure and knowledge in place to tap into this, but we have to recognize that we’ve got some outmoded ideas, too, and some structures that aren’t serving us. 

Millennials have many attitudes that are in concert with us, like not taking scriptures literally, thinking that here could be more than one path to God, or increased acceptance of homosexuality and evolution.  The Pew Research studies have also shown that the majority of Americans overall believe that there are multiple paths to Heaven, even the majority of Christians.[11]  Between the Pew Research Study on Millennials and the Faith Formation 2020 study, we know that people, particularly younger adults are calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We also know our society is growing in diversity.  So the community of people who are like-minded is growing.  We just need to build the church of the future, the church that they might be interested in joining.  And it needs to be a church that is accessible to people who may work retail, as many young adults do, who may be starting their families later, and who are looking more to tapping into their community than to maintaining a beautiful building.[12]

Reaching the Millennials is not going to come from growing like a tree, or doing more of what we’ve always done.  But the good news is that we’re on the brink of a new great awakening, as many religious leaders are seeing it.  Here’s some of what they’re seeing this new awakening will mean.  At last year’s UU minister’s institute, the Rev. Susan Ritchie pointed to our tradition of radical laicism.[13]  We believe in the prophetic power of our lay people.  Amen to that.  That’s a unique part of our tradition.  And it makes us flexible and powerful.  Millennials aren’t attracted to hierarchy.  They’re starting things like Occupy, where ever person gets a voice—not unlike here.  Occupy has a General Assembly every day.  Also at the UUMA Institute, the Rev. Scott Tayler, who is the new director of congregational life at the UUA, talked about how our future is in realizing that now, with so much at our fingertips, the idea that every church had to be able to do everything, and that ministers had to be the great generalists, is an old model.  He said:
I would say our calling… is to just end the ridiculous habits and structures that we have and the culture we have of isolated ministers working in isolated churches.  And we have a calling to work in partnership.  And right at this moment I’ll take any bet… in twenty years our movement will be characterized by staff teams, staff teams of three to five people who all know their special gifts serving three to four congregations.  We will either see that in twenty years or we’ll be dead as a movement.[14]
 Structurally, you see, we’ve been a forest of Michigan maples, each growing trying to reach the sky and spread our branches as much as possible to cover each our own area.  Over in the small church, we’re seeing the unsustainability of our model right now.  But by the time the bigger churches see it, with their relative health and strength, we may be dead, as Agent Smith said.  We need to awaken to this now, and start building the church of the future.  We need to stop being churches in silos, and work together in clusters of churches, and allow our clergy to provide for each of our churches in our squash garden what they do best.  I may have a weakness in, well, bad example, because I’m great at everything, right?  But seriously, another minister may have a great knowledge of classical music or jazz and renaissance art, while I possess a knowledge of, well, 80s music, sci-fi, and comic books. 

This is why we moved from district to region in Unitarian Universalism, as well.  We’re allowing our district staff to stop being generalists and start focusing in the areas of their excellence, be it religious education or fundraising.  And the result for us will be strength.  If we’re going to build this church of the future, we need to get outside of our trees, our silos and steeples, and be something interconnected with rabbit runs. 

This is where I think this might not be as obvious in the healthier parts of our movement, which is the larger congregations, the liberal centers like Ann Arbor.  But from Jackson in a rural congregation it seems clear that the old models, for us, are dying, and we need to create new ways.  Over in East Liberty, for 158 years, we’ve been an isolated congregation with our little steeple pointed to the sky.  We’ve been our church in a silo, one minister, one congregation, working largely by ourselves.  Small churches form the vast majority of our churches – 15 of the 27 UU congregations in our state are under one hundred and 20 of them are under a hundred and fifty – because it’s easier to build and sustain a small group initially, but the idea that we can have lots of independent small groups but sustaining staff and buildings and programming and institutions isn’t sustainable.  We need to bring our small groups into clusters and regions and provide services across a wider area.  We need to spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden to weave real connections and create real nodes, to keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in.  And what I’m asking you to think about, here in Ann Arbor, is your role as a major hub for your region, surrounded by smaller congregations.  I’m telling you today that I think you have a mission, and a purpose, and a role to play that is uniquely yours, in our movement and in our future.  You’re the biggest squash in our patch.  You’re the Great Pumpkin.

The organization level has to do with interconnection, hubs and nodes, but what about at the level of mission and theology?  In the book Church 3.0, author Neil Cole says overall, we have to move from being an organization dedicated to protecting what we have—a building, a community, a way of being here—to an organization that is focused outside our four walls, focused on changing what’s wrong out there.[15]  This is what young adults are saying when they’re saying that they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I think.  We can have too much focus on building the institution, and not enough focus on building the movement for love and justice. 

The Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church of New York, which is UCC and American Baptist, has said that the Unitarian Universalists have already been called by God (or I would add universe or our broken Earth) for a specific purpose.[16]  And that purpose has something to do with our excellence in interfaith cooperation, which is necessary for overcoming our systems of militarism and capitalism and building the beloved community. 

Scott Tayler puts this as we have to offer healing spiritual disconnection to the world, and we do this through three things: reconnecting with your deepest self, opening to life’s gifts, and serving needs greater than our own.[17]  Michael Piazza, a UCC minister of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas says we need to focus our ministries on the emerging cultural values such as Religious and cultural pluralism, Environmental concern, Care for one another, and Compassionate capitalism.[18]  And he also says we need to root up our beautiful flower beds in the dying progressive church and plant vegetable gardens addressing our real needs.  To a Christian audience he says this: “We can either give birth to new congregations in our old churches or resign ourselves to being glorified funeral homes. Our best advice is to plant a vegetable patch of liberal, active, passionate adults who might just believe that the church of Jesus Christ can change the world.”[19]

So I say, plant that vegetable patch, because Unitarian Universalism can change the world.  Unitarian Universalism is uniquely poised to be the religious community of the future, but we have to take the mission of attracting the next generation seriously.  We have to realize that, frankly, a lot of people aren’t looking for somewhere they can join a committee.  They’re not looking for somewhere to give away their money to.  They’re not looking to spend their time maintaining a building.  They’re not even looking for somewhere to ask them to get up on a Sunday morning and go out.  What they might be looking for is someplace full of energy, that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism, or that tries new and interesting spiritual practices.  They might be looking for a community of like-minded folks, and they might be looking for a larger sense of mission.  They might be looking to engage in their community through organizing for social change.  They might be looking for a democratically-run organization.  They might be looking for someplace with spiritual freedom and lack of dogma.  They might be looking for a faith community that sees sexuality between two loving consenting adults as not only not shameful, but sacred and even spiritual.  They might be looking for a church where we can say things like “vagina” in a state where you can’t say it in your state house.[20]  They might be looking for a place where even with their relative youth, and lay person status, they’re understood to have prophetic witness.  They might be looking for something that Unitarian Universalism has the potential to be, and is, already, in its heart and soul.  They are looking for what we can be if we weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses, live a life we can endure, and make love that is loving. 

When you put that all together, you see that we have a calling to use our amazing prophetic laity and our excellence in working with the interfaith community, and I would add our strong history of religious liberalism and anti-oppression witness and action, and we need to harness these things, deepen our spirituality, and take our mission out into the world, serving needs greater than our own, and building the beloved community, and standing on the side of love.  What an amazing world this can be when we truly take up that call from Lake Michigan and Benton Harbor to Detroit, from Ann Arbor and Jackson to the Keweenaw peninsula.  So I’m asking you now, rise and join me.  I mean this literally!  Rise and join me in singing!  Because this day is coming.  It’s arriving soon, and I want you to go with me to that land.  Please join in singing #146. 


[1] Marge Piercy, “Connections Are Made Slowly (The Seven of Pentacles),” in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston, Beacon Press: 1993) 568.
[2] Christopher L. Walton, “UUA Membership Declines for Fourth Year,” in UU World Magazine (Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations: Fall 2012), http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/229854.shtml.

[3] See: John Dart, “UCC Has Been Progressive Pacesetter,” in The Christian Century (July 18, 2013), http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-07/ucc-has-been-progressive-pacesetter.

[4] See: See: Ross, Douthat, “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” in The New York Times (July 25, 2012), http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/is-liberal-christianity-actually-the-future/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.

[5] See: Connor Wood, “Why Is Liberal Protestantism Dying, Anyway?” in Patheos (July 26, 2013), http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/07/why-is-liberal-protestantism-dying-anyway/.

[6] “Religion Among Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, but Fairly Traditional in Other Ways,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (Washington, D.C., Pew Forum: 2010), http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Demographics/Age/millennials-report.pdf, 1.

[7] “Presb. Church USA Launches Ambitious Plan to Lose Only 5% of Members,” Lark News, http://www.larknews.com/archives/556.

[8] Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (New York, Simon & Schuster, Inc: 2012), Kindle Edition, 20.

[9] Peter Morales, “Congregations and Beyond,” (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2012), http://www.uua.org/documents/moralespeter/120115_congs_beyond.pdf.

[10] Phillip Lund, “Your Congregation Is Already Dead,” Phil’s Little Blog on the Prairie (October 17, 2011), http://philontheprairie.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/your-congregation-is-already-dead/.

[11] “Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life” Pew Research: Religion & Public Life Project (Washington, D.C., Pew Forum: December 18, 2008), http://www.pewforum.org/2008/12/18/many-americans-say-other-faiths-can-lead-to-eternal-life/.

[12] John Roberto, Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation, (Naugatuck, CT, LifelongFaith Associates: 2912). Kindle Edition, Locations 773-786.

[13] Susan Ritchie, “Friday Closing Panel,” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday2.

[14] Scott Tayler, “Friday Closing Panel” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday2

[15] Neil Cole, Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass , 2010), Kindle Edition, 9.

[16] James Forbes, “Friday Worship” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday1.

[17] Scott Tayler, “Friday Closing Panel” (Presented at UUMA Center for Excellence in Ministry, St. Pete’s Beach, January 2013), http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday2

[18] Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press/United Church Press, 2011), Kindle Edition, Locations 242-248.

[19] Michael S. Piazza and Cameron B. Trimble, Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press/United Church Press, 2011), Kindle Edition, Locations 620-622.

[20] See: Eyder Peralta, “Michigan State Rep Barred From Speaking After ‘Vagina’ Comments,” National Public Radio (June 14, 2012), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/06/14/155059849/michigan-state-rep-barred-from-speaking-after-vagina-comments.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

More Than You Can Bear

I came across this blog post today where the author debunks the commonly expressed phrase "God will never give you more than you can bear."  It was a well-done article, but from a very Christian perspective.  The sentiment has always been a particular pet peeve of mine, so I thought I would take it on today as well.  I understand that almost always when someone says it, it is is meant as an uplifting thought -- "You can and will get through this" is the message.  But it is, in my opinion, just a poor way of expressing it.  Here's what's wrong.

First, it's got God all wrong.  As I've said before, I may not know if God exists or not, but I have some pretty firm ideas about what God is like if God does exist.  And sending you problems is not part of what God does.  See my article after the Sandy Hook shootings about that.  God is not choosing to send you pain or suffering or death or financial struggle.  That's not God.  That's life.  And life is random at times and unfair at times.  And sometimes we make poor choices, and sometimes there is no good choice.  Telling people that God chose this for them is unfair to God, and unfair to the person struggling.

Secondly, frankly, we do sometimes get more in life than we can handle.  That's why people have mental collapses.  That's why some people end up committing suicide.  That's why people end up homeless.  Something was more than they could handle. 

So, yes, sometimes in life we get more than we can bear.  The author in the article that was linked to above comes to the conclusion that what makes it bearable is the help of God.  God, essentially, will carry your burdens for you.  If your faith does that for you, fabulous.  Frankly, it's never done that for me.  My agnosticism comes from a lifetime of not seeing God's effect in my life or presence in the world whatsoever -- if I had that, I'd be a believer.  My answer to how people can get through the unbearable comes down to other people.  As a true humanist, that's all we really have, in my opinion.  So sometimes it means the strength of religious community, or other communities, helping you through it.  Sometimes it means just family or friends or loved ones who help you through.  Sometimes it means the social safety net.  Sometimes it's the medical establishment or other professionals in the area of your struggle.  Sometimes it's still not bearable, and there's nothing we can do, however much we try.

In my opinion, saying "God will never give you more than you can bear" lets the speaker off the hook.  When you see someone struggling so much that you feel compelled to say this, saying it isn't making their load easier, it's making your load easier.  You no longer have to do anything to help, because they can bear it, you see?  Instead, try the more complicated approach: "I can see you're really struggling with this.  How can I help support you?" Or even try a less committed approach, "This is a real struggle for you.  Do you have the support you need?  What support systems are out there that you can reach out to?"  Lastly, what we can do to make life more bearable is work to support the people who are most at risk for their burdens becoming unbearable -- increase the social safety net, increase access to healthcare, increase mental health services, increase access to food and shelter.  Maybe if we come together more as friends, as families, as communities, and as societies, there will be less unbearable moments.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Art and Spirituality

A year ago, a friend of mine introduced me to Zentangle, a spiritual practice based in meditative doodling.  I was at her house and noticed a small box with the word "Zentangle" on it, and asked her what it was.  She showed me the book One Zentangle a Day.  I was instantly interested, and purchased the book for myself, and started working my way through it.  The book starts you off with a few patterns, adding about three new patterns (called "tangles") per day.  On the third day, I started making Zentangle chalices.  This is my first one:
It incorporates pretty much every pattern I had learned at that point.  Within a couple of weeks, I started doing a chalice every day that I Zentangled, and pretty soon I was Zentangling chalices almost exclusively.

You can Zentangle in a very meditative state, or you can do it more distractedly while doing something else, from watching TV or sitting in a meeting.  I find that Zentangling chalices even when doing it in a more distracted mode is a valuable spiritual practice for me.  The chalices connect me back to Unitarian Universalism with every doodle.

Then, over the summer, my sister Carrie Landrum showed me some mandalas she had created and told me about how she was exploring mandala-making as a spiritual practice.  I noticed there were some Zentangle mandala books and products, so I added them to my wishlist and kept Zentangling chalices.

This fall, I kept Zentangling chalices, and was doing some while at my study group, Ohio River Group.  Here's one I created there:
Our subject this year was "Art and Religion" at Ohio River Group, and Susan Smith was leading the worship services.  She introduced us to the book Praying in Color and the spiritual practice described in it.  In it, you write down the name of someone you want to include in your prayers, and you start doodling around it while thinking of the person.  I found that the doodling easily could be Zentangling, and combined the two ideas and did some Zentangle/Praying in Color prayers.  I've purchased the book and am reading and incorporating some of its thoughts into my spiritual practice.  Now, sometimes I'll think of a specific person at the flame as I doodle the chalice.  I still don't usually incorporate color, but it isn't really necessary for me.  When I feel like I've reached the limitations of black and white, perhaps then I'll branch out.  What I have done is started writing down at the bottom of the page what I was thinking about or doing as I doodled the chalice.  Because of this, I can tell you what was the focus of my meditation as I doodled each of these.  Sometimes it's rather silly, such as this one, watching Doctor Who:
 
I think the chalice is holding back the Zygons or something.  Other times, however, it's much more meaningful.  I made this one on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings while thinking about those families as well as the family of a former member of my congregation and her son who had been murdered a week before:
For Christmas this year I received the book Zen Mandalas and am starting to incorporate mandalas now into my Zentangle chalices.  I find putting the chalice at the center of the mandala makes the mandala form and the Praying in Color form work very well together.  Here's one I drew recently while thinking of a good friend whose ex-husband, also a friendly acquaintance of mine, had recently died:

The word "mandala" as well as the word "Zen" have to be taken very loosely in this process.  I use those terms because they were applied to this form by these authors. 

It's not every day for me, but during the last year I've made one hundred Zentangle chalices.  It's been an interesting process over the last year as I have developed this spiritual practice.  I find it remarkable that restricting the format -- always a chalice, and always in a box or in a mandala -- doesn't make me feel that my creativity is restricted.  I'm always free to draw something else if I choose, and occasionally I do.  Rather, the restricted form is a way of focusing in my thoughts, and freeing me from getting distracted by what I want to do with the design as much, letting me focus on the repetitive strokes that make up the individual patterns.

That's all I really have to say about it -- for me art and spirituality both are hard to translate into words like this.  So I'll leave it here.  If you have an artistic spiritual practice, please share in the comments!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Plantations, Difranco, and Me

I have been reading about Ani Difranco and her response -- and the responses to it -- to her misstep of holding a retreat at Nottoway Plantation with great interest.

For those who haven't been following it, Ani Difranco is a white feminist singer/songwriter.  In late December, she announced that she would be holding a "Righteous Retreat."  This was an occasion where people could join her and friends for 3 days/4 nights singing and songwriting in the Big Easy, with a price tag of $1000.  The location of the retreat was to be Nottoway Plantation, the largest antebellum plantation in the South.  Difranco made the large misstep of choosing a site for her retreat especially burdened with the history of slavery, and a site that seemed to gloss-over and even glorify that history.  Furthermore, her statement said, as others have noted, (emphasis mine):
We will be shacked up at the historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle, LA, for 3 days and 4 nights exchanging ideas, making music, and otherwise getting suntans in the light of each other’s company.... In the evenings we will perform for each other and enjoy great food in a captivating setting.
The poor wording choices added to the misstep, taking it way beyond clueless.  And the internet erupted, pointing out the racist setting and demanding the cancellation.  Difranco was slow to respond.  And then she did cancel the retreat, issuing a statement that has been critiqued as a "fauxpology," in which she indicates that at first she had hoped to still go to the location and have a discussion about the setting become part of the experience, and then realized she would have to cancel it after all.  There are excellent critiques of her response here by Emi Koyama and here by Tim Wise.  Koyama's blog links to many other good critiques, as well.  Essentially, Difranco avoids taking any blame, seems to believe that it is her place to reclaim a slavery location, and throws blame back at those critiquing her actions calling those statements "hatred." 

Interestingly, in the days that have followed the cancellation of the Righteous Retreat, Nottoway has adapted it's historical statement on its webpage saying:
We hope also for Nottoway Plantation to serve as an educator, giving the public a glimpse of life on a Louisiana sugar cane estate in the mid-1800s. With this comes the regrettable fact that, as was typical during that period, Nottoway's workforce was comprised of slaves. However, to sidestep this issue out of a fear of public scrutiny would be an injustice. To bypass a historical property such as ours in order to avoid talking about slavery would be to ignore the opportunity we all have to keep moving forward — to not only acknowledge the shameful shortcomings of our past, but more importantly, to continue to grow in our understanding and support of one another. 
It's a very small step.  Nottoway is by no means turning itself into a museum about slavery.  It's still primarily about sharing the opulent lifestyle of its owners, and allowing its guests to luxuriate in, not engage critically, with that history.  As Tim Wise writes:
At least at Dachau, the guides don’t waste time ruminating on the vicissitudes of life as a camp guard, or the architecture of the prison wings. There, the purpose of the visit is to horrify, to remember without deflection or protection from the evil that envelops the place even now. But in America, we turn our chambers of horror into historical amusement parks, into places where more is said about manners, and weddings, and cotillions, and carriage rides, and ball gowns, and Doric columns and parasols, than about the system of white terrorism that made all of those things possible.
Nottoway's new statement will no doubt be highly critiqued, but that's not what I'm writing about today.

As I said, I've followed all this discussion with great interest.  And it's not because I'm an Ani Difranco fan.  I've never really listened to her, and  I can't name a single song.  No, I've been interested because I am a white feminist.  And feminism, white feminism, which I love and embrace in so many ways, had a horrible history of racism that we have to acknowledge.  This event is as painful as it is in large part because of this history of feminism that we too often ignore.

And I've been following it because I'm a Landrum, and my family owns a small piece of plantation land. 

My Landrum ancestor, my grandfather's great-grandfather Jeptha Landrum, owned a plantation. Jeptha was born in 1803 and commissioned as a lieutenant in 1822.  He was commander of a military expedition that assisted in driving the Creek Indians out of Fayette County, Georgia.  I know the chief's name, Black Hawk, because his son named his horse for him.  In 1827, he won some of that land in Fayette county in the land lottery.  Jeptha became a judge, and built up a plantation of 3000 acres and had 50 or more slaves.  He was a Jeffersonian Democrat, naming one of his sons (not the one I'm descended from) Thomas Jefferson.  The Landrums had this plantation for only the one generation.  After the Civil War, my grandfather's grandfather, Larkin deLafayette Landrum, would have the work of selling off portions of the land during reconstruction.  He saved some land that was passed down.  My grandfather's father inherited some of that land, and it was divided among his children.  My grandfather inherited  a handful of acres, that was then split upon his death between my father and aunt.  My father owns one of the last couple of parcels that remains in the family (my aunt sold hers). 

My family and I have been struggling for decades and generations with our legacy as descendants of people who enslaved other people, and what that does mean and should mean to us.  We've struggled with the fact that we own this few undeveloped acres of land that was once part of that plantation, and what we can do and what we should do with that land, other than just leave it alone and pay taxes on it, or visit it once in a while and tromp around in the woods, which is all we've done so far.  The only thing on our parcel is the ruins of a small (1-2 rooms) house from after the Civil War that some ancestors lived in for a period (I think my great-grandfather with his family).



 

As you can see, it's no Nottoway Plantation.   I'm no millionaire heiress.  I'm also a descendant of poor country farmers who hung onto this land even though it was mostly just a tax burden to them.  Why did they keep it?  A sense of honor or legacy or family or duty?  A nostalgia for the Old South? I'm sure the reasons were complex and varied and perhaps not even understood.  Why will I hang onto it, if I do?  That, too, is complex and not thoroughly understood, except that to get rid of it is equally complex.  Can I just sell it and keep the money? 

One thing that's clear in Difranco's situation is that she tried to turn her event into an event focusing on slavery without partnering with the descendants of slaves in that framing.  As Jaya wrote:
Ani, you don’t get to choose how Black women want to deal with the legacy of slavery. 
I agree.  But I do have to choose how I deal with the legacy of oppression.  This Difranco did not do, to her detriment.  Similarly, Kimberly Foster writes in a post titled, "Dear Ani DiFranco Supporters: You Cannot Reclaim an Oppression You Have Never Experienced":
There can be no healing at Nottoway Plantation. Continuing to hold an expensive getaway here is an affront to feminists of color.
I agree that I cannot reclaim an oppression I haven't experienced.  Is this the same thing as reclaiming a site of oppression?  Is it possible for my heritage to be reclaimed?  What would that mean?  These are the questions I've been engaging in for decades.  And then, how do we go about it?  How do we avoid making racist mistakes that continue to add to the problem of the legacy of slavery?

We will make mistakes.  That will absolutely happen.  It's fear of missteps, in part, that keep me and people like me from really dealing with our legacy of slavery, and fear of a reaction like the one Ani Difranco got.  But Ani made the crucial mistake of not really acknowledging her mistake -- or even seeming to understand that it was one.  Like her, I didn't ask to get handed this problem.  But it is mine to deal with, and as a would-be ally, it's important that I do so, and not, when I make mistakes, blame the people who point them out to me.  When we make mistakes, as white feminists and would-be allies to people of color, it's important for us to recognize and own them, something Difranco did not really do.  Mel Hartsell gives an example of what Difranco could have, should have said:
I was well-intentioned when I thought that it would be an act of boldness for us to have a progressive event in a place so wrought with suffering. I did not see outside of my white privilege or reach outside of my circle to gather input from communities that would be directly affected by this venue. 



It's pretty tough to see outside one's own privilege. And often we would like to ignore that it exists.  I would like to be able to just inherit this land when my time comes and have it come to me free from the legacy of slavery.  But it doesn't work like that.  My inheritance will come without its history.  It is my legacy, and as such I'm compelled to engage with it.  However, it's very clear that it's also something that I cannot do alone.  It is also not the case that I will get to just simply decide that I am able to reclaim it from this legacy all by myself.  That was the main thing Difranco did wrong, beyond her initial clueless lack of insight into what her location choice stands for -- she didn't dialogue with people of color either in her attempt to keep the retreat there, or in her framing of her understanding when pulling out of the location.

And that is what this situation says to me --  I get to live with my legacy, but I do not get to decide alone what the Landrum plantation land means and how or whether it can be "reclaimed."  If I want to truly engage that question, I have to engage in it with the descendants of people who were most affected.  That's going to take more work.  It's easier for to find out the name of Jeptha's son's horse than the names of the people who he had enslaved, much less their descendants, if it can even be done.  And I can choose whether or not I engage in the task of finding them, but I can't control whether or not they will want dialogue with me or to help me engage this question -- it's not their job to resolve my legacy for me. 

For now, I continue to ponder and philosophize, rather than act.  But it's a story that won't be complete until more steps are taken.  It's a burden that will hang on me until I address it.