29 July 2006

Things That Go Bump in the Heart

It’s been a rich day so far, heat notwithstanding. Plucked weeds – more accurately pulled and hacked and tugged and tore and dug. Trouble with yards and gardens is that they grow 24/7 while I got only an hour or two now and then.

Then it was time to organize financial papers and filing records, the sort of thing the slower pace of summer allows. We then picked up our youngest from Scout Camp. Actually, we met the crowd at church where they meet. There was a huge memorial service, a consequential one at that, so we parents waited at some remove. Eventually they arrived and my young man, seemingly taller every day, was jazzed by his initiation to the Order of the Arrow. We saw the ‘tapping out’ ceremony on Wednesday evening. He was really hoping to be selected, and by the look and sound of him today it was everything he hoped for. Parents can’t get a better feeling than seeing their kid happy at their success.

Back to the papers, which, because I am not a naturally orderly person, tend to pile up and get confounded. I am also gathering stuff for my financial planner, and so there was a purpose beyond neatness.

Along the way I stopped in to visit the NYTimes, a regular stop to my day. There I found a very cool article about an evangelical megachurch pastor who has decided Christianity should get out of the politics business. Gutsy move, and it cost him 20% of his congregation. Go to
www.nytimes.com/ and look for “Disowning Conservative Politics Is Costly for Evangelical Pastor."

I have odd reactions to such stories. I feel sad and glad - glad that someone on that side of the room has ‘recovered’ the wisdom of Roger Williams, the original Baptist. He professed separation of church and state because it inevitably corrupts the church, replacing its transcendent God with an idol of power and personal righteousness. But sad that it is news when a megachurch pastor says it. And so far only one.

I am sad that 1000 people left his church because that’s a lot of people who need to believe in some alliance between evangelical Christianity and America. But I am glad 4000 remained. Then again I am sad that there is no liberal church even half that size, my own being about one quarter and it is among the top ten in the country. I am also sad that whatever genius and grit Mr. Boyd has (and those like him) to create a 5000 member church in only 12 years, I do not have it. Nor does anyone else I know who toils among the liberal lilies of the field.

Of course, among mainline Christians there is a saying that the devil thrives in churches, for that is where temptation is strongest. And maybe my green demon of envy is the sign that this is temptation in the form of self doubt. What does it matter how many members there are, or how many churches. What matters is lives lived, souls liberated, families and communities and nations transformed. The fruit of the free spirit is not grandness of edifice or majesty of numbers human or financial, but lives redeemed from despair and reason to hope for our children.

Help me remember this, will you, whoever is listening.

Say Cheese!

Caught in the headlights again this week. Check out today's GR Press Religion for a mention. reporter Matt Vande Bunte did a local profile os a few of us clergy. I am on the last page. That's either because I am named Wooden and he went in alphabetical order (not true) or he wrote ther story while I was out of town and could only add a little something when we spoke this week (true). Here's the story in full -


I would love to hear from you what you think the role of blogs and religion is or could be - good and bad. You can also tell me what you would like me to do better or different. I know you're out there, I can see you clicking. What's your sense of all this?

27 July 2006

"Hold the Chicken Salad"

… Where was I? Oh yes, how I spent my summer vacation. Well, I had a thought yesterday about why I like vacations and travel. I am focused. On the road, seeing sights, I know what I am going to do and more importantly what I am not.

Daily ordinary life for me, unlike the rest of you I am sure, is a cesspit of chores and choices. Every yes is a no, and everything set aside ticks like a bomb until it is late or expired. Sometimes it is so full that I am paralyzed by the choices, unable to triage and unwilling. Only when my choices are limited, I am forced to focus by circumstances, do I find myself really at ease.

I think part of my problem is that a superfluity of choices implies more ways to be wrong. My intuitive sense of probability is quite sharp. I remember how much I actually enjoyed, mostly, all those standardized tests back in school. In became apparent to me quite readily that a multiple choice means there is a right answer looking at me if I can find it. Even if I did not know it immediately, I might eliminate or two and increase me chance of success.

Not surprisingly, I did well on the SAT – and this was long before coaching and tutoring. My score was in the mid 1200s. What was truly funny was that my math outscored my verbal, because I was barely a C+ math student.

But I knew why. On a multiple choice test, the answer is there. You don’t have to do the math do to the math, if you know what I mean. But in class, the answer is something you have to find, and my messy brain would often veer of on a tangent – “do I factor here or apply the quadratic equation?” – and would end up far from the right answer.

Too many options. We love freedom, and what is freedom but the power to make choices. Is it possible, though, for us to choke of freedom? Can we be buried by a surfeit of choices?

13 ounce, 3 pound, or jumbo size? Regular, decaf, or "lite"? French roast, Columbian, dark roast? Leather trim, moon roof, "sport pak", cuffs, pleats, free range, fair exchange, 17 inch, LCD, all cotton, you want fries with that?

Where in there is the right choice? In a totally customized world where I can tailor my pants on line and get books recommended by Amazon based on my previous choices, is there a way to find the right choice when it comes to doing the right thing? I am deafened by all the offers and sales and promotions and parties and positions and papers and websites and blogs (no I do not read any. Sorry about that) and in the roar find it ever harder, nigh impossible to hear the true note.

Out there, on the road, with NPR or the Austin Lounge Lizards to amuse me, I know that the asphalt is my path. The horizon my goal, the miles the measure. Cut off from being able to do anything else, and thus having to think and plan and dodge and bob, there is a very bearable lightness of being. I think this is what monks and nuns feel, some of them at least. It is good.

And it is false, because the real world is cacophony and chaos. Confounded as I feel, inept and inadequate as I truly am, this is where I have to live.

So I am glad to get away, and blessed to have the power. I need it and welcome it from time to time. And maybe, when I am older and less in need of a job or less needed to serve in some way, I shall have that life, my monastic path, to follow as a way of life and not a hobby. For now, it is back to the unforgiving world of freedom and responsibility.

Who gets the post title? Let me know, the first in gets to do the happy dance in front of everybody.

25 July 2006

Black Elk Still Speaks

Man it was hot in DC. That's normal for there of course. I read somewhere that diplomats posted to DC in the 19th century considered it a 'hardship post.' I imagine the British ambassador of the time likened it to India or China, or any place light on culture and heavy of tropical diseases. The reputation has changed thanks to geo-politics and Freon, but the moment you step outside, the marshy ancestry of the region smacks you in the face.

As it did for us when I wrestled my younger son and spouse out one day while visiting the area. We were there, as I mentioned before, to see family. Ensconced in College Park just north of the city we were in the center of a cluster of relations that include my sister in Arlington, my wife's cousin in Annapolis, my aunt and uncle in Columbia, and my wife's remaining aunt in Owings Mills. But we were also just a short ride from the Metro and our first day was spent with sis and her husband at her digs at the National Portrait Gallery. Do go, it is in the old Patent Office, the third oldest building in the capital city and ripe with its own history. The gallery is joined there by the American Museum of American Art which is also fine. And as Smithsonian institutions you can see them without charge.

I should tell you about the Portraits and all, which I intend to, but this post is about our third day, when as I said I dragged son and spouse out into the heat. Call me crazy, but sitting in a hotel room, even air conditioned, is not my idea of a fund day. I said, "Let's see the capitol itself." (Note the different spelling, which was drilled into me as a youth and confirmed by meeting its etymological origin, the Capitoline Hill which is the summit of the ancient Roman Forum.)

We took the metro down and staggered through the early morning heat to discover that at 930 the next tour available was 330 p.m. and we had to be somewhere with 'tives at 4. Damn. Standing in the fricassee heat we settled on seeing the new National Museum of the American Indian, just two blocks away.

Aside: The national Museum has been in existence for a while, using the Old Custom House in NYC, which is a great spot to see in itself. It still continues to serve as part of the Museum, but this space was recently built to house a more extensive collection. It was also designed, filled, and now staffed with the help of many native people.

Even with time on our hands we could not take it all in, but the overall message was clear at every step - native America is not only history but reality. The Museum takes in both North and South America, and speaks from a native perspective. This is not, however, a diatribe about colonialism or a panegyric to native virtue.

We saw two exhibits. One was a collection of 'snapshots' of various nations - from Canada to Chile - outlining their cosmology, spirituality, sociology and economy. I was struck by the overlapping of signs and symbols. Some were the same, or the image was the same but the meaning slightly different. The myths varied a lot but the use of colors and directions and shapes were strikingly similar. A scholar could show me why this was so, I suspect it involves similar technologies and natural environments but maybe not. It did make me wonder. Gender dimorphism was strong in every one, but configured differently in each. Age was important, the young and the old, and a strong sense that each group was a custodian of something needed by the whole society.

The other was a heavily illustrated and documented account of the Native encounter with Europeans, which allowed numbers and facts to speak for themselves in a way that made the native perspective quite vivid and strong. They even have (on loan) a copy of John Eliot's translation of the Bible, perhaps the rarest book in America and one of the rarest in the world. The quality of artistic examples was stunning, from yarn paintings and beadwork to modern paintings and writings.

The best part, if not intended to be, is the cafe, which features foods from native palettes. There were stations serving Woodlands, Plains, Pacific, Mexican, and Andean foods. What an assortment of diets and foods and cuisines there is, and not found commonly in the restaurant trade.

I do not generally write reviews, but this was an unusual experience - unusually informative and challenging and satisfying. Not having expertise in any of it I cannot express any judgment about it, but if the mission is to invite people into a world they do not know much about, it works. It left me wanting to know more, and that is a sure sign of success.

... Had a funeral yesterday, a young man of 24. His friends came in abundance, and I could not help but wonder what they were thinking. Death has been so romanticized by pop culture. It is momentous, but to my mind it is anything but romantic. And the death of a young person always brings out the anger at seeing life wasted. It does not matter how it happened, the world needs each of us to do as much as we can to build the world. When a life ends so soon I feel the world as much as the family is cheated of something.

24 July 2006

Three Thousand Miles Later

"We’re baaack." The ubergeist is back in the house, his yard overgrown with milkweed and inspecting for the results born of – count ‘em - two power outages. Our troubles though are nothing like my cousins in Queens who have been living the rustic life for most of a week. And I have no idea if my college buddy cum hotshot-1st-amendment-lawyer in St. Louis is even alive. That Al Gore sure knows how to promote a movie.

But environmentalism will have to wait for a while (I have a weird basis for my environmentalism, sort of a ‘go for broke’ version of Peter Huber’s neocon vision but again that’s another subject). Let me be merely ordinary and say where we have been and make some musing (being amusing is too hard in the heat I think) observations.

Collected elder son from college in Ottawa Ontario, spending 4th of July watching the Canadian redcoats change the guard on Parliament Hill. Now that’s a way to go, let me tell you. I have a weakness for military pageantry (gasp, horror) born of growing up in DC and going to Fort Myer and Arlington. I was very fond of the army and navy and all when all I knew was that they wore really cool uniforms, marched really well and the band played Sousa.

I got what I wanted, with excellent martial ritual, great warm weather and the band even played Sousa because it was, as I said, Independence Day. They also played the March of the Grenadiers and the act 1 closing march from Le Nozze de Figaro. Both are part of the British example, and this local form is an exact replica only better because you don’t have the fence to ruin the view. Yep, that’s what armies are for, no doubt. As far as I am concerned, better a Canadian parade than a Russian overture.

By evening we were south of the border visiting family in Vermont. Almost all of our kin are east coast folks, along with most of our lives, being out of the area nine of the last thirty years. We are down to a pair of aunts, an uncle, my three siblings, my wife’s six cousins and their assorted issue. Our first stop was in Vermont, at my late parent’s home which is now my brother’s.

The theme of the trip started there as I saw all that he had done to change it into his place. It is still mom and dad’s but now very much his as well. And what struck me was how much I liked it. It is his style, but overall there is a freshness to the place that makes it alive in a good way. He and his wife are still making things happen, but what I see so far is neat.

But the theme? That memory needs to be refreshed with reality. The past needs to connect to the present. I mentioned that in my last post, vis a vis church life. But it is also true in personal life. Seeing the old parental home made new, and yet recognizably also the old house, helped me see the place as having a present and a future not just a past.

Likewise - as we went south - visiting friends in MA, preaching at my first church, seeing family in Maryland. Everywhere there was newness connecting to the old, and the old was renewed as well. The only sad note was in Baltimore, where we drove past our former high school. The building is there but wit a new name as the school I knew was formally closed. I arrived the day it opened in 1965, and stayed for six years, 7th through 12th grade. But in the early nineties it fell on very hard times, the students virtually ignoring the administration to the point of brawls and fires and crimes. I cannot look at it, though, without smelling the fresh paint and the new plaster and remembering how the building was unfinished as we started. Like so many others, high school should be able to hold your youth, but that is completely gone.

What was really useful was going back to NYC for a week. But this post is already too long. So look for it soon. It is good to be back in the present, though. Not easy, but good.

13 July 2006

capital ideas

So I scored some time on the hotel computer here outside DC and thought I'd send a few words from your less than intrepid traveling commentator - a sort of "Fear and Loathing along the Beltway" posting.

I was born near here, and most of my and my wife's family have stayed nearby. Coming here is part family duty and part time travel as much of my youth transpired between the DC and Baltimore. A whole lot of this trip is memory based, to be honest. Where other people get away from their past when the vacate, I go back to it because my work has always taken me away from my past. I left Maryland to go to college in Missouri. Moved to Illinois for graduate work. My first ten working years were in Massachusetts, the next four in Texas, the next eleven in New York, and now live in west Michigan. Like E. E. Hale's "Man Without a Country" I vowed to escape Maryland when I was 18 and succeeded. Now that I am on the back nine, so to speak, I have a desire to check in with my formative years so I come back here.

There is also that undeniable sense that family is still the folk you can always count on. The price may be high, but if ever the chips are down...

Past and Future are the poles my of magnet, each exerting their pull on me. Just this past week I was telling my first congregation to move on, claim not just the facts of their past but the hopes of that past. Go back and reclaim the faith of those who went before, not the doctrine so much as their dreams for their future which created the place they inherited. I suppose that is what I am doing as well - looking for the geist of their zeit, the dream my father and mother had, their parents had, and so on. A hymn well known to my tradition says "what they dreamed be ours to do." But if we don't know what they dreamed, not what they did but what they dreamed, we end up with what the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan called traditionalism. As he put it, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." I seek the enduring spirit that propelled the past to the present, that of my ancestors but also that of my own youth. And I seek the thread that runs through them all, the cantus firmus of the "choir invisible."

It is really hot and sticky today. I should tell you about the vagaries of DC tourism, the perpetual traffic jams, the excellent National Museum of the American Indian and the National Portrait Gallery. But I have to go as see my aunt and uncle. Good duty. See ya...

01 July 2006

Hold That Thought!

Well, I’ll be taking some time off for a few weeks (about three) and so you may not see much in this or my other blog spaces (yes, I am posting the same text to all three).

In some ways it is hard to knock off. Just this morning the New York Times published a great Op-Ed from itself and the LA Times on the role of the press in these tough times. The governor of Arkansas is determined to keep gay couples from being foster parents despite lack of evidence there is any risk to children (as the Arkansas Supreme Court said in their ruling provoking the governor). Palestine was on the verge of virtual recognition of Israel and then Gaza exploded again. And the US Congress, faced with issues like Iraq and Afghanistan and the deficit and so on has decided to get all huffy about move ratings because a Christian themed movie got a PG rating instead of G.

I can’t resist talking about that one for just a minute. It seems some of our solons are disturbed that a religious movie could warrant a PG because that sort of thing connotes ex and violence. Now, as I remember it, the infallible word of God starts with two naked people whose first son kills the second son, and then goes on in gory glory that includes polygamy, rape, vendetta, incest, war, pestilence, deceit and betrayal. And that’s just in Genesis. I think the Bible itself is at least an R rated book. But we have it our pudding headed culture that Christianity is nice, normal, sweet, and safe.

It is nothing of the sort. Indeed, no religion worth its weight in hymnals would be worth following if it were not complicated, difficult, vexing and even a little frightening. Heck, I wouldn’t want to be part of a religion that was not at least PG. Any religion with a G rating is too wussy for me.

I have not posted a “Letter to a Young Christian” for quite a while. Had hope to in May, and now it’s about to be July. I could excuse it by saying I got this request o write an article for the UU World Magazine, which I did. And that did take up a bunch of time. I could also say these letters are in some ways a chance to lay out an ‘apologia’ for a liberal faith so it is takes more planning, which it does. So look for something in August. In the end, there will be three.

Finally, happy Canada Day. It is July 1, the anniversary of the 1867 Dominion status of Canada when it became a de facto nation instead of a colony. We shall be heading north (east actually from here) tomorrow, toward Ottawa to collect our college finishing son. More than once over the years we have spent July fourth in Ottawa, and it is curious how patriotic I feel about the USA even as I am filled with respect and admiration for our sister up north. They have much to teach us about ourselves if we would listen. I look forward to waking up in Ottawa and, if the border is not too bogged down by Homeland Security, seeing the sun set behind the Adirondacks on the far side of Lake Champlain.