30 September 2006

Now That I Have a Moment...

So I just got back from the wedding, which was wonderful.

Ordinarily I do not attend rehearsal dinners and receptions. For several reasons.

1. I rarely know anyone outside the wedding party, so at dinner or reception I have no one to talk with, and few find a clergyman their idea of a party animal.

2. If I ate all the food and drink offered, I would be ever expanding.

3. I am not a social person, really. Big informal crowds are hard for me. One or two or even a half dozen people are my idea of a good evening. Scores are overwhelming.

So why did I go tonight? It was a church family whom I respect and appreciate a lot, of whom one was a co-chair of the search committee that selected me. And it was fun, at least for my wife who is far more sociable than I, meaning gifted at it. We left before the cake, which I will miss as I have a sweet tooth. But all the other fine food was already making me feel very full indeed, so discretion trumped desire.

A friend wrote me saying that my last entry was not something that stimulated questions or conversation. I suppose not. The nature of blogs is that they capture whatever moment I have when I write it. Far from being well planned, entries are as much prompted by feeling I should write as having something to write.

This is the discipline that public utterance is about. Whether you have something planned or not, you have to say something every seven days if you are a preacher. And a blog that lies fallow for a long time loses its constituency. So I am flogging myself to sit down after the filet and the merlot to say something because, once again, I shall be away for a few days. And there will be no time until Thursday next.

Far from inspiring, this entry, but I have this habit of candor that I simply cannot shake.

By the way, Die tode Stadt, an opera by Erich W. Korngold, was lovely. That it was composed when he was 24, and was his third, was stunning. It will not be a staple in my repertory, but the lute song in the first act, reprised at the end, is worth the whole thing. Like Bizet's Pearl Fishers, it is imperfect but has moments of perfection.

And the Klimts are stunning. the five paintings I saw in Vienna and on display through this week at the neue gallerie in New York, that will be sold at auction soon, that are among the very best I have ever seen. It was great to see them again, even for $15 dollars. The Shieles and Kokoschkas were great too. But on their own, not worth $15.

There is a nearly perfect cafe there, in the Viennese tradition, which means Viennese coffees like kaiser melange, my favorite. While the Italians disdain cappucino after 10 am, Viennese drink melange into the afternoon. Korngold and Klimt and Kaiser melange took me back to Vienna five years ago and I left New York longing to return to the Cafe Drei Beisl in the St. Michaelplatz, and eat tafelspitz on cold evenings with a tall glass of Gosser beer. I could remember how it felt to ride the strassenbahn around the Ring, the windows cloudy with moisture and the recorded voice reminding us at each stop which lines converged at which stop... Umsteigen zum linea zwei und zwanzig...

Paris is more splendid. London more grand. But Vienna has a tenderness in it, a world weary resignation that is both sad and happy, something that is the heart of the Marschallin's "Ja ja" as she walks away from Octavian. I miss it very much today.

I am Not fasting, but I sure am fast.

Was it Tristram Shandy who found out that he could not both live his life and record it in his journal?  I am feeling that fact today, coming home later yesterday from a few days away, and leaving again on Monday for a few more.  

I should tell you about going to Die tode Stadt, seeing Gustav Klimpt, riding the Acela, walking the Upper West Side and Boston’s Back Bay.  Some of you may know about these things, but others might enjoy it.  I cannot tell you the pleasure of seeing old friends, but the privacy of that experience you all know as well as I.  

In a few moments I have to perform a wedding, including attending the reception this time.  It will be mid evening before we get home.  The morning will be a mad rush to prepare for all that must happen.  Maybe by 5 all will be back to the merely mad.  

Somewhere in this I have to figure out how to start my furnace (it was stopped to make a steam pipe repair), get my roof replaced and do other homeowner stuff.  

L’shana tovah, but may it be a little less wild and woolly than it started.

17 September 2006

So What Do I Owe You?

It sure is hard to post something between Thursday and Sunday. Anyway, here it is Sunday evening. Services went well – we had a great guest musician this week – and I was able to get away by 3 p.m. The afternoon was marvelously prosaic. Filled the tank, and then bought provisions for the coming week. Now that I have both sons at home, it is amazing how much more I need to buy each week.

Speaking of providing, I’m preparing for our annual stewardship campaign at church. I also spent some time this past last week updating my personal financial records in anticipation of the quarterly tax payments last Friday. Then there’s the house and yard. We need to replace the roof and repair part of the boiler system. I must have made half dozen phone calls this past week trying to get the roofer and the heating people to call me. So far they have yet to return my calls. Cold weather is coming closer every day, too.

In the larger sense of stewardship, my wedding 30th anniversary is coming up in about four weeks. In this world where half of marriages do not survive I am stunned that we have come this far. Not that it was so rocky and all. It has not been. And yet, when I weigh the fact of 30 years, over half my life, I see it is something to behold.

So what bothers me is that I cannot get an adequate observance organized. We are not party people, I should say. Just a pleasant dinner would be nice, and not necessarily out. That would mean getting dressed and making reservations and work in general. Maybe I should cater a meal at home, but I have these two boys living here, and much as I love them, this is an occasion for two only.

For a while I hoped to take us back to Chicago where we got married and spend a night. But even that is too elaborate with all the wider demands of work and school and life in general. I mope a little that other couples take cruises and weekends. Other husbands lavish great gifts and other tokens of affection. If all goes well, there will be a new roof in process, a repaired boiler by the time the great day comes. I may yet swoop her away to Chicago, but only if we can come back that night because our son has his first dance with a date the next night. We could go to lunch, see our old neighborhood (peeking at the window of our first apartment) and then go to the chapel where we got hitched. Not quite as grand as replaying our wedding night with a fine meal and then retiring to a nice room somewhere on the miracle mile.

If she needed magic and romance as much as the movies imply I would have been kicked to the curb long ago. But like I said last time, I am a blessed man.

The days slide by so quickly, and honoring them seems almost impossible. What can I do that truly reveres the gift every day offers? Wife, children, siblings, health, friends, work, food, learning, life itself. I would have to spend the whole day in gratitude to even begin to do this fortune justice.

So there is a dilemma, my friends. Thanks are due, but paying the interest alone would consume every penny. We cannot succeed, unless the debt is not actually gratitude. I’ll have to ponder that while I figure out how to be a good husband next month.

13 September 2006

The Good Night

Tired. A ferocious week and it’s only Wednesday. Not evil or mean, I should say. Just immense. Time planning and management has never been my forte. It began to take its toll with the familiar touch of insomnia. That’s my ‘wake up call’ in reverse, the signal to slow down. Only I can’t. Once the irons are in the fire you have to see them through. You would think I would learn by now. As they say about insanity…?

Thanks to the magazine that published my 9/11 thoughts, I got a bunch of blog visits on Monday and Tuesday. Thanks Chris Walton for that. And a fine note from someone using an email username, which means I have no idea who it is. But the letter was very kind, and in the curious intimate anonymity of the internet, I now know a great about this person but not a name or even a gender. O brave new world that has such creatures in it.

Death is about me this week as I attend a man and wife as he slips away, and prepare a memorial for a young man who perished a month ago. Nothing in clergy life is so affirming, oddly, than the office of the dead. We are really quite trivial to society, as the ancient reputation of priests as parasites suggests, until death comes. Then I feel useful, in a clear and firm way.

Thinking back on funerals, I remember them more than weddings. Weddings are often very similar, and frequently for people you do not know. The dead are more likely people with a connection to you. I have clear memories of my first memorial, a hot day in Chicago that demanded shirtsleeves. And one in Massachusetts that had me standing in a graveyard as the snow fell and watching the casket go into the frozen ground. There were two huge funerals I did in Texas long ago, one for an esteemed professor. So esteemed that the formidable John Silber, then president of Boston University attended. I did not know until after and was relieved not to have known. Another for a ballet dancer who perished of AIDS. He was deeply loved by student and fan. I saw them the day they died, when the shadow of death had crept into their faces.

It may seem odd, but I cherish the dead I have buried, even the ones I did not know. It taught me that even when we are gone, there are people whose lives we can affect. Mine being that affected life.

I did not know the young man I shall memorialize tomorrow, but his mother and father came to see me and I saw the awesome sorrow in them as they smiled through their tears. I do know the man who is slipping into death, sleeping more and more. What a gift I get each time; one that always humbles me and makes me tremble with unworthiness. I am blessed.

Now to bed.

07 September 2006

Go on, I dare ya!

Complicated week, as first weeks back after summer often are but this time enhanced - a death in the congregation which means a memorial service, my son applying for health insurance and getting denied, my colleague’s announced departure as of next June, getting a new tenant in my apartment and helping the homeless friend who was in it all summer find new digs. This evening, my spouse and I were guests of someone sponsoring a fundraiser for our governor, for which we will write a solid check. Ahead lies a wedding (don’t forget the rehearsal I am telling myself!) and of course the first Sunday back in our sanctuary.

I guess I am tired after all. But I tell you all this because I it has taken me a while to assemble some blogworthy thoughts. Mine is a generation that thinks writing should not be the process of thinking but the result of it.

Anyway, last night I was part of a panel on the moral and religious basis for progressive convictions and actions. I shared the dais of what was, and still for the moment is the Ladies Literary Society. It is a true auditorium in a building with a façade designed to look like a large home along the street. Something of an architectural trompe l’oeuil. (Is that the spelling?)

My comrades in discourse were a Dominican sister, a Conservative rabbi and a Muslim women scholar. We each had time to articulate our basic point of view and then answer questions. The crowd of about 150 – mostly older people - were sympathetic listeners, being part of two left of center political organizations.

Why tell you about this? Because the emerging commonality between us, overarching different confessions and scriptures, was a sense that plurality and diversity are not obstacles to morality and truth, but a means to morality and truth.

For my friends on the stage, this mostly represented a minority view from the prevailing wind of their religious community. The very nature of scriptural and confessional religions is to say “This is the truth; that is not.” Saying that is the essential act of faith – be it a book or what the book tries to say or the institution that claims to embody what a book tries to say. To equivocate on the truth value – saying there may be more or different truth out there – implicitly puts one at odds with the essential claim of the religion, I would say.

Of course, representing a single independent church, this is no problem. My problem is exactly the opposite. Without a scripture or denomination, our challenge is to legitimate ourselves at all. Far from being suspected of heresy, I am suspected of being an imposter. “That’s not a church,” or “That’s not a religion,” is what I face.

For lots of folks, including self proclaimed religious liberals (I actually think the term ought to be liberal religionists which is less economical I know but more semantically accurate) we define ourselves by the adjective not the noun. I think this is the source of our weakness, as nouns are things in themselves while adjectives are nothing without something else. What is the noun, the thing, the stuff, the guts, the core, the bit T Truth that we are about?

I think I know. Arrogant? Well even a blind man can catch a cat in the dark room if you listen really carefully. But I want to know what you think the noun part is. Be scrupulous. No neologisms here. Find a transcendental claim that unifies diversity without destroying it or demeaning it. Give the self- evident basis for morality in a pluralistic universe. Show how the parts fit into the whole, how the transient connects to the permanent, how individual life matters in a universe of indescribable immensity and silence.

Oh, and do it in a way that does not require believing in something essentially beyond the limits of reason or science.

I’ll be waiting.

05 September 2006

Another One Bites the Dust

No he did not fly an airplane.  That was Sky King.  Starr King, Thomas Starr King to be precise, was a Universalist minister serving the new Unitarian church in San Francisco at the time it was seeking to join the Union.  He is, or rather has been, one of the two personalities representing California in the national statuary hall of the US Capitol.  

Why is he there at all?  Abolitionist in his views, he stumped all over the California Republic to win its entry as a free state, working so hard that he died at the tender age of forty.  An ally and acquaintance Lincoln, it is no wonder that he was regarded, along with Father Junipero Serra, as a ‘father’ of the state.  Hence his place in the Capitol.

But that’s about to change.  According to the NYT, the state legislature has voted to replace King with a statue of…

Ronald Reagan.

I am trying to set aside my religious and political views here - being both a Unitarian Universalist and a Democrat.  King was never Governor or President of the United States.  He is largely forgotten because his work is now far in the background.  And King was a Republican, among the earliest in fact.  So it is not political equity that is at work here.  

Sadly, the reality I suspect is at work is that the national statuary hall is a place to trot out famous sons who made good.  Dwight Eisenhower replaced a national unknown recently.  I am sure more famous sons (daughters one can also hope) may be brought in by other states and their less known predecessors taken down to the minors like King, to stand in State Capitols.  

I will try to console the departure of one of my spiritual kinsfolk with the hope that maybe Georgia will send us a Martin Luther King, Jr. or New York a Susan B. Anthony.  I would be glad if states gave us their best lights and mightiest minds to admire.  

But if the standard is national success, why not Bill Clinton for Arkansas?  He was a governor who became president.  And Arkansas? If there was a state with unknowns in the hall that has to be one.  Or Bill Gates for Washington State, and Warren Buffet out in the plains of Nebraska?  Virginia must be very proud of Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell who have large national followings.  

And what about Richard Nixon?  Maybe he was never governor of California, but a native son, a member of Congress, a Senator, Vice President and President.  That’s an impressive record.  And ultimately, the current governor is a great candidate, for not only is an American success story, but no one could make a better subject for a sculptor.  

In the current world, people like Thomas Starr King, who merely gave their lives for ideas like freedom and did not have the perspicacity to become famous while they were alive, are simply not Capitol Quality.  

Cross posted on Daily Kos

01 September 2006

What Ever Happened to Class?

Splendid squalor is always news. Various sources report on a lawsuit in New York that accuses a son of neglecting his mother. That’s not news, sadly. What makes it newsworthy is who is supposedly neglecting whom. Anthony Marshall, the son, is accused of neglecting Brooke Astor his mother. Brooke is the widow of Vincent Astor, the last of the line that goes back to John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire.

You can read the history of the
Astors in lots of places. What matters here is that Brooke, though she married into the family, changed their reputation from one of fabulous but indifferent wealth to fabulous charitable wealth. According to the NYTimes, she inherited $120,000,000 in 1959 when her husband died. (Somewhere north of a $1 billion in current dollars no doubt) and over the next forty years gave away over $200 million (compound interest is a great thing, as Ben Franklin noted.)

The lawsuit (brought by Marshall's own son and Brooke’s grandson - which makes this real not just soap opera) says that Anthony has so neglected his mother that she, now 104, is barely fed and clothed. Her Park Ave duplex apartment is decaying around her. He, Anthony, on other hand is draining her bank accounts for personal gain. Exactly the sort of story Americans love to hear.

Why am I talking about this?

Because I met Mrs. Astor.

Back in 1995, my previous church was doing extensive repairs. It is very old, and thus affected by historic codes and laws. That makes repairs more expensive. Way more expensive. So the church applied to various foundations for assistance, including Mrs. Astor’s. One of the rules of her charity was that she needed to see each project she might support.

One day, pre-arranged and very quietly, her limousine pulled up in front of the church, its façade completely shrouded in scaffolding. Her driver opened the door and a very small thin woman in a wide brimmed had slowly emerged. She was then 92, mind you, and our church had a steep set of brownstone steps. She wanted to go inside. So she took my arm and we lowly mounted the steps. She then walked through the outer vestibule with its paintings of predecessors and into the sanctuary which is dominated by a tall neo-gothic pulpit shaped like itself like a cathedral façade, and then she sat down in one of the ancient pews.

There were only three of us there, a church member and Ms. Astor and I. She sat and looked and asked a few questions. Her face was quite genial and serene. After about five minutes (probably less) she began to get up and I escorted her back to her car.

We got the grant, which was only $25,000 but that was as much as she ever gave to building projects. But ever after, as I read about society balls and events, I enjoyed seeing her and reading about how she was the presiding doyenne of New York Society. I may not have met the mayor or the governor or the celebrities that are as thick as thieves in that town. But I did meet Mrs. Astor.