31 December 2008

Same Old New Year

Just a few minutes to spare before doing something ceremonial about the New Year.

Work was very quiet this week. I managed to clear my desk and read backlogged stuff piled on the shelf behind me. The urgency of clocks and deadlines slowed to a crawl and this is perhaps the most wonderful gif of the season. A generation ago, when I started this life, January was itself slower, notably in winter places. But now that electronics has connected everything and revved them all up, even January is fast. That makes this week between Christmas and New Years’ the ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ for me.

And after tomorrow it will be over all too soon. As with every year the quarterly taxes are due in January, but for the first time I must file a FAFSA form for our (presumed) college entrant next fall. I am cooking soup for the congregation on Sunday, a labor of love but a labor notwithstanding. The next week I am having some church leaders over for a meal and conversation. Two weeks later I must travel to Westchester County to preach for an ordination (a task and honor I have never done before.) All good things, desirable things, but demanding things as well.

When will I read, study, pray, write? In the gaps between tasks. Once again, the important and meaningful are elbowed aside by the urgent and demanding. And yet somehow, it will all happen. Not a ringing testimony, but faith nonetheless.

28 December 2008

Tax And Spend

Please read Tom Friedman from today's (Sunday) NYTimes. Then tell someone else, fast. If you can find a better idea (not his by the way, as I saw it suggested before the election) you should be president.

27 December 2008

Not Funny

So the RNC is outraged by a satire of “Puff the Magic Dragon” pointed at the president elect and his ethnicity. Dudgeon has always been a tempting posture, from the left or right. And they ought to be quick about condemning one of their own before someone else does and they, yet again, look stupid about race.

What I want to know is how or even whether the president-elect’s staff will respond as well, or in kind. Honestly, they do not need to. From what I can tell, the song is rather harmless if poorly titled, and the president-elect only stands to look better by brushing this one off. He looks tougher if he doesn’t react to every racially insensitive gaffe that will turn up. And believe me there will be plenty.

I, on the other hand, am saddened that humor so easily trucks with bigotry. Much as I cringe at the ubiquity of vulgar language in comedy, I wince when race or gender or religion is tweaked for laughs. Just this week a comedian on one of the cable stations, a ventriloquist, did a long set with a dummy representing “Ahmed” the world’s worst terrorist. The dummy by the way is a skeleton as he was a suicide bomber. Get it.

Aside from being gross and grotesque, most of the humor depended on stereotypes of Middle Eastern Islamic fanatics. He had an accent, of course. And did a lot of yelling. He did not, to his credit, do religious or political humor, but the context was essential to the humor.

The crowd was thrilled. I was angry. Muslims are part of my life, as friends and colleagues. There are lots of funny Muslims out there, really funny ones. Like the woman who tells the joke about being stopped by the police and asked for her license, and asks if he wants her driver’s license or her pilot’s license. Political, religious, and cringe worthy in its own right. But not at her expense.

I guess that’s the key. Humor always involves some mockery. It’s powerful stuff. I suppose my hope is that we would use it for more than cheap laughs.

25 December 2008

A Little Vinegar With Your Sugarplums?

Rarely do I post what I say in church. That and this are different places, with different voices. But for some reason, what I said last night seems worth sharing. You decide.

You deserve better than this. Shouldn’t the Christmas Eve sermon be the very best of the year, pondered and polished for days and days so that its message was as pure and clear as the midnight sky? But no. This priceless message was composed at the last minute, fit between the ten inch snow storm on Friday (and the shoveling of it), the five inch snowstorm on Sunday (and the shoveling of that), the 8 inch snow storm on Tuesday (and the shoveling of that, twice). Also a trip to Chicago and back on Monday, an insurance physical, and the usual flotsam of every day.

I have no excuse, though. Any reasonable person could anticipate that December would have its challenges. Everyone knows that life goes top speed from October 31 to January 31. Anyone with an ounce of wisdom would have realized that depending on an unbroken string of good luck (and good weather) was foolishly naïve.

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

These verses struck me yesterday, rereading them to find a thread of an idea. Clearly Joseph did not plan things very well either. After all, he had plenty time, nine months in fact. Even if the census order came unexpectedly, surely he could have sent word for a room. And if he came from Bethlehem, surely he had relatives there? People did not move around much then. Something doesn’t add up. It all seems to be a bit, well, contrived. That provoked a memory.

Nikos Kazantzakis, in his version of the life of Jesus, portrays Jesus noticing that Matthew has been writing a lot recently. But when Jesus reads what Matthew has been writing about him, his is outraged. "This isn't the truth. These are lies! I was not born in Bethlehem. I've never set foot in Egypt in my life. I don't remember any magi! And the dove did not say, 'This is my son, ' while I was being baptized!"


He’s right. It’s all a lie, the whole sweet story, from begats to shepherds, magi to manger. Not a fact in it. Two of the gospels don’t even refer to his birth, and the two that do, Matthew and Luke, don’t add up. And nowhere even in these two does it mention winter at all. So we are here tonight in honor of a story that didn’t happen, not this way and not at this time. The whole story of Christmas is a lie.

But the truth of Christmas is not. And what is that truth? Ah, here is where you expect me to tell you about the spiritual meaning of the story, its symbols and ideas. You are waiting for me to unwrap a little insight about messiahs or magi, about the tenderness of hope born in a stable and bleary eyed wise men who are searching for the pearl of great price.

But I am not going to do that. The truth of Christmas is that somewhere about two thousand years ago a woman gave birth. That happens every day of course; is happening right now. While we bathe ourselves in memory and hope, surrounded and enthralled by the beauty of eye and ear, a woman just up the hill is sweating and grunting and frightened. She is not alone. Thousands of women are in labor right now. Most of them not in the presence of nurses and doctors or even clean sheets. But the miracle of birth for them all is messy, and hard, and painful.

This is the truth of Christmas – miracles are hard work, and costly too. While the familiar words of the Bible resound in our ears, she takes deep breaths between contractions. While the music we love lifts us to celestial heights, she grinds her teeth and clenches her fists. And as I preach to you now, the waxy crumpled face of a child emerges from her body into the world. Most of them cry, their first act a shout of protest. Some do not cry. Some of them die. It is nothing like what we think Christmas is, and yet this is the truth of Christmas.

I tell you this because of what happened to me yesterday. I sat down for coffee with a young person in this congregation. She is searching. Lots of people are. And lots of churches know this. They’ve even created ‘seekers services’ for those who are not yet sure they are Christian. But this woman was telling me that what she wants is not an answer so much as a church willing to be really honest and honestly real.

That’s when I knew that the lovely lies would not be enough tonight. They are all right, so long as we remember that underneath them lies a prosaic fact that once, a very long time ago, a woman in Roman Palestine gave birth to someone who she later saw executed as a criminal. This fact lies at the center of the sweet story and this fact is what deserves our attention. “For this you mother sweated in the cold,” wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
For this you bled upon the bitter tree
A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold
A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
Up goes the preacher before the crowd
With voice of honey and eyes of steel
Droning your humble gospel to the proud.

The world is asking for someone to tell the truth, a truth not found in soaring spires and rising choirs, a truth as often obscured by majesties of worship, a truth uncloaked of satin words upon your eager ears. Eloquence becomes a lie of its own, for if I do not tell you the truth now, then when? Though I would love to please you with well wrought words and win your admiration, though it is infinitely harder to speak thus, especially tonight when the soft sounds of the story are what you came to hear, the siren of beauty, the angelic song is drowned out in my ear by the groans of women bearing children and those same women keening when they die. That story is what needs to be told.

Every day Mary labors, and every day Jesus comes into the world. Every day Jesus dies and every day Mary mourns. (Even the lovely lie ends with the slaughter of innocents.) But beloved of God, you whom I know and whom I do not know, here is what I do know.

We love. Not perfectly, not wisely, not even well, but we do love. In this cold, hard, strange world we dare to love. We sweat in the cold, groan in pain, weep in silence, struggle, labor, rejoice; we pour out of lives – which is what Mary did and Jesus – for love; something no one has seen or touched, something that cannot be cataloged or codified, something that to eye and ear is invisible.

All love has is stories, wild stories, stories no one can prove.

21 December 2008

Jack Frost Nipping

Yep, it has been a while, but hey I am a clergyman and this is advent. That and we had two giant snow snowstorms in 48 hours. The driveway gets plowed but everything else is my job. Walls of snow two feet high surround my driveway, sidewalk and steps. Did I mention the high winds and the bitter cold today? A third of the churches in town cancelled services, but we plowed through and it was very good. So were the cookies afterward. I read the fourth ‘stave’ of Dickens’ famous novella aloud after services. That was truly fun.

Strong weather makes you pay attention to things, doesn’t it? Walking to the gym last week was hard with slippery and icy streets and wind and cold. What struck me was the river. I cross it every day on my way to and from. This week I saw sheets of ice. Not floes and chunks, sheets as in sheets of paper. They were sort of rectangular in fact, and traveled in clumps of three or four. The river looked like a messy office floor, only it was brown and liquid. On the shore of the river was just forming ice along the embankment. Ducks swam close by as the current was fast from a rainstorm we had last Sunday night, our last bit of autumn I think for some time.

My fingers hurt a lot now, from Reynaud’s phenomenon. I think of it as a mid life gift from my mother. I can remember being young, in my twenties that is, when I spent a winter in Vermont with my folks, and how I could walk about easily in the cold. If it was sunny and in the 20s I barely needed a hat. Now I need a hat, two pair of gloves, parka, scarf, and still I feel cold and fingers throb. My son however goes out in a jacket and little else.

As you might imagine, I do not look forward spending my dotage here. And yet, forgive me Floridians, the idea of Florida is equally unattractive. I have lived a peripatetic life, which now begins to haunt me a bit as I have no sense of belonging somewhere so strong that it overcomes the challenge of hard winters or hot summers. The closest may be Maryland, which I left eagerly almost forty years ago, having grown up in what seemed to me its cloistered culture. I longed for real places with names people knew and respected. This past year its abundant supply of relatives and the studded landscape of memory began to look mighty nice.

That and the milder winters of course.

14 December 2008

Dead Tree Walking


I hate Christmas Trees.

Never mind that I am of heavy German ancestry, or that as a tenth generation Marylander my state song is also “O Tannenbaum,” or that a pioneer in my faith community was among the first to introduce domestic Christmas trees to America.

I hate Christmas Trees.

I hate the drag home, strapped to the car or, when we lived in NYC, carried through the streets like a dead deer.

I hate the needles falling and the prickly sensation while holding it upright, or the downright struggle to get it in the stand. I hate untangling the strings of lights and trying to arrange them on the branches.

And I really hate hanging decorations. It takes a long time and they slip off sometimes and there are so many of them. And tinsel, thank God we don’t do tinsel at my house any more. although there is scarcely anything more redolent of Christmas that tinsel.

It’s not some anti-pagan thing. Believe me, I am plenty pagan and happily so. And yes, it is better to sacrifice a tree than a child if the choice must be made.

But let’s face it – the whole tree thing is rather new. You can’t find one before 1800, even in Germany. Yule logs, sure, but decorated dead trees, no.

And what could be more sad than to look out on December 26th and see castoff trees lying like war dead in the street, filaments of merriment still clinging to the needles?

Hang your garland, light your candles, mull your wine and gobble your sweet meats. These I can love. But do we really need to kill whole forests to feel merry?

Oh, the horror.

13 December 2008

Only Myself To Blame


When you give people an easy way to say "ehhh," they do.

Sigh.

12 December 2008

Practical Procrastination


Stalking the wild sermon today. Ordinarily I do that on Thursday, but the newsletter deadline was Wednesday. I was in Muskegon on Wednesday for a meeting. Therefore the newsletter had to wait until Thursday.

So I am thinking about my sermon today. I think about it all the time, but today is when I should do something about it.

That means opening a fresh page on which to type. I remind myself of the title, put it at the top. Then I consult the cheat sheets of preachers – anthologies, books of quotations, bartleby.com, the common lectionary.

Between these things I check my email, play some solitaire, take a swig of coffee or diet coke. I see that it is sunny again this morning. Maybe I should chop at the ice still in my driveway. My paper did not come this morning. Lunch is on my mind though it is barely past 11 a.m. I notice that it is cold right now so the heat will be coming on soon.

See a pattern here?

Yes, I realize I am writing this post as well.

Somewhere today or tomorrow, I’ll catch the scent. I’ll lose it too. The first page will be a throwaway. Most weeks I get bogged down in an illustration or dilation or some tempting insight and end up working for an hour on a single paragraph. When that happens I know it is probably best to throw the whole graf away. Most sermons are about 15 pages long, five of them never written down, five written but rejected, five written and used. Come Sunday even these will be pretty lame.

If you think burnt sacrifices are a thing of the past, think again.

07 December 2008

An Overnight Failure

You know the bit. Wile E Coyote in pursuit of roadrunner runs off a cliff, but absorbed in his quest and not looking down, literally runs on air until he does look down. Then he looks at the viewer withresignation and plummets to distant thud marked by a small cloud of dust.

When people wonder how the economy went from so good to so bad so quickly it didn’t. It was bad for a long time, only we didn’t know it. The economy ran off a cliff a year ago, meaning it was in recession even then. But no one knew because the bubble cushioned us against feeling it. Once that burst, reality got in. What seemed to happen right away had been there for some time, but we only now perceived it.

Lots of things are like this. Illnesses like cancer and heart disease can be going on a long time before they break through into awareness. Women demanded the vote for seventy years and were resisted the whole time, until suddenly it happened. A colleague of mine says that churches never feel they make slow progress or that their problems are going away. Success always seems to come quickly and arbitrarily.

Lessons?

We rarely see what is actually there. Denial and delusion are always in the mix. Do not trust your senses or those of others to tell the whole story.

While denial can prop you up against all odds for a while, it is never a reliable long term strategy.

Success is a tipping point/critical mass sort of thing. Until you reach that point it feels like failure the whole time.

Success seems to come overnight, but it actually takes a long time and never seems to be success until it actually is.

05 December 2008

There Really Is A Lobby!


And I stood in it for a long time yesterday.

Three colleagues and I went to our state capitol to lobby some senators on behalf of a bill (H 4162) that mandates an ‘anti-bullying’ policy in every public and charter school.

I was there as part of the leadership of a local LGBT supportive clergy network, as sexuality (perceived or presumed or actual) is a frequent reason for bullying. But this aspect was part of what was holding it up.

I believe it was Twain who said there were two things you should never watch being made, law and sausage. The latter is grisly, the former is tedious and dispiriting. We talked with four senators in the hurly burly of the actual lobby. They gave us five minutes or so, the key senator even less as he was the one most reluctant to see our point of view.

Then we waited for the committee meeting following the general session of the senate. From the gallery we watched as the drone of business, much of it delayed and pent up over the two years of the current legislative session, went by in a blur of repetition and formality. Whatever majesty one has about government is ground away quite quickly despite the imposing room in which they sit.

Eventually, an hour later than planned, the committee met and we trudged over to see if the bill would come out of committee where it has been for many months. If it did not come out now it would die and the process would have to start over – meaning another two years.

We were not alone. A professional lobbyist was there, she was also our advisor during most of the day, and the father of the boy for whom the law is named (who took his own life after being harassed). Though it was not on the agenda, lo and behold they took it up.

The good news, it was sent to the floor. The bad news, language that pointed to a state education model policy, was removed. The reason was that it would tie the hands of administrators in making judgments, and school officials really do have a lot of rules already. But it was the model policy that named various ‘classes’ of kids who are bullied – racial and ethnic of course, along with religion, disability, gender and (this was the sticking point I think) sexuality.

So we helped get the bill out to the floor, but far from the form in which it was passed by the house and farther yet from its original form. We got a first down, not a touch down.

Hot soup was waiting for me at home. Vegetarian soup. I had enough sausage for one day.

01 December 2008

Drunk Man Walking


No I am not drunk, but referring to the statisticians example of randomness, the 'drunkard's walk.' If you click on the link the Wikipedia article would quiclkly make you think I am way smarter than I am. I only meant to refer to the general notion.

Anyway, I just had a few random thoughts that string together in no consicous order.

- You probably make more mistakes than you realize, and that means you get more forgiveness than you know. We mostly forgive and that is probably pretty good in the long run.

- It's hard to separate tenacious from stubborn. Maybe it's all about who is doing the talking, the tenacious one or the poor fellow who has to deal with the stubborn one.

- The more you learn the less you know.

- One size does not fit all, even with spandex. I don't mean clothes so much as economic policy. Sometimes we need less regulation, sometimes more. Sometimes taxes should be high, sometimes low. All the various systems work, and probably should be used. The trick is knowing which to do when.

- We need leaders, but not so much. Everyone talks about the need for 'leadership' but I think the real challenge is followership. Following is powerful stuff but no one wants to be one and it's not the stuff of books in airports.

- It's gets late earlier and earlier. See ya!

29 November 2008

Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree...


“Maximum subjective richness.”

William James is my favorite thinker not only because he presaged many of the ideas of the 20th century, but he was also a splendid writer. The phrase above, in an essay that changed my theological life, contains in three words what spirituality is supposed to accomplish.

“Maximum subjective richness.”

And it worked. My mind is a hothouse of thoughts, notions, feelings, memories, insights. What goes on between my ears is mostly far more interesting than what happens out in the world. Sound arrogant? Well, remember it is how I see it from my own limited vantage, but more than one poet – Blake and Dickinson and Millay come easily to mind – realized the mind is not bound by gravity or time or even reality.

“Maximum subjective richness.”

One reason I love early morning is that I can linger in the liminal world (Gary Wills’ notion) between dream and reality. Hardly a morning comes where I do not arouse with a dream still in mind, and if I resist getting out of bed for a bit I can hold on to it awake.

“Maximum subjective richness.”

A key reason I love to walk to work instead of drive is that this allows me to be in the world and also to think about it. Unlike driving where you need and should attend to traveling, walking can be second nature. This allows me to notice things. I travel the same path most every day, but there is always something I did not see or hear or smell before. As I go along, these play upon my thoughts, begetting little freshets of understanding. Some may turn into full blown ideas, but mostly they are simple little things.

“Maximum subjective richness.”

But as lovely as this is, there is a downside. Insularity for one. All this richness means I rarely need more stimulation. I find myself shutting things out just to keep the noise down and the dust from getting too thick. It’s a jungle in there, and who needs more of that?


Self absorption is the other. James rejected philosophies that were purely interior. A real philosophy had practical, living, outcomes; hence the term pragmatism. For the last year or two or three I have been struggling to put all this spiritual wealth to work in my life. Like a blacksmith, I have to heat it and work it, hammering my rich thoughts against the anvil of morality. “What should I do with this?” is my constant question.

This is not quiet, serene, or tidy work, sadly. Not for me, nor for my church.


But I have lost weight!

26 November 2008

Eucharist?

Thank you. Being Thanksgiving I would be remiss not to say this to you. We are remiss most days, I think, or at least I am. Every day is a shower of blessings starting with waking up. Not the lovely sensation itself but the mere fact.

Then, to find the eyes and ears and limbs still do pretty much what we want them to, although with age they begin to protest. I expect a petition for relief from my ankles any day now.

Here in the northland, at about the same latitude as Concord NH, daylight is already sparse. I walk to the gym in the dark, but if there are no clouds the eastern sky has begun to turn blue as I finish the mile and a quarter walk. Only paintings come close to the palpable beauty of that blue as it rises over the horizon.

My radiators rattle, but now that my skin is thinner along with the rest of me, that tattoo of warmth has its own pleasure when I come back from the gym as well. Few things are as satisfying as morning light and the possibility a day holds.

Tasks and chores will eat away that potential, as well as my capacity to goof off. But on wintry days the feel of the hot shower is lovely, even as the shiver when it stops is not. My walk to work will remind me of the poor who gather in the park, office workers who huddle in the cold on smoke break, the traffic that comes from being close to a hospital, the filaments of the world that thread us together like the pipes and wires and other sinews of the city.

It all really is amazing. And it deserves rapturous appreciation. But if we did that, nothing would get done. I could stand slack jawed in front of my wife and sons. Their existence is dumbfounding. Their tolerance of me unbelievable. I cannot say enough about the good people with whom I work, ‘my staff’ but who are really my partners in labor. No church I have served has ever had so good a complement as these people. And if the lovely anonymous soul who commented on my past post is typical of members (and from experience this is a good bet) the people who come and listen each week not only endure my flaws but wring some good from my stumbles despite me. How can I begin to say anything worthy of that?

But as much as all of them deserve all the praise I can utter, they need not my drooling worship. They need much more. So this short paean is actually to say that gratitude, while essential is insufficient. My sons need my maturity, my wife my loyalty, my staff my sanity, my people my spirituality.

And I need them, not for their praise or even their devotion, but for their mere being – a fact as miraculous and ordinary as dawn itself.

23 November 2008

Before going to bed...

.
... I just wanted to note that I am feeling extra incompetent today. This is a perfectly foolish feeling, objectively. My grown up brain knows this is all in my head, but my infant brain, the psychic equialent of the lizard brain underneath all the folded gray stuff, stumbled on the pulpit steps today. What looked so good and sure on paper unraveled in the delivery. Years ago I would have gotten scared and truly stumbled. But now I am more adept and do not actually fall down as much.

The problem is that this whole preaching thing is useless when it comes to telling the real truth. This morning what was in me could not be said because it was inexpressible. I thought it was expressible. It sure looked that way when I read it this morning.

Then, as the words became sounds, the hollowness of them was unmistakable. The argument felt thin and cardboard flat, and all I could do was tell them I could not find the right words.

One of my readings was from Job, the conclusion where Job falls on his knees and apologizes for his arrogance in demanding an explanation from God. "I melt away to nothing" is the sense of the text. That's how I felt.

At the end of the day, pondering that story, I wonder if that's not more honest than the typical sermon with its pretense at wisdom. Perhaps I should be willing to feel like this more often.

22 November 2008

Thin Skinned


I’m cold.

Our weather turned hard last week, and we are about 10 degrees F lower than normal for this month. That’s part of it for sure, but not so many years ago even this cold (about freezing point give or take) was merely chilly. Now, I shiver.

From what I can tell, three things are making me more cold averse.


1 - I have less body fat. That’s good, but the insulating value is also less.

2 - I have Reynauld’s syndrome, which makes my fingers and toes respond to the cold by going numb. The toes just started this year, and so my feet feel cold more now.

3 - I am older.

No question that 3 is the most significant. Isn’t that why all those retired folks head to Florida (no it’s not a law, but that was a good joke) and Arizona and the like?

At the risk of offending my friends in Florida, I don’t get it. Once you’re warm, that’s about all there is. Ok, there are the palmetto bugs and hurricanes and Disney world. So call me venal.

Arizona has scenery in spades, but there’s the desert thing – like the summer heat. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I think 100 degrees F is as unpleasant as 20 degrees.

But the real disincentive for me is that there are all those old people. Nothing wrong with being old, it sure beats the alternative as they say, but a world of old people is as off putting as a world of teenagers.

Retirement is still a decade away, and in this economy perhaps a little further than that, but the way we have warehoused old folks so that we have geezer ghettos called retirement or adult communities makes me shiver almost as much as the cold.

Can you tell the daylight is dwindling? My scrooge is awakening to the gathering gloom. Sorry about that. I’ll just feed the fire and eat my gruel. I wonder what I could get for those bed curtains….?

15 November 2008

"Too Much Of A Good Thing…"

"Is wonderful." That’s what Mae West said, at least. How about too much of a bad thing? Silly question of course. And yet, looking at the economic crisis in my state and nation, what I see is an abundance of too muchness.

Wall Street couldn’t get enough subprime mortgages, and essentially choked on them. They ate themselves to death like Tribbles (see a Star Trek website for an explanation if you need it). Here in Michigan we did the same thing with automobiles, gorging on their lucre long after we should have put up some in jars for a rainy day like the one we’re having now.

Everyone wants to cash in, be it tulips in Holland, gold in California, dot coms, hedge funds or Texas Hold’em. The lure of striking it rich drives most of to act like cattle, so we stampede from one thing to the other and then wonder why there’s not enough grass to eat.

Green is the next fad. If we are lucky, that is. But it will be a fad. I sincerely doubt we can cure people of the romance of striking it rich, but wouldn’t we be just as happy if we enjoyed what the woman who was a school nurse and whose memorial I am doing today said some years ago – “Each person [should find] out what they’re best at, and then do it. I get more than I give.”

We think we want money. What we want is purpose. Rev. Warren is not wrong about that. But in my opinion his is just a different form of currency. “Get rich – be happy,” turns into “Get Christian – be happy.”

Now if only someone would say that you don’t need to be rich or Christian or even happy to have a purpose filled life.

I’m working on it. Believe me, I’m working on it.

12 November 2008

I Am Chatterbox This Week

Haven't made so many posts in a week in a long time. And it's not like I have all this time to kill either.

Here's the deal, as Perot used to say (anyone remember him? anyone care?) There is so much stuff literally stuffing my brain about using blogs and facebook that I cannot figure it out. Make that, I cannot take the time to figure it out.

Yes, I got the slide show thing going. That wasted an evening as I figured out how to upload pictures to Google Album and so on. Twice I have tried to add a feed from my blog to the facebook page, as it seems these are synergistic. But each time it has bombed out.

Can anyone really sort out deli.cio.us, digg, yelp, stumble, scramble, hulu, and widgets and gadgets and posts and feeds? This blog is hopelessly out of date, technically (technology is the study of technique, as I was tought long ago, when we wrote on slate boards atr school and on shovels with coal at night, which was an improvement over those wax tablets for sure) and I never hope to keep up. But at least show me around so I don't wander into traffic and get pasted for just posting.

Make it short, though. Kind of a laminated card like those folding maps tourists buy.

11 November 2008

In For A Penny...

Coming to the end of the year, and suddenly the usual financial questions are a little more intense. We’re reviewing our charitables, as they are called. My church is, of course, the big one. But I belong to two churches - the one I serve which is not UU and the Church Of The Larger Fellowship, a virtual church for those who are unable to join what we call a ‘bricks and mortar’ church. I was on their board for a couple of years and yes, they need money too, so we pledge to them as well. Not as much, but not nothing either.

Next comes the school stuff – my seminary where I have made a major five year commitment of which this year is the third, my college, my wife’s college, and a little something for the catholic high school my son attends.

Then come the causes – Nature Conservancy (my dad was a fan), Interfaith Alliance (a dear friend is a founder), ACLU (parents were long time supporters), Planned Parenthood (being a product of their work when PP really meant ‘planned parenthood’), and the local homeless drop-in center.

Then come the organizations we patronize - Smithsonian (my sister for works for them), our local Symphony (We are subscribers and I know several players), the local opera company (small but, like our fair city, better than a place this size ordinarily has), two local museums.

There are a few more I am sure. My memory has never been good on these details.

These are tough times, I think, and yet I can’t see how to leave any of them out. In fact, I am tempted to give more. Repairing my old suit, resoling my old shoes, eating in more and driving less are not too hard for me personally, compared to what I know about the margins of existence for most NPOs.

Next year we send our youngest to college. By the time he gets out we shall be sixty. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to grow the fabled nest egg. Yet somehow this way makes sense.

(Notice I changed the check boxes below. You seemed to respond. Cool)

09 November 2008

3 - 0 So Far...

So far all THREE who voted want the reaction boxes gone. 115 of you read it though. I guess this is where the voter apathy went after Tuesday.

Speaking of which, again, there are all sorts of analyses out there of course. The only thing more fun than the game is the post-game right? At my age, meaning after plenty of times I was way wrong, pretending to know why and wherefore is just that, pretense. One good thing is certain, a whole lot of people are now more invested in what the country is about.

When I was involved, too briefly, with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing group, getting people to care was the first hurdle. We had to overcome the cynicism poor and powerless people had and which was part of keeping them poor and powerless.

Did you see the phrase "community organizing?" Has it occurred to anyone that the skills and techniques the president-elect got 'back in the day' were exactly what he used to rally a whole country. We've been organized! Holy s&%t!

Of the sad things in my life was realizing I have no gift for organizing people. Fortunately, as a religious liberal, being organized is against my religion so it is not a sin. But if the movement is to thrive it has got to get organized, and I am so annoyed that I cannot help that happen. Maybe if we sent all our clergy to the IAF Ten Day Training we might stand a chance. I just hope there's still room for a few solitary misanthropic seers like me.

08 November 2008

Details

Technology changes faster than I can keep up. This blog is hopelessly Luddite compared to the stuff others are doing - ads, photos, sound, fury… Still, in the interests of keeping you amply stimulated and me famous (stop laughing, I was being ironic) I introduced a new look and today both a new picture and at the bottom of each post a reaction list you can check to tell me your opinion.

(note: I have corrected misspellings twice already, due to my first episode of Reynaud's syndrome today. It makes my fingers tingle, the same ones I use to to type, which even when I have my feeling intact I do but poorly.)


If you hate the idea of having check off boxes, check ‘weird’ and I will get rid of them. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere, it can change daily.

Yesterday the sun was bright as I passed beside some ginko trees that had been denuded of their yellow leaves very recently. Lying on the ground they looked very like flower petals, curled and cupped and soft. In the late afternoon light they were brilliant even as I stepped on them.

Today has been cold and gray and rainy. I doubt the ginko leaves are what they were yesterday.

07 November 2008

Pundits Ahoy

I decided that I am the poor man’s Robert Fulghum. He has a blog too. You can visit it at: http://www.robertfulghum.com/ but my point is that his squib at the top is sort of like mine. I expect, though, that being more wry and shrewd and published (and the beard is way cool too) he gets more traffic than me. My sprawling, ranting, scenery chewing stuff is decidedly less popular. So you all are either the most select of minds or the most bizarre. I suspect both are true to some extent.

Before I forget, and head back into the quirky world of my own demented psyche, some thoughts on the election.

- Symbolism won. Every now and then we elect a president because of his (still only ‘his’ lamentably) symbolic power. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy all represented what the nation wanted to be. Obama won in part because we saw the American future in him as much as a competent and capable leader. Generally, we elect symbols when we need to choose the future more than preserve the present or past. It will be rare.

- His being black is part of that symbolism of course. Someone in his distinct position as a biracial person, not belonging to either white or black cultures entirely, was always in a better position to do this. Just as Nixon being Republican could more likely open the door to China than Johnson. “The stone rejected by the builder,” says a psalm, “becomes the headstone of the corner.” Paradox is part of genuine symbolism. Obama was a paradoxical candidate.

- Speaking of paradox, he exploited the system even as he rejected it. His campaign was acutely aware of electoral realities, and leveraged that knowledge even as he criticized the system that created them and maintained them. Call it shrewd or Machiavellian, or even hypocritical, it makes perfect sense as well.

- Look out for a paradoxical president, someone whose actions are not perfectly consistent or predictable, the very antithesis of our current president. His challenge will be to create a vision and persona in which contrary and conflicting actions can be seen as part of a larger plan or vision.

In other words, he needs to be as creative as Jefferson, as shrewd as Lincoln, as sure as Wilson, as confident as FDR and as genuine as Ford. Mighty tall order, which is what symbolic people have to shoulder. It’s going to be an interesting four years, for sure.

06 November 2008

Holy Mackerel And Other Fishes...

Firstly, a shout and whoop for the outcome on Tuesday. I am sorry I didn't say so yesterday, but was traveling and far from a keyboard. Besides, everyone had something to say yesterday and so there was not a pressing need.

Sometime soon I will opine of course, but the many things stirred up by this campaign and its outcome will take a long time to sift out.

Second, I am in awe of Facebook. Thanks to a reader, a follower of mine (which means someone over there on the left) I have a facebook page. On Monday afternoon, before visiting the Jewish Museum of NY to see it Dead Sea Scroll exhibit, I had a thought. With much helkp my my assisant, we posted the sermon on the blog and then sent word out that it was there on Facebook.

Ordinarily I get maybe 30 visits a day. If you click on the "check my stats" link over there (not now after you finish) you will see that 357 people came by that day.

After 3 p.m.

Whoa.

If you were one of them, meaning someone who has never dropped by before, tell me (and all of us reading this) what made you drop by and how you found out? I am really intrigued.

Now tell me what it would take to do it again. Obviously, something cool is happeneing via Facebook but I need to know more. Tell me.

03 November 2008

READ THIS BEFORE YOU VOTE ON TUESDAY!

On My Honor

From Isaiah 55
This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

“Why should men love the church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of life and death, and all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard and hard where they like to be soft. She tells them of Evil and Sin and other unpleasant tasks.” - T. S. Eliot

Governor Sarah Palin, during the debate with Joseph Biden:
“You said recently that higher taxes or asking for higher taxes or paying higher taxes is patriotic. In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that’s not patriotic.”

From Tom Friedman, commenting on the above:
I grew up in a very middle-class family in a very middle-class suburb of Minneapolis, and my parents taught me that paying taxes, while certainly no fun, was how we paid for the police and the Army, our public universities and local schools, scientific research and Medicare for the elderly. No one said it better than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”


Each week I stand in judgment. If I am fortunate something I say will shed some fresh light on a corner of your mind. If I fail, maybe something will give you comfort. But in utmost honesty, both of these are vain if they are just words. No eloquence or logic can replace what Emerson declared 170 years ago, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.” I pray each week that I find the courage to do that.

Election Day is finally here, to all our reliefs. Preachers need to beware of speaking unwisely, but neither should they decline to speak what wisdom they have. Honestly, though, I am struggling. Not with candidates and parties but something more.

Should we love our country? It is assumed that we should. Bumper stickers say, “Proud to Be An American,” and “God Bless America.” But in contemplating this sermon I have found myself questioning whether I do, or even should, love my country.

This is not due to some disgust with our political process. I know enough history to remember that candidate Thomas Jefferson was called an infidel, Grover Cleveland a fornicator, and that both were accurate. I know that candidates have wrapped themselves in all manner of false virtue – the flag, the bloody shirt of battle, a republican cloth coat. What seems excessive today is all too typical, sadly.

Nor is my mood due to current policies, though a war begotten of lies and an economy on the skids and a constitution that has all but vanished amply warrant gloom. These too have their precedents in history unfortunately, and my sense of America is larger than t the last decade.

My doubt springs from something deeper, a question of character. A sociologist like Robert Bellah, or an historian like David McCollough would now unfold a piercing disquisition on those things. They would do far better than I could, but a sermon is not a lecture. All I have is my own soul, roasting in the fire of scrutiny, and my hope that in giving it to you, your own will feel a similar heat, which is what a sermon is supposed to do.

During another election season, the last time the Republican candidate was from Arizona in fact, I pestered my parents to let me join the Boy Scouts. Some other time I may detail the ups and downs of that experience. What matters today is that something in that world, something I sensed and later found, spoke to a deep place in me and still does. In many ways, despite all the teasing I got then and get even now, I am a boy scout.

At the center of boy scoutness is the scout oath. You who were part of it with me still know it today as sure as your boyhood telephone number. “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country...” it begins. Despite growing up in the 1960s and in a Unitarian Church, despite parents who taught me to love jazz and Lenny Bruce, despite my own youthful drug use and my desperate unfulfilled sexual longing – things clearly at odds with the clean cut halo of boy scouting – I believed in the oath and the scout law. I believed there was something to the idea of honor and duty.

To say there was some cognitive dissonance in those years is to state the obvious. Not just my own, but could see the same struggle in boy scouting itself. In my day it was favoritism despite the promise of fairness. For example, the scoutmaster’s son became the boy leader. I was the same rank and age and experience but was never asked to serve in leadership. So much for fairness.

Scouting taught me that institutions formed on ideals are ever falling short of them. At first this is shocking, then it is infuriating, and finally discouraging. I left scouting when the summer camp where I was employed hired a non scout and recent marine to be my supervisor barely a week before camp. I was fat and slow and he ridiculed me publicly. Not very “friendly, courteous or kind,” as the scout law requires, but he wanted me gone and being the grown up, I went. So much for it being about “Boy” Scouting.

Yet I saw the same failures in high school, where athletics always counted more than academics and success was always about who was popular; also in my liberal church, where religious freedom and tolerance did not actually extend much beyond the humanist majority. Every young person faces this crisis, of course. It is what they do with it that matters. I ceased to be a scout in person but not in spirit. And despite the failure of liberal religion to be liberal, I believed the ideals were still worthy of my loyalty and made it my life’s work.

Turning back to the beginning, I do not love my country if love means “in love,” starry eyed and smitten. Scouting and school and church taught me the folly of loving those things like that. But I believe in America the way I believe in the scout oath and the hope of liberal religion.

I believe in what America stands for. As great as the purple mountains and amber waves and all the majesties I have seen, it is the words of the Declaration that make my throat clench, the Gettysburg Address that renews my faith, and Emma Lazarus and Dr. King and Woody Guthrie who redeem my hope. I love what America says it could be, and therefore what I could be, which is something more than I already am.

To hold yourself, or your country, or your church, to a higher standard is what honor and duty are about. Every day I judge myself, asking if I have done as much as I should as well as I could, for what I believe in. Every day I fail. But over time, over the years, slowly, I have become better. On the one hand I am never good enough and never will be. On the other hand I have become better than I was or would have been had I not believed I was honor bound to do my duty.

America has done the same thing. America is an oath, a promise; a promise to become a nation of “liberty and justice for all.” That promise is its identity, as Hannah Arendt said. America is not there yet. Every day is a day of judgment and every day the nation falls short. Over time, though, the nation has gotten closer. It took a century, but the blight of slavery came to an end. It took another century, but the principle of equal justice is now established.

Progress? Yes. But it was not automatic. Dithering about slavery led to a brutal civil war. Equal justice required struggle to enfranchise women, and remove segregation, and end voter intimidation and protect worker rights. We have yet to treat all citizens equitably, notably LGBT folk and immigrants and the poor. Just as I cannot assume I will get better without trying to do my duty, so we cannot blithely assume America will get better without trying to do its duty.

Today, when I look out on my country, what I see, though, is a culture that denies we have any duty at all. “It’s a free country,” right? Freedom is what America is about, we are taught and told. Logically, then, anything that constrains freedom must be anti-American. Fundamentalist Christians complain that teaching evolution and prohibiting prayer in schools encroaches on their freedom of religious expression, for example. Corporations claim regulations restrains free enterprise. Only two things are required of us as citizens by law. One is to obey the law. The other is to pay taxes. Judging by the governor of Alaska, that is too much. Judging by the way people drive, obeying the law is disposable. America has become the cowboy republic, where true-blue Americans show the patriotism by looking out for number one, where citizens owe nothing to anyone, except themselves.

This year I am asking what it means for religious liberals to live faithful lives. We have looked at work, relationships with others, and now turn to the groups to which we belong. Needless to say, I am talking about citizenship today, the Sunday before Election Day. Also obvious is that the very concept of living faithful lives means living by promises we make. We are the promises we make. No law or government can make any one of us do our duty. It has to be a promise you make on your own, something you do to be faithful to yourself as much as your country.

That, friends, is the key to how you should vote come Tuesday. Which candidate, which party, will keep the promise of America best? Not perfectly, as that cannot be done. Equally important, which candidate or party will prompt you to keep your promise? If you vote for your personal preference, such as lower taxes, or for your particular cause such as reproductive rights, no matter how you clothe it in arguments you will not do your duty, either to God or your country. Your duty, my duty, our duty is to call our nation and ourselves to account, to demand that it and we fulfill the promise to be a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people, a nation that pays the promissory notes of justice delayed, that lifts the lamp of hope beside the golden door, that says it will be a place of ‘liberty and justice for all.’

Every day we stand in judgment, measured by the distance between our personal promises and personal our deeds. Every day our nation stands in judgment, measured by that same distance. The nation can do its duty only if you do yours. So the question is not whether you will vote, or for whom or what, on Tuesday; but what will you do on Wednesday? Raise you hand. Say, “On my honor I will do my duty…” and mean it.

02 November 2008

Time Out!

Envy is a big problem for me, with two exceptions. My sons. Somehow whatever they do well, even better than me, especially better than me, makes me glad.

Like my older son who lives on the west coast for now, and calls every week even though we never asked him to, and told me this evening about how he believes America totally misunderstands the political terms ‘left’ and ‘right,’ as these are European terms that have completely different origins than our versions of liberal and conservative. How astute and insightful that is. Never occurred to me.

And he is realizing how organizations, even noble not for profits like the one he works for right now, being staffed with humans, have as many flaws and foibles as the people who work for then. It took me twenty years to stop hitting myself over the head with that hammer.

And my younger son, rabid with electoral madness and spending every available hour at Obama headquarters, was wondering why we don’t make election day a holiday so everyone can get to the polls. I didn’t tell him other countries already do that, because he should find out how smart he is by accident which is the best way.

He’s right. Election Day should be a national holiday. Not only would it smooth out waiting to vote, it would signify that the act of choosing our government takes precedence over making a buck. Except that it might violate the first amendment I would also make it campaign free. For one day, the people and they alone should speak.

30 October 2008

Smile! For The Not So Candid Camera

I am on Facebook now. There might be two or three others who are not, but judging by the teeming hordes that were already there I must be among the last.

A church member suggested it, a younger member, a much younger member meaning someone under forty. It all seemed pretty silly at first, and lots of it still is. But like junk food and MASH reruns, there is something habit forming about. I only drop in at night.

I think the appeal is that nothing important happens there, or needs to happen. There’s a certain intentional and institutional goofiness about how it’s laid out. People send one line messages, like text messages but for public consumption. Right at the top it asks. “What are you doing right now,” to which you can respond, but not very much. The text box is rather small so anything more than a sentence is hidden. This invites a silly response and therefore makes the whole thing like a party.

But I hate parties!

What I hate are noisy, busy, frenzied, crowded parties. Facebook lets you take your time. Even on line chatting goes kind of slow. The people are not actually there, of course, and you can think about what you write or the messages you send. Not deeply, but enough to make sure you are intelligible, funny, kind, caring.

In other words, there are a lot of people to talk to, but you can decide how many and how much and mostly do it one at a time. And no one can see you scratch your nose, or worse.

No doubt more high octane stuff goes on outside the peripheral vision of my AARP eyes, but who cares? Facebook slows us all down just enough to connect at human speed, but fast enough to make it fun.

Somebody is getting rich.

26 October 2008

Ludwig, Bill and Me

I am really ticked off today because the office upgraded computers and software and now all my programs look different. For example. I like seeing all the keystrokes, including spaces and paragraph marks. But with this new layout I can’t find that option. Likewise,”Outlook” now looks very different and I cannot find where the switches and buttons are.

Meanwhile, back home, I have spent almost two full days moving my jalopy of a computer network at home from one internet provider to another. It was supposed to be easy. My former provider, note the word “former,” sent me mail almost daily about how much I could save if I bundled my electronic services like phone, tv and internet. These are lean times so I bit. Instead I got bit.

Actually, getting the new internet and VOIP and TV bundle was easy (from another source and all in two hours). What proved wild and wooly was disconnecting my old router/print server and reconnecting. In the end I gave up and bought and new router, added a signal enhancer and a separate print server (way more money than I ever planned to spend) and proceeded to spend a day and a half getting them up and running.

What do these things have in common? They reminded me of my innate conservatism. My threshold for uncertainty depends on what is up for grabs. Theological, intellectual, emotional, and political uncertainties are easy. I prefer them. Personal matters like food, sleep, and the assortment of daily tasks I prefer to be rather predictable. When I cannot exercise, do not have my preferred ice cream (Edy’s low fat ‘dulce la leche’) or my glass of shiraz (Yellowtail) or get to bed after 1030, I am cranky. When the internet is gone, or my ability to write and communicate is thwarted, I am angry and finally scared.

I suspect we are all conservative in some ways and liberal in others. What a pity we use them only to describe ideologies and theologies rather than what they really are, temperaments. Maybe that’s another of my conservative things, wanting us to use words clearly. Who knew Wittgenstein, Safire and I would be rowing in the same direction?

22 October 2008

Bread and Chocolate

I love traveling. Especially overseas. But time and money and college tuition and the exchange rate and more have not allowed that for seven years. If I am not careful, I will confirm my friend’s observation that by the time you have enough time and money you have lost so much hearing and eyesight and mobility that you can’t enjoy it.

My list is long. Istanbul and Petra and Athens and Granada are high up on the list. But I could as easily go back to Rome or Vienna. Oddly, Paris is not a favorite of mine, except for one thing.

“Pain chocolate.” This breakfast indulgence of the French exists here as well, but it is platonically ideal there. Croissant pastry wrapped around an ounce or so of excellent dark chocolate, in the right proportions and baked within hours of eating, which when baked marries the two without spoiling either, is incomparable.

And as it turns out, it is probably the only way I should enjoy either bread or chocolate, which is to say rarely. These past two weeks I have enjoyed more of both than I usually do, and to my horror the scales leapt up.

Careful eating habits and common sense assure me I have not eaten an extra 10000 calories in the last two weeks, so I am surmising that for some reason my body responds to bread and chocolate as some people do to salt – holding its moisture. As I prize seeing no more than 185 pounds on the scale, this means cutting back on both these lovely things. As someone long ago said, “thin feels better than fat tastes.”

Age does force choices that youth can ignore. Late nights, loud music, multiple drinks, and rich food are fun at 25. By fifty they taxing. You start doing cost benefit analyses. Much as I love the narcotic pleasure of chocolate, the cost is too high. As sumptuous as the croissant is, the quiver of the gallbladder is worse.

I could lament this loss, but I think it is not a loss. Rather, my choices now have clear and often quick consequences. That’s good. Maybe our current economic state would have been better served if the real cost of SUV driving, super sizing, and Mcmansion buying were evident. If age brings us to a clearer sense of what reality is about, then bring it on. We could all use a little more pain and a little less chocolate.

18 October 2008

Wassamatta U

Anyone remember Rocky and Bullwinkle? One of their wonderful lame puns was Wassamatta U, Bullwinkle’s alma mater. I thought about that this morning because it combined two facts this week that conspired to keep me from writing.

1. My internet connection caved. In my effort to combine the several accounts I have with a company named – well let’s just say it’s initials are the same as American Telephone & Telegraph – they ended up cancelling my order without telling me and then cancelling my extant DSL service as well. I spoke with voices in Ohio, Michigan and India over three days and now I am worse off than I was before.

So the only way I can connect is through my workplace, where I am right now, unwashed on a Saturday morning, before attending the memorial service of a former member.

Anyway, that’s the first reason.

2. Secondly I spent yesterday on a campus visit with my son, who is a HS senior that took all day. Great day, lots of fun and questions and so forth, but it ate up the whole day.

Now you get the joke, right? Something was actually the matter, and I was on campus – rah rah.

But being that I am unwashed, wearing sweat pants and a crew cap behind my desk, and people are coming for an all day meeting I simply have to get out before my state of undress is known to one and all. Once again the truth of SNAFU and FUBAR are evident, but were they ever not? Compared to Wall Street I am debonair. See ya!

11 October 2008

Coming Unhinged?

I now know what Kurt Vonnegut meant when he said Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time.

This past year, in the cracks between tasks and chores and deadlines and just wasting time, I have eked out the first 100 pages of a spiritual autobiography. It started after I revisited St. Augustine’s Confessions. But the first part arrived with a tone that reminded me of Holden Caulfield. The second part has aspects of Thomas Wolfe. I expect to find Allen Ginsburg in a later portion, and maybe Henry Louis Gates in another.

(I may seem to flatter myself, but these are voices that ring in my head, having gotten there before starting this thing. (Parenthetically, George Carlin has begun to affect my preaching. Maybe I’m channeling him!))

My real point is that when you really get into your past it comes back in full force. Not just memories in the sense of what happened, but sensations, emotions, the person I was as a child can come back so strongly that I find myself wobbling between then and now.

So it was that when I did my part in our National Coming Out Day service this evening, the residuum of a particularly hard day in my childhood, coupled with attending Yom Kippur services this week, turned my voice toward remorse and regret, very much to my surprise.

I was not in the present.

Of course, being in the present is what we are all supposed to be, the more the better. Casting away the past is even part of the Yom Kippur ritual. I feel very spiritually inadequate at these times.

And yet something tells me we cannot cast away sins or anything of the past until we have fully lived them through. It may be that when some moment from my past rushes up to claim my present mind there is some unfinished business.

How much of today is simply yesterday deferred I wonder.

10 October 2008

Change Is Good!

As long as everything else seemed to be whirling about, I dccided today was a good day to update my look. Why? Well, I wanted to get your attention, but mostly I wanted to point to a little thing over on the left - followers. I have no idea who reads this thing, unless you tell me.

So tell me.

I've got a sermon to write today, so that's about it for now. But believe me there is plenty on my fevered brain. Watch this space!

03 October 2008

At Least You Get Free Giggles


Every time I write something I check it and proof it and "mark it with a B," as the poem says. And still gaffes get through. You could say I have Bidenesque fingers, but the fact is that I can't type. Those who watch me laugh hysterically.

Spellcheck helps of course, but sometimes my mistake is not a misspelling at all. It's another word. I typed "sing" for "sign" yesterday, for example.

The good news is that you knew what I meant. Some researcher somewhere, my brain remembers many facts but rarely their their provenance, found out that most words can be read eevn wehn atrsioucly mpslelled so logn as teh first lttre is crroect adn the rtes aer mstly prsent.

See, you got that, right?

No excuse of course, as my William Safire loving parents (his linguistic not his political chops) taught me. My religion and politics may be relaxed but grammar and logic are rigorous. Sloppy thinking, both the ideas and the expression, are anathema to me. Which is why I do not watch debates. It's a solid ninety minutes of intellectual vandalism. "O, the horror!" as Conrad wrote.

Well, my sermon is whining like a half dressed toddler, so I must be off. Enjoy the mistakes. Think of them as a "free gift."

(my father hated that phrase!)

02 October 2008

A Gift That Keeps On Giving


A friend yesterday told me he checks my blog every day to see what I might have written. I say, why not subscribe?

He did not know he could. Yes, he can and so can you. Down at the very bottom of this page are two things. One says “view my stats” and you can click on that to see how many (or few) people drop by from day to day. But above that is an orange square with some white lines that are supposed to look like radio waves or something.

Click on that and you will go to “feedburner.” Don’t worry, it is a safe site. In the yellowish box at the top it says


“You are viewing a feed that contains frequently updated content. When you subscribe to a feed, it is added to the Common Feed List. Updated information from the feed is automatically downloaded to your computer and can be viewed in Internet Explorer and other programs.
Learn more about feeds.

Subscribe to this feed


Click on the “subscribe to this feed” and a little box will open that you confirm or cancel. Once you confirm, you will get all my posts sent directly to you. How cool is that?

More ranting and raving soon. But in the next three days I have a funeral, a wedding, and a Sunday service. That means today is kinda full. But I promise if a few of you sign up I’ll make sure you get a little something real soon!

29 September 2008

Riding Widow Maker

Well for those who want a thrill a minute, today was the day. The House balked, the market tanked, and for the first time in two weeks we had rain. My executive director and partner in running this church returned from a cruise to Alaska (no quips OK?) just in time.

Long ago I heard of a Chinese Blessing that says, “May you live in uninteresting times.” Those who wondered why now know. Interesting times are volatile, even turbulent. From the vantage of a century they are great, as watching slapstick comedy or Greek tragedy is far better than being in one or the other.

To be honest, I saw this coming when the pres got elected. He is a militant Texan (which is redundant in a way. Even that wild eyed populist Jim Hightower once said that the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.) They like excitement. That’s the weather, that’s the culture, that’s the economy. And W wanted us all to enjoy the blessings of Texan life. So in the last years we got hotter, meaner, and wilder.

Maybe I am a wuss, but I prefer my country to be less a bunking bronco or riding bull than a yoked Clydesdale or solid milk cow. Not very exciting, but dependable, and far more effective when it comes to getting things done.

Maybe if we forgot about getting rich, or even getting Osama, and just got our jobs done and made sure our piece of the planet was safe and sound, we would actually be better off.

More boring I am sure. But remember, that’s a blessing.

28 September 2008

Coming Up Snake Eyes

I guess I am not very bright. Somehow it still feels like some guys went to a casino, lost all their money, then borrowed some from the casino and when they lost that too argued that they shouldn’t have to pay it back because the croupiers need them to keep playing to keep their jobs.

You should know that I am among the fortunate in all this. Bucking the national trend and advice, my spouse and I owe nothing but our mortgage. We pay our credit cards in full every month. I am having work done on the house that I saved up for, in the bank. In fact, half of our financial assets are in fixed assets like treasury funds, bank accounts, bond accounts, and insurance.

That sounds conservative but only recently. I grew up with advice to diversify. Put some in equities, some in cash equivalents and some in cash. Diversify the equities in index funds. Diversity the cash equivalents in money markets and bonds. The whole idea was make sure that you didn’t lose too much at once.

Our military used that strategy for a long time. They called it the nuclear triad – bombers, missiles and submarines. Each had its advantages and disadvantages but they knew no adversary could eliminate all three at once.

Diversity is everywhere, and always with the same purpose, to prevent obliteration. Nature has been doing it for eons through evolution. Make sure there is enough diversity among and between species and no matter what the catastrophe some will survive and life will continue.

So why do we humans, the astonishing product of evolution, seem to do exactly the opposite to ourselves? We put all our eggs into one basket, be it financial or racial or religious or political.

I really should not be surprised. Everyone knows the odds are always with the house and yet we all think we will be the exception. The only real sure thing is that people are always looking for a sure thing. I am putting all my money on casinos next time.

23 September 2008

Disturbing The Peace

A great article in this week’s NYTimes magazine talks about why teaching will never be cool. If by cool we mean popular and attractive. By its very nature, teaching subverts the norm, challenges what we think is important. As being cool means being important or hewing to the standards that the culture says are important, to subvert that is ipso facto uncool.

This explains a lot in my life. Standing at the end of the alphabet, on the margins of the political and religious norms, I quickly found out I was uncool.

First was the name – Weldon Wooden. People now call me Fred, which is my middle name, but until high school I was Weldon and on the playground that is “a bummer of a birthmark,” as The Far Side put it. Since childhood is all about who is in and who is out, I was a logical kid to put out.

Then the politics. Most folks in Maryland were Democrats, but we were liberal democrats in a Dixiecrat state. Mom and dad were pro civil rights, lifelong ACLU members, supporters of CORE and the NAACP, and liked Adlai Stevenson. The election of 1960 almost came to blows in my schoolyard. I still remember the lame shouting matches, “Nixon in the White House, Kennedy in the trashcan.” That was pretty foul mouthed for first graders then.

Lastly, religion. I am a fourth generation Unitarian. My friends were Christians of some sort, mostly Catholic by the time we lived in Baltimore. They had numbers, history, and a lot of pomp and circumstance. We were tiny, trivial and boring as blazes – talk, talk talk. What a snore.

Over the years I started taking perverse pride in my outsiderness. What choice did I have, really? I preferred classical music to rock and roll, rode the bus while my friends learned to drive, went away to college while they stayed close, and so on. In my heart, though, I never overcame my child's desire to be among the in crowd, to be normal, to be cool.

No wonder I became a Unitarian clergyman. I was finally in. Only one problem, though. As someone who’s identity is to be an outsider, to be on the inside feels false. To be outside is lonely, to be inside is phony. How ironic is that?

After so many years, though, I am growing into my anomalous self. It’s not going to change, and that’s beginning to feel OK. Still, what do I do when, as a clergyman, I am expected to set the norm, be cool? Subversion is in my nature, remember.

I guess I am a teacher.

21 September 2008

Tasty Morsels

Two thoughts on the world, gathered from those moments after waking but before rising.

“Never the Twain”…

The presidential campaign is in danger of becoming a contest between east and west. One ticket says they are the ‘original mavericks’ a reference to a cattle owner who refused to brand his cattle, and thus "play by the rules." Both candidates are from the west and cultivate the mythic qualities we associate with the west.

Potent stuff. If you can claim a heroic myth as your story, and assign a less heroic myth to the other guy, you get the advantage. The western myth is the plain speaking, hard working, self made man (yes man) who doesn’t put on airs. A woman in Alaska, asked what she thought of the senator from Illinois (which is the east to someone in Alaska) reminded us of the eastern myth when said he acted ‘snotty and looked kind of weasely.’ There’s the lesser myth – refined, effete, smug, sneaky.

Once you get a myth going, it’s very hard to get away from it. The only escape is to offer a more compelling myth.

“Gimme Fever”

The Wall Street mess is a national fever. Literally.

When the body gets sick, it runs a fever. Overheating is what the body does something is threatening it. Fevers are not the disease, but uncontrolled fevers can do terrible harm, even kill. Treating a fever does not cure the disease, but it may be necessary to save the patient. What the feds did this week was like the old fashioned treatment for high fevers, putting the patient in cold water.

In this case, the febrile mechanism itself was ill, and we cannot sit in ice forever. Instead of responding to and giving feedback to the larger economy, the stock market became solipsistic; entered a manic state in which someone loses touch with outside reality as they obsess about their own thoughts. That’s what bubbles are, manic episodes.

Reconnecting the markets to reality is the key. That means limiting the role of derivative investments like those mortgage backed securities that had artificially inflated the amount of money available to loan. Someone has to slap someone in the face, as Cher did to Nicholas Cage and say “Snap out of it!”

Well, it’s Sunday morning and I’ve got work to do. You know, ever since George Carlin died I’ve been having weird caustic thoughts like him. Maybe I am channeling him? You should know that I prettied these two “Brain Droppings” up for you, being a minister and all and knowing some of my members read this stuff. Must be pastoral now! But inside I am snarling.

16 September 2008

I Would Rather Be Writing...

... But reality keeps getting in the way. Like the financial meltdown. Why is everyone shocked?

We went through this twenty years ago with the S&L scandal and its fallout. Every generation we get into serious financial trouble and then ask, “What was I thinking?”

The answer is, “You weren’t.” When it comes to getting rich, we are all fools for schemes that promise easy money. Including the experts on Wall Street. But what makes them worse is that they are like magicians who begin to believe they really do have magical powers. I can almost (well that’s a stretch) forgive someone who consciously cons someone else. At least that person knows it’s a trick. But when the trickster begins to believe in their own scam, that’s when thing can get really dangerous.

(BTW, this is a fool proof test of religious leaders as well. When they start to believe they actually do have a hot line to God we are in real trouble.)

Speaking of hot lines, I have been getting busy signals for some time now. Monks of old spoke of the ‘dark night of the soul,’ a period, often very extended of doubt and despair. Mother Teresa had a night that last more than twenty years.

In my case, I do not expect to get some IM or a text from the Great Beyond. What I am carrying is a gnawing cynicism for my own species. This latest financial lunacy is just that, the latest of many disappointments. Don’t even get me started on the election.

14 September 2008

Even Prunes Won't Help

I delivered my sermon three times today. Make that four.

1st: At home Sunday morning, revising.
2nd: At the “Preview” I do for teachers about an hour before service.
3rd: The actual 11 a.m. service
4th: Rewriting the outline for later publication which I do Sunday afternoon.

This is twice more than I have done in the past. That means I have at least two more chances of getting it right. This week, the written version is the best. If we ever get the podcasting system working, that will make five and sometimes that will be the best.

And none of them will be as good as it should be. Most every week I fail to find the right words in the right order to say what is in my head. The ideas are there, the feelings, but somewhere between thinking and feeling and writing and speaking half of it gets lost.

That’s the hard part. There is this whole world inside me, a terrible wild and magnificent symphony, but all I can get out is a thin scratchy voice that says “Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.”

11 September 2008

Today, Moments Of Silence Are Blasphemous

It’s not easy being weird. Until I saw the paper this morning I did not even notice it was September 11.

What makes this weird is that I was there, within a mile of it all. I heard the explosions, saw the twin towers smoking, got covered with the dust of pulverized concrete and people. I have among my treasured objects some singed papers that fluttered down from the sky, pages from loan amortization tables doubtless in a cabinet from one of the financial offices.

My life was dominated by the event for weeks.

First was to care for my church and its members, serving as a communications hub as much of the city lost telephone connections. None of my members died, though many worked downtown and fled and were evacuated. Some walked miles to get home, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges being closed.


That night I conducted a prayer service. A rabbi friend, the chief fire chaplain, arrived in his fire suit from the pile itself. A neighbor, the rock musician Dan Zanes, played. We held on to each other and asked lots of questions in our hearts.

Then came the interfaith service, which meant spending lots of time persuading the local Arab and Muslim population, which is old and large, to take part. They were terrified and outraged and mostly in Arabic. And then gathering the other clergy, organizing the service, getting the PA system, spreading the word, and on the day being astonished at the crowd (over 2000) that gathered on the Brooklyn overlook that has the best view of the city anywhere.


The weather all that week was beautiful.

Then came the funerals and memorials. I performed two for unchurched folk, one quite large and one quite small. And then the firefighters, Catholics all, but which I attended along with other clergy, processing through the teeming crowds held back by uniformed firefighters and police, the wailing bagpipes echoing through the eerie quiet street and the vast church.

Maybe I am uninterested in all the observances now because I was so saturated then. And maybe because I know these distant honors are not really for or about those who perished but for those who were not there and are still trying to figure out their connection.

“We will never forget” is the mantra, a phrase less lyric that “a day which will live in infamy.” That’s what we lack, a lyric.

Actually, the right word is elegaic. Elegies are poems for the dead, and history is filled with them – Pericles’ oration, Milton’s Lycidas, Whitman’s “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” We have nothing like this, words meant to carve in mnemonic stone the grief of a people wounded. Movies we have, and books, and pictures, and moments of silence, but these are captive to their times. They will not live long, and those which time capriciously preserves will be puzzling to those who find them eons hence. No, we need an elegy that lifts this occasion from the raw pain of reality to the firmament of perpetual meaning, a verse that children who do not know they are our descendents will learn by heart and recite in their rote bird voices, paradoxically redeeming this wretched thing by infusing it with blithe and naïve life as they canter through its iambs and trochees like toddlers running in diapers.

That’s what we need, an elegy that will put an end to our selfish sack cloth silences and send us and our unknowable issue toward lives lived better than we have yet dared. Yes, that’s what we need. I pray it comes soon.

06 September 2008

My Country, What Of Thee?

What constitutes a nation?

I am wondering because recently I read about resurgent Scottish nationalism, and the possibility that Scotland may try to dissolve its political union with England. Not to worry just yet. Somewhat like Quebec a few years ago there is a lot of talk about referenda and such. What actually happens is far from certain.

Then I thought of South Ossetia, and Abkhasia, and began to wonder exactly when a group of people can claim to be entitled to nationhood?

Size seems irrelevant. The smallest nation at the UN has only 9000 citizens. China has 2 billion citizens. There are over 2,000,000 Chinese for every citizen of that smallest country and yet at the UN they are considered equals. In the US the ratio between the smallest and the largest state (California and Vermont) is 57 to one.

Language is tempting, but slippery. Take Yiddish. Spoken by Jews for centuries throughout Europe, it has no national identity at all. But English, thanks to its imperial history, is the primary language of Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand and the secondary language of a dozen more.

Ethnicity is dangerous. Remember ethnic cleansing?

Religion is volatile. Iraq anyone?

Land. That’s the only rock solid (sorry) criterion. Nations have land, a spot that they own. But a nation has to exert something more than squatter’s rights in this world. Just as an existing nation can no longer just go and grab land without trumping up some other reason for taking it. Russia?

It turns out that the nation-state, something obvious and self evident, is not so obvious after all. It may be more like obscenity as Justice Potter Stewart defined it – I cannot define is but I know it when I see it.

Nations as we know them exist as a consequence of the Treaty of Westphalia (I am not making this up!) and later the rise of European world imperialism. Go and study, and then ask yourself, as I am, whether this house is not built on sand more than rock. Not a comforting thought when storms brew.


Gustav and Hanna and Ike may be more an omen than we realize.

03 September 2008

Hungry For Civilization

Speaking of delicatessens, remembering my sandwich last week, there is nothing like one in my fair city. This is important in a new way to me, now.

Friends from my college days came through town. His family was my informal “bar mitzvah instruction” into ways of Jewish life. I attended my first Seder with them, ate chopped chicken liver and smoked whitefish and when it was truly festive, lox.

If you do not know, lox is smoked salmon, and comes in many forms from the Presbyterian heights of fragrant Scottish smoked salmon served on long planks holding a half of a fish to mere lox pieces and spread which is mixed with cream cheese.

Lox on a toasted bagel with a schmeer is what I indulged at Morry’s in Chicago last week. It was far from the best I ever had, but as I ate I realized that no such thing was possible in my new home town. This was underscored by a search for lox to feed my friends for breakfast before they went home.

There is a lovely specialty grocery with an artisan bakery next door. Truly wonderful. But no lox. There is a decent Middle Eastern restaurant and grocery as well but lox is an Ashkenazic dish, not from the Levant. We have a new high end grocery but this is far from my house, as are the other boutique places that might have it. But nothing even approaching Morry’s which sits on a street corner in Hyde Park and has a long formica counter and small tables by the big windows and a menu on the wall, now quite old now, touting enormous sandwiches made from corned beef and pastrami, and large coolers near the cash register with soda and iced tea, and shrink wrapped cookies and slices of pie. Nothing fancy at all, really.


And yet Morry’s had lox, and my wife’s hot pastrami (not too fat) on fresh rye with honest mustard, and we both had a goodly slice of half sour dill pickles. This is not elegance at all, but what ordinary people buy for lunch, like the guy sitting at the next table reading his Sun Times while devouring his sandwich and pickle. That's what I want.

My elder son thinks any city wishing to be truly civilized requires a Jewish community to be part of it. I would add that in America any city to be truly civilized also needs a black community and a gay community. These are minimum requirements. More is better.

We have such communities in our fair town, but they are not organized, so their civilizing influence is lost. They have to have a physical center like a neighborhood or a commercial heart. Our Asian community has developed one, and so has our Latino/a community. And the mark of their success is that they not only serve their own community but members of the wider city as well.


One good barbeque does not comprise an African-American village, and two gay bars is not community center. I sigh.

And a town without a genuine deli? Barbarity!

01 September 2008

Lucky Generals

I’ve had a string of good luck recently. Nothing fancy, mind you, but it’s as if the universe decided to hold the door open instead of letting slap in my face.

I was away in Texas recently, preaching at a former church and conducting a thirtieth anniversary wedding. Those were the excuses for going back to a place where we spent too few years, and where our youngest was born and our eldest faced his first challenges as a schoolboy. In short, it was a visit to our past.

Now, such occasions can too often be like high school reunions which are never quite as good or bad as we make them out to be. But in this case, everything went even better than I hoped.

First, the trip down was easy and uneventful. The flight left on time, arrived only 15 minutes late and we were on our way to our hotel just before rush hour. A wicked summer storm came upon us as we drove north, just as the ‘check tire pressure light’ came on in the car. I had a sinking feeling and pulled off to find a gas station in the driving rain.

(You said good luck, right?)

Yes. I happened to pull off just where the rental company had an office, and they swapped my sub compact for – get this – a brand new mustang convertible. “It’s all I have,” she sheepishly said.

“I really don’t mind at all,” said I sounding nonchalant. Secretly giggling.

At the hotel the room had only double beds. I am too old, or rather my wife is too old, to sleep like that. I asked the clerk if there was anything else. She hemmed and hawed about not having a king size except in a suite. I said “Talk to me,” and she remembered how I had already tipped her when I checked in. Lo and behold I had a complimentary king suite (really big room with couch and desk).

We spent the whole next day roaring through the hill country, top down, fluffy clouds keeping the morning heat low. The air was clean and the scenery was as great as I remembered. The next day we toured our old haunts, eating in favorite places and then conducting the wedding.

The next day I preached. Two services. I helped them go to two services 15 years ago and that was what set them free. It was lovely to see so many familiar faces, and so many new ones. And then we had dinner with my old staffers.

At the airport on Monday they put us on an earlier flight, giving us over two hour's head start home. But I said, let’s play, and we poked around Chicago for that extra time, the place we were married and lived for four years. Had a real delicatessen sandwich at Morry’s on the South Side and still got home before dinner.

I thought it was over, the lucky part that is. But maybe not. Had a stroke of it this morning, and perhaps it is a token of more to come. Taking a very long walk because the Y was closed for Labor Day I found $50 on the sidewalk.

Not the lottery, but maybe I’ll spend some of it on some tickets.

Napoleon Bonaparte came to mind. Asked which sort of generals he tried to hire, he replied, “Lucky Ones.”

30 August 2008

You Go, Johnny!

Well, that was a surprise. Mind you, I mentioned Governor Palin months ago as a rising star in the political firmament. Like others who saw Senator Obama in 2004, I pegged her as a “next gen” candidate. You can read all about it in the paper and on other sites, the twist and turns and spin it all means. Let me say something unlikely to be heard in the din.

Diversity is now normal. With each party fielding a ticket that is not two old white men, from this point forth that will be the exception.


One or the other will win, right? And that means one or the other will be running for re-election, right? So the next time we could possible have four old white guys will be 2016, by which time congress and state houses will be filled with 30-something officials moving into their forties. And as a group they will be racially more complex, and more of them will be women as well. By then we will see color and gender diversity as normal in candidates as well. How cool is that?

This is a watershed moment, friends. And John McCain did it. I won’t vote for him in November because I do not share his party values, and he may not have done it in order to change the country. One way or the other, though, because of his willingness to take a risk, we have been changed. For the better in my estimate. He has my respect.

Now, how about a gay president?

Don’t hold your breath.

26 August 2008

Go Ahead, Dream Big

Well, I for one was not impressed. Joe Biden is a fine guy; even David Brooks likes him. But honestly, I was hoping for someone more thrilling.

Months ago – Ok it was June – I teased the folks at StreetProphet (a Kos like website for squirrelly religious folk) about an Obama-Clinton ticket. I was laughed at as hopelessly naïve. This past week it was the dream that wouldn’t die. Maybe my prophetic powers are better even than I realized. (to quote the moose of yore, “Don’t know my own strength.”)

Even though the die has been cast, let’s play "what if" for a moment. Exercise the imagination and maybe have a few laughs along the way.

1. Obama – Shriver. That’s right, the wife of “Ahnold,” which would mean that he would have to resign. Would this be a bad thing? And she has high recognition to say nothing of very deep connections. Of course, she’s never held office, but happens to be related to about a dozen. And the Kennedy name excites frantic reactions left and right. But what about…

2. Obama – Richardson. The gov/rep/am/sec of NM, who flamed out early (and was my horse at the start of the race), has the perfect Veep resume. Add his southwest constituency and that he is half Latino, he would have been demographically perfect. He dumped the Clintons early, clearly waving his Horshak hand for the job. But he is even more of a loose cannon than Joe, so why not go for a democrat with the steadiness to thrive in republican land? Hence…

3. Obama – Sibelius. Blond bombshell governor of heartland state. Sorry fellow Michiganians, Granholm was born in Canada and to change that law would open the door to the governator. Governors always have an advantage when running for president, but it may not work for Veeps. But the whole black guy with blond girl thing is still a bit volatile (can you spell Paris?) so instead why not…

4. Obama – Stabenow. A blond bombshelter. Not being mean but it means her appeal is genuinely political. No chortling here. And she has that Biden authenticity with the plus of a state larger than a county. But, Obama is from Illinois which is only slightly more prosperous than the Great Lakes State. And Debbie has a conservative streak that could make her balk around things like the automobile industry. So why not go for broke, and set the old liberal rocket ablaze and don’t hold back. The truly perfect ticket was…

6. Obama – Kennedy. Yep, Teddy. Sure he’s old and sick, but think of what it would mean to be able to round out the fifty years since 1960 with another Kennedy? One could say that JFK marked the end of the liberal era, or at least its emotional high water mark. Conservatism has reached its climax in W and a Kennedy as VP would be a terrific bookend. Sure, he would not live out the term, but the mere hope of seeing him sworn in and then presiding over the body he has served for most of those fifty years, even for a short time, would be worth it.


That’s going to have to be enough. I did not have time for the Obama – Jolie ticket, the Obama – Gorbachev ticket, the Obama - Oprah ticket. Tell me your outrageous Obama ticket. Go out on a limb. We may never have another wild card like this again in our lives.