31 July 2008

Solidarity Forever

I am a fourth generation Unitarian. Before I came to Grand Rapids to serve an independent liberal church, I served four Unitarian churches as a clergyman and was a member of four before that, starting when I was in kindergarten.

While I do not know those personally affected by Sunday's tragedy at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Knoxville, I do know two previous ministers of that church and one current member. What Mr. Atkisson did in Knoxville he did to me. So yes, I am shocked and a little frightened. But in the long run I am not surprised.

After all, beginning in the 16th century, the founders of my faith were often condemned in word and hounded in deed. A few were even killed. Our intellectual founder—a Spanish physician and theologian who actually discovered the circulatory system before John Harvey did—was burned at the stake by the estimable elders of Geneva Switzerland, which was, at the time, under the spiritual leadership of John Calvin.

I live in a city that reveres Mr. Calvin. My church is often ridiculed, although mostly very nicely. This is the Midwest after all. So while almost five hundred years have passed since that first conflagration, and such acts as burning at the stake, trying people for heresy or simply running someone out of town (as the English did Joseph Priestley in the late 18th century), are not tolerated by the state, Mr. Atkisson's disturbed hatred reminds me that those who stand on the margins of religion are always in danger. My church is not Unitarian in name or heritage, but it is explicitly liberal, non-creedal, and in many respects indistinguishable from Unitarian Universalists of today. Indeed, for the last fifty years, every Senior Minister of Fountain Street Church—and almost all the other clergy who served our church as well—have been Unitarian Universalist. We too stand in the cross hairs of hatred.

The fact that my church is large and has consequential citizens who have polished educations and refined tastes makes no difference. To those for whom the word “liberal” is an epithet (I have often thought of Dr. King's image of “lips dripping with nullification” when I hear critics curl the word “liberal” from their mouths as if it were a disease), it matters not how grand the organ, how large the sanctuary, how eloquent the preacher or how excellent the choir. We stand condemned by those like Mr. Atkisson who sees us as just another of today's “usual suspects”—i.e. homosexuals, Muslims, immigrant Hispanics—to be rounded up when things go wrong.

Some weeks ago our President invoked the memory of the Second World War when he said that to negotiate with terrorists was “appeasement.” We all know what comes of giving in to bullying, do we not? Let me invoke another memory from that era, with words attributed to Pastor Niemoller of 1930s Germany, who remembered that when the Nazis came for the communists and the Jews he said nothing because he was neither a communist nor a Jew … but when later they came for him there was no one left to say anything for him.

Those who have enjoyed the low cost of being liberal, including myself, must look on this act and ask whether we are ready to pay for our privilege. Will we stand up and be counted by standing with others who have been labeled, accused or blamed for the evils of the world? Will we find the same courage that the victims in Knoxville did when they faced the man holding the gun—the courage of common cause?

In the book of Esther, Mordecai chides her for thinking that she will escape the fate of her fellow Jews whoa re marked for destruction, because she enjoys the privilege of being the king's wife. Esther rises to the challenge by claiming her heritage.

So must I. I cannot speak for you, but I stand with the Unitarians and liberals and homosexuals, immigrant Hispanics and Muslims, and all the others whom history has blamed for our ills. Despite my good fortune and success I know it can vanish any time hatred wants to take them away. The despised and rejected are my people, and what befalls them can befall me as well.

The bell has tolled, as the poet said. This time it was not for me. Can I afford to wait until it does? Can you?

27 July 2008

I Only Had One Drink, But I Feel Hung Over.

Not physically I should say.

I attended a wedding today, the daughter of a cousin. We've watched her grow up, albeit from a distance. She is but a year older than my eldest, which makes my two sons the next most likely to marry. Good duty, as I like to say, but less and less pleasant for me.

Whenever I go to a wedding, which happens less and less, a sort of cultural jet lag sets in which makes me cranky. This is my problem, let me say right now. My generation mocked the weddings of their parents, so turn about is fair play I guess. And what I observed is not unique to this one wedding. But as I almost actually never attend them - mostly officiate which affects my point of view - I found myself actually annoyed. How hypocritical is that.

Here's what got under my skin.

1. Drinking before the ceremony. When you hold the ceremony at the reception site, the bar may be open even before the bride marches down. More than one groomsman fortified himself ahead of the occasion.

2. Wearing sunglasses. Yes, the sun was hot and bright, but it seems flippant for the groom and his gang to line up like some merry members of the Secret Service. None of the bridesmaids wore sunglasses, why should the men?

3. Not dressing up. Another guy thing, mostly. Again, I know it was hot and all. But the bride wore a long dress, a dressy long dress. With veil. That's worth a tie and jacket. I was one of three men so attired.

As I pondered my certifiably fogey like reactions - something too much like my father for me to like - the overall frustration came into view. We live in an ever more juvenile culture. Men in particular seem to think fraternity style behavior is what men should be doing throughout life.

There were signs in some weddings at which I officiated - the furtive six packs left in chapel pews, the showing up late for or blowing off rehearsals, the swift removal of ties even while in the receiving line. As a clergyman I can police this sort of behavior somewhat. But when I see it from a civilian vantage I could see that this not rebelliousness or surliness. Getting drunk, looking cool, not having to be 'uncomfortable' in a tie or jacket are considered normal. They don't even need excuses. It's what being a guy is about.

Then I thought about how many men in sit-coms are portrayed as oafish, self absorbed, frat boy like creatures. They are paired with cynical, smart aleck women who constantly save them from becoming baboons. We laugh at their antics, smile at the sighing sufferance of the women, and grow to expect it in real life.

For my father and me, getting married is when you put away that sort of life and started acting like a grownup. My dad left for his honeymoon in a suit and overcoat, wearing a homburg hat. He was not yet 23. I wore a three piece suit and did not loosen my tie until my bride and I were preparing for bed.

For me, being a man means being a grownup. I find it ironic that Senator Obama caused a controversy when addressing this issue with black men but no one noticed that all men are in need of growing up. Senator McCain would be an excellent person to mention this.

21 July 2008

I have no excuses...

I simply forgot about you. Boy, does that say a lot.

Not that I had so much to do. With our youngest away for a month the wife and I are experiencing our first taste of empty nesting, or more properly a return to coupleness.

Not a bad thing at all, and with it the liberty to structure time differently.

So what did i do while forgetting about you?

- Started cleaning my windows which have been even more neglected than you.
- Sorted through papers and things that were overlooked in the wild wild world of teenage boyness.
- Planned some home repairs (is this some american male disease, like getting chicken pox, that you just get?)

But mostly I was writing.

Finally, after two years, I have finished drafting the first a section of a spiritual autobiography. It's a little more than fifty pages double spaced, and reminds me of the opening sections of "Look Homeward Angel" in that the main character (that would be me) has yet to appear.

I could have made it longer, until it began to take on Wagnerian proportions, but I am resisting.

No, you cannot see it.

For one, it is very rough in content. Rough both in form and in content. My advisors say, "Just write. Don't edit." That means it is not suitable for general reading.

The other thing I want to say is that by week's end I'l be on the road again, and so it will be some time before the next post most likely.

Finally, a brief and strange observation. As you may know, I am prone to insomnia. The last two nights have been too short in the sleep department - no more than five hours. That is quite bearable but what I notice is that when I cannot get to sleep easily, it casts a pall over my mood the next day. Two days and it starts to get gloomy. It is a mini depression.

How curious that our moods are so shaped by internal states, because had I slept well I would be far more cheerful or at least less grim No question that what we think is deeply affected by states of mind that we do not choose but are shaped by levels of chemicals in the brain.

I wonder if I should try some SSRI's or antianxiety meds to see what they do to me. Since my only habit is a vitamin and an occasional ibuprofren, this prozac nation stuff is way outside my experience. I generally suspect it.

But right now, with a tight chest and me worrying about nothing in particular (the very definition of anxiety) it is almost appealing. Funny, huh?

12 July 2008

Crossing Boundaries

Sorry about the delay again. It's hard to write on the run, while traveling. I was on the road from the 29th through the 3rd. Took the day off on the 4th, even from celebrating. Then it was back to work and preparing to get my son to camp off in upstate New York. So that's where the time went. As it happens what happened today returned me to what I wrote before.

My last two posts were about internal boundaries, thresholds and barriers that I only notice when they are violated. I have come to the conclusion that none of us get out of childhood in one piece. Our imperfect parents do an imperfect job. How could they do otherwise?

Anyway, this morning, finishing our trip back from upstate NY, we had to cross back into the USA from Canada. It is a hundred miles shorter, you see. Delay is now normal. The line of cars backs half way up the bridge between Sarnia and Port Huron. We move along well enough, though. Not enough to quell my bride's uneasiness at being on bridges, but not so much that medical assistance was needed.

Anyway, we get to the bottom of the bridge where a bridge employee in an official vest sorts us into Griffendors and Slitherins, some to the left and some to the right. In fact there are thirteen lanes on my side, all open. Wanting to help the traffic along I take the opening that comes first, which leads to the far right lane, number 13.

I like the number 13. My wife was born on a 13th. We were married on a 13th. My lucky day.


Entering the sluicegate at 11:15 this morning, the agent in the booth then averages one car for every two that pass through other lanes. That's a generous estimate. Keeping an eye on where I would be in lane 12, my proxy is waved into the US of A at 1130. I finally make it at 1150.

Perhaps the downpour had an effect, but it fell on the swift and the slow alike. Once were were here, the gentlemen lost no time complaining about said weather and remarking that he was due to be relieved at 8 a.m. Can you say "passive aggressive?"

And who in their right mind would pull up and start complaining? They have absolute discretion over who gets searched and who does not. Just as the sky unzipped a little further I pulled away, the five seconds it took to raise the window enough to soak my left side.

Just because I can get all infantile about some small things doesn't mean I am not justified sometimes. Like they say, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you."