Monthly Archives: August 2007

Autumn watch

On the drive from New Bedford up to visit my aunt and uncle this evening, we passed several trees whose leaves are already turning color. The very dry weather we’ve been having for the past two or three weeks has stressed many trees, and the leaves of some trees are turning brown around the edges. Other trees have reacted to the stress by already taking on their fall colors. I noticed one tree in particular, a small Red Maple at the edge of the highway, whose every leaf had turned a vivid scarlet.

On our way home, we drove through a chilly drizzle, blurring the headlights of the oncoming cars, making it feel even more like autumn is coming.

Where we’re coming from?

Theology comes from the week-to-week actions of a worshipping community far more than it comes from academia. Attend some Unitarian Universalist worship services and listen what is being preached, what is being sung, and what is being prayed, and you’ll learn more about Unitarian Universalist theology than if you read books by academic theologians like Thandeka and Paul Rasor. This isn’t meant as a put-down of academic theologians, it’s simply what I feel is true.

So when I read in our denominational magazine that one of our “most beloved hymns” is a song by Carolyn McDade called “Spirit of Life,” that makes me think that if I listen to that hymn, I’ll learn something about where mainstream Unitarian Universalist theology is these days.

“Spirit of Life,” says the hymn, “come unto me.” It’s a hymn written in 1981, one of the peak years of the feminist revolution, when women were really finding their voice and finding their power — the hymn is calling the power of the divine into women who had been too long ignored by Western religion. Or we could reframe that same idea with the insights of third wave feminism: “Spirit of Life” was written when second wave feminism was at its peak, when affluent white college-educated middle-class women were claiming additional power and influence for themselves by putting and end to discrimination against affluent white college-educated middle-class women — but the hymn assumes individuals will have a certain level of power and influence, and includes a cultural bias towards individualism. So if “Spirit of Life” is one of the most popular Unitarian Universalist hymns, we could probably conclude that the feminist theology we have hasn’t been particularly good at including women of color and working-class women.

(However, don’t take this a commentary on Carolyn McDade’s theology. Her earlier hymn, “We’ll Build a Land” from 1979, is far less individualistic, calling for solidarity with all persons with phrases like, “Come build a land where sisters and brothers/ anointed by God may then create peace/ where justice shall roll down like waters….”)

One really good suggestion

Bill, Carl, and I were standing around talking with the architect who’s overseeing the repair work at our church. She had come to tell us how much it might cost to remove an underground oil tank, and she stayed to inspect the repairs to our fire escape. Afterwards, the four of us stood around chatting. Since she’s a church-goer too (she’s active in a nearby UCC church), our conversation turned to churches.

We compared horror stories about how churches neglect routine maintenance, which neglect always leads to costly repairs. Our architect had one really good suggestion that I can’t resist passing along. She said when she served on her church’s board of trustees, she would make them do a complete walk-through inspection of the building and grounds once each year. When the board members confronted building problems face-to-face, they realized just what the money is going to, and routine maintenance was less likely to be neglected.

We also talked about when would be the best time to do such a walk-through. I suggested that maybe November would be the best month for our church, because we try to start planning the next fiscal year’s budget in January — do the walk-through in November, and it would allows you to get estimates in time for the budget planning cycle. Bill added that it’s best to do a walk-through when the leaves are off the trees.

Food fight (literally)

Wanna see a video of a chase scene, where a giant apple chases after a huge snack cake? C’mon, you know you do! OK, the video is pretty goofy, the chase climaxes in a fight scene with a few disgusting moments, and of course it’s for a good political cause. In spite of all that, it’s worth it just to see the apple roll over the hood of a car, and to see the snack cake blind the apple with a UPC scanner.

The “Farm Bill Food Battle” video.

Thanks to Carol.

Random memories

We were driving back from the supermarket. “Here’s a totally random memory,” I said. “Fairly pointless, too.”

“Good,” said Carol. “I like pointless memories.”

“So when we were little, Jean and I — and maybe we were old enough that Abby was in the car seat — Mom used to take us food shopping at least once a week at Stop and Shop in Concord,” I said. Carol and I lived together in Concord for seven years, so she knew which supermarket I meant; Jean is my older sister, and Abby is my younger sister. “We’d drive down Liberty Street so Mom could avoid driving through Concord center, which meant we went right by the visitor’s center for Minuteman National Park….”

“OK,” said Carol, mentally picturing the route my mother had once driven, all those years ago. “I know what you mean.”

“So for some reason,” I continued, “when we got to the parking lot at the visitor’s center, Jean and I would start chanting, ‘Go through the park, go through the park,’ and Mom would drive us through the parking lot at the national park visitor’s center. I have no idea why we always wanted to go through the park, it was just one of those things that got started and then we always did it.”

“Oh, that’s sweet!” said Carol. “You probably wanted to go through and see all the cars there.”

“Yeah, I think at one point I was really into finding out-of-state license plates,” I said. “That’s probably what started it.”

“That’s really sweet,” she said again. “Those were more innocent times.”

“Actually,” I said, “I don’t think they were more innocent. When we got to the supermarket, we used to see this young woman who was anorexic. She’d always be there with her parents. Later, we found out the reason she was anorexic was that her parents were beating her.”

“How’d you find that out?” said Carol.

“When I was housemates with D—-,” I said, “D—-‘s sister was just married, and she and her husband rented a little house from them. The parents and the anorexic daughter lived in the big house, and D—-‘s sister rented what used to be the servants’ house. D—-‘s sister and her husband would hear the anorexic woman screaming when her parents beat her. She must have been thirty-five years old by then.” I paused, thinking about D—-‘s sister. “Not a great way to begin your married life,” I coninuted, Carol following my logical leap. “They moved out as quickly as they could. Anyway, I don’t think those times were more innocent.”

That was the end of those random memories. When Carol couldn’t remember if she had picked up the business card of the woman whom we had met earlier in the evening while sitting at the bar of our neighborhood watering hole, our conversation moved on to other things.

No such thing as a honeymoon…

The church office went back on regular office hours today. I spent the morning in meetings and reading mail; I spent the afternoon doing pastoral calls and returning phone calls; I hadn’t a moment to relax between nine in the morning and six at night. In other words, summer’s over and I’m back in the regular rhythm of the church year.

This will be my third year at First Unitarian in New Bedford, and everything is going much more smoothly. Over and over again, I hear about the “honeymoon year” — in popular imagination, the first year a minister spends at a new congregation is the “honeymoon year,” when supposedly the new minister can do no wrong and everyone is happy and joyful. I’ve never experienced such a honeymoon year — the first year in a congregation is when you do things wrong (“Umm, knocking the candle over is not the way we usually do the Christmas eve service…”), step on people’s toes (“Umm, Eliza Hubbard always chairs the Holiday Fair Committee, and she’s really peeved that you suggested that someone else chair it this year…”), and generally flail around trying to figure out a new order of service, a new filing system, a new everything.

If you survive that first year (assuming the congregation is relatively tolerant of your flailing about), I suppose the second year could be more relaxing. Although that wasn’t the case for me here last year, however, because last year our new Director of Religious Education resigned the week before Sunday school was to start, and that came on top of three deaths in the congregation in September, and I never quite got caught up again for the rest of the year.

What I hear over and over again from ministers is that the third year is when the congregation and the minister have gotten to know each other pretty well and some real trust starts to develop, and that’s when things can start to happen (or, sometimes, the trust doesn’t develop on one side or the other and the ministry starts to unravel, but that’s another story). And the church experts tell us that it really takes five years for trust to develop, so if there is a honeymoon year in ministry, it probably takes place in that fifth year.

The first year of a ministry, a honeymoon year? I think that’s just a myth.

Autumn watch

The sun is setting noticeably earlier every day now.

I left the church just before six and headed to the natural foods store in the West End. As I drove west on Union Street, the sun was almost directly in my eyes, its glare drowning out anything in the shadows of the trees. I drove more slowly than usual, trying to figure out which cross street I was passing, when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw the four-way stop sign that I didn’t stop for; the car waiting at the cross street gave a little toot on its horn as if to say to me, “Wake up!”; I felt stupid, but I really hadn’t seen the stop sign in the glare of the sun.

By the time I got back home, it was half past six, and I realized that if I wanted to take a long walk, I had better leave now, before I cooked dinner. At the end of my hour-long walk, the sun had already dipped below New Bedford’s sky line.

Universalism for such times as these

Did you know that a recent poll shows 69% of United States residents believe in hell? Maybe it’s time to dust off some of those old Universalist beliefs — you know, those old beliefs that there is no hell and that each person is of infinite value. This is a longish video — 9:56 — so set aside some time to relax and enjoy it.

Note: I think Web videos should feel like you’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone. Most of the sermons I’ve watched online have been pretty unsatisfactory because they show the preacher talking to a big crowd — not to me personally — and because they’re too long. This video is my attempt at presenting this Sunday’s sermon in a shorter and more personal form. However, I admit that it’s an experiment I won’t repeat very often, because it took three hours to rewrite the sermon and to shoot and edit this ten-minute video.

Note: video host is defunct, so this video no longer exists.

Grace Paley

Mother’s Day sermons can get pretty saccharin, so this year when I was looking for readings for Mother’s Day, I turned to Grace Paley. No one could write about motherhood with less sentimentality, or with more humanity, than Grace Paley. Nobody could write about people with such a depth of humanity. I love her stories. Nothing happens in them, but they sound like real life to me. The characters are people I know, and they do things I can imagine doing myself. I can’t think of any other short story writer whom I like as much.

She died on Wednesday, at age 84. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” If there were an afterlife (which she and I doubt very much), she would organize protests in the afterlife, just as her characters organize protests and political action in her stories….

A group of mothers from our neighborhood went downtown to the Board of Estimate Hearing and sang a song. They had contributed the facts and the tunes, but the idea for that kind of political action came from the clever head of a media man floating on the ebbtide of our lower west side culture because of the housing shortage. He was from the far middle plains and loved our well-known tribal organization. He said it was the coming thing. Oh, how he loved our old moldy pot New York.

…The first mother stood up… when the clerk called her name. She smiled, said excuse me, jammed past the knees of her neighbors and walked proudly down the aisle of the hearing room. Then she sang, according to some sad melody learned in her mother’s kitchen, the following lament requesting better playground facilities….

will someone please put a high fence up
around the children’s playground
they are playing a game and have only
one more year of childhood. won’t the city come…
to keep the bums and
the tramps out of the yard they are too
little now to have the old men … feeling their
knees … can’t the cardinal
keep all these creeps out

She bowed her head and stepped back modestly to allow the recitative for which all the women rose, wherever in the hearing room they happened to be. They said a lovely statement in chorus:

The junkies with smiles can be stopped by intelligent reorganization of government functions….

from Grace Paley’s story “Politics”

The best way to remember Grace Paley would be to engage in that kind of cooperative creative political action, of a combatively pacifist nature.