Making your own burial shroud

A week-long event called “Reimagine End of Life” is taking place in San Francisco right now. As a part of this, Carol and Ms. M. will offer a workshop on Saturday called “It’s a Wrap: Design Your Own Burial Shroud.” The point of the workshop is not to make the actual shroud you’re going to be buried in, but to start thinking about a design for something that you’d like to be wrapped up in after you die.

Tonight, Carol and I decided to play around with some materials and try a few things out. So we went down to Joanne Fabric and got 3 yards of 90 inch-wide unbleached cotton muslin, and a couple dozen different colored fabric markers. We wrapped Carol up in the muslin to see how much cloth was needed, and discovered that 2 yards of 110 inch fabric worked. (But if I were to do this again, I’d use a 90 inch square. And if I were making one for myself — Carol’s five foot nine inches tall, but I’m six foot five — I’d probably want a 110 inch square of fabric.)

Carol lay on the cloth diagonally. I flipped up the corner down by her feet first, folded over one side then the other side, and finally flipped the top corner down over her face. After flipping the corners back down, I used a pencil to make faint lines about where I folded the fabric; then when I started drawing, I knew about where to draw the designs.

Carol wanted to draw a face, but I said that would be far too difficult. Instead, she let me draw an abstract design within an oval shape:

Next I drew a design on the final flap of fabric that would be folded over her body. Ultimately, I suppose you could draw designs over the entire piece of fabric. But most of what would be exposed would be those two flaps of fabric, as you can see in the photograph below:

(That took me about an hour. But I have excellent hand skills, and years of training and experience in making art; someone with less experience could easily take two hours to get that far.)

To complete the shroud shown in the photo, I’d use fabric paint to fill in the design — perhaps a light wash inside the drawing at the head, with a dark bold color outside it; and then a light wash inside and around the swirls in the part over the body. If I wanted a more carefully crafted shroud, I’d get another piece of fabric and hem all the edges, and repaint the design on the hemmed fabric.

Really, though, for me this isn’t about coming up with a carefully-crafted final product. It was very pleasant working with these materials, and it was a chance to reflect on — not on death so much as to reflect on the entire life cycle.

Cost: 90 inch cotton muslin is about US$8 a yard. A nice set of fabric markers is going to set you back $20-35. If you want to use paints, that will cost you about $3 per color (for good-but-not-expensive paints). If you want to try stamping or printing with dyes, expect to pay about $45 for a starter kit.

Registration is closed on the workshop, but if you contact Carol directly ASAP, she might be able to get you in.

Shutdown

PG&E, the utility that everyone in northern California loves to hate, is going to shut down our power tonight, due to a forecast of high winds that could cause a downed wire that could in turn spark wildfires.

Why does PG&E have to shut down the power? Because they are owned by hedge funds, which demand maximum short-term profit instead of efficient running of a utility company, and they have skimped on power line maintenance for decades. Or, to put it more pointedly, as the governor of California recently said about PG&E: “Years of mismanagement, years of greed.”

Power could go out very soon, so I’m setting up the propane stove so I can cook dinner.

Mindfulness meditation is not religiously neutral

Recently I read a blog post by Amod Lee on mindfulness meditation and whether it might be problematic for Christians. Lee notes that some Christian groups have mounted legal challenges to teaching mindfulness meditation in public schools, on the basis that mindfulness meditation is a religious practice, not a secular technique. Lee goes on to say that he is “not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved,” but rather wants to consider this issue “as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation.” Coming from that perspective, Lee argues that mindfulness meditation could be problematic for Christians:

“A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.

“That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian — or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.”

I found this argument helpful for me personally: I meditated for years, and finally stopped because I hated it. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I never like meditation because I felt all the meditation techniques I was taught pushed me towards a negation of the self. By contrast, when I learned meditative techniques of self-inquiry while studying transcendental phenomenology in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, I found those techniques deepened my self-understanding without negating the self. Husserl’s technique led me to an understanding of intersubjectivity — that is, awareness of the self as a node in an intersubjective web of many selves — and eventually this led me to a sense that awareness of intersubjectivity is a highly desirable spiritual outcome. Similarly, meditative practices of observing non-human organisms, inspired in part by Henry Thoreau’s journals, also led me an awareness of my (non-negated) self as part of a web of intersubjective selves, many of which are non-human selves. Rather than negating the self, my own spiritual exploration led me to understand my connection with other selves, an outcome I find personally more rewarding.

My personal spiritual exploration leads me to expand on Lee’s conclusion: mindfulness meditation carries distinctly Buddhist content that people other than traditional Christians might also be cautious of, and even actively dislike. It is, in short, not a neutral practice.

(One last note: I’ve been to Unitarian Universalist worship services and workshops where the minister or workshop leader leads some kind of mindfulness meditation exercise with the unspoken assumption that everyone present will want to do mindfulness meditation. It would be wise for Unitarian Universalists to realize that mindfulness meditation is a practice borrowed from another tradition, to be careful that we do not misappropriate it, and if we do use it to remember that some Unitarian Universalists will find it distasteful or unpleasant.)

Non-affiliated Unitarian Universalists

A myth that has wide currency within Unitarian Universalism (UUism) today tells the story that every Unitarian Universalist (UU) must be affiliated with a congregation. This “myth of the affiliated UU” has become one of the stock myths told by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and by many UU ministers.

Let me tell you why I think we should stop believing in this myth.

Years ago, when I was serving as a volunteer on-call chaplain at a hospital in Massachusetts, I visited someone who called themselves Unitarian. Without going into any confidential details, I can say this person was a member of a non-UU religious congregation and was quite happy about that, but still considered themselves a UU. As a chaplain, I of course accepted this person’s religious self-identification, and hoped that they would be able to use that religious identification in their healing process.

Only later did it occur to me that I knew of a fair number of other people like that person in the hospital — people who called themselves UUs but who didn’t, for whatever reason, belong to a UU congregation. Then the Web took off: I was a member of Church of the Larger Fellowship as it turned into an online church, and then I started this blog, and participated in a lot of online conversations, and I came into contact with a lot of people who call themselves UU but who aren’t part of a congregation. Really — a LOT of people.

We need a name for these people. I’m going to call them “non-affiliated UUs.”

Non-affiliated UUs are definitely UUs, but they aren’t affiliated with any congregation. They aren’t even affiliated with the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is a happy home for a great many UUs, but which doesn’t suit the needs of lots of other non-affiliated UUs. I’m going to guess there are thousands, even tens of thousands, of non-affiliated UUs.

In the early days of Unitarianism and Universalism, you were a Unitarian or a Universalist if you said you were one. For many years, the American Unitarian Association accepted individual memberships. As for Universalists, there were lots of them who lived in rural areas or on the frontier where there weren’t any Universalist congregations. Read a book by Hosea Ballou, or a sermon by William Ellery Channing, and — bingo! — you could call yourself a Universalist or a Unitarian.

There’s a relationship between the current myth of the affiliated UU and the way we began funding UU institutions in the mid-twentieth century. From the UUA’s inception — in 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated — the UUA as an institution received much of its revenue from per-member assessments levied on congregations. At the same time, ministry became an increasingly professionalized profession, typically requiring an expensive education that made economic sense only if the minister could count on a guaranteed income from working in a congregation. Thus, the myth of the affiliated UU became a convenient myth for both UUA staffers and lay leaders, and for parish ministers.

But the way we funded UU institutions in the mid- to late twentieth century no longer works. Too many UU ministers complete their expensive education only to find that they can’t find a job that will allow them to pay off their debts. (Not surprisingly, many people training for ministry are now turning to community ministry, so they can find non congregational jobs that will allow them to pay off their educational debt.) As the number of members of UU congregations decreased, the UUA finally gave up on the per-member assessment model, and has turned to assessments based on total operating budget of congregations.

Yet too many UU ministers and UU leaders continue to cling to the myth of the affiliated UU. This myth is taking on a destructive form: “You can’t be a REAL UU unless you’re affiliated with a UU congregation.” As a result, people who could be non-affiliated UUs are deciding that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t want them. In other words, the destructive form of this myth is forcing too many people to become religiously homeless.

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker made a famous distinction between the transient and the permanent in religion. He said that we sometimes cling to things that we think are an essential and permanent part of religion, but which are actually inessential and transient.

Being a member of a UU congregation is a good thing for many people. But congregations are a transient, inessential feature of Unitarian Universalism. You don’t need to be affiliated with a congregation to be a UU.

What is permanent about Unitarian Universalism? That you live an ethical life. That you challenge yourself to use your reason to engage with religion. That you allow yourself to doubt. That you allow your religious attitudes to change and evolve. That you value the Western religious tradition of which anglophone Unitarian Universalism is a part, while remaining open to insights from non-Western religious traditions. That you are in conversation with other UUs.

That last point deserves elaboration: How can non-affiliated UUs stay in conversation with other UUS? Through “sudden villages,” conferences and gatherings of a few days or a week where you get to meet other UUs face-to-face. Through reading UU writers, and listening to UU podcasts. Through online contacts: social media, blogs, email, whatever.

And how can UU institutional leaders welcome non-affiliated UUs? By sponsoring “sudden villages” that don’t require affiliation with a UU congregation. By supporting community ministers, those ministers who aren’t serving in a congregation. By allowing themselves to be in conversation with non-affiliated UUs, even when those conversations challenge core-but-transient assumptions about what constitutes a UU. By giving financial support to efforts that reach out to non-affiliated UUs (e.g., independent podcasts).

Above all, UU institutional leaders can welcome non-affiliated UUs by ceasing to retell the myth of the affiliated UU.

Coming up: How to be a non-affiliated UU….

Religious attendance may be down, but income is up

Over the past decade, our congregation has seen flat attendance, slowly declining membership — but a modest increase in income when corrected for inflation. Turns out we’re not alone:

“A new nationally representative study from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds that revenue is not necessarily declining along with attendance….

“‘We’re not hiding the fact that there are many congregations experiencing decline, or that it’s a major success to be simply maintaining,’ said David P. King, director of the Lake Institute and a co-director of the study. ‘But despite a narrative of decline for religiosity in America, there’s a wide diversity of what’s happening. A decline in participation does not necessarily equate with (a decline) in finances.’ Or as the study succinctly states: ‘Among congregations that are declining in attendance, there is not necessarily an automatic corresponding decline in revenue.’ “

Article.
National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices study.

Generation gap in organized religion

A Pew Research report released today aggregates yearly political surveys in which people reported religious affiliation, and finds that self-declared Christians are declining in the U.S. at a “striking” rate. According to an article on Religion News Service, attendance at weekly religious services is also way down, as Americans who attend services once a month are now in the minority:

“‘It’s quite shocking,’ said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary. ‘This rapid shift is about generational replacement. The most religious folks are the ones who are dying and the least religious folks are the ones coming in.'”

I guess I’m not shocked, nor even mildly astonished: those of us who are involved in organized religion have been watching this trend for some time.

But I am interested in why self-reported religious participation is in decline in the U.S. The article offers several reasons:

“Thumma pointed to a number of cultural reasons that may be speeding up the generational shift, including [1] less social pressure to go to church; [2] the clergy sexual abuse scandal, especially in the Catholic Church; and [3] shifting attitudes toward sexuality and gender that clash with traditional Christian teachings. Greg Smith [associate director of research at Pew] said [4] a dissatisfaction with conservative political ties to evangelical Christianity may also be fueling the growth of the nones. [numbers are editorial]

To these reasons, I would add: [5] the decline in face-to-face community (the “bowling alone” phenomenon documented by Robert Putman and others); [6] stiffening competition for people’s leisure time including the increased availability of customized leisure-time activities; [7] the “post-church” movement within Christianity; [8] an increase in multicultural encounters that leave people doubting their own religious traditions; and [9] changing conceptions of what constitutes spirituality (sometimes reduced to secularization, though there’s more going on than absence of Christianity).

Religious freedom and colonialism

The latest Religious Studies Podcast is a very interesting interview with Tisa Wenger, author of a new book, “Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal.” (If you’re like me and prefer reading to listening, there’s also a full transcript to read.) In the interview, Wenger explains how Native American people redefined what they did as religion in order to use U.S. guarantees of religious freedom to protect indigenous traditions:

“[In the United States] you see U.S. government officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delegitimizing indigenous traditions by categorizing them as superstitious, heathenish, pagan. And indigenous people, who in their own languages and ways of structuring — they had their own ways of structuring their societies — but those ways of structuring their societies didn’t really include anything equivalent to the category of religion as Americans understood it at the time. But they [Native Americans] start to conceive of those traditions as religion in order to argue back against the categorization of themselves as heathen, savage, pagan, etc. So this is why I title my first book ‘We Have a Religion’: this was a quote from a Pueblo Indian petition to the superintendent of Indian Affairs, saying, ‘We also have a religion … And you can’t ban it, because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.'”

Wenger also touches briefly on how something similar happened in British India, as Hinduism came to be defined as a religion:

“The construction of Hinduism as a ‘world religion’ is happening in conjunction with [British] colonial history. Both by Indian intellectuals and by British, for somewhat different ends. But it serves both of their interests to construct Hinduism as a world religion.”

I’ve been thinking recently about the interaction between the concept of religious freedom on the one hand, and religion on the other hand. I’m one of those who doesn’t see religion as a thing that can be easily defined; instead, I’m one of those who sees religion as a social construction with definitions that vary over time. Wenger’s research helps me better understand how a colonial power like the United States used religion in varying ways to help dominate Native American peoples; and, conversely, how Native Americans in turn used religion to maintain their own cultural autonomy.

Clearly, Wenger’s work also looks at the interactions between race and religion. In a response to the interview with Wenger, “The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness,” Alexander Rocklin examines the way Afro-Caribbean religions have been stigmatized, and defined as not being religions so that religious freedom does not apply to them (in much the same way that certain Native American religions have been defined as not being religions so that they can be outlawed). Rocklin writes:

“The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion.”

The link between the category of religion and colonialism is well known, but what’s new here is the detail these two scholars offer about specific religious traditions and their battle for religious freedom with colonial powers. Fascinating reading.

Why someone might actually want a new civil war

In an opinion piece published on Religion News Service, historian John Fea, a progressive Christian evangelical and an expert on evangelical history in the U.S., offers some pointed commentary on right-wing evangelicals like Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham who are warning of “civil war” should Donald Trump be impeached. In response, Fea offers a historian’s view of why right-wing evangelicals like Jeffress and Graham might welcome a new civil war:

“[Robert] Jeffress’ own First Baptist Dallas, with its long history of segregation … was built upon a Civil War fracture that has not yet healed. Under his leadership, it has failed to confront its long-standing commitment to racial injustice in any meaningful way.”

AAR religious literacy guidelines

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has released a set of “Religious Literacy Guidelines” setting minimum standards for all graduates of two- and four-year colleges in the United States. An excerpt from these guidelines summarizes the minimum knowledge about religion that all college graduates should have:

“‘Religious literacy’ helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:
— Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions;
— Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions;
— Understand how religions have shaped — and are shaped by — the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions;
— Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts;
— Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements…”

It turns out that in 2010, AAR released a set of religious literacy guidelines for K-12 students. The K-12 guidelines are also well worth reading. They include some basic premises from the scholarly discipline of religious studies, premises which AAR considers essential for teaching religious literacy:
— religions are internally diverse;
— religions are dynamic and changing; and
— religions are embedded in culture.

Anyone who has gained basic familiarity with religious studies at any time in the past 20 years will find no surprises in either set of guidelines. For example, even though these guidelines are new to me, I’ve been using the underlying premises for at least a decade, as I develop curriculum on religions. But though there’s nothing new here, by formulating these guidelines, AAR has done us all a favor: now we have checklists that we can use to assess how well curriculums promote religious literacy.

We can also use these guidelines for some rough-and-ready assessment. When I look at these guidelines, I see that for the most part Unitarian Universalist adults do not have solid religious literacy, e.g., many UU adults are unaware of the immense religious diversity within Christianity, many UU adults are not able to discern accurate and credible knowledge about religious traditions, etc. This becomes problematic when adults with a low degree of religious literacy teach religion to children; and this suggests that curriculum development needs to include basic religious literacy knowledge for adults teachers, as well as content for children.

…very careful in the words…

We live in times when it is worth looking at the way old white guys in power cloak themselves with words. They also surround themselves with expensive ties, expensive watches, expensive haircuts — but their words are the primary tools they use in wielding power.

Rev. Robert Jeffress, evangelical Christian and senior pastor of First Baptist Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, told Fox News in a televised interview: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” Donald Trump quoted Jeffress in a series of Twitter posts, which Jeffress then retweeted. What did Jefress mean by talking about a civil war? When interviewed by CBN News, he said, “Well I was very careful in the words that I chose, I was not predicting and I was certainly not advocating an actual civil war.” And, he went on, if anyone thought he was in fact advocating for a civil war, they must be “too stupid to understand what we [he and Trump] are saying.”

When you are an old white guy, it’s so easy to surround yourself with the sound of your own words, so you don’t have to hear anything beyond your own words.