Grappling with an Old Demon

Along with so many others, I watch in horror and disgust as Israeli rockets fall into residential areas their own policies have packed too full of all ages of people and too few resources for said residents. Gazans complain — rightfully — about all the noncombatants being killed, while Israelis object that the homes and lives of combatants and noncombatants are too closely tangled to allow for purely military targeting.

That is not what I’m grappling with. What troubles my conscience is the extent to which the current assaults justify the increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric, violence, and sentiment exhibited all over the world. Talk about tangled targets! Steven Schaama’s recent film series on the history of the Jews documented the undeniable fact that Jews all over the world have been targeted for violence and ghettoization. This has happened again and again. When Jews moved to Palestine in recent centuries, they were bowing to the sad reality that this cycle would continue so long as they lived among non-Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust arose in part as a backlash against one of the most successful periods of intermingling and intermarriage, especially and including in Germany. So two steps forward led to miles of horrific and unmendable setbacks.

Nevertheless, some of the rhetoric coming from Israel implies that the violence done to them has become the violence they do to others. Too many statements place Jewish life above all other life — especially Palestinian. Too many statements attempt to erase centuries of Palestinian life in places that Jews claim as if their presence there had not been broken, interrupted, supplanted, abandoned. When Jews place themselves above all others, it is only natural for others to lob shots intended to level things out. When Jews exact individual justice for Jewish miscreants, but collective retribution for crimes against Jews, they pretty much ought to expect the outcry they now receive.

As much as I object to Zionism, it seems not only inevitable but necessary. However, it cannot be allowed to replace the efforts we must all make to combat the cultural infrastructure of anti-Judaism which makes Zionism so desperately inevitable. We Unitarian Universalists talk often about covenants, as if it were something invented by our Puritan forebears, or — even worse — that we ourselves came up with to maintain some recent and beloved community. No, covenant traces back to God’s promises to the Israelites. The Jews. Jews, through their cycle of scriptural documents — Torah, Histories, Wisdom, Prophets — have explored more fully and more powerfully than anyone else how hard it is to live in covenant, and yet, how catastrophic to fail.

The Hebrew Bible famously rings with all kinds of explorations of thought — including many challenges to decisions God announces or unfolds.When certain Christians (and not others) appropriated “covenant” for their own particularist purposes, they twisted what had been an ethical formulation into a doctrine of thought control. Unitarian Universalism, with its emphasis on behaviors rather than ideas, along with our informal motto, “To question is the answer,” hark back to, carry forward, the Jewish model of covenant.

It would be wrong to practice the Jewish model of covenant in every relationship except the one I have with those who gave it to me. So I don’t know how to deal with the current conundrum in the Middle East, except through personal accountability. I will name particular deeds and practices that horrify me, and seek to eradicate them wherever they occur. Sometimes that will be in the Middle East. Just as often, as anyone can attest who watches the news for a solid hour, the outrage will happen elsewhere, and have nothing to do with Jews.

A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

Not Too Late to Move UUA to Detroit

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a feature about folks who have begun investing in Detroit. They’re bringing skills and business ambition, cooperating to create infrastructures that will meet their immediate needs. They’re employing Detroiters and, by virtue of their presence, providing some support for what’s left of Detroit’s former social structure.

So far as I can tell — Scott Wells and Patrick Murfin are going to have to check me on this — when Unitarians left New England in the 19th century to pioneer new lives in new places, many of them also innovated religiously, whereas Universalists tended to be more nostalgic. But I write here ONLY about Unitarians, because my knowledge of Universalist history is limited to its institutional leavings. Folks like Barbara Coeyman are daily confounding old stereotypes, so I dare not claim this applies to both denominational parents. My expertise, such as it is, covers only Unitarians.

Unitarian church plants — official attempts to replicate new England congregations and liturgy — succeeded in a few places, but only as the new cities matured. When Samuel Atkins Eliot, fresh out of seminary, arrived in Denver to plant the Unitarian flag, he spent most of his energy of water systems, schools, denominational start-ups in towns with even fewer assets than could be found in Denver. (Note: Politywonk spent her childhood in the foothills outside Denver, and the roads were still abuilding even then.) Eliot departed this situation and left a void: his style of religion had no place amongst the hardscrabble.

Half a century earlier, the same thing had happened in the Great Lakes region, but with more success. There the sort of Unitarians who ventured into nascent cities had less affection for old religious forms, but managed to organize new ones. For the entire seventy-five years of its existence, the Western Conference grated and festered as a thorn in the side of Boston’s cultural homogenizers. Issues that began in 1867 — class concerns about polity structures, the role of God (if any), individualism versus congregationalism — were carried forward most strongly out of Chicago, and not completely resolved until almost one hundred years later, when the last individual member of the American Unitarian Association went to their grave, and we became an “Association of Congregations.”

After leaving Arvada, Politywonk became a Unitarian Universalist in Cincinnati and still has family and friends in the Heartland. Politywonk now lives in Vermont, an area where Universalism developed more along Western Conference lines, due, again, to harsh winters, widespread homesteads, and an inability to float on top of financial bubbles. So Politywonk is well aware that calling for a relocation to Detroit means far more than cheaper real estate prices. To snap up Detroit real estate now — which might make more sense, given the “unexpected” deficit in our denominational budget — is to enter a realm finding on-the-ground answers to the issues our Boston-based denomination has spectacularly failed to conquer. How to connect with Free Range believers. How to balance public witness and pastoral presence. How to speak to a generation of young adults growing up with none of the optimistic abundance that made our religion so relevant to the post-World War II era. How to present established denominational theological heritage as a range of well-developed options rather than a single, piercing laser.

Detroit is the place where the 20th century has failed with its most jaw-dropping drama. And if there is one thing that unites UUs — from the most Christian of us at King’s Chapel to the most radically individualist lurkers on Facebook and CLF — it is that we object to what the 20th century tried to do. So why are we sticking on the East Coast, with bitchers and moaners stuck in 20th century polarities? Detroit has replaced Silicon Valley as the place where pioneers will create the real 21st century. Religion is about creating new worlds out of old chaos: let’s pull up our stakes and get busy.

Great Report from O.T.

Now that you’ve seen my beautiful bride, there’s more good news. Today we returned to the Occupational Therapist, who confirmed that despite the month off from official appointments, Lynne’s self-discipline maintained momentum on the tasks we were addressing. And now,there she sits, content in her Adirondack Chair, swigging water, munching chocolate, and watching the Yankees beat Cleveland. Or, more accurately, the Cleveland pitcher has secretly been playing for the Yanks.

And yanked he is… Francona takes him away. Yankee fans watch with interest.

Trying Again to Share a Good Picture of Us-Two Happy Brides

Apparently WordPress is transitioning in a new photo process. So here’s an attempt to see what works from my own server.

Imagining a better abortion conversation

Elz Curtiss:

Well done, Reverend Amy.

Originally posted on Sermons in Stones:

Every time abortion is debated I have this wish, this longing, which, forgive me, I’m going to articulate as a list. As with many polarizing debates, people tend to hunker down in their camps pointing at the most extreme versions of their opponents’ views (possibly fictional): “She had a ninth-month abortion so she could fit into her prom dress!” / “He thinks people shouldn’t even use contraception!” We know the stereotypes: Pro-choice people are just callous and selfish and eschew personal responsibility. Anti-abortion people just hate women and fear sex.

I believe (and fervently hope) that there is a vast realm of people who do not all agree about the ethics of reproduction but do share the following values, or strive for them, even though we get very nervous about how others might exploit them to ends we don’t share:

(1) We think sex is a valuable and precious part…

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Deepening Into Caregiving: Summer

Over the last few weeks, Politywonk has gotten married, for the first time, at age sixty, to a wife who lives with Huntington’s Disease. Caregiving has become my life, in part because it lets me keep writing and reading and reveling in the arts. 

But for many years, as the sun crested through its Summer Solstice and began receding toward Autumn, I have fought off the urge to just be home. To rest and eat lightly, watch lots of baseball, and choose languid audiobook performances that fill the house with landscapes and cultures we’d be visiting if we could travel.

I fought off these impulses, as relics of earlier career paths, as the curse of being raised by educators. But no more. My wife and I have beautiful flowers and trees, not many, but enough, right here in our own yard, and this is their one brief window of opportunity. From now on, we’re reverting to the agricultural rhythm, even if we only support a few bees. 

And what does that mean we are moving to other months? Not writing, not even cooking — which simply moves to overnight hours, when cooler temperatures and quiet offices make it both more comfortable and more ecological. No, it’s the barrage of annual medical appointments. They wound up here because we’re here, and medical schedulers need to find people who don’t need the busy seasons of autumn and spring (in Vermont, winter is not a reliable scheduling option).

But from now on, we’re just saying no. I’m gonna quit waking up and gazing with sorrow at the roses as I leap in the car for some upkeep of something else. No, it’s time for the roses. It’s time for the lilies, the annuals, lifting bulbs, and slicing out bindweed. Cleaning out the garage, where wind-scattered leaves from last autumn are turning into compost and mold.

Look out, vacationers! We might not have money, we might have a dread disease, but that doesn’t mean we can’t vacation. Vacation is a state of mind, and my mind has just adopted it.