Rethinking the Post Office Mission

One of the most important papers I ever heard through the UU Historical Society had to do with Sallie Ellis of Cincinnati, who founded the Post Office Mission. This has usually been cited as the forerunner of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and that would not be wrong. CLF serves many folks who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot attend a local UU congregation. I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me, halfway around the world, link up with other UUs in Singapore in the days before the internet. Even though we only met twice, for the incredibly cautious purpose of discussing a book, in Singapore’s legendary censorship, even obtaining a book we could read intact was an accomplishment. It was the CLF, the old Post Office Mission, that gave this tiny haven to our quest for the right question.

But records in the Women’s Alliance archives in First UU Society of Burlington suggest a different dimension to this ministry, one of significance to the current discussion of “free range UUs.” As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth unfolded, the ladies of the Society helped their minister with pastoral care by reading and responding to hundreds of written communications seeking written responses to some query. They took this work seriously. It began under a minister who had no wife, continued when ministers had wives sharing their labors and then allowed the congregation to confidently call another minister who had no wife.

I didn’t see the letters themselves, which seem to have been disposed of, but I learned of their diverse nature when the Women’s Alliance presented a series of programs to help their members distinguish among the various types of pastoral correspondence. It may or may not be the earliest care network training I know of (I’m not a conclusive resource on this), but it remains one of the best.

You can read details when my book comes out (funded by that same Women’s Alliance), but the point  want to put out there is that the Post Office Mission did not compete with congregations, it supplemented them. So while I applaud the work of the Church of the Larger Fellowship for UUs without local gathering options, I hope the current movement to draw in more UUs via internet access will help invigorate our congregations and districts rather than building a two-tiered system of local and denominational relationships. The youth movement tried that in the late twentieth century, and it was not considered successful.


THank you, Governor Daniels, for Using Your Spotlight to Rebuke the GOP’s Racists

Here’s a shout-out to Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana for beginning his Official Response to the State of Union with a pointed compliment to “The President and First Lady” for exemplifying the best in family life, as a welcome contrast to so many in public life.

Right off the bat, he was distinguishing between his own position and the “he’s not my president” crowd. Several times he said he was speaking for “the loyal opposition.”

In praising their private life, he rose above the “he’s not a Christian” gutter in which Rick Santorum stumbled the other day.

Since there’s a certain amount of racist name-calling right now about whether complaints about personal habits of people supporting or benefitting from government supports is a code for attacks on African-Americans, he stepped out to praise the character of the most famous black family among us.

And since he clearly doesn’t want to see Newt Gingrich take the White House, not even the nomination, it was a subtle reminder to Republicans that character counts when you’re picking a president.

Good job, Mitch.

Why Liberals Need to Watch the Superbowl

Several Sundays from now, two large groups of large men will present themselves to huge crowds braving the winter in Indianapolis, and millions more people braving the social selection gauntlet by choosing a Superbowl party — to play what Americans play football.

The liberal carping has already begun. “It’s so mindless: throw the ball to someone who tries to run it down a long boring field.” “It’s so violent. Those blunt body-blows send the wrong message.” “There’s so little elegance, few chances to make a clean, smooth move.”

These folks are revealing exactly why liberal views, despite the hopes and loyalty of a majority of the country, have so little appearance in our laws.

Those players whose whole function is hitting the quarterback before he can throw the ball or break free and run it smoothly? Think of them as lobbyists, at all levels, who stop your allies from introducing the bill you asked for, no matter how much they agree with it. They do it with money, they do it blackmail, they do it with professional organizations. So instead of bemoaning those nasty sacks, listen as the commentators explain the various strategies the defense has practiced in order to thwart each of the quarterback’s options.

Those players who run after the designated receiver and try to knock him down? Think of them as state legislatures. Under our federalist system, there are almost no areas of policy which the federal government can lay out and carry out by itself. That is so the federal government can’t run roughshod over civil liberties and public sentiment. And when the federal government lobs a pass so far down the field of visionary liberalism that citizens register fear of change or threats to power, reactionary forces turn to the state legislatures to stop the catch.

Those substitute players who come in when your team gets tired? The has-beens with one more good run left in their legs, the tackle who plays a little rough to risk major penalty time, but sure knows how to strikes fear when he comes in for a crucial moment, the place-kicker who never misses but has never kicked from this far back (sorry, Baltimore, I feel your pain on this), the back-up quarterback who hasn’t gotten that much practice because the starting QB hasn’t gotten injured all year — these are the folks you get with door-to-door petition drives, with meet-the-candidate breakfasts on really cold mornings, with tedious phone calls to people who checked “I can do this” on your internet site.

Liberals have somehow become convinced that progress happens with “Hail Mary” passes that sail unchallenged through the air to unguarded receivers not too far from the end zone.

So do me a favor: watch the Superbowl thinking about the political game I just described above. And then, figure out how you’re gonna help the right team win the many games that have just begun, so liberalism can claim not only the big trophy but the cumulative point advantage that gets each of those playing teams there in the first place.


How to Argue Intelligently Against the SOPA Lies.

Since my senior senator is spearheading the fight to “?protect the internet from stolen goods”, I have taken the time to listen to the arguments he makes. It sounds reasonable, and ought to be answered in real terms, not rhetorical name-calling.

Here are the arguments advanced by Senator Leahy — a good man who genuinely does good and believes the logic of what he says. He’s fought many a good fight, and I do not doubt that if he thought this were wrong, he would shoot it down. And since he’s the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spends a lot of time helping President Obama keep the judiciary safe from the “strict constructionalists” who want to either bring back feudalism or introduce fascism.

I would prefer not to get into discussions — which have merit — about government policing of public discourse. That would quickly get sidetracked into concerns about terrorism and we’d never recover the SOPA issue. My advice is to stick to the Occupy Wall Street approach and focus on the corporate arguments for this bill.

So here are the corporate arguments I have heard, and then, my countering statements. SOPA advocates assert that internet servers who sell stolen goods are no different from the neighborhood fences who buy and sell stuff stolen out of houses, stripped cars, etc. The corporations contend that they have spent millions of dollars nurturing products, obtaining and protecting patents or copyrights, and they provide a public service by maintaining quality control over the products they sell.

Let’s look at these claims closely.

1) “These products only exist because we invested in them.”

So, corporations, let’s talk about your in-house, lifetime protection for the people who did the work. How are you paying the scientists and lab support teams, the designers and suppliers, in comparison to how you are paying management and shareholders? And when you downsize the support staff, the people who wash the chemistry beakers and file the records, etc, what are you doing to the quality of concentration for the folks who do the real innovating?

2) Corporations, let’s talk about “patent and copyright protection as a public service.” How many of these legal fortresses are actually are bogus — i.e. fraudulent — efforts to maintain brand-name prices by making slight alterations to existing technologies are designs? How many are “defensive purchases” of patents or copyrights, in order to prevent the innovations of your competitors?

3) The argument that you are the best enforcers of product quality is so laughable that I can hardly believe you put it forward with a serious face. Have you tried on three different designs in Size 7 shoes lately from China — same brand name, similar designs — and noticed that they fit completely differently, they aren’t even the same length from heel to toe? How is that quality control for the woman who needs to locate something for work the next day before she goes home tonight? And what is up with the poisoned foods and the drug recalls? Don’t get me started on the things that break the first time you use them.

So the real problem with theft in the patent and copyright system is that the primary thieves are corporations themselves. They rob from their innovators, they constantly lie to their customers about the cost-value of their products, and more and more, they are shutting down the function of the market itself — which is to see a need and innovate — by removing essential tools and information from the public square without making any use of these assets themselves.

Sorry, Senator Leahy. There is a huge world out there of patent theft, and it isn’t on the internet. In fact, that’s the last place you’ll see most of it: it’s hidden in sealed court records, corporate “confidential memos” and lawyers’ private discussions with their clients.

If you want to protect the people on this (the real people, who work, raise kids and get sick, go on vacation, not the legally-created fake ones), you’ll rephrase the question of thievery in protected materials and hold some really big hearings really soon.

The God Who Is Not the God of Oops

It’s tough to say we need to take Newt Gingrich seriously as a theologian to whom  we respond, but he is barnstorming the Republican primary with a message about God that feel-good liberalism cannot answer.

People who respond favorably to his God have known something that never touches most liberals, and that is the incredibly powerful sensation of being born again: recognizing one’s errors, acknowledging one’s likelihood of repeating them, and then asked God for a combination of help and forgiveness that sets up a sense that you might be able to avoid this trap the next time.

It does not mean you feel no temptation, it doesn’t mean you promise never to do it again. It means you have sought out, grasped and learned to use some tools you believe will help you avoid the same mistake. And the tools don’t work just because you hold them, or because you repeat the directions to yourself at key moments: they work because you work them, constantly, faithfully, even when you don’t feel the need.

Liberals, let’s face it: we are what William James called “the once born.”  We listen to these stories the same way a tone deaf person listens to subtle shifts in Gregorian chant (sorry, tone deaf folks, if that’s not the right one, it’s my best guess).  The fact that we do not hear this music does not mean no one else does, either. It means we are not in this choir, and we have to find a common language of beauty.

In the current case, we need to find a common language of God: a God who instructs and leads. One to whom we bow down, not by bending our knees, but to whom we turn with equivalent time and energy not as prophets or evangelists, but as students who keep needing the same tutorial, over and over again, not because we didn’t get it last week, but because we have just forgot quite how we did it at the time.

And here’s the trick that liberals keep missing: this is not going to be the God of that whole Monica Lewinsky hypocrisy. That “condemning you for doing what I’m doing” resonates with me as a problem, but for born-agains, God has forgiven this and Gingrich is ready not to do it again. Frankly, liberals, this is an area where we need to take an example from the Newster. Quite a few of us have made the same desperate attempt Gingrich made, to balance a new lover and a useful spouse. There are stories (often hushed up) among our clergy, there are stories among those who worship next to us, and there are plenty of stories of doing exactly this amongst our political allies, both straight and gay. So get over the hypocrisy issue — there is no one here that qualifies to cast the first stone and the less we bring it up, the better off we’re all going to be.

So if it’s not about hypocrisy, maybe we can just boil it down to dollars and sense. How much money did the country waste on that whole impeachment thing? How much money and time did we squander avoiding some significant issues, because arguing about sex — who’s having it, who ought to have it, who’s doing it which whom — is just so much more fun and manageable than looking at the kind of societal transitions we now know were going on. Maybe, but again, a lot of people believe in a fundamental character: an intrinsic self which cannot be changed or eradicated, only guided, corrected, and occasionally, repented. And frankly, that’s pretty much the experience most of us have with ourselves, so it’s not far-fetched to believe that private decisions and public ones have a common interior fountain.

So if it’s not about hypocrisy and it’s not about the private-public dichotomy, what is it?
It’s about the method of self-correction and long-term guidance our God wants us to employ.  And Unitarianism — whether theistic or atheistic — take a back seat to no one in beautiful articulations of a God who calls on us to use the powers of research, reason and double-checking BEFORE we commit to a major course of action.

Let’s look again at all that post-Puritan theology.  It boils down to this, a God who says, “Now show me your homework about this area of impact. Show me your homework in projecting this particular process that’s already underway. Show me who you’re leaving out when you make such-and-such a proposal, because remember, I created everyone. No exceptions.  And I love them.”

Newt is doing a great job selling what I call “The God of Oops.”  The God who pats your bowed head when you say, “Gee that didn’t work out the way I expected, but gosh, my intentions were good” and says, “Don’t worry, I know your heart.”

Nevermind that I doubt that God’s definition of a good heart in Newt Gingrich lives up to what I want in a President: good heart is just not an adequate method for making leadership decisions. Not for a family, not for a household, not for a neighborhood association, not for a country. The God of Oops –the one who thinks a good heart is enough — only makes one claim for what God’s honor for that good heart will do: to save each sinner in the hour of repentance. That is an hour when everyone has to walk the lonesome valley and stand alone, unaided, or kneel and pray.  And when you’re done, the God of Oops requests that you apologize to those you have wronged, even ask forgiveness. Then the God of Oops wants you to study how you made such a bad decision, and keep stripping away your self-justifications until you identify the improper joy you were trying to achieve, from a really short list.

The God of Oops does not hand out free passes. You have to do a lot of work to stay in this God’s good graces. It only ends when you die, and even then, who really knows?

So perhaps when Newt’s fans hoot against folks bringing up the Monica Lewinsky hypocrisy, their real issue is anger that their God is being so totally misunderstood, misrepresented and then dismissed.

When folks are talking about God, they have significantly raised the bar. The only proper answer to one person’s God is another person’s God. Not the sacred kernel in each of our mortal selves, but some statement of what that is part of.  If there is a bit of the sacred which is in us but not of us, that entered to be carried for awhile and then dissolves back into some larger whole, we have to quit talking about our little selves and name that sacred substance, at least if we want to be in this conversation.

I don’t care what you call it in worship, when we’re all being UUs together. YOu might not call it God, but as Theodore Parker said, does it meet that test of Permanence, rise beyond and then outlast the transient? Because for purposes of political effectiveness that is what we are going to have to answer with.

Here is a  good example from our faith tradition, not using Godtalk but struggling to define an equal essence:

“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.

See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts. Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, as sure as in the soul. By it, a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie, — for example, the taint of vanity, the least attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance, — will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness. See again the perfection of the Law as it applies itself to the affections, and becomes the law of society. As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.

These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson. “An Address.”  Harvard Divinity School, 15 July 1838