Avoiding Advent

By the logic of the Roman-based Christian liturgical year, October 17 should have been the perfect date for my wife to have died. We were days away from Samhain, when the veil between living and dead fades to almost nothing, just as the nights grow long. Then come All Saints and All Souls. Everyone is remembering their dead, lighting their candles, maybe putting pictures on a home altar. This short month of closeness shrivels too quickly into Advent, a season for preparing for new life to burst in. Bible readings sing out hope and help to come.

Seems like it would be perfect for a new widow.

Not for this one.

The death I worry about most is not my wife, now released from a terrible long-term disease, but the person, the soul, she unveiled from within me. Lynne always called herself a “soft butch.” She cut her hair blunt, wore work boots and worn jeans, but her shirts told a different story. Her favorite color was “desert rose,” a heathered kind of mauve. Teal and blue brought out her beautiful eyes. On her right arm a bright blue-green turtle flowed and shimmered.

I have always had a hard exterior, despite the feminine clothes and long hair. Who knows why, but so it was. She found and nurtured the softness longing to break forth from inside me. She had a firm self-discipline I totally lack, and the only way I developed any of it was to execute things she wanted in order to earn her praise. In a way we were the same: fake tough exteriors to protect two vulnerable hearts.

That is why Advent scares me. She brought out my best self, and I worry we didn’t have enough years for me to confirm that vision into good habits. As the house starts feeling more like mine, does that mean her tenderness is leaving, too? As I start forming or reforming relationships that do not include her presence, will I manage to bring the social skills that she (and her family) had finally begun to instill? I’m not talking about public acts of charity, but the private ones, the personal moments that help other people feel with me the way I felt with her.

This is why Advent scares me this year. I tell myself that the coming of God in the world confirms I will have assets I cannot name or describe. But she was the asset that worked, and all I can imagine, as Advent blossoms into a new life, that the good we had will pass away with the challenges.

Statistically, autumn has an unusual pace of both births and deaths. Ther are many others going through this with me. The new parens worry they will never again get enough sleep, have sex, or spend a quiet afternoon with a book or music. The newly bereaved are probably looking at holiday decorations — manger scenes, menorahs — and seeing only the person not there this year to share them.

So here’s to all of us, the folks who aren’t feeling it this year. Advent will come for each of us, regardless of faith language, in its own time and way. Don’t feel you have to rush into it now; what we are given is a calendar, not a prison.

Rewriting the U.S. Constitution: A View from the Left

Over the past few years activists on the right have quietly been obtaining support from various state legislators to call another constitutional convention and get our country a new constitution. There is so much fear of this on the informed left, and so much ignorance of it among newcomers to voting, that there is only one more state legislature needed to make this call official, and most of us know nothing about it.

Ironically, there are plenty of reasons for progressives to welcome a rewrite of the US Constitution. Alexander Hamilton might make for a rousing musical, but his vision of a central government made strong through ties to financial power is hardly what progressives would like. James Madison’s vision of checks and balances among three coequal branches of government, devoid of contamination and coordination by political parties, has proven completely unrealistic. And the power given to state governments was always meant to maintain a fragile unity between those who thrived on unpaid hostage labor and those who wanted to advance their families through fair wages and safe work.

But given that those tensions all still exist, where can left and right find common ground on which to base an opening move? That’s an easy one: the power given to each branch of government to define and police itself. A corollary dear to my heart lies in the fact that Robert’s Rules of Order were not written until almost a century after the Constitution, and began as an attempt to codify their rules. But because each house of Congress retains the power to define and police itself, they are not held to Robert’s Rules, preferring instead to landscape a new procedural environment each time the party majority changes hands. The most powerful person in each house, other than its majority leader, is whoever chairs the Committee on Rules.

So here are some easy first steps:

1) Each branch shall be subject to any laws, standards, and punishments it sets for the populace.

2) Each branch shall conduct itself according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Foremost among these is the requirement that each proposal to be voted consist of only one topic, elucidated in its name, and any amendment must be germane.

3) The Congressional Record shall be a full and accurate record of what is done in congressional proceedings, which no one shall manipulate to create a false impression of something done or said. Supporting documents and full texts of testimony by witnesses to committees will still be permitted. (At the moment, members may insert any speech, document, or information without any proof they have done or said what the insertion asserts.)

Connecting the Secrets

Up here in Burlington, Vt, members of our community are revealing personal struggles based in tormenting practices visited on them while they inhabited an orphanage run by the Roman Catholic archdiocese in the early and mid twentieth century. These people are adults, still alive, about my age, which is 64. Their stories sound medieval, sound foreign, but they actually occurred in a place I drive be almost daily en route to my local shopping center. The occasion for their memories comes as a private developer transforms this beautiful house of horrors into luxury and “moderately priced” condominiums. When I first saw the stories, I thought this was part of the history series. But it’s not; it’s here and now.

When Richard Snipe died a few months ago, his obituary prominently explained his analysis that the root of Roman Catholic institutional abuse of the vulnerable rests in the culture of secrecy instilled by the requirement of celibacy. Many Roman Catholic priests, he said, were in happy, healthy heterosexual relationships, but unable to let this information leak out for fear of losing their jobs and social status. The closed mouths of the healthy and happy created an attractive environment for people whose desires were less estimable, less savory.

I can’t help relating these stories to the current fracas surrounding Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court. The offenses of which he stands accused took place in exactly the kind of institution I drive past for my shopping errands. Beautiful architecture. Spectacular campus. Faculty of socially prestigious Roman Catholics, cloaked in collars and a certain way of drawing the attention in crowded rooms.

I am a retired minister myself. Clergy confidentiality is a big deal with us. Over the decades, ministers acquire an aura which comes from knowing the many secrets which have been entrusted to them, and faithfully kept. I wasn’t in parish ministry for more than about three years, and envy my colleagues this glow. Yet I know that in a few cases, the secrets kept have been not entrusted by others but caused by the cleric’s own misdeeds. It happens. And there’s no real way of knowing whose glow hides skeletons rather than angels.

Like many people with experience editing yearbooks, I was horrified by the entry attached to Kavanaugh’s picture at Georgetown Prep. It’s not so much about him, as a clear indicator that whoever had charge of those kids had no sense of moral compass for himself or herself. No shame and no sense of where the rest of us feel shame. The wonder is not that Kavanaugh has only one accuser, but that more women aren’t stepping forward to add their names to the list. One already has, saying that girls at her school knew well enough what to expect from parties at Georgetown Prep. (It is worth noting that I am the same age as the first women admitted to Ivy League colleges; very quickly the word went out that Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth had cultures of gender harassment.)

But I digress. The point is that our society needs a way for people to come forward describing a culture of harassment much larger than any of us can imagine. The most important reason is to clear the names of the many men and women, of all faiths, generations, schools, camps, etc, who never engaged in such depravities. Right now all men are being tarred with the same brush, as if their very testosterone were a crime. At the same time, there are many who took part in such misdeeds, and later felt clarity and shame. These men and women, too, deserve more respect than deniers like “Judge” Kavanaugh. The victims need a way to come forward, too, without the prospect of bullying, violence, danger.

Apparently this is not going to end any time soon. Perhaps what we most need is a National Coming Out Day for Justice. For some victims, there’s a name to be called. For repentant former abusers, there’s one’s own name (not one’s victim’s name) to make clear. But as with National LGBTQIA Coming Out Day, the ritualization teaches our culture how to respond,. Teaches us that the shaming issue (which is also what keeps LGBTQIA self-identifiers silenced) can be managed if we all make space for it together.

For on National Coming Out Day, allies know to stand ready. Families know that although they may be surprised, they are not unique. And folks who aspire to harassment and shaming get a strong, pervasive message that what they want to do is wrong. Not a path to social status, but, if mishandled, a fast track to the police car. Yes, gender and gender-role based violence is rising. But in some ways, what this means is the perpetrators are more and more desperate to make their case while they still have the chance. Their moment is fading. This is a message I would like to send to both victims of sexual harassment and those who repent of having done so.

Back to Church

September has finally gotten my attention, enough that I plan to leave my disabled wife at home with her caregiver and take myself to church tomorrow.

Not the local UU society to which I belong and pledge, but the first in a series of liberal Protestant Christian congregations where I hope to satisfy my need for deep prayers and regular insight from the book of Psalms.

In venturing out like this, I display an under-appreciated reason why people leave this denomination. Jokers often call us “the open door on the way out of religion”, but for untold many, UUism opens a door back into religion. I know former UUs who have rejoined Jewish synagogues, Roman Catholic cathedrals, and all the mainline Protestant faiths.

So what do we have in common, we who move into traditional faith communities? It goes back to that joke about deceptive farmland, where the topsoil spreads a mile wide and a single inch deep. To delve deeper into something means to limit the scope of one’s field of inquiry. To choose a sacred text, to ponder a particular tradition. Repetition gets a lot of derision, but over time, it also instills a sense of peace. If one is going to hear the same words again, sing the same songs, craft the same decorations year after year, eventually layers of learning will accumulate. Just as my wife’s favorite flower bed has gotten deeper and deeper with three decades of decaying roots and leaves, so one’s religious confidence grows by knowing both what one knows and what one does not need to know.

UUism at its worst neglects that second aspect of religious faith: the right to not know certain things. Over the years, as former UUs have spread out into the mainstream religious environment, we have dropped seeds of openness, tolerance, receptivity into settled faith traditions. But in those places, that openness has limits to what it imposes on us. We are not going to be able to be all things, to meet all divinities, to answer every call to prayer. In UUism, one is never quite sure about the way to respect coreligionists whose primary source is different than our own.

So as the UUA yet again turns its face to finding a way to keep members through better institutional structure, I applaud many of their goals. But I caution that in many cases, what a congregation needs is a way to meet the deeper faith needs of its most committed, at times when they feel especially hungry.

One of the nicest guys in major league baseball is retired catcher and newscaster David Ross. “Rossie” to everyone. But he has a saying, which others like to quote:

“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.”

This is a saying that resonates with my reverence for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his adherence to nonviolent action. But how does it work with either Nazism or Universalism? This is no minor issue, but the fundamental challenge to my religion at this time.

Growing up in Cincinnati, I learned early about two great Kentucky natives: Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay. They were the two great nice guys of the 19th century, who struggled to reconcile the safety and expansion of the nation with the hardline evil of slavery. It helps to remember that Kentucky began as an extension of Virginia, and lots of great Ohioans also came from that beautiful but evil-doing commonwealth. In the case of both Clay and Lincoln, it made them nice to the point of moral error.

Clay’s great sin was to negotiate extensions of slavery with 50-50 admission of slave and free states, above and below certain lines of latitude. Lincoln’s sin was to move too quickly and widely with forgiveness for the traitors of the Confederacy. Had Lincoln lived, his benevolence would have suffered withering challenge from the Radical Reconstructionists of his own Republican Party. As many costs as there were to Lincoln’s premature death, the worst was to lose the sharpened arguments and anti-racist organization such an intra-party quandary would have caused. For what it’s worth, in those same years, Cincinnati, the lynchpin of North and South, played a prominent role in spreading Universalism throughout the Great Lakes region. It makes me wonder what we really wanted out of all that generous forgiveness.

This brings me back to the distinction among gang members laid out by the Boston Police in those bloody nineteen-nineties, and expanding it a bit to open a path for dialogue among potential people of good will on both sides of the current political aisles. In the current nationwide situation, I have to expand that distinction a little. Here I call out the local leaders of evil — and of good — as fundamental lynchpins to the spread of any political philosophy or platform nationwide.

Currently, leftwing activists have begun disrupting the private times and spaces of national leaders who foment racism and promote false narratives in its support. These are exactly the right moves to let these criminals experience life without their White Privilege bubble. I only wish we had more of this being done to leaders of corporate robbery in various localities and industries. I would also like to see it spread to local leaders of evil, which at once is more effective, and therefore, more personally dangerous. As to God’s forgiveness of them, that is something I’ll leave for God.

National hate-mongers rely on two types of followers. For sheer numbers, they need genuine victims, misguided by virtue of childhood teachings and narrow social outlets. These are the people among whom I believe left and right can build common cause.

The other day I posted a suggestion on Facebook, calling on progressives to show up at Republican rallies with signs saying, “You don’t like me, and I don’t like you, but can’t we all agree to like Social Security?” It is my genuine belief that many of these folks have no idea that their own family budgets are being gutted by the very folks their false prophets have talked them into sending to Congress.

And what about these “false prophets”? Here is where nationwide, top-down (unitary) organizational models on the left cannot succeed. False prophets are the local enablers of the national hate-mongers. Local hate-mongers and wage-stealers rely on rhetoric that plays off childhood messages about who a follower can rely on. But local evil-doers have the face-to-face contact that allows them to offer personal affirmation to folks feeling lost, rejected, or insulted by ways they feel society is hurting them.

The left’s current insistence on total conversion by political allies plays right into the power of these false prophets. As much as I try to cleanse myself of old racist and corporatist trainings, I know that in my lifetime it will never happen. If people have to achieve these impossible puritan standards before left and right work together on definable issues and goals, we might as well get out our yellow stars and pink triangles right this minute and start walking toward the cattle cars.

Every week, innocent African Americans, queer folk, and immigrants suffer hands-on harassment all over this once-great nation. To eradicate these practices will require sustained local oversight, publicity, and repercussions. Law enforcement knows that the most effective form of punishment is not necessarily the toughest, but the least random. What frustrates me about the “Say Her Name” movement and its equivalents is the way it hopscotches all over everywhere based on viral social media postings. The left needs to reorganize around that principle. We need to stay constantly in the face of local leaders, preventing them from functioning as enablers to national (and international) human rights violators. Only by this means will we break each local link between large-scale evildoers and their mass followers.

But it is also only by this means that we will start to forge effective alliances with local folk who could, on many issues, become pragmatic allies. There is now, for instance, a rising movement against clergy sexual harassment among evangelical church women. If traditional feminists insist on these women changing their stances on abortion rights or marital idealism (gulp! I’m in a gay marriage!) we will not be able to roll back statutes of limitations or persuade victims that hospital rape kits can be neutral tools for safety. We cannot assure them that in cases of same-sex harassment, we have no agenda other than health and justice for their victimized loved one. Yes, freedom to choose and right to marry are fundamental to safety for us all, but only by getting together on initial tiny bits of common ground will wider circles start to see them function in our lives.

Bracketing. It’s not only the key to successful foreign policy negotiations, it’s a vital tool in pastoral care for people who have done wrong. (I didn’t make that up, it was taught to me in divinity school.) Set aside issues of justice until the person can start to feel strong. Then gradually, and with sensitivity to pain, start introducing questions that probe the individual’s potential to understand and correct the error of their ways. With sustained support, most folks can tap and unleash a better being inside.

I realize this is written from the safest little haven of gay white privilege in our nation, good old Burlington, VT. I realize this can be seen as rejecting Dr. King’s assertion that “we have waited too long.” But widening the circle of justice requires a complex community of actions and activists. I am a reconciliationist by nature and there are ways for me to put this in the service of long-term peace and justice. Others are fed up and will keep on the necessary pressures.

And yes, I am very tempted to perform acts of “Justice Incivility” among miscreants even up here, because yes, we have them. My reconciliationist tendencies extend only to those who genuinely seek new paths, new common ground, and are willing to turn their backs on evil. For true evil-mongers and their local allies, I, like others, hold out no handshake. When people hear me talk about God’s forgiveness and ask how I can say that it encompasses people I fear and loathe, my answer is always that, “This is the difference between God and me.”

Limits to Civility

Two posts in one day! But in these times it is necessary to clarify the boundary line of one’s tolerance for people with inhumane views. This lesson comes from my experience 1994-1996, as the UU parish minister in the midst of Dorchester,┬áMA’s worst crime wave in ages. It was one of the worst in the nation, and it involved young people killing each other in gang wars.

The Boston Police responded with a community policing program which still gets mentioned as a high spot in policing history. Its foundation, I firmly believe, was the cops were required to live in the city’s narrow boundaries. No driving in from quiet suburbs for them. Shootings were on their streets, fights were on the playgrounds their children had to use also. Yes, that was a help.

Also, they. were good people. Mostly, anyway, often enough to make a difference in many cases. They also valued observations and analysis made by human beings, not computers.

Here’s what they came up with.

Gangs were found to consist of two layers. At the heart, and in the vanguard, stood people of genuine ill will. These leaders, selling drugs, wielding guns, hanging shoes, wearing bandanas, had no interest in community improvement alternatives or calls for civility. For them, arrest and jail was the answer. Cops drove around with warrants for these people at easy access.

The other layer consisted of folks who felt they had no alternatives for advancement in society, other than up the gang ladder. For these folks, the police urged practical educational support, jobs and job support, sports teams (remember midnight basketball?), and family support through community centers and adequate food and housing for those these young people were trying to support.

The current civility debate seems focused on the former group, fomenters not just of hate, but of cruelty and incapacity for those of whom they wish to make unwitting accomplices. I support this aspect of incivility. It is the other layer my previous post reaches out to.

Sides and Circles

Hello, again.

In the current climate of both religion and politics, I cannot refrain from reaffirming my loyalty to historic Universalism, as opposed to historic Unitarianism. Looking back to the late 18th and 19th century, these are the elements that clarify my call.

Pre- and post-Civil War America were very similar to the era in which we live now. Generations of European Americans had worked the stolen land and settled into a non-immigrant, non-capitalist lifestyle. In other words, high ambition no longer fired their souls. Instead they wanted quiet, stability, safety, and security, for themselves and their descendants. They were local folk, artisans and farmers, whose highest passion often resided in their local Bible-based faith. When it came to keeping local order, most of them relied more on a fear of hell than a confidence in law.

Sound familiar?

Unitarians of the same years were forming the earliest industrial class, and educated management, such as they could devise, was big with them. In greater Boston, they owned textile mills and relied on the daughters of these settlers for cheap, well-behaved, unambitious labor. Others were pure capitalists (author’s note: this part references my own forebears) whose business relied either directly or indirectly on the kidnapping, selling, and bonding of Africans, or the slaughter of ocean-going mammals. In any case, they wanted to get ahead, stay ahead, and position their offspring ahead. Education was a major weapon in both their definition of character and their toolbox for oppression. This led them to dismiss what we would now call the working class and small farmers as “uneducated.” What began as denigrating slurs in the 19th century (with the occasional anti-immigrant violence) had by the 20th century become a lethal combination of eugenic science and anti-evangelical liberal Christianity.

Universalists approached the challenge of settler comfort completely differently. Overwhelmingly, Universalists bubbled up within this very milieu, and what motivated them was concern for the peace of mind of their family and friends. Far from disrespecting the Bible’s call for strong Christian faith (Unitarians preferred Biblical passages extolling the doing of good works), Universalists found in faith their own key to calm and character. In Boston, at least, Unitarians would have no more to do with Universalists than with any other evangelicals.

But Universalists did not show their conversion by turning away from traditional evangelicals. When you find something this wonderful, you want to share it with those you love the most. Those with whom you identify. So Universalists declined to denigrate evangelical preachers, for either their intelligence or their faith. Instead, Universalists would ride from town to town asking evangelicals to name their most distinguished preacher. Offering no insult to this cleric or his (always) followers, nor ridicule of the foundations of their religion, the Universalists would invite this person to share a public platform for public debate on whether the Bible did or did not call for eternal damnation for sinners.

In most cases, having achieved at least a few conversions, the Universalist would eventually set up a riding circuit, supporting adherents with worship and pastoral presence to sustain them in an often-hostile home turf. As early as 1837, Unitarians were smart enough to realize that in areas such as these, liberal religion would fare better through an alliance with local Universalists than attempting to plant a socially elitist brand of religion. From alliances such as these (called “fishing agreements”) arose a distinction between historically Unitarian and historic Universalist congregations.

The assumptions behind these debates and their congregations are the ones to which I now feel called to shape this blog. My family has plenty of dirt under recent nails, and grease on recent hands. I work these days in the most traditional woman’s role, which is caring for a disabled family member full time. I’m on the left of the political spectrum, but identify with many well-meaning Trump voters.

Yes, I believe there are such people.

Yes, I believe their stories, their circumstances, their ideas have merit in many cases.

Yes, I believe that the only successful change issues will be specific, limited, consistent, and self-interested in ways we all share in public areas.

I do not believe all Trump voters are good people, but many of them are. So like those old-time Universalist preachers, I will ride these electronic waves wherever they reach, to see if I can help us find some common ground on which to rebuild our nation.