Today I did something I haven’t done for a year or more — I read the UU (Unitarian Universalist) World soon after it landed in our mailbox. I did not read it out of duty or professional commitment; for the first time in months, it beckoned my heart. Strange confession from someone officially categorized as a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, but an honest marker that perhaps my life has completed this latest circle at last.

Just over two years ago, as the sun marked its longest day in the northern hemisphere, I sat in front of an invited congregation and altered the very polity of my life. In short, I got married. Till that moment, polity changes were something I suggested, cajoled, imposed on others from an autonomous and somewhat superior detached position. From that moment on, polity changes rewrote my life so radically that for most of the time I wondered who I would be when the ride was over. for in taking the spouse my heart chose, I surrendered my life not only to her, but also to whatever her Huntington’s Disease would cast upon us together.

Marriage has been a wonderful polity advancement, except for this disease. She galloped up the aisle already in the grip of Stage Four, but with disciplined athleticism has pounded into every achievement physical therapy can offer. She doesn’t speak much these days, and not clearly when she does, but her mind and guts ring as strong as ever. Yesterday she reminded me that I had promised to take her to see the latest Star Trek movie in a theater. We spend lots of our time consuming news stories and listening to author talks and history lectures on C-Span, which ramps up my long ago international studies pursuits.

Pouring myself into her care, in order to continue enjoying her companionship, redirected the polity of my life into the community of people struggling with this and similar movement disorders/neurodegenerative diseases. For a long time, this diversion scared me. Could I retain my ties to UUism — especially without the means to attend Sunday worship (which I deeply, passionately miss)? If I spent so little time discussing UUism, imbibing its culture and habits, would it fall away from disuse?

Much to my amazement, UUism retained its ties to me. The Care Network checks on us regularly, and can be relied upon to keep her cheery and valued on the few occasions I tear myself away. Our contact visitor even came over and weeded one of our gardens one hot summer day, asking nothing in return! Meanwhile, a project I worked on years ago has become relevant again, and a small self-appointed subcommittee of the Women’s Alliance (my chosen small group ministry) has rallied to keep me either motivated or urged, while still respecting the challenges of the disease.

What completed that circle has been the addition of a marvelously self-reliant and highly-trained caregiver. My wife plans to stay at home for her entire journey with the disease, but having 34 hours a week of support and even replacement lets me get out of the same house. Mostly I just go into a separate part of it and read catalogs, watch Netflix documentaries and BBC murder mysteries. These I choose for their filming locations, and call them “scenery stories.” It turns out that lots of people do this, because you can go online and find out exactly where these places are, should you choose to visit. What I like is being able to visit them by going into another room, bringing my wife along, as it were, without leaving home.

But in this, our third year of marriage, when August brought its turn toward autumn and the back-to-school sales splashed over the screens, something familiar connected inside my circuits. Our Huntington’s Disease Support Association Walk takes place October 1, which means I have work to do in my new community. But there’s a Women’s Alliance meeting the first Wednesday of September, and this year, that feels like another place my new/old self belongs.

 

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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.)

The Right Wing Vision: Eugenics Disguised as Demographic Collapse

Please excuse that my posts are shorter and less developed than they used to be. But if you’re as busy and as jumpy as I am, perhaps you like this better.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of The War on Poverty, and commentators are commenting. When I listen to the Radical Right policy programs — opposition to health insurance, opposition to unemployment insurance, opposition to infrastructure spending (including things like roads and bridges), opposition to public health regulatory frameworks, the only thing I can figure is that they are hoping for a demographic collapse. That’s right, they — by which I mean the professional politicians, not their confused, frightened, outraged victims in The Tea Party — seem intent on driving most of the voters out of their districts and states. It’s no longer fashionable — or legal — to condemn the reproductive enthusiasms of the poor, so the next best thing is to wear out the parents and starve out the children. Perhaps the poor will be so committed to demographic collapse that they’ll move out of the Red State or district to one which offers them medical options for limiting the number of their offspring.

But when I googled “demographic collapse,” what I discovered is that The Tea Party believe that the demographic collapse strategy has already been launched, and it has them in its crosshairs. And why? Because depopulation has so far been most effective in rural areas, whence jobs, hospitals, schools, corner stores, have been disappearing. So yes, there is a demographic collapse strategy underway, sweeping against poor folks of every race, political persuasion, language, ethnic heritage. 

And by “poor”, please note that I assert that the relevant level of wealth is not how much you have now, but how much you had as a child, how much you have now, and what you believe you will be able to make available to your offspring. Wealth is not a single number, it’s a generational process involving social, political, and economic capital. And if your parents had more than you have, and your kids have no hope of inheriting any from you, you consider yourself “the new poor.” If you’re in this new poor, you have good company. The natives of most Western European countries are also busy limiting the number of their offspring. The countries once made socially rich by the Enlightenment definition of humanity no longer give humanity a reason to reproduce. (And yes, I realize — and would be the first to point out — that much of this was achieved through hereditary unpaid hostage labor and decimation of original landholders; it was a definition that needed a lot of improvement.)

The very rich who have bought the services of these politicians seem to believe they have created a world in which most of their neighbors, employees, servants, and neighbors are superfluous to both their happiness and their assets. Counterproductive, even. Yet there have been demographic collapses before — most notably after either pandemics or natural disasters — and eventually the very rich, too, become its victims. “Supply-side economics” — the discredited assertion that wealth comes from having abundant resources and the inclination to transform them into something useful for someone else — has solid roots in Jewish scripture — and probably any other. When Moses took the Israelites on their unguided tour of the wilderness, God sustained their natural lifespans with unsolicited, uncultivated, untended gifts of manna, honey, and water. Jesus and Buddha both enjoyed similar unbidden generosities, which they turned into gifts for humanity. So I do not dismiss “supply-side economics” as clear idiocy: it’s something we all want to believe, not just of what God can do for us, but of what we could do, if God would only give us a little more.

And that’s where the calculation flips. Because when God gives us a little more, it only expands the economy when we share it with others, shop with it, invest it in someone else’s paycheck. If we build a factory out of robots — the current fantasy of the very rich — it’s just a toy, because whatever that factory produces has no market. Demand is what makes things happen, not supply. There is no better proof than in studying the ministry of Jesus. You may or may not believe he performed any miracles, but he sure as heck did it in response to requests, rather than as a circus act or political message. Buddha made demands on himself, but most thoroughly energized his productive capacity to answer the suffering of others.

There is a debate going on tonight about unemployment insurance, health insurance, infrastructure repair, all kinds of jobs and assets that the rich no longer wish to provide to the poor. It’s been tried before, and for the rich, it didn’t go that well. The Black Death deprived Europe’s nobility of armies to keep their serfs on the land, which allowed the serfs to develop new skills and form new cities, and by networking among themselves, build up assets in social, economic, and political currencies. And when this happened, the old aristocracy were not the beneficiaries of new riches.

But neither were the families lost in the demographic collapse.

Why Can’t My Mind Seize This Opportunity?

Here in Burlington, Vermont, it is cold, damn cold. It has been so for a couple of days and and gonna be so for quite some time. I have carefully looked ahead in the weather forecast to see when we’ll cross back up towards twenty (Fahrenheit) so I can get more groceries. That is thirty degrees and several days away — not counting wind chill.

Why should a caregiver care? Most days, I don’t go anywhere anyway; staying home with my sweetie and her disease keeps me busy and happy. But too often, since her greatest ambition revolves around listening to news shows (ranging from C-Span to MSNBC), my butt gravitates to my chair, so close to the sparkle of those blue eyes peaking out from under her fleece cover.

I’ve made a list of things to do, and most of them are really important. It feels like something inside is shifting in their direction. But mostly, I’m just playing on the computer, while MSNBC plays in the background. There’s some pride in having taken out the recycling this morning (most people didn’t) and brought in the bins this afternoon (apparently unique, even for those who got them out in the first place), but that’s a pathetic level of accomplishment.

Do other caregivers have this problem? I wish I knew…

Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free. 

Good News, Bad News

It should have been a moment of joy, not of calculation. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and however much I do for her, she does as much or more for me.

So OF COURSE when she asked me to marry her the other night, I said yes.

That’s the good news: Lynne and I are engaged. Despite her Huntington’s Disease (she is about to enter her twelfth year of living with it since diagnosis) and our being both women, marriage is a real option in her mind.

But maybe, for me, not so much.

Not that I hesitate in making her my life partner, calling her “wife” to my “wife,” “spouse” to my “spouse.” For years now, I’ve been fantasizing more about what she would wear to our wedding than what I would wear. Would she put aside her deep aversion to jewelry and wear a ring that tells the world she’s mine? It’s almost as if I quit wearing any of my own rings until the day she puts one on my hand.

But, alas, financially, I can only do a non-legal blessing ceremony. Not because we’re both women, but because at low incomes, marriage gets heavily penalized.

I don’t often encourage UUs to study information from Sam Brownback, the socially conservative governor of Kansas, but he’s got my back on this one.  That was in 2008; the update on Obamacare is just as bleak. Small wonder that David Blankenhorn, long a pro-family activist, has abandoned the fight against marriage for same-sex couples like Lynne and me and begun asking how to support any couple, straight or gay, who wants to be married and poor.

Even the laughably left-wing state of Vermont, which is perfectly happy to let us get married with full equal rights, would then turn around and cut off the pay I get for staying home to take care of Lynne. What started out as equal rights has suddenly made me aware there are equal penalties.

These same penalties apply in Social Security and numerous other low-income supports. The Earned Income Tax Credit, the single largest redistributor of income into working poor households, is one of the worst offenders. If you thought America had long since accepted life without The Donna Reed Show, you haven’t been paying attention to these injustices, not based on gender, but on class.

So yes, do congratulate us, and celebrate our good fortune in so many ways. But if you really want to do something useful, to make this about more than just two women in a struggling once-middle-class household, put these injustices up next to your concerns about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and devote yourself to any couple, straight or gay, who wants to get married — and simply can’t afford to.

God Considers the Taxation Debate

Over the last few months, years, decades… indeed, it would appear from this literary selection, millennia … questions have been raised about the relative financial obligations of rich and poor.

Here is one of my favorite passages from the Bible.

It lacks ambiguity, which is probably why no one is quoting it during a close electoral contest.

Nathan Rebukes David (Second Book of samuel)

12 The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for[a] the Lord, the son born to you will die.”

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One difficulty in using this passage is that the form of property David is criticized for stealing is a wife. A woman. That is why the prophet Nathan recasts the ethical dilemma away from the complex realm of marriage.

Another difficulty is that David is not being punished for adultery. In fact, 1st Chronicles 3 lists multiple sons by six different wives without blinking.

 The Sons of David

3 These were the sons of David born to him in Hebron:

The firstborn was Amnon the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel;

the second, Daniel the son of Abigail of Carmel;

the third, Absalom the son of Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur;

the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith;

the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital;

and the sixth, Ithream, by his wife Eglah.

These six were born to David in Hebron, where he reigned seven years and six months.

David reigned in Jerusalem thirty-three years, and these were the children born to him there:

Shammua,[a] Shobab, Nathan and Solomon. These four were by Bathsheba[b] daughter of Ammiel. There were also Ibhar, Elishua,[c] Eliphelet, Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada and Eliphelet—nine in all. All these were the sons of David, besides his sons by his concubines. And Tamar was their sister.

So you’re not gonna see the Left quoting this — lest we be accused of being soft on marital fidelity — and you’re certainly not gonna see the Right quoting it — since it’s soft on marital fidelity and hard on greed.

And that is why the clergy need to keep a certain distance from electoral loyalties and consequences: our job is to remember the prophets (those who have heard the voice of G-d) and as they did, speak sacred truth to worldly power.