Archive for January, 2011


Steinke Stuff and Cold Feet…

I’m not sure what to say.  I’ll be leading a discussion (more like a feedback session) at All Souls Church this afternoon called for as part of the Action Plan in the Bridgebuilder Process.  I’m feeling a bit ambivalent.  Of course, I’ll do what I can, but I’m not sure that things are as clearly stated as they might be.  Also, I wonder, will these meetings help to clarify the mess?  As I see it, we have a real problem with 1) accepting that there is a problem — some of those who were the most vocal in attacking Lee Devoe seem to feel (or at least so they say) that she was the problem, which I think is a lot of hogwash.  She may have been less politic than the situation called for, but no one coming in for a couple of years can substantially change a group, unless the group wants the change.  They also seem to blame the UUA and Prairie Star District for our problems — they are not as sympathetic to humanism as seems to be called for.  To me, it seems that such people should simply state that they want a church that is humanist based, and that any spirituality is not welcome, nor are those who espouse such a position welcome.  That would be honest and closer to the truth.  What I don’t get, though, is why they are so defensive.  In my experience (and I’ve been defensive plenty of times, and witnessed it in others), defensiveness comes in to play when people are afraid, and are unsure.  Rather like when an angry dog starts snarling at you — you’re going to go into defensive mode and fight or flee.  There may be a way to settle such a dog down, but you don’t think of that, as your defensive side has taken hold.  You get that way because of fear.  But what have humanists to fear?  Are they afraid that humanism will die?  Why would that be so?  Surely a good idea (even if it is one that one cannot accept personally) will not suffer from someone else’s POV.  There is no danger of humanism dying at All Souls, even if a majority of the congregants were of a theistic mind.  The views of a theist cannot demolish those of an humanist, so why be afraid?  I just don’t get it.  It reminds me of orthodoxy battles in RC when I was a member — push too hard with questions or concerns, and the other side reaches the point when it can no longer creatively answer, so you get some variant of “Because I said so.”  Of course, the person who is questioning a belief should do so (at least in a Unitarian church) from a desire to learn or clarify, or to help the other person clarify his/her beliefs.  It should not seem like an inquisition — that’ll call for “shields up.”  But I cannot recall any theist attacking humanism at the church.  I can recall some pointing out that they felt left out because of the sense of a “humanist only” club at the church.  But that’s not attacking humanism, only the exclusivity and presumption of dogma, isn’t it?  Isn’t that what Unitarians are supposed to be good at?  So why are some so defensive?  Fear’s the only thing I can think of.  How do you answer fear?  The only way is with love, but it’s tough feeling love, and demonstrating it meaningfully when it seems you’re under attack.  How to get past those defenses, so that there can be a real discussion, engaged in with love and not suspicion?  And, rather like the Argument Skit in Monty Python — “we’ve got a problem.”  “No, we don’t.” “Yes, we have.” “Nope.” and so on — I’m not sure I see a way past this.  How can one translate the cost of intransigence in a way that the intransigent don’t see it as an attack?  Such dogmatism is hurting the church (I would maintain) and yet, those who are dogmatic don’t see their dogmatism as a problem and see any other approach as an attack.  Tough to get past that.  Well, it’ll take a lot more thinking and wondering…


“Things Commonly Believed Among Us” Revisited…

For me, one of the most touching documents in the Unitarian movement (now the UU movement) is William Channing Gannett’s “Things Commonly Believed Among Us”  [follow the link: to see the document itself] — a position statement proposed at the 1887 conference of the Western Unitarian Conference.  Before the greater consolidation of the Unitarian Church, and the merger and consolidation of the movement, the Western Unitarian Conference, HQ in Chicago, was focused on spreading the “gospel” of Unitarianism to the West (which was everything from Western PA westward — the Meadville Theological Seminary, originally in Meadville, PA, was originally the seminary for Unitarianism in the West).  Removed from Boston by a great distance, Unitarianism in the West had to make its own way.  Where the Unitarian movement on the East Coast was seen as radical by Christian dominations, it retained a certain cohesiveness, and even orthodoxy — consider the treatment that Theodore Parker and Emerson got when they began to push the envelope.  As I understand it (and I am certainly no expert), Unitarianism in the West was a much more free-wheeling enterprise.  Unable to depend on the organizational support of the HQ in Boston, it was also freed from the restrictions on thought and religious expression there.  At the time of Gannett’s statement, Unitarianism in the West was still in the Judaeo-Christian fold, but there was great diversity of belief.  And Gannett and those who helped in the crafting of this document were quite insistent that this may be what is “most commonly believed,” but not universally believed, nor mandated. 

Of course, in the early 20th c., it was in the West that the new gospel of humanism really developed — John Dietrich at the Unitarian Church in Spokane, and later at 1st Unitarian in Minneapolis and other like-minded invididuals following their own paths to the truths they saw joined Dietrich in crafting the Humanist Manifesto in the 1930s.  Members of All Souls know quite a bit about that document and its history, and the part that our own Ray Bragg played in it.  Some, I imagine, see this as the triumph of humanism — that all of the forces of superstition and false belief have been definitively answered once and for all. 

I don’t see it that way.  I see Gannett’s statement, and the Humanist Manifesto, as triumphs, not because either “won.”  Winning implies a losing side.  Rather I see both as reflecting the triumph of Unitarianism (Universalism too), as a non-credal movement.  I have a friend who is a philosophy professor at St.Thomas University in St. Paul, MN — he is a conservative Catholic.  In the first talk we had after I had declared myself a UU, I remember he expressed a certain skepticism about how a non-credal church could work.  I recall that he spoke of how difficult it was even when there was a clear creed to which one could assent, but felt that without that compass, how tough it would be to direct one’s life — too amorphous, and not clear enough.

For me, our not having a creed, and refusing to adopt a creed, is our greatest strength.  The position of the Unitarian movement consciously to be non-credal frees up the human heart to search for its truth without blinders (well, without institutional blinders).  Having to build our own theology, each of us must wrestle with these big questions.  We must write our own poem, sing our own song, do our own dance.  That can be a frightening prospect, but I think it offers tremendous rewards. 

What are the effects of this?  1) We each become responsible for our own truths — for discovering them, for testing them, and for speaking them.  2) We get to see a tremendous variety of religious expression, each of which has tremendous beauty and power.  I do not believe that exposure to other traditions hurts our development, but furthers it.  3) If one lives in an area where there are not multiple UU churches, where one can shop and find a comfortable fit, one can (and at the risk of sounding dogmatic — should) be open and welcoming to all seekers who come.  We have the chance to live the life of the Good Samaritan — looking beyond labels and seeing other souls — like us, and different.  4) Such openness can, and sometimes does, terrify us.  What happens to us, if we don’t keep our guard up against them?  I don’t know how to answer such fear, other than with a hope that we don’t let fear define us.  Worse still, perhaps, in giving in to such fear, we may find ourselves committing the same mistake (offense) our former religious homes may have committed.  Many of us left traditions that didn’t recognize our dreams and yearnings, couldn’t see our truest selves,  made it clear their path could not be ours.  Let us not be(come) such a tradition.  5) The truth of humanism, or Christianity, or Islam, or paganism, is not diminished or erased by other traditions unless we participate in that erasure ourselves.  6) Improvisation and openness are key — in improvisational practice, beginners often make the mistake of getting a direction in their mind, and then trying to force their way on the scene.  So, a person will begin a scene by turning to fellow performer and saying “Hello, Uncle Fred.”  Beginners often will freeze at this moment, and respond by saying something like “I’m not Uncle Fred, I’m Rutherford B. Hayes.” In so doing, they close the first performer’s avenue down and redirect.  They haven’t learned to listen to their fellows, nor how to trust them, and play with them.  Let us be open and trust others in the path they follow — let us assist as we can, and try not to shut down what may be fruitful paths for some, because such paths didn’t work for us.  7) Let it be a dance — dance is largely a communal (certainly a reciprocal) activity.  Great dancers have developed their own selves;  they work with and not against their partners;  they have great and generous hearts. 

Who are we, at All Souls Church?  We are great-hearted if we will;  we are thoughtful and imaginative if we stop and think;  we are a loving community if we dare.  I think, though, we cannot be All Souls if we build barriers instead of bridges.  Gannett, in composing “Things Commonly Believed Among Us,” was trying to define Unitarianism in a way that kept the door open to the new, to define something without boxing “us” in and “them” out, to define something that calls us to constantly revisit our world and reassess our assumptions and preconceptions, to define something that is ineffable.  That is what poetry tries to do.  Let us all be poets.


He is Peter, and upon this rock…

Well, this Sunday, Peter Steinke, Lutheran minister and troubleshooter for troubled congregations will return to All Souls to present his findings from all the material we sent him last month.  Part of our job in January and February will be to process Rev. Steinke’s observations and develop an action plan for further development.  This processing will be done, in part, at least through a series of discussions or fora.  And I’ll be one of the conveners.  So, from what I gleaned from reading two of Mr. Steinke’s books — what is my # 1 memory (I’ll be reviewing one of the books again before Sunday) of the books — from Healthy Congregations I recall his story about how monkeys are caught in some cultures.  A bowl of rice is put within sight of the monkey.  He can only reach for the rice by sticking his hand through a coconut shell that has been halved, a hole bored in the half.  When he grabs the rice, his fist around the rice, he cannot get his hand back through the shell and escape.  But the hungry monkey cannot think of letting the rice go, even though he cannot get it.  Stuck in this position, he gets caught.  For Steinke, this is a key element in whether a congregation will progress through a crisis, or get stuck in it — can people let go of their presuppositions, or not?  Do we define ourselves into a box, either to protect ourselves or are we open to dialog and change.  I suppose that will be the key for All Souls too. 

So, as I look forward, with a certain amount of anxiety myself, let me go through the contents of my bag of tricks (and the stuff in my bag that’ll trip me up):

One generic bandaid — my gift from the goddess some 18 years ago.  During a visioning exercise, we were asked to imagine that the goddess met us in her temple and gave us a gift.  Others at the CUUPS convocation in Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts shouted out their gift — they got crystals, or gold, or beams of light (cool stuff).  I didn’t shout out  “generic band-aid” (or more appropriately generic adhesive strip — as Band-aid (R) is a brand name) — when I first envisioned the handing over of the adhesive strip, I thought immediately of Charlie Brown’s “I got a rock” mantra in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  I accepted the gift, but felt a bit sheepish about admitting it to this group who were getting all sorts of cool stuff (shiny stuff at any rate).  I also wondered if they would think that I was making it up, and making fun of them.  But that gift has stayed with me.  It may be generic, but I figure — it’s from the goddess so it’s gotta be everlasting. So, in case things get a bit heated and someone gets a bit scuffed or bruised, I got the band-aid.  It is generic, so it may have limits, but I am not without resources.

And then I have my guardian angels — Bouncing Boy and the Dancer with Bruised Knees.  Bouncing Boy, from the 30th c. Legion of Superheroes, has the rather dubious power of being able to inflate himself to the size of a large ball and bounce around.  In his bouncing form, he is pretty impervious to pain (rather like a ball) and is very resilient.  He also has a big heart, which lends him a different kind of resilience.  Besides, because he has such a dorky power, it keeps him humble — he never thinks he can take on trouble, until he has to, and then does.  The “Dancer with Bruised Knees” was an album by the McGarrigle Sisters.  Kate McGarrigle, married to Loudon Wainwright III, had a rocky relation with her husband, and was both hopelessly romantic and skeptical of romance.  My guess is that album title and the image of the woman hobbling along on the cover was probably intended to mean that all you get from relationships is pain — your partner, who should have caught you, left you in the lurch and you come crashing down.  I always thought it a helpful image — something akin to “And Still I Rise” — though life sends you setbacks, you can, even if bruised, get up and get on with  your life.  It may be a bit more world weary, but is still resilient.   Those (and a sense of humor) are the gifts I bring to the table as convener/facilitator. 

On my own downside, there are things I’ll need to be on the lookout for — so my spider sense or meerkat attentiveness will need to be working hard.  I know there are all sorts of buttons on me (I think of myself emotionally like an old adding machine — with all those buttons to push) and I’ll have to do my best and not take things personally.  In being witness to the process, I’ll need to keep faith with community and stay vigilant that I not get distracted or thrown from the path.  This may be beyond my abilities — but, as someone who said yes, I must do my best to help the process along.  Well, the ride is about to begin — better buckle up and get ready for adventure.


And on to 2011

Here is my New Year’s note to my sweetie — posted with her permission.

                                                                        1 January 2011

Dear Sweetie-pie,

I’m still here!  In a way, I feel somewhat like Bill Murray’s character at the end of Groundhog Day.  You, more than anyone else, knows the power of 1-1-11 for me – something like the worries about the Millenial crash in 2000 – which didn’t happen.  Well before I came to Kansas City, I fully expected not to make it past 2010 – I think that thought goes back to the 80s when the movie 2010 came out – damn you, Roy Scheider.  There were no facts supporting this belief, just a premonition that that was my year to go.  After we were married and I mentioned it a few times, and I saw how much that upset you, I didn’t mention it again, and when 2010 hit, a little at first, then stronger as the year went on, I was sure that I would make it through the year, that my time had not run out.  I didn’t mention that to you either, as I thought it best to let the matter lie. 

As a matter of synchronicity, I’d been reading a piece on the choreographer, Bill Jones by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man – at the time Gates met and wrote about Jones (around 1996 or so), Jones, HIV positive since the 1980s, who had lost the co-founder of his company to the disease in the 80s, was producing his latest series of dances called Still/Here.  These dances were developed from accounts of people who learned that they had some fatal condition, a situation Jones could identify with.

Over the past few days, I have been very much aware of the physical absence of Marcel – a part of me goes to let Alice out of her place, and I wait a minute or so before I look in, and don’t see Marcel.  Or I go to fill the dog dishes with food, as I do most mornings, and I come to the spot where Marcel’s dish used to be and seem puzzled by its absence.  That absence makes me very sad, and I’m sure it makes you even sadder – I find myself wishing he were still here.  Of course, we don’t get to live forever, and pets have much shorter life spans.  Friends move, or relationships fall apart, time and again in our lives.  The pain we feel on all such leavings is sometimes more than we think we can bear, but we do.  In part, I think we survive such trauma because the miracle of our loved ones’ presence never fully leaves.  We know that feeling in our bodies and in our minds and in our hearts, and some sense will bring back our loved one if only in story.  There is a bittersweet quality in such reunions, but I choose to notice the sweet and not just the bitter.  And the lessons the dearly departed have taught us we continue to learn.

With Marcel’s departure, I’ve been thinking a lot about hugs – it seems hugs are an ongoing lesson you try to teach me.  Of course, hugs bring to mind, for me, at any rate, one of my guilty pleasures – the chorus of “I’m Leaving (on a Jet Plane)” by John Denver (mercifully I never heard Mr. Denver sing the tune) – the chorus is all about putting a brave face on a departure, and one which has an uncertain reunion, and the words “Hold me like you’ll never let me go” always bring a tear to my eye.  In part, some of that tearing up may be a recognition that I don’t do goodbyes well – when I’ve hugged you, Catie and others at leave-taking times, I’ve often treated it like some stiff-upper-lip British guy, or buddies in an American WWII film – the quick clasp, the slapping on the back, and the heroic disengagement and departure (spine fully erect).  I know that you’ve not cared for those “buck up, old chum” sort of hugs, and sometimes pulled me back for “a real hug.”  When Marcel gave you such a hug at the vets years ago, you knew he was not a temporary guest at our house, but now a part of the family.  And, I’m grateful that you got a chance to give him a big hug when he did have to leave.  In the physical plane, you gotta go when the body gives out – but you held him, like you’d never let him go.  That gave him some great comfort in his last hours, and, in our hearts, we still hold him. 

At the airport, when I took leave of Catie, I took care to be very attentive to my hug – there was no “buck up, old chum,” but a hug that lasted as long as it should. I did try to keep the tears from welling up (not entirely successfully, but enough). 

So, I think I have learned a little about hugs over the years, and look forward to our next year together.  I may still need reminders of hugs – how long, the degree of squeeze, and so forth.  You, though, are an able teacher.  I am not a totally inept pupil.  And, following the doom year of 2010, I’m still here and so are you.