Archive for February, 2012


How do you say goodbye? — a somewhat long goodbye

I remember the first time I saw All Souls Church. I had come out to Kansas City to be interviewed for a job at King Middle School in the KCMO School District. After a successful interview, with the likelihood that I’d be moving to KC, and with several hours before I was to fly back to Clarion, PA. I decided to visit All Souls and the Nelson-Atkins Museum. There was no one in the church at the time but the custodian– it was early afternoon on a summer’s day, back in the last summer at All Souls where the church closed for the summer  —   the custodian showed me the sanctuary, but, as I recall, looked puzzled by the word sanctuary itself.  With linoleum floors, cinderblock walls, triangular indentations in those cinderblock walls, and folding metal chairs, my first reaction was: high school gym/nuclear shelter. The building looks so much better now, Bragg Auditorium especially, thanks to all the hard work of John Blevins and the building committee more than a dozen years ago;  in any event,  churches are not simply buildings (as Westport Presbyterian well knows) but the people who make that place home. I recall the first service I attended (in Simpson House) in August of that summer. John Weston led the service. I sat next to Ted Otteson. Ted was the first person to welcome me to town and to the church; later that morning, he introduced me to Walt Wells, and through Walt I learned a lot about the church’s history. As the first church to which I acutally pledged (I was a pretty new UU and had only been at May Memorial in Syracuse for a few months before I left [ & before the pledging drive there commenced]; briefly, I  attended the Meadville, PA church , but before I had a chance to sign the book and pledge, I already knew I would be coming to Kansas City).

I did a lot in my first five years at the church, even serving on the Board for a couple of years. All Souls was a bright beacon in my life in those days, serving as a necessary counterweight to a demoralizing time in the Kansas City School District. I cannot go so far as to say that All Souls saved my life, but I think it may have saved my sanity, and perhaps, my soul. People on the Board were a big help, and especially, but not exclusively, Betty Hutson, the people working on the Bragg Papers,  especially, but not exclusively, Walt Wells,  RE director Jo Beck and my Zen master, Lon Swearingen, and several others. In naming these four, I do not mean to leave out others who were a great help at that time, and in all my time at the church. There’ve been many dozens of people whom I could name, but inevitably someone would be left out, not because they were not important to me, but because my memory is very quirky — sometimes I can tell you who Hannibal Hamlin and Schuyler Colfax were, while other days, I have trouble distinguishing between James Buchanan and James K. Polk.

Often, when introducing myself in religious (or faith) settings, I introduce myself as someone who believes in miracles, and who lives for revelation. That was true of me as a Catholic, and it remains true of me as a UU (non-theistic). The key, for me, to believing in miracles is to widen one’s sense of the miraculous (the idea of water walking and raising people from the dead has been too narrow a concept for me) ; I also believe it is important  to try and retain a sense of wonder as we wander through the world. And so in this place on Walnut (formerly on Warwick), the art work in the lobby has often been miraculous and revelatory, as have some Forum offerings. Often I have had aha moments in Conover, when I was skipping service and sipping coffee; quite often, during the service, a word,  a song, or an image of someone (not always the minister) exhibiting grace and gracefulness has simply taken my breath away.

And yet, I am today resigning my membership at All Souls.  In case there is some doubt, I do not leave All Souls feeling bitter or from a sense of bitterness.  Some have left justly feeling they had been badly treated here and that their truths have not been valued or appreciated.  But their story is not my story.  When I delivered the inaugural “Religious Odyssey” so many years ago (I cannot think of that institution without the glorious Jean McCormick coming to mind — and when I think of Jean McCormick, I think — “Had my mom been Unitarian, she would have been a lot like Jean”), I recall Claudine Thomas asking in the Q & A that followed my presentation, “What can we do to keep you here?”  My response involved a pause, a puzzled look, and my saying in something of a stutter, “I’m not going anywhere.” That elicited a laugh.  I was touched by the question though, and by the good wishes of the asker.  From my vantage point now, I think I probably felt, and I now feel that we can’t keep anyone “here” with us.  Life is change, and chance plays so much a part of whom we meet and what happens to us.  Try as we might, wish as we might, even pray as we might, we cannot hold on to those we love.  Death takes so many of our friends and family, and we remain powerless to stop it.  In a less dramatic way, people move away and people change.  Sometimes all we can do is wish our friends well, keep them in our hearts and minds and move on. 

“OK, Bernie, you’re leaving,” you might be thinking,  but why now?  Well, the smart aleck in me might say, why not?  I knew for some time that I’d be leaving — I had wanted to stay through the Steinke study, and into Jennifer’s time as Interim, and through the vote to call the new settled minister (never had that experience, having missed out on the Jim Eller’s candidating week and the vote), and now I’ve done that.  I’m not sure what else I might do to help All Souls in its journey.  Staying at All Souls would divide my own focus and energies, which will not aid me in my own growth, and make me less effective as a member of this community.  As to the particular day, I like to do big things on special days when I can — I first became a Unitarian (at May Memorial) on 12-12 (The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — which involves a miracle with roses in wintertime [which I always think of in singing the chorus of “Come sing a song with me…”]!) and I joined All Souls on 11-2 (All Souls Day in the Catholic Calendar, and a day of great significance to me) — what better day for me to go than on Leap Day, as I once again take a leap of doubt into new experience. 

I’m often terrible at goodbyes; doubtless,  I am tripping up in this goodbye too.  When I watch myself saying goodbye, I  imagine myself  in a train station (some of the best goodbyes in movies are in train stations) or even on the tarmac with Bogie and Bergman.  Goodbyes always make me sad,  this one  too.  A tendency to melancholia is part of my Irish heritage. 

The sadness of goodbyes for me is the same regret I see expressed by Robert Frost at the crossroads;  at some point, you have to make a choice — you cannot travel two paths and be one traveler.  In saying this rather long goodbye, I choose to stand at the crossroads a bit longer and mourn, and give one big goodbye hug before moving on.   But in those movies, and in my own farewells,  there are generally final words following the hug, so here are mine:

I hope that the next chapter in All Souls’ story proves an exciting read — sesquecentennial coming up soon(!), and offers lots of opportunities for growth.  I hope that Rev. Dr. Gibbons proves to be an outstanding companion to All Souls, and a bright light in the community at large.  My biggest hope is that you will all become better listeners to one another.  One of the wisest women I’ve ever known, a storyteller in Syracuse, NY, once told me that she believed that we listen people into existence.  Biologically, of course, this is hooey, but the “we” we are in our hearts and mind, the “we” we present to the world requires an audience.  Each of us must find his/her own path, learn his/her own story, frame his/her own life and give it meaning.  This is our own work and is tough to do, but even tougher without an appreciative audience.  When someone tries to share a piece of him/herself, to reveal a bit of his/her inner core and that confession falls on deaf ears — it can feel like a death, and the more it happens, the quieter our voices become, and our little lights grow a bit dimmer.  I have my own share of failings in this regard — trained by the good Jesuits, I was trained to be a lawyer for Christ — a lot of my classes in high school and college were like big debates, with everyone trying to win the argument; I can still quite often get fired up on behalf of my position (which I’m sure is right), but sometimes the conviction that makes us good advocates, and sometimes the enthusiasm that goes with such advocacy, can drown out another’s voice.  To any who  read this who were dinged because of my clumsiness and the heavy-lifting rhetorical training of my past, I apologize.  I hope that all of us become better listeners, not just out of a sense of altruism, though that’s part of it, but because there is so much beauty in the world it would be a shame if we put up blinders that shut a brother out, or kept us from hearing a sister’s voice, or feeling, even for a moment, another truth.

This is not good-bye in the hail and farewell sense — I’ll still be in town, but for most of the time, we won’t see each other.  I’ll continue to remember lots of things about this place and all you people and I hope you all realize your potential and enlarge the shared dream of All Souls.



Lenten Observance: Day 6

Tao 11 & 12:  Tao 11 is probably the chapter that comes most to mind when someone mentions the Tao — what I like to think of as the empty chapter — it is the hole at the center of a wheel that makes the wheel operational;  it is the inside of a cup that makes it useful;  it is the inside of the house that makes it liveable — that the use and purpose of a thing comes from its emptiness, or its capacity, rather than its form or shape, while we may admire a particularly beautiful cup or house, it is its interior space, the empty space that serves the function, so that a plain wooden cup or clay cup serves just as useful function as a golden chalice — in fact the plainness allows us to get past a fixation on appearance and value, and use it for its intended purpose.  This makes me think of the Westerner who had come to some Zen guru and asked the guru to explain Zen to him, but first the Zen master called for tea.  When the Westerner’s cup was full, the Zen master continued to pour tea that ran over the sides and over the table.  The Westerner protested that the cup was full and that any additional tea was wasted — the cup could hold no more.  And the Zen master pointed out that the Westerner had come to him with his mind full of ideas about religion and truth, and lacked the openness to hear anything the Zen master might say about Zen — in other words, he was like that full cup.  There was no chance for a real meeting of the minds or hearts here. 

Tao12 has the statement about colors blinding the eye, and tastes dulling the tongue.  This has something of the “My brain is full, can I go now,” but the master does not let the surface appearance of things befuddle him but trusts his inner vision.  This, I think, is something not quite so easy to get around.  Of course, Plato with his theory of Ideas, felt that the “true” world was the world behind the surface world of appearances and that an abstract science such as mathematics was a way to train the mind to think in terms of ideas rather than the objects of the “real  world.”  But even our inner eye and inner senses is bounded in some ways by the tools we have used to grow, by language and by ways we have been taught.  I don’t see that those are ever totally absent.  I think we can be aware of that, can attempt to come to some sort of receptive beginner’s mind, and then approach the world with “fresher” eyes, but I also think our egos can be such that a conviction that we do that very thing may be something of an illusion.  It’s probably always going to be a fixation of mine that I distrust absolutes (even the always in this sentence) just I’m drawn to such certainty (I picked Thomas as a confirmation name so that God would look out and help me past my doubts) — part of my sixness.


Lenten Observance: Day 5

“Do your work, then step back.” “Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?” Again, powerful stuff. As a Jesuit educated person, and a Unitarian, I am so much in my head (although being in there, I’m as lost as ever). And the mental image we have of ourselves, of the world, form something of a shield, and something of a prison. And yet, we cannot escape that fully. I think that those who remain humble, who don’t believe the press of their own brain, are often capable of doing great things (if sometimes small). But even the author of the “Tao” must use words to communicate ideas, which are mental constructions. So no getting around it. Humor, I think, sometimes works as a means to puncture the inflated balloon of our egos, and, in that, play an important role in our lives.


Lenten Observance: Day 7

“Tao” 13 and 14. I know — you’re probably saying — what is this Day 7 stuff? First, Sundays are not part of Lent (40 days does not include the Sundays), and this is the 5th posting. Yes on both accounts, but I have a different posting to make on Feb. 29 (Leap Day), so here goes today’s (standing in for Wednesday) posting. “Success is as dangerous as failure. Hope is as hollow as fear.” This is a powerful idea, that staying steady on the course is better than the up/down pattern of victory and failure. There is something of Greek pessimism here — all success is fleeting, there is nothing permanent in human life, so the idea that one has “won” can only lead to a failure later. The idea that hope and fear are connected is very near and dear to me, an Enneagram 6 — recently I read a book called “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” which argued against hope in similar ways. For a Christian, the author argued, there is always the hope of a better afterlife, but if you don’t believe in an afterlife, one must live without “hope.” He argues, as I think the author of the “Tao” argues, that hope is something caught up in focusing on our ego, and that, if we can get past the ego, to be at one with the world, to live fully in the present, we lose hope, but that does not make life hopeless or terrible, but life fully lived. Both hope and fear focus on the future, and do not focus on the present.
“You can’t know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.” This is tough to get around for someone who is so much in my head. If I can’t know it, how can I be it, but I have known times when I wasn’t really thinking but was in the flow of things. That seems to be what the author here is referring to. Be not know nor do. But be. Pretty powerful.


Lenten Observance: Day 4

“Tao” 7 & 8: “The Tao is infinite, eternal.” As the verse says, it is infinite as it has no boundaries. Boundaries are what separate us from other things. It is the nature of language to make distinctions (“this, but not that”) and so to divide the world up. This is an illusion. If we are all connected, and all one, then our sense of distinction is illusory. I once had a philosophy professor for Indian Philosophy, which I didn’t understand much at the time. I remember little from the class beyond his statements that Indian philosophy was based on the idea that all is one, and that separateness is illusion, and that some of the suffering we feel is due to the sense that we are cut off and not connected. His example was unfortunate. The class was taught in a seminar room in the good old days where faculty and students were allowed to smoke in seminar rooms (there were ashtrays on the table). And leaning over, the professor reached out to the ashtray and said that he and the ashtray were one, and that feeling separate was painful. I thought at the time that ashtrays were nasty (still are) and that I was glad I was separate from all ashtrays.  Still, the idea of separateness does make it easier for people to do as they will with the environment, or against other people, as they are different, and “the other” and so it’s o.k.  Rick Santorum recently suggested that the whole environmental movement is based on an incorrect reading of the Bible, that we are not meant to be the servants of the earth, but rather we are to marshall the earth’s resources for our ends.  Though he was not advocating allowing pollution and other things, this has been a result of such thinking.  And that cavalier treatment of the earth results in our fouling the place we live, of which we are a part.  That sense of connection is the opposite of the spirit that Martin Niemoller recalled in noting that when they came for the Communists, I didn’t protest, because I was not a Communist, and so on down the line, until they came for me and there was no one else.  Even in the Bible, there is that sense when Cain sharply responds to God and says “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Well, he’s trying to hide the fact that he murdered his brother, but the sense that he is not his brother’s keeper and that he has the right to kill his brother in hopes of better treatment from God is what separates him from others.  His own actions have done this.  I know there’s more to the Cain and Abel story than that, but that sentiment of separateness is a part of it.  And the American image is that of rugged individualism, which suggests that we each can make our own way apparently without thought or consideration on how it affects others (let them worry about themselves), despite the fact that most Americans live in an urban setting, and we are much closer to our neighbors, much more visibly connected to one another.


Lenten Observance: Day 3

Two short sections today, 5 and 6. Both talk about the capacity of the Tao (endless) and that it gives birth to both good and bad, that it doesn’t take sides. “Tao” 5 tells us to “hold to the center.” This idea of the center will recur. The center of a wheel being crucial to the working of the wheel, but it is a hole that, in a way, holds it all together. There is a hint here of the dangers of labeling — the Tao is like the master that takes good and bad students — does not exclude one because it doesn’t fit. This is a big lesson for many religions — if you don’t meet the standards for orthodoxy, you are excluded, officially or not. It is the way society largely works as well, so that a free speaking woman or person of color in the early 20th c. would likely be viewed with suspicion — such people do not know “their place.” Of course, it doesn’t matter that they had no input into “their place.” Even the side that “wins” such an argument, the orthodox, lose — they close out difference, with everything that difference might bring. It appears that they successfully shut up the other side, but the other side is still there, but the dominant side doesn’t get to benefit from dialog. They haven’t so much shut up the other side as shut their ears to any point that contradicts their own. That can’t be good.


Lenten Observance: Day 2

“Tao te Ching,” chapters 3 & 4 — well really 3, which I find really speaks to me. “If you overesteem great men, people become powerless” — this idea has been with me at least as far back as the 1970s. In the early 1970s, DC comics spent a lot of time and ink on the question of the value/bane of superheroes — Superman held back some of his efforts, because he felt that Metropolitans were becoming too dependent on him and not trusting in their own efforts; Green Arrow and Green Lantern spent a year or so touring the country but keeping their super-powers somewhat in check, so that they would not be too dependent on their own image as super-heroes. This is a problem with having “saviors.” Not that I have anything against white knights (they certainly look great), but each of us has some power to affect our lives and the lives around us. When we give up that power by investing so much hope in the few we imagine have “real power,” we make ourselves weaker than we are, and we don’t try to do for ourselves. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to let all go, and let someone else run things, but there is a risk — we weaken ourselves and forget all that each of us can do. Later in chapter 3, the “Tao” says “He (the good leader) helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those that think they know.” What a powerful idea — the leader as someone who stirs things up, and then steps aside (wu wei — doing-not doing)so that they must work on their own issues. I once had an Algebra teacher, Fr. Muldoon, at Boston College HS. He kept on telling me that I could do better and that I should come to an after-school session to get extra help. Well, after enough of his suggesting this, I did stay after. He asked me to show him a problem I didn’t understand and then, after I had indicated such a problem, he simply handed me a piece of chalk and pointed me to the blackboard. I asked him what help he was to provide, and he pointed to the chalk and to the blackboard. That was it. I must have spent a good 40 min. on that problem, but I did eventually figure it out. When I had, he nodded, as if to say “thus endeth the lesson.” I think I was probably a bit better in math from that point on, and he never again recommended that I stay after. If I continued to have problems after that, I did find some reserve within myself to try and see the problem and work towards a solution. I wonder if Fr. Muldoon had read the “Tao te Ching.” It remains one of my favorite teacher moments.