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Last night, I attended a vigil at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks for the victims of the Sunday shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. As of this afternoon, two victims of that tragedy have died, four remain hospitalized and two have been released.

We met in the somber grey of another rainy day, one of many this summer in Fairbanks. People wandered in, many straight from work, finding a place to join with a circle of friends to mourn this event, recognize the lives that we lost, and search for grains of meaning. Music played gently in the background, echoed by the rain on the roof overhead.

The lights of the sanctuary were off, our only light came from above, filtered first by the grey of the sky, then dappled by the dripping green of the birch tree leaves. Candlelight centered our attention on one side of the circle, eight flames casting warmth, each representing a spirit damaged or lost to us by Sunday’s events.

Jeff led our vigil, leading us through songs and an update on Sunday’s events. Members took turns speaking from the podium, then from the chalice.

For the first time since I’ve attended our Fellowship, barring one Sunday when I lit the chalice itself, I lit a candle.

I spoke of the heroes from Sunday’s attack.

Of how often these attacks occur, and the shooting goes on for hours.

Or until the police arrive and dispatch the gunman. Which is exactly what this fellow was hoping for.

I wondered aloud how many lives were saved by the quick action of those in the Church. It was reported that only 3 rounds of the 76 brought into the Church were discharged.

Today the evolution of that thought has continued. I’m not alone.

Unitarian Universalists are, by my experience, peaceful people.

Peaceful, but not passive.

We are used to protecting those who can not protect themselves. We are cursed at for attending peace rallies, spit upon for supporting the rights of gays and lesbians, and damned for allowing atheists and agnostics in our midst.

In the case of Sunday’s shooting, members quickly disarmed the suspect at great risk to themselves. At least one fatality is reported to have fallen victim to the shooter while sheltering others from the gunman.

I believe the shooter, like society, made a misjudgment. To value peace is not equitable to being weak.

To stand up to the majority for what is right, at great risk to one’s self, one’s livelihood or home is a sign of great strength.

Peaceful, but not passive.

I recall an image from the movie Ghandi though I’ve seen the movie once, when I was in the 4th grade. In my memory, Ghandi and his followers lined up to harvest salt to break a British monopoly on the commodity. British soldiers met the single file line, beating each person as they took their turn at the front of the line. As a person recovered consciousness, they returned to the back of the line. On and on they made their way through, each taking their turn over and over again until the British gave way.

Peaceful, but not passive.

Sunday’s shooter bought into one of the great lies of the right, that there is not enough for all.

If the shooter had taken the time to listen to the UU message, that in an equitable, just, and free society each person can and does have work, a place to live, education, freedom to worship, and love as they choose. There are many paths, one doesn’t preclude the other.

Instead he chose hate, and a violent solution.

Our response must be love, and peaceful.

Peaceful, but not passive.

Somehow we must use this event to reach out to the marginalized, those people like the shooter that have been touched by hate. Our country, and our faith, must offer them hope.

On a global scale, we must raise people up to our standard of living. There is enough for all.

To borrow the the words of a burgeoning orator “this is our time.”

It is time for our faith to re-emerge from the shadows, and take up our roll as leaders in society. To show the world how to move forward in the face of violence.

Peaceful, but not passive.

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I woke up and got moving early (for me) this morning. I got on the computer, checked the headlines, answered an e-mail or two, deleted all the spam, and got Jane (wife) and Jolie (8-year old) up to go to work and school, respectively. Normally it works the other way around, I get them out the door then get on the computer for a few minutes. OK, it may be longer than a few minutes. It used to be I never worried about checking the news. But ever since 9-11, when I walked into the doors at work to be met by my boss with the news that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Towers, followed a few weeks later by a similar meeting where I learned a client and friend had died in a plane crash, that now it is rare occasion that I step out the doors without checking the headlines.

So today I was up early, which not only gave me time to read the news but also to fix a hot breakfast. Jolie had been asking for an egg-muffin, a fried egg and cheese on a English muffin, so I decided to make her one this morning. As a bonus, Jane also got one. I was going to wait until later when 4-year old Ali got up, then I would make her and I each one.

All of this would have been well and good, but as of last night we had decided the girls needed to share a bedroom so that we could make the 2nd bedroom more of a playroom. So Jolie, in what I’m sure was her quietest, most considerate, sisterly way went into the shared room to get dressed. And emerged, with Ali fully awake. So much for letting the little sister sleep, who also happens to be fighting off a cold.

I set to work making Ali’s and my egg muffins. Note, I asked if she wanted one before making it for her. Not because I needed to know, but because I wanted to use her answer against her when she refused to eat it.

Janie and Jolie got out the door, so Ali and I set down to eat.

“Its too hot Daddy.”
“No it’s not, it has been cooling while I cooked mine.”
“No, the bottom is too hot.”
“OK, while just turn it over and wait for a minute.”

I proceeded to eat mine, which came off of the stove after hers.

“Ali, eat your muffin. It isn’t too hot, see I’m eating mine.”
“Its too hotttt!!!”
“No it isn’t, mine was done after yours and it isn’t too hot.”

Repeat the above three lines at least twice more.

Following that, I resorted to feeding it to her. She always feeds herself, except when I’m present. For some reason, I have to feed her. And I acquiesce. Maybe because I’m a wimp. Maybe because I spoil my kids. Maybe because we may not ever have another child and feeding her is as close as I’ll ever get to feeding one of my babies again. So, when she graduates high school, and college, and again at her wedding, and you see me feeding her at each of the celebratory dinners, please take pity and don’t embarrass her, or me, especially me, by asking why.

So, I picked up the muffin and moved in for the kill. Finally, after some coaxing, she took a bite.

“It’s too cold.”

Pause here to avoid any irrational but entirely justified acts of parental desperation.

Breathe deeply.

And again.

Alright, I’m back.

There are a few more instances of contrarianism gone awry in our household. I’ll begin with Ali, then end with Jolie. Note there are no stories here about Janie or I being contrary. Neither of us are. The trait skipped our generation entirely, landing squarely in the personalities of Jolie and Ali. It is entirely the grandparents fault, though no doubt they won’t admit it. They are contrarians after all.

Like the egg muffin, Ali has taken to disliking certain foods, at random times, and with no regard to what she ate and liked days or even hours before. Her dislikes also have no regard to flavor, texture, or appearance. It all has to do with a 4-year old’s attempt to establish her right of refusal. I’m alright with that, the girl needs to establish her own likes and dislikes. However, it makes it increasingly difficult to prepare meals for the whole family.

One of her latest victims is the hapless bean. Not green beans, but baked beans or kidney beans. We eat a lot of chili in our house, with kidney beans, so it makes it hard to feed her from the same pot. So, in a fit of exasperation, I applied my slightly skewed but effective sense of creativity and a dash of dishonesty to get around the impasse. Diplomacy, I think is what the politicians call it. Anyways, the negotiation went like this.

Ali, “I don’t like beans.” Add some cheese and crackers to that whine and we could have a party.
Dad (me), “They aren’t beans, they are frijoles.”
“Frajoles.”
“Frijoles.”
“They look like beans.”
“That’s right, they look like beans. But they are frijoles.”

She then proceeded to pick up her spoon and feed herself the whole bowl, and like it. Actually, I fed her the whole bowl, but she did like it.

Next up, mushrooms.

“I don’t like that pizza, it has mushrooms.”
“They aren’t mushrooms, they are toadstools.”
“Toadstools?”
“Toadstools.”
“They look like mushrooms.”
“They do, but they are toadstools.”

Once again, she picked up her pizza and gobbled it down. Or maybe I cut it up and fed her. The point is, she ate the mushrooms toadstools.

Now Ali goes around telling people, “I don’t like beans, and I don’t like mushrooms, but I like frajoles, and toadstools.” In her mind, I’m convinced, she knows that frijoles and mushrooms are just beans and mushrooms, but because we changed the terminology she won enough concessions to go ahead and eat them. Which, I think, is what diplomacy is all about, skewing the truth until everyone looks like a winner. Even the contrarians.

A final story, which happened yesterday, about Jolie. The stories above may give the impression that Ali is our contrarian princess, but in reality I think she would have to get up pretty early to outdo Jolie. We have to deal with each of them differently, Ali has to emerge with the appearance of winning, ie, diplomacy. Jolie will listen to reason. Eventually, if Jolie and I talk long enough I can convince her that being contrary isn’t always the right or healthy choice.

Do what I say, not what I do. I mean what your grandparents say, but don’t do. Or something like that.

Even with all that reasoning, Jolie’s nature still comes out. At church yesterday, our friend Jeff was leading a story for children, which we do early in the service. For the story, the children are invited to the front of the sanctuary. The topic of the day was choices, and how they affect others and the world around us. In order to convey this to the children, Jeff was having them gather on one side of the podium or the other based upon their answer to a question. One question was, “Would you rather win a race alone or finish it together with a friend?” Some kids went left, others right.

After a series of questions, Jeff asked “Would you rather have a piece of cake every night for a week, or have it all gone at a big party?” The kids parted. Jolie moved dead center and remained. Jeff queried her as to which way she was going to go.

“Neither, I don’t like cake.”

I can’t think of a better response for a crowd of Unitarian-Universalists, who know more than thing or two about being contrary.

Except me.

And Jane of course.

Though I wonder about her sometimes.

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I was asked to give my “Unitarian-Universalist” story to introduce today’s service, and to light the chalice, which we do to kick off our Sunday gathering. I had put something together last night, in order that I could sleep on it and get it settled into my brain for presenting to the Fellowship this morning.

I rely on this process a great deal when presenting or speaking. I have to visualize the presentation, with its content, several times in my head if I am going to give it smoothly in front of people. I have a problem presenting ad hoc, though I have done it, and on occasion done it well.

However, at non-scripted social settings my speech-thought pattern completely disconnects, more accurately self-destructs, leaving me with smoke coming out of my ears and glassy eyed. As a result, I have a terrible time engaging in what I view to be lively or interesting conversation. A visualization of a successful presentation helps me get through this pitfall when in front of a crowd.

Well, today I ran into a few hang ups with the system. First, our house is for sale and we had a showing scheduled for when we would be gone at church this morning.  That means clean-up. Because we were out all yesterday and didn’t clean up last night, that meant this morning. Because of that, I didn’t get much time to memorize my “story”, as written. 2nd, I wasn’t very comfortable with my story, and kept editing it in my head. Right on up to and through my talk. Last, what I did visualize was much too rigid. I had, in my mind, my family sitting to my right as I was in the front of the sanctuary, where I could have them stand and introduce them. I can visualize presenting in a chaotic setting, but for some reason didn’t this time and it hung me up a bit.

Last, because we were cleaning house, we were late. Not unusual for us, but not a good thing on the day I had to start the service. It also left me a bit scrambled, I didn’t have time to settle in like I prefer to do.  (Postscript, the interestedpart never showed up.  All that cleaning for nothing.)

Did I mention this story only had to be 2-4 minutes long?

The end result, I think, was alright. I did mumble a bit, a few ums and awes, and it may have been longer than 4 minutes. But in the end I hit the high points of my own personal UU story. Everyone I spoke to said they enjoyed it.  Aren’t UU’s considerate?  I was going to say dishonest but thought better of it.

See below for the full version. Ums and awes have been excluded for your reading pleasure. And take all the time you want, the 4 minute rule doesn’t apply here.

My first introduction to Unitarian-Universalism was in 1992. Jane and I had just gotten engaged, and at the recommendation of one Jane’s Mom’s friends we went to look at the All-Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is a beautiful church, had an opening that worked with our schedules (2 days after finals), and complied with our wishes to have a god-free (godless sounds so bad) wedding. I was particularly impressed with the rooms throughout the church, each named for one of our great freethinkers, Thoreau, Paine, Jefferson among others. In the back of my mind, I set aside the thought that I would have to look into this peculiar religion that celebrates free-thought some day in the future.

Our wedding was a success, a beautiful day by most accounts. We got married in their small chapel or sanctuary, which was perfectly sized for our small gathering. The ceremony itself lasted all of 5 minutes, if that. It took longer to seat the guests than to say our vows. The minister snuck God into the ceremony at least once, according to Jane. She was counting, I was just trying to get through the ceremony. If I had tried to make a break for it, all the exits were well covered. Leave it to the Unitarians to build a church without an escape route for the groom.

Following the wedding, we held a reception in the church’s courtyard garden. It was early May in Oklahoma, so the flowers were in full bloom, the temperature somewhere around 80. So perfect, I’ll never have to do it again.

Several years later, and several thousand miles away, we decided to return to a Unitarian-Universalist church, this time in Fairbanks. Our oldest daughter, Jolie, was getting old enough to ask questions about life, and death. And we were by no means ready to answer those questions.

On top of that, the tragedy of 9/11 had just occurred, followed quickly magnified by a succession of equally bad actions by our government. A client of mine tragically died in a plane crash a few weeks after 9/11. We had just received funding for to build a new head start she was the driving force behind. The push for war in Iraq was in full swing, and we were losing contact with friends and family because we wouldn’t get on the bandwagon. In short, we were isolated, and feeling quite alone.

We had a choice at that time to remain quiet and be part of the status quo, acquiescing to the demands of the majority and the Bush administration, or to speak up. If we hadn’t been parents, we may have let some of the slander slide by. As it was, every time I looked into Jolie’s face I felt we owed her more. How could we leave her a country and life full of fear, of persecution, of preemptive war, and not at least tell her we had spoken out against it? We spoke up, and have paid the price in friendships and relationships with family that will never be the same.

In the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks we found a group of like minded people, a group of friends and family who believed in free speech and free thought. What a discovery!! There were others like us. We felt at home, and were no longer alone in the mass of American society.

Meetings were still held in the basement then. In my memory, those were dark days. Perhaps because the basement was dark, but I think it had more to do with the political climate of fear, a dark cloud of hysteria hovering overhead, the stench of corruption permeating every breath. We would gather downstairs, in the gray and gloom, sharing laughter and tears, hope and anger.

Jane and I found rays of light, stars in the darkness, in the elders of the fellowship. Jane and Red, Susan, Art. They were people that had lived their values, and continued to. They were happy, brave, successful by our account. We saw our future ahead of us, we didn’t need to concede our values, like Jane, like Susan, like Art, we would survive this period of, for lack of a better word stupidity, and would succeed.

The laughter during those times was incredibly important. I’ve only laughed one other time like I recall doing here at the fellowship. My grandparents were visiting us in Wyoming. My grandfather developed pneumonia. In the middle of one night, we got a call from the hospital. My grandfather had passed. We sat around the table, light shining brightly against the darkness outside the windows. There may have been tears. What I remember most clearly is our laughter, laughter of sorrow and anguish, a communal release of stress and grief. That’s what I experienced here, at fellowship, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the prelude to war.

Now, on one of those grey mornings, with everyone crowded into the basement, everyone there had a thought. The bowl was literally turning into a bonfire. There were the typical fears, sorrows, and of course laughter. Art, one of the points of light, one of those stars I alluded to earlier, eventually got up to the candles to say his peice.

At that time, at the end of the candle lighting, the lay leader would say “to all the thoughts and concerns left unspoken” and light one final candle.

In honor of Art, I’m going to quote him from that morning as I lite the chalice.

“To all the thoughts left unsmoking.”

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Today began innocuously enough. I awoke around 7:00, considered getting out of bed to polish up a poem that has been germinating within my mind for several weeks, in order that I might read it at our church (for lack of a better word) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks’s annual Poetry Sunday service.At 9:30, I woke back up, realizing I had dozed off and that it would be a reach to get everyone up and ready for church in time to make the 10:30am start time. From our house north of Fairbanks, it takes 20-25 minutes minimum to get there, it was foggy, and the temperature was somewhere below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it gets below -20, the exact temperature doesn’t matter anymore until it hits -40. Then it is worth keeping track again, if for no other reason than convincing people not to move to our undiscovered wonderland of Interior Alaska.

Jane and I lolled about in bed, knowing it was cold, and still dark, wishing for a few more hours of sleep. Eventually, we decided to consult Jolie about attending Fellowship. She has been hesitating about going the past few times we went, so when we had finally gotten through the layers of stubbornness and tears (hers) last Sunday it emerged that it was because we hadn’t been going consistently and she didn’t really see why we should go at all.

So, Jane and I engaged her in attending this Sunday, Poetry Sunday, and reciting poems with me. She likes poetry, either honestly or because I do is yet to be determined. She immediately found one of her poetry books (purchased for her during a “prayers in the dark” episode last year) and went straight to Robert Frost’s “A Walk in the Woods at Night.” After reading it through to Jane and me, she became inspired and wrote her own poem, “Tiger”. Her cadence and expression on both poems was impressive, giving her parents one of our daily shots of parental pride.

Jolie offered to select a poem for me to read. I politely declined, having the poem I was preparing to write already rolling around inside my head.

Jump back to this morning, with the entire family still snoozing or lounging in bed, and a strong impulse to remain there. I finally rolled out, and in a case of quiet desperation (to go back to bed) passed the decision off to Jolie. “Do you want to go to Fellowship and read your poem? Or stay in bed?” I might of added, “your nice warm, soft, cozy bed, in the dark Alaskan morning, when it -30 outside, don’t you just want to stay in bed?” She didn’t. She was up and dressed and ready to go in less time than it ever takes her.

The rest of us followed.

We did arrive at Fellowship a bit late, not unusual for us. Jane and I are timely and organized people apart, late and disordered together. Throw in the two kids and it is a wonder we ever go, or arrive, anywhere.

As we walked in, the part of our liturgy where members and guests walk to the front of sanctuary, light a candle and voice their concerns was in process. Our friend Rebecca was speaking when we arrived, telling of snowfall in Baghdad and how some there felt it symbolized coming peace. I see her spoken sentiments were echoed on her blog, check it out here.

We found seats, except for Ali, who had joined the children’s play room. Jolie was upbeat, attentive, and participating in the songs and readings. Eventually, we got to the part where people started reciting poems. I waited for several to go, before grabbing Jolie and making our way to the front.

We made it to the front row before she faltered, running back to our row (about three back) and throwing her head down on her Mom’s lap. I returned to the row, and waved someone else up ahead of us.

After sitting through the other person’s poem or poem’s, Jolie and I made another break for the podium and microphone. Jolie hid behind me on the floor. I ignored her, not wanting to reward her behavior with a spectacle, though I would have dearly loved to have a moment to lecture her just then. Just the same, when I was eight I never volunteered to read any poetry, especially my own, in front of a room full of adults.

I had offered to read my poems first, in order that she get comfortable being in front of the group. Due to my falling back asleep this morning, my poem, the one I was going to write down that morning, remained in my head. So I pulled out my journal, and found a few options. I tried this one on Jane as we drove around Farmer’s Loop. I call it, “Death by Anchorage.”

Bare feet,

In the mud.

Sinking lower,

In the sludge.

Water rising,

Tide coming in.

Wetness on my body,

The cold sinks in.

The dirty water,

Of Cook Inlet,

Coming in,

Filling my lungs,

As I close my eyes.

Death- by Anchorage.

Jane didn’t feel that verse was appropriate for public consumption, but then she isn’t a big fan of any of my death poems.

So, in due diligence and taking full advantage of the 20 minute drive, I turned to the master Wendell Berry, and quickly selected one of my favorites, “The Peace of Wild Things”.

Later, after presenting it, with Jolie still hiding behind me, I read a short poem of my own that I had written in July of 2006 that echoed the sentiments of Mr. Berry’s poem.

I’m starving,

Alas…..

Not for food and drink,

But for knowledge and life,

The smile on a baby’s face,

The wind through the forest’s embrace,

Love, untempered.

Discovered- a state of grace.

Turning to Jolie, I offered her the chance to recite Robert Frost. She quickly refused, so instead, I read it for her.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Turning back to Jolie again, this time to read her own poem “Tiger”. No, not a chance. After all that effort, and getting out of bed on her behalf, here I am reading her poem to the Fellowship. (It was worth it.)

“Tiger” by Jolie

Stripes of

Black

Gold

White

Lurking through the

Grass.

Take me to the jungle. Take me to

The jungle, jungle

Jungle, rumba

Jungle!

What more can be said after that.

Other than (in the words of Wendell Berry from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front“),

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

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