Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Happens in Biloxi......

We left on Christmas Day, and arrived early on December 26th -- twenty members and friends of the UU Church of Lexington. Why Christmas? Some of us, tired of the materialism and commercialism of Christmas, had decided to spend our holiday helping others. Some of us needed to start Dec. 26th in order to be back in school or at work within a week. Ranging in age from 4 to 64, we were an international team: a Partner Church minister from Transylvania, an Alabanian exchange student from Germany, and one American born in Saudi Arabia. The family for whom we were going to build a house are African American, working-class, lifelong residents of East Biloxi.

We completed our task, and surpassed our goal. Within a week, the new house was framed, and the outer walls were begun, and sheathing on the roof. Astounding for a team of mostly novices! There have been several other groups from Lexington in our wake, and the family should be moving into their completed home this weekend. After almost two years in a very small FEMA trailer on the site of their former home, and 6 months across the bay in a FEMA trailer camp, it will be a momentous homecoming.

Since then I have discovered that the UU funding program gave $50k to the East Biloxi Relief & Coordination Center, the agency with whom we worked to complete our mission. How cool is that??!! We also had the blessing of attending services at thedetermined-to-survive Gulf Coast UU Fellowship, with their wonderful minister, The Rev. Susan Karlson. Connections abound!

Most of our team will never see the results of what we did, except maybe in photographs. What amazes me, one month later, is how many other things were begun and built during that week: Confidence. Friendships. Trust. Leadership. Skills. Goodwill. Faith.

What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in Biloxi comes home with you and continues to unfold for a long, long time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Turkey? Me? Well, okay!

We must become ignorant
Of all we've been taught,
And be, instead, bewildered.

Run from what's profitable and comfortable
If you drink those liquers, you'll spill
The spring water of your real life.

Forget safety.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning
Long enough, from now
On, I'll live mad.


Sometimes, in mid-winter, it's hard to believe that good as well as bad things really do happen. It seems as if every phone call brings bad news. And, it has been proven that more people die at this time, and that depression does increase, and the weather in my part of the world reflects that outlook.

So, when I was invited to participate in an all-expense paid trip to TURKEY, it came as not only an enormous surprise, but a reminder that grace really does happen. I never win anything! I don't believe in any sort of gambling, and have never even bought a lottery ticket, so my chances of winning are pretty slim. Imagine my surprise when three young men, all PhD students at UK, with whom I have worked on several interfaith projects, invited me and another community leader to dinner at a delightful Turkish restaurant, and after a lovely meal, presented us a brochure describing this ten-day trip, and told us we'd been chosen to go! Sponsored by the Istanbul Cultural Center, an Atlanta based organization that promotes interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue, the annual trips are offered to two small groups with tour guides and translator: Ephesus! Cappadocia! Ankara! Rumi! Whirling Dervishes!!

Now, I would never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined that I'd go to Turkey! First, there are no UU groups there (it's 99.8 % Muslim!); second, I didn't know anyone from there; and third, I didn't know enough about Turkey to know how spectacular and rich in Christian as well as Muslim history it is.

After the initial shock, I had an interesting array of reactions: guilt (what about the rest of my family?); suspicion (what do they want?); relief (I'll miss the GA and won't have to decide what to do about the security kerfluffle); unworthiness; anxiety; more guilt. But underneath these mostly negative, self-critical emotions ran a thread of child-like delight, wonder, and awe... that feeling you knew when a great aunt gave you the most perfect, absolutely beautiful stuffed bear, the kind with movable joints, a real treasure that your parents would never have chosen: Yes, I deserve this and I am special! I knew it! Somebody noticed! they picked me! Whoppeeeee!

It occurs to me that this joyful, childlike self is and has always been there, buried beneath layers of self-defeating muck. After ten years of Buddhist practice, she emerges more frequently than not. I love acknowledging her and letting her out, even though I know others will take up where I left off, and try to trigger my guilt, fear, anxiety, mistrust, etc. I will try to smile and wish them well. Because whatever they say, I am going to Turkey! Good things happen, probably at least as often as bad. Call it Grace; Call it karma. I promise to send a postcard.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Prodigal Sons & Daughters

The worst thing about having grown children become addicts is listening to other people brag about the accomplishments of their kids who are the same age. There were times when I felt like every UU kid, and especially every minster's kid, was either going to Yale on a full scholarship, traveling the world doing humanitarian projects, or making independent films about marginalized people.
Of course, listening to those stories isn't really worse than the sleepless nights worrying that your child will die, or, worse by far, that he or she will cause the death of someone innocent. When you are relieved that your kid has lost their license, or is in jail, because you know they and those around them are safe... that's bad. I guess that even though UUs are tolerant, accepting, and totally affirming, there are still some things (besides money) we can't talk about without fear of judgement. I was so grateful when Bill Sinkford told the story about his son's problems. I knew then that I was not a bad mother, bad person, etc. The greatest remorse is the belief that having gone into the ministry, moving away, being unavailable at times, contributed to your child's addiction.
I know that people need to believe that if kids go terribly wrong, there must be some logical explanation, because otherwise it could happen to their kids. I know it because I used to judge parents of addicts that way myself. Truth is, a large part of addiction is hereditary, and you can spend a lifetime trying to avoid this heartache for your children, only to see it manifest. Even worse, family systems tells us that the anxious focus those of us who grew up with addiction project on our offspring might actually contribute to their becoming symptomatic.
The day my son went, voluntarily, to 30 day rehab, I wanted to get a T shirt and a bumper sticker that read: "Your kid went to Harvard? That's nothing! Mine graduated rehab!" Finally, I learned not to mention it very much at all, because it is only those who have been there who truly understand.
Rehab is not the end... of course. When they say "relapse is a part of recovery," it applies to you, too. A year after rehab, my son went with us to Transylvania for 2 weeks, where I saw his face light up with joy and heard him laugh freely for the first time in many, many years. At 25, it was his first time outside the United States. When you are wrapped up in drugs and alcohol, you don't do the things other young people do. You don't have the money or the courage.
After we came back, he relapsed and lost a great job, a wonderful woman, and his driver's license. We waited until the fallout was over, and then we invited him to live with us. It's only been a week, but we have a contract, he's in recovery, he's clean, and last night our whole family had a meal and watched TV together for the first time in a long time. I have hopes.. of course.. but no expectations. We'll just have to live one moment at a time, which is, of course, always a good way to live. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Luke 15:24.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nuttin but Muzic

One good thing about being over fifty is that you don't have to feel the angst of being fourteen and madly in unrequited love. That said, watching my daughter go through her first serious crush makes me feel a little nostalgic for those roller-coaster, heart-thumping days. Even the pain felt redemptive. We knew we were alive. And it's fun, and intriguing, to see how little things have changed in forty (40!!??) years. We hear these grim predictions about the future for our youth because they are so addicted, debased, and demoralized. I don't know about you, but my daughter has a whole lot more sense than I did, a lot more dignity, and a very bright future!

So, we're a little bit left out when it comes to silly, crazy, LOVE. But I have observed that the gap is not so wide when it comes to music. My daughter (14), my sons (23 & 26) and their friends don't seem to mind us listening to "their" music, learning their dances (try "Crank that Soulja Boy".... instructions on YouTube... if I can do it with a blown-out knee, you can too! Come on, it's FUN!), and even singing along. After all, they have been listening to our stuff all along.. Pink Floyd, the Who, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, BON JOVI!! So how could they mind?

I would have been mortified, horrified, and repulsed had my dad and/or stepmother started enjoying hard rock in the 1970s. So... maybe some things are getting better.

I started this blog to tell you about an amazing duo that I saw perform here in Lexington at the Kentucky Theater where Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour is produced. Two young men from Brooklyn, trained at Julliard, play violin and RAP! You can see several videos of them on YouTube, or just go, or you can find a whole hour, ending with an amazing imromptu jam they do with an African cora player, by going to and looking up show #459. (If you watch the encore to see the jam, look for a young member of the UU Church of Lexington, Malik Mahmud).

The way these brothers, Nuttin But Stringz, bring a hip-hop sensibility to the classical violin is amazing. It had a whole audience of fifty-somethings on their feet, cheering. Hey! It was heart-pumping. Maybe that's the closest we get to being in love. Check them out!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Waldo, Floyd and me in Mammoth Cave

The mysteries and scenery of the cave had the same dignity that belongs to all natural objects, and which shames the fine things to which we foppishly compare them....
This is how Emerson described the visit he made to Mammoth Cave. About 2 hours southwest of me here in Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is probably the largest cave in the world. 350 miles have been mapped, and those are believed to be a fraction of what's there. Indeed, most of Kentucky sits atop caves. These caves are often multi-level, vast, and elaborate, containing everything from football field-size rooms to delicate formations. They are always there, even though we tromp about overhead blissfully ignoring them.
I went yesterday with Bela, my Transylvanian partner church minister, and my son, Casey. It was a bitterly cold day (up above) so there were only 2 other people on the tour with us. The caves felt warm, but they actually remain a constant 53 degrees year round.
Caves make me think of all that lies beneath our own surfaces. If only we could allow ourselves to penetrate the vast interior spaces we posses, we'd understand that each of us is far more creative, inspired, and connected than we can possibly imagine. Sometimes we get a glimpse, and maybe that's enough.
There was this caver named Floyd Collins who got stuck near Mammoth Cave in 1925. He was trying to find a cave he could make money from by luring folks who were headed for Mammoth Cave. After two weeks of futile rescue attempts, he died stuck in the cave. I always visit Floyd's final resting place near the old Mammoth Cave Baptist Church when I go there. Usually someone has left a candle on his tombstone, some pennies, and other little trinkets like cans of beans. I left him a chap stick yesterday. To me, Floyd represents the human dilemma. Trying too hard, and stuck part-way. We have so much within us: dreams, imagination, stories, ideas, wonder. We don't have to struggle. Each of us is work of art.
Oh, and by the way, soon Floyd's entourage will grow. I heard that Billy Bob Thornton is making a movie about him. Finally, he'll achieve that success he was looking for.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Financial Peace, anyone?

Okay. I confess! The reason I went to Southland Christian Church (see last post) was for a luncheon given by Financial Peace University.. encouraging pastors to offer Dave Ramsey's program to their congregations. Don't know about Dave Ramsey? You will. With the pending recession, more and more folks in our congregations are going to "hit bottom" financially, and many will need encouragement, help, and inspiration, because we are going to have to change!

Now: if you are debt free, use cash only, and are prepared for retirement, read no further. But, if you, like the average American, have 5,000 to 50,000 dollars of consumer debt, buy almost everything with plastic, and have very little in savings, you might consider a radical ovehaul of your relationship with money. Dave Ramsey is just one of many gurus out there. But he is the most wildly popular (national radio & TV shows, huge publishing enterprise) because his program works. I am convinced, but I know I shall have a hard time convincing many UUs.

Here's the kicker: Dave's program is very Christian. It's taught almost exclusively in Christian churches, and all of its materials include Biblical references and trinitarian, even evangelical, language. For me, it's okay. I attended non-UU seminary, attend a 12 step program, have worked extensively in interfaith and anti-racist groups that include conservative Christians, and hey, I live in Kentucky. Hence, I am able to overlook, translate, or tolerate portions that bother me.

My partner church minister's reaction was fascinating. Transylvanians, especially those in villages, don't have the problems Dave solves. Since most are not employed (they practice sustainable agriculture), and those who are employed make perhaps $100 a month, the vast majority of our Unitarian cousins in Transylvania don't have mortgages, credit cards, or car payments. Still, these things are creeping into the Romanian economy, and Bela learned a great deal.

But he was angered that Ramsey chose to use God as a vehicle for his message. It's fairly clear that 1)Ramsey is himself a devout Christian and understands things in those terms and 2) churches are a fantastic marketing vehicle for his product: books, tapes, CDs, and much more.

Still, if we could lay cynicism aside -- just for a moment -- we might see that financial peace is a spiritual quality, one that UUs could also use. The basic principles are not in conflict with our beliefs. My husband and I are taking the class now, at an all-Black, Seventh Day Adventist church. Our relationship with money and with one another has improved dramatically. We have replaced despair with hope and aversion with fascination at how we can work together to reach our goals. Now I want to find out how Financial Peace can be made humanist-, Jewish-, Buddhist-, or agnostic-friendly. I'm guessing I am not the only one!

Finally -- maybe most exciting for clergy-types and church leaders: Dave teaches folks to give away a chunk of their money to charity! He believes that we should give first, then save, then pay bills. I am convinced that our congregations are full of folks who could, and in many cases, wish they could, give so much more to our good work and to sustaining and promoting our faith. Financial Peace type classes could address that, while bringing tremendous benefits to those we serve. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Beam Me Up

This is the sanctuary of Southland Christian Church. It's mega-huge... it has to be; there are 12,000 members and every Sunday there are 8,000 at worship. After nine years in the same city, I finally got the nerve to go there for a Pastors' luncheon. I took my partner church minister, Bela, who is visiting from Transylvania. The church is probably larger than the village he serves (Nyomat). We were late, so we sat in the back of the room filled with 250 conservative ministers, noting that there was an invisible line between Trinitarians and Unitarians. He thought about doing a Borat imitation, but decided not to. Before we were given directions to the lunch by a custodian (we had to go back to the car and DRIVE there), we wandered for some minutes through empty, beautifully decorated, spotless, heated hallways. We couldn't help thinking about all the homeless folks huddled downtown this frigid week, and how warm and cozy they'd be here. But perhaps most entertaining was the name used for the hallways: concourses! It all became clear to me then. Southland Christian is a huge airport. All flights are leaving for Heaven, and everybody's busy buying their tickets and arranging for good seats. Who are these 8,000 people? My hairdresser, to whom this place is progressive, after her childhood in a holiness church. Too many teen agers, some from the UU church who attend because of their friends.... lots of folks whose minister asked them to pray for Brittany Spears last month, and to vote against gay marriage a few years ago. Beam them up.... I'll stay here. One visit was enough!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

loser, boozer, snoozer, or blues-er?

what's a blueser? zoltan knows--he made it up. Zoltan's the teacher in our partner village in Nyomat (Romania). It means someone who loves the blues! Passionate! It came to me as I was planning a guided meditation for today's service. The sermon was called Bible of the Blues.. and all week I was listening to everything from Robert Johnson to Nirvana. My daughter could not figure out why her dad and I were having so much fun wailing the Allman Brothers' Tied to the Whipping Post (try it; it's very gratifying, and confuses teenagers). I decided to use the crossroads story (you know, the one where Robert Johnson traded his soul to the Devil for his musical talent) and expand the metaphor.

The story might leave one thinking there are two ways you can go at the cossroads, back or forward. In fact, at any crossroads, there are 4 ways to go. Right? I mean, correct? And here's what I decided. At the crossroads, there's a choice to be made. A decision. Something has happened that has provided new information. You can:

* go back and pretend you never saw the crossroads (snoozer, because you'll never know )
* go back, and refuse to change, even though you know more (Loser, because you'll never grow)
* go forward & deal with the new knowledge recklessly (boozer)
* go forward and deal with the crossroads experience by becoming more authentic, more courageous, more YOU (blues-er)

I made it all up but I like it. What will it be: blues-er, boozer, loser, or snoozer? You be the chooser.