Thursday, April 30, 2009

No Angels? Look harder.....

This morning I awoke from a puzzling dream, with the words, "No Angels? man asked with disappointment," running through my mind.

It was a quote from my subconcious, and it got me thinking about angels. Sometimes these vivid dreamed phrases will be connected to a recent conversation, often one held just before bed. But.. no angels? I sat quietly with coffee to contemplate its meaning.

For me, the word angel has almost no theological connotation. It describes a mythical "being," a kind of helper of God. But we know that people use the word to talk about other humans that are still living, and to describe the fate of departed love ones. I did write a homily about angels once (but not last night), and learned that there is a great deal of overlap, confusion, and misinformation floating around. My favorite quote from the sermon was, "Angels, once relegated to Heaven, have undergone a second incarnation as knick knacks." They serve a certain purpose.

Well! If THAT sort of angel doesn't exist, is there a word we can employ to talk about people who come into our lives, teach us something, and depart, often too soon? Mensch is close,but not quite right. New-agey folks might say teacher or guide. Whatever we call them, their presence has an eerily prophetic and predetermined quality about it.

I was having a brief conversation with my Membership Director not long before sleeping. She mentioned a man who had joined the church and then withdrawn his membership after one week. We wondered together what could have turned him off so quickly. I hadn't gotten to know him personally, but he did fill out some surveys about the Sunday worship and left a comment or two on my blog and/or facebook.

One in particular haunted me. He scolded me for being what he called irenic about the issue of gay rights. I gradually acknowledged that he was right; in fact, his words led to my decision to take part in next week's Human Rights Campaign Clergy Call. It's been too long and I've been too quiet.

So, if I called people angels, I'd call him one. Funny thing is that his name was Peter.. not properly an angel, of course, but often depicted as one, since he "works" for God. Angel, teacher, prophet, mensch: your message was received by this mortal. Thanks.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Earth Day, UUA & a Missed Opportunity

This is a man, singing here with the late Odetta, who is a treasure in my hometown. He has an internationally syndicated radio show, Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour, and we are blessed to be able to go to the live tapings here in Lexington, KY.

His name is Michael Johnathan.

He's not a UU, but he loves Henry David Thoreau, and a few years ago he wrote a charming play based upon what might have happened during Henry's last few days at Walden Pond. The play is full of direct quotes from Emerson and Thoreau and hence, makes an accessible, enjoyable, and entertainig way for young people and all people to "get" the gist of Thoreau, even if they didn't "get" his writing.

You can learn a lot more about the play, the DVD, the thousands of schools that Michael has made it available to free of charge, by visiting

Last year Michael approached me and asked whether I'd help him connect with the UUA, to encourage them to either be a sponsor, a supporter, or simply a contact point through which UU churches could be a part of this project. I did try, but my many calls and e-mails were either politely put off, or went unanswered. Too bad...

Michael and his staff sent DVDs and promtional materials. They heard nothing back.

The UUA missed an opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of people in local communities with a message that directly connects us to the arts, education, history, environmentalism, and more. Maybe there was someone I should have talked to that I didn't, but it shouldn't be that hard. Michael, his assistant Anna, and I really tried. The one person who was gracious and gave us encouragement was Keith Kron.

Let me tell you what people are like in Kentucky. When they give their word, that's enough. When they ask for your help, and don't get what they hoped for, they still treat you well. I have been given so many generous invitations and favors by these people that I feel a bit ashamed. I didn't promise him anything on the UUA's behalf, but I thought someone would at least give him an ear. I guess lots of people come to the UUA wanting money & lots more, but when he said he didn't even need money, he meant it.

Last Sunday, Michael played guitar and sang at an Earth Day service at our church (believe me, he has bigger fish to fry!) even though he'd broken his thumb the night before. He was gracious and excited as he talked about the many UU churches that had ordered the play. They did a direct mailing, and I hope you have received it! This is a quality way for you and your church to connect with your communities & become known for so many aspects of UUism's "good stuff."

At the very least, order the free materials and share them through your Lifespan RE program.

I'm not dissing the UUA! I support the UUA, and I know that WE are the UUA. But I wish the people who are in charge of this sort of thing had done their jobs more humanely. I keep talking about how it doesn't matter to be politically correct or environmentally sensitive if you treat people like crap, because people are part of natural resources, too. I keep looking at the list of sponsors who are there along the side of the web page and imagining the UUA among them.

All I can do is try to make sure I don't dismiss others as easily. I can think about how and when I have done so and try to make amends. Meanwhile, enjoy Michael Johnathan, Woodsongs (you can listen on line and Walden!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Did Anybody Notice...

...that the whole pirate/hostage thing went down right as Easter and Passover were being celebrated?

As nice, safe people in warm,clean churches and synagogues and comfortable homes were speaking of freedom, bondage, renewal, and hope, all of these were playing out for real in the waters off Somalia.

The whole idea of pirates, and the nearly utterly defenseless position of merchant vehicles, both fascinates and horrifies us. Yet, we are always almost that defenseless against life's tragedies and terrors. We are just more able to prettify and pretend we are safe.

There is an essay by Mary Oliver that captures this sense of the tension this world offers us: horror and beauty, safety and fear.

"The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world." (Mary Oliver, "Owls")

I thought about her words when I heard the chief of the rescued crew say that the world of the ocean, the world of shipping vessels, is one world. There are, he said,"a global community.....", no separate nations at sea. All humans who ply the seas are connected.

Nothing about the pirates is glamorous or romantic. They are desperate, completely disenfranchised people whose despair we can probably never understand. But somehow in the words, coming from this sailor, were a powerful glimmer of hope:

This is one world.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut Does Easter Week

The triumphal entry.

A man who is believed to be the Messiah, the savior, comes riding into town the week before Passover. Although many have their doubts, and are even at that moment plotting against him, thousands cheer and sing his praises. He is given a hero’s welcome.

He will be crucified.

No, this is not a sermon about John Calipari, the new UK basketball coach. Nor is it about Barack Obama’s entry into London, or any of the other hundreds of heroes and heroines we humans have created from our own need. But it is about a story that fits the familiar motif with which we are familiar: we humans tend to kill our heroes. Or, as ministers like to remind one another during that brief season known as the “Honeymoon” when they can do no wrong: “Don’t get comfortable on the pedestal. You are either on the pedestal or under it.” Jesus was on the pedestal on Palm Sunday, and under it by Friday, according to legend.

Kurt Vonnegut gave one sermon, and it was on Palm Sunday. He was then a Unitarian, as were some of his German-American ancestors before him, and it was a Unitarian sermon. He spoke not about the on or under the pedestal motif I have just described, although an Episcopal minister suggested he do so. She told him to say that it was a "brilliant satire on pomp and circumstance and high honors in this world." That may have been the stimulus for him to look at humor in the Palm Sunday story.

Vonnegut tells the audience that he is a "Christ-worshipping agnostic." He begins his brief homily thus:

I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by-and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don't know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. It may be that music is that second good idea being born.
He also said that music is only proof he needed for the existence of God.
(from Palm Sunday)

But Vonnegut goes on to talk about another part of the story, the part where Mary is washing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with oil. Judas, who is present at this sort of farewell dinner, and who we, the reader, know will go on to betray Jesus, chides her for doing so. Basically, he says, in what Vonnegut calls trying to be more Catholic than the Pope, “you shouldn’t be using that expensive oil on his feet. You should have saved it to sell and use the money for the poor.”
To this Jesus replied (KJV): Let her alone…'For the poor always ye have with you; but you do not always have Me.'

Vonnegut goes on to point out that was a joke!

He says that in his German-American upbringing in Indianapolis, this very sentence was often paraphrased to prove that even Jesus got weary of the poor and their neediness. People would say, “The poor will always be with us.” Meaning don’t get too worked up about trying to help them. Now, in my childhood, no one ever quoted the Bible on purpose, but I got the same message: somehow the poor have chosen their lot, so we don’t have to feel too guilty about not being poor, or too obligated to do anything for them. It’s as if Jesus said, “Why? They’ll just spend it on crack anyway.”

Jesus was being ironic! How could that be? Isn’t Jesus, and everything to do with Jesus, deadly serious? OF COURSE NOT! His words come to us through many layers of interpretation and translation, but they are often ironic and even humorous. I like to imagine him laughing often, and relaxing, and enjoying the company of others as he strives to show them with words, the only real weapons he had, what is true. Even at the impending hour of his death, he could inject a note of humor.

Humor is the essence of wholeness; it is such a wonderful part of what makes us human. Humorless people aren’t more spiritual; they are spirit-less and as dead as Lazarus. They are bore asses like Judas who want to make everybody comply. Jesus was not that kind of person. He was also liberal. He was what the humorless liberal-haters like to call a circumstantial ethicist. He didn’t see everything in terms of rules and black and white. He said, this time it’s okay to use the oil; don’t worry, I won’t be eating too much more.. I’ll be DEAD in a few days.

Or, in Vonnegut’s own words: I would tell them, too, what I don't have to tell this particular congregation, that jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning-up to do afterward-and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.

That makes it ironic in a sad, not funny way, that humorless humans have used that phrase to be less merciful.

Kurt Vonnegut was no Messiah, but he was often prophetic, and he used humor to get his points across. He could, like Jesus in his interpretation of the Palm Sunday-eve story, laugh at himself and make us laugh at ourselves. He could cut right through the hypocrisy and humorless uptightness of our world. Not always, of course; it must have overwhelmed him at times. In 1984,he attempted suicide. But he lived to write and laugh a whole lot more. He died in 2007, at age 84. He swore he’d not write another book, but he did, A Man Without a Country.
In this book, he gives, with humor, a pretty good explication of his beliefs as a Humanist, something many of us, his fellow Unitarians, claim to be:

Do you know what a Humanist is? My parents and grandparents were Humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife… And if I should ever die, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in Heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke. How do Humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all Humanists do, “If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?” But if Christ hadn’t delivered his Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake. (80-81)

And, like Jesus, Vonnegut lived his life as he preached it. He raised seven children, four of them adopted. He didn’t use drugs, commit adultery, or "sellout," although he did smoke PallMalls (“the classiest way to commit suicide.”) Most of all, he spoke and wrote the truth as fearlessly as he was able. That alone makes him remarkable.

Upon his death, his son read the last words he’d written for an audience: "I thank you for your attention, and I'm outta here.”

So, I chose him today to help make 3 points:

All Humanists do not hate Jesus. So… LISTEN MORE CAREFULLY.

Jesus and the religion of Jesus (not about Jesus) can be full of humor, laughter and yes, even joy. So…. LAUGH MORE OFTEN.

Pedestals, palm fronds, and public office all have their dangers. So… BE MORE MERCIFUL.

Listen, laugh & love. Your Easter will come.

I’ll close with the words Vonnegut himself used to close his Palm Sunday sermon.

This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don't come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.

I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.