Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Things & people that make life worth living #2: Small Banks (like Bank of the Bluegrass)

I have been telling people about my bank for 5 or 6 years now.. it's very small-- just two offices, and ATMs in the local Shell Stations. It happens to be our church's bank, too; that's how I discovered how incredibly kind, personal, and personable they are. Having tellers know you, light up when they see you, and help you joyfully rather than ignore or shrug off your concerns is a source of delight to me after all these years. Heretofore, we banked with National City, and whenever we got close to being overdrawn, they (like many banks) would deduct the largest debit first, so that rather than one overdraft, we'd have 4 or 5. No one knew us, and no one cared when we split. But I agree with the Huffington Post and others who are advocating this simple method of changing things -- if hundreds of thousands switch to small, local banks, the big ones will  care!

Check out the video and the list of banks near you that make the cut!

I also love my bank's Mission Statement. Here it is:

We operate our bank for a fair return to our stockholders. Our plan is to deserve the profit because we deliver a quality personal service our clients deserve and want.

Our guidelines for this service:

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."




Patience - Understanding

Immediate action

Go the extra mile


Spirit of friendliness and teamwork

Responsiveness to needs

Knowledge of products

Know our clients by name

Keep a sense of humor

We believe that by carrying out this mission each and every day, we will reach our primary goal: to remain an independent bank.

They don't just say these things.. they do them! Makes living a little more worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"In Case You Were Wondering..."

.. about that structure in front of the entrance, it's a manger."


This is the UU Church the week before Christmas. The co-chair of the newly formed UU Christian Fellowship has come to the podium to explain the presence of something new at our church.. a manger built by the UUCF folks who will also help fill it on Christmas Eve with children portraying the Holy family.

Someone, seeing it for the first time, remarked that perhaps it was a guerilla manger, placed there by the orthodox who wish we would come back to the "true" faith and stop including everyone.

What's so funny? for the non-UUs reading this, we are an eclectic faith as far as our beliefs go, incorporating Humanists, Pagans, Buddhists, culturally Jewish as well as liberal Christian members. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of a great teacher and prophet. We also observe Kwaanza, Easter, Winter Solstice, and Yom Kippur. We  have our own holidays,including one called the "Flower Communion." In the past, we have had Christmas Pageants, but never a manger! This is new. This is different. This manger is so..permanent, and it asks us to consider more deeply than we may otherwise have done, the centrality of this Holy Day to Western Civilization. Dan could not have said a more perfect thing. His sweetly sardonic comment defused the situation and helped us laugh at ourselves without mocking anyone.

You see, among us are people who have been hurt deeply by traditional religion. As children, their bodies and/or spirits were beaten into submission with threats of Hell and sin. They may be gay or lesbian, and may for a lifetime have suffered Biblical interpretations which make them less than human. Many of them have left traditional religion behind.

The manger is where is belongs, right outside the door of the UU Church. I like it empty, because its symbolism is so piquant. It asks us, in case we are wondering, or even if we weren't wondering, "What is this place? Who is the child that will be born here? Who belongs in this empty creche?"

To me, the manger is in each one of us. It is our heart, waiting for a guest who will bring hope and light. The child is the Christ within, our own spirit of boundless love that waits to born, and born again, year after year, night after night. The miracle is available at any moment, to any one. Just in case you were wondering.....

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Changing ScrUUge

an image from Dickens' "The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,"
 on which Sunday's service/skit will be based!

There have been countless renditions and interpretations of  A Christmas Carol, Dickens' beloved tale of redemption and transformation. Just yesterday, I saw a Curious George  episode  in which the man with the yellow hat (George's owner) dreams that he has given his beloved naughty monkey away only to be visited by the proverbial three visions of past, present, and future, and to awake,  joyful that George is still with him.  Most UU s know that Dickens, who didn't think much of organized religion, was closely associated with the British Unitarians, and is believed to have first conceived A Christmas Carol  after attending a service at a Unitarian Church. However, although the story is set on a "Christian" (really pagan) holiday, there is not a single religious symbol or icon in the whole tale! So, it is universal and open to endless interpretations throughout time.

Eight or nine years ago, I wrote a version for a church service, called  A UUCL Christmas, with Carols. (Two women named Carol were in the readers' theatre type skit.)It stars out with a grumpy and penny-pinching Board President named Elouiza ScrUUge, who only wants to spend money to preserve the building and keep things just as they are. She decides to get rid of the Staff to save money, and falls asleep.

Best line: "We'll use the money to install permanent pews! We're tired of moving chairs around to suit the whims of 'creative' people like our former music director!"

Her first visitor is the Ghost of UUCL Past, a sixties-era hippie, with a tale featuring "the barn," a hugely symbolic sacred cow that we talked about but never acted upon year after year. The barn reminds them of the Crachitt family, who bring Tiny Tim to church only to be ignored by a greeter who is smoking and reading The Whole Earth Catalog  and who flicks a few ashes on their Bible and send them out to the "RE" program, which consists of "unsupervised Chaos." They grab Tiny and flee to the Episcopalians with their million dollar bequest.

Best line: (ScrUUge)"Past schmast! UUCL has no past" Ghost: "UUCL has no archives! But there is most assuredly a past!"

Next is Christmas Present, an over-worked, over-committed soccer mom. She has exactly 17 minutes per week to spend on the church, and is very stressed. She quickly reminds ScrUUge that the Crachitts returned when Tim was a teenager, looking for a youth group, but that the congregation was too busy with a squabble over a tree that had been accidentally cut down at a grounds clean-up (that really happened, the tree, not the squabble) to notice. The tree starts telling the story of the history of our property, a wonderful tale about an early Kentucky farmer, who broke with the Baptists to build a house for freedom of worship in the wilderness and whose property synchronistically ends up owned by the Unitarians 150 years later.. but the tree is interrupted by the soccer mom, who rushes off.

Best line: (ScrUUge) "They couldn't have been turned off by the smoking this time! Why, we've even done away with coffee during the services.. we've practically gone Presbyterian!"

Finally comes the ghost of UUCL Future, accompanied by none other than Tiny Tim, now a MacDonald's employee working at the McD that has been built... where the church used to be!ScrUUge is told that due to her policies, even the most loyal members have left, and finally the property was sold to make a huge shopping pavilion featuring all of the retailers that UUs claim to detest. ScrUUge, horrified, is transformed by these visions and returns from her dreams a new woman, ready to make the church more welcoming and to pay attention to every visitor, and of course, she and the church thrive.

Best line: (ScrUUge) "I know thw rest, Tiny Tim dies for lack of teenage socialization, the Crachitts go away mad, and you point your long bony finger to my........ FRENCH FRIES!@#$???"

I re-read the play this week, and considered staging it again. It  is VERY funny! But, heavy-handed as the message is, it doesn't really apply ten years on. We truly have become a church where everyone feels welcomed, and we have changed. We still have challenges, but they are different ones. Our church has become more Universalist, with lots of families, many more native Kentuckians, and fewer PhD and Yankee intellectuals! Because we are far less classist now, we have trouble with income. So, we're changing again. We are learning that a church that's not sustained by rich members will have to do lots of fundraising beyond the pledge campaign. This year, for the first time, we had a gift tree with items for a family who are members of our church. Were I to stage A UUCL Christmas today, my message-lightly-cloaked-in-humor would be one about egalitarianism and overcoming classist stereotypes.

I'm actually delighted that it would have to be written all over. Change is painful for people and for congregations, but it is the only way to grow, to evolve, to adapt, and to become whole.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

JEEZ.. it's about US!

I am only mildly interested in whether the man Jesus was actually born and lived upon this earth.

Like most good literature, the story of Jesus' birth, life, and even death is "true" whether or not it is factual.

What's important to me is that even during our own lifetimes, people who were like Jesus in many ways have lived. We can see them, touch them, listen to them. We may even have given birth to them.

Most children, until their spirits are firmly squelched, have a wonderful sense of adventure and a living urge toward justice, freedom, and self-expression. Our Seth is a great example! He definitely needs some squelching; otherwise he will never "fit in." But I only want him to fit in just enough. To me, it is a crime equivalent to crucifixion to kill the spirit of a child. And yet, it happens around us every day.

My second son was sent to live with his father for over a year when he was around eight to nine. His father shamed him, punished him for normal kid things like spilling milk, and treated him with derision and even contempt. He wasn't beaten or neglected in any visible way. He had expensive vacations and lived in a showplace home. He attended a top-notch school and mingled with wealthy kids. But, from afar, where I prepared for ministry and cared for my newborn girl, I could see that part of him was dying. It was that natural will that questions, rebels, fights to be autonomous, and asserts what is fair and right. When we were together, and in photographs, I could see the veil that was being pulled over his rambunctious nature. He looked pale, frightened, and almost drugged. These were among the most distressing and terrifying months of my life. I didn't learn until much later that his father, in addition to the harsh discipline that took the light from my son's face, also told him repeatedly that I was deserting him to become a minister. Evil? Yes.

Since Seth has been with us, I have encountered plenty of subtle judgment aimed at kids who don't fit the expected mold. Even far more well-behaved, "acceptable" children aren't always honored as I believe they should be. It takes time, effort, and a real ability to extend oneself to truly hear and acknowledge a child's spirit. Assuming we always know what's best, forcing our own plans and agendas upon them, and expecting that the results will meet our approval -- these are spirit-squelching acts that go on in loving homes, "great" classrooms, and "child- centered" churches all over the place.

Children who refuse to play by all the "rules" are a threat to our idea of order, just as Jesus was. But they still have something to tell us, to show us, if we will truly listen. Let us learn to guide them, not corral them. Let us learn to honor them, not show them off. Let us learn to see them, not our projections of them. Let us heal our own squelched and broken inner child before we attempt to raise children, lest we carry out our frustrations and crushed dreams in our expectations of them. Help us see them as already whole, in need only of safety and a modicum of respectability, not conformity and unquestioning obedience. Let us not kill their spirits, lest we crucify the Christ within. Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Nightmares & Dreams

Seth at Salvation Army party

"Seth is home."

These are the words our four year old grand nephew spoke as he lay in his big warm bed drifting off to sleep with "Eric Poppa" nearby.

We lost Seth, who had lived with us nearly a year, back in September when his biological mother came to Lexington and took him. We had asked my sister, his grandmother, to move out in late July, and that set in motion a string of dramas which led to his departure. For a long time, all we knew was that he was with his mother and grandmother, living in the family wing of the Salvation Army. I reassured myself that both were kind to him and loved him in their way. I knew he was safe and not completely homeless. I knew that he went to Early Start every day and kept the same teacher.

We tried to fight for Seth when he left, but we were told by Family Services, lawyers, and the police that there was nothing we could do since we did not have full legal custody (unless we had evidence of physical abuse or severe neglect). Salvation Army social workers never even returned our call.

This week, I learned that Seth's mother had left the shelter with a male friend for several days, and upon return, was not permitted to stay. Seth was alone with his grandmother, who did not have custody, and who needs all of her energy to care for herself and try to make a new start (which, blessedly, I now see that she is doing..). We started making calls. First, Cabinet for Child and Family Services, where I was told by an intake worker, "His mother can leave him with whoever she wants." Really? She could leave him with a known pedophile, or in a meth lab? This is our government at work. This is what people are being paid to do. Did that woman care one bit about what I was telling her? Nada. She was rude, abrupt, and cut me off before I could even get the story out. She said someone would contact me in 48 hours.. they did not.

Those answers did not suit me. I talked with another relative who had been in touch with Seth's grandmother. She told me Seth had been sick, to the hospital, and that my sister was sounding overwhelmed. I knew something had to happen now, not 48 hours or more likely 48 days from now. I called lawyers. The first two were busy and could not help me that day. The third was willing to help, but told me repeatedly that no judge would grant an emergency order, and that we'd wait,maybe weeks, to get a hearing. I persisted. I sent her more information.I pleaded Seth's case, all the while realizing that even if she gave in, her heart wasn't in it, and it probably wouldn't work. Meanwhile lawyer #1 called me to check in.. she said that she would absolutely file for the EPO if she were us. Lawyer #3, sounding annoyed that I had talked with another attorney said, "Feel free to contact someone else." But she agreed to look over my materials, and then she did a wonderful thing. She sent me a link to the forms for filing an EPO. She told me we could do it ourselves, and how to do it. She warned me that the clerical people would tell me only the Cabinet could file these. But, in truth, anyone can! A well-kept secret. I worked all morning to get things together.

By noon, my husband and I were at the District Court, Juvenile Division. I stood before a plate glass window festooned with colorful holiday stickers... something kids would love. A woman named Rhonda tried to send me away. She told me that I could not file as an individual. "It's protocol that only the Cabinet can file these." I told her it might be protocol, but it wasn't the law, and I refused to leave until she went to talk with somone.She was gone for about fifteen minutes. When she came back, she put the papers down and said, "OK, I need to swear you in."

We waited another ten or twenty minutes for a judge to look at the request. We were in this outer office, and Rhonda was the gatekeeper to everything else that was going on. Needless to say, we felt pretty disenfranchised and not too hopeful, after all the times we'd been told, in not so many words."Go away."

Lo and behold, the door opened, and the Judge herself came out. She said she would absolutely sign an EPO right away, and that we'd need to come to Court Monday to be granted custody. She called the Prosecutor who came right over and sat with us, explaining everything. He gave us his cell # and e-mail address. He could not have been more thoughtful or concerned. We had a court order, and we went to pick Seth up at school.

When I saw him, I almost didn't recognize him. He has lost eight or ten pounds and his hair is scraggly. He is pale and felt like he had a fever. But most of all, he just wasn't the same Seth. He's subdued and quiet, anxious and clingy. The teacher told me he had regressed terribly. He clung to me and, when Eric arrived with the car seat, he ran to him and held on.They both cried.

Over the two days he's been with us, I have learned from the teacher that every day, Seth would tell her, "I not go home on bus.Momma Cindy pick me up in her car." My sister, who is supportive of our having Seth now, told me that one day he said, "Gramma, where's my best friend Momma Cindy?" I need not have worried he'd forget. He was waiting for me to come back.

Thank God for the teacher who has been his constant ally, the kind people at the Salvation Army who obviously care about him, lawyer #1 who encouraged me not to give up, a certain police officer who went way beyond the call of duty because he cared about this little boy he never met, the Judge and Prosecutor who "got it" immediately, and all of our friends who held out hope and offered up prayers along the way.

Woe betide people who call themselves "community servants," like some of the social workers, administrative people, and others who work for the courts and Family Services.How can they sleep at night after shrugging off pleas for another broken and neglected child? The lack of compassion is just horrifying. I think they must forget, overwhelmed with cases as I am sure they are, that each child is a human being who hurts, longs, dreams, wonders, and deserves a chance. I don't know how they can do it.

Seth is doing OK. He has been eating constantly and sleeping well. Besides his less rambunctious nature, the biggest change is that he calls us "Mom" and "Dad," something he must have gleaned from TV or at school. He only wants to stay home, "Seth's house." We want to promise him that he will never leave again, but it will be a while until we can honestly say that. In his words, "Seth's home."

Left, in August

Right, yesterday at Salvation Army

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

No mas muertes

Seems as if the news media have picked up, big time, on the story of Walt Staton, a UU from Arizona,who is studying for the ministry. Perhaps the very wide and sympathetic exposure to the inane idea that he might be sentenced to prison for "littering," leaving water in the desert for migrants who might otherwise die, will bring attention to this humanitarian crisis. Wish I had thought of him when I was putting my ideas together for a sermon on self -differentiation. I will post the sermon tomorrow. And here is a sermon from our own Heather Carpenter on her experiences with No More Deaths and in the borderlands:

Meanwhile, none of the broadcasts I have seen mention that he is a UU, studying for the UU ministry, or that "No More Deaths" is a ministry of the Tucson Unitarian church! So, I thought I would let y'all know. Prayers for Walt and all who wander.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Obama the Dog & Obama's Doghouse

This adorable dog is named Obama, and the happy girl is my daughter. She's spending the whole school year in the Canary Islands, becoming even more fluent in Spanish, and having beaucoups interesting experiences! The host family named the dog Obama because he was the darkest one in the litter.. this is Spain, not South America. Everyone is very blanco; skin color still determines nobility.  But I know it was an honor, and my daughter says he lives up to the noble name.

Kind of funny that she told me that yesterday, when our Obama was getting into the proverbial doghouse with his decision on Afghanistan. He has disappointed and angered many liberals and lovers of peace. Yes, it's true... Obama is another politician. He dissembles, compromises, and plays spin games with words. In our system, only that sort could ever make it to the top. I think we all knew that, but we wanted to believe something else.

Still, I feel for Barack Obama the man. I would not go so far as to say that he isn't entirely the man we wanted to think he was, a person of integrity and character. I still think that he is thoughtful, intelligent, and humane. Even wise, in some respects. But we, the citizenry who elected him, have allowed, through our passivity and indifference, such a political system to thrive and evolve for centuries now. We won't even stage a decent protest against these wars, and I'm as much to blame as anyone. Blaming him alone for the escalation in Afghanistan is projection. We are all responsible.

Now, here's the reason I feel for him. Although my job as leader of my little UU congregation is a speck of sand on the huge beaches of time, and he is leader of the free world, there are parallels. What minister is not the lightning rod for the projections of those who can not look within? What religious leader does not try to please, to find middle ground, to serve the needs of her people, to reach the spectrum of people with his words ( a particularly convoluted and seemingly endless spectrum in a UU church!)? What clergy person doesn't strive to make decisions that will benefit the organization, even if they seem unpopular at the time, only to be greeted with criticism and mean-spirited gossip? Find me one, and I vouchsafe that they are fibbing. And what leader of any organization doesn't feel glum sometimes when the one hundred good decisions she made are glossed over and the one unpopular one is trumpeted?

What I observe in some clergy is that they become vapid in order to avoid the barbed critiques that greet anything other than the most middle of the road expression. They choose white bread people pleasing over
a more fiber-rich but harder to digest diet of truth-telling and decisive leadership. They placate, and they hide their true beings. It's political. They want to keep their jobs, and they want to avoid being talked about, or fired, and my fear is that Obama the individual who had the potential to be a true leader will become as lost in the game as they have. So, yes, even in my little corner of the world, I relate to him.

That's why I still want to believe that what Cheney called "dithering" on Afghanistan was a process of deep and wide discernment. I still want to believe that this man does not lightly or without troubled conscience send troops to their deaths. Because I know that leadership is lonely, frustrating, challenging and sometimes painful. In my case, it is also deeply rewarding, fulfilling, and uplifting. That's on those days that I am not in the doghouse!