St. Mary, Mother of God, pray with us

Less a proper blog post than a thought, perhaps to amplify later.

Copy of Theotokos icon of Máriapócs

Copy of Theotokos icon of Máriapócs, (CC-BY-SA, Joejojo)

I’ve read — but forget where — that Christmas is the time when Protestants become (more) Catholic. A higher regard for the saints and the generous use of medieval images come to mind. Not just the “you and me Jesus” focus that, in its own simplified way, places the Protestant ethos.

Which, is a bit weird for Unitarian Universalists, except perhaps for a small minority of the Christians who are already looking at this religion askew. Sometimes we seem like Protestants — certainly in our forms and structures — without Jesus. Something akin to “my experience with an uncertain universe” but with Sunday meetings and urn coffee.

Christmas is one of the times that flips that. Less the art than the songs and — if you’re using scripture at all — the biblical narrative. It’s hard to talk about a birth without considering the mother, and especially so when she’s one of the world’s well-loved religious figures and objects of projection. Particularly in an era where we’re more consciously trying to hear the testimony of women.

So far, Mary’s been a safe bet as the role of Jesus’ mother. But what ought we, might we say about her — even to her — once the boy is up and walking? Something to ponder.

We are not powerless

As we approach Christmas, and before our collective attention span shrinks as short as the daylight, I want to put a concluding thought on the series of posts around Unitarian Universalist social engagement, though I expect to come back to the theme.

The big takeaway is that we are not powerless. Political and social influence are valuable, but we need to remember that our sense of self, and thus ultimately our power, does not derive from these. As human beings, we share an imprint of the living God; our hope rests on our common origins and common future. For these, our political and social actions are tools for a greater good. Tools, but not ends.

It’s no wonder that behind the recent killings of a set of black boys and men, particularly by police officers, that the theme of dignity and worth arise. And the shocking indignity of the killings, plus the overall callousness of the official response, only widened the conversation, here to include black girls and women, there to dead Gazans.

Substituting “all lives matter” for the call “black lives matter” — as sometimes happened — was a simultaneously true and false action. False because, in the moment, it was important to accent the peril that black people particularly face. And true, because of the underlying and unspoken fear that a régime of unaccountable violence can all too easily become universal, or near universal, as global wealth becomes more and more concentrated.

But I think of St. Lawrence, the early Christian deacon and martyr, who when asked to cough up the treasure of the church to Roman authorities, presented the poor. These are the treasure, he said, and for which he was tortured to death.

We are the treasure of the church, beloved by God and full of worth. Poor in this sense — for when some few have so much wealth and power, who isn’t poor? — yet not helpless. Though a cultivated will, though the blessings of mutual care and — yes — the multiplication of social and political engagement we can plainly assert our own value.

But this understanding is how we unlock this power, and as religious people we owe it to others to continually proclaim its truth.

Blue Christmas/Longest Night rollcall

“Blue Christmas” and “Longest Night” services are related phenomena that respect the worship needs of mourners, depressed or distressed people. Or more generally, those for whom the cheer of the season brings more pain than joy.

But it’s not easy to find these services if you’re not looking for them, and some are well before Christmas.

If you know of a service (or are hosting one), feel free to note it here. Not that this will create a catalog, but perhaps will attract people to the idea and prompt them to plan for next year.

Appreciating the City Weekend

A pause from my thread on re-orienting Unitarian Universalist approaches to social engagement to note Esperanto, and two things it can offer us.

Today is Zamenhof Day, the birthday of L. L. Zamenhof, Esperanto’s founder. (As featured on the UUA’s Wall of December Holidays.)

The first is a cautionary tale. I like Esperanto, the world’s most commonly used constructed language, in spite of the fina venko movement among Esperantists and not because of it. The fina venko (“final victory”) would be when Esperanto would be used as a second, auxiliary language to communicate across cultures and around the world, and with it improve mutual understanding and reduce the risk of warfare. I enjoy Esperanto for the game quality of learning it and the odd culture that’s grown up around it. (Even the Wall Street Journal picked up on conventional Esperantist wanderlust.) I’d like the fina venko to take place, but I have no faith it will happen. So I won’t invest effort to bring about world understanding that way. There may be some parallels to how people approach churches, but I’ll let you work that out yourself.

The second thing is a newish style of meeting found among North American Esperantists. Esperantists in Europe or Japan have an endless number (the link is to a calendar; in Esperanto, klare, but you can get the gist) of conferences and meetings often somewhat entertaining and often at shockingly little cost. And little wonder for a language community where ali?ilo (“registration blank”)  is a basic vocabulary word.

They’re low-cost because they’re designed that way. If perhaps more than we’re personally accustomed to. Beware the offer of the amasejo (“mass area”) for sleeping: likely a piece of bare floor for which you’ll have to provide a pad and sleeping bag. (This music festival  provided “luxury” accommodation: the same space as the non-luxury, but providing a mattress and bedding. And 20 roommates. But it was 60 euro, for North and South Americans, for nine days. A guesthouse option was also available.) All things being equal, it’s nice to see the needs of the cash-strapped considered.

But in North America, our wide distances and fewer numbers make these extended festivals impractical. Enter the Urba Semajnfino, the City Weekend. Like an overnight meetup. And there may be a model here for Unitarian Universalist affinity groups who want more meeting opportunities.

The organization manual is in Esperanto, but Google Translate makes a decent job for non-Esperantists. It suggests cost savings, even if you don’t want to go as far as sharing beds, and how to price the event. Plus a suggested schedule, how to make the best use of restaurants (UUs and Esperantists both seem to attract vegetarians) and a reminder to cite the event where there are reasonable amenities and a bus or train station.

The take-away: humble and thoughtful planning makes opportunities appear. And that’s world-changing in its own way.

Doing this good work on the cheap

I’ve been very touched by the comments, here and on Facebook, on the previous posts (one, two, three) on the theme of changing Unitarian Universalist public engagement. A thought or two now about resources.

The title, “Doing this good work on the cheap” has a few meanings:

  1. Recognizing that we tend to support this work as secondary and contingent, and thus not supporting this well at all. Thus, trying to do it cheaply.
  2. Recognizing that to start this work, it will have to be accomplished frugally, as its  value will not be established within the congregation, or will be a rival to our current, dominant witness mode of social engagement.
  3. Recognizing that church finances are likely to change radically, and accustomed levels and sources of funding may not be available to fund any church activities.
  4. Recognizing that people’s time is at least as valuable as a financial contribution; both are needed.

Of course, cheap has a moral value, too and I introduce the word as a warning against cheapening this work by ceding its moral dimension. As I wrote last time, much of what we bring as religious people is an orientation to the eternal.

Let’s turn to a couple of actions, both related to information. Information to choose what actions fit best with one’s talents and current need. Information that leads to the preparation of public policy. Better information that confronts misinformation that might be used to stifle a well-chosen course of action, or that might lead to a false compromise.

Here in Washington, anyway, we lean on subject content experts: their writing, their reputation and their services. But they’re not always right, their conflicts of interest aren’t always established and “good” ones don’t come cheap. And an expert may not exist for the problems that exist in your area.

Or, rather, may not be recognized. As I wrote before, I bet we have in Unitarian Universalist congregations more expertise than we appreciate. And if not in the pews, perhaps just one degree of relationship removed. And if we don’t have the talent yet, perhaps there exists someone (or more than one) who have the will and ability to learn. (I’m gathering some training links.)

The Unitarian Universalists I know tend to be tough-minded. (Some may say pig-headed: fine.)  Surely we have the charism to take on wonky policy analysis, propaganda busting and democratizing expertise. Might not cost much, and dearly balance the talking heads whose interests may neither be ours or the most vulnerable members of society.

There’s nothing cheap about that.


The peril of general reform

For the last two days I’ve written about the strong tendency of Unitarian Universalists to engage in political activity that addresses the emotions more than having demonstrable, desirable policy outcomes.

So, what kind of outcomes should we expect?

Perversely, I think we think too large, too grandly, and this is something we share with other churches. Our own story of our sense of mission tells us that “nothing human is foreign to us” and we’ve long suspected that if certain key ills — slavery, alcohol, and binding undergarments come to mind — systems of sin and oppression would fall. Sometimes that meant building institutions like schools, settlement houses and hospitals; at other times the actions were direct, both pious and political. But this kind of general reform only makes sense in the age before the secularization and specialization of the skills the church once kept to itself. Consider, for instance, social work and community organizing. (And I suspect Unitarian Universalists have our share or more of these professionals within our ranks.) And churches are much weaker now. Even if general reform worked — and it’s so tempting to hope it would — it’s day for churches is long over.

So, it seems to me that there are three immediate actions Unitarian Universalist churches can make.

  1. Recruit for the world-changing professions.
  2. Support and encourage those that enter them.
  3. Orient the religious lives of the people to the good that could be rather than blessing the crap out of what is.

(I think I touched my own nerve there. We really, really need a language of the world that doesn’t keep ending up in rural Vermont.)

But the mission of the church isn’t just about encouraging, orienting and commissioning, even though these roles — keeping the big view — are ideal for a church.

In our own congregational tradition, we have developed habits that help us appreciate national and global conditions while applying our own solutions to local needs. What we may have best to offer is this localizing capacity, twinned with a social capital.  I bet there are many people in Unitarian Universalist congregations today that have detailed content knowledge around real world problems, if not thousands on one issue.

And local solutions are terribly important, because these become the models — best practices, thought leadership, policy choices, leadership development, even legal precedent — for action in other localities. So we need to cultivate what we have capacity for, and promote and encourage helpful participants, even if they’re not in our congregations. That’s our mission, too. And we’re more likely to know and live with decision-makers when we work at the local level.

Old models and new media

Before turning to the practical, following up on yesterday’s post about Unitarian Universalist functional discomfort with political power to effect good outcomes for people in hard situations. As before, I’ll keep this brief.

First, we give too much weight to “golden age” models of public witness. By which, of course, I mean demonstrations and opportunities for arrest. (Memorial vigils are a different thing, and I don’t include them here.) There seems to be something more than solidarity or justice-seeking going; something more akin to “anti-war re-enacting.”

The early to mid 1960s must have been a heady, perhaps a, frightening time to demonstrate. (I say “must have been” because like everyone else under fifty, I have no direct knowledge of any of it.) These demonstrations speak to a time of hope before it withered in the embitterment of the late 60s. Also when churches were influential and full. But those days are over and cannot return. Not only do “new occasions teach new duties” but the old idiom of social change looks quaint to younger progressives, and arthritic to the reluctant or hostile. The post-Ferguson demonstrations are the exception that prove the rule: it was the thing to do, as there was nothing else that could be done. But it doesn’t last, and without an action to follow, nothing changes and bitterness ensues. If the Occupy phenomenon shows us anything it’s that organization is hard, and all those in opposition have to do is wait for the fissures develop.

Sometimes people speak of the late 50s and the decade that followed as the “civil rights era” as if the strides made in the next two generations for women; persons with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities; and lesbians and gay men don’t have to do with civil rights. Or, to put it another way, if this isn’t the civil rights era now, what the hell are you bothering with?

The important part is something actionable. Seeking legislation, regulatory or procedural changes, public works adopted or abandoned, sincere apologies and so forth. How you gather the power to prepare and implement the plans is secondary.To paraphase: “without an endgame, the people perish.”

And that brings up social media: the new model. It’s helpful, but I’ll not praise it much, and I’ll be shorter here. Twitter and Facebook — each run by corporations that don’t give a damn about your revolution — can easily create an echo chamber. The number of heart-sick posts on each post-Ferguson told me people were spinning themselves straight from anger to despair, burning off any righteous energy that might have been applied to change. And we can’t afford that.

I’ve said enough for now; feel free to comment.

Why merely cope, when you can accomplish?

I’ll keep this brief.

I don’t know what to make of the kind of political and social liberalism that Unitarian Universalists so typically dwell in. And because this includes some friends, I don’t particularly enjoy pointing this out, but not saying something isn’t at all helpful.

But I already can feel the news cycle pivot away from Ferguson and Staten Island; perhaps United States torture practice will have its turn. And the Monday night demonstration here in D.C. was smaller than the one before. Impatience and cold weather are not friends of a demonstration-based response to a network of evils.

I’m left wondering what the end game was supposed to have been? Surely, there was (and is) a hurt that needed (and needs) to be be dignified through public expression, and it’s right to gather an empathetic companionship. But then what? It’s hard to see us moving beyond that before moving on. Activity internal to Unitarian Universalism, to my mind, counts for little or nothing. What do we have to gain by (what amounts to) an exercise in collective holiness? Less, I contend, than we have to offer by participating constantly in the nitty-gritty of public policy.

And I think we avoid this opportunity because we have grown unaccustomed to political power, and perhaps find it awkward or distasteful as a religious people. And if that’s the case, we need to get over that. So many people view governance and public policy with suspicion, but in doing so surrender their power to those who are left claim it.

I have a couple of ideas about practical actions, at least one of a scale that a group as small — another hard truth — as the Unitarian Universalists can tackle.

An Advent daily reader for mixed generations?

Well, after writing yesterday that I had no comment about Advent… well, a conversation at church changed that.

Do you know of a family — that is, appropriate for use by adult and school-aged children — daily manual for Advent, appropriate for Universalist Christians? Ideally, something with a Bible passage for the day, a meditation and a prayer.

For daily prayers at the Advent wreath?

Anyone have a suggestion? (Intergenerational resources aren’t my strong suit.)

Looking up and seeing malice

I’ve not had much to blog lately. Nothing pertaining directly to the crises in Ferguson or New York City, nor to the related demonstrations in many cities, including Washington. Nothing about Advent or liturgy—something justifiably seasonal—either, and neither lint-pulling nor crabbing seemed appropriate. There’s a time and place for everything, and I’d like to work through a couple of thoughts in the next couple of days.

One fact about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson stood out to me, but I’ve not seen anyone say anything about it. That both men were 6-foot-4. The short end of very tall. As, it happens, am I. (Later. And Eric Garner was 6-foot-3.)

Now, I know several people who are taller — two Unitarian Universalists come to mind — but I’m in the 98th percentile for height (or so). Tallness is a part of how I see myself, down to the fear of too-short pants, losing my head in family photos, a hatred of air travel (thus my preference for the rails) and a wary eye clearing the doors in historic houses.

It’s my experience that people project all kinds of attributes to me — mainly unfriendliness or least unapproachableness; scariness — and rather than fight it I use it sparingly when people trifle with me. (It also makes a good foil when people start up with their gay man projections.) You may even see this non-trifling attitude on the blog. Even so, I was left speechless when a man I know described, jokingly, another 6-4er and me as “monstrous.”

And these experiences should make me less wary of large men, but they don’t. I try to be aware of my surroundings in city settings, including anyone large enough to hurt me. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen some giant come towards me, only to see that he was my height or shorter. I never feel good about that.

Perception of harm is so subjective. Whether that’s in a life-threatening crisis, in personal relations or in the pursuit of public policy. And that’s something my scalp-scarred brethren don’t have a lock on.