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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Terror Behind the Privileged Life

"Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You'll call it a procedure, but it's a surgery."
--City Slickers

This past Monday, a man I barely knew, apart from his credentials, was inside me for four hours. (Nobody else can claim that distinction.)

Nobody else has ever touched me so deeply, right into the very core of my living heart. I was in a drug-induced swoon, of course; I'd never have consented otherwise.

Ours was a complex intimacy: at once tender and violent; detached and as close as breath; life-giving and death-dicing. It was a charnel of blood and burning flesh. And it involved pitiless implements like needles, tubes, clamps, catheters...all the Inquisition could have wished for to bring reprobates face to face with the one true God--a God both beautiful...and terrible

I walk about now, days later, for the first time like the genuinely old man I now qualify to be--racked, stiff-limbed, sore, bruised, aching, breathless. (Oy...) Some sort of threshold has been crossed; I'm not the same guy that went in.

Meet the new boss...
This will seem a too-perfect karmic 'gotcha' to ex-wives and girlfriends, when they learn that (a) I actually possessed a heart and (b) yes, that heart was defective. About 5 years ago, I developed a condition called Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib for short). It's a wiring problem, basically, as opposed to a plumbing problem. The nerve wiring in my heart muscles must have frayed somehow or were prone to fizzling out from birth, and began to short-circuit, kind of like a classic European sports car left out in the rain too long. This short-circuiting suddenly and without warning would, from time to time, re-order my normal sinus reggae-rhythm into something more like free-form Jazz. It feels unpleasant and a little worrisome, but is not actually terribly painful.

How frequently? I was having up to 40 such events a day. Unlike a badly-wired sports car, it won't catch fire or anything, but (and this is why A-Fib used to kill people) it can cause eddies in the flow of blood inside your heart valves. The blood coagulates, then can clot. The clot eventually leaves the heart. Then hey presto, you're either dead or wishing you were.

The schematics of privilege

The treatment is a keyhole 'procedure' called an ablation. The keyhole in question is your groin. To 'ablate' is 'to remove or dissipate by melting, vaporization, erosion'. In fact, a hot needle is used to burn the offending nerve endings, rendering them incapable of ever firing again.

It's not so much fairy lights as "BUZZ, ZAP, POP, CRACKLE"

All this you can look up on WebMD of course, and in any case, a blow-by-blow of the surgery procedure is not why I've tried to detain your attention with this post. I've written this to you because I finally, really understood something about privilege. And it's not what you might think.

If it's one thing that really boils the blood in my veins, and could turn me into a Grand Inquisitor, it's privilege. So much health, wealth, and power, so unearned, all around me, in a world where the vast majority of people have, and will have, NONE. Nothing makes people angrier than to suggest they haven't merited what they've been given, and should maybe think about giving back as much as they can, into the web of relationships that held, sustained, and favoured them. Folk will defend bitterly what objectively amount to accidents of birth: where that birth happens, to whom and in what class, what race, what complex cocktail of genetic material got all shook up to make their uniquely-coded selves...blue eyes, white skin, sound bones, cancer-free organs...

But lying on the gurney under the fluorescent light, with a spike in the back of my hand to admit the chemical oblivion of anaesthesia, I realized that nothing before in my life had prepared me for this. My health had always been insanely good, despite much tempting of fate. I'd never had to think about serious ailment or spend much time in hospitals. And I had done nothing, NOTHING, to merit that. This is why people are always desperate to protect what privilege they have. Not just that they know deep down they haven't really earned it, but--more terrifyingly--No ONE deserves most of what they get. It's all a crap-shoot.

And if it's all chance, we're in a pointless, pitiless universe, and the best we can do is protect what advantage we have in this bitch of a life.

From that defensive posture of privilege: racism, classism, sexism, the hoarding of wealth and power, and that most deformed child, nationalism.

When you see your privilege is JUST privilege, it's a terrifying inquisition demanding you confess what your ultimate meaning is. Randomness? Order? Chaos? God? Speak, man, or we'll use these sharp implements...!

As these thoughts fell into place, I found that tears were trickling out of the corners of my eye onto the gurney's clean white sheets, and to my increased shame, the big blokey male nurse stroked my hair and said, with a warm and infinite kindness, "Don't worry, mate. You'll be right as rain."

"Oh Jesus, sweet Jesus," I think I said.

And then I woke.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Lost for words

The following is a response to a frightful, xenophobic, and (forgive me) un-Unitarian article in a recent publication from a sister church here in Australia: "Australia Under Threat". Thankfully, it's buried on page 4. You'd need to read it, if you can bear it, to get the critique:

Peter Crawford’s Literary Offences

Dear Sun editor:
I refer to Mr. Crawford’s recent article in the SUN (“Australia Under Threat”, The SUN, Dec 2015-Jan 2016).

I am unaware of what, if any, editorial policies govern the inclusion of material for this publication. Policies may be predicated the broadest definition of free speech Mr. Crawford both misquotes and mistakenly attributes to Voltaire. If so, it may be a good idea to consider the difference between liberty and license (that we are not free to deceive, or to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre full of impressionable people, and rightly so). Yet he is given license to do both these things in your pages. But more on that later, as freedom of speech is one of the many red-herring arguments Mr. Crawford scatter-shoots across the two-page spread the editor has allowed him.

Or perhaps, editorial policies are predicated upon a PR model—material most likely to attract and resonate with like-minded people. If so, I would be interested to learn the publication’s distribution numbers and market area reach. As it happens, this issue reached my desk at the Adelaide church, and I shared it with a few congregants who, like me, searched Mr. Crawford’s article in vain for anything resembling content that might attract and resonate with those likely to happen upon Unitarian publications. Still, good to get all views in, I’m sure.

Whatever the editorial policies are, it is clear that rhetorical standards higher than middle school are not among them. Indeed, having taught undergraduate writing at universities for many years, I should have been compelled to hand this back as a ‘fail’ if it had been submitted by any of my students. The essay is replete with factual error or misdirection, logical fallacy, and emotive dog-whistling, but is sadly free of much evidence, balance, or knowledge of the broader context of his subject. The net effect is of shrill, bilious, fear-mongering that leaves the reader suspecting that Mr. Crawford merely needed to get something off his chest, and could perhaps benefit from a few sessions of counselling. He is clearly frightened out of his wits, but his two-page nervous breakdown will be edifying to precisely no-one else.

He begins defensively (never a good rhetorical move), devoting the first two-and-a-half paragraphs to inveighing against political correctness, insisting it muzzles the very freedom of speech he is exercising by writing that it is doing so. Well, clearly not. Or perhaps he has simply been frustrated by being unable to get his views aired on the outlets his freedom of speech has been unconstricted by. The literary offenses in this article may give an indication as to why the ABC has not knocked on his door for comment. How is he or anyone expounding similar views ‘persecuted’? In any case, it would be tedious to list the more widely-read ‘honest comment’, very like his own, that does indeed get published. Andrew Bolt’s regular column is but one example, and, one imagines, an inspiration for Mr. Crawford.

That circularity is not the end of Mr. Crawford’s difficulties with logical argument. Straw men litter the essay. There exist, apparently, immigration lobbies, sleep-walking politicians, unwitting refugee advocates, European political elites, and a tyrannical UNHCR. None of these shadowy cabals apparently have any redeeming points of view worth considering. False choices abound: ‘if I don’t get to air these views, human rights agendas aren’t meaningful.” “If you do not accept we are under threat of a terrorist attack, you are delusional or in denial.” “Charity alone discharges our international responsibilities.” “Refugees brought by smugglers are ‘impostors’.” We are in a simplistic either-or land throughout the piece. But nuance is an enemy to gaseous polemic.

Circularity and false choice are not the least of Mr. Crawford’s offenses to logic. Far worse is the ‘slippery slope’ or ‘thin  end of the wedge’ fallacy that he saves for his emotional coup de grace: we will be ‘targeted’ by ‘millions’ of ‘self-proclaimed’ refugees (as if there’s any other kind until they are verified, but well…), creating a ‘huge’ culture that will lead to ‘out of control’ changes leading to Islamist cultural domination.

What is clearly ‘out of control’ is Mr. Crawford himself. His disdain for providing examples, data, or any clarifying, compelling evidence for his strident, overblown claims. With a student essay with words count limits, limitations of space normally allow some leeway here, but since giving him space is clearly not The Sun’s problem, this can hardly be an excuse. There are:

·        No examples of persecution of honest comment

·        No data on Iraq/Syrian intake to establish his claim that it is increasing to ‘unabated’ levels

·        False claims that the Paris attacks were carried out by refugees who gamed the system

·        No specifics on how far ‘downward’ we should revise refugee intake.

·        Terrorists in Australia’s jails: how many? Evidence that refugee intake is to blame?

Tellingly, the one piece of hard data is an opinion poll from The Australian newspaper, which poll suggests Mr. Crawford speaks for the (70%) majority opinion…of readers of The Australian, he fails to add. It is hard to imagine that anyone with a grasp of the politics of the contemporary media landscape could fail to recognise that our national paper of record has consistently presented ‘honest comment’ that encourages these very views, thus shaping the terms of the debate. It would be tiresome to point out that a popular opinion is not necessarily a correct or informed one.

Perhaps if Mr. Crawford turned his attention from The Australian to actual peer-reviewed academic material on the topic, a more balanced treatment of the subject might appear in your pages. Perhaps if he were a student of the history of Australia’s complicity in creating a region so politically troubled, he might accept the simple cause and effect that if you bomb people, they tend to run, that if you topple their governments and exploit their resources and demonise them, they get angry at you.

But somehow, I doubt it very much. This article is clearly an emotional exercise in discharging Mr. Crawford’s anger and belligerence, larded as it is with scare-words like: threat (in the title and many repetitions), menace, folly, rife, wicked, impostors, unwitting, appeasement (that’s for you WW2 fans), terror, lies, never-ending influx, and on and on ad nauseum. I can reduce the sub-textual effect of his language to one word: “Boo!”

His solutions to his case for a local DefCon2 are to abnegate our responsibility under international agreements Australia not only signed, but co-authored. In effect, he encourages a national violation of law, or at least a 180-degree about-turn. For the vaguely guilt-ridden, he proposes throwing some money (no details on how much per person) at charities managing unmanageable human flows. Because what’s at stake here is OUR comfort on the North Shore. Free from fear of others, free from remorse of conscience. But it needs to be pointed out that if fear made us safer, Mr. Crawford should at least feel secure. But he clearly does NOT feel secure, and this unexamined assumption absolutely undermines and makes ridiculous the trouble he has taken to try to baffle and scare us with this article.

When I used to hand back such ‘fails’ to undergrads, the most usual bleats were “I worked so HARD on it, how can this fail” and “You just don’t agree with me, that’s why you failed me!”. Yeah, nah. I’m not convinced, and that’s because you haven’t convinced me, and you started this by picking the topic. To head off further embarrassments like this article, I might suggest an editorial policy that maintains at least a 1st-year undergraduate standard of competence in making a point with clear reasoning, evidence, and the courtesy not to employ manipulative shock tactics. The ‘Australian civilization’ Mr. Crawford worries so much about, and has self-appointed as spokesman for, would be better served.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Odd Ministerial Request #327: A Blessing for a Snowboard

This was passed on to me through our fellowship in Brisbane this past week:

"My name is _____________ & I am wondering if it is ok/allowed to have my snowboard blessed?
I am a good humble man who was born & raised a Mormon but now as yourself's (sic) have a 
more liberal look on life.
If this is rude of me to ask I apologize. I ask because it would mean a lot to me to have snowboard
blessed before my journey to Japan.
I hope to hear back from you guys"
The sincere tone and sense of child-like trust prompted a typically binary response in your humble scribe.

On the one hand, I was strongly inclined to disabuse him of the notion that some words written by someone he'd never met would have the least effect on the performance, efficacy, or indeed safety of something he's proposing to hurtle down an ice-glazed mountain upon. I was going to say that he if he wanted to be blessed in this endeavour, he'd do better to bless himself by taking lessons, wearing safety gear, or maybe not undertaking what amounts to 'extreme sliding' at all. Snowboarding is a dangerous sport.
Further, I thought it my duty to develop his 'liberal look on life' by suggesting that he liberate himself from magical thinking (surely a persistent hangover from his lapsed Mormonism). That blessings are mere well-wishing, and you don't need clergy to do that. I have no magic powers to spread over the board like wax.
And yet...
On the other hand, liberal ministry (and contextual theology more generally) has to begin where people actually are, rather than where one would wish them to be. Anybody in a place of spiritual transition is a delicate alpine flower that wants slow and careful opening to allow them to adjust to environmental conditions that can be as harsh as a winter blast to a new awareness. Besides, if blessing his snowboard gives him relaxed confidence in its powers, he may ride better.  
Thirty years ago, I was trying to learn to ski in Saas Fee, Switzerland (on a glacier no less). I resisted the extreme sliding with every fibre of  my being. I trusted nothing--not the snow, or the ice, or the skis, or the poles, or myself, or the instructor. And for that lack of letting go... I fell. I fell often and so hard that my instructor told me he'd never seen a person hit the ground so hard and get up again. 
Finally, I twisted my knee hurtling through an appalled crowd and into a snow bank, and gave up to drink Gluwine in the chalet. 
If my correspondent trusts in the efficacy of blessings, maybe I might be good enough to overcome my own peevish lack of trust that "there are more things in heaven and earth..."
So I sent him this:
"May this board that carries me, carry me for joy: joy as pure as the snow it glides upon.

Let forces of gravity, friction, and torque work in harmony with the sparkling miracle of my inner ear's balancing act,
Like a spirit level on the moving ship of my soul's deep delight.
 May it ever keep me mindful that the joy of living gleams just at the sharp edge of risk.
And at the end of each day's use, may I be thankful for its part in my safe return to the level plane of home."
There's no God in it for my snowboarding friend. None at all. Or is there? When we put aside our Pharisaic insistence that our way of seeing the world is right, and just try to use what gifts we have to help someone take the next step in something like comfort and perhaps joy, maybe that's all the God we get to know.
Someone said 'God comes into the world disguised as your life.' The me that tried and failed to ski thirty years ago could not let go, and so he crashed and crashed and quit.
This me can let go, a bit. And I know which feels better, and makes the downhill plunge that is called 'life' a bit more fun. Fun and...what's the word?...Blessed.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"I'll choose what to wear, thanks"

These are the opening remarks I prepared for the opening of Catherine Lambert's exhibition of paintings, featuring iconic women wearing niqab. Present were federal Senator Nick Xenophon and the Muslim Women's Association of SA. (You'll have to read to the end of the post to see samples of the work.)

I’m deeply honoured and flattered to be asked by THE one and only Catherine Lambert to open her first ever exhibition of a series of paintings I first saw a couple years ago in the early stages of development. I liked them immediately and immensely: they are technically accomplished, crisp and draughtsman-like in their rendering, gorgeously, lusciously colourful, and boldly composed. But moreover because I found them provocative and very, very timely in touching a couple of intersecting subjects that lie like exposed nerves in the tissue of our culture: gender equality and Islam. Touching either of these is like touching a live wire—it doesn’t take long before someone’s jumping up and down with their hair on fire.

I admired Catherine’s brave and accomplished work so much that when I was asked as her church Minister to open the show, I very nearly declined. Because when I thought about speaking about it to room full of the sort of people likely to be here, all I could think was “Yes, I’m sure these people will be just dying to know what another white, western male clergyman thinks of art which intersects feminism and Islam. I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not a woman. What right have I speak about such things?

But thankfully your identity isn’t your destiny and further reflection helped me see that the audience these paintings seem to seek to engage (nay, confront) are neither women, Muslims, nor Muslim women, but people for whom the in-your-face contrast in the paintings might just jolt into something like a new way of considering these two very live issues of our times, issues that are poised to evolve and must evolve for all our sakes. For all our technological advancement, we are still in the dark ages about gender equality and about freedom of religious expression in pluralist, multicultural societies.


An anecdote to illustrate: I recently had to endure one of those leafy neighbourhood dinner parties so saturated by grog and privilege that your antennae are on high-alert for the moment anyone blithely strolls into the minefield of politics or religion (this is an occupational hazard of ministry). One gentlemen was in high dudgeon about how Islam oppresses women. He was morally certain that any woman wearing hijabi (burqa, niqab, etc.) was necessarily coerced into wearing it, therefore cruelly oppressed, by being denied their fundamental right to choose what to wear. Allowing that this was not some half-baked brain-belch from a mono-diet of the Murdoch press and talk-back radio, I helpfully, I thought, pointed out things like World Hijab Day--the movement within Islam to frame the wearing of hijabi as an expression not of absence of choice, but of a particular kind of choice—a choice for modesty, piety, and their inherent worth as children of the God of their understanding, rather than any apparent worth as objects of the male gaze. That true freedom might just have more to do with expressing your essential being than with conforming to current western notions of female beauty.

Of course, I failed to sway him, but my neighbour’s view is far from aberrant, and is supported by more sober and thoughtful folk. The ex-Muslim feminist writer Arshia Malik, writing in theNation says that when Muslim women claim wearing hijabi is about the freedom of choice of clothing, they deny the freedom to those women who would prefer to reject it as a sign of oppression. The "freedom to wear what I choose" argument, she says, is in fact sustaining the patriarchal order of Muslim society.

Anyone with any experience in student politics will recognize this as the old ‘false consciousness’ argument: you poor darling, you only THINK you’re free, and any claim you make to freedom of choice is but more proof of your self-deluded enslavement. False consciousness is an insidious form of argument because you can’t disprove it! Like the old doctrine of sin: “The sinful don’t know they’re sinning because they’re sinful”. Or the psychoanalysis trap: “The more you resist psychotherapy, the more you clearly need it.” There is no escape.

Thankfully postmodernist thinking has exploded that old trick: when people claim to be exercising agency, exercising freedom to choose despite (or in accordance with) their enculturation, you have literally no way of knowing that they are not doing so freely. No one has a clear, comprehensive, and objective window into another person’s thoughts. There can be no moral certainty about the inner life of another.

This exhibition is titled, with disarming directness, “I’ll choose what to wear, thanks”, and celebrates and makes visible that free inner agency. I was taught by nuns who wore the full wimple (practically indistinguishable from the hijab). In my youthful innocence, it never once occurred to me that the nuns hadn’t freely chosen to don that striking and inconvenient garb, just as freely as the many nuns who later chose to take it off. I am the father of two grown daughters. In my paternal innocence, it never occurred to me that all of the ways I watched them accommodating their identity to the male gaze—hair colour and style, makeup, jewelry, clothing, tatts, and piercings—was not something they too were freely choosing . If the patriarchy is so comprehensive and inescapable, can anyone exercise a truly free choice unconstrained by the power of patriarchal norms and expectations?

I’m not so sure. To say there’s no free choice in such matters is to deny the very existence of free will, an essential quality that makes us human. The common-sense materialism of our times suggests we are mere matter, mechanically running a DNA program, and thus choice and free will are an illusion we’ve developed to give ourselves an empowered self-image we can live with, and thus gives us the self-confidence to reproduce the DNA program.

But free will is the ghost in this machine. Think of the difference between just wanting something and wanting to want it. If you put 6 kinds of cat food in front of the cat, you aren’t giving it free choice. The cat will be driven to eat something if it’s hungry. But a cat can’t decide to want to want the food. The cat can’t decide for example to go on a diet-- or starve itself to waif-like thinness (speaking of accommodating yourself to the male gaze). Human beings can want to want things, or not. That’s free choice.

So when we speak of free will and free choice, we speak of a mental event, an event un-locatable in space and time, unmeasurable, and therefore beyond the reach of science. Something of a mystery. It certainly feels autonomous. Whether it is real or not, whether it IS actually as free as it feels, is a much-contested philosophical question, and (you’ll be glad to know) beyond the scope of this chat. But I would ask you to consider if life would be worth living if free will and choice were just illusions. What of personal responsibility? Praise? Blame? The notion of morality itself presumes freedom of choice. Without that mental event we call a free choice—a mystery I would claim is evidence of something very like a soul—what would we be but automata?

We may still be in the dark about truly knowing ourselves as much as we are about gender equality and religious freedom, but Catherine’s paintings fairly burst--not with darkness--but with spectral light—a light that is only partly veiled by the hijabi...like fig leaves that almost ask to be whipped off to reveal the starkness of this truth—that choosing or not choosing to wear something is not where our fullest human liberation lies, but in the act of choosing itself. It does not skill to ask ‘how free is that free choice’. We’ve little enough knowledge of our own minds to claim exact knowledge of the mind of another. And this should counsel humility, even (dare I say it) modesty best expressed by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

This should apply to anyone—man, woman, Muslim, white western clergyman… whoever. That understanding takes mindfulness and imagination. That sort of thinking is hard, and judging is easier, so mostly people judge. Catherine, it seems to me, wants you instead to think, and this striking series of paintings makes you do just that.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What can and can't be measured

A recent post by the wise and excellent UU Minister Ton Schade does what he always does--introduce the heads of several nails to the hammer of his clear vision. Each dot point has the ring of a resounding thwack!

Rev. Tom Schade

Much of his post echoes the changing ecclesiological landscape described by Mike Piazza in this year's UUMA institute seminars. Only on one point do we substantially differ.

My own (admittedly limited) experience is that the idea of place seems to matter just as much as it ever did and perhaps more, not less, in a world of virtual communication and associations. (Yes, I am aware we are in a virtual communication space right now...) Ironically, though, if our places are going to be imagined on the model of 'community hub', they require more paid professional staffing in a context of diminishing financial support.

For example: we were renting out our manse at a handsome return, thus becoming a landlord- neighbour, and thus its use for our community was limited to the sanctuary and a couple small adjoining rooms. This naturally limited what we could do to engage the community. Over the past year, though, we have re-framed the manse as a community hub, administered by a single, woefully-underpaid, part-time admin. assistant. The flow of community groups through the place has increased markedly, as has added to an already healthy vibrancy.

It looks quiet here. But the manse is around the back, and it hums.
BUT the financial return is a fraction of the rent we were getting. Money you can measure; relevance and vibrancy you cannot. When it comes to the crunch, my fear is that the older generation (boomers raised in  culture of unquestioned economic rationalism) will always look to what's bankable in the immediate term. The only way around land-lording again, it seems, is to grow a culture where community pledging can be fostered to match community need. But as Tom rightly points out, that effort would further drain an already shallowing pond of people's disposable revenue in the post-GFC context.

I study and pray daily for a vision that finds a way to reconcile relevance/vitality and finance.

No word from On High yet. (C'mon God....where's my enlightenment? I haven't got all day...)

In the meantime, any human wisdom (from you, dear reader) would be welcome.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rollercoaster as lifestyle choice

This is just a strange anomaly, surely, and probably means nothing. Because we all know there’s no plan or design or pattern or MEANING to the universe, don’t we? Or was Einstein right when he said “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous”?

On my way to the biennial ANZUUA conference in Melbourne last week, I stopped off to catch up with my youngest daughter, Rosie. She moved there earlier this year to prepare for study at RMIT. In the intervening months she’s managed to get plenty of paid work in the lively nightlife of the St. Kilda area, established a thriving social circle, landed a boyfriend (whom I tried hard to find fault with, but couldn’t), and moved into a funky share house across the road from St. Kilda beach.

This house is in the shadow of the Luna Park rollercoaster, so now Rosie’s grown-up lullabies involve the blood-curdling screams of strangers hurtling toward an eye-popping adrenaline rush. “You can get used to anything daddy”, she says…

Basically, living near this means 20,000 noisy neighbours
But here’s the thing: I thought I was the only person I knew who grew up in this uniquely odd fix--in the shadow of a rattling rollercoaster and summer nights of screaming mayhem. My family home in West Baltimore was in the shadow of the Gwynn Oak Park rollercoaster. So Rosie’s 'lifestyle choice' officially makes this unlikeliest of home-sweet-home settings a family tradition!

Our old house is just out of shot to the right
I’m told that anomalies like this run in families. Coincidence or epigenetics? Or a shared something deeper?

It’s tempting to say that Rosie’s whole life has been a rollercoaster ride, and that my life choices bought her a ticket on that ride. International move, family break-up, changes of address, new step-parents, and a major shift in Dad’s career and income level just when she most needed the ride to stop for a while. She fell in a heap for a couple years, and during that time, we orbited the gravitational pull of her collapsing self, the way even light is sucked towards a collapsing star. (This is how ‘black holes’ are formed.)

Down and down into herself she plunged, and we thought Rosie might never come back. But she (ahem)…rose again. And Rose in fact blooms again, rather like the roses that are blooming everywhere, now it’s Spring. It’s easy to forget that just a few weeks ago, these breath-taking sprays of fragrant roses were barren stems, fracturing and scoring the sky  like the rickety limbs of old wooden rollercoasters in the off-season.

(Query: Would a silent, un-ridden rollercoaster be better? Or worse? Why?)

The scarlet blush of roses that nestle among thorns.
The screams from a ride that’s both scary and fun.
Falling down to rise up again.

Such paradox is the sign of things that are deeply, enduringly, alive. Whatever God may be, paradox is how it reveals itself to us.

In the Amusement Park that is this world of time and space and movement and change, the rollercoaster contrasts nicely with the carousel. The spills and hills that thrill, versus the round and round, that never leaves the ground.

Sedate, but not stimulating...
(Query: which ride would YOU prefer? Why? Answer carefully!)

Maybe the rollercoaster is just the Macpherson way. But maybe also the rollercoaster can teach you (even at my age), that the ups-and-downs are never as life-threatening as your amygdala thinks they are. Comes a steep hill’s crest, and the screaming ramps up, and you feel your guts churning and falling away, and your amygdala begins to squirt out survival chemicals by the quart, and suddenly every cell in our bodies is yelling: “Fight or flee! Fight or flee!” And moments later you clatter to a stop, breathless but intact. And most are ready to go again.

There’ll be other ups and downs coming for her, I know, and some of them may be terrifying. But I thought I saw, as I took leave of her, the look that people have when the ride stops: a kind of startled happiness that says: “Oh wow, let’s do that again!”

"You can get used to anything, daddy." 

Du courage, mon petit. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Freedom of the Pulpit, Freedom of the Pew

The very bedrock of our Unitarian tradition is the free practice of religion, first articulated in the Edict of Torda in 1568.  If people ask you when Unitarianism started, that is as close to a solid inception date as can be offered.  It was a doctrine of radical tolerance of religious diversity, and a bold way forward in the context of the blood-soaked Reformation. Here's the crucial bit of that edict:

Tweet-able form" We need not think alike to love alike.:

"...in every place the preachers shall preach the Gospel according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well.  If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, and no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone..." 

And so from that time, "freedom of the pulpit" and its corollary, "freedom of the pew", have been among the most hallowed traditions of our faith.  In our tradition, no one is compelled to preach any particular doctrine, nor is anyone compelled to accept what is preached.  What prompted this radical commitment to freedom was nothing less than a maelstrom of factionalism and the blood of countless martyrs.
There are many ways of roasting someone alive. This is the old-school method.
Five hundred years later, this Unitarian's admittedly limited experience of our congregations here and abroad, as well as the history of our movement, suggests that this deep foundation of freedom is little spoken of, and thus is poorly understood. And that's probably because, like most deep assumptions, we haven't looked closely at it for a long while.  We should.  We should look at this, to better understand our unique identity and institutional power as Unitarians.  And we should also look at this to minimise the body count of our own internal martyrdoms, the blood on the hands of those who fell them, and the trauma of those who happen to witness it.
Every martyrdom leaves traumatised witnesses.
This I do know:  When we don't like what we hear, Unitarians, for all their intellect, are not above eating our own, even when our own happen to be persons of actual acknowledged genius.  For example, William Ellery Channing, the most prominent Minister in America and famously called the 'Father of American Unitarianism', whose sermons packed public halls and parks, was unceremoniously kicked off the pulpit of the Federal Street Church in Boston.  His offence?  Vocal support for the abolition of slavery.  Likewise, Theodore Parker so offended the Boston upper-classes with what today would be seen as a non-literal reading of the scriptures, that they blocked him from the preaching rotation of Boston churches.  His offence?  Just not Christian enough.  How times have changed.
Abolish slavery, Channing?!? Get the firewood!
And haven't changed...the common parlance among my UK colleagues for ministries that end up in a shunned heap is a 'failed ministry'.  But if Channing's and Parker's ministries were 'failed', where does the failure truly lie?  In these ministers?  In those congregations?  Both?  Or maybe there's something inherent in the twin freedoms of pew and pulpit that tends to make us fly apart?

My own sense is that many of us still have 'the bends' from previous experiences of dogmatic, hierarchical religions.  Like scuba-divers who have surfaced too quickly, our systems convulse when confronted with preaching that is not in our spirit.  We can feel as bitterly oppressed and shamed by that free expression as by a papal edict.  But also, as free beings in the pews, we are free to unburden ourselves of these difficult feelings without fear that our expression of dissent will put us beyond continuing fellowship (as in an excommunication).  The result of this can be--and has been--carnage within some of our churches, ironically replaying the darker side of our Reformation past.

Let us, at least, assume the best intentions of the pulpit and of the pew.  Let us assume no one takes the trouble to ascend the pulpit with anything other than the intention to speak the truth as he or she sees it, and does so with hours of thoughtful preparation and with an open heart.  Let us also assume that no free person in the pews of a free church should be the denied the truth of their own experience, and the right to express it.  Let us now imagine a scenario in which the truths of the pulpit and the pew point in different directions.  So what would be your default reaction when you hear preaching you don't agree with?  Button-holing the minister in a rage during coffee hour?  Secretly gathering a cabal of dissent, with the intention of exerting pressure to silence such preaching?  Inwardly seething?  Slipping quietly away?
What would be the appropriate forum for the expression of profound disagreement with preaching?  Certainly not in our public worship, which, since it is open to all, is not an ideal place to lift up the burnt offerings of a church's internal disputes.  Many UU churches have stopped the 'Candles of Sharing' part of the service for this reason.  Coffee hour?  Again, probably not.  Why should a few hijack our one weekly opportunity for large-group, celebratory fellowship? Where then?

I'm just a minister, so my answers to this will probably sound like hackneyed answers.  But for me, a first stop-off point before expressing defiant dissent might be... prayer--a private, internal conversation between you and whatever is your highest thought, deepest feeling, noblest aspiration, most peaceful hope.  Call it reflection, discernment...whatever.  During that time of inward reflection, it's not uncommon to feel fears and angers 'dial down' somewhat.  And who knows?  Without the big feelings, a sense of equanimity may result--an opportunity to remember that no one compels you to accept what you've heard, and the confidence to 'live and let live.'

Having prayed about one's disagreement with a preaching, but still troubled by it, a pastoral dialogue might be the logical next step.  After all, any pastor will want to know of things troubling the hearts and souls of those in his or her spiritual charge.  With immediate post-worship feelings dialled-down, and without an audience to play to, both the minister and the member can speak more calmly and openly.  And who knows?  If not a meeting of minds, certainly a mutual respect for each other's positions becomes more possible in such a context. If no such meeting of minds or mutual respect results from pastoral dialogue, there is then a tough choice to make.  
Our pulpit can't be both free and coerced.  And no one can, or should be, compelled to listen to more of what one finds offensive to one's spirit.  The pew is indeed free, and that means free to leave it altogether, for a while or for good.  What makes such a choice more difficult is the fact that people may come to church for more than their spiritual lives; they also come for community.  And it would be hard to leave a place where you'd found that.  Truth-telling or harmony?  This can be a vexed choice.

In some cultures, like China, social harmony is prized over truth.  In some cultures, like the USA, individuality is prized over social harmony.  The 'downsides' to both these extremes should be obvious.  Is it too much for us to imagine that BOTH the truth of the individual’s experience AND their need for social harmony can live together in a perpetual tension?  Like the yin and the yang, like Kali and Shiva, like Jacob and the Angel, they have wrestled for all time.
Spoiler: The Jacob v. Angel match was a draw.
And that means our challenge as a truly free church is to accept that we live within tensions created by our mutual freedom which never resolves one way or the other, and knowing that, to still covenant to bear each other up nevertheless.

            Maybe that's not such a hackneyed answer after all.