Monday, September 1, 2014

"That's a fact" - the two sides of life

I was first introduced to the writing of Linda McCullough Moore when her short story, “On My Own Way Now,” appeared in the April, 2014, issue of The Sun Magazine. I was so taken by it, and blessed by it, that I investigated her published writing further and besides being published in many magazines and journals learned that she has a book of short stories entitled, “This Road Will Take Us Closer To The Moon.” It is a book of 14 stories that, as with “On My Own Way Now,” I feel blessed by.

From some brief email correspondence I learned from Ms. Moore that she is deeply Christian which puts her work in the same frame for me as Flannery O'Connor and like Flannery O'Connor, Ms. Moore does not shy away from the dark side of life but entering this world of suffering is able to bring our attention to the absurdity and incongruity of the lives we have created, often hellish in tone, on the ego plane. Reading Moore’s stories I laugh and cry and realize once again, and then again that there has to be a better way. It is in this realization that there must be a better way that Moore’s stories prod us to a more spiritual awareness, a desire to be better people than we are.

In the first story, “That’s a fact” Moore tells the story through the eyes of probably a 10 or 11 year old girl in 1955 about the time her family goes to visit neighbors at Christmas time who are German immigrants having come to the United States after World War II. The German father teaches at a local college while the narrator’s father sells cars. The Germans extol the virtues and benefits of life in the United States while the narrator’s father finally shares what he really thinks and feels about his life. Here is a short excerpt of how Moore writes the scene:

“I am a scientist at university,” the husband says. “The world is open for us now.”

“Well, good for you, buddy.” My father’s voice could knock down soldiers. “I didn’t finish high school.” He addresses his remarks to the shoelace he pulls between two fingers. “And let me tell you, my friend, your life is pretty rotten when you got no education in this country, and a wife and three kids and a fourth on the way.”

I snap my head around and catch my mother’s eye, but she is looking at her lap. My sister grimaces, and shrugs don’t look at me, I didn’t do it.” pp. 4-5

Moore describes class in America and how it feels on the street. Even immigrants with a better education have it better than home grown Americans without an education, and this discrepancy is perceived and understood by a child watching her parents interact with this German family at Christmas time.

The title of Moore’s story “That’s a fact” refers to the juxtaposition of what the 10 year old narrator reads in her Weekly Reader at school and what she experiences in her real life. The title of the story, “That’s a fact,” is irony at its best. 

The narrator in Moore’s story tells us, “I read a story in the newspaper about a family in Germany who were so poor they ate candle wax. You won’t find that in the Weekly Reader. The paper said that the family died of poisoning. They boiled needles from a yew tree to make broth.”p.5

We get the sense through the narration of this young girl that there are two worlds: the official one, the supposedly official one, described in the Weekly Reader, and the real one where people struggle, suffer, and die.


Rev. Galen Guengerich has written that the ethical imperative of Unitarian Universalism could be gratitude, but it is hard for broken people, suffering people, struggling people to feel gratitude. That brokenness, struggle, and suffering has to be recognized, acknowledged, and addressed before people can move to gratitude. The young narrator of this story realizes, even at her young age of supposed innocence and naiveté, that the “facts” she is reading in her Weekly Reader and the pretense that her family tries to project outside of the house is not really real. There is a clear appreciation that people live in a dream of pretentious wishing while the deeper reality is uglier, more painful, and frightening. And Moore, in the title of her story, writes, That’s A Fact.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

If you don't know where you're going any road will take you there.

The third principle of Unitarian Universalism, "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations," when looked at deeply, has several interesting aspects.

First, why does the principle stop with "our congregations" and not extend outward to the community and world? Unitarian Universalism is known for its inclusivity not its exclusivity and yet in this principle it explicitly makes an exclusive statement that acceptance and encouragement to spiritual growth is affirmed and promoted in "our congregations" and not throughout the community the congregation is ensconced in nor the world. Unitarian Universalists eschew evangelisation and proselytization, but it seems odd that UUs would not want to share their faith beyond their congregations. Perhaps this limit in vision in this third principle is why the denomination has remained very small and, in fact, is shrinking.

Second, "acceptance" and "encouragement to spiritual growth" have little meaning without a frame of reference, a model, some map, a context for what this might entail. This question of what is spiritual growth is not answered easily and depends on the practice of the fourth principle which is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Without some sense of "the truth" and some answer to the question of "what gives life meaning" we are lost when we try to answer the question of what "acceptance" might mean, and "encouragement to spiritual growth" might entail.

The Dali Lama has said that the meaning of life is happiness. The next question, "what will make me happy" is the humdinger, where the rubber hits the road. The devil is in the details as they say. Will tailgating and getting loaded before the football game make me happy. "Hell, yes." Hedonism many people believe makes them happy. I'm not sure that UUs would agree, certainly not all UUs. So what would Unitarian Universalism offer as an alternative to Hedonism as a pathway to achieve a happy life? Unitarian Universalism obviously has not come up with anything popularly recognized because there are hundreds of thousands of more people tailgating on any given Sunday at football games than ever attend a UU congregational activity.

Third, human beings are meaning making creatures and while Unitarian Universalism claims to draw from six primary sources, it does not do well in integrating the perennial wisdom of these six sources and so the nuggets of wisdom, gold, the diamonds of crystallized grace, get overlooked in the mud and slurry of nonessential nonsense in which these nuggets of wisdom are embedded. The function of the new religion of the 21st century should be to help us ferret these nuggets of wisdom out of the mines of these six sources, and yet this work is failing to get done and so people even if attracted to Unitarian Universalism wander on because while the acceptance may be there on the congregations part, it is not there on the seekers part because the encouragement to spiritual growth is not found only psychobabble and mediocre fellowship offered over coffee and scones. Acceptance is a two way street, and while congregations desperate for new members who can help pay the bills will accept just about anybody no questions asked, just sign the book, the seeker finds nothing of substance, nothing challenging enough, coherent enough, to make a disciplined commitment to which will facilitate the growth sought. And so UU congregations continue to be very small and losing members because they offer nothing coherent, substantive, meaningful to the growing population of "nones" in our society who state that they are "spiritual" but not "religious."

Fourth, in conclusion, Unitarian Universalism needs to develop more clarity about this "spiritual growth" thing. Do they even know what they are talking about or is this just psychobabble? Perhaps we will get a better idea when we move on to the next principle which is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The huge danger which Unitarian Universalism has not addressed well is the old proverb that if you don't know where you are going any road will take you there.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Short video of TransCanada XL pipeline protest on 08/05/11 at Governor's mansion in Lincoln, Nebraska

The TransCanada XL pipeline protest on 08/05/11 at the Nebraska governor's mansion in Lincoln which Mary Pipher writes about in her book, The Green Boat. You can see Mary Pipher pass through the crowd right at the very end of the 2:56 minute video.

The Green Boat by Mary Pipher

God calls us to be faithful. Whether we are successful or not is in God's hands.

Mary Pipher has written another wonderful book when she wrote, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves In Our Capsized Culture. While she has her Bachelor's degree in anthropology and her Ph.D in psychology, she has the mind and sensitivity of a poet and a humanist. She writes in her last chapter, "Former Czech president Vaclav Havel wrote of a moment when societies come their senses and decide to live 'outside the lie.'" p. 215. Certainly the United States has not yet arrived at that moment to 'live outside the lie' with its commitment and foundation planted squarely on the ground of predatory capitalism which has bought the three branches of our government lock stock and barrel with the United States Supreme Court ruling that money is speech allowing billionaires and corporations to buy their representatives in our congress, senate,  Presidency, Governorships and state houses.

And yet, Pipher writes a few paragraphs later, "More and more of us are grasping that we are all connected and part of one living organism, our biosphere. p.216

She writes on the next page, "Nobody knows what will happen to the planet, but we do know what makes humans stronger, healthier, and more resilient. That is facing the truth, dealing with it emotionally, and transforming it. Regardless of the results of our work, when we are doing our best, we feel happier and less alone. With the right attitude, we can withstand any storm." p.217 This seems to be a matter of faith, a faith of Pipher's. Not everyone would share it. Will humans ever get "the right attitude?" And if they don't, they won't be able to "withstand any storm." Hundreds of people didn't in New Orleans with Katrina or on Staten Island and in New York City with Hurricane Sandy, and with the other droughts and floods and the rising of the Atlantic Ocean faster than predicted on the upper east coast of the United States we shall see how well we "withstand" these environmental and planetary changes. I, and I assume you who are reading this, hope that Pipher is right as well that we will be resilient enough to not only to withstand it but learn from it and correct our dysfunctional beliefs and practices.

There are two more quotes I would like to share with you that Pipher writes at the end of her book. First, she writes:

"Happiness and sustainability depend on everyone healing everyone else. As we repair our relationships with the web of life, the web of life will repair us. Healing the earth is not a liberal or a conservative idea - it is a form of prayer." pp.217-218. It has been the prayer of Unitarian Universalists since 1985 when the seven principles were revised and adopted at that year's UUA general convention including the seventh principle, a "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

Second, Pipher writes in her last paragraph of the book, "Most of us take care of what we love and we grow to love what we take care of. Every place has the potential to be beautiful and filled with love - in other words, sacred." p. 219

And so, The Green Boat by Mary Pipher ends. It is a wonderful book describing depression, fear, frustration, discouragement, impending doom which ends with hope, faith, and love for ourselves and future generations and all living things on earth. While Mary describes herself as the "world's worst Buddhist" she, as I suggested earlier, should be nominated for an award as a Unitarian Universalist luminary as her work exemplifies the UU values.

The moral of the story is that we need not be depressed as long as we work in loving, joyful, fun ways with others to create a better world. Like Mother Teresa, Dr. Pipher seems to advise that we not worry so much about success, the results of our efforts, because we can easily become discouraged being thwarted and beaten by opposing forces with more money and resources and power, but we should take comfort and satisfaction and fulfillment in doing our best with grace, courage, persistence and love. As Mother Teresa said, "God calls us to be faithful, not to be successful." Whether we are successful or not is in God's hands. Our faith inspires us to answer the call. If Pipher and other like minded people in Nebraska can join together, forge new relationships and work together to protect the earth, we can too.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Jennifer Lunden's article The Butterfly Effect

If you enjoyed the discussion on UUAWOL about Flight Behavior you might enjoy Jennifer Lunden's article about the Monarch Butterflies, entitled the Butterfly Effect which appears in the collection of articles in the new book "True Stories, Well Told" which is a collection of articles which have appeared in the last 20 years in the Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Lunden's article was also selected for the Pushcart prize.

You can access the article by clicking here.

Also, my book of the collection of articles which appeared here entitled, "Critical Reading of Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: A Unitarian Universalist's Perspective" is available from Amazon.com.

Story of the day - Without vision the people perish or enjoy afternoon delight

He raised his voice slightly and intoned, "It is said in Proverbs, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish', and where is the vision in this congregation? Who is it we want to become? What is it that we, as a people, feel called to do for ourselves, our community, our world?"

Barry felt a tingle in his spine. Rev. Burnett was usually not this inspired, this decisive, this forceful. Barry liked what he was saying, but also felt slightly anxious, afraid, but of what? He elbowed Linda and stuck his chin out at the reverend up in the pulpit preaching. She nodded. She looked like she felt it too.

When they went to brunch later after the service Barry said to Linda, "What was up with Doug this morning? He seemed a bit wound up. What's with all this vision stuff?

Linda said, "Barb told me he is thinking of leaving. She said that Melony told her that Doug is feeling burned out. He's lost his spark," she said, "as if he ever had any."

"He seems like a nice guy," said Barry. "Everybody likes him."

"Maybe that's the problem," said Linda. "Nice guys finish last."

"I wonder if he's depressed," said Barry.

"Yeah, well Barb said that Melony told her that he did start on some antidepressant, Zoloft, or Prozac, or something like that."

"Well maybe that explains it then. Doug has discovered a little more fire in his belly. Maybe he is amping up to actually lead this congregation somewhere instead of just coast in a sea of mediocrity," said Barry.

"The question," Linda said, "if you are right, is will we follow?"

"Where is he guiding us," said Barry, "is the first question we would have to have answered before we get to that one."

"All I know," said Linda, "is if you don't know where you're going any road will take you there, and we have been taking Sunday morning leisurely drives all over the place for the last 4 years since he has been here and we've arrived at absolutely nowhere that I can see."

"Ahhhhhh," said Barry laughing, " nowhere is somewhere even though when you get there you don't know where you are."

"Exactly," said Linda laughing with him, "we are somewhere, maybe, and if Doug figures out where he is, and we are, maybe he will tell us as his vision thing becomes clearer to him."

"Remember when the kids were little and we'd be traveling that long trip to your mother's and we wouldn't have even traveled 30 minutes and the kids would start asking, 'are we there yet?', and we'd say ' we still have a long way to go. Take a nap. Go to sleep.'?"

"Are you suggesting that we take a nap, go to sleep, until Doug figures out where we are going and we get there?" said Linda.

Barry said, "Linda, honey, it's Sunday. We have a whole afternoon to ourselves. It's been awhile. How about we enjoy some 'afternoon delight?'"

"Splendid," was all she said with  a Mona Lisa smile on her face.

My Kind Of Church Music - Afternoon Delight, Starland Vocal Band