Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Stem Cells: This Time It’s Personal

President George Dubya "My Own Reality" Bush
with "Snowflake Babies" and their families

Sure, to the mansions of the blest,
When infant innocence ascends,
Some angel, brighter than the rest,
The spotless spirit’s flight attends.
On wings of ecstasy they rise,
Beyond where worlds material roll;
Till some fair sister of the skies
Receives the unpolluted soul.

That inextinguishable beam,
With dust united at our birth,
Sheds a more dim, discolor’d gleam
The more it lingers upon earth.
Closed in this dark abode of clay,
The stream of glory faintly burns:—
Not unobserved, the lucid ray
To its own native fount returns.

But when the Lord of mortal breath
Decrees his bounty to resume,
And points the silent shaft of death
Which speeds an infant to the tomb—
No passion fierce, nor low desire,
Has quenched the radiance of the flame;
Back to its God the living fire
Reverts, unclouded as it came.

--Unitarian President John Quincy Adams

Did you hear about the press conference/spectacle Dubya staged at the White House today to rally opposition to stem-cell research? He invited a bunch of families to bring their cute-as-the-dickens toddlers to help him. He dressed the kids in t-shirts that said, “I’m a snowflake baby”. You see, these kids had once been surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) therapy that were frozen for storage, then thawed out and given to other infertile couples for gestation. Bush’s point was that every embryo is a precious baby waiting to be born, and that using them for experimentation rather than giving them the opportunity for birth is a grossly immoral affront to our common humanity.

Heart-tuggingly sympathetic, isn’t it?

Maybe, but it’s also a freakin’ cynical, bald-faced, goddam lie.

Fausto and Mrs. Fausto know a thing or two about this. You see, twelve years ago, after several years of trying to conceive the normal way, we went through IVF treatment. The treatment was enormously stressful, but also enormously successful, and resulted in almost two dozen viable embryos. Five were implanted, and one of them gestated into the graceful pre-teen known to the blogosphere as “Faustoette”, whom attendees of the Philocritics’ picnic actually met in person a few weeks ago. Five were frozen for a possible second pregnancy attempt. Two years later, upon thawing, it turned out that only one of those five had survived freezer burn -- and even that one was a near thing, because two of its four cells did not survive -- but Fausto and Mrs. Fausto watched in amazement as the two remaining cells divided into four again before our eyes under the electron microscope. Those two cells are now the rambunctious, scary-smart Game Boy addict first known in utero as “Nanook” or “the Popsicle Kid”, and now known to the blogosphere as “Fausto Jr.”, whom some of you bloggers also met in person at our picnic.

Faustoette and Fausto Jr. haven’t been told any of this yet, but one day soon, perhaps when Fausto Jr. takes OWL, they will be amazed to learn that they are, in fact, twins born two years apart.

The rest of the dozen or so in the litter, tragically, weren't so lucky. Our fertility clinic explained to us that, because it is impossible to control how many ova will be harvested in a given cycle and how many of the harvested ones will fertilize and become viable embryos, there are many more viable embryos produced by IVF programs than there are mothers (either natural or adoptive) willing to gestate and bear them. Some can be frozen for later use, as we chose to do, and as Bush’s “snowflake babies” exemplify, but many more are either simply discarded or frozen and never thawed. Moreover, there is substantial attrition in the freezing-and-thawing process, and the shelf-life of frozen embryos is not long, as we ourselves learned firsthand. Of our total embryonic brood, four were implanted but did not gestate, four were frozen and did not thaw successfully, two resulted in healthy live births, and a dozen were simply discarded as surplus.

And our doctor considered us an amazing success story.

One day soon after Faustoette was implanted, Fausto with very conflicted feelings wandered out of his office building in downtown Boston, stared at the closed doors of Kings Chapel across the street, walked a block and a half further to the open doors of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, lit a dozen candles, knelt in a pew, and said a dozen silent, wistful prayers for Faustoette’s discarded siblings. May they be restored to their perfect union with the God of infinite love and grace, who so generously and profligately created them that we might be blessed with the miracle of Faustoette (and, later, Fausto Jr.). Dubya has this much right: all embryos represent potential life, and all life is precious.

Yes, Faustoette and Fausto Jr. are miracles. To have two of them is more than we honestly or rationally expected. It would have been even more miraculous if some other childless parents had volunteered to try to gestate the rest of them, and more miraculous still if any of those had been successfully born.

But this is where Bush goes so wildly, disgustingly, blasphemously, psychotically wrong. His position, when you boil it down, is that each one of those “snowflake babies” represents not an utterly improbable miracle, but an inviolable entitlement. Embryos are precious life, yes, and carry the potential to gestate into born babies, yes, but the odds for any particular single embryo in any of the many IVF clinics around the nation and around the world successfully to be implanted, to gestate to term, and to be born alive are dauntingly small. To prevent the many embryos that will never have even a chance for implantation from being used to help improve other lives, and to force them to be destroyed instead, is cruel and monstrous. It is delusional; it is elevating a schizoid fantasy over objective reality; it is doing evil and imagining it to be good.

If Mrs. Fausto and I had been told that Faustoette’s dozen embryonic siblings would be used to start stem-cell lines or further immunological or regenerative organ research rather than be discarded as so much waste, we would have danced for joy, rather than grieved and prayed. And I believe with every fibre of my being that God would have been right there dancing with us.

A Modell of Christian Charity?

The Rev. Creighton Lovelace, pastor of the Danieltown Baptist Church in Forest City, NC, earned his fifteen minutes of fame and an interview on the evening news (MSNBC) today by planting this sign in front of his church on the busiest road in the county.

In news reports, Rev. Lovelace was quoted as saying, "I don't hate Muslims, I just hate their false doctrines." On national TV, the smug little butterball actually waved a Bible at the camera (They do that for real and not just in caricatures?) and flat-out said the Koran was a corruption of the truth, the work of Satan.

Something tells me Pastor has been paying way too much attention to the book of Revelation, and not nearly enough to the sayings of Jesus himself, lately.

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
Luke 6:41

"Judge not, that ye be not judged."
Matthew 7:1

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets."
Matthew 7:12

"Not every one that saith unto me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?' And then will I profess unto them, 'I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.'"
Matthew 7:21-23

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."
Matthew 22:37-39

If the next town down around the bend of Pastor's busy road isn't named Jericho, it ought to be.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Pentecost, for UUs

The ancient Jewish season of Pentecost, which also has special meaning for Christians, but all too often, little or no meaning whatsoever for UUs, began yesterday according to the Christian calendar. So tonight I will offer my UU elevator sermonette on the meaning of Pentecost for UUs. Some readers have heard it before, but it bears retelling.

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1-9

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,
Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,
Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?
Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.
But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:
For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.
But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel:
'And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.'

Acts 2:1-18

The meaning of the Tower of Babel legend in Genesis is that diversity in human speech and understanding, and divergence in human aspiration and purposes, are God's will. In contrast, the longing for uniformity, to speak in only one voice and understand in only one fashion and act with one unified purpose, suppressing all others, is human pride and folly.

The meaning of the Pentecost legend in Acts is not that a bunch of zealots started babbling unintelligible gibberish and it was somehow a divine gift. It is not even that Jesus' disciples miraculously spoke in a single voice to strangers from all the corners of the world. It is that God, having created human diversity and our divergent human capacities to speak and understand, reaches through our diversity and divergence to speak to each one of us, individually, according to our individual capacities, in whatever language each one of us is best equipped to comprehend.

If I do not understand what you do, that is not my folly, or yours, but divine will. God is not in your voice alone, or mine alone, or only in the things we can agree on together, but in the totality of all sincere voices and spiritual insights across the globe. Our folly is to think that we alone understand, to the exclusion of others.

So speak your truth with conviction, even as prophecy, but listen respectfully when others speak theirs also, even when they seem to contradict you. It's all good. It's the Holy Spirit, still moving in the world, even as it once moved so confoundingly among the disciples at Pentecost long ago, inspiring us each to do our little piece of God's will in our own unique way, and to reach those others whom we are uniquely able to reach with the gifts we are given. For God is not only in our words, but also even in our differences and contradictions.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A Joyous Afternoon

Today the First Parish in Milton, Mass., joyfully installed the Rev. Parisa Parsa as its twentieth permanent minister since 1678. The invocation was offered by the Rev. Jeffrey Johnson, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Milton that split off from the First Parish in 1834. The sermon was preached by Stanford University chaplain and former First Parish parishioner the Rev. Scotty McLennan, the charge to the minister was given by the Rev. Kay Jorgensen of San Francisco, the charge to the congregation was given by the Rev. Wendy Bell of Harvard, Mass., the prayer of installation was given by the Rev. William Clark of Lexington, Mass., and the benediction was given by the Rev. Parsa. Other speakers included the Rev. Terry Burke of Jamaica Plain, Mass., the Rev. Erin Splaine of Wayland, Mass., the Rev. Ralph Mero of the UUA head office, and First Parish DRE Jocelyn Burke. The congregation sang "Rank by Rank" and "We'll Build a Land", the choir sang an antiphonal setting of Psalm 100 with a brass quartet, and Music Director Emma Jean Moulton gave a virtuoso performance of Bach's Fantasia in G major on First Parish's rafter-shaking organ as a postlude. The steeple bell was tolled twenty times, once for each minister of the Parish.

Fausto was delighted to see fellow bloggers Tom of Prophet Motive, Chris of Philocrites, and Adam of Unity skulk back to the scene of last Saturday's picnic. (Good luck with that Mother's Day sermon tomorrow, Adam.) Fausto was bummed that the Rev. Peacebang had to perform a wedding elsewhere, and so couldn't participate in the service as had once been planned. Chris and Fausto also lamented that CC couldn't return, if only to be properly initiated into the St. Johann cult by such an impressive performance of the Fantasia.

Here's a consolation, CC. It's not the same, but it'll have to do.

Religion, Faith, Credulity, and Humbug

“The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes - or pretends to believe - that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true and that the only way to decide which, is to consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that particular case. Religion he thinks one of the smartest business dodges extant, a first rate investment, and by all odds the most respectable disguise that a lying or swindling business man can wear. Honor he thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in the eyes of the greener portion of our race…. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is.”

- Famous UU P.T. Barnum, in The Humbugs of the World

(courtesy of sniggle.net)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Why is Jennifer Wilbanks like the Virgin Mary?

Because they both escaped across the desert?

No, silly, it's because they both miraculously appeared in toasted items offered for sale on eBay.