Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Lay UU Does Public Theology

Speaking of UUs doing more public theology, as we were discussing recently at Philocrites and PeaceBang...

Are all religions other than Christianity false? Should they be tolerated in our society? Who decides?

UU newscaster Keith Olbermann weighs in here.

I agree with Olbermann's position about religious tolerance, which it seems obvious to me is informed by our own UU emphasis on the necessity of free personal discernment, but I wonder if his mockery of John Gibson's discussion of Christianity isn't a little unfair. If so, is that only Olbermann's own grandstanding or is it also a common UU trait?

(QuickTime video clip, courtesy of WMV video file here.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Humanist Santa Watch

Every year around this time, the hyper-rational, hyper-quantitative rocket geeks and propellerheads at NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, train their radar systems, spy planes, and other surveillance resources especially closely on the North Pole.

No, they're not afraid of a sneak Russkie Christmas Eve attack on Cleveland or Edmonton. Rather, they're using all the skill and ingenuity of the human spirit to help all the good little girls and boys of the world know precisely when Santa will arrive. They track his departure from the North Pole, mark his arrival in various cities around the world, and even on occasion provide escorts through friendly or unfriendly airspace.

And they have a website. When Faustoette and Fausto Jr. were a little younger, one of the high points of Christmas Eve in the Fausto home was checking up on Santa's progress online.

You can follow Santa's progress too, here. Starting tonight. (Remember, they're a day ahead of us on the other side of the International Date Line. Santa remembers, thank goodness.)

The Dark Side of Santa Claus

St. Nicholas of Myra, the model for our modern Santa, was a staunch opponent of Arianism.

According to an early history quoted by Wikipedia, at the Council of Nicea, "after Arius had presented his case against Jesus' divinity to the Council, Nicholas hit Arius in the face out of indignation. Nicholas was kicked out of the Council for this offence, and jailed as well. However, according to this account, that night the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to many of the bishops of the Council, telling them to forgive Nicholas, for he had done it out of love for her Son. They released Nicholas and allowed him back into the process the next day."

Either that, or she told them that without him they might not have enough votes.

Notwithstanding the original St. Nick's willingness to abandon his well-known compassion and resort to political violence in defense of Christian orthodoxy, the modern elf, derived from a more recent Dutch characterization of Sinterklaas, apparently sports some remarkably non-Christian bloodlines. Here's Wikipedia again, on Sinterklaas: "Some elements of this part of the Saint Nicholas tradition could be traced back to the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). The appearance is similar to some portrayals of this god. In the Saint Nicholas tradition in the Netherlands he rides a horse over the rooftops, and this may be derived from Odin's riding through the sky. Also his assistants, the Zwarte Pieten ('Black Peters') may be a remnant of the raven that accompanied Wodan."

So on balance for us UU's he's a mixed bag. Arians and Socinians like yours truly may need to rethink their benign view of his character, while neo-pagans may wish to chuckle in the quiet assurance that "he's really one of us".

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Props to First Parish (UU) in Chelmsford!

Today Mrs. Fausto and I took Fausto Jr. to a robotics competition. Fausto Jr. was one of a team of six kids from grades 4-7 in his school to build and program a robot out of Lego pieces. Forty-five such teams met today in a tournament, in which the robots competed in performing certain predetermined tasks. The theme of the tournament, sponsored by the First Lego League (did you know such an organization exists? I didn't!), was "Ocean Odyssey". The robotic tasks all had marine connotations, and the teams also competed in presenting research about various environmental threats to the world's oceans.

Most of the teams, like Fausto Jr.'s, were school-sponsored. There were also a few Girl Scouts and other youth club teams. I was intrigued, however, to see that one particularly eager team, the "Disassembled Droids", was sponsored by the First Parish (UU) in Chelmsford, Mass. In addition to the Droids, other clever team names included the Botkickers, the Squid Squad, the Think Pink (a Girl Scout team dressed in shocking pink T-shirts), the Barnstabots (from Barnstable, Mass.) the Newtonian Mechanics (from Newton, Mass.), and (my favorite) the Upside-Down Bouncing Chipmunks.

The event was billed as "sports for the mind". The First Lego League flyer called the contestants "the next generation of scientists, engineers and visionaries". Some of these kids have been at this for years and were as competitive and focused as any Junior Olympics participants. Both Fausto Jr.'s and Chelmsford's teams were newly organized and, frankly, outclassed by some of the more experienced teams, but they still approached the challenge with determination and zeal.

I have to salute the FP Chelmsford parents for taking the initiative to field a team. Is this a cool thing for UU kids to be involved with, or what? Chelmsford's kids (six boys and one girl) had prepared not only the robotics events but also a well-researched presentation on the inadvertent introduction of invasive species into the environment. They learned about the value of human ingenuity and teamwork, and the sensitivity of the marine ecosystem to human intervention -- both of which are issues that resonate in the historic concerns of our denomination.

Chelmsford's coach, Dave Kaffine, told me that this was not a formal part of their RE program, but merely an idea they had to try to keep their pre-teen boys involved and interested in the church community. To which I say, great -- but why not try to integrate it into RE? This is exactly the age at which we lose many of our boys, and exactly the sort of activity that can capture their imagination. If a program like this also can be presented in a way that teaches something about our spiritual and intellectual identity, isn't that just what our present ministry to this age group, especially boys, lacks?

Although other teams scored higher, in the end the Disassembled Droids won a trophy for "Best Rookie Team of the Year" (much to Fausto Jr.'s and his teammates' chagrin). That's cause enough for plaudits in itself. From the point of view of theological inclusivity and compassionate co-existence, however, it was perhaps even more gratifying to see that both Chelmsford's and Fausto Jr.'s teams finished ahead of the team named "the Lego Crusaders". Today Universalism quieted violent triumphalism, as it always should.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher

Yesterday a bunch of liberal religious people of varying denominations and walks of life were arrested in Washington for a civil protest against Bush's 2006 budget, which they say favors the wealthy and shortchanges the poor.

They're right, it does, but that's not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is the nature of the UUA's participation in all this. There's a press realease up at bragging about our support for the cause and the fact that three UUs were among those arrested. It says, in part:

Rev. William G. Sinkford, UUA President, issued a statement in support of today's witness . Sinkford said, "Following the 2004 election and the national discussion of moral values, I issued a statement that said, in part: "Moral values grow out of our calling as religious people to work to create the Beloved Community. Moral values instruct us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves' and always to ask the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?' They are fundamentally inclusive rather than exclusive, and they call on generosity of spirit rather than mean spiritedness. I urge our elected representatives to consider the morality of ignoring the poor to give even more tax cuts to the rich." He continued, "I urge all Unitarian Universalists to stand with other people of faith and goodwill in demanding a moral United States budget -- a budget that directs resources towards those who need them most."

Among those arrested during today's witness were Unitarian Universalists Robert Hardies, senior minister at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC, who represented President Sinkford; Jennifer Brooks, minister of the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, UU in Nantucket, MA; and John McCarthy, a seminarian studying at Harvard Divinity School. Hardies, Brooks and McCarthy were arrested for blocking the door to the Cannon House Office building; the maximum fine for this act of civil disobedience is $250 and/or ninety days in jail.

Today's witness was the culmination of a yearlong effort to protect services to low-income families in the budget, but the movement is not ending.

Way to go, Bill! You da man! You issued a statement! Meanwhile, as the culmination of a yearlong effort exactly three of us -- but not you -- managed to participate? Whassup with that?

Maybe your statement can explain. Let's see what it says.

Uh, it says that you couldn't attend because "other duties" required you to be in Boston, but that Rob Hardies "has agreed to be present on my behalf". Excuse me? Are you so overcommitted that there's no chance to schedule a day in Washington even with a year's lead time, Bill? Or is this a liberal version of Dick Cheney's oft-mocked reasons for avoiding service in Vietnam?

And if this has been planned for a year, what does it say about us, or UUA leadership, or both, that out of the whole denom with over 1,000 congregations only three of us knew enough and/or cared enough about it to participate? There were over a hundred others arrested. Why only three of us? Where was the advance work that 25 Beacon or UUAWO could have done to bring us out in greater numbers? Where was the UUA representation at the table when other denoms were planning the event and fomulating common statements of conscience? Why, in particular, did nobody from the vaunted UUAWO even manage to find the time to attend the demonstration, given that they're right there anyway?

And I don't really get this "represented" thing. I can understand if Rev. Hardies represented himself, or even his own church, but you? Don't you represent us, Bill? So why, if representing us would have been the purpose of your own presence, didn't he represent us, rather than you, in your absence?

And what gives with asking some local minister rather than the UUAWO to represent either you or us, anyway? Isn't representing you and us in Washington just about their only function? If they can't even do that when the occasion requires it, why are they there at all?

This really stinks of false piety and unearned self-congratulation. We look like the flip side of the GOP's chickenhawks. I mean, if the UUA didn't have the resources to make this particular project a priority, but we applaud the efforts of others who really did put themselves and their denoms on the line, we should be honest enough to say so. If we can't, no wonder other denoms think we're such a bunch of aimless, self-absorbed, self-righteous, self-justifying, empty hats.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Reflections on Rock Center

I had to visit NYC on business for a couple days. I stayed near Rockefeller Center, the elegant study in urban design built by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a real estate speculation. Although it was too cold this morning to stand outside trying to get seen in the crowd by the Today show camera crews, I did venture over there to see the famous Christmas tree and skating rink and watch some of the holiday hustle and bustle.

I found the hustle and bustle as expected. What I did not expect to find was a plaque in front of the rink with Rockefeller's personal credo. It reminded me that he was not only fabulously wealthy, but that he was also a deeply principled human being, whose generosity toward liberal religion, among other things, built and funded a new Chicago campus for our own Meadville-Lombard, and built and funded the Riverside Church in New York for Harry Emerson Fosdick after he had been dismissed from his previous pulpit for being too controversial.

Here's his credo:

I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.

I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.

I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.

I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.

I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.

I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man's word should be as good as his bond; that character -- not wealth or power or position -- is of supreme worth.

I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.

I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individual's highest fulfillment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His will.

I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Tookie Williams


From: Will Shakespeare

To: Gov. Schwarzenegger

Re: Clemency

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Christmas fights back

Bill O’Reilly and others have lately been bemoaning a supposed “War on Christmas” by secularists and retailers. What the handwringers may not realize is how much power Christmas possesses to defend itself against its real enemies, and how effectively it has done so in the past without any loudmouthed assistance from the cheap seats. I wonder, though, whether the true (rather than commercial) spirit of Christmas is one that they would be so eager to defend.

Here’s a song based on a number of true incidents that occurred all along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. Click here to listen to the song. Click here to learn more about the 1914 “Christmas Truce”.

Christmas in the Trenches
© 1984 John McCutcheon

My name is Francis Tolliver. I come from Liverpool.
So long ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" Each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.

"He's singing bloody well, you know!" my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was "Stille Nacht." "'Tis 'Silent Night,'" says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.

"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land.
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and wished each other well
And in a flare lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.

We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox, and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us, and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war,
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"

'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

My name is Francis Tolliver. in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well:
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Friday Middle English Advent Carol Blogging

When you say "Advent carol" most people think first of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and then can't recall anything else. There are others, but they're pretty obscure. Here’s one of my obscure favorites, a souvenir of the part of my youth spent among the Episcopalians. Its source is an early 13th century manuscript relating the story of the Annunciation, and it’s sung to the tune Angelus ad Virginem. Although as a Unitarian I’m not buying the supernatural Christology, I love the haunting dance-like melody and the disarming portrayal of humility and hope.

Gabriel, fram heven-king
sent to þe maide swete,
broute hir blisfúl tiding
and fair he gan hir grete:
"Heil be þu, ful of grace ari3t!
For Godes son, þis heven-li3t,
for mannes love
wil man bicome
and take
fles of þee, maide bri3t,
mankén free for to make
of sen and devles mi3t.

Mildëlich him gan andswere
þe milde maide þanne:
"Wichëwise sold ich bere
child withute manne?"
Þangel hir seid, "Ne dred tee nout:
Þurw þoligast sal been iwrout
þis ilch þing
warof tiding
ich bringe:
al mánken wurth ibout
þurw þine sweet childínge
and ut of pine ibrout."

Wan þe maiden understood
and þangels wordes herde,
mildëlich with milde mood
to þangel hie andswerde:
"Ure lords þewe maid iwis
ich am, þat heer aboven is.
Anentis me
fulfurthed be
þi sawe
þat ich, sith his wil is,
maid, withute lawe,
of moðer have þe blis."

Þangel went awei mid þan
al ut of hire si3te;
hire womb arise gan
þurw þoligastes mi3te.
In hir wes Crist bilok anon,
sooth God, sooth man in fles and bon,
and of hir fles
ibore wes
at time.
Warþurw us kam good won;
he bout us ut of pine
and let him for us slon.

Maiden-moðer makëles,
of milce ful ibunde,
bid for us him þat tee ches,
at wam þu grace funde,
þat he forgive us sen and wrake
and clene of evri gelt us make
and heven-blis
wan ur time is
to sterve,
us give, for þine sake,
him so heer for to serve
þat he us to him take.

Here it is again, rendered in modern English:

Gabriel, from heaven’s King
Sent to the maiden sweet,
Brought her this blissful tiding
And warmly gave her greet:
“Hail to thee, full of grace aright!
For God’s Son, this heavenly light,
For love of man
Will man become
And take
Flesh of thee, maiden bright,
Mankind free to make
Of sin and devil’s might.”

The mild maiden softly gave
Answer to him then:
“However should I bear
A child without a man?”
The angel told her: “Dread thee naught;
Through the Holy Ghost shall be wrought
This very thing
Of which tiding
I bring;
All mankind shall be bought
Through thy sweet birthing
And out of pain be brought.”

When the maiden understood
And the angel’s words had heard,
Tenderly, with gentle mood,
The angel she answered:
“Our Lord’s servant girl I know
I am, who is above us here.
As for me,
Full furthered be
Thy words:
That I, since it His will is,
A maiden, outside [natural] law,
Should have a mother’s bliss.”

With that the angel went away
All out of her sight.
Her womb began to rise
Through the Holy Ghost’s might.
Into her was Christ placed anon,
True God, true man in flesh and bone,
And of her flesh
A-borne he was
In time,
Through which came God to us to dwell;
He bought us out of pain,
And let himself for us be slain.

Maiden mother matchless,
Of mercy full abounding:
Pray for us to him that chose thee,
To him who in thee grace found,
That he forgive our sin and wreck;
And clean of every guilt us make;
And heaven’s bliss,
When our time it is
To die,
Give us, for thy sake:
So to serve him here
That he us to him take.

Advent Myth and Real Life

Lately I've despaired that I seem to have nothing to add to my blog while others are merrily posting lots of good stuff on theirs. I feel sucked dry by my job right now and don't even seem to have much energy or joy to share with my kids as they eagerly begin to anticipate Christmas.

But at the same time I know deep down that this too shall pass, that my energy and inspiration will eventually return. I just have to have patience and wait it out.

In that regard, serendipitously, I've just picked up the UU Commission on Appraisal's report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, and am finding there many ideas worth thinking about and perhaps worth exploring in future blog posts.

What can we UUs learn from the Christian season of Advent, if we don't accept as literally true the historical events upon which its religious meaning is built? Perhaps it is that underneath the questionable historicity of the Advent mythology nevertheless stands a solid truth: that when your cup seems emptiest is right before it's about to be filled.