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My friend is dying. He has been a member of my congregation, a colleague, a brother-peacenik in a local peace and justice organization, and a spiritual mentor. Now his end is very close, and his wife says they aren’t up for any visits or phone calls, and they don’t need any dinners, but they really want cards and cookies. I will never have another conversation with him, much less what I want even more, to lay my hands on his head and make the cancer vanish. All I can do is bake cookies. They’re almost done.


B dylan 1996Bob Dylan is one of my all-time favorite artists. I love the inventiveness, passion, poetry and humor of his writing. I love the way he sings his heart out. I love his recreation of old blues and folk songs and even chestnuts like Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” Most of all, I love the way he keeps recreating his own songs, pulling something new out of a song he’s performed hundreds of times. During the time I was married to a Dylan fanatic, I went to about twenty shows, maybe more, of “The Neverending Tour.” It’s still going. Bob is still going, here on his 70th birthday.

(As a side note to those interested in the “contemporary music in worship” conversation: now you know why today’s young adults do not think of Bob Dylan’s music as contemporary. Yes, he’s still performing and releasing new songs, but not only are his most famous songs decades old, also, look at the math: he’s the age of their grandparents.)

I was going to write about a few favorite songs, and maybe I will now and then, but not tonight.  I’ll just quote some of the best words I ever heard about Bob Dylan, said by Bruce Springsteen (no slouch with the English language himself) at Dylan’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

The first time I ever heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA and on came that snare shot that sounded like someone’d kicked open the door to your mind: “Like a Rolling Stone.” My mother–she was no stiff with rock ‘n’ roll, she liked the music–sat there for a minute and then looked at me and said, “That guy can’t sing.” But I knew she was wrong . . . Dylan was a revolutionary. Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual. He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world . . . .

To this day, whenever great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan. Bob’s own modern work has gone unjustly underappreciated because it’s had to stand in that shadow. If there was a young guy out there, writing the Empire Burlesque album, writing “Every Grain of Sand,” they’d be calling him the new Bob Dylan.

About three months ago, I was watching the Rolling Stone Special on TV. Bob came on and he was in a real cranky mood. He was kind of bitchin’ and moanin’ about how his fans come up to him on the street and treat him like a long lost brother or something, even though they don’t know him. Now speaking as a fan, when I was fifteen and I heard “Like a Rolling Stone,” I heard a guy who had the guts to take on the whole world and who made me feel like I had to too. Maybe some people misunderstood that voice as saying that somehow Bob was going to do the job for them, but as we grow older, we learn that there isn’t anybody out there who can do that job for anybody else. So I’m just here tonight to say thanks, to say that I wouldn’t be here without you, to say that there isn’t a soul in this room who does not owe you his thanks, and to steal a line from one of your songs–whether you like it or not–“You was the brother that I never had.”

Today someone asked me what my favorite Dylan album was. That was pretty tough. This is easier: I’ll list 70 of my favorite Dylan songs instead, quickly and without thinking too much. Serious fans may notice that I don’t name anything since Time Out of Mind (1997), which is because I haven’t gotten an album since then (well, I just acquired Modern Times, but I don’t really know it yet). Long story, but it isn’t due to my having lost my taste for Dylan.

So, 70 songs (mostly but not only written by Dylan), with a happy birthday to Bob and hope for many returns of the day.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Ballad of Hollis Brown
Blind Willie McTell
Blood in My Eyes
Blowin’ in the Wind
Bob Dylan’s Dream
Boots of Spanish Leather
Buckets of Rain
Changing of the Guards
Clean-Cut Kid
Dark Eyes
Desolation Row
Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight
Every Grain of Sand
Everything is Broken
Forever Young
4th Time Around
God Knows
Going, Going, Gone
Hard Times
He Was a Friend of Mine
Highway 61 Revisited
I and I
I Believe in You
Idiot Wind
I’ll Keep It with Mine
I’m Not There
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Like a Rolling Stone
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
Lone Pilgrim
Lord Protect My Child
Love Minus Zero / No Limit
Maggie’s Farm
Man in the Long Black Coat
Man of Constant Sorrow
Meet Me in the Morning (and its earlier incarnation, Call Letter Blues)
Most of the Time
Motorpsycho Nightmare
Never Say Goodbye
New Pony
Not Dark Yet
One Too Many Mornings
Precious Angel
Queen Jane Approximately
Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)
Rank Strangers to Me
Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)
Series of Dreams
Seven Curses
She Belongs to Me
Shooting Star
Simple Twist of Fate
Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart (and its other version, Tight Connection to My Heart [Has Anybody Seen My Love])
Spanish Harlem Incident
Talkin’ World War III Blues
Tangled Up in Blue
Tears of Rage
10,000 Men
To Ramona
Two Soldiers
Under Your Spell
We Better Talk This Over
When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky
Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)
With God on Our Side
World Gone Wrong
You’re Gonna Quit Me

Got a favorite Dylan song that is or isn’t on here?  I’d love to know which ones you love and why.

Vermont Street (photo by Joshua Tiger)

Joy and I were driving home through the Potrero Hill section of San Francisco after a terrific sushi dinner the other night, when suddenly we were wending our way down a real slalom of a block, Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd
(click for map).  I thought it was as twisty as “most crooked” Lombard Street, and also prettier, since I’m partial to streets shaded by lots of trees.  This one reminded us both of a steep, winding street in San Miguel whose trees are host to hundreds of nesting egrets.  Driving it was a treat.

Lombard may pack an extra hairpin or two into a similar length of street
(you be the judge). In any case, I’m sure Vermont Street residents don’t want a flood of tourists driving down it on a daily basis, so why contest Lombard’s dominance?

Of course, the streets that really demonstrate the drama of San Francisco’s hills are the ones where the climb is too steep for a car. Today, after a very indulgent visit to ImagiKnit, knitter’s paradise (or, alternatively, the highway to hell, for those who already have a goodly stash of yarn and multiple projects underway, but walked out with a dozen and a half skeins for a new sweater anyway, ahem), I thought I’d take Sanchez back to my neighborhood, and had to laugh when I got to the top of the first block and the street dead-ended at a set of stairs. Rather than get out of my car and walk up to the next block, I detoured to a different street.

From taking my car in for its oil change on Friday, I learned something about how to welcome people to a place that’s unfamiliar to them. I’ve never gone there before and it is rather a big sprawling place.  When I went to pick up my car, the service manager, without so much as a question from me, did not tell me the way to the billing desk but escorted me there, told me my car would be driven up to the front door in just a moment, told the person at the billing desk who I was, and gave me a friendly pat on the arm as she said, “See you in three months.” I felt like she was really happy to have my business (paltry though it was, especially for a car dealership whose bread and butter is definitely not oil changes) and I’ll be happy to go back there. So simple. No, I am not suggesting congregations provide valet parking (unless your parking lot is not in sight of your building, in which case you should seriously consider it). I’m saying, since I hope that we are happy to see newcomers and want them to be comfortable and come back, we should take a page from a Toyota dealership and treat them that way.

From donating blood, also on Friday, I was reminded that being able to give is deeply satisfying.  The keys to feeling that way are the knowledge that the gift is within my capabilities and concrete, vivid evidence that it is making a difference. I am never going to go into a burning building to save a life; knowing that I can save a life by giving a pint of my blood gives me the sense of being critically important that I imagine firefighters experience daily. Oh, and a third key was that it was a challenge, not something I could do so easily that it meant nothing. Translation, for us congregational leaders asking for time or money from members:  (1) Don’t ask for so little that the donation requires no real generosity from the giver. Being generous is a wonderful feeling, and they only get it when they’ve stretched.  (2) Don’t ask for so much that they can’t manage it, or they’ll feel terribly discouraged and as if they don’t belong. (3) Have a vision for our congregation, a vision of something of great worth that is realizable only by their donations, and show them the connection.  (If we  don’t have such a vision, we shouldn’t be asking for their money or time.)

From going to the Maker Faire Saturday, I learned that if we lose sight of our deep purpose, people will drift away. I enjoyed it, but it seemed much less focused on what it used to be all about, empowering people to make things, and more on showing them (or selling them) the things others had made. Boo. I can get that at any shopping mall.  I’ve proudly told people that my daughter has gone to every Maker Faire since her birth, starting at age two months and excepting only the year we were in Mexico. If it surrenders much more of its vision, I’m not so sure I’ll care anymore about preserving it as a family tradition.

Tomorrow is our sixth wedding anniversary and we celebrated with dinner out. We are now contentedly full of delicious sushi and our sleep-resistant child has been lulled into dreams by her babysitter. We even exchanged our gifts: an ice cream maker from me to Joy, and oh, amazing, an album full of our wedding photos, at long last, created by Joy for me (us). We’ll be too tired tomorrow, after a full day at the Maker Faire, and besides, we thought we’d better fit our celebrating in before the beginning of the end of the world.

Why do people think the world is going to end at all? In the eighties, when I was in high school and Reagan and the Soviet premier-of-the-month were playing chicken, I figured it would end in a full-scale nuclear war before I was old enough to have grandchildren, but I didn’t think it was going to end end. I didn’t even think human beings would be entirely wiped out. I just figured anyone within a large radius of a major city would die, either immediately or fairly quickly. Lots of the world’s people would still survive, some maybe even without significant ill effect, and the rest of the biosphere would reel but still be here. In other words, T. S. Eliot had it right: we would end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

And yet there is evidently something appealing about the scenario spelled out by Harold Camping and Hal Lindsey and all those Left Behind books, because end-of-the-world predictions keep on being made despite the obvious failure of all their predecessors. Heck, Christianity is founded on one such failure, when some people were sure the Messiah had come and it turned out he would have to come a second time.

I grew up Jewish, and such Messianism as I have comes out of that religion’s much more positive version. No lake of fire, no angry judge on the divine throne pointing some to the left and some to the right, no clash of armies, but peace radiating out from every heart and over the whole world.

I’m afraid I don’t believe that either disaster or universal peace is going to befall us tomorrow, but either one can begin then, depending which way we decide to steer this world of ours. The way I’m feeling right now, I’ll put my money on peace.

The progressive Christian organization Sojourners propelled this ad into greater attention, as the TV networks did for the UCC’s “bouncer” ad a few years ago, by refusing to run it. Their executive director, Jim Wallis, explained with a six-point essay that in my eyes adds up to: “The church is split on this and we don’t want to alienate either side.” They want to focus on their mission and not get involved in something that is not a “critical issue.” Aside from the insult of trotting out the existence of one’s own staffers as a shield (“We have been accepting and welcoming of gay staff here at Sojourners for many years”) while implying that the church’s ostracism of those staffers and their families is a minor issue, I’ll just note that if Wallis hoped not to have to spend any time on a controversy about LGBT issues, well, I’m guessing he has spent at least half his week fighting this fire, and it isn’t out.

He wrote, “Essential to our mission is the calling together of broad groups of Christians, who might disagree on issues of sexuality, to still work together on how to reduce poverty, end wars, and mobilize around other issues of social justice.” I can appreciate this point of view to an extent. They are building a coalition (as all social-change organizations do, some better than others), and that means setting aside issues on which the coalition members do not agree in order to make progress on the ones on which they do. However, in that case, they should define themselves more narrowly than they do, perhaps as an economic justice and anti-war organization. According to them, their mission is “to articulate the Biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church and the world.” That’s pretty sweeping. Also, the church is no more divided on homosexuality or even abortion than it is on the death penalty, war, and economic justice–and one can cite one’s Bible to defend a wide range of positions on all of them. So all Wallis has done is to beg the question, “Why do you take sides when it comes to our economic arrangements, but decline to do so when it comes to our exclusion of LGBT people?”

As Robert Chase of Believe Out Loud, the project that created the ad, has said, it isn’t even as if the ad is asking the church to support civil marriage for LGBT people, or to ordain LGBT clergy. It’s asking the church to welcome us as members–and especially, to welcome our children. Even this is controversial to some churches, but that it is controversial to Wallis and Sojourners is just depressing.

The fact is that Christian churches, particularly the largest and most powerful ones in the US–the Catholic and evangelical Protestant–have long led, and continue to lead, the ostracism of LGBT people. Wallis knows very well that the church has to take sides on questions like this; he’s one of the most eloquent voices against the idea that moral neutrality is desirable or even possible. And yet he is trying to justify neutrality here as a “third way.”

It seems to me that Sojourners wants to reap the advantages of being controversial (for example, appearing morally courageous by knocking powerful groups like the GOP leadership) without reaping the disadvantages (such as alienating some of your supporters). They should take a cue from Jesus: it takes as much courage to stand up to your friends as to your enemies. Oh, wait, that was Dumbledore. They’re so easy to mix up . . . Jesus is the one who defied his religious leadership by teaching his congregation to go beyond the teachings of the Torah and prophets; who alienated his disciples by welcoming those they despised into his circle: Samaritans, tax collectors, women. He believed that his God called him to go beyond what was comfortable for him or his followers. I’m not even a Christian, nor a theist except in the naturalistic sense, and yet I believe that too. What does Sojourners believe?

Events like this one ought to teach them, and all of us who try to engage in controversial issues, which is what all religious bodies are called to do, that when it comes to the most pressing moral issues of the day, you are eventually going to be asked where you stand, and then you will be hopping on the hot seat no matter what you do. Jesus knew all about that too.

But it’s easy to pick on someone else. I think what Chase and his organization are trying to do is push self-described Christian progressives to take a stand, not just on the issues they’re comfortable with, but on the ones that challenge them. So I’ve just assigned myself a re-reading of “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” so that the most vivid writer on the topic can goad me again to answer the tough question: on what issues am I playing the good wishy-washy liberal, when I should be challenging myself and my church? What does the divine require of us that we are shying away from doing?

Ah, the UU blogosphere’s a-popping with things I want to respond to at length, too much length for a comments box. Actually, one I want to respond to is a recent post by James Ishmael Ford, whose Monkey Mind blog doesn’t have comments boxes. I’ll get to that one next. Right now I’m meditating on my Palo Alto colleague Dan Harper’s post “Liberty and democracy in liberal religion.” It touches on a topic I think about a lot: the balance (or, equally, the tension) between individual liberty and the demands of community. My candidating sermon for the first church that called me, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rutland, Vermont, was about this challenge, titled with the words of the Vermont state motto: “Freedom and Unity.”

Dan writes, and I hope he won’t sic Righthaven on me,

[T]he major attraction to Unitarian Universalists for many people in our congregations is that no one can tell them what to believe or do, and this too is enshrined in the bylaws of the UUA, in the claim to a free and responsible search for truth, which is often restated in colloquial terms as “no one can tell me what to believe.” This last attitude is in close emotional alignment with the attitude that the government shouldn’t tell individuals what to what to do with their property.

In close alignment with it, but not at all the same thing. After all, I accept limits on what individuals can do with their property, while insisting on radical liberty to decide what I will believe (I’m pretty sure Dan does too). They are, however, two things we conflate often, and at our peril.

Dan thinks that many of the people who identify as UU theologically but don’t join a UU congregation–there are, by some counts, twice as many of them as actual members of our congregations–stay away because they “find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation.” I think this is probably true. Those who do not wish to submit in any way to the strictures of community–I’m thinking of extreme libertarians–will not want to join a congregation, even if they identify themselves as theologically UU.

But I see the congregation as a workshop, as rehearsal space, as practice fields, as a laboratory for the larger democracy, and so I’m focused more on the people who do come to our congregations, and yet who expect that they can pretty much have things the way they want them in that micro-society because of that “free and responsible search” stuff, and of course, that “inherent worth and dignity” stuff. I’m not sure if they are wrongly extrapolating from our freedom of theological belief. It is just as likely that the reason they aren’t very clear on the costs and benefits of different kinds of freedom is that the larger culture has so much trouble accepting a concept such as “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” We certainly don’t get “Your right to pour poison onto ‘your’ land ends where ‘your’ land includes an aquifer that lies under others’ land,” or our environmental laws would be very different. We are a much more civil-libertarian than communitarian society.

The distinction between things that are truly no one else’s business and things that do affect others substantially enough for them to deserve a say (namely, via government) is an essential one to make no matter what kind of society one lives in. It’s one with which our democracy, the democracy of the United States, still struggles. After all, it is not easy to agree on the answers to questions such as “Is whom one marries entirely a private choice, or do others get to restrict it?” “Is whether to carry a pregnancy to term entirely a private choice, or do others get to weigh in?” or even “Do I get to say anything I want to at Annual Meeting, or is some of what’s on my mind so destructive that I should bite my tongue?” That’s why we keep debating them. I don’t think we will ever resolve these questions once and for all, but if we accepted that they are not simple, but arise out of the tension between important values, we could approach them with a lot more clarity. Helping people to do that is very much in the job description of pastors, religious educators, and congregations.

Have we UUs given more attention to democratic structures than to theological liberty? I don’t think so. In any case, we definitely haven’t given them enough attention to make up for the confusion that reigns in a nation that is supposedly democratic but in which the prevailing definition of liberty is still license. No wonder people come into our churches saying “I can believe anything I want here!” and thinking it means “I can do anything I want here.” What are we here for if not to help them sort out the difference?

I committed to three practices during Lent: something I wanted to give up, something I wanted to add, and giving to a justice-making organization.

I gave up Facebook. That was not difficult, except once or twice when I really wanted to post a link to some outrageous item. My forays back onto FB in the past few days are marked by greater caution. I look up what friends are doing (I missed that), but I’m not checking every half-hour, and I’m noticing the difference between sharing information and killing time.

I added daily drawing, except that I really didn’t. I drew on one-third to one-half of the days of Lent. A big shift from my usual once-a-week, which has itself been a big shift from my practically-never, but daily got difficult. Watching my resistance was interesting. A lesson: do things like this early in the day. (Maybe instead of posting to my blog, ahem?)

I knew I wanted to give to an anti-slavery/trafficking organization, so I did some research. It’s hard to know which groups are most effective until I am more involved in the issue.  For now, for my donation, I decided on Not For Sale because it focuses on building a grassroots movement and has a particular outreach to faith communities, so I can also see a path for me to get involved. I had heard its president on Forum a few months ago and was impressed; in fact, that program was one of the things that put this issue in the front of my concerns. Also, it is based here in the Bay Area, which makes other kinds of involvement possible. Their home page just flashed that their next global summit will be in Silicon Valley in October, and I’ve signed up.

Jesus said to love our enemies, and I try to live by that, but it’s one of his toughest demands, and I admit that I am happy that Osama bin Laden is dead.  However, I have no desire to dance on the man’s grave.

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