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Sixteen years ago I was in my second year of an M.A. in religion, and engaged in the leadup to masters’ exams. Putting the exams together was kind of fun. They could be on any three topics that covered a certain diversity of religion, culture, and era, and mine were Feminist Theology, Dogen’s Shobogenzo, and The Theology of Romantic Poetry.

For the Romantics, my reading list consisted entirely of works of five of the Big Six: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. (The sixth, Byron, didn’t particularly interest me and his work didn’t seem to have many theological implications.) I took note of the lack of female voices–I was studying feminist theology, after all–but didn’t think that there were any that came up to the standard, except maybe Dorothy Wordsworth or Mary Shelley, but neither was noted for her poetry. I hadn’t heard of Hannah More or Joanna Baillie, and somehow thought of Emily Bronte as not quite within the period. Excuses, excuses. If I’d done a little digging, a little looking beyond the canon that had been blessed by men, handed down through generations of male scholars, and endorsed by my male advisor, I’d have expanded my list.

Well, I’m finally remedying the gap by reading Frankenstein.  I’m listening to the audiobook version, and it’s making it a little difficult to get out of the car. And wow, here’s something else that might have changed my mind about that reading list (even if it did mean including novels): the subtitle is “or, The Modern Prometheus.” How did I not notice that Mary Shelley and her husband both created masterworks that explicitly expanded upon the myth of  Prometheus? Prometheus Unbound was on my exam reading list, you betcha, and it’s the longest poem I’ve ever loved. And Prometheus is such a rich figure for liberal religionists: the human who dared to steal a power the gods had reserved for themselves and give it to humanity, and who, in P. B. Shelley’s reading, is thereby a hero. (I have a feeling that M. Shelley’s point of view is more nuanced. Shh, don’t tell me the end.) Of course, I was a very new UU then, and not yet a minister. Now I’m musing about Prometheus, fire, power, responsibility, and what it means to “play God” if the gods themselves are discredited. And I’m really looking forward to what the novel has to say about all those points.

Next up, some of those female poets who were very famous in their day, I now know, but who got insufficient respect from anthologies and me before.

I proposed a course called “Preaching on the Edge” to Starr King School for the Ministry for next year or later, with this 100-word description:

Great preaching takes risks and emboldens the listeners to do the same. When we go out onto the edge of our experience, our words can be more alive and authentic. When we meet the listeners on the forward edge of their experience, our words have more power to transform them. As we observe and practice different approaches to creating and delivering sermons, we will explore: spiritual practices, ministerial roles, use of the body and voice, interaction with other elements of worship, how to walk the line of appropriate risk, and responding to political, pastoral, and spiritual matters.

Few courses are accepted each year, so I don’t know when I’ll get to teach it, but I keep thinking about the ideas and assignments, and refining the syllabus. It encapsulates so much of where my preaching has been heading in the last few years. In fact, things have shifted so much that when I first proposed a course to SKSM, four years ago, no way would I have offered a course of this description, or any preaching class. I wasn’t taking, or asking, the kinds of risks then that I do now. I’m braver. When I first thought of this course, I conceived of it as “Preaching Without a Net,” but that isn’t quite right. There is a net. Finding yours is part of being a better preacher, or taking any of the brave, scary steps that life might demand.

What do you think, givers of sermons and listeners to sermons? Does your experience of the great ones match the description I’ve given?

photo by Dave Pape, released to the public domain

It’s been mostly hands in drawing class the past couple of sessions. Here are some from two weeks ago.

Hands are so complex and expressive that it’s almost like drawing the human body for the first time. I’m stiff and uncertain. I’m just trying to get my eyes and hands familiar with the forms, and while I am not technique-focused, Michael is right: when you’re making the drawing happen more than letting it happen, you sacrifice a certain responsiveness. More spontaneity may be on the other side of this immersion in a new focus, but it may not. I find it very hard to zero in on details without also losing the power of my own responsive gestures; I can feel myself getting picky and narrow.

I’m also trying to shake up my figure drawing, which has become more stiff recently. I don’t know if I’ll stick to hands today, but I’m going to try to work fast and let instinct come to the fore.

Friday was a good day. I had two meetings with two really interesting members of my congregation, and another with a woman whose congregation has a task force that shares the vision of igniting a UU abolition movement. All three left me buzzing with possibility. In the afternoon, one of my closest friends, whom I’ve known since we were 12 and who lives way too far away, in Washington, D.C., arrived with her husband for an overnight stay, and we talked and walked around an unusually sunny city and ate too many tostadas.

And here’s how it started: early in the morning, I dropped my sweet wife and daughter off at their station and popped a CD in the player, and just as I pulled onto the highway, the drums and David Byrne leapt up with a HEY! and I was driving down 280 with a loud, joyous “And She Was” making the air dance all around. There are moments you just know it’s going to be a great day.

A colleague comes out about her other life, in grand style.

You definitely want to see this.

I love that Dawn pursues a passion outside ministry, which can be so consuming. I love that she shared it so exuberantly with her congregation, I love that they got the connection with their own beauty and power, and I love that she got the media to come and cover this service! “Liv Fearless” is right!

Tomorrow I go to Bass Lake, and will no doubt do many of the same things I did last year, except the munchkin will be with me. Yay! Sadly, Joy has too much work to take off two days right now, so–this part is not sad–it’s four days of Mama-Munchkin time.

I like making tie-dye more than wearing it, so last year I refrained, but this year we will have to pick up some white socks and size 4T t-shirts on the way so that Munchkin can go tie-dye wild and then wear her creations. I’m going to lead a sample Chalice Circle session. Maybe we’ll join in the talent show–Munchkin has excellent comic timing on her one, favorite joke, and I could even teach her a second one.

September 11 was our Water Communion, our Ingathering Sunday, as it was for many Unitarian Universalist congregations: a joyous occasion. It was also, of course, a day of mourning and remembrance. Below is my homily that morning, along with the readings that preceded it. The Water Communion and its attendant readings and blessings followed.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Gleaners. Millet created a scandal by portraying a conventional Biblical theme of Ruth in the fields as a picture of actual poverty

I’m busy uploading a course for the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) that starts Wednesday. Darcey Laine and I taught a version of it several years ago when we were colleagues in Palo Alto, and now we’re teaching it online.

It’s interesting to revisit this with my new awareness of modern slavery. The Bible’s view of slavery is complex, to put it mildly. I have been looking for the source of a quote I remember from somewhere, of an American slave saying of the church services he had to attend on the plantation, “I don’t know why they need all those pages for the Bible, when it only has one verse, ‘Slaves, obey thy masters.'”

I’m looking forward to some good discussions with thoughtful people about work and sabbath, wealth and inheritance, fair lending, what responsibilities we have to others, what a just economic system would look like . . . (If you’re interested, you can register here–no need to be a member of the CLF or a UU.)

I’m listening to the dedication of the national 9/11 memorial as I go over this morning’s service yet again. Family members of those who died have been reading the names for over an hour, in alphabetical order, the waterfalls making a soft music behind them. They are still only on G.

An article of faith:

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

Please note that John Milton, who wrote these words in his Areopagitica, was not on any side of the debate about Israel, Palestine, and the occupied territories, because he died in 1674. I say this because I’m about to step out on the thin ice of that conflict and I don’t want old JM to be accused of taking sides.

Here’s my Miltonian suggestion to anyone who thinks a presentation on the Middle East (or anything else) is one-sided: put on a presentation giving your point of view. Let truth grapple with falsehood. Have some faith that it will prevail.

Recently I’ve heard of two cases of people seeking to shut down an artistic event that expressed views of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that they found disturbing. One was unsuccessful: the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, in Topanga, California, whose bottom-bruising benches I have had the privilege to sit on, came in for a lot of heat for showing a play that puts a spotlight on Israel behaving badly, but the production went forward.

Theatricum Opens a Controversy — and a New Space — With Rachel Corrie

The blame for Israel’s PR problem with the death of Rachel Corrie lies primarily with Israel’s killing of Rachel Corrie, but of course the play is political–it’s absurd to say it’s just “a portrait of a young woman,” as director Susan Angelo tries to spin it. However, it is just as absurd to accuse it of being a “decontextualized and one-sided portrayal,” as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles protests. It’s a play about a controversial issue. Should Arthur Miller have shown McCarthy’s POV (or Judge Hathorne’s) as part of The Crucible? Should anyone stage Richard III without giving equal weight to the opinion that Richard was an innocent man demonized by Tudor propagandists? My church is about to host an exhibit of art about how awful the war in Afghanistan is; should we give equal space and time to art supporting the war? Should the Jewish Federation itself have made sure the Palestinian point of view was fully represented in the play it helped fund about an Israeli soldier, New Eyes?

The second case is more upsetting because those arguing “you must show both sides or none at all” have successfully shut down the event, and because the people they’re shutting down are children living in unthinkable conditions.

Oakland Museum Shuts Down Palestinian Children’s Art Exhibit

The exhibit was to show the art of children living in Gaza. Not surprisingly, it portrays destruction being wrought on their home by Israel and its allies, because that’s what these children live with. A group calling itself “Pro-Israel Bay Bloggers” complains, “This exhibit is without context and balance.” Well, if you want to provide a fuller context and more balance, stage another show. Solicit the art of Israeli children, if you want to show how this conflict affects them. I would like to know.

But don’t suppress what you see as falsehood because you think the truth can’t stand up for itself. If you think the truth isn’t being told completely enough, then don’t subtract from the account; add to it.

I’m sorry, this is not a balanced blog entry. It would be nice to show one case of pressure from the people who want to suppress criticism of Israel, and another from those who want to suppress criticism of the Palestinian Authority. Both my examples are of the former because this is the way all of the cases I’ve heard about have leaned. For that matter, I almost never hear this argument–“You have to present both sides”–in the context of any other political debate. But I hear it a lot when it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine.

Of course both (or rather, all) sides should be out there to be heard, and they are out there to be heard. That’s why I’d like to hear what the children of Gaza have to say, rather than their voices, their experiences, being drowned out by people who have more power and money, which, as Bob Dylan reminds us, doesn’t talk, it screams. (I may still get the chance; the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which had been partnering with the Museum of Children’s Art, is looking for another Bay Area venue.)

I don’t quite have Milton’s faith that the truth will never be “put to the worse,” but I do agree that “licensing and prohibiting” opinions does more harm than good. The founders of our country, who knew their Milton (and also their John Peter Zenger), thought the same, which is why they considered freedom of speech and the press essential to self-government. We might reach the wrong conclusion (we often do), but the only antidote is more information, more opinions, more assertions of the truth as each person sees it. We each need to filter out the truth from competing claims. The goal is to choose the view upheld by reason and conscience, not by whoever shouts the loudest.

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