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The elderly woman crossing the street with a walker has multi-brightly-colored hair.

The city buses, which flash messages like “Go Giants” on their marquees, flash “Equality for All” during Pride Month.

City Hall changes the color of its floodlights with the season. Red and green for Christmas, Red for World AIDS Day, 49ers colors when they’re in the playoffs.

To be continued . . .

At General Assembly, a music leader gave a heartfelt plea for us to be more creative in our use of imagery in music. “Standing on the Side of Love,” she said, is a wonderful song but unintentionally hurtful to those who cannot stand. She urged us to be more poetic. For example, she suggested that sitting is a powerful image for taking a strong position. This is true, but does not resolve the problem she raised, since there are people who cannot sit.

I have given this a lot of thought in the past, and where it has led me has been to songs that have no metaphor whatsoever, including the “dead metaphors” that characterize so much of our language (e.g., in “I have given this a lot of thought,” the verb “give” is a dead metaphor).  I have considered some of the most basic metaphors we use in our hymns and other songs and who is excluded by them, and I must differ with the speaker’s confidence that we will be able to find, create, or rework lyrics that include everyone.

Vision imagery leaves some people out; some people cannot see.

Hearing imagery leaves some people out; some people cannot hear. (I have always liked “From All the Fret and Fever of the Day” for its use of deafness as a positive attribute, calling on us to be “deaf to all confusing outer din.” But it goes on to say, “Intently listen to the voice within.”)

If we want to be sensitive to those who cannot speak, we should avoid imagery about raising our voices in speech or song. Songwriters love to urge us to sing, but some people can’t voice any sounds, so all imagery of singing should be avoided.

Many people cannot have children or grandchildren, and are grieved by that. We should avoid phrases like “for the children of our children” (“Circle Round for Freedom”).

Some people cannot walk, march, or run a race, and replacing those words with “go” is no help. Some people cannot go anywhere. They live their entire lives hooked to machinery in a bed. “Come and go with me to that land” is no more sensitive to such folks than “We are marching in the light of God.”

In fact, we should avoid journey imagery.

About all that is left to us, the only attributes that apply to every living human being, are that we breathe and our hearts beat. Not without assistance, in some cases, so “Just as long as my heart beats” (Hymn #6) is probably a painful phrase for some to hear, but we could use those images without actually excluding anyone.

The other avenue still open to us is to skip imagery about human beings altogether. In the same service in which this issue was raised, we sang the rousing hymn,

Ain’t you got a right

Aint you got a right

Ain’t you got a right

To the tree of life?

No problems there, in the chorus. The verses were chock-full of imagery such as people on a journey, though.

The fact is that we would have a very short list indeed if we really eradicated all songs that refer to abilities that some of us lack. I suggest that instead of walling ourselves into that corner, we take a different approach. From my own experiences I find that the language makes little difference if we do two things.

First, we use a wide variety of images to portray human experience. They won’t all fit mine, but because we’re using a variety, many of them will, and it will be okay.

Second, and by far the more important: we make our communities places that welcome and celebrate all people, regardless of their abilities in all of these areas. In my experience, songs touch on a nerve of mine when the nerve has already been stomped on by the community. When the community practices justice on all these points, and many songs reflect my experience, the occasional use of imagery that might otherwise seem exclusive just seems irrelevant. Being one of the temporarily able-bodied, I can only extrapolate from my other identities to imagine how I would feel–how I will feel–when I am unable to walk, or talk, or hear, so please correct me if I am missing something.

By the way, the best music-and-sensitivity advice I heard all week came from Fred Small, who led a workshop on songleading and advised us not to identify the origin of a song only in the case of “minority” music, but in all cases (or none). As he pointed out, when we say “This song is from the African-American tradition,” but we don’t say of the next one, “This song is from the Irish tradition,” we imply that Irish is the norm and African-American is a special case. Amen.

I must have listened to the song “Man in the Long Black Coat” a hundred times back when I owned the album Oh Mercy. It’s one of those Bob Dylan songs that admit of many interpretations, and I never pressed too hard to decide what it all means.  I like just letting the images wash through my mind, and they’ve meant different things at different times. Recently I bought the CD again, and on listening to the song now, for the first time it is obvious to me that the man in the long black coat is death.

San Francisco 2006 Pride Parade, by Dejan Čabrilo (licensed under Creative Commons)

Tomorrow thousands of hetero, cisgender people will show up on Market Street just to show up: to let LGBT people know, by their presence, that they support us and will stand by us. (Okay, most of them are also coming to be part of the fun and fabulosity. But support is part of it.) It’s hard to express how important that presence is. I can only say that our lives would feel lonelier, and the world scarier, if not for these allies.

I hope our presence at “Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s S.M.A.R.T. Tents” earlier tonight–that’s the actual official sign there, what an ego–gave the people in the tents, and the millions more around the country who have reason to fear they’ll end up in such places, the hope and strength that comes from knowing you have allies outside your own vulnerable community. That wasn’t exactly why I was there; I was there for the simple  reason that immigration justice groups in Phoenix asked us to be. But I know how good it would feel on Market Street in the morning, if I were at Pride, and I hope we gave immigrants to Arizona, and everywhere else in reach of the AP story, something of that feeling.

The past two weeks have been packed with preparations for our launch of the Unitarian Universalist Abolitionists at General Assembly (GA). The Abolition Team is proposing “Ending Slavery” as the next Congregational Study/Action Issue, and for that we need five speakers at tomorrow’s plenary, before the vote. We left one open speaker’s slot in case we met someone during GA who was so enthusiastic that they should be the fifth; I prepared a piece as a backup. Everyone was very happy with what I wrote, but I will not be reading it tomorrow morning, for the best reason: the Youth Caucus has chosen to support our CSAI, and so they are getting that spot. They make their decision by consensus, so it is momentous.

Here, then, is the piece I wrote. I called it “Bury Us Not in a Land of Slaves,” after the Frances Ellen Watkins poem whose close I find so moving. Harper was a Unitarian poet, abolitionist, and survivor of slavery.

There is a child in a cotton field. He is just a little older than my daughter. They could be schoolmates, or playmates. But he doesn’t play much; he doesn’t go to school. He works, without choice, without pay, far from his family. He is a slave.

He might have picked the cotton of the t-shirt I bought my daughter last month. She looks really cute in that shirt. He would, too, this child who could be her friend, this little boy in Uzbekistan or Texas. But he doesn’t have a new shirt, just as millions of other children harvest cocoa beans, but don’t eat the chocolate; or make bricks, but live in shanties made of tin and cardboard. I don’t want to raise my daughter to believe these children are any less deserving than she is. Yet I am trapped, she is trapped, all of us are trapped, in an economic system where slaves make many of the goods we use.

We know how to spring the trap. It’s called the abolition of modern slavery, and it is overdue. So is our involvement.

I hope with our vote today we will follow in the footsteps of the Unitarian and Universalist abolitionists of an earlier day. I hope no one will ever say of us what was said in 1851 when the other churches in a Massachusetts town rang their bells for freedom: “The bells of the Unitarian church, being clogged with cotton, would not sound.” We know that our true self-interest is served by freedom and justice for all. Let us act so that the generations to come will look back on this GA as the moment when the UUs claimed their better heritage and joined the 21st century abolition movement—or, better, helped to lead it—and made freedom ring out throughout this country and the world.

***

Whether or not the CSAI passes (we’re waiting for the result), we have done a lot at this GA to build a UU abolition movement, and we’ll go forward from here. If you want to know more, please:

write to info AT uuabolitionists DOT org, or

visit the UU Abolitionists website (now due for a post-GA update), or

“like” our Facebook page,

Or sign up for our Twitter feed, @uuabolition.

Ray Bradbury, by Liftam. Public domain.

There was a period in my life when I read every Ray Bradbury story and novel I could get my hands on. He had a huge effect on my imagination, my sense of what was possible in stories and in life.

I recently reread one story from The Illustrated Man, “Kaleidoscope,” and it has gotten better and more meaningful. When I was young, I thought it was about an accident in space: several astronauts are suddenly about to die. An action flick, disturbing, but far away–it was about someone else, those adventurers out in dangerous places. On rereading it, I was startled. In the intervening years it had turned into a story about myself and all of us, who after all are also floating in space, all without knowledge of when or how we’ll meet our end. Dealing with our regrets, our bitterness; seeking to make peace with each other as best we can, and give something to the world before we are done.

It’s a beautiful piece of writing, and for it and so many others, I’m grateful to Ray Bradbury. He might have felt, like Woody Allen, that he wanted to live on in his apartment rather than in his work, but for my part I’m glad he’ll always be on our shelf, up at the top of the science fiction section.

Somewhere along the line I’ve surprised myself by becoming a reader of contemporary literature. Surprised, because when I meet people who only read new fiction, it seems so disconnected from history to limit oneself that way, as if no one who’s now dead had anything interesting to say. I love 17th century poetry and 19th century novels. But of the books I’ve read in the past ten years or so that stand out in my mind and demand to be re-read and savored, many were written in my lifetime:

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

American Gods, Neil Gaiman (in fact, almost everything I’ve read by Gaiman)

The Dispossessed; The Left Hand of Darkness; The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. LeGuin (in fact, almost everything I’ve read by LeGuin)

The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

Alias, Grace; The Blind Assassin; Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

We Bombed in New Haven, Joseph Heller

A Door into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski

The Lacuna and Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver

Slam, Nick Hornby

Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

Also, I read quite a lot of children’s literature (for my own pleasure, not just my daughter’s), and it is almost all contemporary.

What era do your favorite books tend to come from? And, looking at the list above, do you have any books to recommend I should read next?

Joy and I were watching Little Women, the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Joy is a big Louisa May Alcott fan, something I never was; I got through Little Women once, whereas she read all of LMA’s books for children until the covers were falling off. “She was a Unitarian, you know,” I said. Like some Jews and Canadians, I can’t stop myself from collecting and displaying members of my small tribe .

“I know,” Joy said, with a slight rolling of the eyes. “And you know something? She never said anything about being Unitarian in anything I read. I guess this business of Unitarians not telling anyone they exist goes back a long time.”

“Maybe she thought of herself more as a Transcendentalist,” I said. (According to the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography, Alcott never joined a Unitarian church despite her close associations with the religion via family and friends.)

“Still,” said Joy. Yes. Still.

Not long after I became a Unitarian Universalist, I was lurking on a UU chat list when a conversation began about the Trinity. Someone argued that a great deal of Trinitarian Christianity, in the United States, was largely binitarian: lots of emphasis on Jesus and God the Father, almost nothing about the Holy Spirit. This was not only the kind of interesting conversation that made me very happy to have found UUism, and “binitarianism” an accurate description of most of what I heard on Christian radio, but it made something click for me, because I thought, “Geez. The Holy Spirit is the only aspect of God I actually believe in.”

So I am troubled by The Onion’s news brief headlined God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out of Trinity. It was just called to my attention today, but it’s dated 2003, and apparently the Holy Spirit has been out of the picture since Easter of that year.

Oh well. It can be in exile. I still like it, love it in fact, and it’s still the only part of the traditional Trinity that I consider divine. God the Father, if He exists, is not someone to whom I would sing praise. Annie Dillard wrote, “We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet,” and while I think that is overly sweeping (there are kind gods out there), it does apply to the God described in the Bible, who frequently neither demonstrates compassion nor asks it of us. Jesus, in contrast, begged us to be loving, and I aspire to follow many of his teachings, but his presence in the Trinity is problematic on account of his being purely human. But the Holy Spirit? A force, invisible but palpable, that moves us to create beauty and goodness? That’s what moves me to deep reverence.

One strand of historical Unitarianism rejected the Trinity because the Biblical evidence of a Holy Spirit was thin. But if, as the old joke has it, Unitarians are those who believe in “at most one god,” then for me the Holy Spirit–elsewhere known as the Ruach HaKodesh, which translates “the Breath/Spirit of the Holy,” or the Shekhinah–is a good candidate.

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