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For me to rest and renew during this sabbatical, I need not to be in regular contact with my congregation. I just don’t have the ability to turn my concern on and off; if I knew what was going on with them day to day, I would worry and plan and respond and, in short, work. So we are incommunicado except in the case of an emergency. The election is one such emergency, and I wrote and sent this letter this morning:
Dear wonderful people of UUCPA,
My heart is with you so much today. In times of trouble I want to be at home with you, and the distance between us feels very long right now. Whatever your political views, I know there was plenty that happened over the past 24 hours to discourage you. I am aching for the hugs and conversation we’ll share when I’m back.
Did you ever hear this from Mister Rogers?: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’ve observed (maybe Fred Rogers did too) that if we really want to transform our fear into hope, what works wonders is to become the helpers. That’s why our life as a congregation is so important.
We at UUCPA have been forming relationships with Muslim communities in our neighborhood. We will ask these vulnerable communities what we can do for them, and do it. We have been striving to be a sanctuary for people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, immigration statuses, and religious backgrounds. At a time when our country needs those kinds of sanctuaries more than ever, we will offer the welcome that this country is meant to offer to everyone. We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be among the helpers.
We’ll have to be gentle with each other. This has been a harsh election, and when our feelings are raw, we seek someone to blame. Let’s promise each other: there is no one beneath our notice or excluded from the circle of dignity and worth, no matter who they voted for or what they believe, and no matter how afraid, hurt, or angry we are. Just being there for each other is another way to be among the helpers.
Friends have been joking (or maybe not joking) about how California should secede from the rest of the country. But we are one country, one world, bound as closely to those on the other side of the planet as to those across the street. There is no elsewhere to run to. Like many people, I spend too much time in an echo chamber, and for me this election chides us to practice dialogue instead: in other words, truly to listen to people with whom we disagree. Not in order to change each other’s minds–maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t–but in the faith that if we approach one another with curiosity and openness, it can only be an improvement. As a politician has been telling us recently, we really are stronger together.
I’ll be back in Palo Alto on January 2, and spending as much time as possible hearing how you have been feeling and what you need. I’ll have hugs and tea for you in my office. And then together, bit by bit, we’ll build a promised land that can be.
With love and blessings,
S. is an electric-vehicle (EV) driver, builder of a platinum-LEED home, and all-around passionate environmentalist in my congregation. He lends his EV out to everyone who’s curious (Joy, my wife, calls him an EVangelist), and one Tuesday in October, he brought it to church for me to try it for a week. It’s a Leaf. It was lots of fun. And I promised I’d write it up, which I am finally doing now that I’m making myself blog daily (except for the Weekend from Hell, which we will ignore).
The first thing you need to know is that I have a serious commute. It’s 32-39 miles, depending on the route. A car has to get me that far in heavy traffic with lots of battery charge to spare, or I’m going to be very nervous. The car had plenty of charge for the job.
It did not always have as much charge as it said it did, or maybe it’s vice versa. For example, we took a seven-mile drive to a restaurant one day. The car said it had 35 miles of charge, so that seemed plenty safe. By the time we’d gotten to the restaurant, our cushion had dwindled; the car was reporting it had dropped 14 miles. Ulp. We made it home, no problem, but this erratic behavior could hamper travel.
Plugging into the 110 outlet in our entryway was enough to charge the battery overnight, but it meant running the cable over the sidewalk, which meant taping it down each time. If we owned an electric car, that would get old very fast. We’d need a charging station in the street, or in our garage, or at least we’d want to use the 220 outlet that’s in the garage. (Our garage is not presently accessible to any car that wants to keep its undercarriage attached.)
At work, I could fully charge in 4-6 hours, because our church rocks and puts its money where its Seventh Principle is by having a free charging station. If you had a commute of any significant length and didn’t have access to a charging station while at work, an EV would be pretty impractical; however, more chargers are popping up all the time, many available to anyone who wishes to use them, for free or a small fee. Mobile apps direct EV users to the network, and there’s a great community feel to it, eco-creative types helping each other out. Our church is on the apps’ maps, and we often have visitors who are there to plug in while they’re working, shopping nearby, etc.–or they live in the neighborhood.
The other cool thing about UUCPA’s charger is that, like many Palo Alto locations, we opt for Palo Alto Green, which means that all our electricity is from renewable sources. So after I charged at work, I was driving a truly zero-emissions vehicle. Even charging at home, with plain old Pacific Gas and Electric, I’m running a much cleaner car than one with a gas engine. Joy, who is an energy analyst for the state of California, says that even if you use electricity generated in the dirtiest way available (that would be coal), driving an EV would still generate lower emissions than a hybrid, gas, or diesel engine. (S. takes care to say, “The manufacture of the EV causes emissions,” proving that there is such a thing as a rigorously honest evangelist.)
A factor that surprised me may be a major barrier to widespread acceptance of EVs around the country: they’re cold. A gas engine engenders so much excess heat as a by-product that when you want to warm the interior, you just run a little air off the engine. Okay, all that heat is part of the problem–but in Vermont, you need it. Heck, you need it in Palo Alto. You can turn on the car’s heater, of course, but making heat from electricity takes a lot of energy, and it cuts into the battery’s time quite a lot. The seat warmers, plus some old-fashioned approaches like a blanket over the lap, were good enough in this climate, even for an easily-chilled person like me, but in a cold climate, EVs will need more efficiency to get both a warm interior and a long-lasting battery.
On the other hand, S. is an early adapter and the Leaf has been around a while, so I was driving one of the least efficient EVs. I’m sure this aspect of the technology will keep improving, as will the infrastructure that is currently reminiscent of the earliest days of ATMs, when they were few and far between and of so many formats that most of them didn’t take your card. Standardization will come soon, as it usually does in technology.
Joy got to go on a tour of the Tesla factory last week–don’t ever let anyone tell you that the job of State of California Regulatory Analyst lacks in glamour and excitement–and reports that they plan to offer an EV for under $30,000 in 2017. Our Prius will be pushing 200k miles by then. Hmmm . . .
A homily given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Christmas Eve, 2013
What are we to make of these angels? What are we supposed to think about all these angels?
There’s a lot in this lovely little story of Christmas that is hard for the rational mind to believe. But you can explain most of it away—the miraculous birth, the amazing star. But not angels. They are a whole different kind of creature that populates the Bible, something between the human and the divine. People have invented a whole field of study called “angelology” and explained all the various ranks and types, which only makes it all harder to believe for me.
But the meaning of the word “angel” in the Bible that I was taught as a child and that means the most to me today is something very simple and grounded in our real lives. An angel is a messenger. Someone who comes from God to a person, carrying a message. Someone who tells us something we need to know about the holy.
What is the holy? Well, according to the Unitarian Universalist songwriter Peter Mayer, everything—and I see no reason to doubt him. Which would seem to suggest that everything is or can be a messenger of the holy also. Anything that helps goodness, wisdom, hope, get from out there to inside here, is an angel of a kind. Anything that brings us a message that the holy is the holy is an angel.
It doesn’t have to be a beautiful young woman straight out of a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings. When you’re sick and scared in the hospital, and an overworked, overweight, aging nursing assistant puts a reassuring hand on your shoulder and smiles, and you look into his eyes and feel a flame of hope come to life inside you—he’s an angel.
It doesn’t have to be a human being. When you are filled with despair and there seems to be nothing except barren ground and hard edges, and you stumble home and your cat rubs her cheeks against your ankles, and you remember that there is something soft and loving in the world—she’s an angel.
It doesn’t have to be alive. A shooting star, the Badlands of South Dakota, a sand dollar shell washed up on the beach, the ocean itself . . . these have all been known to whisper messages of hope, harmony, beauty.
Whenever a message comes that reminds you of holiness, you have met an angel.
The messages don’t always have to be pleasant, either. We may hear that people are dying in South Sudan (radio as angel). We may be informed that we have hurt someone’s feelings (angry friend as angel). We may suddenly grasp that we are going the wrong way and have been going the wrong way for years (road sign as angel). If these messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking to us.
Everything is holy; anyone, anything, can be an angel.
And so the unknown writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
This, to me, means: be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the apparently uninteresting. It may be the messenger bearing a note for your ear. And we are reminded in particular to be open to those would-be messengers that we turn away because they bear messages we don’t want to hear. After all, when the holy breaks into our awareness, it can make us have to change our lives. It can turn everything upside down.
A message implies that there is something we now must do. Here’s a text message that says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” Here’s a messenger of God saying, “Joseph, marry your fiancee,” or “Shepherds, go to Bethlehem and look for the baby who will be King of the Jews.” Here’s an angel saying, “I bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Wait a second. As the first carol we sang tonight, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” says, there hasn’t been peace on earth. People have not extended goodwill to each other. What has followed that message has been “two thousand years of wrong.” That’s because the message is never just a point of information; it’s a command. Go and do something. Make this a world of peace. Make goodwill between yourself and your neighbor. Hear the angels sing and take their messages to heart.
So the messages that come our way can be disruptive, reassuring, joyful, scary, exhilarating . . . . it depends on what we do with them. One thing is certain. When the holy speaks to us, whatever form the holy takes, whatever form its messenger takes, that angel is always bearing good news.
In a great addition to our Sunday services, our Associate Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, is going to be doing something special in the 9:30 service three Sundays a month. This past Sunday morning he led a chant, a quasi-call-and-response called “Have You Got the Spirit?”
Have you got the spirit? / Oh yeah!
Let me see it in your head!
He drafted our music director to stand beside him and lead the congregational part, and we all shook our heads and waved our arms as called upon. As in education, there are theories that worship should engage the whole person–you want elements that use different modes and appeal to different aspects of ourselves. This one had laughter, using our bodies, music (rhythm), camaraderie, and definitely lots of spirit.
Return engagement is this Sunday, 9:30 a.m. Oh yeah!
In personal news, I did not keep to my Lenten practice of drawing at all. I drew on Monday mornings as usual, and besides that I did only a handful of drawings. I think I should just acknowledge that I’m at my limit for daily practices, between reading my Dickinson poem (today is #220, and next week’s sermon is on the journey so far) and exercising and following the various necessary family routines.
I’ve been putting my thoughts about linked ideas, images, and events in The Dispossessed into what the software, MindMeister, calls a “Mind Map,” here.
Whole sections haven’t been transcribed from my mind to the map, such as the multiple valences of possession, but it’s fun and helpful to get it into this form. What would you add?
Cross-posted to the UUCPA blog, which is where comments may be made.
Tim Bartik, who I wish lived near Palo Alto instead of in Michigan so he could be there tomorrow night, has been contributing really interesting and careful comments on The Dispossessed at the UUCPA blog, and his last one, written on February 24, was so helpful in clarifying my own thoughts that I want to post my response here as well.
Forgive the length of this response, but you’ve helped me understand a real key to this novel. I’ve been thinking about your previous comment, which made me realize for the first time the connection between The Dispossessed and Le Guin’s essay (which I cannot recommend highly enough) “The Stalin in the Soul,” and how I would concisely sum up my scattered thoughts, and before I got back to the internet you did it:
“as long as he or she can find an audience that is willing to pay for that art”
That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s why our freedom isn’t free. Not only because many great artists never make their art, or many people never get to see it or hear it, because they are busy working in an office or factory; but because many potentially great artists censor themselves for the market. They make what will sell instead of what their art calls them to make. That is an outcome of our economic system. It might be a price worth paying, in the last analysis, but we mustn’t treat it lightly.
Le Guin’s essay describes two novels: a great one that is written and never published in the author’s native land, because it is repressive and censors him in life and death; another great one that is never published in the author’s native land because he never writes it, being too busy writing what will sell to ever get around to his true art. The first author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, and the second is anyone in the US, including herself. As she says, we’re free “not only to write fuck and shit, and to spell America with a k,” but “to write what we please,” and yet we often don’t. She’s a little hard on her imaginary author, making him concerned with riches and fame. Most artists surrender their freedom just to eat and pay the rent, so their selling out is more understandable.
You are right that Bedap is right–Shevek doesn’t accept it in chapter 6 but he comes to–but I think you are describing the repression on Anarres slightly inaccurately. The bureaucrats can assign Tirin to the Asylum, but they can’t send him there. There are no laws, no police; he can refuse to go. But he goes, under the pressure of his community. The distinction is key, because we also pride ourselves on the fact that no one is going to throw us in jail for expressing ourselves. But do we do it?
If we don’t–and most so-called artists don’t, most of the time–then what is keeping us from doing it? A kind of unfreedom. And if we say, “Well, we’re free really, as long as we find someone to pay us,” we’re being like the Anarresti who “keep their initiative tucked away safe” (chapter 10). We’re refusing our own freedom. And then how free are we? Less free, in a sense, than Zamyatin, who wrote his book at least, even under Stalin.
I’m not saying there’s a better alternative to what we’ve got. I’m not sure whether there is, though I hope so. What I’m saying is that we tend to hide behind our democracy, assuring ourselves that we’re all free, and not acknowledging the walls that our economic system puts up. For every artist I know, I know five other people who would create art if only they didn’t have to earn a living. And don’t ask me how many “artists” I know whose great novels never get out of their heads because they are too busy producing what their publisher tells them can earn them the next advance. I’m sure it’s a lot. Most of them. And let’s not even get started on physics. You create it for the military, or for sale, or you fit it into the ever-narrower realm of “pure research” enabled by the ever-poorer universities. For that matter, I know many ministers who are not pursuing the community ministry they are called to, which would be tremendously beneficial, because they don’t know any way to get paid for their ministry except by congregations.
Last night, when I heard UKLG speak at Berkeley, her interlocutor asked her about her passion for Virgil, since she has such leftist-anarchist politics and he’s a poet of empire. She said she’d thought of lefty excuses for him, which got a laugh, and then she said seriously, “He had to be. If you don’t have copyright, you need a patron, and his patron was the emperor.” Art has to be paid for. (Copyright is just a part of it, something she’s concerned with at the moment since it’s under assault.) One thing she fantasized in The Dispossessed was a society in which artists are supported the same way as anyone else: the only justification they need present for their receiving food and housing and medical care and time is that they are doing the work they need to do, and that they join in the tenthday rotation and do some kleggich like everyone. They don’t need to find a patron; they don’t need to sell their art. They just need to create it. And then, because she is an honest thinker, she identifies what might not work about this: even Odonians start to ask, implicitly about the art, the compositions, the physics maybe, “What is it good for?” (“music isn’t useful,” Bedap points out)–which makes them no different than Dearri, the stupid businessman at Vea’s party. If it doesn’t further their narrow ideas of Odonianism, so they block it. They miss the true Odonianism, of course, which is based on the conviction that if each person follows their calling the society will thrive.
She is very subtle in how she talks about what undermines a revolution. This novel is not Animal Farm. People aren’t shot or driven out of the community by force. Tirin is not SENT to the Asylum; no one can send anyone anywhere, on Anarres. His Stalin is in his soul. But social pressure is often enough to drive someone mad and punish him for his madness. So what’s our equivalent? What imprisons us, who are so free? Isn’t the purpose of Le Guin’s novel to get us to ask that? And she suggests one answer: part of it, a big, big part of it, is money.
Again, disabling comments here so as to consolidate them at the UUCPA blog. “The Stalin in the Soul” is a very short essay collected in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night and also in a collection called The Future Now.
Two more questions in advance of my class on The Dispossessed next week.
(1) As a teenager on Anarres, Shevek sees a film about Urras, the home planet that’s a lot like ours–multiple countries, all with governments, some of which are capitalist and some communist. The film juxtaposes a famine in the country of Thu where the bodies of starved children are being burned with the wealth and plenty only 700 km away in the nation of A-Io, noting that these exist “side by side” (pp 33-34 in the Avon paperback edition). Do you think this is a fair criticism? Can it be applied to our world? How would you defend us, or would you make the same criticism?
(2) If you suddenly discovered that Anarres existed and you could move there, would you trade the benefits of living in a society like ours for those of that society? For example, would you give up the various things you own, and the possibility of owning more, in exchange for life in a society where you have almost no private possessions and “no one eats while another starves”?
Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog, and I’ve disabled comments here so that all comments are in one place; please make them over there.
In preparation for our class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism scheduled for January 31 at UUCPA, Dan Harper and I are blogging about the topic online. With this post, I am less responding to Dan’s post than tossing my own thoughts into the mix, so I’ll use a new post instead of the comments.
The second question we posed to ourselves is “Do we need more theological unity in Unitarian Universalism?” and to that my answer is “No, we need less.”
What I mean by that is that our fear of diversity and difference among us keeps us from talking about our theology/ies.* And that dialogue is something we need more of. In fact, when I am afraid that Unitarian Universalism is withering and dying, it’s the lack of this dialogue that I suspect is the cause.
People sometimes address our decline in numbers with a call for increased theological unity, asserting that if we are to attract people, we need to know what we all believe and declare it. They usually seem to mean that everyone should rally behind their particular theology. While I agree that what we have to offer sometimes feels weak and half-hearted, what gives us such a tentative air isn’t the lack of a simple, unified statement. It is that we are dancing around the topic instead of digging in. We don’t have to agree about what we believe, but we do have to talk about it. And as long as we are afraid of disagreement, we won’t open our mouths.
Here I am getting into very personal territory. When I think about my own preaching and how it has changed–in my view, improved–over the past few years, I know that the weakness at the core was my fear of voicing my own theology. Too often, I was hedging. And hedging attracts no one. When I speak from my own theological center, not trying to speak for every UU but just for myself, I contribute to the conversation. The conversation, to me, is where we come alive.
By the way, our first question to ourselves was “Is theological unity necessary?” That word, “necessary,” always suggests another question, “necessary for what?” What is our purpose? When we know that, we may know the answer to whether we need unity. I have a lot of different ways of stating our purpose: “To transform ourselves, each other, and the world”; the benediction we say at the end of each service; the vision I once set out here. None of them, in my opinion, requires that we have a unified theology.
*”Unitarian Universalist Theologies” was the name of the core liberal theology course I took in seminary, taught at Andover-Newton Theological School by then-doctoral-student Paul Rasor. His book Faith Without Certainty would probably be very interesting to anyone who wanted to explore these questions beyond next week.
Cross-posted here at UUCPA’s blog. (I have turned off comments on this Sermons in Stones entry so that the conversation will take place there.)
Based on my own experiences, I accept it as a given that rich, lasting relationships can arise through online connections, via social media and the internet. On Sunday I’ll be talking about that and what it says about the nature of community, and asking how we might expand our sense of connection by using these technologies more as a congregation, just as many (almost all) of us are using them more in the rest of our lives.
How do you currently use social networking and the internet that would translate well to congregational life?