Sunday, August 16, 2009

Deliver us to College...

Today, I volunteered to give the sermon at my church's summer lay-led service. As we prepare to drive my child on to college in a few hours, I delivered this sermon on letting go.

Today's reading is from Stations of the Spirit, by Victor Carpenter
It was the end of a summer holiday. The year was 1977. The last summer before our son Tyler was to enter the University of Pennsylvania. We were returning from a morning on the beach. As we came within sight of the house, Tyler broke into a run. I watched him race ahead, moving further and further from us. An ache started moving within me. My neck muscles tightened. I knew that I was going to cry. And the tears came.
I remembered feelings from my childhood. I was the little boy left at summer camp, my family driving off, leaving me to deal with my homesickness. I was surprised that my childhood vulnerability should confront me again in a situation of role reversal. I told myself that it was time for my son to leave home, but that was no help. The prospect of his claiming a life beyond the family that had nurtured him left an empty place in me, and my tears were an indication of my own vulnerability at the prospect of change and loss.

And so it goes.

I do not remember the moment to which my father refers in today's reading, but I understand the feeling he had that day. For in a few hours, we will climb into the car and bring our son to the College of Wooster where he will spend the next (hopefully only) 4 years. Of course, given the length of time each of his parents took to get through college ... maybe a little longer.

For me, a similarly ordinary experience that brings forth extraordinary feelings came last April. One Saturday afternoon, my son called and asked if I wanted to join him and a couple of friends for a game of Ultimate (that's "competitive Frisbee" for most of us). I walked over to his friend's house and then I along with about 5 other people over to the field across the street from here and played. Some of his friends I'd known for many years. Others I'd never met before. But the ages ranged from 17 to 18. I was 50. Yet I was not out of place, and after about an hour of play, we all sat and rested for a bit. I listened to the conversations around me, which were hauntingly familiar: school, teachers, jobs, women, names of people I'd heard of and some I hadn't. General talk about people and events from their present and about their immediate plans for the evening or the rest of the weekend. I felt welcome into the group, not as a parent, and certainly not as a peer. Just as a welcome participant. There was a sense of trust amongst his friends that I wasn't someone who would judge them or advise them or attempt to guide them based on what they said that day. It was like being a guest-member of that exclusive club of teenage men, just hanging out -- a club I'd left so many years ago. A club that they will soon leave too. I felt privileged in that moment, and as I walked home, I knew that it wouldn't be a privilege I'd get much more. After all, the role of a parent of a teenager is a combination of gate-keeping, disciplining, guiding, and helping. Picking up the pieces. To the teenager, our role feels intrusive, because it IS intrusive. I certainly remember many of my own teenage years, where adults were either intruders or watchers or simply invisible. On that day, I felt like an honorary teenager, and that would be a very fleeting moment.

He leaves us soon, and with it he takes our ability to observe the decisions he makes, to see his growth, and to converse regularly with him as he wrestles with new ideas and new experiences. Now, I don't want to imply that the transition of our elder offspring from dependent child to independent adult has happened, and I hold no illusions that, now that he is 18 and soon to be living "on his own" (or as much on his own when we get the bulk of his bills in the next few years) he will behave responsibly and ethically and wisely. He's not quite an adult, and Lord knows, if this summer's experiences of his are any indication, that kid's still got a lot of maturing to do.

At times this summer, I found myself asking why, why do you not learn from my experience? I know I made some idiotic choices in my youth, and I told you about many of them -- so why do you make some of the same choices? But that's not how things work. In the world of the teenager, the peer rules the parent. And the experience of listening to -- or giving -- bad advice is simply part of the growing process. It's the smart teenager that learns from this experience, and the wise one that looks out for his friends as they learn from their own foolish behaviors. But valid warnings don't cross the parental or generational lines. They're only valid when going from peer to peer. Why? because that's how we grow. We grow through experience. When I was a teenager, I knew that my parents had only a limited amount of useful knowledge to pass on to me, regardless of what they claimed. I simply knew better. Now my children return the favor. They remind me that while I might have the answers, they still need to learn for themselves, and IF they learn, they will learn the same way that I learned. A combination of intelligent decisions and foolish action. And they will develop and maintain friendships, where they share experiences with those who'll understand their situations and their frustrations.

Many of us in this room see children as they grow. We watch them run around during happy hour, we teach them about Unitarian Universalism, we watch them deliver credos from the pulpit and then we watch them disappear into their own group, only to return for their youth services, then we see them only for the Christmas Eve service, and then after a couple years, they're gone from the church altogether. The children move on, create families and join churches of their own. They continue to grow, but we often don't see the people they become. But they become.

In 1961, Carl Rogers, the humanist psychologist, published the book "On Becoming a Person", where he talks about "the fully functioning person" as a processing organism in process rather than a static state of humanistic perfection. He talks about 7 characteristics of the fully functioning person, and I cannot help but relate those characteristics -- openness to experience, reliability towards others -- to our 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism which go from from individual worth and dignity through cooperation and growth within the larger world of life. Rogers refers to something called "the good life", which as he points out, is not the same as a "life of comfort". In fact, the "good life" is just the opposite: The "good life" involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. And it doesn't end when you finish high school, or when you finish college, or start your own family. It is an ongoing process, moving from dependence to independence to interdependence.

And as we launch our first child into the stream of living independence, I also think of the changing nature of the our relationship. When raising a child, the questions revolve around "how can I alleviate this person's physical or emotional pain or what can I do to make my child a better person?" Later, as they grow into their own potential and begin to dictate the terms of their own personal growth, the question changes to "How can my role in our relationship facilitate this person's continuing development?". But as they leave, this question emerges: "How do I continue developing now that this person will become less a part of my daily life". Note the change in emphasis. "How do I continue developing?" This means acknowledging the influence that my child's presence has on my own continuing development, and the noticing of the two way influences we have on one another.

In our faith, we talk about an interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. Part of that interdependence is the joy of watching your child strike out on his own, make the decisions and take the actions of launching himself fully into that stream of life. But part of it is the pain of knowing that the those places will include you less and less as that teenage child constructs the life of his destiny.

Go now in peace, go now in peace. May the love of God surround you, everywhere everywhere you may go. Amen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hopelessness and Patriotism.

"I've always wondered why I was put on this earth. ... I've been feeling helpless on the war on Terrorism but I realized I could engage the terrorist allies here in America."

"I thought I would do something good for the country. Kill Democrats until the cops kill me."
It was a simple plan, constructed out of the primary ingredients of fascism: hopelessness, patriotism and a desire to follow orders.

On July 27, 2008, a middle-aged man walked into a children's performance of Annie at the Tennesee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church with a 12-gauge shotgun, 78 rounds of multi-shot ammunition, and an intent to kill as many people before being killed himself. Through some extraordinary actions by the entire congregation, he managed to kill only 2 people before he was held down and arrested a few minutes later. The American equivalent of a suicide bombing, his action that day represented an act of pure terrorism.

I have no doubt that if Jim David Adkisson's name was Mohammed Zibakalam and the religion of his youth was Islam instead of Christianity, then virtually all of the news media -- mainstream and extremist -- would have been on this action as an example of the necessity of our "war on terror", much would have been written and broadcast about whether or not the shooter deserves a trial-free sentence of indefinite length in Guantanamo, or whether he should be summarily executed.

But Adkisson was raised in a Christian household. And he is not of middle eastern descent. And he reads and recites the words of O'Reilly, Hannity and Savage, not bin Laden. So, outside of UU circles and and local coverage in the Knoxville area, his actions that day have been largely forgotten in the six months since his attack. As of today, Adkisson has no Wikipedia entry, and the whole shooting event has a fairly short page devoted to it. Most Americans have no idea that the event even happened.

Last week Adkisson pled guilty to all charges. He had left a 4 page suicide note/manifesto on the seat of his truck, and the local paper just posted it. Here's a copy (.pdf), in Adkisson's own writing. The writing is both chilling and incredibly sad. Each time I read it, I cry. I'm crying now as I write this. The opening quotes on this posting is from this note, as are these pieces of "wisdom", under the "Know This If Nothing Else" section:
  1. "This was a hate crime"
  2. "This was a political protest"
  3. "This was a symbolic killing"
And of course, there is a page all about the Unitarian Universalist Church itself, which he summarizes up in this statement: "They embrace every pervert that comes down the pike but if they find out that you're a conservative, they absolutely Hate you. I know, I experienced it".

Some people will read Jim David Adkisson's manifesto and see the rantings of a madman. I do not. I read the manifesto and see the writings of a soldier who understands orders and wants to demonstrate his willingness to follow them. I see someone who desperately wants to be part of a larger movement and to show the people whom he admires that their words do make a difference. And make no mistake. The people whose books he read and whose voices he heard understand his motivations, and will never denounce them. The Goldbergs, Coulters and Savages will continue to write books and to speak words of division. And IF they denounce him or his actions (and that's a big 'if' -- more likely they'll pretend he never existed), they will never denounce Adkisson's motivations. In fact, his manifesto could have been written by any number of conservative voices whom we hear on mainstream radio and television. Every. Single. Day.

In 1994, thousands of Hutu extremists listened to radio stations that encouraged a cleansing of the countryside of all those citizens who would not think the right way. Those people were soldiers, willing to fight, to kill and to die for a movement based in racial and ideological cleansing. They listened to the Interahamwe voices of authority on their radios and they followed orders. Jim David Adkisson also listened to the "conservative" voices of authority on the radio as they promoted a movement based in racial and ideological cleansing. He read their books, and educated himself in their movement and understood his role in that movement. He would follow orders. Like the thousands of Rwandans who killed everyone for an ideology of hate, Adkisson became a person whose life now had meaning.

"I'd like to encourage other like minded people to do what I've done. If life ain't worth living any more don't just kill yourself do something for your country before your go. Go Kill Liberals!"

The Interahamwe would be proud.

Note: All items in italics come directly from Adkisson's manifesto (pdf link).

Liberal Hatred

I originally wrote and posted this on 29-July-2008 on my older (now inactive) blog. As I write an update based on recent news, called "Hopelessness and Patriotism", I felt it was time to repost this note from 6 months ago. It remains here, unchanged from that July day of writing.


Is this what Jim David Adkisson carried as he drove up to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday with a shotgun and 76 rounds of ammunition? After all, any person with an Internet connection can buy this bumper sticker and proudly place it on their vehicle of choice.

There is some denial amongst conservative blog commenters (I haven't read much from more "official" conservative columnists regarding this, but I'm sure we'll hear from them in the next few days) regarding Mr. Adkisson. To them, he is simply a deranged person, and the rhetoric promoted by conservative commentators had nothing to do with his actions on Sunday. When and if the Coulters, Hannitys and O'Reillys (and their many "second string" talk radio surrogates) refer to the shooting, I'm sure that they will be shocked -- SHOCKED -- to learn that their writings and broadcasts were part of Adkisson's motivation to "visit" the UU church. In fact, they will take offense at any one who could think or say such a thing.

I wish those commenters were correct. I wish that conservative writings and broadcasts have no bearing on an attempted massacre at the church. But the widespread rhetoric against "liberals" as enemies in a culture war -- much of it quite incendiary -- leads me to believe otherwise.

A little over a year ago, David Neiwart (of the Orcinus blog) posted an appendix to his outstanding (and long) series called "Eliminationism in America", where he documents many quotes by best-selling conservative authors (like Ann Coulter and Michael Savage) and mainstream conservative broadcasters (like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly). Rather than reprint much of the statements made by these very powerful people, I recommend that you visit that site now -- Click here right now -- even if it means you never read the rest of this blog entry.

In fact, even if all you read are the book titles (and they're all bestsellers), you can easily guess the poison contained within them:
  • Ann Coulter: Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism
  • Sean Hannity: Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism
  • Michael Savage: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder
and most recently:
  • Jonah Goldberg: Liberal Fascism (complete with a cute picture on the cover)
It seems that Mr. Adkisson read (or owned, anyway) at least 2 of these books. His sense that he is a soldier in a larger culture war against an insidious and treacherous enemy are -- it seems -- widely promoted amongst these authors and repeated endlessly amongst conservative broadcasters.

I find it especially interesting that this politically motivated attempt at mass murder is not called "terrorism" in the mainstream media. Part of the problem is that the term "terrorism" has no simple definition, and that the use of the term itself connotes a politically-motivated action which is based on misguided political principles. In other words, if the action is based on honorable principles, then it is -- by definition -- not terrorism. And to the conservative media outlets, violent elimination of "America's enemies" is one of the highest principles to which a soldier can adhere. The moment we label an action as "terrorist", we impugn both the action itself as well as the political motivation behind that action.

It is for that reason -- good motives but bad actions -- that conservative commentators will not label Mr. Adkisson's actions as "terrorist". On the other hand, I have no doubt that if Mr. Adkisson had spent time reading bin Laden's writings before walking into the TVUUC, then the very same action would be so labeled -- repeatedly -- by every media outlet in the country.

So while conservatives will agree that Mr Adkisson's entry into the church and shooting up the congregants was bad action, they basically agree with much of his beliefs behind that action. In the eyes of many conservative broadcasters and writers, we are in a culture war and the enemies of the good consist not only of the people who wish to kill Americans, but also those who will refuse to view people

Almost 7 years ago, G. W. Bush spoke these words "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror". Since that time, conservative authors, commentators and even administration officials have said that liberals and terrorists are -- essentially -- on the same side in this "war" (yes, Karl Rove said that in front of a applauding audience of several hundred in 2005).

Mr. Adkisson's actions on Sunday were those of a domestic terrorist. He acted as if he were under orders, and those orders were to eliminate liberals. It's not hard to find statements by many prominent people -- repeated over and over -- that in our "culture wars", liberals are the "true enemies of America", and that the responsibility of every "freedom-loving citizen" doesn't stop at the elimination of their leaders. It means "taking out some of their supporters too".

But what is truly sad about the whole incident is this. Because the beliefs and principles of UUs lie at the core of our liberal religious tradition, Mr. Adkisson will probably receive more kindness and compassion by the congregants of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church -- the people he considered "enemies of America" -- in the coming months and years than he will by any conservative columnist, author or broadcaster -- the people he probably considered his "friends" only 3 days ago.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Religulous and Discontentment

Around Christmastime, I visited my in laws, who mentioned that they had seen Bill Maher's Religulous and asked if I'd seen it. I hadn't but I expected that my reaction to it would be either
  1. A great deal of laughter since I find Maher very amusing and often insightful or
  2. A great deal of discomfort, since the promoted message of the movie (starting with the title) would be one that alternately pokes fun at believers and decries their beliefs as invalid, thereby building yet another wall of miscommunication between those with faith and those without.
I had both reactions.

(spoiler alert below)
The movie runs for about 100 minutes, and for the first 90+ minutes, it does essentially this: conflate religious faith and supernaturalism. It ignores the human need to search for truth and meaning in life, implying that those who find solace in existing belief systems are either fools or charlatans (or in the case of Muslims, potential assassins). It provides little insight into why we approach the "large questions" in the manners that we do, and only seeks to demonstrate to us, the "knowing, educated audience", that these "believers" are hopeless rubes being taken for all they're worth by man-made organizations.

In the last 5 minutes or so, Maher decides to make his statement: religions are not simply cute personal and organizational anachronisms made for our (the scientifically educated) amusement. They're dangerous. And for the most part, his statement is accurate, provided you accept his definition of religion as blind faith in supernatural powers, with an implied rejection of scientific methods and conclusions. I do not accept his definition.

Maher defines religion and religious concepts in the most divisive and simplistic manner -- almost in a "you're with us or with the extremists" way. He chooses the narrowest possible interpretation for broad concepts like God, faith and scripture, and his movie does little to encourage a viewer to examine his own relationship with the world beyond a general consumption of goods and services.

To me, Religulous rings like a well-done Michael Moore-type documentary. And as someone who likes Moore's documentaries, this is a good thing. The movie's very amusing (yes, I laughed a lot), reasonably accurately reported (though the Horus/Jesus piece may be fast and loose with the truth) , and (even without the closing monologue), about as subtle as an elbow that gets jabbed in the ribs, over and over. It's full of quick editing cuts to ensure that we get the point that Maher wants us to get, and it will replaces any meaningful discussion of the meaning of religious thought in human society with snarky commentary and ridicule. It preaches to the choir.

There's no attempt to understand the history of the beliefs, little interaction with religious scholars, and no attempt to talk about the deep personal faiths that have allowed some of our greatest people to make their differences in our lives. By treating the subject of faith in this crude and unsophisticated manner, the movie ends up being an example of the intolerance it so decries. The only difference is that unlike the religious extremists he mocks, Bill Maher's message won't cause us humans to destroy the world.

Unfortunately it won't cause us humans to seek ways to find meaning in the world either.

Now I don't want to say that I didn't enjoy the movie. I did, and, like brother and sister in law, I have a general agreement with Maher's message about extremism, even if I understand that his characterization of these faiths (and the nature of faith itself) was woefully incomplete. It's just that, as I watched this movie, a not so subtle voice inside my head kept saying this:

Just because you agree with him doesn't make him right.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Sunday Sermon Survival

Well, I completed the Sunday Service here at Church (with Dad) and the presentation with Jeff Klein and Howard Lenow seemed to go pretty well, too. I expect that we'll see a recording (and text) of the sermons posted on the Church website in the next few days, so anyone who wants to relive the text may do so :-)

I posted a late draft of my part of my sermon, called "Beyond Impossibility Lies Hope" on the "invitation" site (I was still editing it as Dad was reading his), where you're welcome to read it. If you need access, please contact me and I'll give you access.