Ye Economy of Little Faith…

August 28, 2011

This week my husband and I took ourselves to market to see what we were worth. Like many individuals, most governments, and for that matter, most souls, we are in debt. Like most people our age, we started our “adult lives” in debt with college loans.  Before we met, I took out debt even larger than the cost of higher education when I decided to buy a house.  Since then, we’ve acquired new debts together, first in paying for our wedding, and most recently because of expenses from the house I bought and we decided to rent after jobs took us farther away from that home than we were willing to travel.

Economists may have different opinions about the value of home ownership, but there a few who will ever tell you that renting your home from a distance is a smart decision.  It isn’t.  We knew when we first decided to rent our home it was a leap of faith that it might work, and so far it really hasn’t. We hoped to get tenants who were like us in that we treat the home we are renting from landlords literally on the other side of the world with the care we would our own.  Some did, but those who didn’t left us with legal fees and repair bills that have become to us like Sisyphus’ rock. We hoped to come close to breaking even between the costs and rental income.  We haven’t.

So, in the past few weeks, we met with a realtor about putting what we still consider our home on the market, and then, based on several factors, applied for an equity loan to consolidate our debts. Our hope was that when we could keep the rock of our financial well-being from rolling farther downhill each time we try to push it up. We put on what we thought were the right clothes and proper facial expressions, and met with a loan officer.  From her, we learned the biggest obstacle we face in trying to make this work: trying to pay the debts we currently have while keeping our current tenants happy and protecting the investment we made in the house.  The biggest obstacle is that we decided to make that leap of faith to take the jobs farther away than is practical commute and rent the house.  Banks don’t deal with “landlords” or “investors” the way they do with “homeowners.”

I’m not an economist.  If I was, I probably would have made better decisions before.  If I was an economist, the rest of this blog would probably make more sense.  The only way for me to view my financial choices, and what I witness on the larger economic scales of this country and the world, is to ask myself what I think is morally right and have faith that by doing the right thing, my husband and I will be okay.

What does any of that have to do with religion, or specifically Unitarian-Universalism?  Well, for one thing, the entire time we were reviewing economic advice online or meeting with the loan officer, I had that familiar frustration of whenever anything – monetary, legal, or spiritual – is treated as a black and white issue.  I felt that the rules that exist in the financial industry are like the early attempts of religion to see this action as “bad” or “immoral” and these as “good”, without examining the circumstances. Show me any place where someone, higher power or government agency has said “thou shalt not” and there is sure to be an example where it is morally less objectionable to break the law than to follow it.  I know it’s wrong to think of a house you’re not physically living in as your home (according to tax law), but our only other choice at the time we got jobs away from home was to abandon it, leaving it vacant and not paying the mortgage.  We chose to rent our home, and I stand by that choice, even though I understand the economists view that it wasn’t the right choice.

Meanwhile, our personal economic struggle was transpiring over the backdrop of the latest pledge drive beginning with the start of another church year and the U.S. government’s credit rating being down graded.  It seems that tough times are here in the micro and macro level, and there just isn’t enough to go around. But, the truth of the matter is that the day before I applied for a loan and the day before Standard & Poor said our government isn’t worth as much were almost identical to the individual days before them.  The only factor that had changed was that someone, somewhere, with economic power, decided how much faith a bank should have in us.  Sure, there are all kinds of mathematical formulas to give reason to the belief that the debts will or won’t be paid.  But it’s still about predicting the future, and that requires as much faith in determining whether a debt will be repaid as what may happen the to your soul after you die.

Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer who claimed to be a UU so people would stop bothering him about not having any faith, pointed his finger not at god, but evolution to the sufferings of man.  He wrote in his novel Galapagos about fictional, but familiar problems with the global economy:

“It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinions of paper wealth…This financial crisis was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains… The planet … was as moist and nourishing as it is today… all that had changed was people’s opinions of the place.” (pg 24-25)

This sums up our situation today.  The grocery stores are still full of food. There is still gas in the pumps to fill our cars.  There is still power in the grid to turn on your lights when you flick the switch. The question is not whether any of these things still exist but whether you have the resources on hand or credit with which to purchase them.  In other words, do you have access to our physical possession of those little pieces of paper that state “in God we trust,” that are really valued based on the faith we have in all manner of things, including our government?

The stuff we want is still the same as it was a day, a month or years ago.  The paper we use to get the stuff is still the same (with a few security measures added over the years, though you can still use the old-low tech bills that get handed around.)

If you read the various op-eds, the difference between now and the “boom years” is that we’ve lost faith in that stuff.  Americans have lost faith that their money will continue to grow in worth.  Standard & Poor has lost faith in the U.S. ability to pay back its debts.  The red and blue sides of our political system have lost faith in whether or not the extremely wealthy will continue to work hard if we do or do not do something to their tax rates.

It comes down to faith in the things you can’t see, but affect your daily life anyway.

We may have lost our faith in our money, which ironically makes most of us want to hold onto what we’ve got as tightly as we can.  Still, some people who have the most money, including Warren Buffet, have faith in the power for our brains to get us out of this mess. Two weeks ago, Buffet wrote an open letter to the President and Congress that he should have his taxes raised, and doing so would not make those with the largest pocketbooks to lose faith or the country to collapse.  (If you have not already read it: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/15/opinion/stop-coddling-the-super-rich.html)

Where does that leave us? Apparently stuck between two sides of what is being framed as an economic issue, with clear black and white answers derived from rigid mathematic principles and infaliable equations.  But, really where we’re stuck is between those who have faith, and those who do not. The problem is, neither side sees their point of view as “faith” in that it is unknowable whether you are right.  Instead, they see their point of view on the economy and what would fix it as “truth” or “law, ” those who don’t follow their ideas are infidels and savages.  It’s those who don’t agree who are sending us all to hell in a handbasket.

Meanwhile, those of us who are not the macro-economic decision makers wish that there could be away for those with different beliefs to live and work together toward the common goals of justice and equity, plus a little compassion for those who need a hand up.  Maybe we need to all remind ourselves that when we use those funny little pieces of green paper, we’re not exercising faith in god, or even faith in the government.  We’re showing faith in ourselves, that we can continue to find a way to provide for ourselves and our family. We’re showing faith in the soul attached to the hand that receives our money: that they will treat us fairly and they have a right to be paid for the good or service they are offering us.

And, we have to have faith that somehow, Warren Buffett and the super-rich aren’t there to just swoop in with charitable donations, but have some good ideas that will trickle down.  Namely, that higher taxes on some who can afford it won’t make them lose faith and do whatever they can to avoid helping others.  That a higher tax rate on those who succeed won’t stop people from trying to succeed.  Perhaps if we had faith that those who succeed the most aren’t afraid of a little higher taxes, we wouldn’t be afraid of loosing our jobs, since many of our salaries are about equal to the “burden” being debated here.

Perhaps if we all believed the inherent worth, dignity, and compassion in all people, we could have faith in the economy again.

Advertisements

A Book I Wish I Wasn’t Happy to Have Read- Elite by Mark W. Harris

August 21, 2011

Sometimes we make bad choices from the wide array of information and entertainment we can receive.  My mother loves to share the story of how much scarier the film Alien was when she watched it 9 months pregnant.  Most people know better than to watch movies about plane crashes or shark attacks right before a vacation on the sea side.  But what about those more common and less obvious mistakes?  How often have you found yourself yelling at your car radio because you just couldn’t resist listening to the talk host you always disagree with for a few more minutes, just to see how wrong he/she is this time?

Why do we do things like that to ourselves?  Do we think we’re testing our emotional or moral mettle by ingesting media that is almost assured to trigger an intense response?  Do we seek some kind of enjoyment for the adrenaline rush that comes with getting angry?

Perhaps.  Perhaps that’s why the media has become so fractured between extreme left and right politics.  Perhaps that’s why only religious extremists seem to get any notice.  Perhaps we occasionally need to try to prove to ourselves that we don’t just seek out the messages we know we’ll agree with, which is it’s own kind of sin? That was the kind of trouble I knew I was headed for when I found myself reading a book called “Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History” by Mark W. Harris.

Harris has written a fine book, which is obviously well researched.  If the end result of his work doesn’t quite seem balanced, than it is at least fair. He does not condemn our faith’s followers who in retrospect said and did things shockingly out of line with our principles in the name of “bettering” society. He asks the readers to ask themselves the tough questions that are demanded when our history is examined a little more deeply than an impressive list of names of famous Unitarians and Unversalists or brief quotes from any of these people.

Take, for example, some of the historical facts presented in his most disturbing chapter, “Scientific Salvation.”  In this, Harris outlines the sad history of “eugenic science,” which taught that for humankind to progress, less desirable people should be prohibited from having children.  He described the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell in 1927 which upheld a Virginia law that allowed the state to have a seventeen year old girl sterilized because she was, according to case documents “shiftless, ingorant and worthless class.”  (pg 85) This case was overseen by two Unitarians, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

Unitarians, the faith that say all people have inherent worth and dignity, voting for a woman’s right to bear children to be taken from her because of her social status?  Yuck.

Why hadn’t I ever heard about this I wondered?  Sure, it makes sense that our youth curriculum is more focused on the positive like Susan B. Anthony speaking for her rights to vote while on trial.  But, why even in my more in-depth research of Unitarian and Universalist history had I never even come across the word eugenics? Especially when, as Harris notes, “Chief Justice Taft, who would soon serve as president of the National Unitarian Conference, … played a prominent role in the publication of How to Live, a booklet that … recommended every state have eugenics boards with the goal of preventing ‘reproduction by the markedly unfit,’ and the sterilization of ‘gross and hopeless defectives.’ “(pg 85) Double yuck.

Reading about this dark time in our nation’s and our faith’s history in some ways gives me previously unknown sympathy for the Right to Life campaigns.  It also shows how danagerous the human language is when we try to use it to describe things as indescribable as the value of any human life and the morality of any choice. I suppose there is a bright side that even the most extreme of the “shock talk” radio folks out there would dare to use such language as “hopeless defective.”

There is a bright side, too, in that, even if it may not have been assigned reading for me, I had the choice and the ability to read Harris’ book because Skinner House Books, an imprint of the UUA, was bold enough to publish it.

However, it is unfortunately ironic that likely the only ones who may read it are those who want to delve most fully into both the positive and negative of our faith’s history.  And though his book is written to be as accessible as possible, it’s highly unlikely that anyone without an advanced education would give it a try.  That’s ironic because Harris himself argues that we may be inflicting potential damage on our denomination by making our services and congregations unwelcome for anyone without an advanced education.

I am encouraged that there is at least one UU voice asking the important questions that Harris poses, “Can we change? … It will require personal connections. It will require sharing power and control. It will require changed perceptions of status and education.” (pg 128) He argues effectively that congregations made up of comfortable and well-to-do parishoners are the most difficult to change.

I would go further that it will require a majority of UU’s to fully accept that we have not been fully accepting.  We have made and continue to make mistakes in our efforts to live up to our principles.  Too often, we (and I include myself here) unconsciously tack on a few conditions when we say that all people have inherent worth and dignity.  We love to say that you can believe whatever you want to be a UU, but really we mean that all UU’s can believe what we believe.  And, in the process of putting on the blinders to the conditions that we put on our theology, we also allow ourselves to blithely ignore how unwelcoming our congregations are to those with perhaps less education, less access to transportation, less mobility, and less money (Harris’ arguments, but I agree whole-heartedly).

So, in a way I am grateful for Harris raising these important issues in his book.  I am grateful that we are not to the point of having prominent members of our faith arguing that portions of our society should not have the same rights as others in the name of the betterment of mankind, as there in fact were less than a hundred years ago. But, I wish I hadn’t read it.  It plays to my deepest and most primal fears in a way that we still bolt their doors against Norman Bates before entering a hotel shower.

Harris’ is one voice asking us to face a dark time in our history and continuing trends that make our congregations only welcoming to a certain type of societal group. Perhaps the other questions about how we worship, and whether anyone is interested in church of any type are the more pressing.  But, if the question of whether all are truly welcome is not addressed by every congregation and every member of the UUA, then our principles are hollow, and whatever we build our churches on, they are likely to fall away as so many have.

Like I said, sometimes we make bad choices.  Perhaps I should be focusing my extra-curricular reading on more sunny messages about the past and future of my faith. But, our fears haunt us for a reason (ask my therapist). Anger can be a valuable tool if it provokes action.  If you are reading this you may be angry that anyone would have bothered dredging up such a dark time in our faith’s history as when such prominent Unitarian and Universalists promoted eugenics.  I guess the tool I’m trying to pass on is the knowledge that sometimes an idea that makes perfect sense at a point in history, is downright shameful in retrospect.  The greater shame, however, is to keep on making similar mistakes for lack of perspective.

We thankfully do not have any prominent UU’s telling society who is fit to have children. But do we, quietly or subtly, tell visitors, friends and neighbors who are “fit” to be UU’s?  Will that definition be worth defending a hundred years from now?


Perchance to Dream

August 14, 2011

This week I’m blogging in darkness. It’s the first time I’ve written an entry at night rather than in the morning with the UU traditional drink of coffee by my side.  This is a night I am typically unable to sleep, the last remnants of the insomnia that struck in my late teens which I’ve  alluded to in an earlier post.  So, excuse me if this post is slightly more disjointed than usual…

I don’t think anyone who has suffered severe sleeplessness would wish such an experience on their worst enemy.  It is a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual affliction. Scientific studies have shown that sleepiness behind the wheel is more dangerous than driving drunk. Though science is still stumped as to why humans dream, theories range from the idea that our subconscious has more free reign to show us our deepest desires or repressed memories while we sleep to the concept that sleep is the brain’s equivalent of the recylce bin, when we process information accrued over the course of the day and decide what should be kept and what should be turned over to new synapses.

Somewhere along human history, we also got the idea that sleep it can solve our problems.  Though they’re not quite as prevalent as they were a few decades ago, there are still plenty of companies that promise if you play a CD while you sleep, your mind will receive the subliminal messages and presto! you’ll be cured of the desire to smoke or you’ll start losing weight in weeks. Subliminal-cds.com even has a disk to cure insomnia, which I find extremely ironic. Cure sleeplessness while you sleep!

Western culture gives us a lot of ideas about what dreams mean to our inner psychological lives, thanks largely to Freud. The most commonly held theory is that your dreams will tell you what is in the deepest recesses of your mind, what you can’t bear to face while you are awake.  But, we rarely believe that our dreams have meaning outside of our psyche.

Taking our dreams too seriously, or too literally, can have very serious consequences.  In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl described a fellow concentration camp inmate who had dreamed that God told him the camp would be liberated by a certain date.  He was so sure that this dream was in fact a literal message from God, he died the day after the promised date of liberation.  As Frankl put it: “the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly affect.”

So psychology once again reminds us that dreams affect us as individuals more than they reveal truth about the world outside ourselves.  And if you say that you were visited by an angel or God while you were unconscious you’ll likely be laughed at today.  Why, that was just a dream, silly. You can’t take that seriously.  In fact, dreams have become almost exclusively owned by the secular psychological world, and it may be a stretch to blog about it on a spiritual level.

Luckily, UU’s don’t hold psychology and religion apart. As a UU, I see everything that goes on in the mind as part of that experience of transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit, whether I’m awake or not.  Across faiths, we still use the term dream to stand for our deepest hopes.  We consider our dreams to be deeply personal and, when we remember them, we assume they have great meaning.

In some ways, we put more stock in what our mind tells us when we are asleep than when we are awake.  If you dream about making a fool of yourself during that big proposal you’ve got coming up, you make have the experience of “not being able to shake” the dream, even though you consciously know you’re prepared.  So is the information you receive when you are asleep more or less important than the updates you may receive in your e-mail?  It’s certainly true that both can be distracting to what you should really be paying attention to, and can sometimes even crash your harddrive, so to speak.

Perhaps dreams are where we test ourselves emotionally/mentally/spiritually.  When I was very young, I had a recurring nightmare about the roof of my family’s house being ripped open by a great monster who would reach in to try and grab me.  I was always running away from the frightening creature, as we often dream about running.  Then, one night I dreamed that I tried talking to the monster, and befriended it.  He let me ride on his giant shoulders and I got to see the world from a whole other view.

My dream’s heavenly view of earth gives me something in common with a famous biblical dreamer. In the first book of the Old Testament or Torah, Jacob experiences a profound dream, in which he sees angels climbing a ladder between heaven and earth. Upon waking he declares that God visited him and the site of his dream became the Temple of Jerusalem.

This is one of surprisingly very few examples the Judeo Christian gives us of dreams.  In the New Testament, an angel tells Joseph through a dream that he needs to take Mary and Jesus out of Egypt to save them all. So, in the Old Testament, a dreamer received insight, and in the New, the dreamer received practical advice.  In either tome, more often such messages come while the recipient is awake.

I’m not sure if there’s any sense I can make out of these threads at 1:00 in the morning…  Sleep is something you don’t really miss until it’s gone… We ascribe meaning to our dreams, which makes them meaningful…  We all sleep and we all dream, so these things are “universal.”… We think dreams are important, but mostly we hope for a good night sleep so we can have a good day and do good work.

So, hopefully next Sunday will find me well-rested with a nice cup of coffee and a better blog to share.


Saying Grace over a Twinkie

August 7, 2011

It was senior year of high school and my friend was in a panic.  This time the cause for stress was that she had been asked to lead the blessing at our National Honor Society dinner.  I can’t remember whether she herself was a church-goer, but she was deeply aware of the fact that the group she was expected to say something like a prayer over was an extremely diverse mix of many or no faiths.  What could she say that wouldn’t offend someone?

No problem, said I.  I was a Unitarian, and I was sure there was something in our hymnal that could either be used verbatim or adapted for this occasion.  We specialized in blessings designed for those from all walks of religious life after all. It didn’t seem particularly worrisome to me that my family and I had never said any such blessing from Singing the Living Tradition or any other source.  There had to be something!

All I needed to do was call or stop by my church and either pick a book up or copy a few blessings for my friend to choose from. And so my cockiness and less than careful word-choice doomed me for yet another frustrating UU conversation when someone picked up the phone at my church.

“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.

“I just need something to use at a high school dinner blessing,” I replied, a little taken aback by her instant shut-down.

“We’re Unitarians,” she replied, “We don’t pray.”

Uh-oh.  But the seventeen-year-old me pressed on. “It really doesn’t need to be a prayer,” I said. “I just need something that could apply to many religions for this event.”

“We don’t have prayer books,” said the woman.

Yes we do, I thought to myself.  I had spent plenty of time before services reading the various benedictions, offerings, or readings or whatever they were called in that book in my pew.  If only I could remember the name on the cover perhaps I could get this conversation going in the right direction.  But, I just couldn’t remember it.

“I just want to borrow the book to look for something,” I said.

“We can’t help you.” she replied.

“But, I’m a member of the youth group,” I cried. “My mom does the catering for all the big events like the craft fair every year.”

“Oh,” said the woman.  “You can stop by and grab a copy of our hymnal if you want.”  Hymnal, that’s the word I should have used.

I need to put aside the wish that any member or friend would have been a little more friendly and helpful to anyone in need, even if an unforgivable word of prayer came into the conversation.  What I want to get to is the idea of saying grace over a meal, or any food for that matter.

It turns out that there was the perfect blessing in the back of our hymnal: #515 “We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks” by Richard M. Fewkes.  It was spiritual in that it gave thanks for all the things that are truly beyond human power, but never made it feel like you had to be thanking a particular deity.  My friend was grateful, and I was proud that UU’s had saved the day.

I was also a little regretful for the fact that my family had never used this, or any other blessing before a meal at home.  But, my family never practiced that particular ritual.  Even for the big holiday meals like Thanksgiving.  Even when I asked my still very Catholic grandmother if we could say grace, she treated it more as another silly play I wanted to put on for my own amusement, rather than something that our family should do together to bring us closer to the god she claimed to believe in.

I knew she prayed because my family often shared how many miracles had occurred when she said a novena.  However, I had never actually seen her do it, and she had never encouraged me to kneel and say a prayer by my bed before going to sleep.  I was left with the impression that prayer, if done at all, was something private and perhaps even a little shameful.

So I was a little uncomfortable years later in college, when a man I worked with clasped his hands together and bowed his head over the plastic tray full of over-processed line food.  What was I supposed to do? Look away? Run away?  Join in?  He looked like he was having a private conversation, so I decided to just wait it out, if I could without breaking into nervous laughter.  Luckily, he took very little time before raising his head and asking me what I thought about a problem we were having with the computers.

It wasn’t the first time since that high school dinner that I had been wistful about saying a blessing over my food.  But, I still felt rather powerless to say any such blessing myself.  After all, who or what should I ask to bless it?  What should I say? Who was I to ask? I didn’t overcome these obstacles until years after that.

Today, there is a little index card in the drawer of the living room coffee table where my husband and I eat most of our meals.  It has two short, non-godtalk blessings on it.  Occasionally we read them aloud.  But, more often, I just think about them when we are eating.  If I catch myself not noticing what I’m eating, or feeling only negativity when I eat, I stop.  I reflect on the good fortune that I have food, even if it’s not exactly what I would have wanted, or I’m stressed that we needed to put this weeks groceries on the ever-growing credit card balance.

I try to think about only the food, not only how it tastes, but all the miracles that needed to occur for me to be able to eat it.

If I’m really stuck, I remember a wonderful fantasy novel called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  The protagonist of that story was cursed with a supernatural gift to taste the emotions of whoever made her food. Through food, she learns her mother is deeply unhappy.  She tastes the anger and frustration or whatever other negative emotion was in someone’s heart when they made what she tastes.  She finds it nearly impossible to eat, and seeks overly-processed packaged food like twinkies that have the diluted tastes of many individuals and machinery.  She is deeply grateful for those options that she can stand to eat. In other words, she says her own kind of heartfelt grace over the foods that we may give the least amount of thought or blessings.

Then on a particularly horrible day, she has a bowl of soup in a restaurant that is “warm, kind, fused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking.”

I like to reflect on that story whenever I am cooking or eating. First, I feel lucky to not have that particular power to taste emotion in food, for all the trouble it caused Bender’s protagonist.  But, I also try to imagine that I could taste all those people and plants and animals as separate entities that are working together to fuel my body and soul. It reminds me of all the separate miracles that make up every bite I take.  That’s a little embarrassing too, so I do it silently while chewing, rather than bowing my head.

Of the many attempts I’ve heard to define religion, without getting into separating definitions of Unitarian and Universalism, or Islam, or Christianity or Pagan, the best are these simple words: gratitude and connection.  Food is something to be grateful for, and something that should remind us of all the ways we are connected to the global village of human and the ecosystem.  Even if it’s just a twinkie.