A Halloween Love Letter to my Youth Group’s Haunted Basement

October 29, 2011

“The great end in religious instruction, is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own; not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs; not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision; not to burden memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought.”
– William Ellery Channing (American moralist, Unitarian Clergyman and Author, 1780-1842)

Halloween was perhaps the most important date on the church calendar when I was growing up. Every year my congregation would host a great Halloween party, almost bordering on a festival.  There was food and costume parties, and of course a ghost-inspired sermon.  The main social hall would be split into various fun stations for the younger children to bob for apples, eat donuts on a string, or have their face painted.  And as soon as I joined the church at around eight, I knew the people who had the best time at our Halloween was the youth group: the pre-teens and teenagers who designed and took part in the centerpiece of the celebration: the Haunted Basement.

One year, once it was finally my turn to be the spooker rather than the spookee, I borrowed my mother’s chef’s uniform and covered it with all sorts of goop.  I played the “mad chef” led the kids through a feel box of my gruesome ingredients. (Cauliflower for my victim’s brain, spaghetti for guts, peeled grapes for eye balls, etc.)

When I’ve tried to explain these memories to those from other faiths, I get the usual mix of puzzled looks and incredulous questions.  (Kind of like when I try to explain anything UU to someone who has not witnessed it first hand.)  I, fortunately, haven’t ever got into a confrontation with anyone accusing us of witchcraft and devil worship.  But, most people can’t understand what any of that stuff, especially designing something to scare little kids, had to do with church.

I’ve also heard criticism’s from those who DID grow up UU that they were only given a constantly rotating list of history stories and classes that ended with something like “These people feel this way, other’s think this, you should make up your own mind what you think.”  I’m guessing that their R.E. experiences were shaped by someone who believed in Channing’s quote above means that religious instruction should be based on a socratic method of intellectual exploration. As I’ve shared in previous blog posts, I absolutely value intellect as a way to enhance my religious and spiritual life.

I wasn’t reflecting on the seven principles or any of the great spiritual questions posed by UU’s like William Ellery Channing on the Halloween’s at my church. This great event was focused on fun, not moral lessons or fund-raising. But I think they gave me an invaluable church experience. For one thing, it left lots of long-lasting memories.  I remember not only the first time I wandered the haunted basement as a younger child, fresh from my break with the Catholic church which probably would never have allowed such desecration in their sacred buildings.  I also very fondly remember the years that I got to live out the wish to be part of that “cool gang” of older kids spooky out the little ones.

Despite how much fun that was, I think the most important thing was the knowledge that we were doing something for our community, even if it was only giving them a small scare and a little fun.  As I’ve gotten older and our country has for the most part abandoned old traditions like neighborhood trick-or-treating, I realize how valuable it is to have an organization, or even a one day event, devoted to fun.

With the fun comes all sorts of invaluable secondary benefits – like giving us in the Youth Group a feeling of accomplishment after our hands-on planning, design and execution of that haunted basement.  Maybe the day wouldn’t be too exciting for everyone, and maybe our tricks and scares were hopelessly amateurish.  But, we also weren’t judging ourselves against some standard of cool or professionalism.

As the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that in place of neighbors giving out candy, more and more trick or treaters go to malls or wander from shop to shop in their quest for a All Hallow’s Eve sugar high. This strikes me as a tragedy to be mourned.  These childhood holidays should at least have some resemblance to the holy days they evolved from.  Even if as a UU youth I was always much more focused on the fun of Halloween rather than the solemnity of All Soul’s Day, the point is I had a reason to feel like a part of my religious community.  I had many positive experiences in a place that was devoted to principles like the worth of every individual. So what if some of those experience may not seem to have anything to do with religion on the surface?

We need to show our youth all the various ways humankind can think differently, but love the same. But, we also need to give them experiences that remind them that church isn’t an obligation to be met for an hour or so each Sunday.  We have to make them feel connected, and show them why it is important for our congregations to continue to exist.  We need youth to look forward to the day that they can scare the “little kids.”

Along the way, we also need to let them know that the community is there for them when things get really scary: like when they are struggling with decisions about school, family, sex, and faith.

At some point in our lives, we will all need a place of comfort and solace.  When the next generation considers times where they felt connected to a community and experienced a joyful celebration, do you want them to think of a mall or a community like your church?  And, that was always the point I think.


Books vs Church

October 23, 2011

One of the consolations I promised myself for not going to church would be that I’d have time to read.  Without the hours in committee meetings, researching sermons, attending services and coffee hour, I could reconnect to the pastime that had given me so much pleasure. And, I felt that being able to just read anything I wanted would stimulate that part of my brain that a really great sermon did.  More, I wouldn’t limited to what subject matters that a particular congregation or minister deemed appropriate for a UU service.

Recently I finished Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him, by Luis Carlos Montalvan with Bret Witter. I probably would never dared to read it while preparing for a sermon, even though I found it deeply spiritual.  The subject matter of the military life, wounded soldiers, and PTSD are too frightening for a lay person like myself to attempt from the pulpit. But, in my new leisure-life, I could pick it up knowing that I didn’t have to finish it if I found it too disturbing.  I knew that I could challenge myself by reading about another person’s life, and not have to face questions over coffee-hour if the conclusions I came to upset anyone.

It was somewhat of a departure from me.  I typically read fantasy novels or classics that are about different worlds as a form of escapism.  Even the philosophy and theology books I used to read for sermons were escapes in a similar way.  They allowed me to vacation in a world of thought that is so different from my day-to-day life of going to work, paying bills, and keeping my and my husband’s life going in any myriad of ways.  Theology allowed me visit a different realm of thought and to be analytical about life, rather than lost in the thoughts of the day to day.

Until Tuesday was not a book of escape, and it defied strictly analytical reading, at least for me.  The author, and his co-writer, share his life in a journalistic fashion.  However, the details of that life, and especially the vivid descriptions of Tuesday, the golden retriever service dog who helps make it possible, are extraordinary.

Montalvan’s description of his life leading up to his injury in Iraq gave me a new perspective on why someone might chose to serve. Breaking through that bias for me made it all the more heartbreaking to read of his struggles after he came home.  Like an unfortunately high number of soldiers, he faced physical and psychological problems that were difficult to overcome, and at one point turned to alcohol to try to ease his pain and escape life.  Fortunately, he found help and in some sense purpose for his life when he was paired with a golden retriever who was bred and trained to help him face the new realities of his life.  Tuesday the dog not only provides physical support when Montalvan has trouble walking, but provides emotional support literally every minute of the day.  The dog soothes him when they navigate through crowds, and sleeps beside him, alert to his breathing if the man enters a bad nightmare.

I feel I would do the book an injustice by trying to summarize it further, so if you haven’t read it and want to know more, see the details on amazon.com.

I chose to read this book because I know I’m very unlikely to have a real conversation with a wounded soldier.  Partly because I meet very few people outside of my small town job, and mostly because I’d be so afraid of saying the wrong thing. I freely admit that I fall into the stereotype of a UU who is politically liberal and against the war.  However, I would not say that I am anti-soldier. Indeed, my biases about what the armed forces does to those who serve it make me much more likely to support and fight for programs such as the Wounded Warrior Project. I think we as a society owe it to those who chose to sacrifice by going into the armed forces to do everything possible to help them lead happy, healthy, and productive lives when their service is over.

I was moved by the story.  I related to the way a dog can heal their human companions, even if my own struggles were nothing like Montalvan’s. When I turned the last page, I almost went right to my computer in order to write the author an e-mail explaining just how much his words had affected me. But, I didn’t. I talked myself out of it mostly because I assume he already gets quite a lot of fan mail. I figured nothing I would write would be very original to him. Plus, one of the points of his book is that he does not have the same kinds of free time and ability to connect that so many of us take for granted.

So, it is just another book that I have read, completely lost myself in, been transformed by, and then put back on a shelf.  There it sits and obediently stays there like a well trained dog, taking up such a small physical space. The thoughts and feelings I experienced while reading it can also be neatly filed away and will likely never bother me if I don’t chose to summon them.  The safety of reading is part of what makes it so desirable.

I can try to replace my experience of church with books, but the lowered stakes means there’s also less potential for good.  By reading, I may better myself, but my reading a book most likely won’t make an impact on the world.  True, I will be more likely to give to organizations that support veterans having read Until Tuesday.  But, it’s not the same as going to church. It’s not the same as being part of something.

When I was involved at my congregation, I felt gratified knowing that any little thing I did was helping keep the doors open so someone in spiritual need could walk through them. I felt I was making a contribution by doing what little I could to sustain a group that stood for acceptance of all human beings and the inherent worth and dignity of all.  That is, until I started to feel worthless after every interaction with the congregation that I had to walk away.

When I finished this great book, I wanted to share it.  I wanted to talk to others who had been moved by it, or had seen it a different way.  Perhaps trying to find a substitute for the coffee hours I no longer attend. Some googling showed me some emotional reviews on amazon, but it also gave me another bit of food for blog.

The reviews are almost entirely positive.  As of today, there are close to 400 reviews and 369 of them have the top 5-star rating.  But, nine have 1-star. I’m not sure why I am so fascinated with the minority voice, even when I know sometimes it’s not a matter of a point of view being unrepresented, but rather a point of view that is likely ill-spirited or wrong.  I read these reviews and was rather disgusted at a few that personally slandered the author as a traitor to his country and a liar. Statistically, these should mean absolutely nothing, as they make up a quarter of a percent of the feedback.  But, I know that if I were the author, I would dwell on those negative comments.

It is out of fear of such backlash that I wrote so many caveats into my sermons, that only a few, like-minded people ever listened to.  In fact, the one criticism I really got from those who heard my sermons was that I didn’t have to apologize or say what I didn’t know so often. The fact that there are people who are not only willing to have their own story held up for that kind of scrutiny and scapegoating, because they believe they have something of value to say, inspire me.

So, perhaps staying home and reading books is challenging myself more than going to church on Sunday. I am seeking out a broader range of thoughts to be challenged by, and perhaps taking a more honest look at my reactions to them. But, there’s a lot I miss, too.  Like being able to say to someone over a cup of coffee “didn’t the story of that dog stir your soul?”

We Have No Right To Be Tired

October 15, 2011

Here’s the thing about our seven principles.  They take work to accomplish.  Anything worthwhile takes effort, and you know it’s important when you’re level of effort exceeds what you might ordinarily expect of yourself.

Two stories from the past week put this in to focus for me: one national and one local.

First, there were the reports of Occupy Wall Street.  Depending on which major media outlet you get your news from, you may see this as people exerting effort or not.  Some paint it as a bunch of whiners without a message making life difficult for those who really want to do the work that keeps this country moving forward.  Others highlight the efforts it is taking for the protesters to show their disapproval of our elected, tax-payer supported government allowing some few corporations to receive bailouts and do little or nothing in return to help the country that saved them. Just managing a large mass of people requires collective work to arrange for the bare necessities of food, shelter, and sanitary needs.

Are you willing to suffer for your beliefs?  Are you willing to work together toward a common goal?  Are you willing to do what you believe is the right thing, even if it takes extra effort?

On one of the UU list serv’s I subscribe to, there was at least one person asking why the Unitarian-Universalist Association is not making taking formal steps to support those Occupying Wall Street.  Among the answers he received there were some that were just frustrating, including one who pointed out that “As an institution, the UUA puts its limited resources to use on issues that have been democratically selected by a majority of UUs through the Social Witness Process.”  I am sure this is true for many good reasons, but I have seen too often how much involvement individuals in congregations have with those “social action” items on the agenda at General Assembly.  Most UU’s I know couldn’t tell you from year to year what the annual topic is, much less what good comes out of the efforts undertaken by the denomination at a national level.

However, by taking a little extra effort on my own part, I found that there has been action since those posts.  A couple of days after that post, Peter Morales issued a statement of support about the Occupy Wall Street movement. He even attended one of the related events in Boston last week.  http://www.uua.org/news/pressroom/pressreleases/188405.shtml

I also followed the link provided on another subscriber to the UU-list serv and was able to see some heart-warming websites of those who are taking small steps to heal the world that has been fractured by greed.  One of them is the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, who posted this message that I am unfortunately unlikely to see from my own congregation:

” Keep coming to church!  It is easy to isolate oneself while facing prolonged unemployed.  By coming to church, you are reminded that our failing job market is not your fault. Together we have the power to get through hardships and organize for change!”

This presents challenges.  For individuals who feel that the economic hardships they face diminish their worth, it’s even harder to give of their time and talents than to give their money. That’s why we need not just the President of the UUA, but all of our spiritual leaders – and that includes me and you – to keep reminding all of us of why it’s important for our faith communities to continue to exist.

My second story is about a single company that for many years has been a partner in the Vermont community in every sense of the word.  It employs many Vermonters, it supplies a product many Vermonters use and need to survive our varied and often harsh seasonal weather, and it has made an effort to give back.  I won’t mention said company by name, but the good they did was to add a post-Hurricane Irene fundraiser to an annual sale held last weekend.  For a fee that went directly to organizations dedicating to rebuilding communities, customers could get early access to the sale as well as special discounts.

My husband and I decided to skip the “special” sale, but did go later in the week, as we have in years past, in order to take advantage of the direct-to-consumer event.  We budgeted ahead of time, and had a serious conversation about whether we could even afford the “sale” of new clothes, but decided that we should to support a local company, and hopefully avoid having to miss work because of catching colds.  For my husband especially, base layers that regulate his temperature aren’t part of the luxury of a ski vacation, but a real necessity for his work that keeps him outside throughout the year.  It’s not easy to outfit him in a way that allows him to sweat through his manual labor and keep the Vermont wind and snow from shutting down his core temperature.  He was even able to find two shirts that were made in the United States, which made him happy for a number of reasons.  Buying locally manufactured items are part of his UU values for a variety of social justice and ecological reasons which could be another entire blog.

So, all in all, we felt positive about our shopping.  Then I heard from someone privy to the internal workings of the company some of what happened after we and the other shoppers went home. I do not repeat this story to wag a finger at the company or any person connected to it, but as an example of my point that to do good it takes commitment and effort.

My acquaintance shared that he had seen boxes of untouched clothes headed for dumpsters after the outdoor sale.  He questioned whether it could be brought back to the factory, or at least brought to a Salvation Army or other organization that might be able to benefit if they were no longer considered sale-worthy.  He was told they couldn’t save or give the clothes away for a variety of reasons: some of them to do with the effort of collecting the pieces out of the debris of shipping materials and other garbage, some of them to do with the tangle of legal and tax issues that the corporation would have to deal with.
How many families in need, who could not afford such wonderful garments might have benefited?  Can we or should we hope that some homeless people broke the law and went dumpster diving to save the pieces from ending in a landfill?

What could one person have done to keep that waste from occurring?  Who knows.  Could a group of smart, motivated, organized and energetic people have found a way to pressure the company, and perhaps even the government they felt constrained by, to make sure it didn’t happen?  Perhaps.  But it would take work.  It would take more than one person to agree to put limited resources to that problem.  It would take more than the anger my co-worker and I felt.  It would take more than one person to say, ‘I’m tired, and I don’t think I can do this, but still I have to try to change what I cannot accept.’

It would take a community effort.

My hope is that there are UU communities putting in those kinds of efforts.  Perhaps someday I will find one that isn’t on the other side of the country from where we work and try to live our principles the best we can.

How I Learned Compassion for Those Opposed to Same-Sex Marriage

October 8, 2011

Of our seven principles, the one that guides me most in my quest to be a good person is #2: Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  I love the paradoxical nature of saying that you believe in these three ideals together. After all, what is equitable or just isn’t often the same as what is compassionate.

It took me a long time to learn, but you can often be least compassionate when you are standing opposite someone who has a different view of justice.  How hard is it to see the inherent worth of someone who you believe is treating you inequitably?  How easy is it to not choose compassion for someone who is just wrong?

The day this clicked for me was April 7, 2009.  That was the day that the Vermont legislature voted to override the governor’s veto by a very short margin, and effectively made it legal for same-sex couples to marry in my home state. How I felt when I heard the results of that vote changed how I felt about the same-sex marriage debate, and made me realize my own short-comings.

Even before there were such things as civil unions, I believed very strongly that gay couples should have the same rights and protections as straight couples.  People are people, simple as that, and I didn’t have much patience for those who saw it otherwise.  I was adamant in my arguments against whatever reasons those unfortunate enough to get into a debate with me presented.

There are some who feel that the current definition of marriage needs to be protected because studies find that children raised by a mother and a father are better off than those with single parents or two parents of the same gender.  As a child who was raised by a single mother, this defense raises my hackles as much as the ridiculous (and statistically baseless) claim that gay people are likely to be child molesters.  I want to ask those who use this logic what they are doing about all the children who are born out of wedlock.  Or, why do they insist that preventing gay marriage is helpful for children, when not allowing gays to marry means that the children of gay couples are left in limbo if one of the parents dies.  Why do they make it more difficult for these families to get health insurance?  The children who are being raised by same sex couples need to know their parents have the same legal protection as straight couples, and that the love that started their family is in no way inferior to the love of any other family.

Other denominations have made arguments against gay marriage on the basis of the separation of church and state.  Before we met, my husband had been persuaded that as soon as gay marriage was legal, all clergy would be required to perform same sex marriages.  He also felt that since marriage started as a religious sacrament, it should not be up to politicians to change what marriage is.

In one of those long and passionate conversations that define how much you will eventually love and how you will communicate with another person, we debated this point for hours. Eventually he agreed with my point of view on that particular point.  Though we all may not like to admit it, it is the government that gets to decide what marriage is.  Otherwise, opponents wouldn’t be asking the government to ban gay marriage. The definition of marriage has already changed. What was once mostly a transfer of a woman and her dowry as property to a man is now a contract between two equals.  That was a change, and it was a good one!  What was once seen only as possible between two people of the same race is now color blind.  This was a change in how we define marriage, and it was a good one!

Some felt it was not worth the fight for gay marriage in Vermont, because we already have civil unions.  I answer that point with another question I asked my husband. “Would you have a civil union, instead of a marriage?”  The truth is civil unions were never the same as marriage.  Though we thought seriously about it, we decided not to deny ourselves the benefits of marriage in order to show solidarity with the gay community. I think it is telling that our gay friends all understand why we decided together not make that choice.  None of them would want the rights of another taken away for the sake of their own beliefs.

But, I still need to explain how I was wrong.  My talons really came out for those who did not argue for the safety of children, or separation of church and state.  In fact, I had no compassion for those who felt that allowing gays to marry would somehow taint the good name of marriage, or change the sanctity of marriage.  I loved to argue that as long as celebrities continued to treat their marriage licenses as disposable, and as long as any man or woman could stumble into a Las Vegas chapel drunk to say “I do,” these arguments just didn’t make sense.  Whoever else could or did get married shouldn’t ever change the marriage you had, or what marriage meant to you.

Then came the day I stood in my living room, holding my breath as the VPR reporter announced the results of the vote.  Two people of the same gender were granted the legal right to marry each other in my state.  I exhaled and tears formed in my eyes.  As I took my next breath, I thought to myself: I no longer have to feel guilty that I have privileges others don’t because the person I fell in love with and married happened to be a man. Now that taint of injustice from our marriage is gone.

And there was my epiphany.  My marriage had changed.  It had become sweeter, more wonderful, more precious, more pure because I knew others had the same rights my husband and I did.  But, hadn’t I always argued that allowing gays to marry wouldn’t change marriage for any straight couple?  Huh.

Though I still feel it is equitable and just that gays should be able to legally marry, I have more compassion for those who disagree.  I still feel I am right, but I have a teensy bit more understanding for those I still think are wrong.  I think it’s wrong to oppose gay marriage for any reason, but if your reason is about how you feel about the definition of your own marriage, I do see a tiny bit of your point of view.

I have learned that the question shouldn’t be “how could you feel that way about gay marriage?” but “why do you feel the way you do about gay marriage.” If you do nothing else, please ask someone that question, even if it is just yourself. We must start looking into the eyes of the other and listening with open hearts.  With any luck, at some point we can all start hearing each other’s why’s.  Understanding and honoring the whys are the only way that we can begin create the how to make sure all love is honored, and no one’s marriage tarnished with the stain of discrimination.