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.


Spiritual Lessons from John Hiatt (Or – Why I’m Not Ashamed to Be a Super Fan)

July 31, 2011

In two days, my favorite musician will be releasing a new CD. It’s amazing how much joy such a relatively small event brings me.  Yes, the U.S. economy is on the verge of collapse.  Yes, I’ve got stresses at work and family.  Yes, I haven’t been to church in months, and I am wondering if the problem isn’t church, but me.  All that disappears and I feel nothing but giddy bliss when I visit John Hiatt’s facebook page and hear the new song.  I start gathering articles and bits of information to create a new issue of my fan magazine, which I started when I was a teenager, and not only do I feel like a teenager again, but my mind enters a trance-like state that I’ve never achieved through meditation.

Yes, I am a super fanatic when it comes to singer-songwriter John Hiatt. His music and his story have made such an impact on me that I even gave a sermon at my church titled “The Gospel of John Hiatt.”

Now, before any of you worry that I’ve gone around spray-painting “Hiatt in God” in subway stations, let me remind you I’m an agnostic humanist. (So, no, I’m not like the Clapton fans of London).  I’m also not one of those people who baldly say that “Unitarian-Universalists can believe anything they want,” as a blanket statement to allow me to claim anything and everything belongs in our churches. But, I’d be ready to defend my decision to bring this seemingly unspiritual subject into the pulpit, because I think there is something universal about how we chose our modern-day heros.  To me, that choice is as important as any debate about the nature of a higher power.

I won’t go on about the many joyful experiences I’ve had listening to John Hiatt’s music, or fill up virtual pages with the reasons why I consider him the greatest singer-songwriter alive today.  But, here are some of the lessons I shared in that sermon, which I feel are quite in line with our principles:

Lesson 1: When you stop focusing on the end-game and concentrate on being true to yourself and the best YOU you can be, the rest has a way of falling into place on its own.  John Hiatt began his career in Nashville in the early seventies.  He dreamed of becoming a star, and bounced from record company to record company, with each promising him that they could break him into the mainstream.  He never fit into any particular genre of music, which kept him from finding that huge audience both he and his record company wanted.  Along the way, he made the mistake of so many artists and started to abuse alcohol and drugs.  Finally, he hit rock bottom and decided he needed to clean up and received addiction treatment.

That decision, along with a great personal tragedy, led him to create what many consider to be his breakthrough album: Bring the Family.  He created that amazing work when he wasn’t even signed to a record company, but gathered friends and used his own resources to record ten songs full of life lessons of joy and hope, including his signature song “Have a Little Faith in Me.”  Since then, his career has had ups and downs, but often the greatest ups, including his first Grammy nomination, came when he was dropped by a record label.

It takes time for all of us to learn to not let others tell us who we are or what we need to accomplish.  We all do best when we follow what we love.

Lesson 2: Life’s not about avoiding those dark times, it’s about finding the pin-prick of light that will guide you out of them. The way we’re brought up on fairy tales, it would be easy to believe that after John cleaned up and overcame the tragedies mentioned above that he “lived happily ever after.”  That’s not ever true.  In the decades since Bring the Family, he’s released over a dozen albums, and most contain at least one song of woe that is inspired by his real life. I not only feel solace when listening to his songs about “the nagging dark,” I am inspired by his courage to acknowledge his pain, but to keep on living.

Lesson 3: It takes very little to show kindness and bring joy; you may never know the impact a few words may have on someone.  John Hiatt is incredibly generous to his fans, and I have taken up far more than my fair share of his time.  But, he has said in interviews that he realizes what it means to people when he comes out after a show to sign autographs, shake hands and takes pictures.  He does this incredibly graciously.  For example, at a record store signing years ago, my mother and I were amazed by how each time a new fan stepped up to the table he was seated behind, John stood up to greet them, the perfect Southern gentlemen.  Or, another time when a crowd of us waited by his tour bus on a December night, John stepped out of the warm auditorium and apologized to us for making us “wait so darn long.”

These are all small gestures in and of themselves, but they add up not only in the effort and patience it must take John, but the great joy he brings to so many people. Not everyone can make it onto the pages of Rolling Stone, but every day we have the opportunity to put in that little extra effort to be gracious, courageous, or kind.

Lesson 4: Love and happiness are never anything to feel sorry for or embarrassed about. I learned this somewhat indirectly from John, but it may be most important.  I was reminded of this particular lesson last night when a stranger noticed the t-shirt that I was wearing and asked if I liked John Hiatt.  Boy, did she get more than she bargained for when I answered.  Yes, I can be a little over-enthusiastic at times when I talk about my favorite musician, especially if the other party shows the slightest bit of interest.

I think one of the most significant conversations I ever had was when I was talking to a friend in college about my fan magazine and the enormous amount of time and emotional energy I had invested in pursuing my bliss through John’s music.  I read her expression, and asked her “You think this is all pretty lame, don’t you.”  “Well,” she replied, “I just can’t imagine being that enthusiastic about anything.”  Suddenly I was no longer embarrassed for myself, but deeply sorry for her.

How could I not lose my embarrassment to make way for sympathy for my friend?  Nothing in her life excited the same kind of passion I was fortunate to feel when a new John Hiatt album was released.  She could not understand the joy of sitting on concrete sidewalks for hours with other Hiatt fans waiting for concert tickets, or most wonderful of all – waiting for hours after a concert, your ears ringing with the music you had just been baptized in through amplifiers, for the thrill of a two minute conversation with your hero.  How sad – almost as sad as having no religion.

So, it is only with the slightest blush that I post this blog and turn back to my fan magazine.  I know I will continue to learn more about myself and my spirituality while acting like an idiot in my enthusiasm for my favorite musician.  I hope you all have something that brings you the same kind of happiness.

Why Dignity? My proposed edit to the first principle

July 17, 2011

Unitarian-Universalism is not a religion based on rote. So, it’s not too surprising that even those who attend services regularly may be hard-pressed to recite our seven principles verbatim. Most can manage what we call the first principle In this, we covenant to affirm and promote: “the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.”

Since the seven principles were adopted in 1966, you can imagine the number of times this sentence has been repeated. Ours is a faith in which every person is important. Even those who we do not agree with or those who do horrible things, they have worth and dignity.

The worth part is easy to understand. But, lately, I’ve started to wonder if we might have been better off choosing a word besides dignity. What is dignity, after all? Is it something worth affirming and promoting? Does it need to be affirmed in every individual?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers four definitions for the word, dignity:

  1. the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
  2. a : high rank, office, or position b : a legal title of nobility or honor
  3. archaic : dignitary
  4. formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language

Let’s assume that we can rule out the possibility that those who drafted the principles intended definitions 2 or 3 as a meaning here, as official ranks or legal titles shouldn’t have been part of what we were trying to convey about all people. So, we’re left with a restatement of worth (1), or (4) “a formal reserve of seriousness of manner, appearance, or language.” A good description of what drove me away from Sunday services, and is probably keeping many “unchurched” from giving our congregations a try.

Who wants to be reserved and serious on Sunday morning, when we have to stuff ourselves into those kinds of boxes in so many other of life’s circumstances? Wouldn’t we be better off if we tried to be a little less serious?

Pondering this word reminded me of a story about Maria Von Trapp, the real life Maria who Rodgers and Hammerstein immortalized in the musical The Sound of Music. After fleeing Nazi-ruled Austria, the Von Trapp family came to America and tried to earn a living by performing their wonderful music. But at first it didn’t go very well. The audiences here weren’t really connecting to the singers who performed in what can only be described is a very “dignified” manner. Then one night, a bug flew into Maria’s mouth, almost choking her in the middle of the performance. Chagrined, at the end of the song, the former nun explained to the audience that she had missed notes because something that had never happened to her before had just happened: she had swallowed a fly. The audience broke into laughter and the rest of the performance went better than any previous. Maria later wrote: “The spell was broken…Three cheers for the fly!”

Should we all take ourselves a little less seriously?

When I was a lay leader of my congregation, I considered each sermon I presented a success only if I got the congregation to break out into laughter at least once. One of the “sermons” I gave which I am most proud of was nothing more than a recitation of some of the many oft-repeated jokes about Unitarian-Universalists. Hopefully you know some of them, and perhaps could add more to the list:

  • What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door but can’t tell you why.
  • A bride-to-be wanted to make something special for her honeymoon. When asked how much fabric she wanted for her neglige, she told the clerk: 30 yards – my fiancé is a Unitarian, so he’d rather seek than find.
  • A man buys a new sports car and decides he wants a holy person to bless it. After being turned away by dozens of clergy from other denominations who have to ask “What’s a Ferrari?” he ends up in front of a UU minister. “I just have one question,” the minister says, “What’s a blessing?”

These are just the best of those that I can remember off the top of my head.

I should also put this service into context. It was the last time I was scheduled to speak at the end of a church year, so I had decided to cut loose in the pulpit. Then, a few days before that Sunday, a long-term member and past president of our congregation died suddenly of a heart attack. I wondered if I could go through with my plan, or if it would be disrespectful. But then I remembered that the recently-passed congregant himself had once told a slightly off-color joke during announcements and joys and concerns.

I had a brief phone conversation with his widow that Friday night. It started awkwardly, as I said all those things we all repeat despite our worries that they will sound hollow and meaningless, “I’m so sorry,” “He’ll be missed,” “He was a joy in life.” Then I mentioned my plan for Sunday and how the memory of her husband telling a joke made me feel he’d appreciate it. It was as if the phone was suddenly passed to a different person. My friend laughed one of those great laughs that comes through pain like sunshine breaking through clouds. She approved of my telling jokes in her husband’s honor, and felt he would have to.

When I say that I am proud of that sermon, it’s not only because I felt I really did honor that long-time friend in a way that would have made him proud. It’s also because afterward, another long-term friend, and probably one of those most deeply affected by the sudden death, wrapped her arms around me in a great hug and said “I needed that!”

Sometimes, what we need is less dignity. So maybe the next time the principles are up for review, we should leave a blank spot in place of that word and see what people come up with.

My suggestion: joy.

My Gratitude to Douglas Gresham

May 29, 2011

I decided to take a risk this week.  Being the unofficial start to summer, I took a new look at something that has been a sacred  part of my summers since I was at least thirteen.  I decided I was ready to watch the movie version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

What could possibly be risky about that, you might ask?  Well, for one thing this is a Unitarian-Universalist blog, and C.S. Lewis was a Christian who strongly defended the theology of the trinity. I still feel a bit like an usurper when I use Mr. Lewis’ writings for my personal spiritual guidance.  I find I have to pick and chose what I am moved by and truly believe with what I have to just accept that I can’t quite agree with. I don’t know if Jack, as he was called by his family and friends, would appreciate the uses to which I have put both his apologetic writings or his fiction.

But, as I have said, Narnia moved me in a way that the Bible, and even later theological works by brilliant Unitarians and Universalists never did. In that way, I have something in common with Mr. Lewis who explained the same sort of feeling when he read ancient mytholgies compared to the New Testament.

It took me over five years to be able to watch the film version of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I knew a Hollywood retelling would never match the visions I created when I was a girl.  I can forgive this in most book to film translations, but not Narnia.  Narnia was sacred.

The short version of why this is so is that these stories were my only comfort as a teenager when I started to suffer months and eventually over a year-long stretch of insomnia.  It was something I tried my best to hide from my family, but most nights I just laid in bed trying to concentrate on anything aside from the flashbacks of an event that occurred while I was thirteen, and the creeping depression that was starting to consume my life.  The hours between when I was expected to be asleep and when I was confident my mother and step-father were unconscious and unaware were the hardest.

But, in the midnight hours, I would be able to escape into Mr. Lewis’ magical world that I had first visited as a child.  There I would find some real comfort. I’d average one to one-and-a-half books a night, so it is no exageration to say that I have read the Chronicles (all of them) at least a hundred times. The advantage of rereading these same stories even when I had gone weeks without sleeping was I also didn’t have to necessarily *see* the words through my bleary eyes.

It was years after those sleepless nights, when I was somewhat recovered, that I saw the film version of Shadowlands for the first time.  Thus, I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, through a Hollywood retelling of his childhood.  Though not exactly the same, I could relate to the tragedy of Douglas watching his mother die of cancer, because I had been about the same age when my grandfather (and the only father I had) died of the disease.

Two images from this film pierced my heart deeply. The first is early on, when young Douglas spies a wardrobe in the Oxford professor’s attic.  The wonder and hope on the boys face is almost painful, even before we witness him knock fruitlessly on the back of the wardrobe and hear him tell C.S. Lewis, “I knew it was just an ordinary wardrobe.”  Second, in the near final moments of the film, when young Douglas and Jack are sitting next to each other and confessing for the first time their sorrow at losing Joy, mother and wife to the two of them.  The pain is so real it was like watching myself as a young girl explain that I wished I could speak to my grandfather again.

Douglas Gresham went on to become a writer himself and is co-producer of the film series.  I know these seven books *very* well, so any detail that was changed from page to screen would not go unnoticed.  I waited five years to see the first film, because I was afraid of changes that might be unforgivable.  But, in the end, I broke down and watched it out of curiosity and hope that I could trust in Mr. Gresham’s oversight. After all, he had more at stake with this book than I did.  So, although I know Mr. Gresham is not the only person responsible for how wonderful The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie is, I would love to be able to thank him personally for not only his part in the film, but for showing me that the young boy who lost his mother and his stepfather at such a fragile grew up to be a man who carries the true spirit of love and triumph from Narnia in his heart.

There are dozens of details in the film that I was impressed by.  Surprisingly, those that most impressed me were actually changes from C.S. Lewis’ original text.  I rejoiced in these changes either because they managed to stay true to the spirit, if not the words of the book, or they fixed something that was wrong.  Here are some, which fittingly for Memorial Day, all speak to he Horrors of War:

C.S. Lewis began his story explaining that four children were sent to the country “because of the air raids.”  As a child who has not learned much or anything about World War II, you could either easily gloss over this sentence, or be confused by it.  The film leaves nothing to be misunderstood.  Showing the children in a house being shook to its foundations and Edmund risking his life to save “Dad” a photo of the Pevensie father who was absent, assumedly in the war himself.

The irony that the children were sent to a house in the country to avoid England’s war, only to find themselves in the center of Narnia’s also bloody and savage fight is not lost on the characters of the film.  There is greater emphasis on the children’s, and especially Peter’s, self-doubt and desire for safety.  As Peter confesses to Aslan, “I’m not who you think I am,” and the Great Lion responds “You’re Peter Pevensie…” So are all great triumphs and tragedies experienced by real people who do not know their own strength.

Even the animals of Narnia are more revealing of their personal loss from the evil of the Witch’s war against nature.  Mr. Beaver’s cry of “my best mate” when discovering a stone statue showed a vulnerability and hurt that the war-ready creature lacked on the page.

Mr. Tumnus also gets his say as to why wars are worth fighting.  While Mr. Lewis revealed Tumnus’ death through Edmund’s eyes when he sees a statue of a faun and wonders if it was his sister’s friend, the film leaves no doubt.  We see Mr. Tumnus alive and still concerned for Lucy’s safety. We share Tumnus’ disgust at Edmund’s betrayal.  Yet, his greatest moment comes when Jadis asks him if he knows why he was her prisoner.  His reply: “Because I believe in a free Narnia.”  Though it is easier to understand the Narnia’s wish for the end of winter and Christmas, which seemed to be the main causes of unrest in Lewis’ text, freedom is really what they were fighting for.  Hooray for Mr. Tumnus’ bravery in stating this fact to the witch, and hooray to whoever wrote the words into the film’s script.

And, one other very significant change:  the character of Professor Kirke.  The film has not one but several scenes which reveal just how much the old man knows about the wardrobe and Narnia.  I realize that even the author probably didn’t know this when The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was written, but it always bothered me that the Pevensies never seemed to understand who they were talking to, even in the last pages when the professor tells them they’ll know when they see someone who has had a similar experience to thier own. The best correction of this is in the last seconds, when in response to Peter’s statement that he wouldn’t believe where they’d been, the Professor tosses him an apple.  *Wink, wink* to all you Christians and those who’ve read the Magician’s Nephew.

Speaking of which, I sincerely hope they do a film version of the Magician’s Nephew, because I’ve been proven wrong about Hollywood ruining Narnia.  There’s some things they could clean up in that film, too.  I still think it’s impossible to make a film of The Last Battle, however.

For those of you who have never read the seven Chronicles of Narnia, you’re truly never too young or too old to enter this magical world.  For those of you who like me, are holding back on seeing the films because of loyalty to the books, give them a try, and you may be surprised.

For Mr. Gresham, thank-you for your wonderful gift to the world.  Who knew how fitting a film it would be for Memorial Day as we reflect on the horrors of war, and remember those who are no longer with us.