Friday, July 18, 2014

Praying for peace in the Middle East

This is a sad time. I am at a loss for words, so I share those of UU minister Rev. Linda Hansen:

"We pray for the power to see that we are all connected ... and that we ultimately help or harm ourselves in helping or harming one another. Out of this vision, may we have the will and the courage to work for a just and peaceful world in which every individual is treated with dignity."

(This prayer was offered, among others, at an interfaith prayer event in Milwaukee this week. You can read more here.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Mad Men"'s Don Draper: Sympathetic?

I have been binge-watching Mad Men this summer. I'm only a little ashamed, because it really is an amazing show.

If you haven't seen the show and are planning to watch it on Netflix (or some other means) in the future, please stop reading as this post will have spoilers. (And I do recommend watching it!)

Now. Don Draper. The main character of Mad Men.  Is he a sympathetic character, or not?  I've read some other online commentary on the topic (asking if he is "likeable" and such). And I've read actor Jon Hamm's own take (he does not find Don Draper sympathetic). Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course.  As for me, I do find him sympathetic, ultimately, in spite of his many flaws.

So, let's acknowledge some of the flaws. First of all, he assumed the identity of a fellow soldier after an explosion in the Korean War. In the process, he upended the life of the original (or "real") Don Draper's family and his own family of origin too. Also, therefore, he is technically a deserter.

He's a horrible womanizer, throughout the series.

He's fairly ruthless in his work.

He doesn't appear to care about much other than life's creature comforts... he doesn't seem to have much social consciousness, and the 60s is lost on him in many ways.

There are other things, too, but those are some of the most obvious flaws.

Now, his central secret of having assumed another man's identity? Ultimately, I find this oddly sympathetic. He was very young, in shock from an explosion and the terror of battle, and he makes a quick decision. His punishment, really, is having to live with this secret and the stress it produces.  He does, of course, also become close to Anna Draper (the "real" Don Draper's widow) and helps her out.

It's harder for me to overlook the other flaws, really. But we also know that he grew up in a horrible and miserable situation that wounded him deeply. In that sense (and literally I suppose) he is a survivor. And so he has learned to "look out for number one" at all costs. Again, not a pretty picture, but somewhat sympathetic when you know how tough his start in life was.

There are two scenes that stay with me as summing up Don Draper's tragic predicament. One is when Marilyn Monroe dies. In one scene, Don is in the elevator with Peggy, discussing the death and how surprising it was that she was so miserable in spite of outwardly seeming to have it all. The elevator operator says, "Some people hide in plain sight". And that, of course, could be referring to Don Draper himself. If Marilyn Monroe was miserable "hiding in plain sight", surely so is Don Draper. And so I find him sympathetic in part because one of the tragedies of his life is that his first priority is taking care of himself and being successful and comfortable, but in spite of his efforts, he's clearly miserable. (As is noted here, of course, the elevator operator himself is "hiding in plain sight", being an "invisible" African American in a White Man's World.)

The other scene that stays with me is when he reads Frank O'hara's Meditations in an Emergency (pictured here). He sees someone reading it in a bar, asks about it, and the person reading it says something like "you probably wouldn't like it" (probably assuming Don Draper to be square or what have you). Later, we see him reading this very book. And we hear lines from the poem "Mayakovsky" (you can read the poem here): "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern." We get the sense that perhaps Don Draper feels that beneath it all, his personality is a bit of a catastrophe. He seems outwardly confident, but deep down he's full of self-doubt.

And so, in spite of his flaws, I wish Don Draper well. I want him to stop being miserable and hurting himself and others in the process. I want him to assess where he's "a catastrophe" and work on setting it right.  We've seen hints of his good side (e.g., when he's with Anna Draper, and his daughter Sally and son Bobby; when he's helping Peggy's career, etc.); I want him to bring that out more. Hopefully he'll learn (as Bert Cooper sang in the season 7 "half finale") that "the best things in life are free". I eagerly await the final episodes. I do hope that somehow he can find peace.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Today on Facebook, political economist Robert Reich posted this:

"One of the most enduring American traits is our belief in progress. Even in the direst times – the Great Depression, world wars, the Cold War – polls have shown a majority of us believing the future will be better, we and our families eventually will do better economically, our children will be better off than we are, the nation as a whole will progress, even the world will become a better place. But over the last two decades, that fundamental belief in progress has been shaken. Polls show fewer and fewer optimists, to the point where now a majority no longer believes the future will be better. This is one of the most fundamental changes in American character in history with all sorts of implications for how we act. (For the record, I'm still a strong believer in progress, and I’ll explain why in a future post). How about you? Do you believe the future will be better, and why?"

This is truly worth pondering. I think Reich is correct that optimism has always been an American trait. But there are a few things here that make me want to back up a little. What does "a better future" mean? What does "progress" look like?

If "a better future" means endless economic growth -- children making more money and having more possessions and a bigger home than their parents -- then no, I don't think that's going to happen. But I also don't think that's better.  We've based the American dream on materialism for too long -- on boundless growth and expansion. But it's time for a new American dream... or better yet, a new dream for the world, for all its peoples. Do I believe that we might "progress" to a future based on new and better values than endless material growth (and the environmental degradation that comes with it)? Yes, I do believe that that "better future" is possible.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

UU General Assembly... my own experience

I enjoy writing brief summaries of my UU General Assembly experiences on this blog... In part, posting here helps me share with others. But in part, it helps me to remember! As much as I love GA, you do so many things packed into a few days that it's hard to remember just what you did (and all that happened) when it's over! Blogging here helps me to remember GA better, in addition to sharing my experiences.

What a GA this was, 2014 in Providence! My only regret is that, as a commuter, I didn't have the "total immersion" that I usually have. Still, the things I got to participate in were quite wonderful.

It's always so hard to decide what things to attend at GA -- so many great things are happening at once! In the past, I sometimes went to the beginning part of one workshop, and then walked over to catch the end of a different workshop! I tried to be more kind to myself this year. Here are some highlights of the workshops I attended: I am very glad that I went to "Just Good Food" with Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), Melanie Joy (Why We Love Dogs & Eat Pigs), Marisa Miller Wolfson, and facilitated by Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh. It was a very good overview of ethical eating, though I wish climate change had been discussed more. What an incredible line-up of speakers! One thing I learned about that I was very glad to be acquainted with is I was left thinking the words of Frances Moore Lappe: "Shift from scarcity mind to ecomind".

Another very good workshop was "When Everything You Thought You Knew Isn't Enough" with Rev. Stefan Jonasson and Rev. Tandi Rogers. They talked about UU growth strategies and learnings. Some highlights for me were Jonasson reminding us to "fail boldly" and "more frequently"; this isn't a time to be timid.  He also told us to "get over" our "obsession with governance and organizational structure". Jonasson and Rogers reminded us that mission matters; "congregations must discern and embrace their distinctive mission"; "our mission is almost always thrust upon us rather than chosen by us"; and "congregations must be aware of their specific context and strive to make their mission relevant in that context". They asked us to consider where we are called to serve with these questions: "what are the three most exciting places in your community?" "What three places break your heart?" and "Is your congregation present in these places? If not, why not? If so, what difference are you making?"

I also attended "#UUsGetSocial: Digging into Facebook, Twitter, and Video-Making/Sharing" with Rev. Dr. Andrew Pakula, Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford, Rev. Dr. Daniel O'Connell, and Peter Bowden. It was reassuring that my Facebook and Twitter skills are actually already strong, but I did learn a few new good tricks of the trade. The Video Making/Sharing is the new area for me, the place where I have the most to learn. This is something I want to work on in the coming year. I did learn that the hashtag most often associated with UU is #hot. Go figure!

I went to a great play created by friends from UU Mass Action: "Be the Change: Activist Worship Theater". The dinner party play was written by the Rev. Steve Wilson. Lots of friends acted it all out. It was a ton of fun! I particularly enjoyed seeing Rev. Hank Peirce play Jesus in a Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit! I would like to try this play at the UUCiA sometime... (I had the special offstage role of calling Rev. Alice Anacheka-Nasemann's cell phone at a certain point early on in the play. That was fun.)

Friday's General Session (formerly known as Plenary) was an exciting one.  We voted on a Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI), and selected "Escalating Inequality". They were all excellent possible CSAIs, but I think we chose the right one. Saturday's General Session was possibly even more exciting as we delegates voted that the UUA should divest from fossil fuels! (Here I am at the General Session with my "divest" button from the UU Ministry for Earth booth.)

Saturday night's Ware Lecture was given by Sister Simone Campbell, one of the "nuns on a bus". She was really wonderful. I heard her speak once before, at the 2013 UU Mass Action Advocacy Day, but I think her Ware Lecture was even more wonderful.  She spoke about "walking toward trouble", which I think is a great way to frame justice work. She said that when you walk toward trouble, you encounter uncomfortable truths.  But also, when you walk toward trouble, you find hope. (In some ways, this was one of the themes of this GA in general: the need to get out there and engage with the world, something I thought and spoke about a lot this past year... it certainly resonates for me.)  Sr. Simone noted that the first three words of the Constitution are "we the people", and she said that "individualism is an unpatriotic lie".
Sr. Simone Campbell speaks, with P-Bruins banners above.

Quick final thoughts: All in all, this was another great GA, but it went too fast. Sadly, I had to watch the "Service of the Living Tradition" and the "WaterFire" event from livestream at home, because of constraints related to my commute. I saw some old friends, which is always a GA highlight, and I made a few new ones. It was a time, as always, to get a better sense of what the UUA headquarters folks are thinking about, and to learn what exciting things some congregations out there are doing.

A real highlight for me this year was being joined by several members of the UUCiA this weekend at GA! That's the first time I was able to meet up with so many congregants at GA, and it felt just great.

And a bit of nostalgia: Here's a picture of the message board at UU GA this year. At my first GA (1995), message boards were THE thing. There were no cell phones and no texting in those days. If you wanted to connect with someone, you had to leave a note on the boards, alphabetically by last name. You'd walk by the boards compulsively throughout GA, checking for notes. Wow, it was a different time! Last time I went to GA (2012) I put a note on the board for a friend, as a nostalgic joke. Three days later, the note was still there. I had to text her to tell her to check the message board! And there used to be many boards to hold all the messages -- this year, one side of one board was plenty.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

UUMA Ministry Days

Picture from
Yesterday was my first day at "Ministry Days" this year, a couple of days of special worship services and workshops for UU ministers just before the UU General Assembly begins. (Both Ministry Days and GA are in Providence, RI this year.)

I am commuting, because there was a shortage of housing at some point, and because I can commute. Well, I'll make the most of it!

Yesterday was notable for some excellent opening worship, and for a keynote with Marshall Ganz.  Rev. Don Southworth gave the sermon at opening worship. (By the way, if you go to Twitter and look at #ministrydays, you will see some good quotations and commentary.) With help from the Twitter account of Kimberly Debus, I can remember that Rev. Southworth said, "We can't forget that every place we step is holy ground." Indeed.

The keynote from Marshall Ganz was titled "Public Narratives for Transformational Ministry". Ganz is a longtime activist and professor, and he talks a lot about social movements. Among other things, Ganz talked about the importance of storytelling for social movements.  A few things that Ganz said really stayed with me. He said, "You can't learn much from perfect people." Amen to that, and just what I need to hear yesterday! He reminded us that when Moses was selected for his special task, he wondered, "Why me?" because he knew how imperfect he was. Ganz talked about moral authority; what gives moral authority? I think sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that public spokespeople have to be perfect -- or at least without notable flaws or transgressions -- but Ganz's talk reminded me that that's not necessarily what's needed. John Gibb Millspaugh's Twitter account helps me remember that Ganz said "Leadership is 1) taking responsibility 2) to enable others 3) to serve purpose 4) amidst uncertainty." It's about creating solidarity and momentum. It's not about perfection.

As a student of the Occupy movement, I was interested to hear Ganz's quick take on OWS during the Questions and Answers.  Ganz says that the Occupy movement did a great service to the country because it named what was (is) happening. (I agree with this: I think OWS was, in then end, an important intervention for America, as a sign said.) He went on to say that OWS was "a tactic in search of a strategy, and a moment in search of a movement." How well said! And this is pretty much the conclusion I've come to in the past two months of watching the attempt to "re-engage" OWS and OB; it was a moment... A magic moment in time. Somehow, it has to become a movement, and that hasn't quite happened yet.  Ganz concluded that OWS did some real good, but it didn't go far enough.

Today, so far, I watched the 25/50 Worship Service (most of it) on livestream. As a reminder,  the 25/50 service honors those UU ministers who were ordained 25 years ago and 50 years ago. Each of these cohorts elects from among its members one person to deliver a homily at this service. These sermons are consistently excellent, and moving. Unfortunately, I missed Rev. Victoria Safford's talk; I heard it was excellent. I'll have to watch/read it later! I did hear Rev. Judith Walker-Rigg's sermon, and I loved it. She is the first woman (I just learned) to give the 50 year reflection! So much there to take in and savor... As the UUMA Twitter account helps me remember, she said that "a very rich ministry with 50 people can include all the magic that anybody needs". So true! She did a wonderful job of spelling out the mysteries of ministry, and how hard it can be to find "measurable outcomes". As she put it, "Whatever you think you're doing (in ministry), you will never really know." And as Joanna Fontaine Crawford's Twitter account helps me remember, Rev. Walker-Riggs said, "Life is not measured by the number of times you breathe; it is measured by the times it leaves you breathless."

Next came the Berry Street Lecture (again, I followed remotely).  As a reminder, the Berry Street Lecture is the longest-running lecture series in the United States. (Read a short history of this lecture series here.) This year, the speaker was Rev. Lindi Ramsden. Her title was "A Changing Climate for Ministry".  I was wondering if Ramsden would talk in general about the changing 21st century world for ministry, or if she would literally be talking about climate change and what it means for ministry. It turns out, she was mostly talking about the latter.  Her talk started by talking about what global climate change will mean for us, all of us. She shifted later into talking about the importance of social justice work in general. In light of climate change, all social justice work is crucial -- not just because it's the "right" thing, but because it is, in fact, the practical thing. Doing this work isn't really a choice; it's a necessity. (I hope to link to the transcript of Ramsden's talk when it's available.)

Wednesday ended with the Opening Ceremony, always a joyful occasion. Jim Key (new UUA moderator) did a very nice job in his first Opening Ceremony ever!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why the conspiracy theories?

This past November marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I've read a few books about the assassination, and watched a few movies about it, and have been a small-time JFK assassination student. I was surprised, actually, that there wasn't more of a fuss to mark the 50th anniversary. After all, there is still so much we don't know. But it seemed that the anniversary came and went with minimal fanfare, all things considered.
I don't know what to think about the assassination of JFK. I personally believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the primary shooter -- and possibly the only shooter. On the other hand, it's quite possible that it was a conspiracy at least in the basic sense of the definition; that some person other than Oswald had some level of involvement or knowledge. Was the mob involved? Rogue intelligence agents? Cuba? Who knows. There are certainly many weird elements to the story, from the botched autopsy to the untimely deaths of certain persons of interest -- including the irrefutably weird (if not downright suspicious) murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby. Will we ever know the truth?

One thing I don't understand is why a half a century after the assassination, the government still hasn't released all the information about it. What could they possibly be hiding, 50 years -- a half century! -- later? 

And that's the problem. The government keeps secrets, and it makes some citizens very suspicious. I think the secrecy is at the heart of many of the conspiracy theories in this country. 

After the JFK anniversary came and went, I found myself looking into (in a small-time way) some of the other conspiracy theories that are out there. Conspiracy theories about 9/11, about alien incidents (Roswell and Area 51 and more), and all kinds of conspiracy theories about various presidents. Some of the writings and videos made are mesmerizing in their intensity.  Some of them are nothing short of bizarre. But I didn't poke into these things to judge their accuracy. I was really more interested in the general phenomenon. After all, it seems like there are more conspiracy theories than ever, and there's a conspiracy theory now for every major news story. Every single one! 

I know that the secrecy of the government makes some folks suspicious, and I understand that. There is something unnerving about the fact that our government knows so much about us and yet keeps so much from us. The NSA and other agencies have done some things (like spying on citizens) that tend to make us wary (I wrote some about this at this earlier post.)

But what makes various conspiracy theories so appealing? 

I read this article, which suggests that, in part, "Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness." They are, as I suspected, also a result of the cynicism about the government and "the system". I do believe that if the government were more transparent, and if people felt more empowered, conspiracy theories would cease to be so prevalent.

I read another article, which says, "Conspiracy chatter was once dismissed as mental illness. But the prevalence of such belief, documented in surveys, has forced scholars to take it more seriously. Conspiracy theory psychology is becoming an empirical field with a broader mission: to understand why so many people embrace this way of interpreting history. As you’d expect, distrust turns out to be an important factor." 

This NPR story points out that believing in conspiracies isn't as "fringe-y" as you might think. As the story puts it, "It turns out the consistent predictor of such beliefs is something that you might almost call an All-American attitude -- a belief in individualism, distrust of authority. And together those things translate into a desire to avoid being controlled by large secret forces." In other words, research suggests that certain American attitudes actually give us a propensity to be conspiracy theorists. 

I don't really have a conclusion for this post. I'm not sure what my small-time study of conspiracy theories really shows, other than many Americans distrust their government, and authority, and secrecy. Which perhaps is a cautionary tale... for all of us.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Spiritual Spring Cleaning

The UUCiA's "summertime" quilt.
Back in May, I had a "Question Box" Sunday -- a Unitarian Universalist tradition where the congregants submit questions for the minister to answer. One of these questions was so beautifully constructed that I wanted to flesh it out in its own sermon (I might do this with some of the other questions, too, this fall). Here was the question:

“In Ecclesiastes, 3:6, it says ‘[There is] a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.’ [NIV] This is the season of spring cleaning. Keeping is easy but throwing away can be hard. Is there something that has been lingering about that we, as a community or as individuals, should consider throwing away or giving up so that we have the space (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) for something new? What should we consider discarding?”
Good question, right? On June 15, I attempted to answer it. You can read my sermon at this link, or if you prefer, you can listen to my sermon at this link.