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 listen to my sermon at this link.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Culture of Violence, continued... animal cruelty

In my last post here, I spoke of our culture of violence. It was in the context of the tragic stabbings and shootings near the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The "big picture" question of our culture of violence goes far beyond the US epidemic of gun violence, and far beyond even misogynistic violence against women.

I saw the graphic above at the Engaging Peace website. It's a pretty good overview, in my opinion, of the many layers and levels of violence you can find in our culture. I plan to post more about this as the year goes on.

Today I'm thinking about animal cruelty.

Sixteen years ago, I became a vegetarian (with a lapse into pescatarianism). For a month now, I've been eating as a vegan, removing all animal products from my diet -- including eggs and dairy. This is always a process; I still have some leather shoes, and as part of my process I will move away from wearing animal products over time.

Part of our culture of violence is "othering" -- it's failing to see the oneness of life on earth. This is something we do with animals; we see them as "less than", and treat them accordingly. I believe we will live in a better world when we begin to treat non-human animals with compassion. And not everyone is aware of it, but the vast majority of the meat that people consume comes from factory farms. And factory farms are rife with appalling cruelty toward animals. (In addition, factory farming creates an enormous amount of global warming gasses.)

Today, I went to a Humane Society rally against cruel farming practices. These rallies are happening all over Massachusetts, but I went to the one in Dracut. I am sharing here a few photos from this rally.

To the left, a "human gestation crate" gives a picture of what gestation crates for pigs are like (click on the picture to see it larger). You can watch a Humane Society video that shows and explains the issues with gestation crates at this link.

Today's rally was specifically about ending the cruel confinement of farm animals in Massachusetts. Gestation crates for pigs are one of the very cruel practices. Another cruel practice is the use of battery cages for hens.
To the right is a picture of a battery cage (again, click on the picture to see it larger). These are not very big at all. It would be a little cramped for one hen, and very cramped for three hens.  Sadly, ten to thirteen hens are sometimes found in these cages. You can watch a Humane Society video that shows and explains the issues with battery crates at this link.

The rally was also about prohibiting veal crates for baby cows. You can read about some of the issues with veal crates at this link.

Want to take action? You can support H1456/S741 here in Massachusetts. You can call or write your state representative/senator.

One easy way to get started is to visit this link. There's a petition here to start you on your way.

Another great way to take action is to eat less meat and animal products, or perhaps even to stop eating meat and animal products.  As Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the book Eating Animals, tells us, “50 billion animals are factory-farmed every year.  It’s the number one cause of global warming, it’s responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than everything else put together and the UN has said it's one of the top two or three causes of every single environmental problem on the planet.” (See this link for more.) It is a new level of cruelty and pollution and offense to nature.  So people of our modern times are faced with a new reality.  As Foer puts it in Eating Animals, “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, ‘What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?’”