Thursday, June 29, 2006

Shockin' Odd!

So I'm taking this test called the "16 PF" in preparation for my 25th anniversary visit to the Center for Career Development & Ministry in a couple of months, and I come to this question along the lines of: "If you worked for a newspaper, would your rather write: a) movie or book reviews b) ? c) articles about sports or politics." So I'm all ready to check option "a" (and thinking "what a no-brainer") until it occurs to me that if I'm so keen on writing book and movie reviews, what am I doing blogging about sports and politics, both of which I write about routinely in the guise of blogging about religion?

Believe it or not, this sudden and unexpected moment of insight cast a lot of light on an earlier question too, which asked whether I would rather get my physical exercise by: a) fencing or dancing b) ? c) wrestling or baseball. Had to go with option "b" there -- since I think at age 50 I would much rather dance than wrestle (not that I'm much of a dancer); but would also prefer to play baseball instead of fencing...although it would be cool to fence too if I actually knew what I was doing, and of course by baseball I really mean softball, since there's no way I could hit real pitching any more. Couldn't really hit it that well when I was 16 either....

But what the heck is this question all about anyway? Perhaps whether I would REALLY rather be: a) some sort of 19th-century Victorian gentleman b) ? c) a red-blooded, all-American boy from the 1950's....

The most truly enlightening question of the day was #111. True or False: "Sometimes I get so lost in my thoughts that, unless I watch out, I misplace things, have small mishaps, or lose track of time...."

HELLO! Sometimes? This is my LIFESTYLE....

So now I have to wait until August to find out from my career counselor what kind of professional vocation is most appropriate for the perennially absent-minded: parish ministry, traditional academia, or perhaps something completely different I haven't really thought that much about yet (like writing a syndicated newspaper column reviewing books and movies about sports and politics)....

In the meantime, while I'm still waiting (and lost in thought), can you BELIEVE what's been going on around here lately?

First of all, God Save this (thank God) still Honorable Supreme Court, which decided 5-3 today that Baby Bush's hip pocket kangaroo military tribunals were basically illegal under whatever legal standard foreign or domestic one might choose to compare them to. The shocking part is that there were four justices (including Chief Justice John Roberts, who recused himself because he had already written an opinion on this case as an Appeals Court judge) who saw things the other way. Under the guise of playing Commander in Chief, Dubya has assumed for himself sweeping "executive" powers which mock the Constitution, and pose a far greater threat to our traditional liberties than anything some ragged terrorist huddling in a cave might possibly dream of.

I just pray that the President's God-given sense of divine right and destiny doesn't tempt him at some point simply to ignore the decision of the Court and do whatever he goddamned pleases anyway. After all, this isn't just a war -- it's a Crusade. And how can you have a decent Crusade without an Inquisition?

Which brings me to the acrimonious partisan political debate over "Cut and Run." There were some of us who thought at the time that this whole idea of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was a bad idea [check out my April 13, 2003 sermon "A Busted Flush?" at to begin with], but we don't have the luxury now of dealing with "what might have been." Instead we have to make decisions based on the reality of "right now."

Still, it doesn't hurt to look back at how we got into this mess in the first place. After initially ridiculing the previous administration for its feeble attempts at "nation building" and declaring "I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt," Bush then ignored an August 6th, 2001 CIA briefing warning him "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." Only one month later we were all horribly surprised when Al-Qaida launched just such a devastating attack on September 11th.

Knowing he'd been caught with his pants down (and wanting to keep that fact a secret from the rest of us), Bush vowed "to bring the terrorists to justice, or bring justice to the terrorists." But already he was scheming to take advantage of our national anger over 9/11 to settle lingering old scores with Saddam Hussein left over from his Daddy's administration, and to snatch the Iraqi oil fields for his Petroleum Club cronies in the process. And so we were all subjected to "sexed-up" intelligence about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" as the Young Pretender whipped up as much righteous patriotic anger as he could in order to mislead our nation into an unnecessary (and frankly, unjustified) war.

This is not revisionist history. This is just another "inconvenient truth" based on embarrassing facts which the Bushies would just as soon we all ignore or forgot.

In any event, our soldiers won a stunning military victory in the desert, only to see the avaricious arrogance of politicians, mercenaries, and war profiteers pervert our soldiers' triumph into the mess we have now. The President put on his costume and landed on an aircraft carrier to declare "mission accomplished," but three years later Osama bin Laden is still at large, and our army still occupies two foreign countries, where the casualties keep mounting: more than 2500 killed, perhaps ten times that number wounded, plus tens of thousands more "psychological casualties" and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered. Blood and Treasure -- the currency of warfare never really changes.

But what do we have to show for the sacrifice of our brave troops?

And where is the PLAN, at least, to bring them home again?

There's more. Our nation ostensibly invaded Iraq in order to protect ourselves from "WMDs" -- Atomic, Biological, and Chemical weapons capable of killing thousands of people in a single stroke. The United States, of course, possesses vast arsenals of all three, and essentially spends more money on "defense" than the rest of the world combined. Saddam's WMDs turned out to be little more than mere fantasy (just like the UN Weapons Inspectors said they were), yet daily now our soldiers instead fall victim to "IEDs" -- "improvised explosive devices" more commonly known as "booby traps." Rather than "fighting the terrorists there so that we don't have to fight them here," the President has in effect simply provided our enemies with convenient targets right in their own back yards, so that they no longer need worry about how to come here in order to kill us.

Incapable of distinguishing soldier from civilian (or even friend from foe), our government has created the new categories of "Enemy Combatant" and "Detainee." Yet in effect what we have really done is declare open-season on "MAMs" -- "Military Aged Males" or young men of the wrong religion and the wrong complexion who have the misfortune of being discovered in the wrong place (their own neighborhood) at the wrong time (after dark, or in the vicinity of an IED). We profile them because we don't like the way they dress or the color of their skin, and then either shoot them down right there in the street or lock them up and throw away the key. Just like we do here at home...

And then finally we are told that it would be a national disgrace to "cut and run" -- that American credibility and American honor are at stake in Iraq, and to leave without victory would be a betrayal of our troops. Yet we have repeatedly dishonored ourselves in this war: from standing by while looters destroyed the Iraqi National Museum, to "Camp X-Ray" at Guantanamo Bay and the torture at Abu Graib, the unspeakable practice of "rendition" and massacres of civilians still coming to light. Not to mention the domestic spying and the assault on due process and habeus corpus. We have lost the respect of the world community, and become instead a sad parody of the proud ideals and principles we so vocally claim to defend.

The real question isn't whether or not we should get out of Iraq. The real question is whether or not we are going to continue to follow a policy that has already failed, or instead will make the effort to think of something better. And the only real decision we have to make is whether to trust the same idiots who got us into this war to get us out, or to look instead to someone smarter to lead us in a different direction, so that America might recover the honor we have already lost.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Open Source Philanthropy

Woke up this morning to the news that Warren Buffet has decided to join with his friend Bill Gate by donating a large portion of his personal fortune to several philanthropic organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which is already, I've heard, the best-funded private philanthropic foundation in the world). I heartily applaud the generosity of these self-made billionaires, and share their desire to create a better world by improving the health and education of the world's most vulnerable inhabitants. Yet I also have an odd concern which is difficult for me to articulate, mostly because it still isn't quite clear in my own mind.

Bill Gates and I are about the same age, and grew up within a few miles of one another in the suburbs of Seattle. In fact, if my mother (with the encouragement of my public High School vice principal) had gotten her way instead of my dad, Trey and I might even have been classmates at Seattle's Lakeside Academy. We have a few mutual friends (most notably one of my early mentors in the ministry and his wife, who, like Melinda, are also both Duke alums), and...well, I don't want to make too much of this either. Let's just say that, like a lot of people around the world, I've always been kinda interested in what the world's Chief Geek has to say for himself, and tend to take him pretty seriously when he speaks.

So, what's my odd concern? I guess simply that despite its good intentions, a charitable organization as large as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might somehow have unintended and unforeseen consequences regarding the nature of philanthropic activities in general. Is it just paranoia, or some sort of dark, melancholic tendency of my own to see the glass half-empty rather than half-full? Maybe. Hell, probably. But let me put it another way. If the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does for personal philanthropy what Microsoft did for personal computing, will that be a good thing or a bad thing? Or if it turns out (as I suspect it will) to be a little of both, what can be done to emphasize the former and minimize the latter?

Not that I'll have any real say in the matter. But here's the deal as I see it. Any time there's a large amount of money up for grabs, the temptation to try to "game the system" is never far away, while the firewalls intended to prevent that abuse of trust can potentially become even worse than the abuse itself. So what can be done to prevent or minimize this problem? Transparency, obviously...along with democratization, decentralized decision making, diversification of effect, an "open source" philanthropy which builds a real partnership between "developers" (the philanthropists) and "end users" (the intended beneficiaries), and allows the "clients" of the philanthropy the maximum amount of input and control, while still recognizing that a certain number of false starts and outright mistakes are probably unavoidable. Or at least that's how it seems to me. In the meantime, congratulations to all concerned regarding this magnificent expression of generosity and compassion. And may the accomplishments prove worthy of the dream....

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Homegrown Terrorism?

Today's news concerns seven "homegrown" terrorists arrested in Miami as a result of the work of an undercover informant who impersonated an al-Qaeda operative in order to penetrate this dangerous conspiracy and bring these dangerous men to justice. Headlines are all about blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago and "killing all the devils we can," yet even the FBI acknowledges that these wannabe terrorists were "more aspirational than operational" -- that they possessed no weapons or explosives, and that the most tangible crimes they are alleged to have committed consist of meeting (on several occasions) in a hotel room (or various other sleazy locations) with this al-Qaeda impersonator, who listened to their fantasies about creating an Islamic Army to wage Jihad against the Great Satan, accepted a wish list of desired supplies (which included machine guns, radios, vehicles, bullet-proof vests, $50,000 in cash and shoes in the proper sizes for all conspirators real and imagined), and then provided them instead with a video camera so that they could take photographs of public building they hoped someday to blow up. In exchange for use of this camera, alleged conspiracy ringleader Narseal "Prince Manna" Batiste and his six "brother" co-conspirators were asked to swear "an oath of loyalty to al-Qaeda," but despite their promises within a few months this aspiring sleeper cell began to dissolve as its more peripheral members woke up and moved on to other pursuits (like selling men's clothing at Abercrombie and Fitch). For additional details of the actual allegations of evil-doing, you can read the entire 11 page indictment here if you like.


Public Defender Jimmy Hardy hit the nail right on the head when he commented "There's less than meets the eye here." Meanwhile, the government alleges that this really was a dangerous threat to homeland security because the conspirators possessed the intent and the desire to wage war against the United States, and had even taken steps (well, photographs) in order to carry out their aspirations. But think about this for half-a-second. I have the intent and the desire to someday spend the night with Rachel Hunter, and have even watched reruns of "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Real Gilligan's Island" in pursuit of this aspiration. But...well, do I really have to say any more?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dogs and Cats living together....

This is the week many of my colleagues are off to our General Assembly in Saint Louis, something which in years past I have generally done myself (in fact, I even was married to my former wife at the GA in Atlanta in 1985). But more recently I've gotten out of the habit, and instead tend to spend this week trying to clean up all of the loose paper I accumulate over the course of a church year, so that at least I can begin the summer with a clean desk and uncluttered flat surfaces in my study.

I've also been reading with great interest my seminary-era friend Christine Robinson's Sabbatical Blog, and especially her observations about church growth and church size theory. LINK As the "Bishop of New Mexico," Christine is apparently exploring the issue of how best to extend our faith into the tiny towns and suburbs outside of Albuquerque. Beginning with a discussion of the differences between the "family" sized church and the "pastoral" sized church ("cats" and "collies" in the language of church consultant Lyle Schaller), she ponders the possibility of creating "puppies" -- satellite congregations of a larger "parent" church, which would be nurtured in such a way that they emerge with a different "culture" than your typical 35 member congregation.

Lots of interesting insights here, to which I would love to add some of my own.

1. There is a place for cats in the world, and even in our movement. Recognizing the inherent limitations of metaphor, one problem with breeding puppies is that you may end up raising lap dogs instead of working dogs (think Boston Terriers rather than Golden Retrievers)...which is to say that rather than creating small, independent congregations we end up with a bunch of small DEPENDENT ones. Don't get me wrong; I love Bostons (and even have one myself), and I certainly don't think that this problem is insurmountable. I just think it needs to be recognized.

2. Notwithstanding the observation above, one of the big problems I've noticed with the UUA's previous/current extention efforts is that they were mostly driven by the availability of financial subsidies, which insidiously tended to transform the REAL "mission" of the congregations-in-question from expanding their membership to obtaining (end extending) the subsidies.

3. Likewise, this in turn tends to focus a lot of attention to "bean-counting" (and the half-hearted "implementation" of various "techniques" of church growth) rather than nuturing the "soul" at the center of every vibrant faith community: a profound sense of trust, hope, gratitude, generosity, mission and service to something larger than ourselves.

4. The two essential concepts regarding successful church growth (which one hears over and over again if you simply pay attention) are the importance of a mission-driven Vision and the indispensable role of committed Leadership. The REAL secret to creating successful "pastoral" sized churches (and then growing them to whatever size the environment allows) is the creation (and support) of effective, visionary Pastors. There's been a lot of talk in our movement lately about the so-called "Pastoral-to-Program" transition, but from where I sit the real problem tends to be the expectation that somehow large family-sized churches which are struggling against the upper-limits of that organizational style will somehow miraculously transform themselves into Program-style institutions seven times their size. But the reality on the ground is that we have a lot of congregations of 65 households (give or take, with an average attendance of about the same) who operate organizationally as if they were still 35 "families," and who need to figure out how become effective congregations with 100+ souls in the sanctuary on any given Sunday. Not "program" churches. Healthy "pastoral" churches.

5. Here's another counter-intuitive truth. Healthy "cat-sized" churches are actually much more stable, resilient, self-reliant and long-lived than many struggling "dogs," and are perfectly capable of cultivating and nurturing a deep and meaningful spiritual experience for their members and friends, as well as programming effectively in all five of the key areas of congregational life: Worship, Religious Education, Fellowship Activities, Social Action and Pastoral Care. Obviously these activities will look a little different in a congregation of 40 households than they do in a 1000 member (or a 300 member or even a 100 member) congregation. But that doesn't mean that they aren't worthwhile. It's true: Family-sized churches like to do church "on the cheap." But when confronted with an environment of scarcity, frugality is an appropriate response (and yes, parsimony an ever-present danger). On the other hand, supporting a full-time, seminary-educated ordained "professional" minister is a huge financial burden for a congregation of 100 households (even with an average pledge in excess of $1200), especially when it is combined with other "normal" operating expenses like a mortgage, heat and electricity, office supplies, and part-time secretarial, music, religious education, and custodial staff. We can talk until we turn blue in the face about "prosperity" and "abundance," the "attitude of gratitude" and "creating congregations of generous people" (and believe me, I have). But the hard reality is that there are limits, and that creating an environment of "sustainable prosperity" within the parameters of those limitations (even as we work to extend or even transcend them) is no easy task. And simply throwing outside money at the problem only makes it worse, since it creates dependency and distorts the mission of the organization by changing the incentives. And who knew that I could sound so "Republican?"

6. A better alternative would be to change the way we "train" (as opposed to educate) our clergy, and also to change the way that we compensate them. Suppose that rather than providing money directly to congregations in order to subsidize the salaries of small-church ministers (at least until they have proven themselves worthy of moving on to a bigger one), or "loaning" clergy from "successful" large churches to "marginal" small ones, we first acknowledge that the skills required to be successful in small-church ministry are DIFFERENT than those we normally reward, and then create opportunities for clergy to learn those skills and form partnerships with small congregations which assume that the minister will also initially need some sort of "outside" employment in order to earn a living. Perhaps this outside employment could be as part-time program staff at a larger church or for the district; or perhaps it is simply some sort of fairly flexible secular employment. But now the incentive becomes to increase the church budget "the old-fashioned way," in order to be able to afford more of the minister's time and attention. Denominational money might still be appropriate in areas like health insurance subsidies (paid directly to the minister) or student loan deferments, as well as building loans, free training opportunities, and perhaps even "prize" money for good ideas that can be duplicated elsewhere. But the basic dynamic needs to be that the minister makes a sacrifice in order to serve the congregation, so that the congregation becomes willing to sacrifice in order to support THEIR minister...and that as PARTNERS they share a vision of the faith community they hope to create together. And the most important aspect of this dynamic is that the minister is a real leader within the church community, and not just an outside expert there to provide expertise (of dubious value) until a better-paying gig comes along.

7. As for the so-called "Pathways fiasco," there are generally important lessons to be learned even from an experiment that fails. But you would think that one of the first lessons would be not to do it again until you understand what went wrong the first time. I'm not really close enough to that situation to comment knowledgeably (not that I've ever let that stop me before), but I do know that when I first heard the idea (at General Assembly) of starting 50 "Pathways-style" congregations a year I was pretty skeptical, and that skepticism certainly hasn't been diminished by the course of subsequent events. On the other hand, I think Christine's idea of nurturing a litter of "puppies" from a central "mother" church has a lot more merit, and might potentially strengthen both parent and offspring. So, I'll be watching for news of new birth in the Land of Enchantment, all the while remembering my own experience in the 80's as the "Bishop of West Texas" -- the only settled UU minister between Fort Worth and El Paso, Austin and Albuquerque....

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Turd Blossom dodges a bullet

Karl Rove should thank God (or at least his lucky stars) that (for at least the time being) he lives in a country where due process remains the rule of law, and perceived evil-doers are still considered innocent until PROVEN guilty. The irony, of course, is that in the society Rove envisions for us all -- a world of raw, naked power and political-religious demagoguery, secret prisons and unappealable military tribunals, inactivist judges and summary justice by executive decree -- people suspected of leaking the names of intelligence operatives generally just disappear in the middle of the night, and their bodies show up a few weeks or months later down some dark alley: beaten and tortured, their hands bound behind their backs and a bullet in the base of the brain. Kinda like they do right now in Iraq. Or else they operate with impunity beyond the reach of justice, because they are protected by those for whom the acquisition and accumulation of ever-greater wealth and power is the only value that really matters and...oops! never mind....

I don't want to sound shrill and I don't want to sound naive. But we are witnessing something right now in the history of our nation which is VERY distressing, and most days makes me just want to pull the sheets up over my head and pretend I can't see it. On one level it is simply the culmination of more than a century of accidental and unintentional imperial ambition, which (like not bringing condoms on a date so it won't seem like you're "planning" to commit a sin) has resulted in precisely the consequences we hoped to avoid but found impossible to resist. And yet we also seem to be living at a Tipping Point: that moment in time where our own insatiable lust for wealth and power (and big cars and cheap oil) have developed such momentum that they have taken on a life of their own, and threatened to transform the world in which we live beyond our recognition. Believe it or not, Global Warming may simply be the most visible and tangible symptom of catastrophic glacial changes in our "environment" which are beyond our ability to contain or control -- a hard reality to face for those for whom "containment" and "control" are Standard Operating Procedure. It's no longer a matter of mustering the willpower to push an ever-bigger boulder to the top of the hill (all the while whining about the absence of a "level playing field"). The rock is loose and rolling away, ready to crush anything unfortunate enough to be in its path.

The problem with Empire is mostly economic. It makes possible the concentration of previously inconceivable amounts of wealth and power in the hands of very few people, while spreading the costs of acquiring, accumulating and protecting that wealth to those who are increasingly powerless to control their own lives and determine their own fate. And so fatalism displaces hopeful imagination, and the optimists give way to the cynics. Ordinary human pleasures of home and family and community no longer seem adequate (and become increasingly difficult to sustain); while popular culture (with its obsession with "celebrity") seeks ever greater levels of extremity in order to evoke some sort of passionate (and profitable) emotional response from its faceless, nameless mass audience. Cheap bread and free circuses for the people, so that their Masters can afford to ignore the consequences of their avarice while gorging themselves on hummingbird tongues at their secluded seaside estates.

But I ramble from the point. The combination of Absolute Power and Demogogic Populism is a dangerous cocktail. As "the people" look for ever more powerful Leaders to rescue them from their own feelings of powerlessness, society itself grows increasingly unfeeling and anti-social. Like the natural human pleasures of home and hearth, the natural human accountability that comes from authentic human community no longer seems adequate, and gives way to ever more inhumane "cruel and unusual" punishments intended to deter potential bad-acters by frightening them into compliance with the "Rule" of Law. But the realization that the Rulers themselves are above the law makes these threats meaningless and ineffective. When powerless people no longer feel that they have a meaningful investment in the larger community, they no longer have any incentive to play by the "rules." And so we are left with only the Rulers, the Ruled, and the Unruly...or perhaps more descriptively: the Powerful, the Powerless, and those who refuse to submit to the former by accepting their "rightful" place among the latter.

I wish I could say I see an easy solution to this ugly conundrum. But I don't. Yet it does seem to me that the most likely path leads in a different direction: away from the ever-greater concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer unimaginably wealthy and powerful people, and toward the empowerment of more sustainable and autonomous, human-scale communities which are at once both self-sufficient and interdependent. A Utopian fantasy? Probably. But I'd rather imagine something like this than simply accepting a life where a "failure of imagination" may well have brought us all to the precipice of extinction.

So maybe we ALL ought to thank God (or at least our lucky stars) that Karl Rove has dodged a bullet, notwithstanding the fact that he has also apparently (for at least the time being) avoided indictment as well. Because perhaps what this REALLY means is that there's still hope for all of us as well....

QUICK FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE: and now comes the Supreme Court, who in a 5-4 decision led by Bush appointees John Roberts and Sam Alito, together with long-time conservative stalwarts Antonin "Tony" Scalia and Clarence Thomas (and with the concurrence of "moderate conservative" Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote a separate opinion) have just cut the heart out of the Exclusionary Rule (which prohibits the use of illegally discovered evidence at trial) by effectively eliminating it as a sanction against police who violate the so-called "Knock and Announce" requirement when serving a search warrant. In other words, now when the police come for you in the middle of the night, you can no longer expect a knock at the door. Now they are "free" simply to kick the door in and stick a gun in your face, without necessarily even telling you who they are. Certainly a remarkable day for those who love still love liberty....

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Alumni/ae Day

As I mentioned when I first started writing this blog a month ago, this past week was the 25th anniversary of my graduation from the Harvard Divinity School, and my subsequent ordination to the ministry the following Sunday at the First and Second Church in Boston. In celebration of this auspicious occasion, last week Harvard threw a big party for me and my classmates (along with several thousand other proud graduates and their friends and families), just as they do every year about this same time.

The festivities started Tuesday night with a Reunion Dinner at the Harvard Club on Commonwealth Avenue, where I had a chance to catch up a little with former FRS student intern Dawn Sangrey and former FRS interim minister Diane Miller, both of whom were also celebrating "reunion" years (their 5th and 30th, respectively). I also enjoyed a brief conversation with former HDS Dean (and longtime Nantucket summer resident) Krister Stendahl, who, while asking the blessing on our sumptuous shared meal, quoted the same Latin American table grace I first heard him use at the "Dean's Feed" for incoming students on the back lawn of Jewitt House in 1978, which has been a favorite item in my own repertoire of prayers ever since: "To those who are hungry, give bread; and to us who have bread, give a hunger for justice." Certainly something worthy of learning by heart, and repeating regularly for more than a quarter-century.

The Reunion Dinner was followed on Wednesday by the Alumni/ae Day exercises back at the Divinity School campus. Tori Murden-McClure (MDiv '89), the first American woman both to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean and to ski to the South Pole, gave a very inspiring (and humorous) talk about some of the things she learned while attempting to accomplish these difficult physical feats. After quipping that apparently she had been invited back to HDS "for my body and not my mind," Tori took her theme from a quotation by Teddy Roosevelt: "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

But the highlight of the day for me personally was hearing keynote speaker, Margaret Miles, my former Church History professor and the first tenured woman faculty member at HDS, who spoke on the topic "Living Lovingly in a Culture of Fear." Taking her inspiration from 1 John 4:18 "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear," Margaret spoke about how our contemporary "culture of fear" exaggerates some dangers (like the threat of terrorism) and diminishes others (like the number of highway traffic deaths each year), while our society's obsession with "romantic love" is essentially a form of "misdirection" -- a bit of cultural sleight-of-hand which diverts attention from our true responsibilities to care for one another. Quoting feminist philosopher Dorothy Dinnerstein, who wrote, "We never feel as grown-up as we expected to feel when we were children," Margaret reminded us that (like it or not) we ARE the grown-ups, and that the appropriate response to our own experience of Privilege is NOT "denial" and "guilt," but rather "gratitude and responsibility."

Of course, there was also plenty of swag, just as one might expect at a party planned by the Office of Development and External Relations. Lanyards, pens and pencils, plastic mag lights, even kazoos...all emblazoned with the HDS imprint. But the best gift of all was a quotation from the Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel: "Keep the company of those who seek the truth, and run from those who have found it."

The Divinity School's own motto of "Faith Seeking Understanding" echoes these same sentiments. And the fact is, I do feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity of attending Divinity School at Harvard twenty-five years ago, and to have subsequently enjoyed the privilege of seeking (and speaking) my own truth in love for more than half a lifetime now. God willing, I hope to continue to enjoy that privilege for another quarter-century (or longer), thanks in no small part to the gracious support of those who are interested in listening, and who likewise share their journeys with me.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Collateral Damage of Intelligence Failure(s)

First a confession. I've never entirely understood that strange phenomenon known as "rabid Clinton-hating." At least not until that fateful day in 2000, when President-elect Gore finally conceded that the Bushies had successfully stolen the Florida election, and I was forced to watch the young Pretender (Gee Duh-byh Shrub) smirk and gladhand his way through and out of the Texas Statehouse into a waiting motorcade of ominous black SUVs. Without warning I was suddenly afflicted with the profound, visceral realization that something was terribly, TERRIBLY wrong in the Universe...that somehow a lying, insincere and disingenuous, pot-smoking, coke-snorting, draft-dodging, incompetent, unqualified, self-serving, self-important, self-absorbed YALE man had usurped power in our glorious Democratic Republic...which was followed almost immediately by the insight that there were an awful lot of people (or perhaps should I say "a lot of awful people") in this country who felt exactly the same way about our 42nd President as I felt about the man who was about to be sworn in as our 43rd.

Notwithstanding this fleeting moment of empathetic "getting it," it still took me more than five years before I could bring myself to drink orange juice again. At first I saw a "baby Bush" Presidency as something to be endured and survived, and took comfort in the knowledge that the more time he spend on vacation at his ranch in Texas, the less real damage he could do to the country and to me personally. After 9/11, like many patriotic Americans, I tried very hard to rally loyally behind the dignity of the Office rather than giving in to my disdain for the man and his obvious shortcomings, only to feel disappointed and betrayed again and again as I watched Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company systematically twist and exploit our national tragedy for the political advantage of their maladroit, malapropic puppet, as well as the continued personal enrichment of their corporate cronies and the aggrandizement of the Religious Right.

The "Patriot" Act. The invasion of Iraq. That absurd "Mission Accomplished" photo op (not to mention the "Plastic Turkey" photo op that following Thanksgiving). Thousands of American soldiers killed; tens of thousands wounded; hundreds of billions of dollars squandered; crude oil at $70 a barrel and gasoline at $3 a gallon; record Federal deficits (and record oil company profits); untold numbers of warrantless searches, wiretaps, and incarcerations without trial or even benefit of counsel; gutted environmental regulations; the fiasco of Katrina; even a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as "a relationship between one man and one woman..." all the gifts of champagne soldiers and "chicken hawks" who love the sound of rattling sabers (and of course their own voices), but turn deaf ears and a blind eye to the cries of mothers whose children now rest in metal caskets draped in American flags.

Forgive me for sounding shrill, but given what we've all now seen with our own two eyes it is difficult to sound otherwise. It is difficult for me to understand how a nation, and more specifically a Congress, that was willing to impeach a sitting President for testifying evasively about receiving a blow job from a willing partner, now seems willing to ignore how profoundly this current President has fallen down on the job. How in his rush to provide tax cuts for his wealthy supporters in his the first year of his term, he ignored the intelligence warnings that al-Qaeda was planning a dramatic attack here in the United States. How he "sexed up" subsequent intelligence reports regarding the existence Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and suppressed or ignored information to the contrary, even allowing his minions to disclose the identity of one of our own intelligence operatives in order to discredit the opinions of her husband. Not only should it be obvious by now to anyone with even a half-way objective point-of-view that Iraqi WMDs were merely an extravagant pipe-dream that both Dubya and Saddam shared, it should also be painfully clear that the decision to invade Iraq in the first place was simply a foregone conclusion looking for a credible rationale: a settling of old scores from his father's administration together with a misguided attempt to control Iraqi oil; and that the war itself has now likewise gone terribly, terribly wrong...if it could ever have been said that it was right in the first place.

And along the dark underbelly of this failed policy is an even more disturbing reality. Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Ghraib prison. "Rendition," "water-boarding" and "stress positions" (would not that which we refuse to call torture by any other name remain as brutal?). Military Tribunals. Suspension of Habeas Corpus and even rudimentary due process. The proliferation of "signing statements" and legislation by executive order, both apparently intended to expand the power of "the Decider" and undermine the constitutionally-defined separation of powers. And now, most recently, the massacre at Haditha - which many knowledgeable individuals now acknowledge is not an isolated incident.

But it seems to me that what is often overlooked in what little discussion takes place about these things is that public relations nightmares like Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and now Haditha are not the reason we are losing the war. They are rather symptoms of the fact that we ARE losing the war, that we perhaps have already lost the war. The young men and women whom we have placed in harms way are doing exactly what we have asked them to do, exactly what they have been ordered to do.. But those at the highest levels of government who have issued the orders seem incapable of understanding that this struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the world is not a struggle that will be decided by who has the better spin doctors, or who can best control the press, dominate the news cycle, even fix elections. It will certainly not be determined by military force alone. Hearts and Minds are won through Wisdom and Compassion. And this Administration is sadly lacking in both.

The Bush administration has abandoned the "real" war on terror (or perhaps I should say, the struggle against the real terrorists) in order to become state supporters of terrorism themselves. Armed with the most powerful military force in the history of the world, and in possession of vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, they nevertheless find themselves bogged down in a war of attrition against a growing insurgency: a war which lacks tangible war aims or even a clear definition of victory, which lacks a coherent exit strategy, which may not even be "winable" by military means, and which is rapidly losing the support of the American People.

To punish a handful of Marines for committing war crimes on the ground is to miss the point. There are bigger War Criminals waiting to be brought to justice. Yet the moral, legal and political implications of taking THAT step have very ominous consequences for the future of our Democratic Republic. And that too is something for which the Bushies are to blame.

Friday, June 02, 2006

What we gain when we give it away....

At our most recent congregational meeting, the members of the First Religious Society (or at least those in attendance) voted by a narrow margin to adopt a policy of dedicating the cash portion of the weekly offering to our Outreach and Social Action ministries. Because the vote was so close (18-12) it was the sense of the meeting that we would try this for a year as an experiment, and revisit the policy again at the next annual meeting. But as the person who suggested this idea to the Parish Committee in the first place, the responsibility fell to me to explain what I was thinking when I made the suggestion, and why I feel it’s something worth trying out.

This idea did not originate with me by the way, nor is it the first time something like it has been suggested at FRS. Many UU congregations around the country are now choosing to “give away” all or part of the Sunday offering to good causes beyond their own walls. Here in Carlisle we routinely take up a weekly Family offering of food and money for the support of the Open Pantry in Lowell, and have traditionally dedicated both our Thanksgiving and Christmas offerings to the Social Action Committee’s Outreach ministries as well.

The decision by the Parish Committee to recommend that FRS dedicate its entire cash offering to this same practice was in part inspired by the realization that the amount budgeted next year to be received through the offering (based on projections from years past) was already identical to the amount budgeted for Social Action outreach. In effect we were already doing this anyway; we just hadn’t identified it that way!

One benefit of formally linking the proceeds of the Sunday offering to Social Action Outreach ministries is that it allows folks to focus their attention more closely on the important role that gratitude and generosity toward others plays in our faith. The point is not merely to raise more money for these ministries (although hopefully that will be a by-product). The point is to remind ourselves weekly that “we live not for ourselves alone.”

A second benefit is that it compels us to take a closer look at how we take responsibility for funding the overall ministry of the church. Knowing that we are giving away the collection to others reminds us that we shouldn’t be counting on others to pay our own basic operating expenses like heat, salaries, office supplies and building maintenance.

There are also legitimate objections to the adoption of this kind of policy, which were eloquently and responsibly articulated at the congregational meeting. The most obvious question is what business do we have giving away the offering at a time when our own operating budget is painfully tight as it is. I don’t really have an answer for this, except for the earlier observation that at FRS we were already in effect doing it anyway.

A more wide-reaching concern has to do with the effect this sort of policy may have on the concept of a unified operating budget, and resisting the temptation to “earmark” other funds for other specific purposes, rather than for the support of the work and mission of the church as a whole. This is a constant pressure in church life, and I personally would be very disappointed indeed if adopting this new policy simply became “the camel’s nose” for creating separate “buckets of money” for every little pet project that comes down the road.

But in a larger sense, I also hope that adopting this current policy and trying it out for a year will give my congregation an opportunity to talk more deeply and more openly with one another about the important role money plays both in our own lives and in the life of the church. By discussing issues of responsibility and “ownership,” and developing the trust that we can count on one another to each do our share; by sharing our visions of the mission and purpose of the Church as an institution, and our dreams for its future; and by reminding ourselves weekly of the important contributions that generosity and gratitude make to our own happiness and satisfaction, I fully expect that "my people" will grow to feel enriched by this experiment. In fact, from my perspective based on the discussion at the annual meeting, we have already begun to experience its benefits