Monday, December 27, 2010

UU community of scholars

Sometimes I long for a UU community of scholars.  Perhaps it is time to seek out other UU's on some issues.

I am writing a paper on theological reflection.  I've enjoyed the class and found some resources on the UU website that I shared with my class.  There is a wonderful list of names for God that came out of the UU hymnbook.  Every time I share that list, people, my people, the hungry spiritual skeptics, and some others, the non-skeptics who want to stretch out of the limiting box of names for God; jump up and shout, draw, sing and dance.  It really is a wonderful list.

However the class on theological reflection makes me nervous about my own tradition.  I love going deeper and digging into a tradition to find those precious theological insights.  What could be better for a theology nerd?  I have discovered Meister Eckhart, Rebecca Parker and Sallie McFague through my classes.  All of these theologians are Christian although all three are pioneers and occasionally wanderers around the edges of the faith.

However, it reminds me of the no man's land of Unitarian Universalism.  We don't have a central scripture or a place to dig deeper.  We have permission to dig anywhere.  We see the wisdom in all the worlds wisdom traditions, including earth based and humanism, plus our own experience, plus prophetic men and women.  It brings to mind a bunch of people out there digging digging, one under a cliff, and one on top of it, one out on a plain, another by the sea.  Perhaps we can shout our insights at each other and hope the wind doesn't carry it away.

I know this isn't the final answer (but I do love extending a metaphor :)) however if I was taking UU theological reflection at a UU university, perhaps I would have some strategies taught me that would help me do this in community.   One of them is the names for God -- but then what does one do after the names for God.  How to go deeper in community?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Voice Lesson

Here is what I wrote after my first voice lesson this summer:
Today I had my first voice lesson.

My teacher is a young woman who teaches music to children  at my church.  Amanda is fairly adorable and I've always liked her.  Because she is so accomplished I forget how young she is; the age of my own children. When I came to her apartment for the lesson I said I was a neophyte singer.  She looked at me funny and then said,  "I don't know what that is."  Oops.  I get into trouble that way fairly frequently.  Probably more often then I know.  I told her neophyte means beginner.

However, once she started the lesson I realized she was no neophyte.

She said "the energy needs to be high, come through you and out the top."  I didn't know what she was talking about really, and yet I did. Singing is an expression of energy and it has to go somewhere.  she explained that she likes to talk in terms of energy because it works, and the voice will follow the mind.

It wasn't exactly easy to sing in front of her but I had decided not to worry and just allow myself to be taught.  After all, I didn't want her to feel that she wasn't needed.  She didn't waste time looking crestfallen, she had just cured her last student of tone deafness.  Amanda told me, 'the second word is too glottle."  Now it was my turn not to know what someone was talking about!

In spite of my determination to NOT be embarrassed, I sometimes felt very exposed. Singing is an extroverted act. In fact Amanda wants me to stand straight and breath and be, well, loud.  Amanda reminds me of the nurse that sees you naked.  You think 'I'm fat', the nurse thinks, 'hmm, i need to get her blood pressure.' and could care less that you are naked.

Still being a loud singer is a novel energizing experience.  Singing IS energy, and you can't feel bad while pushing melody and words up and out the top.  Even when it sounds pretty terrible your body is breathing in such a lovely way.

Amanda noticed right away that I had a dog trot of a range.  Everything I sang I brought down to my comfortable Alto range.  I just naturally transposed to the lower octave.  She gave me a shrewd look with her big brown eyes.  'Lets get you singing higher'.  Well she did get me singing higher.  It felt great.  It didn't even sound so bad, at least not all of the time.

I can't wait till my next lesson, I went home...singing!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ephrem the Syriac

Ephrem the Syriac was a saint in the remote eastern edge of the Roman Empire in the fourth-century. And yet, with modern translations, his words are often timeless. This morning in my Unitarian Universalist church, a tradition that was formed by American idealism and Enlightenment philosophy many centuries after the time of Ephrem, I lit our worship candle to these words of his from Hymns on Paradise:

Learn too from the fire
how the air's breath is all-nourishing;
if fire is confined
in a place without air,
its flame starts to flicker
as it gasps for breath.
Who has ever beheld
a mother give suck
with her whole being to everything?
Upon her hangs the whole universe,
while she depends on the One
who is that Power which nourishes all. (Brock, Paradise, 141)

Ephrem was in love with Christ but also in love with the myriad ways he could find to describe God. In the above passage, he cleverly compares a candle going out, to a mother suckling her child. The mother is both a simple metaphor of God taking care of us, but also she hints at Mary, at mother church and the air we need to breath. The Baby is us, but also Jesus and also 'everything' in our dependent universe and the flame. While Ephrem creates the jump from fire to mother, he is using feminine imagery in an unselfconscious way that describes our usually powerful, male, father God as a nursing mother. If we asked Ephrem about it, he would probably answer with the fourth-century equivalent of 'so what is the problem with that?' If we tried to do this ourselves, with our centuries of male tradition, it might look a little forced.

All we can do is say thanks Ephrem for showing us how it is done.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hard Writing Choices

My "Hard Choices" post was printed in the Oregonian as a letter to the editor.  I felt good about that.  But I also felt dissatisfied even as I sent it off. 

The piece is so glib and logical.  I am generally afraid, in the public sphere, to offend.  I DO believe in all working together.  I do believe that we don't make hard choices as a people.  We need to.  I don't see the point in being negative about groups of people and so I don't do that.  That particular set of beliefs pushes me toward a feel good, logical kind of essay.  I wonder if it has other effects on me--more than my writing style.

I failed to communicate my key insight that these choices cause pain.

There is pain in these choices that we shouldn't cover up with other emotions.

I am logical, and ironically, logic moves me toward the pain of these decisions. If you cut schools you have beautiful young people who are abused, ignored, tragically undeveloped.  They could become so much.  To me that is painful.

Really, I think it's the emotionally driven who trick themselves out of feeling it.  They can dive into another emotion that masks it.  Or, stop themselves in some personal pain that distracts them from their community's pain.  Or just not be logical about it and come to some other conclusion (teachers are the problem).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hard Choices

This morning the editorial headline read in part, "Oregon must spend the next year making hard choices about schools, services."

The phrase 'hard choices' brings up an image of Dad wagging his finger at a child who has run up a credit card bill.  Time to stop buying drinks in bars, sell the convertible and get a bus pass, and maybe work part-time until you get it taken care of.  It implies a dissolute past and a brighter more sensible future.

But Oregon isn't make hard choices, it's making easy choices.  The easiest thing to do is to cut off the poor, elderly and the young.

Got a school funding problem?  Shave off some days of school!  That's not a hard choice.  It is the easiest and about the only choice schools have now.  It's also more like running up a credit card bill, it gives us a poorer future by failing to prepare our future citizens.

No the hard choice would involve all of us.  The legislature would have to buck special interests to bring costs in line.  Voters would have to stop voting their fears and start looking at the cost of ballot measures.

And harder yet, in these cranky times, we need to make the hard choice of working and sacrificing together for the future of our state.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

God the Mother

I recently took a class at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossen.  It was called "Redeeming Christian Language" and I wrote a paper on it and received a Biblical credit for it.  My program requires a lot of Bible based classes and these two are master teachers.  I realize when I was writing the paper, which I wrote on the term "God the Father", that I didn't quite buy Borg and Crossan's argument.  I felt that they wanted everything both ways.  They wanted the comfort of the old language but with transplanted understanding.  In one section of my paper, I was 'allowed' to critique the class using any theological reason I wanted and so I chose feminist theology.  Ah, they stiffen my spine!

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg are two compassionate and thoughtful Biblical scholars who are trying to reclaim Biblical words that have become offensive or problematic over time. It's a daunting task and one that can only be partially accomplished by exegesis (Biblical scholarship). The deconstruction of God the Father is a case in point. Dominic Crossan does an exegesis which shows that the metaphor of God the Father can be thought of as God the Householder, or more concisely, God the Head of Household. Crossan also shows that God as the head of a large household is concerned with justice. God as Householder equates to God being against “GROSS INEQUALITY in distribution of either poverty or wealth” (Crossan).  It's a beautiful idea that may reclaim Christianity, but it doesn't entirely reclaim the phrase, God the Father. Why is that?

Let's first look at the leap that Crossan made from his exegesis of God the Father to God the Householder. He thinks it's deplorable, but just part of the ancient mindset, that Scriptures use a male pronoun. Crossan is interested in the family unit in Ancient Israel and he points out how central it is to understanding God in the Torah. Because the description of God as Father is about his position in a household, God the Father can be thought of as 'God the Head of the Household'. The logic here is fairly solid. Crossan is assuming that the God title was mostly about the function of the Father and not his identity as a man.

This is a leap conceptually. One could more easily use a title like Head Accountant, to transfer functions without considering gender. In the Ancient Near East both in the Israel of Exodus and the Greco-Roman Diaspora world of the Gospel of Luke, the role of male or female head of household was not interchangeable and certainly the word for Father was never confused with Mother. The Betab is translated as “Father's House” and within that house all property is transferred via the male line. A daughter is married out of the family and sons stay in it. An older wife may have had status, but she wasn't a father and was not able to perform all the functions of the 'head of household' even though she may have had personal authority. In the Ancient Near East there was no confusing the roles of mother and father.

Crossan tried to finesse this issue by joking that “everyone knows who is really in charge”. Ouch!  It is true that the world has seen many a powerful woman who managed to use her relationships, fertility or personal strength to be the one in control. However, this kind of power was not institutionalized and was often apocryphal. At the death of any woman within the Betab, or father's house, there may have been heartbreak, but there wasn't the economic upheaval that could come at the death of the Patriarch.

Crossan is saying God's radical concern for the people trumps the crude inter-family oppression of this older family structure that included slavery, oppression of women, and other poor practices.

Therefore let's accept the logic so that we can move on to the second point of this essay. After all, it is a generous thought that God the Father, should be thought of as Head of Household and that this Householder would be concerned with the health, economically, and in all other Fatherly and Motherly ways, with the health of the world. This world needs such a compassionate and yet practical God.

Point two is that Crossan's logic relies on Christian woman seeing the words “God the Father” and then making the translation in their head's, “this metaphor includes me -- because it means head of household, and I can be a head of household, (even though those women of Ancient Israel couldn't be)”.

Feminist theologians have denied the idea of accommodating exclusively male language around God in this way. It isn't because God the Father can't have good qualities. God as Father can draw on the best of fatherly associations. When God is described as father, this can be the father who will love, care, and protect you. As Elizabeth Johnson writes:

The difficulty does not lie in the fact that male metaphors are used, for men too are made in the image of God and may suitably serve as finite beginning points for reference to God. Rather, the problem consists in that these male terms are used exclusively, literally and patriarchally.

Johnson continues that it isn't enough to neutralize metaphors for God. The word God itself which is often seen as neutral is “a term long associated with the patriarchal ordering of the world...” (44). According to Johnson's standards, using God the Father with a mental, internal translation is not going to 'take back' the word. What would take it back, is to continue to use God the Father, but also to use God the Mother at least as often, and as prominently, within Christian liturgy as God the Father.

This would be about, according to Johnson:

Reorienting the imagination at a basic level, this usage challenges the idolatry of maleness in classic language about God, thereby making it possible the rediscovery of divine mystery, and points to recovery of the dignity of women created in the image of God.

Is there more to recovering this word than using the female image? Would the almost impossible task of bringing female metaphor into the Christian Church in a non-token way satisfy me and other feminist women?

I am not sure it would because there still remains the problem of history. Crossan has gone back in time to recover the original meaning of God the Father. There is much healing in doing so. But frankly, not enough healing to cover the centuries of oppression that is part of the entire Biblical journey.

One of the reasons we flinch at the words is because they represent thousands of years of being excluded. Perhaps the original meaning was something benign, no, better than benign, they meant a Fatherly God who took care of His people. At the time that was the best one could expect, and in fact a Mother metaphor would not have been possible in that culture. It doesn't really make sense to hold a grudge against ancient peoples or expect any redress. Sensible thoughts like these however, don't always work, and at the very least don't make one fond of the term God the Father. History has left many women with a permanent aversion that can't go away with the knowledge of original intent.

We don't live in ancient times. Now, women can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Marcus Borg writes “...this is not simply a matter of linguistic gender equality (important as that is), for these images affect the psyches of both men and women and shape attitudes toward society and nature.” It is time for Christianity to be generous and move toward a vision of God that gives everyone dignity.

And perhaps we women should also get a heartfelt apology.

Monday, April 26, 2010


In almost every class we are asked to do what Marylhurst calls a Hermeneutic, or a direct response to the material.  It always catches me off guard, and busy, and grumpy and not feeling like having a 'direct response to the material'.

Every once in while I do something that I like.  Here is a poem that is a 'direct response' to all the shenanigans in Genesis.


Visions are not what they used to be,
God doesn’t easily walk in gardens.
Adam lives alone and is getting unemployment.
Lambs don’t acquire spots from the clever application of colored rods.

Some things do remain the same,
Rape is still timeless and still about property.

But visions don’t care about changing times, they pulse through in any way they can.

They come to me over radios spewing junk
and then somehow I hit the right band and the Universe speaks.

Power-lines snake past me in my dreams,
They course with life force from some Hooverish source of infinity.

Once I even saw a garden in my mind,
but in the lovely, leafy stillness there also came an earth-moving, scraping, killing machine.
It’s not what you think.
The dozer was telling me
I had a choice in how I see.

I want my visions to spring wet and green from creation like a Hallmark theme -
And God saw that it was Good.
Or, as in one hopeful translation
God saw that it was Beautiful.

Instead they come as they will, using whatever symbol is in the mind’s junk drawer
To tell us we have the power,
if only we would use it,
if only we would see.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

White Culture I

I tend to keep my head low when it comes to discussing race.  After all what do I know about it?  I do know my own culture though -- white culture.

I have had several conversion style revelations around race and racism lately.

My first was a few years ago.  My children were going to a multicultural school and it was such a different experience than I had growing up.  I was fascinated by how comfortable my sons were negotiating race.  They noticed race, talked about it, but as an everyday occurrence and a part of that person's identity.  It wasn't always completely politically correct what they said, but it had no heat.  There was a comfort for them of the everyday.   This guy was Asian, this girl was Russian and that meant they had to negotiate with their parents in a certain way.  No big deal.

In fact I developed this theory that race was over.  I thought, "what is all the fuss about race, it's over, the kids know what to do".  They get race and gayness and all of that and its over, or at least just about over; all that uncomfortableness and the bad feelings, all of that.  I even developed a theory that 'especially black was over' since there were so many different races now that they didn't have that duality relationship anymore with America.  There was one of those tempest-in-a-teapot controversies going on in the newspaper.  One person had charged racism.  A white person had written back saying, 'why do you think that is racism? Maybe it was just grumpiness.'  I was frankly inclined to agree with the white person. Arghh!  Just writing these things embarrasses me quite a lot, but this is what I thought.

It was at the unlikely location of my practically-all-white church that I was disabused of my happy face racial consciousness.  We were doing a service on Martin Luther King and one of the older members stood up and witnessed to an event that she still remembered.  She was a woman in her 80's and she was visiting Washington DC in the war years.  She got on a bus and watched a group of young black people get kicked of the bus because they were black.  It had been so unfair that she had never forgotten.

Listening, I felt conversion sweep over me.  Its a prickly feeling that I get sometimes, when I realize something in my body.  I couldn't be comfortable any more and think what I had thought before.  My cheeks even pinked at my own ignorance.

Of course race isn't over!  This woman had watched the most blatant institutional racism perpetuated in her own lifetime!  People remember, they tell stories!  A young child born today can have a great-grandparent who had this happen to them!  Memories, even other people's memories, can hold on to that feeling of aggrievement and shame.  It isn't over until its completely over, and all of the memories are so old that they are no longer transmitted.

I was still pretty ignorant about how much racism a person of color encounters in their daily life, but at least I was not being 'Sunny Jim' optimistic.  I now didn't automatically dismiss a charge of racism when I read it in the paper.   I knew racism was an evil with a long memory and I should respect its staying power and its impact on those who experience it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Now There is a Myth

I went to a wonderful lecture last night with the Portland Enneagram Society about brain science and the Enneagram.  The woman who gave the lecture was a One on the Enneagram so of course she did a good job with lots of detail.  I need to make very clear that the following is NOT about the quality of the lecture.  It was great.

But, when she started the lecture she got my ministerial juices going because she shared a quote about babies, about how they are born 'perfect' and then we screw them up!

Babies are born perfect and then we screw them up!  What a perfect myth for this society in the 21st century on Earth in the US of A.  It's got everything we value. 

Lets start with the baby.  It's young, so automatically that is good.  It has no experience and so it is more perfect than someone who has it. 

When it goes into relationship with its family and society it is automatically less perfect.  Think about that one.  Our relationships make us less perfect!  Would we be more perfect alone then -- growing up all by oneself or with other perfect companions who would somehow leave us without mark.  The whole vision seems somehow lonely and bionic -- a futuristic, spiritual utopia without suffering. Later in the lecture we learn, that no, actually, we need to attune with mother, or else we do not grow up recognizably human.

Well that is more like it. 

I am as individualistic as the next person but I find myself growning tired of it.  I do believe we have gone about as far as we can go down the road of being 'perfect'ly separate.  We drive around alone in our cars, live in large houses with lots of unused space, buy things to prove and improve our individual lives.  Carp about our families and the weird things they did to us.  I do all that and more.

 I am going to go visit my mother for lunch today.  My mother doesn't ask much of me.  I think I know some of the reasons; her mother could be pretty invasive.  I wish she asked more of me, but lately I have been just calling her up to talk. I want to stop fighting the individuation wars of my youth.  I am more perfect than a baby, lovely and intent as a baby can be.  My mother is more perfect too.