Friday, December 28, 2007

memorial service

The woman who I visited in the hospital on Christmas Eve died on Christmas day. Her death came just a day after the decision of the family not to proceed with further medical tests and treatment, and confrimed that they had made the right decision. I heard the news of her death on Wednesday as I prepared a memorial service I would conduct on Thursday for the woman's uncle who had died three weeks earlier. This man, in his 80s had been a member of a church I served previously.

The fact that life ends in death is both perfectly normal and also eternally mysterious. Death is right and necessary, and also strange. It's clear that death must be part of a system that needs room to grow and change and introduce novelty and new creation. Without death creation would come to a stop and we'd have only an endless repitition of the forms and experiences we already have. On a collective level death doesn't end the spiritual journey; death allows the journey to move forward.

But whether death ends the personal spiritual journey or allows it also to move forward is an unanswered, and unanswerable question. Maybe there's a personal continuation, a next chapter, or maybe the end of this life is also the end of the book. That's a knowledge that is beyond our human capacity to know, no matter how strong our hunch. But it is clear, even in the personal case, that endless life would eventually cease to be fruitful. Once we've had this experience we don't need to have it again. Even if there's no next adventure for us to take on personally there's no need for us to keep having this one forever. And it may very well be the case, and this is my hunch, that ending one adventure allows us to start on the next.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

quiet christmas

Peleg is out of town this week on a personal trip so I'm spending the holiday alone. Sunday church services went well. I preached on Christmas themes, how the story of Christmas shows how God enters into our lives in the most unexpected ways and not in the manner that will put on the biggest show for God, but to those of whatever station most need a visit from divinity.

Sunday afternoon I went to see Sweeny Todd with a friend. A great movie. I would say it could be one of my all time favorites, except that it would be hard to make a favorite of a movie so disuturbing and bloody. But an excellent movie. And an excellent job perserving what is an excellent theater piece. After the movie we stopped for tacos at Casita Del Campo.

Monday I visited a family in the hospital. The niece, 61 years old, of a man who was a member of the church I served previously. That man had died earlier this month and I've been working with the family to prepare for his memorial service on Thursday. Then this week the niece had entered the hopsital and slipped into a near comatose state. She was overweight and had been in poor health for a year with constant pain. She had multiple symptoms, possible lymphoma, and had lost most of her mental function while in the hospital due to toxin build up in her system from diabetes and failing kidneys. The family was trying to stitch together the various pieces of information coming in from different doctors and decide on a course of action. While I was there they made the decision not to procede with further testing, as the woman would be unlikely to survive any possible course of treatment with any kind of quality of life. I stayed with them until they made the decision to order hospice care. She'll probably last a week or two and the family will be dealing with that while we're memorializing her uncle on Thursday.

I came home and had a visit from a couple that Peleg and I had met while we were on vacation last September. A cay couple who live in San Francisco but were down in the LA area visitng family for Xmas. It was nice to see them and we made plans to see each other in Palm Springs or San Francisco later next year.

Christmas Eve I went downton to the Music Center to sing with the Gay Men's Chorus as part of the annual Christmas show sponsored by the City of Los Angeles and broadcast on our local PBS affiliate. It was kind of cool getting to go into the artist's entrance at the Dorothy Chandler and hang out in one of the rehearsal rooms. We performed near the very end of a very long show that featured all kinds of musical groups from around the city. We sang three numbers from our recent concerts, did them well, then got off the stage and that was it. I came home and watched "Grace of My Heart" on DVD and went to bed at midnight. Santa didn't visit.

This morning, Christmas Day, I got up around nine, fed the dog, made a pot of coffee and read the New York Times sitting outside on our back patio overlooking the lake. It was lovely. Around 11:30 I drove down to Cedar Sinai hospital and met up with a group of guys from the chorus with the plan to do some caroling at that hospital and then four other locations around town. But I left after we finished at the first hopsital and came home. About twice as many guys had shown up as could really fit in the hospital situation. And with that many guys it was hard to hear or see the director so I don't think we were sounding very good. In any case I didn't feel that my presence was adding anything so I opted out.

I came home, took a short nap. Then I took my dog out for a long walk around the lake. She's sleeping now on the bed in the other room. There's a bar nearby hosting an orphans Christmas party tonight. I think I'll go over there in a bit and have a drink.

I'm remembering that divinity has a way of appearing in the most unlikely places and just when we need it. Maybe tonight. Merry Christmas everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

new music

I wrote a song yesterday. I studied music composition as an undergrad (my BFA degree is from Cal Arts) but I don't write music very often anymore. Singing with the Gay Men's Chorus has got me thinking musically again. And I've been inspired by our high quality music at church, and in particular a member of the congregation who is a vocal professor at UCLA. It was his voice I had in mind when I wrote my song.

The text is a poem from Cymbeline, (read it here). It's a meditation on the peace of death which comes to all and releases us from the cares of living.

My setting is a very standard kind of modern art music. I'm happy with it. But I realized as I finished that I had created music very similar to the kind I would have deliberately avoided when I was writing music in school: sober and staid. At the time I wrote music that was meant to be fun but provocative. My intent was to find a path toward building an audience for art music that had retreated into a rarefied club of mostly academics. I didn't want to write music that you had to have a degree to enjoy. At about the same time composers like Steve Reich and John Adams were proving that music could be both serious and popular. Now, divorced from any pretense of working as a composer I'm free from that mission to save the genre and I feel free to write whatever I like personally. Of course i do have a degree in music but I still hope others will listen and like it too.

onward and downward in the headlines

United Nations passes resolution calling for a worldwide death penalty moratorium. US EPA denies waiver to California and 16 other states refusing to allow them to impose stricter MPG and emission standards for vehicles in their state than are mandated nationally.

The UN resolution is good news, coming one day after New Jersey became the first US state to throw out the death penalty.

The EPA decision is very bad news. The Federal bill Bush signed on Wednesday is not nearly sufficient. It raises MPG requirements to 35 MPG, and gives automakers until 2020 to meet that standard. Good, but that's a 12 year timeline to achieve only a 40% increase, too little and far too late. California was proposing to raise MPG to 43 for cars and do it by 2016. they automakers say they can't do it, but hey, they had full electric cars on the road 10 years ago. Furthermore the Federal bill encourages the development of ethanol, which is not a clean fuel, and doesn't adress emissions at all. California wants to regulate emissions separately from MPG, which would encourage development of clean fuel, and set an emission standard 30 percent below current levels.

I'm glad the world community is considering seriously the idea that our governments should not be executing our citizens. But if we don't get our act together about protecting the environment we'll end up killing all of us.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

outrage at islamic law

Over the last couple of weeks we've been following the stories of the teacher in Sudan who was sentenced to prison and lashing after she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed as part of a school project. A story from Saudi Arabia involved a rape victim who was herself sentenced to lashing for being out in public with a man who was neither a relative nor her husband. The teacher was released early from prison and flown home to England. The Saudi woman was pardoned by the Saudi king.

Of course the sentences are outrageous. But the more interesting question to me is are the sentences only outrageous from our point of view, or are they objectively outrageous? Are the sentences unjust only in a relativistic way, in which our culture has no standing to critique a foreign culture? Or are the sentences unjust in an absolute way?

To hold that the sentences are absolutely wrong, regardless of cultural differences, requires that there be a larger sphere of ethical norms that applies cross-culturally. It is this fact that leads some to make the claim that the existence of God is necessary to create universal ethics. I do believe in God, but you needn't go that far. All that is required is that both cultures share a sphere of ethics that includes both cultures and that both recognize as authoritative. A world community or an appeal to our common humanity would suffice, and indeed it was in part the expression of outrage from the world community that led to the reversal of these sentences.

interdependent web of all existence?

The Unitarian Universalist seventh principle proposes that there is a meaningful connection between all existence. That's not an objective fact. That there is a physical connection doesn't mean there's a meaningful connection. And although I believe the entire universe is meaningfully connected I would defend any UU's right not to believe that some particle floating out in the middle of some distant galaxy really has anything to do with our religious mission here on earth.

But we do have a meaningful connection to at least two very distant, and growing further distant, objects in space: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The Voyager 2 space probe is now about eight billion miles away from earth. On August 30 of this year Voyager 2 passed through the Termination Shock (a sudden decrease in the velocity of solar particles) on the way to the heliopause (the boundary of the sun's influence and thus the defined edge of the solar system). Voyager 1 passed through the termination shock in December 2004. Both Voyager's still have power and are still communicating with the earth. Both should reach the heliopause within the next 20 years.

And by the way the Voyagers are moving away from the earth in different directions. Source NASA: Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

good news: no death

a continuing series noticing progress toward the Kingdom of God

On Monday, New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine signed a bill outlawing the death penalty in that state and commuted the sentences of the eight prisoners currently on death row in New Jersey to life in prison without possibility of parole, the maxiumum penalty now available under New Jersey law. This is excellent news that finally begins to bring the United States in line with every other civilized government in the world.

The Governor argued that given the impossibility of creating a flawless judicial system it was immoral to perpetuate a system where innocent persons might be put to death. That is a real possibility. SInce 1973, 126 innocent persons have been released from death rows in 26 states (source But even that is only one argument against the death penalty. The moral question to ask about the death penalty is not, "Does this person deserve to die?" but, "Do we want to be a society that kills human beings?" You can answer yes to the first question while still answering no the second.

The voices of murder victim survivors crying for "justice" are compelling but not persuasive. The death penalty offers no greater justice than does life in prison without parole. What does justice mean? If justice means putting things back the way they were, executing the murderer does not return the victims to life. If jsutice means punishing the mruderer in comparable ways to their crime well we don't do that anyway and that sense of jsutice brings up immoral motives of revenge. Life in prison without parole protects society from future crimes, expresses our maximum displeasure at their acts by imposing the maximum sentence and makes the statement much less ambiguously that our society holds human life to be sacred.

which came first the chicken or the idea of a chicken?

An interesting article in the New York Times Science section, ("Laws of Nature, Source Unknown" by Dennis Overbye) tackles a question from a scientific perspective that has long engaged religious thinkers from a theological perspective. From the science side the question is, "did the laws of nature precede the universe or did the universe precede the laws of nature?" If the laws came first then this is the only universe possible. but if the laws are only a description of the way this particular universe happens to operate once it came into being then there could be other universes (either potential or actual) that operate by their own internal laws.

In theology the question is, "is God ultimate and this universe is the result of God's free choice, or are there any metaphysical principles of greater ultimacy than God that constrained God's act of creation?" In orthodox Christian theology God creates "ex nihilo" (out of nothing) which means that God's creation was completely unconstrained. This leads directly to the problem of evil. If everything about creation is the result of God's free choice then why did God freely choose to create a universe in which evil happens?"

On the other hand, it may be that certain principles preceded God's act of creation. Genesis, for example, tells us that God creates by making order from an already existing chaos. In that case the stuff that God had to work with may already have it's own built-in qualities, such as a quality of individual self-direction and power that God is not free to overcome. In this case the problem of evil is solved by placing the cause of evil in the free choices of individuals acting contrary to God's will.

My own theology is that creation exists within a mix of God-imposed rules, and inherent qualities in the stuff of creation itself. God presents us with ideal options (like the idea of a chicken - or the idea of a world community of peace, liberty and justice for all) which act as lures, influencing the direction of creation. But whether we actually suceed in creating a chicken, or a world community, is up to the combined free choices of all the individuals involved.

bad energy

Several related articles in the New York Times Business scetion today illustrate what's wrong with the new energy paths we're about to embark on (As a New Fuel Takes Its First Steps, Congress Proposes a Giant Leap" by Clifford Krauss). Gasoline in our cars, and coal powered electrical generating plants have got to go, but ethanol and clean coal are not acceptable alternatives.

Ethanol from corn means that we switch farm land now used to produce food, to produce energy instead. This decreases food production and raises the cost of food. Thus the page one headline "Food and Energy Compete for Land, Perhaps for Years" is answered with this headline from page 5, "World Food Supply is Shrinking, U.N. Agency Warns." Furthermore ethanol is not a clean fuel so using it to power our cars continues to produce greenhouse gases. The only problem ethanol addresses is reducing our dependence on foreign oil. That's a worthwhile objective, but a goal that can be met in other ways without the food shortage and greenhouse gas problems of ethanol.

The other new energy idea comes on page 3, "New Type of Coal Plant Moves Ahead, Haltingly." The new type of coal plant is one that burns coal to produce hydrogen gas, a clean fuel, but also carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. So what's clean about "clean coal?" Instead of releasing the gas into the air the coal plant will bury the gas underground in a process called sequestering. I can't imagine that sequestering would ever work as a long term solution to the problem of greenhouse gases. How do you permanently store a gas underground. I can just see the headlines 5 , 10 or 20 years from now as the gas we thought was sequestered begins to filter up and out into the atmosphere. It would be worth a try if we had no other option but we do have options.

We have a great source of energy widely available, in the US, that doesn't require re-purposing ariable land away from food production and produces zero greenhouse gases: wind power. Wind farms can produce energy anywhere the wind blows so we don't need to give up farmland. Electric cars could be powered up with wind-generated electricity. Wind power and electric car technology aren't perfect at this stage - but neither is ethanol or so-called "clean coal." if we spent our resources on developing wind power we would actually move toward an energy solution that doesn't simply shift the problem to a different area or a future date.

Friday, December 14, 2007

my dog, my spiritual director

I provide private spiritual direction for a number of directees. Although I'm called the director I make it clear that I'm not directing anything. the primary relationship is between the directee and the divine wisdom source, however they theologize it. My role is to listen to the directee talk about that relationship and to reflect with them on what the wisdom source might be communicating and how the directee might respond.

I took my dog for a long walk today. We walked down the hill from my house, all the way around the lake and back, about three miles. The weather was chilly but not uncomfortable. As we walked and I tracked my thoughts I enjoyed what is for me a prayerful time of communion with my sense of the divine. And as I noticed my dog trotting along beside me, it occured to me that she was providing for me much the same service that I provide for my directees. She was most of all a silent but friendly companion. I do talk a little more in my spiritual direction sessions than she does on our walks but primarily it's my job to let the divine speak to the directee, not to monopolize the conversation myself.

And, in that it is primarily her need to take a daily walk that motivates me to pursue this particular spiritual practice, she also provides the same sort of encouragement and accountability to the spiritual journey that I offer to my directees.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

After Santa

I had my performance on Sunday as the made-over Santa after five guys from the chorus playing Queer Eye guys submitted the traditional santa to their treatment. The number was great fun. I didn't really have anything to do except wait for the end of the number when the guy playing the "Before" Santa came behind a screen and then I popped out as though he had been magically transformed. I had just a few seconds to pretend surprise at my new look and then a guy playing Santa's elf valet jumped into my arms and I carried him off stage. My biggest fear was that I was going to drop the elf. But it came off just fine.

first night of Hanukkah

Peleg and I celebrated first night of Hanukkah on Tuesday. We had his family over. Peleg made Latkes and his mother brought the traditional jelly donuts that she bought at a Jewish bakery. Foods fried in oil are meant to remind us of the oil in the lamp that was only enough for one night but lasted the whole eight nights necessary to purify the temple and rededicate it to Yahweh. The Greeks had desecrated the temple (the second temple in Jerusalem) by converting it to Zeus worship and the Jewish fighters called the Maccabees had fought the Greeks (and won!) to regain control of their land and culture in 165 BCE.

We lit the Menorah. Peleg’s mother said the blessing in Hebrew. And then we reminded each other of the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lamp and then we went around the table and everybody shared a “miracle” that they had been feeling lately. I shared the miracle of being included in a new family that was able to teach me about religious traditions that I didn’t learn growing up in my own family.

And then we ate and were silly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

thanksgiving in durango

Peleg and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my eldest brother's family in Drunago, Colorado. It was a lovely few days capped off with a light snow fall on the night before we left.

We stayed downtown at an old Victorian era hote, nicely renovated but preserving the Victorian decor. In the picture on the website our room was the bay window on the third floor.

Peleg made the Thanksgiving dinner - his first try at a traditional American feast. Everything was perfect: turkey with gravy, ,cranberry sauce, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, green beans, and an apple pie.

hunky santa

I got cast as the Hunky Santa for the Gay Men's Chorus Holiday Concert during our upcoming performance in Riverside, December 2. One of the production numbers features a traditional Santa character who at one point will walk behind a screen where I will be waiting and then I'll pop out as Hunky Santa with boots and red shorts and a hat as though the regular Santa had been magically transformed. Then one of the dancers jumps into my arms and I carry him off stage. That's it.

I'm actually the understudy to the understudy. We're doing two out of town concerts this series and the main Hunky Santa can't do either of the out of town performances and his understudy can only do one of them so I get to do the other one.

It's nice that somebody thinks I'm third hunkiest in the chorus. Of course this means I'll have to spend all week at the gym.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

doggie heaven

Several friends have expressed their sympathy on the loss of my dog by imagining him in some happy place where he is surrounded by dog friends and romping and playing with them, and looking forward to being reuinted eventually with me and my husband. I greatly appreciate the kind thought. I smile at the picture and accept the comfort intended. But I don't imagine Ness continuing to exist that way.

First of all, the thing that would make Ness happiest would not be romping with other dogs but to be back here with Peleg and I and our other dog, Sabrina. In fact we used to joke that one reason he had lived so long is that Heaven couldn't possibly be more attractive to him than the life he already had.

The other reason I reject that picture, as well as the similar picture of Heaven for people, is that it implies that the perfection of our existence is simply a happy version of what we already have. For the man who loved to fish we say after he died that he's in Heaven fishing at the perfect pond, and so on. The theology claims that we've already reached the spiritual goal, in whatever form we happened to find ourselves, and that the ultimate will simply be a better version of the present, and lasting forever.

I rather think that we have a ways to go yet before we achieve spiritual perfection, both humans and dogs. Ness had his doggie life; it doesn't serve him or the universe to keep having it forever. Instead, having fulfilled that challenge, and having lived his doggie existence admirably, he's now ready for the next challange. When a student passes the fifth grade the reward is not to re-do the fifth grade forever, but to go on to the sixth grade.

never enough love

Realizing that our eldest dog was getting older and would not be with us forever, my husband and I started a few years ago to become very intentional about appreciating the days that we had with him. We began to say when Ness woke up in the morning, or when we returned from being away from home to find him galloping up to greet us, "Not dead yet!" The phrase became a macabre joke, but also an acknowledgement of the reality of life and death, and a reminder to love him while we had him.

I imagined that the care we took to love Ness fully knowing that we would inevitably lose him would help to innoculate ourselves against that loss when it did, finally, come, as it did last Sunday. But that has not been the case. I'm shocked that he's gone. I miss him terribly. I want him back.

Love is never satisfied. There never comes a point in loving where we say, "OK. Now I've loved enough. I've had all the love of that I need." Loving fully, as my husband and I did of our dog, did not mean that when Ness died that we had already expressed all of our love and had none left over. Instead the extent of our loving only produced more of itself, and more and more.

This morning a friend sympathized with my loss and said he could see how much I "love" my dog, then corrected himself to say "loved." But I decided that he was correct to put love in the present tense. The end of the object of my love has not ended my love. The well of love still flows out and there is no reason to attempt to stop it, or to think that because Ness isn't here to receive my love that my love is any less worthy.

pedaling through life

I did a 14 mile ride this morning. it's a regular weekly ride. I met up with a friend who lives near me and we rode about a mile over to a local coffee house. There we met about a dozen other riders and then set out on a 12 mile loop that takes us around and into Griffith Park and then up from the valley side, over the crest of the hill and then down the Hollywood side, past the Griffith observatory and the Greek theater, and back to the coffee house for a coffee and croissant before cycling home.

Although I've been a cyclist for over four years now I'm still learning new things. Today I concentrated on two cycling skills I already knew were good techniques but haven't been consciouly putting into place. One is to try and pedal at a constant revolution per minute, using the gears to accomodate for the change in terrain but always pedaling at the same speed, and in particular avoiding coasting. It's easier on the body to get set into a constant rhythm rather than starting and stopping all the time. The other skill I'm working on is trying to spend more time in lower gears. It's a common mistake of new riders to use higher gears which gives both a satisfying sense of pushing (which is actually wearing you out) and the speed that comes from a little push translating into a lot of forward motion. But a bike is actually designed to be very efficient. Staying in lower gears and "spinning" the pedals allows you to save your energy for when you really need it, and not tire yourself out early on a long ride.

Life is the same way. The key is not to wear yourself out inventing stressful situations just for the excitement of the drama and the satisfaction of seeing how much anxiety you can take. Neither when times are easy should we lay off engagement with life. Don't coast, keep pedaling, but don't pedal harder than you need to.

into the universe

there's a scene in the movie Harold and Maude where Harold gives a little present to Maude as they are sitting together beside the ocean. I think it was just a pretty rock but it might have been something more precious. In any case Maude admires the present for just a few seconds and then throws it into the ocean. Harold is shocked, but Maude says, "Now I'll always know where it is."

I've been struck by the feeling since my dog died on Sunday that while his body is gone that his spirit feels just as much present around me as it ever did. Perhaps even more so. It's as though he's been released into the universe, and his loving energy far from being lost is now magnified. He's everywhere.

I still miss him. And he had a very cute body, which I enjoyed and am sorry I don't get to see and touch any more. But I don't feel that he's entirely vanished. if I can't hug him any more at least I feel that he is hugging me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Goodbye to Ness

My dog Ness died on Sunday. He had turned 15 years old in September, so he was an old dog, but had not been ill. I came home from church on Sunday to find that Ness was unable to get out of his bed. He had been sleeping all morning and probably didn't know himself that there was any problem untill I came home and woke him up. I thought at first that the feeling would soon return to his limbs but when that didn't happen after 10 minutes or so I realized something was seriously wrong and took him to the emergency vet. The vet concluded that something had happened in the neck region of his spine, possibly a lession or a slipped disc, not uncommon for dogs his size and particularly for dalmations. The only treatment option was major surgery, not appropriate for a 15 year old dog, so later that evening when my husband returned from a conference he had been at all weekend we decided it was best for Ness to euthanize him.

I was glad that the day before Ness and I and our other dog, Ness's daughter, Sabrina, had all gone for a long walk. That evening they had slept together on a blanket in front of a fire in the living room while I wrote my sermon. Saturday night we had all slept in the bed as I let them do when Peleg is out of town. Sunday morning they had breakfast as normal and Ness had climbed up and down the stairs to the place where they sleep during the day. Ness had been fully alive, doing the things he most loved to do up until just hours before his death. Saturday he had eaten a persimmon that had dropped off the tree in our backyard.

Ness means "miracle" in Hebrew. 15 years ago, as a puppy, he had been a Hanukkah present to Peleg's brother from a girlfriend. He was my miracle boy. I called him "Sweet-ness" a pure expression of unconditional love. It's a strange system we're in the midst of, life and death, that the things we love we must lose. There's a hole in my life no amount of theology can fill. It's just sad, unreasonable sadness, my pain a consequence of love, and a testimony to it.

train the trainer

Saturday I did my second ride of this training season for the AIDSlifeCycle 2008 event, and my first ride as a training ride leader. We did a short route, and one that I had done dozens of times before, but I learned something new. We rode 24 miles, doing a double loop around the flat areas of Griffith Park to the north of the park. I and two other ride leaders from my group led a group of about 12 cyclists. Another group did a longer ride.

What I learned has to do with the most efficient use of the gears. Modern road bikes are usually set up now with two or three gears called "rings" at the pedals and 9 or 10 gears at the back. My set-up is a very common 2 and 10. What I learned is that the best approach to shifting gears when the terrain will be mostly flat is to pretty much leave the chain in the highest ring all the time and only shift up and down through the 10 options of the back gears. And when the terrain will be more varied and include some climbing, to leave the chain in the lowest ring all the time. It's easier on the bike to shift this way, and it's also easier on the brain to think about moving through a direct series of ten gears, then back and forth through the various combinations of 2 rings and 10 gears, many of which overlap in their ratios.

It's a subtle point but helpful. And it's nice to see that through the process of teaching others I'm also improving my own knowledge and experience.

Monday, November 5, 2007

St. Paul and the lying Cretan

I couldn't leave this subject until I pointed out one interesting fact. The Liar's Paradox (Epimenides the Cretan says, "All Cretans are liars") is a very ancient paradox. Epimenides himself lived in the 6th Century BCE, although whether or not he actually said the sentence is, of course, unknown. In any case the phrase was famous enough that St. Paul knew about it, and wrote about it in one of his letters that made it into the New Testament.

In the Book of Titus, Paul writes a letter to his fellow missionary, TItus, who is working to strengthen Christian congregations that Paul and Titus had recently established on the island of Crete. In Chapter One, verse 5, Paul writes to Titus, "I left you behind in Crete for this reason, that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." Paul then describes the attributes of a qualified elder, and then warns Titus against the people on the island who would not make good leaders of the church saying that there are many of them and that, after all (in verse 12) "It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’"

Paul seems to take Epimenides' quote at face value, and fails to see the paradox in a man calling himself a liar. On the other hand, Paul does assume that there are many honest people available in Crete who would be good church leaders, so perhaps Paul is following the same logic I did. Cretans, like every other race of people, can be liars or honest. Epimenides happened to be one of the lying Cretans. Titus should do his work carefully and find an honest one.

i'm not a liar (but Epimenides is)

In my post about the Liar's Paradox (Epimenides the Cretan says, "All Cretans are liars") I discussed the related case of "This sentence is false" but I didn't resolve the oringal paradox from Epimenides. In this case, though, the resolution of the paradox is even easier because although it's called, "The Liar's Paradox" there isn't actually any paradox.

The paradox is usually presented in this way (and I did the same in my post). Epimenides says that ALL Cretans are liars. Therefore Epimenides is a liar and what he says is a lie. Therefore Cretans are not liars, they are honest, and therefore Epimenides is an honest man who tells the truth. So then, all Cretans are liars, and so on forever.

However, if it's a lie to say that ALL Cretans are liars, it is not necessarily the truth that ALL Cretans are honest. The original statement would still be a lie if there were even one honest Cretan. If you take Epimenides' lie to mean that in truth all Cretans are honest men, then Epimenides himelf must be an honest man and you fall into the circular paradox. But if you take his lie to mean that in truth some Cretans are honest and others are liars then the solution is simple: Epimenides is a liar who tells a lie. All Cretans are not liars, but Epimenides is.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I'm a liar

There’s a famous paradox that goes back to the sixth century BCE. A Cretan named Epimenides made the statement, “All Cretans are liars.” Epimenides, being a Cretan himself must be a liar. So his statement must be a lie. But if it’s a lie to say that all Cretans are liars, then it must be that Cretans are in fact honest. So therefore we can believe what Cretans say. And when one of those honest Cretans, Epimenides tells us that, “All Cretans are liars” we can be sure that he is telling the truth, which means, his statement about all Cretans being liars is the truth, which means he's a liar, which means his statement is false and all Cretans are not liars, which means he tells the truth and all Cretans are liars, which means he's a liar, which means he's not a liar, which means' he is a liar, and so on forever.

You can get the same logical self-contradiction by considering the sentence, “This sentence is false.” If the sentence is false, then it’s true, but if it’s true it’s false. Actually though, the sentence is neither true nor false, it’s simply meaningless. Although it’s correct grammatically, it’s not a legitimate declarative sentence, The problem is that the sentence mis-uses the word false. It’s like saying, “This sentence is cold.” Or “This sentence is eleven.”

Consider the sentence, “The sky is green.” I could legitimately say of that sentence, “That sentence is false,” which sounds very like the paradoxical sentence, “This sentence is false.” But here’s the difference.

When I say that the sentence “The sky is green” is false, I’m not talking about sentences, I’m talking about the sky. I’m not engaging in a philosophical debate about the truth or falsity of the sentence itself, but of what the sentence asserts about the sky. The sentence is false because it says something about the color of the sky that doesn’t match with my actual knowledge of the color of the sky.

So look again at the sentence, “This sentence is false.” The word "false" is mis-used. It doesn’t apply. It’s as though you had said, “The sky is false.” My response is not that you’ve created an ingenious little paradox. My response is that actually you haven’t said anything at all. My reaction to somebody saying, “the sky is false” would be to say, “What about the sky?” “What are you trying to say?” In fact, there is no way to form a meaningful sentence where you simply say some noun, like “sky” or “dog” or “philosophy” or “this sentence” is false. First you have to say something about the noun, “the sky is blue” or “the dog is noisy” or “philosophy is confusing” and then you can apply the word true or false.

“This sentence is false,” doesn’t actually say anything about “This sentence.” There is no content to the sentence, and therefore it isn’t really a legitimate declarative sentence. And so to label what the sentence says as “false” is nonsense. A sentence can’t be false (or true either) unless it says something.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

rescue garden

More garden work this week. I had finished in the back of the house so I set to work on the front. However, I had already used up my budget for new plants from the nursery and I had a lot of bare places to fill. What to do? I ended up canabalizing all of my potted plants. I had quite a few. Some of them had been left behind by the previous owner of our house. Many more I had inherited from a church member who was moving to a colder climate and couldn't take her plants with her. And then through my own tending many of the plants had multiplied and spread into new pots, particularly an aloe vera plant that had given birth to about 20 babies, and grand babies, all separated out to their own pots.

So i set to work transplanting all of these plants. 4 begonias, a spider plant, a daisy, a flowering tree I never knew the name of, another little plant that had been a thank you present from the car dealership when my husband leased his car, a bromeliad, the 20 members of the extended aloe vera family, an italian parsely and a thyme plant I'd recieved in honor of teaching a session of a Religious Education class at church (a gift of "thyme" - get it?) Many others. All went into the earth, wherever I could find an appropriate place.

They weren't the plants I would have chosen, but they were what I had. Like choosing a pet from the pound rather than buying an animal at the pet store. I've created a rescue garden in front of my house, a mutt, a motley family of odds and ends that nobody would have planned to put together but do have the benefit of looking a lot like life.

I bought firewood while California burned

Last Thursday I took delivery of a cord of Almond tree wood that I intend to burn in my living room fireplace. By that day the fires closest to me in the Los Angeles area were all under control, although several in San Diego were still blazing. The smoke lingered in the air for days. Today the Associated Press reported on a study that the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere from the week of fires equals the output from the entire state of Vermont for a year. Each year wildfires contribute about 5% of the total greenhouse gases produced by the United States. ("Fire Spews Tons of Global Warming Gas" by Seth Borenstein)

My fireplace is one of those luxuries I allow myself while acknowledging its damaging effect on the world. Life is about balance. Even a commited spiritual life must find balance between self-denial at the service of the larger community and the enjoyment of life. The Buddha, in preaching the Middle Way, saw that the path to enlighteement was neither the excesses of his royal childhood, nor extreme ascetisim.

I forgive myself somewhat by noting that if I heated my home with the central heat I would still be burning fossil fuels indirectly at the power generating station. And by using the fireplace I'm only heating the room I'm actually sitting in, instead of the entire house. But those are half arguments. My fireplace creates a burden on the world. On the other hand, I'm part of the world, too. My enjoyment of life also counts as bettering the world. So it's a difficult calculation to make. The best path is to indulge, in moderation, in those activities that bring us joy, and then balance the negative effects with a recommitment to activities that improve the world in other areas.

God Hates Phelps

Fred Phelps, the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, follows a theology that characterizes every tragedy befalling human persons as God's punishment for our immorality. Hurricane Katrina, the recent wildfires in California, and the deaths of American Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are all proof of God's displeasure with the United States, principally our toleration of homosexuality.

How then will Phelps interpret the recent 10.9 million judgment against himself and two of his church members (both also his daughters). What is God trying to tell Fred Phelps by making him suffer so? The father of a marine killed in Iraq whose funeral was "protested" by Phelp's church was awarded on Wednesday 2.9 million in compensatory damages, 6 million in punitive damages, and 2 million for emotional distress.

Although it's hard to weep at Fred Phelps and his followers recieving a well deserved rebuke for their hate-mongering, I remain concerned that their first amendment rights in this case are being trampled to the eventual peril of us all. Although there are many legitimate restrictions on free speech, speech which is merely offensive (such as that which causes "emotional distress") should be protected in the interest of the free debate and dissension necessary for a democracy.

BTW. The actual response from the Westboro Baptist church to the judgment against them, featured on their website, is to praise God for helping them spread their message through the press coverage. "Not only did you [sinful America] fail to stop our preaching, but our message has gone forth to the ENTIRE WORLD on this day, because of your folly, like never before! Thank God for the $10.9 Million Verdict!" Of course this interpretation exactly contradicts themselves "God's judgement on others proves we're right! God's Judgement on us also proves we're right!" And if the court case had gone againt the marine's father and in favor of the church it would have generated just as much publicity.

yoga in schools

Why should prayer in schools be banned but yoga mandatory, at least for the senior class at Needham High School outside Boston?

The goal of Needham High Principal, Paul Richards, is perfectly laudable, trying to improve the health of over-worked, driven, competitive high school students, by getting them to ease up up their advanced plasement classes, and clubs, and activities, not to mention jobs, and learn to relax. The yoga classes are just one of a variety of relaxation techniques being put in place under advisement of the Stress Reduction Committee at Needham High as part of a movement involving 44 high schools nationwide under a movement called S.O.S. for "Stressed Out Students." ("Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress" by Sara Rimer, New York Times, p. 1, October 29, 2007).

I support the observation of the S.O.S. moement that we are doing our children a mis-service by demanding their academic over-achievement, at the expense of contemplative, creative, and spiritual ease. Our high school students should be allowed the same balance in life that their equally over-worked and stressed-out parents seek in their own lives. My problem is the mis-use of yoga as a "stress-reduction technique." Yoga does have that benefit but the benefit results from its primary purpose which is spiritual. It trivializes yoga to say that it is merely about "relaxing" or "stretching." Yoga is about linking human persons to the divinity within (the word "yoga" is a cognate for the english word "yoke"). In yoga the body is put in stressful positions in order to train the mind to maintain calm focus while facing spiritual challenges.

Our schools should help students find balance. Spiritual practice is certainly one way to do that, but whether a student chooses Christian prayer or Hindu yoga poses, or some other practice that is merely "relaxing" without being spiritual, should be the student's free choice.

blogger hero

What is a blog except an online diary? And so bloggers and blog readers should mark and mourn the passing of Robert Shields, dead at the age of 89 on October 15. Shields was not a blogger but a diarist of amazing productivity and obsessive detail. He was also for a part of his life a Protestant minister which makes him feel a little close to me. But from 1972 until 1997 when a stroke ended his ability to type, Shields kept a diary recording his life in five minute intervals. According to his obituary by Douglas Martin in the New York Times (October 29, 2007) Shields created a 37.5 million word document filling 91 boxes, including observations on basically everything he did, from changing lightbulbs, to bathroom visits, the junk mail he recieved each day, the fluctuations of his body tempertaure and blood pressure, and his dreams. Shields told a reporter from the Seattle Times in 1994 speaking of future readers of his diary, "Maybe by looking into someone's life at that depth, every minute of every day, they'll find out something about all people."

Theological work begins with the examination of one's own life. It is from our life experiences that we mine the data which we then use to construct our worldview. The first life to look at is your own of course, but additional data can be found in the lives of other people. Other people have different and more experiences than you have, so there's more data available, and due to our common humanity, their experiences can also illuminate your own life.

Sadly, for students of Robert Shield's life, his diary will be sealed for 50 years under the terms of the agreement whereby he willed the manuscript to Washington State University. Imagine the desire to record your life obssessively but keep your observations private! How very unlike a blogger.

Friday, October 26, 2007

old north church

I officiated at a memorial service this afternoon. The service was held on the grounds of the Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn Cemetery in a chapel designed as a replica of the Old North Church in Boston. I've been to the original Old North Church and just confirmed my memory with some pictures from their web site and the replication is exact. The same architecture, of course, and steeple, but even the same chandeliers, the same organ pipes, and the same box pews.

Several folks at the memorial service remarked on the box pews. I explained that they were a way to keep the congregation warm during New England winters. Each family would have their own box, and they'd bring warming stoves into their box and then close the doors to hold in the heat. completely unnecessary in Southern California in a modern heated building. I've never preached in a church with box pews before. At my church now we sit in folding chairs set up and taken down every morning.

It's interesting how the physical space supports or subverts the sacred space. With everyone sitting behind their box walls my view of the congregation was of a sea of heads, cut off from their bodies, and separated from me and each other. The picture was a great illustration of the cliche of New England Protestantism, but not conducive to the message I tried to convey during the service, or the theology I preach.

dirty hands

I put a bunch of new plants in a large planter on my back patio this week. We had previously had several "iceberg" rose bushes in the planter but they were never my style and they had gotten old and tangled. I had cut them way back last winter but they were clearly ready to go. I had my gardener take them out several weeks ago, and then finally got around to making a trip to the nursery and picking something new to put in.

There is something incredibly satisfying about work in the garden. I spend so much of my work life, thinking, talking, and writing, it's a pleasure to balance all that head work with a little hands and muscles work. I also love the creative part of gardening, particularly at the stage of laying out a garden it's an artistic job of choosing which plants to purchase, imaging how they will fit in the space available, and how they will look next to each other, and then laying them in to the ground in a pleasing arrangement.

They say if you love your work you'll never work a day in your life. I feel that way about my ministry. I also feel that way about work in the garden.

Fred Phelp's First Amendment Right

Fred Phelps is the minister of the Westboro Baptist Church (Topeka, about 60 members most of them family members, all of them crazy). In recent years Fred has taken his obsession with homosexuality into a new arena, protesting at the military funerals of American service people. Fred and his followers believe that God kllls our soldiers as a punishment for (in their opinion) our country's acceptance of homosexuality. Thus you have the bizarre sight of funerals being picketed by church members holding signs that say, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and the classic, "God Hates Fags."

Finally a marine's father has had enough and is suing the church for the emotional damage he suffered when they picketed his son's funeral in March of 2006.

Having just come from a memorial service this afternoon my heart goes out to this poor man and his family. The incredible hate of these people is mindboggling. Their willingness to turn a solemn private event, into a spectacle for their ludicrous and completely irrelevant message is shocking and evil.

But I cannot support the father's lawsuit. And I hope that the first amendment right of the Westboro church is upheld. Hatred is not defeated by silencing it, but by letting it expose itself as the sickness it is. There are limits to the free speech right, of course, but offensive or insulting speech (that does not directly injure or advocate violence) is exactly the sort of speech that requires protection.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

certified training ride leader

I spent the day today in a workshop with about 20 other people being certified as training ride leaders. That means that I'm now approved by the AIDS/Life CYcle organization to lead training rides, preparing cyclists to participate in the AIDS/LifeCycle event next June. All of the training ride leaders are volunteers. We began our morning by going around the group with everyone introducing themselves and saying why they signed up to be a ride leader. Most of us said that the primary reason was to "pay forward" the people who had been so helpful in getting us trained the first time we did the ride. A couple of people (me included) also said that being a ride leader was a way to be more involved in a community and cause that we care about.

As we went through the day's training it occured to me that many of the necessary skills were also skills necessary for the ministry. Leading a ride is like leading a congregation: organize the event, keep everyone safe, emphasize the importance of the community, give special attention to the riders who need the most help, practice good communication and interpersonal skills, have fun, file reports afterward of the experience.

Is it just that because I'm a minister everything looks like ministry? Or is it that the same personal interests and talents which call me to the ministry also attract me to other ministry-like situations?

Friday, October 19, 2007

7 lbs

two articles reviewing two art shows on the front page of the Weekend Arts section of the New York Times, October 19, 2007:

"The glossy seven-pound catalog oscillates between the sublimely illuminating and the ridiculous..." Roberta Smith reviewing "Gustav Klimt" at the Neue Gallery.

"The exhibition catalog--seven pounds of pure information--tells us that..." Holland Carter reviewing "Tapestry in the Baroque" at the Met.

What else will weigh in today at 7 pounds? What does seven pounds point us toward? If the world were a novel what would we make of the authors choice to emphasize 7 pounds in this morning's paper?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

the world as a novel

Why is Moby Dick white? Lots of answers could be proposed. Whatever meaning Melville intended we assume he had some reason. When we read a novel we see significance in details because we know that an author chooses details in order to convey information.

The world, on the other hand is the way it is, "just because." But what if we read the world the way we read a novel? What if we noticed when some interesting, strange, remarkable, synchronous event happened, and interpreted it for meaning, the same way a careful reader reads a work of literature?

Theologically that presents a problem because it implies belief in a "single author" (God) capable of manipulating events in the world in order to send messages. That view of God brings up problems of free will, and the problem of evil and also invites the obvious question if God can manipulate the world in order to send coded messages why doesn't God just send obvious messages?

But a middle way is possible. God is not a single author of the world, but God is an active participant in the world. God cannot force the world to reflect God's intentions, but God does influence the choices of the co-creators of the world (you and I and every other existing individual). Thus messages from God can appear in the world, but most often in partial and obscure ways. The interesting event you notice during the day may be a message from God, or it may be the result of individual choices not influenced by God. Just as in Moby Dick the color of the whale may be significant if you can tease out Melville's intended meaning, or the whale may be white, "just because."

giuliani fights crime

I read Freakonomics yesterday. The book applies economic principles to analyze several interesting questions that don't really have anything to do with economics. One of the questions asks about the cause of the steep and unexpected drop in crime rates nationwide starting around 1990. The analysis looks at several of the explanations cited by experts and concludes that the actual reason, never cited by experts, was the legalization of abortion, nationwide, via Roe v. Wade in 1973. You can read the author's argument for yourself. (here's their blog.) But the general conclusion seems obvious enough on its face. Childhood neglect leads to criminal behavior, abortion lessens the number of unwanted and neglected children, therefore abortion lowers crime rates. 17 years after women likely to give birth to unwanted and neglected children were allowed to have legal abortions, the crime rate drops just as those never born children would have been entering their criminal primes. It's not an argument for abortion. It's an explanation for lower crime rates.

What this has to do with Giulani is that it brings together two issues that have been an important part of his campaign. Giulani supports abortion rights and has had to carefully finesse this issue while playing to an anti-abortion conservative base. Giulani has also made the lowering crime rate in New York under his watch in the 1990s a centerpiece of the kind of leadership he's proud of. According to the argument in Freakonomics, though, the lowering crime rate in New York had almost nothing to do with the innovative policing policies Giulani is so proud of, and almost everything to do with a legalized abortion policy he would prefer not to mention.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

marriage equality statement

On September 30 I participated on a panel at a marriage equality forum sponsored by my church. I spoke to the spiritual issues of why I support marriage equality. Other panelists addressed the issue from personal and legal perspectives. I've posted the text of my speech on my website under the Action tab.

Friday, October 12, 2007

hollywood universalist churches

Here's a google satellite image of the location of the former Hollywood Universalist Church, 7367 Hollywood Blvd. Click the zoom in button twice and position the pointer arrow on the left margin for the best view.

View Larger Map

The church location is now an apartment building. The wide diagonal street to the east is La Brea Blvd. The large building one block further east of La Brea is the Mann's Chinese Theater.

The final location of the other former Universalist church in Los Angeles is also visible. The major east-west street north of Hollywood Blvd is Franklin Blvd. The First Universalist Church of Los Angeles met in its final years in a building near the corner of Franklin and La Brea. I don't know the exact address. They had previously met in several locations around Los Angeles since they first began meeting in downtown Los Angeles in the 1880s.

no marriage - yet

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (I still can't say that without wincing) once again, today, vetoed legislation that would have given same-sex couples the same access to legal marriage now granted only to opposite-sex couples. Here is the text of Schwarzenegger's veto message:

"To the Members of the California State Assembly:

I am returning Assembly Bill 43 without my signature.

As I stated in vetoing similar legislation in 2005, I am proud California is a leader in recognizing and respecting domestic partnerships. I believe that all Californians are entitled to full protection under the law and should not be discriminated against based upon their sexual orientation. I support current domestic partnership rights and will continue to vigorously defend and enforce these rights.

In 2000, the voters approved Proposition 22, a challenge to which is currently pending before the California Supreme Court. I maintain my position that the appropriate resolution to this issue is to allow the Court to rule on Proposition 22. The people of California should then determine what, if any, statutory changes are needed in response to the Court’s ruling.

Sincerely, Arnold Schwarzenegger"

Although California's domestic partnership legislation is comprehensive it is not the same as marriage. It is discriminatory on its face to have one arrangement for same-sex couples and a different arrangement for opposite-sex couples (actually opposite-sex couples can choose either one). If domestic partnership is the same as marriage then why not simply call it marriage? If Domestic Partnership is different from marriage tean it cannot be "full protection under the law" So which is it?

It's clear to me that in the year 2000 when Californians passed Proposition 22 (a marriage definition statement - not a constitutional amendment) the voters meant to preserve marriage as a hetero-only institution. However, the California legislature is not bound by the will of the voters from 7 years ago. Times and opinions change and it is our elected representatives' responsibility to act for us, not to wait for new voter propositions to replace old ones. Nor is the legislature obliged to wait for a court decision before they act to end discrimination currently occuring.

Schwarzenegger is on the wrong side of an historical movement. He could have been a leader on this issue early on, and chose to do nothing. Twice now the legislature has given him the opportunity to take a bold and prophetic position. Each time he has failed to take advantage of their gift. Eventually same-sex marriage will be legal in California and in all 50 states. When that time comes and people look back at the strange old times of Domestic Partnerships, Schwarzenegger will be viewed as a reactionary figure standing in the way of justice, using his vaunted strength to hold people down insteading of lifting them up.

ENDA without transgender protection

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has become an interesting example of a common problem of two-party politics. While legislators are elected by and beholden to a base on one side of the spectrum, legislation that can actually pass must be close to the middle. By removing protection for transgender persons from ENDA, the authors hope that at least gay and lesbian persons could achieve Federal workplace protection. The re-write of the bill moved it more toward the achievable center at the expense of complete justice.

But the argument that we must not protect gay and lesbian persons until we can also protect transgender persons ignores the fact that the identification of oppressed groups and the gaining of their rights always comes in an evolutionary process. Complete justice is never an attainable goal because new groups of oppressed persons will forever emerge - some which exist now but are yet invisible, others which don't even exist yet. Justice achieved by one group actually creates the atmosphere by which justice can be achieved by the next group.

If gay and lesbian people were not actually suffering employment discrimination right now then we could afford to wait for the opportunity to help the next oppressed group in line. But gay and lesbian persons are suffering now. And when the culture is ready to protect our transgender citizens there will be yet another emerging oppressed class also asking for help.


I just registered for the 2008 edition of the AIDS/LifeCycle. Next June I'll ride my bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles raising money for the HIV/AIDS Programs offered by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. This will be my fourth ride. I took this year off to run the Marathon (as a fundraiser for a different Los Angeles AIDS service center) but I did the AIDS LIfe/Cycle each of the previous three years (2004, 2005, and 2006).

The first year the ride was about mastering a physical challenge and also an emotional catharsis of mourning the many friends of mine who had died from AIDS years earlier. The second year was about giving back to the ride by serving as a training ride leader in appreciation of those who had so generously helped me the year before. The third year I bought a new bike and made the ride strictly about the joy of cycling, and the fun of the event itself.

This year I will again serve as a training ride leader and now I have several friends who have agreed to do the ride with me for their first time. training for the ride kicks off October 27.

I'd love to have your support. Donate to my ride by clicking here.

know your neighbors

Ever wonder about the people who live around you? How many are married? How many have completed high school? Racial and economic diversity?

This website displays data from the 2000 census by zipcode. Take a look at the zipcodes around your church as well to see who you might invite to church.

church camp

I spent last weekend at our annual church camp near Big Bear. About one hundred Unitarian Universalists from 4 congregations in the San Fernando Valley attended. The minister from our Canoga Park church (Rev. Anne Hines) and I collaborated on a workshop on Saturday and the Sunday outdoor worship. We also shared the duty of saying grace before each meal.

The camp is called deBenneville Pines. George deBenneville was an 18th century Universalist, born in London but later lived in America. The camp is named for him to honor the Universalist source of the money that purchased the camp ground (previously owned by the Boy Scouts) in the year before the Unitarian Universalist merger. The Universalist money had come from the dissolution of two Universalist churches in the Hollywood area. Information about the vanished churches are available here and here.

laundry day

My washing machine decided it could no longer handle the rinse cycle. It freezes up in a sudden panic with the basket still filled with soapy water and refuses to continue.

So yesterday I took my first visit to a laundromat in 12 years. At the time I was living with my ex in an apartment and I took our clothes every Saturday to a place on the corner. I would load up the washing machines and then walk next door and get a pastry and a coffee which I would eat while reading the paper. Once the wash was transfered to the dryers there would be another break until I had to start folding. Not too bad a chore actually.

Yesterday's experience was even nicer. A big laundromat, clean, and practically empty. The attendant, a small latino man, younger than me, noticed me reading the machine instructions and asked if it was my first time there. I said it was and then he explained how to operate the machince and gave me my first wash free. I had time to have a cup of coffee and read the paper, just as 12 years ago, and listen to Spanish love songs on the sound system, accompanied by a video game machine playing an endless loop of electronic "Baby Elephant Walk."

The washer repair man comes on Monday

escher drawings in lego

Andrew Sullivan had a link to Andrew Lipson's site a few days ago. Mr. Lipson (and a friend sometimes) has done versions of several different drawings so explore around the site to see the rest.

left. left. left right left.

Here's an online and simple test as to whether you're right or left brained.

From the list of attributes I'm a mixture of both, or at least I think I am. I'm logical and verbal (left brained). But I'm also creative and, of course, interested in philosophy and religion (right brained).

But according to the spinning dancer test I'm entirely right-brained and couldn't even force my mind to spin the dancer in the left brained direction.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

asymetrical relationships

A saw a minor celebrity at the gym today. I've seen him there before. He's the lead on a show on FX. I've never spoken with him. And yet every time I see him I have the initial sense of catching unexpected sight of a friend and then I stop myself. "Oh, that's right, we're not friends. He doesn't know me."

I watched an episode of Weeds last night, in which the lead character secretly follows a woman around town. Their lives are connected through a third character but they've never met. At the end of the episode they do meet and we realize that the second woman had already noticed the woman following her. The second woman acuses the first of stalking her. I have a friend who had suffered for years with a mysterious stalker who only recently finally left him alone. When I was in high school I had a devastatingly obsessive and completely secret crush on one of my teachers. He was just out of college himself so we became friends, but our friendly interactions were always very different from my side than from his.

When relationships are dramtically asymetrical it can set up very sensitive and sometimes awkward situations, very good for dramatic treatment. But it occurs to me that every relationship we have must be asymetrical to some degree. We come to every relationship with a host of past life experiences, and different goals, and emotional attachments, and prejudices and needs, that could never fully match those of the other person. As Harvey Fierstein wrote in Torch Song Trilogy, "In every relationship there's one person who loves more. It might as well be me." Instead of seeking relationship parity we should seek to be our best self and bring that person to the other, wherever they are.

the other side of a membership organization

last night I had my first meeting as the Bass Section Assistant Representative to the Membership Committee of the Gay Mens Chorus of Los Angeles. I was elected by my fellow basses back in June. There were two reps from each section plus elected officers, also from the membership of the chorus, and then the Music Director of the Chorus, and the Executive Director. The chorus is a non-profit, membership organization, like a church. None of the singers are paid, but both the music director and the exectuive director are paid. And we have a few other paid staff positions as well.

At church I am udually the only paid staff person at the meetings I attend. And usually I'm the most informed person in the room as it's my job to know what's going on and to develop much of the vision and programming. At the chorus meeting I was one of the majority who were volunteers in the chorus, and I barely had any idea of what was going on. We listened to the Directors and gave input, but mostly tried to keep up with their excitement and plans.

Early in the meeting the directors shared an idea about a change in the performance schedule for the future: doing more smaller concerts in several places around Los Angeles, rather than a single weekend of four large concerts at one theater. It's a perfectly sound strategy for making our chorus more well-known and influential. It's the kind of idea I would have come up with myself for the church: focused on the mission of the congregation and the larger mission of the faith. But as a member of the chorus I balked. How could we ask volunteer members to sing more often and to drive themselves to more locations? The Directors, for whom their chorus work is a full time job, had not sufficiently considered the impact on the chorus members who are all volunteers. I wonder how often I've created plans for the church from my skewed perspective and proposed ideas that failed to account for the reality of the church membership?

radiohead and the church

Radiohead has a new "pay what you want" price for their soon to be released album, "in rainbows." The pricing policy is being hailed as revolutionary in the music industry. I suppose it is, for them, but in the church we've been conducting the offertory on the same policy for centuries. The annual pledge drive in our church is also a "pay what you want" policy. The amount of annual pledge or the money thrown into the collection plate is entirely up to a conversation between the church-goer and their own conscience.

I try to emphasize that the conversation my church members need to have with themselves is not about calculating "what is the church worth to me?" but rather, "how much do I want to be involved in my church?" I try to steer the conversation away from the premise that the church is a commodity that you buy (adding up the worth of the sermons and the RE and one share of the rent on the building) and ask people to consider instead the personal identity statement they are making with their donation: "I'm a generous person," or "I'm fully invested in this organization." Giving to organizations that embody our values is a reflection of our own spiritual selves. Generosity is important to spiritual health regardless of how much the recipient of our generosity gives back to us.

Radiohead is also for me an organization that embodies my values. I admire their politics, their spirituality (or rather their critique of the lack of spirituality in contemporary society) and perhaps most of all their impressive musicality. All of that is worth supporting. I could get their new album for free, but I'm not that kind of person. And when I receive the new album I want to listen to it knowing that I involved myself in the experience, not merely listening from a place off to one side.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

no homos in iran

I watch CNN every morning for ten or fifteen minutes while I'm flossing my teeth and putting my contacts in. I don't really need the news (I read the New York Times over coffee for that) but I want to make sure there isn't any terrible breaking news I should know about. Memories of waking up September 11, 2001 still haunt me.

So yesterday I tuned in just as Lee Bolinger was wrapping up his introduction to Mahmoud Ahmadinajad and then I stayed on, transfixed to listen to the whole speech.

I had to hand it to the guy. While finding the man repugnant I also saw how he would be perceived as a hero by many less powerful nations as he skillfully used United States hypocrisy to turn every criticism against his government against ours. The United States, particularly in the last few years, has much to answer for, and our ability to evoke the moral highground has been greatly diminished on many issues because of our own muddy record.

And then on the gay persecution issue (and I was hoping somebody would ask), Ahmadinejad fell flat on his face and was rightly mocked. After a full hour of ducking and parrying on questions like Israel and nuclear weapons, he finally responded to a question with a direct answer and blatantly displayed his prejudice and ignorance. His completely ludicrous answer that Iran has no homosexuals (then who have you been hanging on sodomy charges?) belied the rest of his speech and exposed him for what he is, a crank and a moron, not a diplomat but the political equivalent of the third grader who can only respond to criticism with, "I know you are but what am I?"

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I am/am not a minister

I just got back from a cruise where I met hundreds of new people. Everyone asks where you're from and what do you do. It's polite conversation. I would answer "Los Angeles" and "a minister," which was always good for a conversation starter. "Really?" people would invariably wonder. I don't look or act like most people's image of a minister (particularly while on vacation), nor would most people think to find clergy taking their holiday with their same sex partner on a cruise with 1800 gay men.

Being a minister is both my job and also, because of ordination who I am. I would still be a minister even if I left the church and took a job at starbucks or the post office. But I've noticed in the course of my ministry and particularly as I have moved from one church to a second that I'm emphasizing now more the aspect of ministry that is something I do rather than who I am. I think this is a healthy shift. It's partly possible because I serve a very well-functioning church that doesn't require a lot of pushing and dragging from me to move toward our goals. And it's also a personal sense that I want to honor the other roles in my life equally with my ministry: my roles as husband, artist, writer, activist, athlete, and so on.

Ministry provides a temptation and a danger to ministers to over-identify with the role. It feeds the ego and returns a great sense of belonging and value. But it also leads to a lack of separation between the church and minister. The minister suffers from over work and neglect of personal life. And the church suffers from a minister who doesn't give them space to do the ministry they could do for themselves, and who doesn't model healthy self care or return to them the benefits of a balanced life.

the 10,000 steps

For the last 24 years I've been part of a medical study doing AIDS research. I go in to a doctor's office twice a year where I submit to a full physical; neurological, muscle strength and mental acuity tests; and extensive interviews about my health, drug use (perscription and recreational) and sex practices. I had my latest appointment yesterday.

To continue in a study that many years takes a lot of commitment so the researchers are always very grateful and usually they try to give us participants a little thank you gift for coming in. Usually it's a pen or a note pad. This last visit they gave me a pedometer that clips to my belt and supposedly counts how my steps.

i understand that you're supposed to shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Yesterday I logged only about 1200 steps on a day when I spent all afternoon sitting on a couch at a coffee shop writing a sermon. So far today I'm already up to 1800 steps and that includes taking my dogs for a walk. I can see where someone could get obsessive about this. On the other hand I don't know how accurate a free pedometer really is, or even whether 10,000 steps is really the appropriate measure.

art vs. artists

On the same page of this morning's New York Times article about the future of the Barnes collection there was a second article about the resolution of a court case involving the Massahusetts Museum of Modern Art and an swiss artist named Christopher Buchel. The museum had arranged with the artist to create a extensive walk-through artistic environment in a warehouse owned by the museum. The project quickly turned sour with the artist complaining of insufficient support, and the museum complaining of the artist's prima donna demands. The budget doubled and finally the project fell through with the artist walking off and the project incomplete.

The museum, which owns the unfinished work, wanted to recoup some of their investment by showing it. The artist sued to stop them saying that it was unethical to show his work in a manner different than he had intended. The court ruled that as long as the museum clearly labels that the work is incomplete no damage is done to the artist.

This case has parallels to the story of the Barnes foundation appearing on the same newspaper page. Mr. Barnes used the works of Renoir and Cezanne and others in his collection to make artistic statements of his own that had nothing to do with the original intentions of the artists. In essence Barnes created his own environmental art piece and then demanded that his vision never be altered. But he did so by appropriating the creations, and perverting the intent of dozens of other artists. This was unfair and I'm glad that Barnes' iron hand is now being pried open.

Once art is created it belongs to the world. The owners become stewards for protecting the art and sharing it with the public. This is what Mass MOCA is doing with its unfinished Christopher Buchel work. Buchel's wish that the art not be seen is not an inherent part of his creation and need not be honored. Meanwhile the art that Barnes' eccentricity has kept hidden from the public, will now fulfill the original creator's intentions and be seen.

tyranny of the past

I've been thinking lately (and writing a sermon for tomorrow) about what place, if any, the past ought to play in our living out of the present moment.

In this morning's New York Times, there was an article about the design of the building being built to house the Barnes collection in Philadelphia once it finally moves from the suburb where it's been housed to its new location downtown. The Barnes is an extraordinary collection of art that few people have been able to see. Barnes had unique, or rather eccentric ideas about art and displayed his collection in a very specific fashion, and then left instructions in his will that the art should never be shown in any other way. Thus the art has for decades been locked into the particular house where it was originally displayed, and with constraints of the location and accomodations to the neighbors the art has been so difficult to see that the foundation has gone nearly bankrupt. A court order a few years ago, in defiance of Barnes' will, allowed the foundation to move to a better location, although there will still be attempts to honor Barnes wishes in how the works are displayed.

This is an example of how legacies from the past can work against present, full experience of life, instead of supporting it. The wishes of a dead man have been a burden on the foundation and limited access to the enjoyment of art by generations. The New York Times article, by the way, bemoans the loss of the unique experience of visiting the Barnes Foundation in its original setting. This seems a small price in order to gain greater access to a collection that now should be regarded as belonging to the present, not hostage to the past.

Friday, September 21, 2007

that's disgusting

A website called offers an online quiz that examines the justifications that a person uses when making a moral decision. The quiz is part of the work that a group of researchers are doing at the University of Virginia. The researchers propose that our moral decisions are grounded in five different areas that were developed over the centuries as human beings evolved and adapted to various circumstances. Two of the five areas are bound to the present, that is in order to make a decision about right and wrong in these two areas the only thing we have to look at is the present moment. The first area is whether someone is being hurt, or cared for. And the second area is whether someone is being treated fairly and equally. The last three areas all require examination of the past in order to decide whether an action is right or wrong. The third considers loyalty to the group – like following tradition. The fourth considers authority, like having respect for elders and ancestors, and the fifth considers categories of purity and sanctity, which are defined by cultural norms grounded in the long ago past.

Not surprisingly people who identify as politically liberal tend to give more weight to the first two categories and less to the final three, while conservatives tend in the opposite direction. That is, liberals tend to make their moral decisions based on whether someone is being hurt or cared for, and whether people are being treated fairly and equally. While conservatives generate their sense of right and wrong by consulting tradition, authority figures, and by assigning categories on an almost instinctual basis of whether something is sacred or profane, pure or disgusting.

See how that distinction plays out with your favorite issue of the culture wars. I'm for same sex marriage because people are being hurt and it's only fair. Or I'm against same sex marriage because marriage has traditionally been only for opposite sex couples, and I'm listening to the teachings of the leaders of my church, and because, frankly, gay sex is disgusting.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

hagia sophia

After Ephesus we sailed up the coast of Asia Minor, (through the Dardanelles and into the Bosphorus) to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. Our tour guide for the day told us that Istanbul is simply a mispronunciation of Constantinople and not actually a name change. Before Constantine made the city the head of the Eastern Roman Empire it had been called Byzantium as every fan of Tom Lehrer knows.

The city has been integral to many empires because geographically it spans the narrow water divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. We stayed our whole day on the Europe side of the city and toured the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi palace, and ended the day in the Grand Bazaar.

The Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century at the order of Emperor Justinian, replacing earlier churches on the spot built by Theodosius and Constantine (on the same spot as an earlier pagan temple). It served as the seat of the Constantinople Patriarch and after the schism was the center of the Orthodox half of Christianity. In the 15th century Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman empire and the church was converted to Muslim worship as a mosque.

Today it is neither Mosque nor church but a museum and it's filled with tourists not worshippers. The beautiful decorations (both Christian and Muslim) are visible, as well as the awe-inspiring (though precarious) architecture. The dome is too heavy for the supports and several pillars can be seen obviously leaning outward.

Hagia Sophia means Divine Wisdom, by the way. Although that's a traditional title for Jesus, I think the idea of a temple dedicated to wisdom itself is an excellent idea.

whores and books

In Ephesus one of the favorite stories of the tour guides (comparing notes with friends who were on different tours we all heard this one) concerns the best preserved architeture in the ruins, the town library. The two story facade is still intact and you can walk into the library room behind and read inscriptions on the wall. Here's a great website with a 360 degree photo. As we stood in the square in front of the library the tour guide pointed out that the town brothel had stood on the opposite side of the square partly up the hill - Ephesus was a port town after all. And the tour guide also told us that the archaeologists had discovered a tunnel in the floor of the library that led under the square and emerged in the brothel.

Her assumption was that townsmen would tell their wives they were going to the library, disappear inside and then spend the afternoon at the brothel, and then come back through the tunnel to come out from the library.

That's probably the accurate story but it occured to me that tunnels run both ways. Perhaps it was the whores in the brothel who made use of the tunnel to spend an afternoon reading. Or perhaps a young gay man (this was ancient Greece after all) could walk into the brothel to prove his heterosexuality to his friends and then sneak over to the library to spend a more agreeable hour.

It's all a hoax

Three stories about hoaxes: two from today's New York Times, a third from the September 17 issue of the New Yorker.

The front page of the New York Times carries a story that a photographer named Joe O'Donnell, known as "The Presidential Photographer" took credit for many famous photographs actually snapped by other people. The truth has emerged following his death on August 9 at the age of 85.

Inside the paper there's a story about the release of a CD (not yet released in the US) that claims to be rap recordings made in 1988 and recently discovered in a storage locker in New Jersey. Although the hoax seems obvious the producer, Fab Five Freddy is sticking to the cover story.

And in The New Yorker there's an excellent article by Mark Singer called "Fantasia for Piano" about the British pianist Joyce Hatto who died a few years ago after releasing with her husband late in her life a remarkable series of piano recordings and making a sensation in the classical music world with her musicality, and particularly the breadth of her repetoire. The recordings, it was eventually discovered, were not by her but were stolen from dozens of other pianists.

In the case of the photographer his family is blaming simply the faulty memory of an old man. In the case of Joyce Hatto it seems to be a sense on Miss Hatto's part of vicariously claiming a fame and musical reputation that had been unfarily denied her in her actual career, combined with a doting husband with a knack for recording technology and story-telling. In the case of the rap CD, the hoax has a more interesting basis: respect for a lost golden age of a musical style which has now lost its purity and the attempt not merely to cash in on that nostalgia, but actually to recreate it.

St. Paul in Ephesus

From Athens the cruise sailed to Mykonos, where I visited the island of Delos and saw the supposed birthplace of the God Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Then we sailed to Rhodes, and then up the coast of Turkey stopping at a city called Kusadasi.

Kusadasi is a small resort town. The reason to go there is that the ancient city of Ephesus is only about a 30 minute bus ride away. Ephesus used to be a port town, but it was built at the mouths of two rivers and over the centuries the port filled up with silt. The town was moved several times to put it closer to the water, but never too far because Ephesus was also the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Eventually, though, the area converted to Christianity and the temple became less important so the twon moved to the present location of Kusadasi. The temple to Artemis, by the way, was destroyed although two of the pillars were transfered to Constantinople where they were incorporated into the building of the Hagia Sophia.

I took the Ephesus tour organized by the cruise. The ruins are pretty cool. In the Book of Acts (Chapters 19 and 20) were told of Paul's three years based in Ephesus. We saw the site of the synagogue where he preached, and the large amptheater which is still used for concerts, where a large public meeting was held concerning Paul's efforts to convert the people. A silversmith named Demetrius complained that Paul's preaching was ruining his business in making silver images of the goddess Artemis.

St. Paul in Athens

After our week in Tel Aviv Peleg and I flew to Athens and then began a cruise that took us to several Greek Isles, two cities in Turkey, then the city of Split in Croatia and ending in Venice.

In Athens we had arranged to be met by a taxi driver who would take us into town, spend the day with us touring the city, and then drop us at the Port in the mid-afternoon to meet our ship. The driver was there, a very handsome guy named Dionysius. Dionysius is the Greek god of wine and religious ecstasy, but our driver was not named after the god but after Dionysius the Aeropagite, the Christian Patron Saint of Athens.

In the Book of Acts (17:16-34) Paul goes to Athens and preaches to the Greeks at a place called Aeropagus (Mars Hill). Dionysius was one of the people Paul convinced to convert to Christianity and he was installed as the Bishop of the city and later recognized as a saint. Aeropagus is on the same central hill as the Acropolis, just a little further down along the ridge, so I came to it actually by accident after our driver had taken us to see the Acropolis. There is nothing remaining now of Aeropagus, just a cleft of rock sticking out of the side of the hill. A sign points out that Paul was there, and where the theater that he spoke might have been. The view of Athens from their was terrific.

picture from yad vashem

here's a picture of me in front of the names of Waitstill and Martha Sharp on the memorial wall at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Waitstill was a Unitarian minister. He and Martha, on behalf on the Unitarian Service Committee (this was before the merger) went to Prague in the 1930's to help refugees trying to escape from the gathering Nazi threat. The flaming chalice symbol that Unitarian Universalists use in our worship service was originally a logo that the Sharps had designed to assist them in their work by making the paperwork they created look more official.

Here's a good link to read the fascinating story of the Unitarian couple and their good work. Boston Globe 2005 article. It was a proud moment for me to kneel by their names.

Friday, September 14, 2007

righteous unitarians

while in Israel last month Peleg and I took a day trip into Jerusalem and visited the Yad Vashem museum. I knew that two Unitarian names, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, had recently been added to the "Righteous Among the Nations" tribute and I wanted to see how they had been honored.

The museum is a memorial to the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. It's a powerful, almost overwhelming experience. The impact of the horrible story is multiplied by the architecture of the museum itself: a long spike, triangle-shaped in cross-section, drilled through the crest of a hill. Walking along the spike the museum path crosses back and forth into seperate rooms, underground, called "chapters" which tell the story of the tragedy.

After walking through the museum I was more determined than ever to see the tribute to the Sharps. I needed to know among all that horror that at least some people had rejected the hate and violence and had tried to help their fellow human beings. I was directed to an information desk where they keep the list of the Righteous names. The woman at the desk asked me which country the people I was looking for were from and when I said the United States, she rolled her eyes. Almost all the names on the list are from European countries where more immediate practical help was possible. There are only three people from the US honored and the Sharps were only added recently, so the volunteer at the desk hadn't known about them. Neither was she able to tell me where their names would be on the memorial wall (earlier each name had been honored with a tree planted but they have since run out of room and names are now printed on a memorial wall). But she said the names were organized by country and if I could find the United States they would be there.

Peleg and I walked down the hill quite a distance from the main museum and found the memorial wall. It looked like a lot of names to scan but I was determined to find them. And then for some reason I walked directly to the spot and found the two names. Peleg took my picture.

It felt healing to see those two Unitarian names on the wall. I felt proud. 2 out of the 3 names form the United States are Unitarians. They saw a grave danger and did something to help. Something in our Unitarian faith calls us to action. I so respect what they did. I hope my unitarian faith can do honor to theirs.

goddess no longer

back in June I blogged about a Nepalese girl who was honored as a living incarnation of Kali.

kali girl

Unfortunately i have to update the story that she has now been stripped of her title. Or I guess that would mean the spirit of Kali has left her body. The girl, Sajani Shakya, had toured the US to promote a documentary film about the kumari tradition where pre-adolescent girls are revered as a living goddess. When they reach the age of puberty the spirit of the goddess is supposed to leave their body and a new girl is chosen. Unfortunately a folk tale attached to the tradition says that men who marry a former Kumari will die early so many former Kumari's never marry and face hard lives after their goddess childhood.

The news report I read, in The Christian Century, July 24, 2007, doesn't specify why the girl lost her status, although it seems to be related to the film tour. The article also says that Kumari's are incarnations of a Hindu goddess named Taleju, not Kali, although many of the Hindu pantheon are inter-related in complex ways.

More about the Kumari can be found at this Nepalese tourism website:

a big 'ol piece of pi

Speaking of things that human beings know, an Australian teemager named Peter Thamm memorized over 10,000 decimal places of pi and then recited it in 44 minutes. He says he spent about 5 months in preparation.

I once heard that the first 37 decimal places of pi is enough for any possible practical purpose. With 37 places you can calculate the volume of the universe to the accuracy of a micron if you call that a practical purpose. I just made that up by the way because I couldn't find the actual fact on the web. Anyone can help.

Previously I included a link to a page on the web with a million decimals of pi. The web page now says that the guys server couldn't handle the traffic (doubtlessly from all the people who linked there from my blog). SO now the guy has just a little pi and then a link to a new fun thing to do on the web in your spare time. check it out.

pi on the web