Friday, June 29, 2007

yoga ballet

We began the dance rehearsal last evening with a really incredible warm-up led by our choreographer, Billy Rugh. Mr. Rugh had designed a sequence of flexibility and balance poses and movements combining ballet and yoga. From yoga I recognized child's pose and triangle poses and cobra, and pigeon and spinal twists. From ballet, which I never studied, Mr. Rugh led us through what he told us were a series of movements in first through fifth position.

It occured to me, as we moved seamlessly from Eastern spiritual practice to Western arts culture and back again, that ballet might actually be the yoga of the west. Both practices use the body as a vehicle for accessing higher states. Both practices emphasized the importance of breath, of focus, of relaxation and openness. The lines sought in the different postures were exactly the same: length, rising from the chest, feet pointed or flexed. The entire sequence left me invigorated and energized, just as does good worship, or a great arts performance, or a good work out at the gym.

Although we should be careful to distinguish aesthetic experiences from spiritual experiences, it's also true that both essentially aspire to beauty. Beauty is not all that God is, but certainly God is beauty. A straight lifted leg with a pointed toe, an arched back, arms raised over the head, whether in dance or meditation leads to the same holy end.

singer, actor, dancer, etc.

I auditioned for two of the production numbers in the upcoming Gay Men's Chorus Los Angeles concert and won a spot in the Norwegian Sailor's Chorus from Wagner's "Flying Dutchman." That means while the chorus is singing behind us, me and 13 other guys act like sailors at the front of the stage and run through some basic choreography.

I've never been a dancer and always think of myself as moving fairly awkwardly. So why did I want to auditioon? Well one reason is that I thought being an actor for this number would get me out of singing a piece of music I don't like that much and would give me one less number to have to memorize. I found out last night the sailor's are expected to sing while we act and dance so that idea backfired with actually giving myself more work.

But the second reason, more noble and spiritual, is that life ought to be a series of adventures. We ought to seek out ways to challenge ourselves to do more that we thought we could and be more than we thought of our ourselves. The self-diagnosis "I move awkwardly - I can't dance," is a fiction I tell myself and true only because my saying it makes it true. So I've switched that message with, "Here's a challenge I can take on. I can work hard, and increase my skills and see what happens. I can have some fun I wouldn't have otherwise. I can meet some people I wouldn't know otherwise. I can learn something about myself I wouldn't know otherwise."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

two bit karma

Monday I drag my suitcase from my hotel to the MAX stop in downtown Portland to pick up the train to the airport. I'm standing in front of the machine trying to figure out what kind of a ticket I need and how much it's going to cost when a woman approaches from my left and asks, "Is that a suitcase?"

I immediately go into defensive annoyed mode. I don't like people who invade my space without some polite niceties. And I don't like people who ask stupid questions. Of course it's a suitcase. Ignoring my ignoring she then asks, "Is it waterproof?" and I realize that she's intrigued by the fact that my suitcase is bright yellow, which makes it easy to spot on the baggage carousel. I answer her curtly. Then she asks if she can see my tattoo. Now she's really getting forward, but already engaged with her I don't have much choice and I flip up the shirt sleeve to show her. She says it's beautiful.

The ticket machine won't accept my bill. I try another. It won't take that one either. I open my change purse and see I'm 25 cents short. "Hey," I say to the woman. "Have you got a quarter you can give me?" She says, "First you don't even want to acknowledge me and now you want my help?" To her credit she digs in her purse and comes up with a quarter. She says to me, "You've learned a lesson today." Yes I did. I told her, "Think of the good karma that's going to accrue to you later today." I hope I was right.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

names, names

Two more synchronocities on the theme of identity.

I watched the end of a movie in my hotel room last evening. The movite is called, "Matilda" the name of the little girl protagonist. At the very end of the movie Matilda sitting up in bed begins to read Moby Dick to her mother as a bed time story. She begins with the famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael."

This morning I attended the Presbyterian church near my hotel. The gospel lesson was the story in Luke known as the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus comes across a homeless, naked man whom we would label mentally ill but was believed at that time to be demon possessed. Jesus asks, "What is your name?" And the man answers, "'Legion,' for there were many demons within him."

Is the hero of Melville's book really named Ishmael, or are we merely to call him that, because like Ishmael in Genesis he's a kind of an orphan cut off from society? We don't know. And we never learn the name of the Gerasene demoniac either. There's too many spirits within him for one name to suffice.

still not me

I had dinner last night with two minister colleagues. I walked down to meet them from my hotel room and realized as I arrived at the restaurant 12 blocks away that I hadn't brought my name badge that would allow me access to the conference after diiner. We had a lovely dinner and I decided I did want to go to the evening lecture but didn't want to walk back to the hotel so I decided to risk it.

A volunteer at the door of the hall told I couldn't enter without the badge. Good for her. And she gave me fairly easy instructions to get temporary credentials by visitng some other room in the convention center. Instead my colleagues and I practiced a little deception. The two of them went into the hall while I waited out of sight outside. Then one came back with both of thier name badges and I put one on and went in to enjoy the lecture.

But while still standing outside the hall wearing my friend's name badge I had that same experience I've had all week of not being myself. I was spotted by two people who knew the man who's badge I was wearing and knew i wasn't him.

"Who are you?" is a core spiritual question. They knew I wasn't the name on the badge. But when I told them my real name all I gave them was another kind of name badge. I'm Ricky. Well who is that? How do we answer the question of identity?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

imaginary people

The theme for my GA this year has been the multiple personalities we form as a way to navigate through the different relationships we create.

On theme, but outside GA, has been the story in the news this week about the author Laura Albert, who wrote a novel, ˆSarahˆ pretending to be JT LeRoy, a teenage boy with a troubled, and wholly invented, life story. More than a mere psuedonym, JT LeRoy had a separate life, with Ms. Albert and an accomplice playing JT in phone conversations, and occassionally in person. After the deception came out Ms. Albert was sued by a movie production company who had optioned the rights for JT LeRoy's novel, a deal which lost its value when the true author was revealed. Ms. Albert had signed the contract as JT LeRoy, an act which the court found to constitute fraud and they ruled Friday that she owed the production company $116,500 in restitution and damages. She may also be liable for legal fees.

Ms. Albert's situation is not different in kind but only in degree from the kind of fluid identities all of us create and employ. For some the authentic interior self, differs only slightly from the conscious self we project. But mere polite society requires a certain degree of self-adjustment in all of us. Then there are the professions, like ministry, whose public role is somewhat further defined by society, and further distant from the "real" self.

The final irony in Ms. Albert's case is that in order to recoup the judgment against her the movie production company may acquire the rights to her past and future books. In other words, even if she writes in the future under her own name she could be writing for someone else.

the other Rev. Ricky

If there's a theme for my GA this year it's the multiple personalities we create and present depending on the situation or task at hand. Ken Sawyer's Berry Street lecture spoke about the need for the minister not to be his or her "authentic self" but to be "the minister." There was more talk on this line in the plagerism conversation when we talked about the need in the congregation for us to represent God through telling our personal stories. In the blogging workshop we talked about the possibility that blogging gives a minister to be more personal than we ever would in our clergy roles. But at the same time a minister/blogger is still a minister so the stole is loosened, so to speak, but not removed. Even in situations that ought to be purely personal the minister's role is there. I've had a couple of phone calls from friends back home this week who needed me to be a minister (one for some pastoral care, another seeking advice about a new employee who's a Jehovah's Witness).

Of course, I feel comfortable in the minister's role because "the minister" and I have a lot in common. I like the role. It's natural for me. But, like Borges who wrote a short piece called, "The Other Borges" about the public Borges who's the famous writer, different from the private Borges only he knows from inside, there is both Rev. Ricky and Rev. Ricky. And as Borges concluded, which one is writing this is impossible to know.

around but not in GA

After spending two very profitable days attending the minister's pre-General Assembly programs, I haven't spent much time at the actual General Assembly, which began Wednesday afternoon. After attending these things for 10 years, I've pretty much sat through every program I have any interest in. And although there are some new things every year, and nearly any workshop I do attend I end up enjoying and getting at least something from, for the most part for me the worth of GA is not found in anything in the GA program.

Instead, my enjoyment is in the opportunity GA provides to meet up with fellow UUs located aroud the country: friends and colleagues I know but get to see only once a year, and those folks I get to meet at GA through some shared affinity. It's the meetings for coffee, and meals, and over drinks that really make GA for me. And in that sense my peripheral GA this year has been a great success. Last night I attended a workshop on blogging and then attended a dinner for UU bloggers at a Greek restuarant and met a bunch of the folks I've been reading but had never met. After the dinner I had drinks with a few of the bloggers: Philocrites, Peacebang, Chalice Chick, Making Chutney and Hafidha Sofia who writes, "Never say Never to your traveling self." (I've added their links in the sidebar).

Walking home from drinks with the bloggers I stopped at a gay bar a couple of blocks from my hotel and ran into some other guys here for the General Assembly, who, like me, were grooving on the ability for GA to bring people together without actually going to GA. This morning I had breakfast with a friend I've known since elementary school but who lives on the other side of the country. Both of us became UUs as adults. This is her first GA. I'm having fun. That's what a religious conference ought to be about.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

growing, growing, grown

Both of the workshops I attended during the day of "ministry days" devoted to continuing education had to do with helping congregations grow. It's a theme of ministry I've never not been concerned with in the nine years of my ministry serving two small congregations. But even for large congregations the imperative of our faith is to reach more people with our liberating spiritual message.

One presenter, Rev. Peter Morales helped me see that numerical growth of members is not the goal, but is an important measurement of progress toward the goal. What we want is spiritually healthy individuals and transformed communities, more people in our UU pews means that we're moving in that direction.

He also reminded me of the need to constantly articulate the vision, and again the vision not being a numerical goal for membership, but the healthy, transformed lives that is the mission of our faith. And finally he emphasized the minister's job of creating a sense of urgency around meeting that goal. It's certainly an urgency I feel.

The point is not to minister to the need of the current congregation, because most of us are already quite comfortable with the church we already have, but to minister to the needs of the future members who haven't found us yet.

your words, not mine

I attended what we call a collegial conversation on the subject of plagerism yesterday during the second day of "ministry days" preceeding the Unitarian Unviersalist General Assembly.

I was one of several ministers whose sermons were plagerizered by a colleague who has no been removed from fellowship. I don't know any of the specifics and wasn't involved in the complaint or investigation and I only know my work was involved because I received a letter of apology from the minister who did it.

My reaction on receiving the letter was not offense, but a little bit of pride ("Look someone thinks my work is worth stealing!") but also a sense of sadness that a person felt such pressure to produce a high quality sermon every week that they felt it necessary to calim someone else's words as their own.

The minister's job is very broad: preaching, teaching, pastoral care, community organizing, social justice advocay, institution building. No minister can be equally skilled in all, and each of us has our strengths. I worry that when our faith puts so much emphasis on preaching that we may be preventing the ministries of those of us with important skills in the other areas. I'd like us to honor the excellent social justice or pastoral care minister who's not the best preacher, and help them find ways to fulfill the need to lead Sunday worship that doesn't overvalue new and original words week after week

human minister

Rev. Ken Sawyer gave the Berry Street Lecture yesterday afternoon. His theme was the split between the person of the minister and the minister's role. An excellent lecture, as have been all the presentations during ministers days here in Portland preceeding the Unitarian Universlist General Assembly.

The minister's role is like a coat that a minister agrees to wear in service to the congregation. The congregation needs someone to wear the coat for them. Due to their personality, skills, training, and sense of call, one person looks at the coat and says "I could wear that." Ken's point is that the coat has to fit. Not just anyone can put it on. But the role of minister is also something larger than the self, created at the intersection of what a person brings themselves, and what the congregation projects on to them given their need for ministry.

This creation of "the minister" is thus a necessary fiction. But it creates an interesting tension. The congregation wants a minister and they understand that "the minister" is not the human person who's taken on that role. But they also want to know the human person. The role is ruined if too much of the human person is revealed, but not revealing enough humanity also ruins the minister's role.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

you're already there

I’m writing this from Portland Oregon where I’m attending the UU Ministers Association annual meeting, followed by the UUA General Assembly. This is a full week of events and programs, worship, workshops, speakers, meetings, singing, laughing, praying, reading, learning, and visiting with UU friends and colleagues from around the country. It’s invigorating and exhausting, inspiring and overwhelming.

The program book for the General Assembly listing all the hundreds of possibilities of what to attend from 7 AM to 11:30 PM every day, also has this helpful paragraph, applicable to most of our busy lives. It’s called “The Law of Personal Mobility”

“You, and only you, know where you can learn and contribute the most to the work that must take place. It demands that you use your mobility to go where you need to go and do what you need to do. If at any time you find that you are not learning or contributing you have the right and the responsibility to move…find another breakout session, visit the exhibit hall, take a walk in the sunshine, make a phone call. Make good use of your time.”

There’s a parallel law, not included in the program that I often invoke when I’m late, or harried or worried.

“Wherever you are is exactly where you need to be. Whoever you are talking to is exactly who you need to talk to. Whatever is before you at every moment is the most important, most beautiful, most sacred thing in the world.”

Friday, June 15, 2007

good news: marriage equality protected in Massachusetts

a continuing series noticing progress toward the Kingdom of God

On Thursday opponents of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts failed to get the 25% support of the legislature that would have placed a referendum on the issue before the voting public in 2008. Marriage between adult couples regardless of sex, legal in Massachusetts since May 2004, will remain legal. Although opponents of marriage equality still have legal options it's unlikely they would ever suceed in overturning the law, which would require a constitutioal amendment. 56% of Massachusetts citizens supported marriage equality (i.e. opposed the referendum) in an April poll and the trend is for increased support.

There are no good arguments against same-sex marriage. The suffering of gay couples living without the protections of marriage are obvious and immense. The purported suffering of straight couples if gays and lesbians marry or of the institution of marriage itself is simply non-existent. And our society as a whole suffers when we marginalize and suppress segments of our society who would contribute their gifts if allowed to do so.

Gay couples who receive the benefits of legal recognition by the state, then return benefits to the state in terms of sability, mutual care, and fuller, open participation in their neighborhoods and communities. Senator Gale D. Candaras, who voted for the referendum in its first hearing in January but then voted against it on Thursday changed her mind after listening to the testimnony of her constituents. One older woman after a same-sex couple moved in next door told Senator Candaras, "They help me with my lawn, and if there can't be marriage in Massachusetts, they'll leave and they can't help me with my lawn."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

reasonable interpretation

I've been noticing signs lately and interpreting them as personal scripture, which made me smile at the case of a man in Washington DC reading too much into a pair of signs he read at a dry cleaners. You may have heard this story. It's been reported everywhere as an extreme example of ludicrous legislation.

Roy L. Pearson Jr., leaves a pair of expnsive suit pants to be dry cleaned. The dry cleaners loses the pants and although they eventually turn up again, Mr. Pearson claims that the found pants are not actually his. He sues the dry cleaners for an incredible $54 million, a figure calculated by Mr. Pearson claiming that two signs in the shop "Same Day Service" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed" made false promises which constituted fraud and thus the business owners were subject to $18,000 penalties every day for the last 4 years since the initial incident.

How literally should we interpret the scripture/signs around us? Should we be literalists or liberals? Here's how New York Times writer Suevon Lee reported the essential question asked by Attorney for the Defense, Christopher Manning:

"'Without regard to the law, as a human being, as a person, don't you think it makes sense to interpret merchant signage in a reasonable way?' Mr. Manning said.

Mr. Pearson, who is representing himself, eventually responded, 'No.'"

Kali Girl

When Peleg and I visited Nepal 10 years ago, a guide pointed out a second story window above the main square in Kathmandu. If we were lucky, he told us, and we never were lucky in this way, we might catch a glimpse of the goddess who lived in the palace apartment behind that window. Every decade or so, astrologers recognize a young girl as a reincarnation of Kali. She lives as the goddess until she reaches puberty at which time she returns to ordinary mortal life, and the incarnation of Kali proceeds to a new young girl.

Kali is the Hindu diety who is the destroying aspect of the divine mother, Durga. A far cry from the young girls she inhabits, Kali is pictured as a ferocious spirit, trampling the Lord Shiva under her feet, her body festooned with a necklace of 50 human skulls, and an enormous tongue protruding from her mouth. But Kali is not an evil figure. Her ferociousness is meant to symbolize her attack on the illusions of existence that seperate us from spiritual wholeness. She is the form of the mother that will do whatever is required, even acts of violence, in order to save her children.

For a 40th birthday present last week Peleg and I made a candelabra for a girlfriend consisting of 5 candles representing the 4 decades she has lived and the one she is about to start. We labeled the first candle, "little girl" and the last candle, "goddess."

One of the little girls who is a goddess in Nepal (apparently each city has their own) is visitng Washington this week. She told Neela Banerjee of the New York Times, "There's nothing I don't like about being a goddess." She isn't asked to perform miracles or dispense spiritual wisdom, just to accept worship and confer blessings. This girl, Sajani of Baktapur is even allowed to go to school, unlike the more isolated goddess girl of Kathmandu. Sanjani says, When I'm not a goddess anymore, no one will treat me as well as they treat me now." May we treat everyone, and be treated, as the gods and goddesses we all are. Namaste

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

stories without words

I've been noticing how much of our days are filled with trading stories back and forth and beginning to think there was a little too much content in my life. There's so much information coming in all the time between CNN in the morning and the newspapers and blogs I read and people talking to me, and the conversations I can't help but over hear and the New Yorker and the Christian Century and television and billboards and ads, that I worry I'm squeezing out space in my life to put together my own stories.

So I made one change in my routine. Instead of listening to the news on the radio when I'm in my car I decided to listen to the classical music station instead.

I soon realized what a small improvement that was. Music, even classical music with no words, is still a kind of story, not much different from what I was listening to before. Music is the product of a mind, carefully chosen sounds, instead of words, arranged to form an abstract message, rather than a narrative. My mind engages with it exactly the same way I engage with a news item. And the communication is still one way, into my brain and stirring my thoughts.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

the best of times

A line in the New Yorker this week surprised me. Peter Schjeldahl was writing a review of the Richard Serra retrospective at MOMA and he said of the artist's work displayed in Gehry's museum in Bilbao, "To experience Serras in the Bilbao Guggenheim is to know how wonderful our present age can be." You don't often hear, or read, statements about how good life is. Particularly a generalized statement, like that one. He didn't say how good our current art world situation is, or how good the world of sculpture and architecture are right now. He said, "our present age."

I remember in high school I remarked once to my music teacher how pathetic our current music was compared to the composers I loved, all dead: the great classical composers. That comment was a product of my ignorance, not the poverty of the age. And also a product of human culture wistful with nostalgia.

Someday, inevitably, someone is going to look back on today as a golden age. Perhaps we could foster the same perspective.

once upon a time

I was at a party last night listening to conversations. One person would say "this happened to me." Then another person would say, "here's something similar that happened to me." Someone would say, "I did this, or saw that, or heard or read or thought." And someone else would take that experience into their own experience - through hearing the story - and then respond either by asking for another story or sharing one of their own. I read the newspaper every day - a collection of stories. I watch CNN in the mornings when I'm getting dressed, more stories. I read blogs and write my own.

Life, or anyway human culture, is founded on a network of having, telling and hearing stories.

wrong/right way

i drove home today through Girffith Park. The park recently suffered a massive fire and most of the park is closed. At one point on the part of the road that's still open the lane I was driving in was re-directed across the median and took over the left lane of the opposite side of the road. To drive forward I had to ignore a sign that clearly says, "Do Not Enter. Wrong Way" as well as direction arrows painted on the road surface that pointed toward me, oppostie to the direction I was driving.

Sometimes messages created in the past linger beyond their usefulnes. Sometimes it's important to go our own way, when we know we're right, and safe, and not a danger to others, even when others tell us we're wrong, stop, turn around, and go back.