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.