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.