chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

From Darrel's Desk Archive 2010-11

The Old Religion in Winter

If you were in the British Isles or Northern Europe centuries ago, if you lived in the rural areas or the forests, if you celebrated the changes of the seasons with your neighbors, then at this time of the year you, like us today, would have been deeply buried in snow, and looking forward to a spring that seemed far, far away.

You would have celebrated Beltane, or May Day, last spring, that time when everyone goes outdoors and parties. Nine months later, or around Feb. 1, you would have celebrated Imbolc, which, among other things, celebrates the first lactation of the ewe. You may very well have gotten pregnant at Beltane and given birth on Imbolc, so thank goddess that the ewe and her thickly calorific milk was around to nourish your child. Celebrations don't get any more earth-centered than that.

Even if perchance you have given birth recently, you are probably not currently rejoicing that your ewe is now lactating. We are ever so much abstracted from the original meanings of most of our holidays. Yet it remains deeply human for us to want to party in the spring and cocoon in February. Finding protection from the weather is not sufficient; we also need to plan for spring.

Back then, you may have planned how not to get pregnant again on Beltane. This may have involved procuring some mugwort or wormwood, which can work as herbal birth control. A visit to the local herbalist might have been in order, who, when the Christians invaded, would have been hunted as a witch.

You might have spent the winter making clothing, much of which would have been green or dark brown in color, because you would have used the local plants to make cloth and dyes. Centuries later, folklore would have preserved your fashions in those elusive brownies and little people, and characters from Robin Hood to Peter Pan. These folks were considered magical and elusive, mostly in escaping the same forces that chased down the herbalists.

Whether the Ground Hog sees his shadow or not was at one time an augur of when one might give birth. Whether or not one believes now that a sunny day on February 2 means a longer winter, it is certainly a universal hope this year that our very snowy winter at least do us the courtesy of being short.

So while we continue to dig ourselves out from this season, those of us from northern European stock ought well give thanks to the ewes that nurtured our ancestors, and, like them, try to stay warm while looking forward to the revelries of spring.

-- February 2011

"I'll Have the Extra Medium"

A few years ago a friend was performing with an improv troupe in Red Bank. A sketch took place in a coffee shop. After being told all the options my friend replied, "I'll have an extra-medium."

Not only did I find this response hilarious, it struck my philosophical funny bone. Perhaps this is because my usual temperament runs to the extremely moderate, which occasionally is mistaken for lack of interest. I contend that moderation, especially today, is a radical response, and a most useful one.

Last week I had my annual medical checkup. My doctor sent me the results of the blood work, which measures scores of things. I am only vaguely familiar with most of them, but I understand one important aspect. The healthy thing is to have one's scores within a range. Too much or too little of anything indicates trouble.

I was happy to find that with regard to my blood I am indeed extra-medium.

This useful definition of health might also be applied to much of the public discourse. For instance, I find compromise to be very much like potassium or calcium. Too little or too much is unhealthy. When our politicians compromise either too little or too much, nothing gets done and the patient, our nation, gets sick. With the proper amount of compromise comes progress.

Pride is a similar quality, whether national or personal. One needs a healthy amount, not too much. I'm finding as I age that exercise can also be like that. It used to be impossible for me to get too much exercise. Not now.

Anger certainly qualifies as an emotion that is most healthy in moderation. I learned this fairly recently. My dad had so much anger that I grew up thinking that it is best not to have any. Later I learned that it was not that he had so much anger, but that it was about the only emotion he knew how to express. This was a problem for many men of his generation.

I found that unexpressed anger accumulates like cholesterol in one's arteries, and is every bit as likely to lead to severe health problems. I'm still not great at it, but, like a few sessions on the treadmill every week, expressing anger is a good thing to do, even if it is not much fun.

Not everything is good in moderation. There is no amount of hate or bigotry that is healthy. Ignorance, if left untreated, is unhealthy not only to the ignorant, but to everyone exposed to it. Love seems to be useful in increasingly large amounts, though placement is also important.

Buddha understood this. The Middle Way is all about moderation. Yet as we approach 2011 it still seems like a new, even radical idea. So this year I toast to an extra-medium New Year. Happy moderation to all and to all a good night!

--January 2011

A Prayer for the City

On November 12th, I was asked to deliver the opening prayer at the H.A.N.D.S award dinner, honoring community achievement. Among those honored was Martial Bonhomme, the founder of Lanbi Community Center for the Haitian Community that meets in our Parish Hall two evenings every week. This was my prayer.

Our dear heavenly father, our dear heavenly mother, grandfather, grandmother, sister, brother, aunt and uncle and especially our dear heavenly cousins: hear our prayers.

Unitarian Universalists say hello to the while family! Especially the cousins, because you know, everybody's everybody else's cousin if you look far enough. Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are cousins!

All religions talk about regeneration, renewal, rebirth or being born again. This is my prayer tonight, as expressed by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.She wrote: "Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves."

So let us pray: May we germinate the seeds of our own regeneration, as lively, diverse, intense city with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside of ourselves.

In the name of God and all those energetic souls who have come before us, we pray. Amen.

--December 2010

"To Do" List

At the Board meeting in October, the following "to do" list was approved in hopes it would enable newcomers and visitors to feel more at home. While this is important for people who attend the many worship services and meetings hosted by our partnering organizations, it is also important for our congregation, in our desire to grow in numbers and effectiveness in the larger community.

Just as we are addressing deferred maintenance issues for our buildings, so also must we attend to how we attract, welcome and assimilate new members. The items below are hardly revolutionary. They just require actual doing. We are not of a size where we can delegate this to a committee or staff. While Greg, as Church Administrator, and I can do the record-keeping, and our new Super can post the signs, it is finally the responsibility of each member to make a visitor's first time with us a good one.

--Nov. 2010

Across the Generations

Later this month I will be using the Television series "Mad Men" as my text. This show began depicting the late 1950,s and is now in the mid-1960,s. Already some things have changed quite a lot in addition to the width of the ties. Some women have risen from the secretarial pool to management and copy writing. Muhammad Ali has challenged everyone’s idea of a sports hero. The Beatles have invaded America.

Recalling that time is very easy for me, yet I understand for a great many people today it is history. Whether or not they come to understand it may determine, both personally and collectively, whether they are doomed to repeat it.

I recall a few years ago when my mother would visit from Ohio and have long talks about the "old days" with our daughter Erica when she was in middle and high school. She told her exciting and dubious stories about Prohibition and always went into detail about the various dogs throughout her life. She also told her about what it was like to be a young woman in the 1930's and 1940's.

Most women were "housewives." In my mother's social circle she was a rarity because she had finished high school. Among the families in transition from farm to factory, few went beyond. Most stayed their entire lives close to where they had been born. The Depression was rough, and my mother grew very tired of corn soup. My grandfather was grateful for work from the WPA. He had helped plant the trees in the park by the state highway.

"It's altogether different today," my mother would say, with what I always thought was a bit of envy. Erica always enjoyed these talks, because my mother was a skilled storyteller and did not sugarcoat anything. I think it helped Erica appreciate her opportunities and encouraged her to go as far and as high as she can go.

That kind of honest talk between generations is rare. One thing I have always liked about church work is it is one of the few places where one gets to work with and be friends with people of all ages. Even in our congregation, which tends to be a bit heavy toward those who lived through the "Mad Men" years, there are opportunities to get to know people who don't remember the Clinton Administration!

I invite all of us to take advantage of this opportunity. No matter what your age, there are folks in worship and at coffee hour who have vastly different life experiences.

Take time to hear their stories. Take time to tell yours.

--Oct. 2010

The Know Nothing Party Rises Again

When I hear the phrase "the mosque at Ground Zero," I'd think it was going to be built on exactly the place that that twin towers used to be, if I did not know it was going to be built two blocks away.

Two blocks may not seem very far in Northwood, Ohio or Huntington, Indiana, but in Manhattan it is a long way. That is, within two blocks of Ground Zero there are more varieties of people, businesses and houses of worship than there are in most American cities and some states. We who live near Manhattan and have any reason to go there frequently, understand that one will encounter all sorts of people from all sorts of places doing all sorts of things. The idea of a mosque at that location obviously offends some people. The reality is that it would soon get lost in the great mishmash of activity and be ignored by everyone except those it is intended to serve.

That is, unless you are a bigot, or worse, prey upon the fears of religious and ethnic bigotry for political advantage.

While Franklin Roosevelt said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," American history is replete with political parties, candidates and power brokers that not only pandered to fear, but used rhetoric that increased it.

In colonial days, Puritans were so prejudiced against Baptists that Rhode Island was created so the Baptists could escape persecution.

In the decades before the Civil War, anti-Catholic sentiment ran so high it created its own political party, called the "Know Nothing Party." They believed that there were too many Catholics and others immigrating to this country. Catholics were accused of giving their ultimate loyalty to the Pope and therefore were untrustworthy as American citizens. This persisted for a very long time, down to the candidacy of John Kennedy.

Another form of anti-immigrant fever was directed against Italians in the 1920's, culminating with the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in 1920. While history is still debating their guilt, there is no debate about one thing. Their trial was used to incite fear of immigrants who had committed the "crime" of being Italian.

Rich and influential anti-Semites like Henry Ford published newspapers and magazines, ostensibly to report the news, but which were in fact a front for prejudice and bigotry. Today Henry Ford would own a cable television station or two.

Charles Lindbergh was able to get away with anti-Semitic views for years because he was such an admired American hero. People like Ford and Lindbergh, giving respectability to hatred, contributed to American's slow and inadequate response to the Holocaust.

Japanese citizens, some who had been born in America and had been loyal citizens for decades, endured displacement to interment camps during World War II for the quot;crime" of being Japanese, justified by claims of national security.

No African American needs to be told that America has a long history of prejudice, and of acting on the basis of that prejudice. Nor do Latinos need to be reminded that hatred of immigrants or people assumed to be immigrants increases during tough economic times.

Thus, one ought to be mindful today not just of the "debate" about the "mosque at Ground Zero," but what that "debate" is fueling in other parts of the country. It does not get reported as widely, but several mosques across the country, which have been peaceful and established for decades, have become the targets of protests and demonstrations calling into question their loyalty as Americans and even their right to exist.

An additional shameful irony is that the proposed mosque is being built by Sufis. They are the mystics of Islam, by far the least doctrinaire and about as likely to be terrorists as Methodists. This country could use an introductory course in comparative religion.

The current cover for prejudice is that, while the "Ground Zero mosque" has a legal right to be built, to do so would be "insensitive." Thus pressure is building on politicians to come out against the mosque for this reason.

While I may even agree that it is "insensitive," I do not believe it is my job as a member of the clergy or as a citizen to pass judgment on the sensitivity of other religions. If I did, it would be a full time job.

It is my job, as clergy and as citizen, to stand on the side of tolerance and American ideals against prejudice and fear mongering. If any mosque or any religion or any organization is found to be engaged in terrorism or any illegal activity, of course it should be pursued and prosecuted. But there is no law in this country against being Muslim, or building a mosque anywhere that local zoning and community governance allows.

There was never a law against being Catholic, Jewish, Italian or Japanese, either. It seems that many religions and ethnicities must pass through an initiation of hate and fear before they are accepted as true and loyal Americans. Muslims, too, will pass the initiation and decades from now people will wonder how such a sad state could have come to pass in America.

-- September 2010