Church Shootings in Tennessee

To those who read my blog: I sent the following e-letter to my congregation yesterday, and I thought it appropriate to share the letter with you.

Dear Congregants,

People all over the nation were saddened Sunday morning with the news of the killings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The shooter, a Jim Adkisson, was tackled and subdued by church members, but not before he killed two person and wounded several more, some remaining in critical or serious condition.

It is always a shock when sacred space is violated.  It is especially disturbing that this deed took place when children were present, presenting a play, “Annie,” when the shooting began.  Our hearts go out to the members of the church, and we pray for them as they go through what will be a long and difficult time of healing.

The news reports say that Adkisson left a letter in his car saying that he chose this church because of their known liberal stance on many issues, and that he blamed “liberals” for his inability to find work.

That rationale appears to be entirely without logic.  But I think we have to understand that violence always happens in a context.  The context for these killings was set by Rush Limbaugh and his compatriots in the right-wing “hate media”–in fact, material by Bill O’Reilly and by Michael Savage were found in Adkisson’s possession.  Also responsible are those businesses that sponsor hate media and those individuals who regularly listen to and support these programs.  Because such talk is on radio and TV, sponsored by legitimate companies, it must be credible, many will conclude.  And it is then a small step for some who are driven over the edge by loss or grief or mental illness to retaliate against their supposed enemies.  Though Adkisson pulled the trigger and is responsible for the crime, these tragic deaths should not be laid upon one man alone, but should be seen as emerging out of the total context of pain and propaganda from which this man came.

We at First Unitarian in Portland, Oregon, are widely known for our support of liberal causes, and we have always been vulnerable to acts of retaliation.  We have a security guard present every Sunday morning, and our sextons and our ushers are trained to respond to needs or disturbances in the service, whether they be from a troubled visitor or for a medical emergency.  We have had a very occasional medical emergency, but nothing serious, and thankfully we have never been visited by acts of violence.

Because we are a church, we take risks of various kinds.  We take in individuals that other organizations would reject.  We take stands that might be unpopular.  We do what is right, though it might be costly in various ways.  But if we did not go forward as a moral force in our society, we might as well close our doors.  We would be merely a social club or a debating society and not a place where lives are changed and where those lives reach out and change the larger world.

Yes, we are liberals in the sense of being generous, egalitarian, open, justice-seeking people.  We’ll keep witness with our message.  We’ll keep our banners up.  We’ll keep the light shining from the steeple in the Eliot Chapel every night, letting our city know where we stand.  Because that’s who we are and that’s why we exist. 


Botox for Bridesmaids

I read the NY Times regularly, for their in-depth coverage of the news.  And from time to time the Times publishes feature articles about cultural trends–mainly in Manhattan, and mainly among the rich, it seems.

I have read about parents who spend $25,000 on their 6-year-old’s birthday party.  I have seen an article about women who are having foot surgery so they can wear the latest Jimmy Choo creations.  I know that some 12-year-olds have their own interior decorators.  And now an article appears about the demands that some brides are making on the attendants at their weddings (7/24, p. E3).

A Ms. Knauer, 35-year-old owner of a staffing agency in Manhattan, is offering “cosmetic interventions” for those in her bridal party, including her mother and future mother-in-law.  Each woman will receive a facial assessment by an “aesthetician” and will be able to go forward with a treatment plan before the December wedding.

No longer is it enough for a bridesmaid to get her hair done by a stylist and wear a ridiculous-looking dress that will never see the light of day again, but now some brides are “gifting” their attendants with dermal fillers and tooth-whitening.

Another bride went a step–no, several steps–further when she told her attendants that she had found a doctor in L.A. who was willing to do four breast augmentation operations for the price of two, and she would like them to go under the knife.  One of her attendants, Becky Lee, commented, “We’re all Asian and didn’t have a whole lot of cleavage.”  Ms. Lee felt that the bride’s request was excessive and opted for a push-up bra. 

But such bizarre requests apparently are not confined to New York alone.  Two weeks ago, a company called Health Travel Guides exhibited for the first time at a Dallas Bridal Show.  “We received 30 requests for quotes among the bridal show attendees–mostly for plastic surgery such as liposuction and breast augmentation,” said Sandra Miller, the company’s representative. 

Texas, I can understand.  Like New York, Texas has some folks who have more money than good sense.  But New Jersey?  A Ms. Goldberg tactfully broke the news to her mother-in-law-to-be that her son’s chosen one would like her to get rid of the crow’s feet marring her face before the Big Day.

All I can is that if my son’s beloved asked me to do that, I would take my son aside and have a heart-to-heart talk with him.  I would say, “Son, I feel obliged as a mother to warn you.  I will say this only once.  You’re about to marry a woman who doesn’t like herself the way she is, and never will.  She is a woman who will spend the household money foolishly.  She may never want to have children, because of course the little tikes are demanding and do some damage to a woman’s girlish figure.  She may spend more time staring in the mirror than looking at you.  I cannot tell you who to marry or not to marry, and I will of course support you, and your bride, whatever you decide to do.  But know what you’re getting into.”

And a final word now for brides to be, and women in general.  You will get old, unless you die young.  Eventually, no matter how many skin treatments you get, you will die.  You will not be remembered for your smooth, unwrinkled face and your big breasts.  You will be remembered, or not, for your capacity to love, for how completely you can give yourself to something beyond yourself. 

And you can put your money on that.  


Living in the Moment

I’m traveling to Portugal for a few weeks this summer, and just about every day someone asks me, with a big smile, “Are you excited about your trip?”

I must confess that I am not–excited, I mean.  I am preparing for the trip, I am glad for the opportunity, I am thankful that I have the resources of time and money.  But “excited” has too much of the anticipatory, too much heaviness of expectation, laden upon it.  I have learned that no experience–whether it is one that I seek or one that I fear– is ever what I imagine it to be.  And my idea of what that experience should be, or could be, or might be, will often prevent my awareness, in the moment, of the experience itself.

As a minister, I deal with life and death matters–and not just theoretically, in words, from the pulpit.  Just a few weeks ago, a man greeted me warmly as he has done for years, when he left the sanctuary after the Sunday service.  A week later he was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer.  A week after that, he was dead.  Just today I learned of the recurrence of a breast cancer in one of my congregants, a young woman; yesterday she had a double mastectomy. 

I am aware that we are here on this earth by grace, every day, and every day is to be cherished.  I wake thankful in the morning, and I fall at last to sleep, when I can no longer hold my eyes open at night, thankful still.  My parents are long dead, and as of a couple of years ago, so are all my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family.  I am the matriarch now, the one protecting the younger ones, holding back death until it is their turn.

And so I try to live neither in anticipation nor in fear, knowing that when I slip into either, I am missing the very moment I am living.  And because these moments are limited for all of us living creatures, I don’t want to miss a single one. 

Portugal?  It will be what it will be.  My part is to go with my eyes wide open.


Shame on You, McCain!

An advertisement linking Barak Obama to high gasoline prices is planned for national cable networks and is to play locally in 11 swing states, including three states particularly hurt by the economic turndown: Michigan, Ohio, and Pennysylvania.  The 30-second ad is called “Pump.”  (NY Times, July 22, p. A14)

The script for the ad reads as follows: “Gas prices.  $4, $5, no end in sight.  Because some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America.  No to independence from foreign oil.  Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?  (chant)  Obama, Obama.  One man knows we must now drill more in America and rescue our family budgets.  Don’t hope for more energy, vote for it.  McCain.”  The visuals support the message that Obama has caused high gas prices.

In the first place, no one who has studied the issue believes that increasing domestic oil production will be all that helpful to the U.S. in gaining energy independence.  In addition, both candidates have endorsed alternatives: wind and solar power, ethanol (Obama) and nuclear (McCain).  Many economists agree that McCain’s proposal for a temporary gasoline tax rebate would not give any substantial help.  And the cost of oil has been rising for years, because of various economic conditions and political influences. 

As the Times goes on to state, “‘Pump’ is misleading on nearly every substantive point.”  In other words, in plainer language, Senator John McCain, who must ultimately be considered responsible for this ad, is clearly and unequivocally lying to the American public. 

Even in this age of falling expectations, when cynicism is rife, in regard to politicians, I am shocked.  We should expect more from a Senator, a war hero, and a presumed candidate for the President of the United States.  We should expect integrity, we should expect truth.


“The Future of Human Civilization Is at Risk”

“The future of human civilization is at risk.”  These are words spoken yesterday (July 17) by former Vice President and Nobel prize winner Al Gore.  We need to take these words seriously.  But will we?

I look around in this most beautiful of days here in Portland, Oregon–72 degrees, with a slight breeze, and sunshine.  My beans and tomatoes are flourishing.  The squirrels are chattering in the big leaf maples that frame my craftsman house.  It’s difficult to believe on a day like this that human civilization is at risk. They’ll figure it out, we say.  There’ll be a techno fix–you’ll see. 

Actually, we can act to save ourselves.  But it will not be up to “them,” whoever “they” are.  It will be up to us–the people, that is.  Don’t expect political leaders to act.  Last winter, the House failed to pass a bill requiring utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.  Don’t expect business to lead the way.  Yes, there’ll be the few enlightened practices–but note how our automobile industry went blindly into this oil crisis with their SUV’s and pick-ups.  Remember that business is always chiefly concerned with the bottom line, and that bottom line is profit for the company, not the future of the earth.  And politics is run by big money.  Many corporations give generously to both parties and therefore exercise an inordinate amount of influence on the political decisions made in Congress. 

So it’s back to us–everyday ordinary citizens.  We have to provide the leadership that is not being provided by this country’s leaders.  Each and every one of us needs to become an activist.  “But what could I possibly do?” you might say.  “I’m just one small voice.”  Let me make some suggestions.

Join a non-profit group or church that is active in environmental work.  Tell your friends and neighbors the truth about how serious the environmental crisis is and how concerned you are.  Become politically active–write letters and send e-mails to your Congresspeople.  Support candidates who have a strong voting record on environmental issues.  Contribute financially to groups that are working to make a difference.  Make a point to conserve energy in your own personal life–not because your car-pooling or biking will save the world, but as a witness.  Others will notice, and follow.  When enough of us have turned in the right direction, change will be inevitable.

The rise in the price of gasoline has been the singular event that has most captured the popular imagination in regard to the crisis in the environment.  The stress on our pocketbooks has done what speeches, scientists, and prophetic environmentalists could not do.  It is a blessing in disguise. 

Gore said, “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.  Every bit of that has to change.”  Gore’s plan is for the U.S. to do away with all carbon-emitting forms of electricity by 2018.  Gore has set forth a vision that calls us to greatness, and I believe that as a people we are capable of this greatness.  We are idealistic, inventive, practical, and resourceful.  We deeply and fervently want to do the right thing.  I pray that we will.  In time.