Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Fractured Methodist Tales

March 11th, 2014

Nearly 34 years ago, I sat in an unpadded pew of the Old West (Methodist) Church in Boston on the Sunday when my firstborn was to be Christened. Subsequently, my later two sons were named instead at the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church, which had horse-hair stuffed cushions. That day though, I had brought my wife and son to the prearranged ceremony at the denomination of my childhood, youth and young adulthood.

umc_crossflameThat day actually was the end of that religious association. I opened the hymnal to the Apostle’s Creed. I didn’t have to read it. I had memorized it long ago and the phrases have become seminal. That version differs slightly from that of many other churches, in that it leaves out mention of Jesus descending into Hell at death. Otherwise, it has the heavy baggage of doctrine and even bureaucracy that produced its carefully crafted message.

I sat there with my baby in the crook of one arm, looking at the page. I realized that I didn’t believe it, any of it — no Father Almighty, no virgin birth, no bodily resurrection after three days moldering, no judgment of the quick and the dead, no universal (lower c catholic) church, no saints, no forgiveness of sins, no resurrection, and no everlasting life.

Done, done and done. You have had your Methodism and you aren’t compatible.

The last I had felt any sort of communion with Methodism was before it went sour during the Vietnam war era. I did hang around the Methodist youth center building sometimes at the University of South Carolina. I could delude myself by subscribing to the excellent Motive Magazine. It was anti-war and pro-integration among other virtues (and had great poetry). It was in the mold of 18th Century Methodism founder John Wesley, a strong prison reformer and abolitionist in England and the Colonies.

Quickly though, the bishops (its governance was not by elders as the Presbyterians but Episcopal [by bishops] from its roots in Wesley’s Anglican communion) tromped on Motive. They had no patience with pinko, pacifist junk. They turned off a generation of thinking, feeling members.

That was not new to them. They had driven away what became the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches’ members. In the early 19th Century in Philadelphia and New York City, the racist and exclusionary practices made it plain to black members they were inferior as far as clergy and church pols were concerned.

Today with mixed feelings, I read in the NY Times of a Methodist bishop dropping the persecution and prosecution of a minister. His alleged violation of church doctrine was to perform the same-sex marriage of his son.

With my strong stance here and elsewhere in favor of marriage equality, I had long been disgusted by the United Methodist Church’s regression into anti-gay dogma and rulings. That they were defrocking their clergy who dared perform same-sex ceremonies was pathetic if not a surprise.

A year and one-half ago, at 80, the Rev. Thomas Ogletree performed the ceremony. He said, “I actually wasn’t thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.”

I relate. I have performed five wedding ceremonies, one for my eldest son. That was to a woman, but two of mine have been same-sex couples. There is nothing more moving than performing the marriage for your child. Three of my ceremonies were of long-term friends and very powerful, but your own child?

The NYT piece linked above concludes that the decision in this case is far-reaching. It includes:

Bishop Martin D. McLee “who oversees about 460 churches in lower New York State and Connecticut, agreed to drop all charges against Dr. Ogletree; in exchange, he asked only that Dr. Ogletree participate in a dialogue about the church and its stance on matters of sexuality. Promoting dialogue, the bishop said, could be a model for other United Methodist bishops to follow.

“While many insist on the trial procedure for many reasons, I offer that trials are not the way forward,” Bishop McLee said in a statement attached to the resolution of Dr. Ogletree’s case. “Church trials result in harmful polarization and continue the harm brought upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

That level of compassion and rationality is what I expect in UU churches and what I grew up with what was then my Methodist church.

I do hope that the United Methodist Church takes advantage of this offering from Bishop McLee. It has been divided on homosexuality long before being faced with dealing with marriage equality. Its bishops too are old now, at the moment when the nation has some to see same-sex marriage as the present as well as the future. Methodists in general have not been leaders here, but perhaps they won’t be the last to get there.

Food for the hungry minister

March 5th, 2014

The hallmark of social-activist preachers is not complacency. Instead, they should inspire you to both think and act. You want it, you get it, in Twice-Told Tales: A Collection of 21 Sermons.

I am surprised to recommend a collection of homilies. If you pardon the expression, Lord knows that I have squirmed enough times listening to tedious, cliched, often repetitious preaching. While the author doesn’t have a recognizable first name among his Rev. Dr. Farley Wilder Wheelwright, he is an excellent minister, both from the pulpit and, as many have told me, for pastoral counseling.

Disclaimers: I have known Farley for decades, back to 1987, when he was interim Senior Minister at Boston’s Arlington Street Church. I was a board (Prudential Committee) member, then chair. We solved many problems together. I loved his preaching and we have been good friends since. I also wrote the book’s forward.

The book has some potent historical mentions. Farley is still, as he has always been, an egalitarian, free-thinking, atheist, activist. Ministers in general and UU ones in particuar divvy into a big bucket of the timid and a smaller one of the righteous. My chum was active in civil rights, knowing many of the leaders and being a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, Rev. King was to deliver the Rev. Wheelwright’s installation sermon, only to be assassinated a few days before that could happen.

Over my life involved as a worshiper and in various churches’ politics and polity, I have known many ministers. I have lost count of the boring and inane sermons I have heard. The winners are regular surprises and delights. Farley’s book is filled with those.

As a side note, the Arlington Street Church has an illustrious history filled with many noted Unitarian preachers. It is know as the mother church of American Unitarianism, as the base for Rev. William Ellery Channing (although he had to go to Baltimore to preach the sermon that defined his brand of religion, because the board found him too radical). I joined the ASC when the Rev. Victor Carpenter was senior minister. He did not believe in comfortable congregants and gave us social-action homework from the pulpit weekly. Following Farley and to this day the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie holds the high pulpit. She can be insipid, but when she hits one, it is out of the proverbial park. She is the rarest of liberal preachers, a charismatic one.

Farley is a magnificent preacher. He is smarter and better read than any minister you are likely to have known. Yet, his sermons got you to the conclusions without letting his intellect get in the way.

When he began discussing this project with me, he envisioned it as a nice-to-have for new ministers. He knew that there are likely the roots of three to five sermons in each of his. He figured newbies would benefit. He says he’d be happy for them to built sermons from these and they’d only need give him credit if they lifted large portions or whole ones.

Drawing on my experience with ministers, I think more established preachers might gain more. As we all who visit various churches have noted, many of the same sermons reemerge. For UUs and beyond, I think immediately of the Rev. Clark Dewey Wells’ You be glad at that star.  Sure, it’s a good idea and sermon, but why have so many ministers modified or lifted it? The answer is simply that most run out of ideas. They are constantly reading their peers’ work and listening to their podcasts. They aren’t forever insightful and creative. They really couldn’t cut it as newspaper columnists who have to come up with three or five pieces a week. Although in fairness, sermons are not their only duties.

I have read or skimmed numerous books of sermons. They tend to the trivial and saccharine.  From my ASC days, I recall visiting the Boston Athenæum for research on my own church and board speeches. I rather loved the 19th Century monthly The Liberal Preacher. Many of those sermons were smarter and harder hitting than modern ones. I also have judged UU sermons for the annual Skinner Award; fortunately there were always deserving ones in a UUA-wide contest.

My prejudices aside, Farley’s collection is full of good ones. I heartily recommend it for your own reading and as a gift for ministers you know.

 

West Virginia Christmas Right here

December 22nd, 2012

For the life of me, I can’t remember the Christmas tune the white church played in our house. It had music-box works and I enjoyed winding it up, returning it to the cotton “snow” lawn, and grokking the season.

My mother, Wanda, loved Christmas and did it up right. She’s dead, but we have retained much of her joy and rituals.  I’m very sure my sister dumped the oldest fixings and does not decorate as intricately. Here, we almost do.

treemas2012Perhaps like the proverb of dubious provenance, there are no atheists in foxholes,  pleasure in and even obsession with this holiday season may not be limited to Christians. Indeed for me, I was raised as a Christian and was a devoted one when young. I got better. Yet, I generally go to a Christmas eve service, often the old-fashioned New England one, with the fillip of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus performing, at the Arlington Street Church. There’s nothing like an apse filled with bald or gray chubby or saggy men in dinner jackets with beautiful voices singing God’s glory to scream, “He is born!”

Wanda though picked up from her father Bill, my Granddad. His often grumpy wife Mable, Baba per my sister’s dubbing as the privilege of the first grandchild (she similarly named the paternal version Bubu) was not such a Christmas aficionado.  Granddad started with the two three-story blue spruce on the front mini-lawn. He festooned them with strands of those gigantic colored bulbs we boomers knew.

Then he and I could get in Charlie Long’s pickup with him — the kind where you had to use a hammer to change in and out of 4-wheel drive by pounding the hub. We’d thump over the fields and across the shallow South Branch of the Potomac to get to his land that had evergreens. I’d pick the tree I liked, as by far the junior man-let in the group and we’d saw it down. They always let me make the last few cuts that caused the TIMBER moment.

Mable never cared for this treasure. It was work to trim, although she was not involved except for huddling, directing and scolding. It always meant she had to haul out the vacuum daily to inhale the needles. It was more trouble to undress, plus shedding seemingly half its tags on the trip out the front door before trash day. Harrumph, indeed.

miltonluminWanda was in Bill’s mode and then some. Most personally obviously, she bought presents, not only many, but exactly what people wanted or would have asked for had they been as perceptive as she. Very much unlike those who wrote checks, gave gift cards, or approximated age-appropriate gifts, Wanda looked to the soul (and lifestyle) of each recipient. She made sure you got what would delight you. Your delight was hers.

Yes, the outside of her house was lit and tarted up with red, green, yellow and white. Inside tough, it as a monument to Christmas traditions. Bookshelves (of which she had many, many and table tops were layered with chorister candles (never burnt, God forbid), creches, scenes of shepherds with angels, ice skaters, lighted model villages and on and on and on.

I loved it all.

We decorate here, replete with a substantial creche molded and painted by my late mother-in-law. My wife does the Martha Stewart deeds of garlands, lights and more. I and one or more of our sons sets out the luminarias. We get a to-the-ceiling evergreen butchered for our pleasure. We as a family and often with a daughter-in-law real or to be, rig it up with three decades of ornaments, chili lights, a porcelain angel topper, icicles and candy canes.

We do Christmas. It seems genetic now.

Lessons Awaiting

June 6th, 2012

A bit of dialog on pain, pills and physicians is about on my Facebook, here and on a (real, face-to-face) friend’s blog. Over at Scratches, Uncle has an extreme perspective from his recurring and sometimes sudden bouts of intense head pain. The archives there have numerous powerful posts on pain.

Maybe it’s my decades of attending UU churches or maybe I’m a UU because I think this way. Regardless, as the cliche goes, adversity is a great teacher.

In the 11-plus days since my bike wreck, I’ve been thinking and feeling as I grimace, grunt and gasp. Sitting awake (lying is generally precludes rest or sleep), I have reflected on others as well as my miserable self. The ganged demons of incapacity, agony and immobility can turn us inward or outward.

Poor me is certainly an understandable response to disease or trauma. We can even cloak that in pretending that self-absorption is necessary to take care of ourselves, to get healthy or such.

Yet consider that in such times, we have gotten a house call from a guru. A great teacher appears and offers development. As we all tend to become more fixed day upon day and year upon year, we should welcome such visits. Big lessons keep us from what I consider the living hell of experiencing the same few days, thoughts and reactions again and again and again.

The freshness that comes with living with or working through or merely gutting out pain and fear is a gilded gift.

Of course, virtually all of us would avoid chronic or acute diseases, wrecks that wrack and break us, and the pains that come with them. When these are upon and in us, we do have a choice though. We can start and stop with the self-pity, or we can augment that with a compassion and even empathy for others who suffer.We can actually come out the other end with a better spirit.

I have never been mature or saintly enough to bypass the self-pity totally, but prolonged recoveries with great pain has taught me to identify with and respect the agony of others.

We must avoid the true coward’s alibi — people don’t change. Not only do our observation and anecdotal evidence firmly refute that, but we stifle ourselves pretending we become immutable at 18 or 40 or whatever we are.

Yes, we change. Sometimes it is by will and planning, others by events and conditions thrust upon us, and others by little enlightenments. Sometimes our brains just alert us to a fundamental truth. Discomfort to pain to agony, disease to surgery to broken bones, these and more can, if we allow, spur that enlightenment.

A lot of us experience the dreadful, which means whether you are there at the moment or not, you will encounter others in various kinds of pain. Transcending woe-is-me can round us out, smooth us off, and open us up. Those are good changes.

Wrist-Wrenching Phones

March 27th, 2012

Calling Sonny and Tubbs!

Nearly 30 years ago, the Miami Vice pretty boys were skimming in  cigarette boats and confronting drug lords. Along the way, they were très chic…in clothes, slang, and technology of the time. That included Sonny living on a boat with his guard alligator Elivs and hot communication, a remote phone.

I claim fair use for the cropped and contrast-improved image of Don Johnson as Sonny with his big honking phone. It worked off a land-line base and an antenna the size of a shishkabob skewer.

Now when we see pix of him holding this sizable household appliance, covering half his skull, we are amused. Yet, our technology is galloping back there.

Look around offices, on the street, in churches and on restaurant tables. Current versions of big honking phones abound. Common smart phones come with 5-inch screens and are leading larger. That doesn’t include trim and the rest of the body. They are swelling and swelling.

Of course the limits are different. Back in the MV days, components were much larger and transmission needed some serious amplification to work at all. Nowadays, consumer vanity in advanced features leads many to in turn drive cell makers. The bigger screens let fat fingers type (sort of) and hold the absurd number of lame and seldom used app icons.

Phones are getting bigger and bigger. Many no longer fit in shirt or suit pockets. The trend points to bigger yet.

I’m fond of saying that my phone works for me and not the other way around. I have to stifle snorts and giggles when I see the common conditioned responses of cell slaves. The phone beeps and they react — yes, master — regardless of driving, walking or conversing with tangible humans.

Here, we’re also not beholden to the pseudo-land line that comes with the cable bundle. If we are home at dinner or with guests in the room or even if we don’t feel like answering, we let a call go to voice. Our phones work for us.

I’m casually thinking of my next phone upgrade. It’s likely to be a smart for maybe more accurately smartass phone with more capability than my current one. You can be damned sure that it won’t be as big a my open hand.

On Ripping Off Relics

March 4th, 2012

I confess, but only as a figure of speech, that relics and reliquaries seem ghoulish to me, a non-Roman Catholic. As matter of faith, I likely shouldn’t find them so. I was a devote little Christian, one who believed in transubstantiation during communion, which I took many times.

Along with hormonal floods, puberty brought dousing of knowledge and analytic thought. I got better.

Today the news from Dublin includes the discovery that somebody made off with the heart of Saint Lorcan Ua Tuathail, later known as Laurence (or Lawrence) O’Toole. That’s a big deal, as he is the patron saint of Dublin.

The relic had been in a wooden box in a square iron cage in the cathedral. It was no impulse pilfer either, the thief/thieves sawed through the bars and  forced the cage free to get the treasure. The church dean said, “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father.”

Yet we also have to wonder, as parts of saints have been bought/sold/swapped/stolen for centuries. Some allegedly are duplicated in multiple locations. Other religious artifacts, such as pieces of “the True Cross” whereon Jesus died, appear in so many churches that wags have said there are enough around to build Noah’s ark.

To  believers, even beyond Ireland, such tangible links to holy folk are sacred in their own right. Many supposedly have innate powers — healing the sick if prayed to and beside, and other such miracles. Nearly six years ago, many gathered in Boston to peek at the visiting heart of a saint lent by a French church and briefly displayed here. I joined them.

To us less faithful, we are wont to insult folk by speaking of worshiping a finger bone in a filigree tube (available at the Cloisters in NYC, for one) and such. Catholics are quick to point out that there’s a huge difference between praying through a saint to God and worshiping a body part.

For the best treatment to the relic world concentrated on the whole bodies, I recommend Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter’s Head, St. Claire’s Heart, St. Stephen’s Hand, and Other Saintly Relics by Anneli Rufus. She was fascinated by relics, particularly whole bodies of the incorruptibles — corpses on display allegedly never decomposing, thus proving their holiness. She visited numerous shrines to observe both the saints’ remains and the visitors.

St. Lorcan lived in the 12th Century. There are trails and tales of his body parts too, including buried, disinterred and stolen bones. Even before his relics were shared and disappeared, he was on a fast track to sainthood. Many claimed miracles by praying to him in the months and years following his death (natural causes and not martyrdom) both at his tomb and through his intercession.

He apparently led a saintly life of humility and abstinence, replete with hair shirt, prolonged fasting, forgoing meat and stimulants and such that other prelates enjoyed. Now whether a figurative pure heart translated into a literal holy one, I suppose, is that matter of faith. Regardless, ripping off a religion’s palpable symbol is a terrible act.

UU Heroes Falling Like Old Trees

December 5th, 2011

Two friends whom I’ve enjoyed and admired for decades died within a few days of each other last week, one in the Boston area and one in Mexico. They were in their 90s. More than knowing each other, they shared the essence of Unitarian Universalism.

That is, Virginia Wheelwright and Dan Cheever were not checkbook dogooders. They used their energy, time, best efforts and ideas to make life better for others. For those of us familiar with their good examples and good deeds, they didn’t live long enough.

Even before the two groups joined into the UUA, they shared that pragmatic philanthropy that is social action. Virginia and Dan were relentless practitioners of it. (For some background on UU activism click here.)

I got to know both at the Arlington Street Church. Each in his and her way was a splendid example of how we should live. That does not involve lolling in front of TV or saying, “Too bad for them. Not much to do to help. (Yawn.)”

Both Dan and Virginia made things better for people they knew, for those they hadn’t met yet, and those they’d never come in contact with. They seemed incapable of any other way of living.

Dan (who did not use his PhD “Dr.” or day-job “Professor” titles away from BU) was a high-level secret Santa as well as concerned manager. In his largess distribution at the ASC and beyond, he did not ask for, nor expect, nor want praise or acknowledgment. Perhaps the minister or music director might thank him privately for his sharing of wealth, gifts that often kept programs running or starting.

Moreover, I am sure that the ASC might well have closed shop were it not for his guidance when he chaired the board, with its loaded, old-style name of the Prudential Committee. Along with decades of volunteer work, he had to manage groups and departments as professor at both BU and the University of Pittsburgh. He brought academic and management smarts to bear, along with his considerable personal financial savvy.

Known to many as either the mother church of Unitarianism or the UUA chapel, for the many staff members and ministers from 25 Beacon who attend, the ASC not all that long ago was a physical and financial mess. It could well have gone down. Not even the 999 wood pilings that keep it from sinking in the Back Bay would have been able to keep it figuratively afloat.

After and while reconstituting the church’s personnel committee, I worked closely with Dan as he served two years as Pru chair and still drew on him for the next two years I was chair. I would joke darkly with him and interim minister Farley Wheelwright (Virginia’s husband) that I should come to the building wearing a cowl and carrying an ax. I had the messy job of clearing out the dysfunctional staff, creating workable job descriptions, and helping Dan figure out how we could pay a decent wage. The ASC was so broke that the UUA subsidized the minister’s salary.

In ways, Dan was an anachronism, a true gentleman. In such a trying time and place, and dealing with the frictions and egos of volunteers, Dan was thorough but endlessly patient. In years of dealing with difficult people, he never seemed to yell or even snap.

Our board meetings might run five or six hours. We dealt with big issues, the future of the church paramount. Chair Cheever polled us all around the table on the big issues, he demanded both our best thoughts and our buy-in for the eventual decisions. He of course had done serious research and brought out possibilities that put the overwhelming within reach. He got us thinking and acting right. In the end the ASC was prepared financially and in systems for the new and charismatic new minister, Kim Crawford Harvie. She’s been there and the church has flourished in recent decades in no small part because of the preparation.

Virginia came in and out. She and Farley remained members after his interim ministry. They ended up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I had a very different, much closer relationship with them. We dined together at our houses and at restaurants. We then always were together when they visited Boston and we kept regular contact by email and phone.

Even before Farley took the spot at the ASC, Virginia had been a social activist. She served on many levels in UU organizations operating internationally, nationally and locally. Yet, the activism that may best define her started in Mexico when they allegedly were retired — neither Farley nor Virginia knew how to do that.

Virginia founded and at various points was president and other officers at Jovenes Adelante, which had drastically improved lives of the young and bright around her. As she noted, it started when she and a friend heard that a lad headed to college did not even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes to attend. Getting him shoes grew into an organization that raises the money to identify promising students, ensure they finish secondary school, and pay for college for them. Hundreds of youth have benefited, and of course, their families and towns have as well.

Virginia too didn’t know how to throw up her hands or just shrug. The impossible took a little longer for both her and Dan.

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Taking a Pass…Twice

November 21st, 2011

Flat out, I don’t have a personal story of childhood sexual abuse. To those of us who don’t, the number we read or hear directly is stunning. With the infamy of the Penn State cases, more moving, inevitably confessional tales broadcast, such as the poignant one by a Notre Dame law professor in today’s Slate.

An oddment is the very brief moment of jealousy in not having a story, very similar to the feeling of us boomer men who did not get thrown into jungle warfare in Vietnam. It is all too human to want to share in the zeitgeist of your various eras. Something seems amiss and missing when you don’t, like those moments when you feel your soul is off somewhere else.

Dispassionately, of course, there’s no reason to visit horrors on yourself. Yet, we want to feel both that we are a part of our times and that we are the sturdy stuff of heroes.

As a very mild expression of these needs, many people I knew in high school, college and my 20s embroidered their shared experience samplers. They were hippies, they smoked pot and hash, they tripped on acid and more, they were sexually profligate, and of course, they protested and rioted on their campuses. All gross exaggerations and outright lies…in the name of shared experience.


Non-Nam


Many of my male chums past and current did go to Vietnam. Some sat on ships or in offices, while others fought, including some who died and others physically and emotionally maimed. Much like those of my father’s generation who killed and who saw the horrors of war, those who did don’t talk about it and if pressed say those who did not were much better off.

There was that pesky military draft, in which I had a very low number. My draft board made a relentless effort to get me, but finally seemed to give up, going for easier pickings.

While in Cambridge on a grant to look at a couple of underground newspapers, I found my board decided I wasn’t technically a full-time college student, so they had a place for me to go. I replied that I would not carry a gun, but I would go as medic, photog or reporter if they needed me in Viet Nam. They responded with CO papers and a notice that I could not pick what I’d do. I sent back that under their absurdly tight CO definition, I didn’t fit, but they could take my deal or send me to jail. They sent another batch of CO applications.

Eventually, they sent me a deferment they gave to fathers of multiple children. Eh? Some vets are positive there must have been someone  at the board looking out for me. A more likely story was through a friend whose father was on the board. He said in such cases, they went after guys who didn’t cause so much trouble and paperwork.


Unabused


Nearly all my best friends and quite a few women I’d kept company with in my single years have tales of being fondled or raped as small or teen kids. A few times, it was strangers they had just met, but more typically, it was a father, brother, cleric, teacher or camp counselor.

The stats sexual abuse prima facie don’t see so terrible, until you read deeper. Start for example from the Wikipedia entry and follow the references to places like Health and Human Services reports to first see that 15% to 25% of girls and 5% to 15% of boys were physically molested. From what I have heard directly and from learning that many of these stats are reported cases, and those percentages are very low.

In retrospect, I wonder whether our itinerant life protected me. We moved every couple years throughout my childhood. It seems that those I know who were abused either were in situations where the perpetrator had gained trust of the family and child, or in which they were in stereotypical abuse hells like boarding schools. It probably helped that my sister and I were not physically abused at all at home by beatings as most of my peers said they were. We were not taught to be submissive. The atmosphere of child as chattel was not part of my life. I also surmise that my willful personality may have acted as a shield.

Motivation for sexual abusers seem clear enough. These tend to be crimes of opportunity. The children are younger, smaller, weaker and often under the older child or adult’s control. Also, there is a strong correlation between having been abused and abusing.

If my second-hand knowledge is accurate, such abuse is never something simply gotten over. There seems to be a spectrum from those who live in victimhood perpetually to those who discuss it was friends or shrinks to those who sometimes shock into recollection to those who sublimate. Yet to those of us who lucked through childhood without being sexually abused, what is astonishing most is how common such behavior is.

This area is another good pointer to humans as not being all that evolved.

After it all, where is evidence of our better nature if we prey on the weakest of us as wild mammals, raptors and even insects do? Where is our alleged striving to be like angels or our god? If the cliché that character is what we are in the dark is true, what does it mean if so many of us even create the figurative dark for our evils?

What Milton Showed Me Today

September 5th, 2011

When my digital camera died a week and change ago, I ordered a new one. Taking it for a spin today, I looked for varied lighting and color to see what it could do. Here’s what I found in Milton on a walk.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

Just South of Mattapan Square on Rte. 138, I’ve been biking by a big new sign. Today walking, I read it all and took this shot. What was a Jewish temple and what looks for all the world like a middle school will apparently become (ta da) a worship edifice. Oddly enough, I know the outside of the Concord Baptist Church in the South End. To most of us, that grand old building that used to be a Presbyterian church would seem much more like an edifice. I find it hard to believe that the CBC people could spend all that money for Milton real estate and immediately tear down the low brick thingummy, but stranger things have happened in religious history. TBD. edifice
temples In contrast to the aspirations and pretension of the CBC sign, the old one from Temple Shalom remains for the moment. It is much more in keeping with the stereotypical Jewish lack of ostentation in things religious.
The camo worked. The only reason I noticed this huge katydid was because I had bent to photograph the flowers. miltonkatydid
birchshadows Pope’s Pond is a small, hidden Milton treasure. This particular birch is in the wonderful canopied path beside the pond.
Not all in Milton is jolly. At least one person also doesn’t seem to get the hang of threats. This sign by the entrance to a fancy home is reminiscent of the French invaders in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy GrailNow go away or I shall taunt you a second time! welcometomilton
loomingsumac The sumac by Pope’s Pond is prolific. This one could be in Dune as a sandworm.
Along Brush Hill Road are numerous delightful weeds, this one like a yellow waterfall. weedwaterfall
pokeweed Pokeberries also abound. Birds love the sweet fruit, which are moderately toxic to mammals. Supposedly the juice cooked and without any seeds is edible.
I’m not sure what this little gem beside Pine Tree Brook. It seemed to sing. pathdiva
nocharlotte Here is a house on Cheever Street in serious need of the spider Charlotte. The house number sign has gone and the spiders were left to spin on the frame, but have not gotten to numbers.
I’ll be thumbing through my hort books to find these berries. yberries


Deacons Who Deviled

August 28th, 2011

Churches are scary places with scary people. Having observed or been involved in the polity and politics of them from childhood into membership and onto chairing committees and boards, I have long outgrown the idealized world of Godly sorts doing good.

morsskulls

None of my direct experiences equals the wanton assault on Canton, Massachusetts’ first minister, Joseph Mors (a.k.a Morse).

Biking South of Boston, I passed the main Canton cemetery many times. I toured once, finding the really old stuff on the far Southwestern corner next to the UU church. The more recent focused trip included enjoying the 18th and 19th Century New England iconography. One that caught me was Mors’ three-skulled stone.

It turns out that with good reason there’s considerable history available on the late minister. His is a tale of caution for even modern clerics.

Consider his epitaph, including:

Within this silent grave here now doth ly,
Him that is gone unto Eternity.
Who when he liv’d was by good men respected,
Although by others was perhaps rejected;
Yet that done hinder his Triumphing Joy,
With saints above where nought can him away.

I couldn’t leave that. Thanks to long-dead local historians and Google’s digital books project, I didn’t have to.

As background, what is now Canton was in terms of religious governance part of the colonial town of Dorchester, a.k.a. New Grant or Dorchester Village. Mors was the first minister there, for a decade from 1707. Subsequently, this became part of Stoughton, which seemed promiscuously to hand it pieces of itself to neighboring towns. The area where the town of Canton, including its main cemetery are, broke off in 1797, with what seems like whimsical name, suggested by macher Elijah Dunbar, on the approximate belief that it was exactly half way around the globe from the Chinese province of that name.

What Could Go Wrong?

Ministerial careers were much less linear in the colony than today or for that matter in England at the time. While Mors, born 1671 graduated from Unitarian founded Harvard, he started as his education suited, as a teacher. In Providence, he and another teacher, Amity Harris, wed. They moved to Watertown, MA, where he gathered a congregation as well as taught. The locals built a meeting house, but never got the church organized. Then in 1707, he got an offer from the future Canton, then New Village, to settle and preach.

All started out swell, and in fact, from other sources, it turns out that The Morses were both die-hard teachers and pretty open minded. The local Natives, the Ponkapoags, welcomed both of them.  They “were well loved by the Ponkapoag Indians, who appreciated the couple’s efforts to educate them and bring them spiritual comfort.”

Life was rough for all and this was a period of various epidemics as well. The Morses gave religious and school instruction, and Joseph ministered to the Ponkapoag families.

Yet, it was the demon deacons, and not the Wake Forest ones, that undid Mors.

As the astonishingly and fastidiously detailed Huntoon history of the town put it, “In those days the office of deacon was regarded with very great respect…” The ones at First Parish were maybe worse than others, it turns out, bringing charges of “false doctrine” against the new minister. “The deacons considered themselves as umpires on matters of doctrine, and, letting the greater part of the sermon slip by without interest, were on the alert to detect and remember the slightest dogmatical inaccuracy or unguarded expression which in the hurry of composition might have escaped from the pen of the minister.”

Whole Town Watching

Snidely I must note that had the locals and deacons lived in our days of sports teams and cable TV, they might have had more if not better concerns and distractions. As it happened, when the deacons were charging Mors, it was a big deal.

“This charge, preferred by one of such high standing and authority in the church, was a cause of much alarm and difficulty. Meetings and fasts were held concerning it, and the communion was suspected for more than six months. Finally, the church voted that they were not dissatisfied with the pastor on account of the allegations brought against him.”

The deacon then backed down. The minister was cleared. From our distance of three centuries, we’d suppose Mors won and was untouchable. Ha!

“The disaffected only awaited an opportunity for a fresh attack; nor was it long before an occasion offered itself.” Upon the request of local Elhanan Lyon “who seems to have been a thorn in the flesh both th Mr. Morse and his successor” was on a committee of the General Court (legislature) and called Mors before that committee with accusations.

This in turn was like a Bill Clinton thing. If you have the interest, read all of the pages of this section of Huntoon for the nasty details. The short of it is that Mors was tripped up on alleged lies. Lying being flat out for ministers, at least at the time.

The underlying issue is that some unnamed person claimed that Mors got tipsy at a dinner party in Canton. Then, when grilled about it, he said he did not overindulge. Hence, those after his scalp, and likely still angry about being rebuffed in the earlier vote of confidence, said he was lying about it.

So the minister was twice tainted, alleged to be a sot and liar. The Dorchester Village council met on the issue a few times. When it came to a vote, by a single one, he was judged unworthy of continuing his ministry.

To little effect, another council meeting of nine churches censured everyone, “requiring them to acknowledge their faults to each other.” By this time, Mors was dead in the pulpit, figuratively. The lasting stain on his was that, like Clinton, he was permanently known as a liar, or as one in the council wrote later “guilty of designed false speaking.”

Again from 304 years distance, it’s impossible to know whether in the mind of the locals it was worse that Mors might have had a glass too many or that he refused to admit it.

He lived out his remain few years in the town, but not as a minister. He had an offer to preach elsewhere, but did not accept it.

Church Traps

I know a lot of  clerics, all of whom have political tales. They tend to note there’re folk in every congregation looking for trouble. They also say congregants and sometimes staff members can be willing to seduce them. Both perils could get a cleric shipped away.

I can recall the first church feud I was aware of when I was 8 or 9. In a large Methodist church in the South, the minister’s wife ran the church in many ways. She disliked the excellent organist/choir director, perhaps because he was very popular among adults and kids alike. She was determined to oust him, which came with time constraints in those days. Methodists were in a given church for only three years before reassignment, in the tradition of the circuit riding John Wesley.

She tried to stir up animosity and got only a little traction in accusing him of this or that. Eventually though, he got real tired of her sniping and attitude. He got an offer to tour Europe as an organist and snapped it up, going on to relative fame.

In other churches, I’ve seen worse. Consider the downtown Boston UU one where I revivified the personnel committee and then ran the board for a couple of years. Two key staff members, each with her own constituency went head to head and rumor to rumor in competition for resources and congregant affection. Staff meetings got so contentious, replete with shouting and tears, that the senior minister stopped holding them and met with one member at a time.

Neither would give a millimeter and each said she was the primary reason congregants came…and pledged. The implication was if they left, the church would collapse. It was ugly, but at least no one was trying to ruin the career of the senior minister.

The devilish duo were so intractable that I finally accepted that they had to go. I convinced one that she wasn’t ever going to find what she wanted there and to look for a larger, better paying church. The other had included me on her hit list and tried to get me removed from both committees.Instead. my personnel report on the problems convinced her that she too was not going to have her way. She and her rich hubby left in a huff, moving from Boston, and prophecizing doom for the church without her talents and his money. Nothing like that occurred and she was easily replaced with a rational and pleasant person.

My minister chums note that many who work at or attend churches are both emotionally needy and feel that being there gives them righteousness points. Regardless of the motives, the Godly places can be ungodly nasty.