Since my posts sometimes cluster naturally, I compile them and post them as one long document. Nothing fancy. No images.



(Main blog, daily posts)


Heart Butte School, Montana (Non-fiction, the school and its community.)

Robert Macfie Scriver and Art: An archive. Books by Mary Scriver

ON AMAZON: "Bronze Inside and Out: a biographical memoir of Bob Scriver" and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke: sermons for the prairie."

Monday, August 29, 2016

"FEARLESS", a series about bull-riding

Of all the hard-core dangerous conflicts that men invent to test their guts and muscles, bull-riding has to be one of the most spectacular.  Not bull “fighting” where the man stands apart and dances for his life, but right on top of a living freight train who doesn’t want anyone up there on top of him.  HIM.  Talk about extreme fighting.

It is clearly an American sport.  If you are lonesome for the good old West, the frontier where men were honest and women admiring, then you need to remember two ironic things:  West is now South (Brazil) and the heroes are mostly genetic Native American, with a little Africa and Spain/Portugal in the mix.  They are devoutly Catholic, pushing aside all memory of how many Indios the Euros killed to force that religious system onto them not so long ago.  

Coming as Brazilians evades the trip-wires that forced the North American “Indians” to form their own rodeo organization.  The Brazilians do run into the weighted judgement that scientific research says is unconscious, mammalian, inevitable.  The AIRCA members are full-spectrum rodeo contestants that include all events, like roping and barrel-racing.  No one anymore does chuckwagon races because they were too dangerous for man and horse.  
Bill Linderman

But danger is the draw for bull-riding.  It has been pulled out of the full-hand of events and hyped to the point of being more Hollywood and Vegas than cowboy.  The contestants walk out across a grid of fire under swirling lights with blasting music and shouted narrative, bare-bellied women standing by.  (No buckle bunnies because no buckles — just belly buttons.)  If this sounds intriguing, Netflix is streaming a six-part series called “Fearless.”  At least they were — it has disappeared overnight, just as I got to the end!  Probably a legal reason having to do with money.  Millions are involved.

By the end you will have Brazilian heroes, not just because of their courage, skill and ability in the face of being nearly destroyed but also the equal courage it takes to spend months and months with surgery and therapy.  You’ll also know their families — old-fashioned families like we fancy North Americans once were — their children and ranches, seeming idyllic because these riders made big money and spent it at home.  No one dies in this series, though there are many near-lethal injuries, but there is one rider who gets fed up and one rider’s wife who gets fed up.  Both are tragedies from some points of view.

The world champion bull rider was currently J.B. Mauney, who is from North Carolina, but as signalled by the feather occasionally in his hat, is American Indian, no doubt Cherokee.  In our day the RCA champ was Larry Mahan.  The trophy for best All Around was a small version of the portrait of Linderman Bob made and Mahan ended up with a whole row of them.  

By now Mauney (pronounced “Mooney”) may have been bumped by Kaique Pacheco, a rookie who walked off with everything.  The commenter explained that bull-riding is like dancing and the two are actually partners, each anticipating the other’s next move and compensating to fit.  Pacheco has a consistent pattern, based on the physics of levers and springs, that keeps him in place for eight seconds.  It helps to be barely into his twenties.  He has the kind of inscrutable face we associate with movie Indians.

A record of all the rodeo sculptures by Scriver

I’m a little strange because I am as interested in the bulls as in the riders.  This is because Bob Scriver made the rodeo series of bronzes with my help just before we divorced.  There was a roping calf in the backyard, a bull-dogging steer in the driveway, and Bob wanted a bucking bull but his mother wouldn’t let him buy one.  Whew.  Indelibly I remember measuring Tornado’s shoulder width while teetering on the top rail of a small corral and avoiding his thrown-up head.  Just as vividly I remember the morning we went to make studies of Reg Kessler’s bulls in their pasture over on the Flathead, but it was foggy and we could only see silhouettes so had to give up the project.  Looming peaceful beasts, they came for hay pitched out of a pickup and stood there mildly gazing at us.  

Kansas City Board of Trade

That was the end of the Sixties when Bob had been commissioned by the PRCA to make a portrait of Bill Linderman who was not only a repeat all-around champion, but also cleaned up the rodeo cowboys through the Turtle Association, the first organization that became PRCA.  He made them improve their manners, pay their bills, wear clean clothes — become like today’s Brazilians, who with their grins, searching eyes, and lithe but battered bodies take the bull-riding prizes.

Bob and I got interested in specific bulls by name, just as good riders do, because knowing their bucking patterns is key to staying on.  Bob liked to work in linked series, so he was making portraits of typical animals and then depictions of them in action.  With the coaching of Bill Cochran, a veteran bull-rider, Bob made action portraits of “a spinner,” a bull who spins and is most dangerous when he suddenly changes directions in mid-spin; “a hooker” who rears up in front and throws his head back in an effort to knock off the rider (if his head connects with the rider’s head, a concussion results); and “a twister” who is long and flexible enough to whip back and forth in midair.  Some say this is the bull that might be impossible for anyone to ride.

Freckles on Tornado

The riders consult each other about the style of each bull, which travel among the rodeos the same as the contestants.  “Tornado” was a twister that had never been ridden and Freckles Brown was an unbeatable rider.  In the 1969 National Finals we watched the final duel between the two aging but defiant contestants and Freckles went the full eight seconds.  A bronze resulted, of course, and the hype and sentiment was sincere.  

Bill Cochran is the rider on “An Honest Try,” the big sculpture that became Bob’s motif.  Bob’s book of photos of the rodeo bronzes is called “An Honest Try”.  Bill has been dead a while and his son just put his dad’s casting of “An Honest Try” on the market.  A fiberglas version is in front of the Blackfeet Heritage Center which was built as Scriver StudioGordon Monroe was the fiberglass tech and he does sculpture of his own.

The first rodeo bull I met was the one I fed some hay through the fence at the annual Livestock Show in Portland when I was about three.  The first rodeo movie I ever saw was “The Lusty Men” in 1953.  The one about a bull was “Eight Seconds” in 1994. “Fearless” will be spinning, hooking and twisting in my head for a long time.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


The Rev. Chuck Gaines, active on the UUA Fellowship Committee which had nothing to do with the “fellowship” organizational structure of small groups, but a lot to do with certifying candidates as qualified for acting as ministers.  He was fond of a simile comparing human life to the arc of a flying fish, rising out of the darkness of the water in a brief flight of consciousness before plunging back into the unseen sea.  

An older version of this is about a night bird flying through an open window into a well-lit room (a mead-hall), but then continuing across the room and  out another open window.  But I’m thinking that if the analogy were to be used to describe Unitarian Universalist ministry these days, it might better be framed as the fish’s dive to the depths of the sea or the bird traversing some dark tunnel.  The days of the minister being the gentle virtuous vicar protected by landed gentry or the consoling but unyielding priest governing an Irish parish are gone, even if “The Quiet Man" is streaming on Netflix.

When I found the Unitarians in 1975, the big concern was giving the religious education directors the status of ministers.  Then it was the music directors who asked for recognition as ministers.  As the denomination began to shrink, there were Extension Ministers meant to either found a new group or make a pre-existing one grow, hopefully enough to employ a minister since there weren’t enough pulpits.  UU ministers are notoriously difficult to match to church styles, so occasionally a placement would blow up, leaving hard feelings, so then there were Interim Ministers who were supposed to work that through.  They shouldn’t be confused with Intern Ministers who were students working alongside a veteran.  

Now, with the rise of consciousness about “post-traumatic disorder,” the “After Pastor” has been devised to specifically minister to the traumatized, particularly women who have been traumatized by men, esp. predatory pastors.  Today, with even more ministerial aspirants than there are pulpits, the new concept is “Community Pastors” who find their own funding and define their own constituency.  In the New Testament they are called “Tentmakers” since that was often the way they earned their living.

Parallel with this phenomenon of ever proliferating ministers was the collapse of the seminary, both because of lack of money and because of a levelling policy that attacked the degree system.  Meadville/Lombard had always been prestigious because it used to include the U of Chicago MA, but a traditional MA means passing a foreign language test.  Aspiring ministers found this unjustifiable.  The MA at the U of C means passing a series of rigorous tests about history and thought, actually a filter for the Div School Ph.D. Some UU aspirants couldn’t pass them.  

The U of C in general is notorious for students who get stuck while writing their thesis and the same thing happened at M/L, in part because there were too few faculty (4 men) qualified to judge some of the subjects.  As more late-life and women wished for seminary education, there was pressure for low residency and “mail-order” classes.  Meadville, like others, sold its buildings.  But the bonding that happens in residence on a campus was impossible, which damages
the denominational networking later.  Some UU candidates were taking classes in Christian schools near them.  Though they were liberal, they pressed everything into the Christian mold.

I’ve been trying to go at this problem that is called “clergy misconduct” in a different way, since the previous approaches have all been ineffective.  Mostly they consist of denial, suppression, stone-walling — approaches that work better when they are applied by powerful people.  What becomes clear in this instance is the lack of power all around.  Even the women who come late to ministry, carrying their feminist knives with them and making this the core of their pastoral care, are not powerful enough against a culture that is rethinking sexual relationships of all kinds, from fathers entitled to kill daughters who embarrass them to the daughters of those clergy who have married almost half-a-dozen times.  This is considered reprehensible, but those daughters, loving their fathers, go into the ministry.  No one asks them what they think.  I know of at least two.  I don’t know what the mothers think.

The ground level has to be biological, both the drive to sexual intimacy and the search for the Sacred.  The two interact in hard-to-manage ways, not least because they might not be conscious.  Our denomination and our UU ministry (learned) has focused on the pre-frontal cortex functions as “rational” and “higher” to the point of triggering resistance during the Sixties and Seventies and defiant excess to the other end of the spectrum.  The frame was always either/or.  We had no concept of the power of the unconscious mammal limbic thought — we didn’t even think it was thought, just instincts or drives or libido.  We didn’t know any of this neurological stuff because it hadn’t been recorded yet.  I like it because it escapes the plaguing memes of society dragged in from some other time and place.

The UU pre-frontal cortex turned out to be middle-class British — not even French.  That is, “proper” sexual self-management was that of a middle-class shopkeeper whose goal was order and prosperity.  Contractual monogamy, careful primogeniture, concern for storefront appearances, respect for advertising attractiveness.  This was our model for ministry in a middle-class suburban world where all children went to college.

Put that up against the political welcoming of atypical sexual pairing — same sex, one sex in the gender role of the other, changed gender, cis people in new gender roles, marriage outside contracts, multiple relationships — plus openness to other cultures where there had never been a “middle class” but only a top and bottom — plus drastic shifts of honor and status away from the humanities over to science and technology often paired with denial not just of god but of any “spiritual” dimension (commonly called “atheist”) and there are a lot of contradictions — deeply emotional ones — that need defining and sorting.  We included these “lower” classes because we needed the numbers.  “Growth” was the watchword.  “Profit” was the underlying motive.

The last thing we need are kangaroo courts that twist analysis into accusations, esp. the ones that are technically if civilly libellous.  We’ve been here before when the Unitarians and Congregationalists split and had ended up in secular court to see who got the Sacred Silver, the valuable Communion sets.  And again when the one church and the state split up and the tax money that had supported the one church was now removed, because the church had become multiple denominations in competition over such issues as how much water constitutes a baptism: total immersion or a splash on the head.

The whole matter is complicated by the mosaic regionalism of UU congregations, which leads to a lot of political manipulation because religion is institutions.  To get a national consensus means reconciling California with Massachusetts.  Religion is not sacred because institutions are not sacred.  Institutions are devised and operated by humans who may or may not use their power wisely, but who are compelled to try to preserve the institution if they want to keep their jobs and the status of their roles, which is indicated by money.

Twice now the Berry Street Essay has been used as a point of attack on the institution of the UUA.  No analysis, no practical changes suggested.  The tone is aggrieved college girls crying out over long ago abuse.  I’ve come to the conclusions that there has indeed been sexual misconduct, that there’s a lot of it, it has been accepted (ignored) or treated with amusement or kept secret, that not all the examples provided are legitimate, that there are sexual abuses far beyond the experience of these lady essayists, and that this kind of complaining and accusation is a sign of the rot of the denomination.  It’s not the subject matter that is the problem— clergy who break the rules of accepted Christian middle-class values — but the much larger consciousness of what is Sacred.  

Do these women in their home churches preach to their parishioners against the Hook-up Culture, against the consequences of unwanted children (for the CHILD), against the emotional destruction of shallow and sequential relationships?  Do they tell the men in their pews that if they behave like hounds, there are consequences?  Are they careful about their own relationships?  Do they talk about the interaction of drugs with intimacy — and I mean alcohol as much as pot or ecstasy?  

Paul Fussell proposed that there is a new class emerging, partly because of the Internet.  Highly educated but often broke, these people are redefining “class”, normally defined in part by economics.  An article called “Heterosexual hierarchies: A Commentary on class and sexuality” by Stevi Jackson at the Centre for Women’s Studies, the University of York, UK is listed on Google.  It’s a first-page “teaser” for an article that would cost $36 to buy, but I’m Class X — broke.

I’ll pass the tease on by quoting:

The intersections between class and sexuality have only recently begun to be explored . . . most of the research has come from those focusing on the ways in which LGBT lives and identities are mediated through class.. . understanding patterns of disadvantage and exclusion entails acknowledging the social distribution and effects of privilege . . . the social advantage for sexual life. . . . other significant axes of social division should also be included, especially race and ethnicity.”

I’ve sent an inquiry to Ms. Jackson in York to see if she knows about studies that include religion and that have looked at attempts of people of color or lesser social status (women, immigrant, gay) to rise in the world by adopting high status denominational identities, as well as moving from parishioner to the once-higher status of the pastor, now much deteriorated (underwater) due to pedophilia accusations among priests (once the highest status people), notorious Elmer Gantry antics behind the revival tent, and narrow indignation from offended women of status for whom ordination is not enough.  

Saturday, August 27, 2016


Someone wishing to criticize my qualifications as a writer about religion said,  “She doesn’t even go to church.”  That person assumes that a religious person is simply one who physically goes to church, which undoubtedly means to them attending a group in a building with a leader at the same time each week for about an hour.  The number of people might be small (where two or three gather in “My Name,”) or might be thousands, but all in the same space.  Probably the religion in question is Abrahamic in origin, though they probably don't think of it that way.  

Radio and television services are a gray area created by technology.  Those in attendance may be there by proximity (they live in the “parish”) or by affinity (they are in sympathy with the thought stream of the group).  Radio and TV audiences are unknown, unnamed, uncanvassed.  Part of the point of gathering is to create a community that knows each other or at least has a reasonable expectation that the other people will be compatible to them.  

We’re talking about the water in which fish swim without reflection about it.  These gatherings go back to the roots of the Abrahamic religions with tribal assumptions and try to recreate the tribe.  In order to reflect constructively on the practices of “church” in writing, I will sometimes go back to these roots and usually concentrate on what is still conventional now, but I think it is a good idea to realize that other religions might never gather in this kind of audience. It is rather like any European-style arts presentation: opera, symphony, theatre, ballet, movies, vaudeville, travelogue and university lecture hall.  It’s always useful to check our assumptions.  In this case, the idea of gathering as audience to a presentation by one or a few others was seriously challenged in the Sixties and Seventies, but was never dropped.

We do not all gather for spoken words and prayer now, but many will fill an arena for sports, perhaps violent ones like football, soccer, or rodeo.  They persuade the audience that conflict and winning are central to life.  If compared to Roman gladiator spectacles or to Christian rallies, people get angry.

The idea of one celebrant as powerful might have originally been an adaptation of the authority of the rabbi or teacher who had studied the writing of the Torah or Gospel or Koran— even memorized some of it.  If literacy and learnedness were a qualification for a rabbi, then the magic of Communion gave a priest even more power.  The advent of Christianity pulled in the idea of sacrifice -- not the older holocaust blood sacrifice of a lamb, rather the substitution of bread and wine.  Some Unitarians, including Emerson, do not approve even of a bread/wine communion, considering it a leaning to "magic" instead of the natural wonder of existence.

Part of the custom of the Unitarian fellowships — which were based on the lack of affording ministerial leadership because of thin population — is that they often meet in small spaces, maybe schools, where it was not necessary to unscrew the pews because the seating was individual chairs that could be easily arranged in a circle.  But meeting in schools with movable chairs also meant that the loss of use of the space to convey mood and meaning: no stained glass, no stations of the cross, and so on.  Still, a chalice to light if it doesn't set off the fire alarm. 

Even the asceticism of some believers who prefer relatively empty spaces could be challenged by posters that depicted prepositions as piggies trying to get over/under/through/
around a fence.  Banners, candles, boomboxes and opening prayers or songs are ways to summon up gathering and focus.  But the secular world creeps in from the surroundings to the content of the service. The need to have some kind of spoken word can drift to the secular and then even away from the usual equivalent to the Sacred: political thought and therapeutic reassurance.  When the committee looking for speakers begins to invite town officials, some call it "City Sewer Syndrome."  At least it gets down to basics.

The Sixties and Seventies brought in many new ideas and possibly the membership of African-Americans introduced more attention to movement and communal song from religions that did not build temples but maybe gathered around a fire to sing and dance.  Most of us know Native American pow-wow dancing, enough to recognize the symbolism of the fancy-dancer, which has managed to escape from the trope of "war dancing."  

What I’m getting at is the undone work of a new analysis of conventional church, both those who improvise and those whose predecessors made sure of fine architecture.  There are ceremonies all around us, some with spiritual dimensions, that are going unrecognized.

Returning to the very beginning of the Abrahamic religions, another vital thread is that of print -- writing -- maybe beginning with the Ten Commandments.  Leaving oral culture meant more openness to variety but also a need for a reference point that could be carried along, thus scrolls like Torah. Adopting print culture was gradual and top-down, because only the elite learned to read or had charge of the documents.  It also meant hierarchy, and institutions were more technical and elaborated, less influenced by either crowds or charismatic individuals.

When some Unitarian ministers felt the need for reconciliation among religious traditions, something like Bahai which honors most religions that have a book, the result was mostly written materials arranged in traditional sequence around a theme.  Duke Gray felt strongly that the only truly legitimate sequence was Anglican vespers.  I doubt that The Malleus Maleficarum, the medieval treatise on witchhunting, was used by anyone, though there are groups now that identify with either the darker medieval lore or the modern Wicca.  The KKK has evidently persisted semi-invisibly.

A private chapel for family devotion.

Content matters.  Membership matters.  Form matters.  Place matters.  When I was learning the history of religion in America, I heard about how the congregations of the north tended to be influenced by their siting where there had been forts or commercial hubs, therefore creating towns that could support churches, compact congregations that gathered every Sunday.  But in the South -- where the governmental organization responded to stretches of land along rivers, which served as roads, and a commerce based on cotton agriculture/slave labor -- the religious base was the white household.  A chapel was included in the large building in the style of European gentry, while out in the back was a satellite black community that was oral, which allowed for a Christian-appearing surface of gospel but carried under that a rich tradition from another continent.  Occasional tent rallies were popular for everyone.

On today's reservations the Catholic ministers who follow the element of sacrifice that is Communion and other vivid symbols like Holy Water and Unction, do much better than the Protestants with their readings and hymnals.  The oral culture of indigenous people persists so long as they are in contact with the land.  Blackfeet were fortunate to be able to stay on familiar terrain, though it was much shrunken and the buffalo were removed.  Pentecostals have done well with their emotional oral culture and movement, but they suffer (or maybe benefit) from being considered low class.  Maybe for lack of a print literature.

Universally among all congregations I know was that they had no interest at all in what I’d learned at seminary.  They wanted reassurance, a little guidance (not too much), the feeling of being with friends once a week, a name for themselves and a little explanation they could use for family.  Sundays (Unitarians generally follow Christian practices) had more structure if they included church.  National festivals could be marked.  Then there was Sunday School, which was often the real reason for a group, because that’s a middle-class marker of respectability.  Like learning to read and figure.

Like the other bourgeois markers of the middle class:  cleanliness; good manners including lack of profanity; avoidance of drunkenness (no spitting tobacco); dental care; eyeglasses (now contacts or corneal planing); fountain pens (now replaced by handheld devices); regular employment, craft or business; a green flat weedless lawn; an up-to-date car; and so on.  It’s hard to know whether these things are disappearing because the middle class is disappearing, or whether the middle class is less visible now for lack of these clues.  

But surely one of the disappearances is Sunday morning church.  I haven’t gone non-religious — I have changed social classes and am no longer middle class.  Now I am Class X, as Paul Fussell defined it:  low income, highly educated.  Religious all the time, not just on Sunday -- and post-Christian.  

Friday, August 26, 2016


The woman in the centre is Eloise Cobell
Who sued the United States of America and won.

Where I live on the East Slope of the Rockies is right at the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation.  Because European law was largely based on genetic descent from legal marriage as a way of controlling inheritance, particularly inheritance of power as in the case of kings, the military and religious authorities addressing the remnants of the decimated indigenous people were particularly concerned about who was “married” and who was the product of an unlawful relationship and who was actually produced by a lawful relationship by a dalliance outside the marriage.

To remind us of the context of the times, among the tribal warriors there was a high likelihood of death, so men who didn’t die would accept “marriage” to their brother’s wives and children, which mostly meant taking on the burden of feeding and protecting them.  When this custom developed, there was no city hall, no paper giving permission, no one keeping records until the missionaries came.  

When the government, through the military, had killed most of the warriors, they accepted the obligation of feeding the impoverished and displaced women and children, the old and ill still suffering from white diseases, they had to first make a list of who deserved “commodities” promised in treaties as a way of ending the military expenditures that were draining government budgets.  

This grudging bunch of administrators immediately set about making lists of those who were entitled by their belonging to the tribe (or what was left of it) but there were no citizenship papers for tribes.  And tribes are not defined by boundaries, but by relationship to the center, usually a nucleus of families.  The generals fell back on provenance: who was descended from whom.  Their conscientiousness required that they determine who was “married” to whom and “marriage” by definition meant to them one man plus one woman.

So they had to explain to the polygamous chiefs, who got to be the chief by sustaining so many people, that they could only have one wife.  They would have to choose ONE woman.  One chief — some say it was Sitting Bull — finally said,  “All right.  I’ll do it.  But you have to tell the wives I don’t pick.”

Somewhat parallel, a wise person once explained to me that ministers (and other people of power) must not fuck a parishioner unless they are willing to fuck them all, not because of religious scruples but because providing for one person’s needs and ignoring the others would really screw up the social dynamics of the group, which would seriously damage the annual pledge drive.

Expectations are a huge part of human life, especially when the context is religious because religious institutions as well as individual expectations are distilled and intense, but rather unlikely to match the realities.  In the case of intimate relationships, biology is always interfering and so is the resulting economic necessity to produce and feed children.  This depended upon the fertility and gestational capacity of women and the men’s ability to capture and keep women.

In those days a high proportion of women died in childbirth, so second and even third wives had to be taken.  Extended families with unmarried adults who could pick up the slack did better than those who had to settle for grudging and incompatible legal replacements.  Sometimes those children ran away; we have no idea how many simply died from neglect, misuse, and failure to thrive due to a failure to form any expectation but misery.  This continues in spite of birth control and the female ability to earn her own money.

Marriage is social, a group definition of recorded legal liabilities and advantages.  American laws at all levels are likely to embed in themselves various privileges and obligations — social expectations mostly about money (taxation, SSI) but also legal things like testifying in court.

Biology includes the phenomenon of love that some thinkers call “limerence” — “the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one's feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship.”  It’s genetic, hormonal, related to “bonding” or “attachment” and some say it usually persists about four years, if you can go by divorce statistics in a world where ending a marriage is relatively easy.

Many people, sitting in a pew closely watching a preacher for an hour every week, find themselves developing “limerence” towards that person.  They “have a crush,” the way they might feel about a movie personality or a rock star.  But it seems real and results in expectations.  Part of the reason for the huge taboo on either the minister or the parishioner acting on this is that it only lasts four years.  Maybe less.  If the minister is suddenly pitched out of the pulpit, so that his/her social status and earning capacity is ended, limerence evaporates.    For those who expect their intimate partners to be like their parents— or maybe like their parents ought to have been — the disappointment is likely to be bitter but provide income for therapists, lawyers, and UU district execs.

The crater of Mt. St. Helens

I gratefully recall a sad and bitter conversation with Emil Gudmundson, district exec, at the top of the stairs in Fleck House, back in the day when the UU’s actually owned property and provided for their ministerial students.  My granddaughter  — actually a step-grand — was being buried back in Portland as the result of what was suspected to be vehicular suicide.  I didn’t have enough money to go, though I’d been close to her.  Also, Mt. St. Helens was erupting, killing many people and changing the landscape forever.  The events seemed related.

Emil entered my sadness with me.  Being a frank and brave man, he confessed that his psychological impulse was always to offer the comfort of his body.  But he never did because he knew it would bring damage to his wife and to his religious community.  He just wanted me to know that he felt badly for me.  He’s been dead a long while and no account of him betraying expectations or standards has ever surfaced.

From my side I longed for my ex-husband, the woman’s grandfather, who had called me to give me the news.  He had been generous with the consolation of his body, which didn’t agree with my expectations, but I never did get over the limerence.  He’s been dead for seventeen years and I still feel it.  So did the other wives.  

Bob Scriver, scuptor

I have never understood the vengeful intensity of peoples’ reaction to other people’s intimate relationships and missteps.  Heartache ought to be considered punishment.  Surely violations of the rules should be judged by a jury of peers (the Fellowship Committee) and be proportionately punished after confrontation by the accusers.  That’s Law 101, a matter of written social consensus in a democracy, not ideological condemnation from an emotional point of view that privileges one class of people (female parishioners) over another (clergy).  It seems to me a reversal of the claim that powerful people are entitled to take both money and services from those “beneath” them when students try to control administrators.

Lately there seems to be an insistence that laypeople must control the clergy, hold them to higher standards, but not higher esteem than those who didn’t have the privilege of a fancy education.  (We’re talking about UU clergy, learned ministry, grad school and doctoral level diplomas.)  And certain people insist that women in general are entitled to higher esteem than men.  This is represented as “equality.”  Clergy shouldn’t consider themselves “better than” anyone else, though the indignant ones seem to feel that’s not true of themselves, ordained or not.  “You are our servant,” they say.  “We pay you,” which sounds a lot like “we own you.”  

I walked.  I’m living on the greener side of the fence, though the green is not from money nor envy.  The turning point came at a workshop for ministers about understanding spouse abuse.  They drew concentric circles and put the receiver in the middle.  “It’s about limits and control,” they said.  At first the abuser is permissive.  Then they begin to impose limits: budgets, schedules; pretty soon it’s clothing standards or objections to certain friends; then your music is offensive and your cooking is inadequate;  pretty soon you call your mother too often . . .  and before long there are small violences that grow into broken bones and bruised faces. 

Now I feel a certain obligation to stand up for those that accusers are still trying to control.  But I also see that the larger society is in witch hunt mode.  If you were amused about the story of Blackfeet and monogamy, you need to hear the bitterness and violence of the present generation as they struggle to divide entitlement to the wealth of the corporate tribe.  Now blood draws to prove parentage confront traditional accounts of whose baby you are.  The U.S. government dodged the bullet by passing a law that tribes define their membership.

The old warriors of the UU community are unable to protect the young ones entering the ministry or those of their cohort caught in the Sexual Revolution and the suddenly changed rules.  Emil and I sat at the top of the stairs in Fleck House, looking through the tall window across the street at the imitation cathedral that is First Unitarian of Chicago, while the sadness and loss of being human enfolded us quietly in the twilight.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Religion is not revealed truth.  Religion is institutions (some dogmatic and some not) that translate a culture into a system that can be consulted, performed, relied upon to store wisdom.  In many instances (ideally) religious practices distill the ecologically and economically anchored ways of people as individuals and groups into a rhythm of symbols and practices that guides life streams.  If that begins to fail, there is trouble.

Praying to a Father God no one believes in as a possible humanoid entity, and that no one really expects to intervene as you ask for it, is practicing emptiness.  We’ve got enough of that in this culture.  Our government, our economy, our sense of citizen solidarity, are all challenged at their core.  This is directly related to losing God, not to death but by evaporation.  Why do we keep up the pretense?

Because that original tribal conception of a mighty leader capable of helping out his family is the base of religious machinery that depends upon that idea.  Think Pope, the Catholic one, not Rev. Pope-Lance.  Institutions within institutions, hierarchies function and provide jobs for people so long as they don’t look down and realize their foundation has long since packed up and left.  Think Trump, who turns out to be deeply in debt.  Think the accumulation of wealth (this includes Mother Teresa) in the face of overwhelming need.

In trying to understand why “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer” has become a model for ministry that authorizes middle-aged educated women to attack male ministers because they teased those women as teens is simply insane.  (If they were rural women they would have been used to being sent to town for some mythical machinery part and other tricky snipe hunts.  It's affection.  Paying attention.  One laughs.) To be enraged decades later is out of proportion.

Those who need proof that our culture is based on media fantasies need look no further than the success of J.J. Abrams who has discovered that if the protagonist of his story is a fierce young beautiful woman with superhuman skills, this works great as the core of even a Western like Star Wars.  It’s the Princess Leia factor.. If there are enough blood, explosions and mutants, it will not be considered a chick-flik so much as a great date adrenaline provider.  You know where that can go.

1894, 25th anniversary of the first Universalist Service

We’ve come a long way from the 19th century society ladies who preached while wearing hats, mostly basing their authority on the Progressive attack on sin, suffering and poverty.  (That went well, didn’t it?  Especially slaying the Demon Rum.)  Our present crop of female ministers seems to be doubling back, though I never hear that they preach about heroin, child trafficking, or — um — poverty.  They lean more to the therapeutic.  Love as an antibiotic.  The Devil is represented by treacherous men.

In the meantime, “On July 1, the Rev. Harlan Limpert will become the chief operating officer of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This will be the first time the UUA has given a senior executive the title of COO; the new position will replace the office of the executive vice president, which Kay Montgomery has held since 1985.”  In other words, the management replaced a glamorous insider female with a manager trained by Target.  At 51 he felt he needed the rewards of idealistic service.  His model for a successful denomination is iTunes.  I hope he was kidding.

I first met Harlan as a rather randy young intern minister at First Unitarian Church in Portland in the Seventies.  His behavior was impeccable, but I’m the kind of null-woman that men confide in.  (They are not getting an accurate vibe.  Must be the spectacles.)  He was not able to think in preacher’s terms.  As far as I know, he has never served a congregation as their minister, though he has always been active in UU circles and was a chaplain at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, D.C. 

Harlan Limpert then

Harlan Limpert now

He says there are two secrets to his success:  he expects work to be tough and he can handle low pay.  If this were really the secret of success, there would be many more female COO’s.  Harlan has been happily married for decades and has never married a member of his congregation.  (Not having a congregation eliminates that accusation.)  The real secret of his success IMHO is that, as Montgomery says,  “He’s so nice.”  Niceness is now the key to the UUA.

The basic pattern of American Christian life is not outer space, nor the military, nor any primarily urban model.  Rather it is still agriculturally based and therefore so is its basic idea of sex: the productive family.  It’s hard to bend that around to being same-sex or polyamorous or even celibate.  It is rooted in the idea that the man runs the farm and the woman runs the house.  It is friendly to extended family, even if some of the family members are needy, but not if they belong to someone else.  The idea is that the minister is the grandfather — see “Blue Bloods.”  Tom Selleck: herd bull.  This paradigm is now obsolete.

Any institution that has lost its power to reproduce itself, its potency in the culture, is castrated by definition.  Love is not prowess.  There went the seminaries (seed beds).  A certain amount of bullshit is necessary for fertility — no bull, no growth.  That’s about as far as that metaphor can go and probably farther than it should have gone.

In 1975 when I first began to step through the gender-separation curtain — not just in religious institutions but also in cop and government settings — there was a joke that went:  “If you want to fuck the opposite sex, be sure to do it a hundred miles away from home.  If you want to fuck the same sex, be sure do it five hundred miles away from home.  If you want to fuck a sheep. . .” and there the joke split off between rural and urban.  As Bob Scriver (who was a justice of the peace and city magistrate) used to say, “if you do something outrageous enough, no one will figure it out or even notice.”  Thus, instead of sheep, one can use small boys.  Or poodles.

This was labeled "South African Humor"

What I see is a denomination that is too nice to allow a bull into the pulpit.  One of the reasons I gave up on ministry was that it meant living in a city.  I did not know that the new city, the new congregation, was going to be world-wide and online.  I don’t think we know what that means yet.  How is a glass screen different from a pulpit?  How is it the same?  How do we share a cuppa with a buddy if we’re separated by thousands of miles?  Skype?  I assume it is through empathy, stories, music, art, and crazy metaphors that make us laugh.  At least, that’s the evidence I have so far.  Nobody but Buffy cares that much about who fucked whom decades ago.  The paradigm has left the feedlot.

When I began to challenge this misguided Berry Street essay, the UUA told me it was entirely the responsibility of the UU Ministers’ Association, which told me it was entirely the responsibility of the Berry Street essay committee (damn committees anyway) who told me it was entirely the responsibility of the actual speaker.  

Baloney.  Many others were speaking through her.  The leader of a cow herd — rural people know — is never the bull, who goes off to take a nap after doing his duty.  The real path finder is always an older and very experienced cow.  Not me.  I used to get upset and complain about low standards.  Now I only care when a friend is unfairly attacked. I still can't figure out the motive.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Maureen Mullarkey

Perhaps is not so surprising to use this word in a time when science has introduced us — upclose and on video — to non-human meiosis, known in human terms as “sex.”  My favorite example of sexual predation is a bug that bores a hole in the female and injects his sperm.  Bugs don’t have perineums, which is called in slang about women, “the pink.”  Sometimes it’s called “the slash”, which gives it a bug-like violent vibe, or the “slot” which sort of suggests a coin-operated function.  Violence and monetization are two characteristics of human intercourse of all kinds.  We don’t manage them very well.  Men have names for their unruly little man: Peter or Dick.  Technically, the perineum is unisex.

Those of us who try to understand existence in ultimate terms as well as in the framework of “embodiment” have been challenged to the point of shifting the paradigm of theology from one big old gramps in the sky to an infinitely interrelated and constantly morphing fabric or symphony of electrochemical atomic interactions — the atom being, of course, a pattern of energy.  If being is actually, really, this and not the pattern of brain interaction assembly that goes on through our lives, casting a connectome over the universe that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, what are we to use as a guide for human interactions?  

Rule out drilling holes in each other, though the NRA will not agree with that.  Personally, I’m going to the tension in the relationship between the human individual and the human group, even the species taken as a group.  Even “hominins” taken as a group.  The point is life-going-on, which we call evolution or survival of the fittest, though we get all incoherent about fitness.  It’s not about the biggest, strongest, smartest, prettiest, etc.  It’s about what fits.

Most crucially, “fitness” is a shifting target because the planet shifts, the cultures shift, the mood shifts.  Fitness shifts. Therefore, a system (meiosis) succeeds if it constantly creates a variety of kinds, so that even if everything changes, some of the kinds will survive.  Some will not.  (Goodbye hominins.  Goodbye cave bears.)  In a world jammed with humans, individual survival is often pitched against group survival.  Results vary.

A group that has settled upon an understanding of the world that lets its members survive will attract more people and eventually form an institution with leaders, buildings, images, songs, and dogma — lots of stuff to support functioning.  What supports the institution is likely to be written down and enforced by the group.  Until it doesn’t work anymore.  Then, in a freely joined group, people will leave.

Margaret Sanger

American Christian churches of all kinds are shrinking.  It’s not that people are going from one group to another, but that they are simply going group-less.  The larger culture is not recreating religious sub-groups people want.  Or maybe they just aren’t recognizing them as religious.  This may be the case with a new consensus forming about creation.  Some call it “scientific mysticism” meaning that it accepts all the work of responsible science without wandering off into the woo-woo, but is keenly aware of the awful grandeur of ultimates, eternals, and unimaginables that science points to.  I’m hearing rumors about the formation of new congregations, something like the earliest Unitarians and Universalists reacting against Calvin’s paradigm.

Actually it was Luther who admired the pink ruffles of the perineum as a source of salvation.  He famously said, as recorded by his students, that when the devil threatened him, he put his hand between the legs of his wife and was consoled.  It’s a puzzle to me why the more stringent feminists won’t share the wealth of the original container of life.
Artemisia Gentileschi

There are many jokes about the UU heresies.  One is that if there were two gates to heaven, one labeled “salvation” and the other one labeled “discussion of salvation,” all the UU’s would turn off to the discussion access.  But I often think that the UUA is best not thought of as a denomination but as a ground for denominations.  (I’m trying to echo Tillich resolution between being versus non-being by suggesting a “ground of being.”)  Reading “The Silk Roads” is a bit of a revelation in that it traces how the Greek-Persian rivalry/collaboration, the Christian-Buddhist interactions, and all the other tribal institutions formed by ecologies of river and mountain — especially after erosion and exploitation narrowed the world — had to change to survive.

Nothing has changed more abruptly or more drastically than our understanding of sex in terms of fertility, entitlement, protection, identity, leadership and so on.  Now we might be prepared to accept the idea that a virgin can have a baby — but so what?  We might not think that crucifixion is the most horrible death — today’s Messiah might be more likely to die of HIV/AIDS because of being denied meds.  We’ve accepted leaders and heroes who have sex with people to whom they have no legal obligation.  I won’t bother to name them — it’s a good parlor game.

But we have NOT reformed our societal protection of children, who are still partly commodities and partly party prizes, rarely human beings deserving of protection for their development.  There is NO UUA scandal-monger pursuing ministers who neglect their children or have children they don’t want.  The conservatives will punish for abortion, defending it with sentimental appeal to babies, not realistic concern or help for a baby that will need public money and attention.

Virginia Woolf

Can we say that our present institutions and protocols are serving either individuals or groups very well?  So many of our schemes from the 19th century have turned demonic so that peace-keeping forces are rapists, humane societies are money-machines, and hospitals are bombed.  What are churches?  What is the putative role of specifically religious institutions in a world where nothing is sacred?

It’s clear that the journey of the individual has become even more intensely a search for the Sacred, that transcends even individual survival.  Thus, the abuse of the pink perineum as a way of waging war is an abomination.  The  use of someone’s perineum for enjoyment in the face of social disruption is ill-advised but human.  It speaks to a greater lack that the individual is not addressing, but there is always the tantalizing hint that sex is sometimes sacred.  Ceremonies, even those of being drummed out, are not enough.  We must look to the swirling fractals of understanding the Big Picture and I mean galactic, not “me and my neighbors.”

Place settings are from Judy Chicago's Supper Party.

This conversation is not merely an address in a venue on Boston’s Berry Street.  It is now on the Internet and global, googleable.