One of the features of the Great Falls Tribune that I always look for and enjoy is a Saturday column on the Religion page called “At the Water’s Edge,” by Joan Uda, a retired Methodist minister who is married to another retired Methodist minister. Joan is about my age and on the surface, if you didn’t know much about religion and assumed that everyone is just different kinds of Christian, you might think she was a lot like me. I’m a retired minister, too, but my circumstances and education are radically different.
Joan constantly works on the theme of salvation by grace, in quite concrete ways. Not long ago she had heart trouble, but has now recovered. At one point in her life she was struggling with children, income, and the short-comings of her own temperament, but then met her present pretty-terrific husband who helped her solve all those problems. And so on. In John Wesley fashion, she confronts small afflictions everywhere and through self-examination finds her faults so as to admit and address them.
Today the lesson was ants. Proverbs 6:6-8. A neglected anthill in her yard had grown to the point where it ate her Diablo ninebark bush, necessitating the use of poison. The ants were a quite literal affliction, biting her hands and feet every time she tried to interfere with them.
I sympathize, since I’m at war with ants all the time at my place, too. Nothing so dramatic as fire ants or soldier ants -- just hills of the critters always pushing for more food. This time of year I spend a bit of money on ant baits and sprays myself. Since the neighbors don’t, I’m basically creating a vacuum for the next ant tribe over to invade as soon as the poison wears off. I haven’t lost any bushes, but my front yard border suffers from lack of weeding. Gloves don’t help. Long sleeves don’t help. The cats do their part by rolling in anthills -- nice soft dirt -- thus picking up ants to bring into my lap and bed.
So Joan and I definitely live in the same world, this planet surface where we have to elbow other critters over to make room for us. We just see it differently, but not in contradictory ways. The biggest difference is not religious but rather connubial. She is married with children and therefore her whole complex life is invested in the role of women as wife and mother: the expectations, the rewards, the daily duties. I’m solitary, celibate, nearly sequestered. The biggest source of discipline in my life (aside from cats) is being Diabetes II, or as they now say, “borderline diabetic.” So we have aging bodies in common, but in different ways. My writing occupies the place her family takes.
We both have books out that deal with religion. Mine is prairie sermons gathered up by the Edmonton Unitarian Church and I sell them out of my hip pocket: “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke” ($10 plus postage). Liberal Christians would not be upset by these sermons, though they are not theist, let alone Christian. The darker, tougher parts were edited out by the church members and I did not take on gays, abortion, pacifism, the death penalty, the right to die, or any of the other patented hot-button issues of the far right.
Joan doesn’t much address those either. In the Wesleyan style she minds her own business and shows her morality by not drinking, not smoking, not cussing, rather than by criticizing others. Her style is “inspirational,” the “chicken soup” genre. Her publishing website is http://www.riceuniverse.net/joanuda/index.html and her books are available there or at local bookstores. So far as I know, these are the only books she writes. I mean, no fiction, no biographies, and so on. I don’t know whether her husband also writes. Actually, the columns originate with the Helena Independent Record and her post office is in East Helena.
Helena Methodism has always been a hot bed of good thinking and strong liberal politics. The Harper and Holmes ministerial families, connected through the strong friendships and good works of their children (Notably the Montana Lumberjack Ballet Company and the really EXCELLENT bronze sculptures of Tim Holmes), have always been friends of Unitarians. George Harper specifically was a major help when we re-formed the Unitarian Fellowship there in 1982.
But Joan Uda speaks from inside the theological circle, meaning that she is a believer. It’s all Truth to her, but it’s metaphor to me. My education at the U of Chicago Divinity School was alongside Ph.D. scholars of religion of every kind, as a historical and social phenomenon. To me Christianity was and remains simply one tribal expression of world-patterning based on a desert tribal chieftain (growing out of Judaism and sprouting into Islam). My own belief system is constructed by me from my own experience, philosophy, and reading. What’s surprising about it to some people is that Joan and I end up in the same place. I don’t smoke, drink, dance or play cards -- I DO cuss! Startled the Valier ladies recently at a committee meeting. My temperament is hopeless. I do believe in the sanctity of marriage (which is part of the reason I opt out), and I get bitten by ants just the same as she does.
It would be interesting for us to speak together sometime -- not in a debate style, but as a conversation to model how differences can co-exist, as much in laughter as in intellectual dueling. But who would attend? I think her readers would be there with bells on, interested in community and personal contact. I suspect they’re mostly local, within the range of the newspaper distribution. Mine are scattered across continents and would rather read.
I’m head, she’s heart, if you like that symbolism -- neglecting the fact that you can’t think without your heart pumping up blood and the heart can’t beat without a little prompting from the head. And how come the gut always gets left out? Anyway, I suspect that the biggest commonality between us is that we both believe in “whole person” religion.