It seems impossible (and in hindsight, sheer folly) but three weeks ago someone in the chat during our streaming church service mentioned how they would miss our annual women’s retreat. By the time we were moving from our YouTube channel to the Zoom coffee hour, we were requesting a breakout room to talk about the possibility of an online retreat. Three weeks ago. And this weekend, it happened, and it was good.
As I recall, it used to be like this: a rush hour drive to a peaceful, nicely-appointed retreat center, gathering with thirty or so other women to share stories, take long walks, and enjoy a break from the everyday. This would be different; no driving was involved. But other than that, couldn’t we still share, walk, and create a sense of separation from...whatever we needed to get away from? Instead of the snack collection in the break room, we were limited to the contents of our own cupboards. Most of us had to figure out how to maintain a retreat state of mind while occupying a household going about their own business. For me, this meant setting myself up in the bedroom of our four-room apartment, with access to the master bath, while my husband had free reign of the three other rooms and the second bath.
I filled a pitcher with ice water, brought in my journal and pens, and made sure I had a small supply of snacks: dark chocolate, a pear, and some granola bars. It felt right.
We had a website to organize the schedule and invite interaction. We had a yoga, a craft activity, and even a Zoom dance party, and lots more. We had Zoom gatherings for meals, with small group breakout “tables” to replicate the cafeteria experience at the retreat center, a setting that many women remembered fondly as locations for creating and deepening relationships. We had a profoundly spiritual opening and closing. If you build it, they will come; we had over sixty registrations. Not everyone attended every session, but that was true of our earlier retreats. (I was notorious for “playing hookey” from retreats and heading to nearby brewpubs.)
So this afternoon, I am basking in the glow of a weekend well-spent. I am grateful for my community, for technology that can bring us together in hard times. I am grateful for the fearless women who stepped up to do this crazy thing, and for the trusting women who signed up t9 come alone for the ride, no matter how bumpy it might be.
Was it a real retreat? My friend Janne caught this screen shot of me during the closing meditation. It certainly felt like it.
Covid-19: Prison Report
I wasn't sure I should write this post. I have been corresponding with an inmate at a federal correctional institution for going on five years now, as part of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship's Worthy Now ministry. We exchange letters every few months, usually just sharing notes on the weather, books we are reading and other mundane topics. But this week I got a letter from him that I feel compelled to share. I am not going to reveal his location, name, or any information that might help identify him.
The unit he is in is low security, for nonviolent offenders, many of whom are also over fifty.
The virus hit [low security] first, brought in by the guards. At first, they did nothing - several people (including me) went to medical with shortness of breath, hard to breathe, no taste, no smell, aches...we were all sent back to our units - if you didn't have a temp you were fine! Consequently the virus ended up running rampant thru our building. 10+ went to the hospital on ventilators, 3 died.Then, in their wisdom, they ... put people with temps [together in one unit]...distributed [people already in that unit] to other units.
The people in those other units were then effectively locked in; no outside time at all. They were also informed about the need for "social distancing" and handwashing, and given a 4 ounce bottle of soap every week. Imagine an open space with a TV and tables for four, surrounded by open "rooms" (cubicles with no doors) furnished with bunk beds for 2 or 3 people.
After [several] weeks they issued two disposable masks; after a month and a half they gave us...cloth masks. Most of the guards have them - some don't wear them at all. [Nearly 30] guards are infected here. Not sure how many inmates since the Board of Prison numbers don't match the union numbers and none match the local hospital numbers.
They haven't tested that many. I had it and I know most in my unit had it. They did pull out ... guys with temps and moved them into the quarantine unit but unless you had a temp they did nothing. I was one of those. It got so bad my fingers were blue and I had a very difficult time breathing.
He is better now, and has learned that his release date has been moved up by six months, so he will be moved to a halfway house in about 18 months.
Every day, I feel more ashamed and angry. I just channeled some of that emotion into a donation to the Center for Prison Reform.
My alternate history, part 1: religion
So now that I have recapped my experiences visiting my home church in North Platte, let's go deeper and answer the question, "Would I still be a Lutheran if I had not moved away". It's quite possible I would still belong to First Evangelical Lutheran Church. After all, I am the person who posts the same thing at the beginning of Lent every year:
I want to give up inertia for Lent, but I can't get started.
I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring in the fall of 1982, and am still a member, despite ministerial crises and all the usual nonsense that goes on in any organized religious community. But it's still my community, and the longer I stay the harder is it to leave, because my social life is firmly rooted there. I can't even contemplate retiring elsewhere because it would mean leaving nearly all of my friends, and I have already done that enough times for one lifetime.
So if I still lived in North Platte, I might be one of the gray-haired ladies who are holding the congregation together, even as two more Lutheran churches opened in town. And even though the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians are (reportedly) more liberal. But I would probably not be theologically Lutheran, and here's why:
See the little angel on the right, looking up at the tin-foil covered toilet plunger? That's four-year-old-me. There are three photos of this Christmas pageant from 1953, and in every single one I am peering at something, instead of being a good little angel. In one, I am giving the photographer the side eye. In the other, I am peeking into the manger, looking at the flashlight playing the part of Baby Jesus. That was me -- like the Elephant's Child, insatiably curious. Once I learned the hard truth about Santa Claus, I also became incorrigiably skeptical. We had family "devotions" every night as long as we lived in North Platte, complete with a reading from scripture and a story from our Bible storybook. But I also read Grimm's Fairy Tales, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, Mary Poppins, and lots of Dr. Seuss.
When I moved to New Jersey, two things happened that set me on the path to Unitarian Universalism, even though it would be another 35 years before I walked into a UU church. The first was a sixth grade unit on ancient Egypt. The teacher was describing the Egyptian belief that after death their souls (located in their preserved heart) would be weighed/judged by the gods. The rest of the class laughed. I thought, "What if they were right?"
The second thing happened my first year of confirmation class at Zion Lutheran Church, in Westwood, New Jersey. The Eichmann trial was in the news, and it was the first time I had ever heard of the Holocaust. Don't be shocked; I am half German on my mother's side and we did Not Mention the War.
But images of the Holocaust were in Life magazine, which arrived in our house every week. I had Jewish classmates and friends, including my Girl Scout leader and most of the girls in our troop. The lesson in confirmation class that week was the core Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith. As the sweet, elderly German pastor explained, that meant that the only path to salvation was belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Everyone else was going to Hell. "Even the Jewish babies?" I asked, thinking of the horrific photos in Life. And Pastor Jacob shrugged and said "I'm sorry". At that moment I became a Universalist.
So, assuming I would have encountered the same challenges to my faith in North Platte (except for the Jewish friends part), where would that lead me? in my alternative history of myself, I would take my skeptical, curious self to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and one of two things would happen. The first possibility is that I would discover Unitarian Universalism and find a home, as I finally did in 1982. The second is that I would go to my father's alma mater in my birthplace in Fremont, Nebraska, major in religion and follow in Elizabeth Platz's footsteps and become a Lutheran minister. After all, I do come from a line of pastors. Maybe the Reformation was not the end of Revelation.
Feast your eyes. This is the view of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, taken from the balcony during the service today. There were two beautiful things. First, the quilts. These are the quilts completed by the ladies of the church in the last year, ready to be given to the homeless, the needy, the refugee.
The other beautiful thing was the roll call of saints, members of the community who had died in the last year. Among those names was a familiar one: Ardith Woolson, probably my mother's best friend in North Platte. She and her husband Walt were frequent guests in our home; I have photos of them sharing Christmas dinner with us. We saw them when we came through NP back in 1993. I missed seeing her by just a few months; she died in August. But I was able to show her photo to her friends and share my memories of her, and Walt, and their son Alfred.
This was my fourth visit to First Lutheran, and my second service. I have been thinking quite a bit about whether this would still be my church home if we had not moved. I left the Lutheran church fifty years ago, unable to reconcile my own beliefs with church doctrine. I have been a Unitarian Universalist for 34 years. I remember our minister, Paul Johnson, staying that he left the Lutheran seminary when he realized that everything he believed about Jesus was reduced to just a comma in the Apostles' Creed. That comma between "born of the Virgin Mary" and "suffered under Pontius Pilate", which is all the reference there is to his core teachings: love God, and love your neighbor. have probably been a universalist since I was ten or eleven. I gave up on the Trinity a bit later, along with the divinity of Jesus. But I have also been a member of the same UU congregation for that entire time, through good times and bad. Community matters to me, and this community still feels like home. There aren't any more theologically liberal options here; I suspect I would not be the only person in North Platte choosing community despite differences in belief. I just don't imagine I'd be teaching Sunday School!
North Platte by foot.
i was up before dawn -- not hard, since North Platte teeters on the western edge of Central Time Zone and sunrise is about 8 a.m. this time of year. Despite a forecast of near record-breaking 80-degree heat later in the day, it was 41 degrees at 6:30. Welcome to the high plains. I had an article to revise for publication and a stack of email to answer, so I declared Day 2 my official people-watching day and headed to the local coffee shop, reputed to be where locals gather downtown. And was it ever!
The Espresso Shop had everything you can get at your local Starbucks, all delivered with an extra helping of Nebraska Nice. I ordered the biggest skim latte they had and settled down with my laptop, sneaking glances at the other customers. (I eavesdropped a little too, there was a discussion about the price of hay that eluded me completely.) the clientele was an interesting satorial mix -- work jeans and trucker hats, novelty t-shirts, some business casual. In my boot cut jeans, solid blue t-shirt and black cardigan, accessorized with a batik scarf, I actually felt a little overdressed. I was the only woman I saw all day wearing a decorative scarf. Who would have thought that I would be the snappiest dresser on Jeffers Street?
Once I finished my work, I set out to walk around the old downtown, once so familiar and now so changed. The Pawnee Hotel, still the tallest building in town, sits empty and waiting for its next act. The Paramount Theater across the street is a hippie clothing store. The Fox Theater, where my brother and I watched Don Winslow of the Navy serials and cartoon marathons, is now home to the local amateur theater company. I may get a ticket to their next production just to get a look at the inside.
Turning west, I saw a familiar bell tower a few blocks away -- my old spiritual home, the 1st Evangelical Lutheran Church. In the building, I was struck with so many odd memories. The round posts in the parish hall were still there -- of course! They have to hold up the building; but they also were good for twirling around when cover dish suppers got too boring. I went upstairs to the sanctuary and it was all the same, except the carpet, which couldn't possibly be the original. How many Sundays did I sit looking at these very same stained glass windows?
The hymns were still posted on the board, so I looked them up. The second two were after my time and unfamiliar, but the first was "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" set to the tune Hyfrydol. The melody is a favorite of mine, even more so now that Peter Mayer has written the beautiful words of "Blue Boat Home" for this sweet old tune.
This Sunday is Reformation Sunday, a very big deal in the denomination that traces its history to a firebrand monk nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church. I am planning to go, probably attending the 8:30 a.m. "traditional" service, and staying for coffee and donuts afterwards (of course!) On the way out, I also bought a ticket for the Harvest Dinner next week. Hope they don't hold it against me that I drifted away from the Trinity and became a Unitarian Universalist. I'd like to believe that a modern Luther would also have a quibble or two with church doctrine, and would add a few more theses to his very long list.
Where have I been?
It's been quiet here, I know! And I am behind on my First Date Schedule, as well. Here is a quick recap of my last two weeks:
I attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Columbus, Ohio, from June 21 to 27. My head is still spinning from a week full of business meetings, chats with friends new and old, and fabulous music and worship. Here is a sample: poet/musician's "god is no noun", the meditation from the Sunday morning worship service. And a nice Storified look at the week on social media. These are the kinds of experiences that convinced me to get a UU flaming chalice tattoo on my 60th birthday.
Then as soon as we got home, I went back to work on the worship service I was leading at my church on July 3. We have two professional ministers, but in the summer, our services are led by members or visiting speakers. This year the worship committee organized a series on aging, with speakers representing the 30s, 40s, etc. (ages, not years). They wanted me and Jim to do the 60s, but I suggested doing a "framing" sermon on how our culture shapes our stories about age. It was perhaps half done. By June 30, it was 2/3 done. (I will post a link when I am done tidying it up.)
I got up on Friday morning to a husband in pain, and spent most of the next 14 hours in the emergency room with him. Life is what happens when you are making other plans, right? John Lennon was so astute. Somehow, between trips to the hospital as they moved him from ER to observation to a regular room, I finished the sermon, found a replacement pianist for my musical partner, and delivered the worship service. Whoosh!
So now it's Monday, and he's still recovering. I just finished answering all my emails and am about to head to the hospital again to check up on his progress. This will probably be a great night to watch Dil To Pagil Hai! I am accepting all thoughts, prayers, meditations, candles, and other expressions of care and healing.
You may have seen the meme about living your life in such a way that the Westboro Baptist Church (correction: the Westboro UnChristian Hate Group) pickets your funeral. It looks like I won't have to wait that long! They are planning to grace the convention I'm attending next week in Ohio.
Later note: It has come to my attention that WBS thinks the name of the denomination is Unity Universalism. Oh, well. I'll wear my T-shirt so they can see the correct one.