Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunday: the Phunhouse Girls

It seemed like an essential expression of hospitality to invite out-of-town guests to stop by for brunch before they took to the road. Susan had arranged for a former student to cater a simple meal so that we could concentrate on people rather than food. Originally it was set to begin at ten, but we learned at the reception that some folks wanted to be on the road earlier; since we knew the food would be here, we moved the time up to 8:30. Fortunately most of the guests were as tired as we were, so I likely got away with my incoherent moments.

The last to arrive and the last to leave were the members of the wedding party, most of them Kate's former roommates from "the Phunhouse." (The "ph" is, of course, homage to the band Phish) They lived together for two years. At the time it was not encouraging to have our daughter move into a place called The Phunhouse, a shrine to non-stop partying, but they have all grown into responsible adults, and are still very close friends. I officiated at Kristin's wedding; these girls have been like family to us for more than a decade. It was so fitting that the last gathering of the weekend would be with them.

Then it was just Kate, Eric, Colin, us, and Kona the bulldog. We held a small birthday party for Colin before he took to the road, and then Kate and Eric left for the Milwaukee airport and their morning flight to St. Lucia. We get to keep the bulldog for a week, which is the most generous wedding present we gave them.

Saturday: Wedding Day

We had been warned that our phone would be ringing a lot, and it was. Bob and Bonnie Buchanan hosted a marvelous brunch at their house, with Jone Reister serving many gallons of coffee to the Minnesota folks (what is it with Minnesotans and coffee?). Bob gave one guest a tour of the house, and that guy began giving tours to everyone else; it is a pretty neat house.

The wedding was at four, but Susan and I had to be there around two. I seemed to find plenty to keep my occupied; fortunately I still pretty much know where to find everything at First Congo: light switches, music stands, thermostats, full-length mirror... It was all something of a whirlwind.

One immodest sentence: our daughter was drop-dead gorgeous! Steve led a warm, moving, and very hospitable ceremony. I did not cry, I swear.

Our wonderful photographer, Kim Klein, kept the photo session moving, but it still took awhile, and Susan and I stayed to clean up all the - there is no other word for this - crap that the bridal party had left strewn around. Eric and Kate drove to the club in Bob Buchanan's SmartCar (the anti-limo). Most of the guests went in the shuttle bus we had contracted for the occasion. That had been one of Kate's bottom lines: "my friends are not driving after the reception!" Good call, and well worth the money. As near as I could tell nobody was blotto, but it is good to have no deaths on our conscience.

The club was (immodest again) more beautifully decorated than I have ever seen it, largely thanks to Eric's cousin, Paul, who hauled calla lilies over from Minnesota and decorated the church and club. Truly elegant. The challenge and frustration at a wedding reception is trying to extend hospitality to all of the guests, particularly you own friends and families: I fear we were only partially successful. It was such an amazing mix: our neighbors from our U.P. cabin, a dear friend from New Jersey, local friends old and new, Susan's family, and all of Kate and Eric's friends who have been precious to us for so many years. They came from Texas, New England, even Hawaii...

After eleven it was down to the hard-core dancers and party people, and they did not slow down until the music stopped at midnight. It was a special joy to dance with my nieces, who have grown into beautiful and very dear young women. The shuttle bus had to do a second "final run" at 12:20, the driver smiling tolerantly while being serenaded by a wretched version of "the wheels on the bus." Susan and I, of course, had to stay to gather things up, so it was well after one when we got home and began to clean the house for the Sunday morning brunch. Sometime after two we settled in for a short, fitful nap. We learned that most everyone else, including the parents of the groom, shut down the downtown bars, and some continued to party in their rooms until four. Amazing stamina, questionable judgment...

Friday: My Chevy Chase Imitation

The day before a wedding is less demanding if you are a guy. Kate spent an obscene amount of time having her nails done, Susan entertained her mother all day, and my only responsibility was taking her mother's boyfriend to lunch. Colin arrived in the afternoon. About 90 minutes before the rehearsal, Kate asked me to run the name cards to the country club, so Colin and I hopped in my car. Which was when he noticed the puddle under Susan's car - it was leaking coolant pretty badly. I made a Monday appointment with the dealer and figured we should add some anti-freeze. We headed for Fleet Farm, but learned than Audis only accept something called G12 which must be purchased from the dealer and costs $25 a gallon (one more reason to avoid German cars). By the time we had picked that up I was running well behind, and still had to stop by the country club. I got home fifteen minutes after we should have been on our way, and still needed to change clothes.

By the time I was ready, everyone else had left for the church. We decided that taking Susan's car would not be a good idea, and Eric had his (locked) car parked behind mine in the driveway. Normally I would have taken several swings in and out of the garage to get safely past him but we were running late, and I just knew I could do it in one. I kept my eye glued to his bumper in the right-hand outside mirror. I did not keep my eye glued to the driver's side mirror, which smashed into the garage door track and shattered into pieces. The impact also dented the track and knocked the "don't crush a toddler" sensors mounted to it, so the garage door would neither go up or down. More time went by as I tried to repair it and finally disconnected the door from the opener. It was a scene from "National Lampoon's Family Wedding"...

So, with one car disabled and the other damaged, we went to the church. Steve Savides ran a very relaxed rehearsal, and the out of town guests oohed and aahed appropriately over the sanctuary.

The dinner was at Il Angolo, which was closed to the public for the occasion. There were maybe forty people - Loes had invited many of the Minnesota friends to attend. Wonderful food, wonderful service, a good time had by all. Susan and I then went to the bar at the Paper Valley to spend some time with other guests who had arrived; it was very, very loud. When we got home at last, there was an RSVP on the answering machine: "We'll be there!" So much for final meal counts and table assignments...

Prelude to a Wedding

It is interesting how much one thinks about not getting sick or injured in the weeks and days leading up to a daughter’s wedding, which is better enjoyed without, say, crutches. I had a terrible virus a week before the wedding, but began feeling human again on Wednesday, which was cutting it close. Thursday was when folks began rolling into town. We had a casual dinner for Kate and Eric, his parents, Susan’s mother and her boyfriend. All but Kate and Eric left relatively early, and the four of us relaxed for a bit and went to bed at a sensible hour, knowing how full the next few days would be…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Brewster Village Update

Call this one a little “follow up on the story” post, a violation of my current practice of only posting brief essays on this blog. It has been more than ten weeks since things first blew up at Brewster Village when my former blog became the buzz among the staff. The first issue to emerge was that even though I had referred to residents only by the first letter of their first name, staff could easily identify them through my descriptions and stories. This led to both internal and external HIPAA investigations, and I was relieved of duties while they were conducted.

A second issue then emerged, one that nobody at BV or the county had previously had on their radar. After a resident died, I often wrote a brief tribute to them, including a picture when available. It turns out that HIPAA protection does not cease merely because you are six feet under. Who knew? You may be dead, but at least your health insurance cannot be canceled.

I have had virtually no contact with Brewster Village during this time. I have had several phone chats with the county compliance officer, and today had a meeting with him and the county’s corporate counsel. They have decided that they are required to contact everyone who was ever mentioned in the blog, no matter how discreetly, and inform them that their privacy has been violated. This includes living residents, guardians of those not competent to manage their own affairs, and guardians of deceased residents. The letter will note that the violations took place in the context of a personal journal and that the intent was to honor and affirm them, but that a violation took place none the less. They will apologize, and hope that no-one is angered to the point of litigation.

It was a civil and businesslike conversation, but painful for me. In the course of the conversation I learned that my volunteer position at Brewster Village has been permanently eliminated by the administrator. I had pretty much assumed that was, or would be, the case, but it would have been nice to hear it directly from him. I imagine he is not the happiest guy in the world right now, since it is documented that he was aware of the blog, had read portions of it some time ago, and had given permission for me to continue. I hope a point may come where we can have a face-to-face conversation. I would also value an opportunity to apologize personally to any residents or staff who have been hurt in any way, but it was made clear today that this is not under my control.

So now I wait to see how the next part of the story unfolds: if there is such a thing as “closure” (I have always been suspicious of the term; I am not convinced there is ever true closure in this life) it remains some distance off. When I am certain that all dust has settled I will ponder a new way to invest myself in significant volunteer service. Sadly, it will not likely be in nursing home chaplaincy: imagine trying to explain all this to the director of another facility!

Brewster Village has been central to my world for these past two years, and there is deep grief in knowing that I will not be a part of its life in the future. Sixty years old and – sad to say – my hindsight is still a lot better than my foresight.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Snow Tire Rant

When I purchased my little Volvo coupe late in the spring, I knew that it had big honking wheels with high-performance summer tires, but did not give the matter much thought beyond noting that I would need to change over to snow tires for the winter. Over the last month, I have had cause to give the matter much thought. Here are some of my learnings:
1. Very few snow tires are manufactured in the 215/45-18 size. Those that are manufactured are all high performance and very expensive.
2. In addition to being very expensive, snow tires in this size are not particularly effective in the snow. It is the equivalent of trying to walk in clown shoes: tires that big and wide spread the car’s weight over a larger surface area, and therefore do not grip snow and ice very well. They also have a tendency to push the snow ahead of them, functioning like rubber snowplows.
3. Because the fancy alloy wheels on the Volvo cannot accommodate clip-on weights, stick-on weights must be used to rebalance the wheels every time you switch from summer to winter tires or vice versa, raising the cost to $60 - $100 a pop.
4. The ideal for winter driving is smaller, narrower snow tires, meaning buying a second set of wheels that are 2” smaller in diameter and mounting 205/55-16 tires.
5. These will look kinda dorky in wheel openings designed for bigger wheels.
6. In theory, buying smaller wheels and tires will cost less over the course of two or three years than purchasing big honking snow tires that do not perform well. This is because many different snow tires are made in the smaller size, and most of them cost less than half what the big, high-performance ones do. Also, there is no ongoing cost of remounting and rebalancing twice a year. Sounds like a winner, right? Ah, but…
7. Federal regulations will not permit any tire dealer to sell or install wheels that disable an “essential safety feature” of an automobile (just as a licensed electrician cannot install a non-GFI outlet near a water source).
8. The Volvo has pressure sensors mounted in each wheel (as I believe all new automobiles are now required to, or soon will be).
9. Pressure sensors are essential safety features.
10. Pressure sensors are also expensive. Which takes us back to point six, which is now negated by the additional cost of having pressure sensors mounted in each winter wheel.
11. Just as I as a homeowner can install a non-GFI (“ground fault interrupter” for those who enjoy technical terms) outlet in my own kitchen but an electrician cannot, I am free to buy wheels without pressure sensor and install them myself, so long as I do not admit that they will go on a car equipped with pressure sensors (See point six, where tire dealers may not knowingly sell a wheel that will compromise an “essential safety feature”).
12. Exercising my rights as a citizen would require me to store the wheels not in use in my crowded garage, swap them out twice a year myself, and spend the winter looking at red lights on my dashboard warning me that my tires are all completely flat. So,
13. I have bitten the bullet and ordered tires and wheels with pressure sensors. But now I am starting to wonder if I should have voted for McCain after all.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Modest Proposal on "Same-Sex Marriage"

My only major disappointment in the election was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, prohibiting same-sex marriages. But I wonder if we need to rethink the entire issue in completely different terms.

There are a lot of socially/religiously conservative folks who honestly fear “the Gay Agenda” (I have never figured out exactly what this agenda is supposed to be: mandatory homosexuality?), but a fair number of them claim to have Gay friends they value and support civil rights for same-sex couples. How you can fear the Gay Agenda and support civil rights for Gays is something of a mystery to me, but it appears to be true none-the-less.

Likewise there are a fair number of social progressives who are passionate about “Gay rights” but waffle a bit when the word “marriage” is used to describe committed same-sex partnerships. In the commitment services at which I have officiated over the years I have never used the word “marriage,” primarily because I wear two hats when officiating, one for the church and one for the state of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin does not allow me to perform a “marriage” for two persons of the same gender. But I must confess that I also struggle with that word in theological terms. I agree with Stanley Hauerwas that God is likely a good deal less fascinated by our genitals than we are, and that the heart of Biblical teachings on relationships is not about gender orientation but about fidelity and commitment, but still the “M word” makes me squirm a little bit.

So here’s a potential solution: we eliminate the term “marriage” from civil law for all persons, gay or straight, and the states issue only “civil union licenses” rather than marriage licenses. The state assumes its proper role, which is to guarantee legal rights and protections to committed partners regardless of orientation. Then religious communities assume their proper role, which is to bless the spiritual commitment of marriage in accordance with a given religious community’s doctrines and practices. Some religious communities/denominations, including my own, would bless spiritual marriages for same-sex couples while many others would not. Fine. If two nice Mormon boys fall in love and want to share in a civil union, they would have that right. If they also want to be married in the eyes of God, they would need to decide if that is a higher priority than remaining Mormon, because their church is not going to permit them to marry.

Negatively, this would tend to isolate folks into spiritual communities with like-minded folks, perhaps contributing to our division as a society (which, of course, is already the case). Positively, it could lead more people to experience how the theology of their faith tradition shapes and forms how we live together in community: "this is who we are, this is what we believe, this is how we live."

It would also make it easier for faith communities to say “no” to people who hold no religious faith but still want the church to perform their marriage ceremony; “marriage” in the church would be reserved for those who understand that it is a spiritual commitment and who genuinely want to make that commitment. This being a reputedly free country, persons who do not hold religious convictions would remain perfectly free to declare themselves “married” – who’s gonna stop ‘em? – and could have a ceremony performed by a New Age Guru with feathers and crystals and tap-dancing squirrels if they wish. But churches, synagogues and temples would no longer need to prostitute themselves by accommodating requests from couples who desire a “church wedding” but would just as soon not have God mentioned.

It’s not going to happen, of course, if only because it makes too much sense, and because the tradition of church weddings is so deeply established in our culture. I remember when my colleague Lillian met with a couple who had asked her to marry them in her church, and they could not identify a single religious belief they held. “Why do you want to be married in the church, then?” Lillian asked reasonably. The bride giggled: “I just always pictured myself walking down an aisle.” Lillian nodded understandingly. “Have you considered being married in a supermarket?”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Living in Two Christian Communities

We have two “church families” we dearly love, and for the foreseeable future we are likely to have a foot in each. They could hardly be more different. More than two years after my departure, First Congregational is filled with life and energy, with many good things happening. I could not be more delighted. We have been attending about every other week, and have been made to feel very welcome. There are so many people we cherish there, and the place is rich with memories for me. Which, of course, is a part of my struggle with returning there.

It is the same, yet different, which is how it should be. Churches evolve, and a new leader reshapes the church’s identity in significant ways. I could not ask for a better successor than Steve Savides, and I know that “my baby is in good hands.” But (and there is also a “but” or two)… When I attend I am reminded that I was probably about as “confessional” a senior pastor as a large Mainline congregation could handle, and that Steve has moved the church a few nudges back towards “mainline norms.” I have spent the last couple of years associating mostly with progressive Evangelical folk, which makes it a bit of a challenge to readjust to less Christocentric Mainline theology. It is hardly a huge, sweeping change – I suspect few members have even noticed – and it may say more about how my own journey has evolved than anything else. And then there is also the issue of how deeply I can participate in the life of First Congo while honoring ethical boundaries: Sunday worship is fine, as are occasional fellowship activities, but at least for another year or two that will be all that I permit myself. Certainly I can never offer comments or opinions about any dimension of congregational life, a limitation that makes me feel more like “visitor” than “member.”

Then there is San Damiano, the altogether peculiar little emergent church community we have been a part of for more than 18 months. It is an assemblage of quirky, interesting and diverse folks we have come to love dearly. The worship is sometimes rambly and formless, and some weeks the content is there and some weeks it is not. Its long-term survival is very much an open question as there seems to be no collective will to make “institutional viability” a focus. If emergent churches in general break all the rules about how a Christian church is organized and conducted, then San Damiano breaks all the rules about how an emergent churches are organized and conducted. Sometimes it makes he want to tear my hair out, but as the guy in Breakback Mountain said, “I wish I could quit you.” As long as there is a San Damiano, it will likely continue to claim a part of my heart and soul.

This was reinforced this morning when my friend Mike and I visited yet another new church in the valley, “The Mission Church.” Its story has amazing parallels with San Damiano’s: started by a youth pastor who served in a big-box Evangelical Church (Pathways, in this case) with an initial core of teens from that youth program and their parents, along with an odd smattering of folks with personal affection for the pastor. They meet in a dance studio, which has a different feel from meeting in a bar. They cover all the mirrors on the wall with black cloth so that folks at worship do not have to stare at their own reflections, like San Damiano has to cover the least-tasteful beer poster in the room used for “kids’ church.” Oh, and The Mission Church folks sit on folding chairs rather than barstools, which has some advantages for us older folks.

At least for now, they have appropriated far more norms from “big box worship,” including a full rock and roll praise band, which was bit jarring to me after the musical simplicity of San Damiano. The sermon also struck me as “big box,” blending scripture with pop psychology and funny stories. It was not a bad sermon by any means, but it could have passed for a corporate team-building pep talk…

Lots of teens there, many of the boys looking bored and sullen, as teen boys are supposed to do. It made me aware that we have almost no teens left at San Damiano – being more than two years older than The Mission Church, the teens who had been in Greg’s youth group at Christ the Rock have now grown up and graduated. In some ways I was experiencing what San Damiano was like at its beginning; as we were leaving Mike commented that he felt like he had just attended a youth group meeting…

Oh, I even had the lady behind me who seems to be sitting behind me whenever I visit a big-box Evangelical church; the lady who talks to Jesus through the entire service. I think it is mandatory to have at least one of those in every Evangelical worship service.

So, it was nice to visit, but it served as reminder there is likely no “perfect fit” church out there for me. The part of me that loves sound liturgy, thoughtful sermons, timeless music and a passion for social justice will be fed at First Congregational. And the part of me that loves simple devotion to Jesus, meeting people where they are and embracing spiritual chaos will be fed at San Damiano.