Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Donations: Tax Deadline Approaches, but Don’t Get Taken While Giving!

The Tax Deadline Approaches:
Don’t Get Taken While Giving!
January Newsletter Column

You may be reading this as the Dec. 31 deadline for tax-deductible donations approaches.  Or maybe it’s the new year already, and you want to be intentional as you plan your philanthropic and charitable giving for the new year.  Of course, even without the tax benefits, many of us are moved to give and make a difference in the world.
No matter our personal circumstances or the amount of money and time that we can afford to share, giving to others is a life-affirming act.

Envelopes pile up on the desk and emails stack up in the in-box from many worthy causes–and some not-so-worthy operators.  My own giving guidelines are honed from reading broadly on the topic, web searches, volunteer leadership experience, and an early budget-office career.
I’ve also learned about giving from getting taken now and then.

My suggestions:

Give to what you know.  If you are volunteer for an organization–or if a coworker, close friend or family member is involved there–you will know if it’s doing relevant work, doing it effectively, managing money wisely, and not putting up its leaders in penthouses.  This is why I give the biggest chunk of my donations to this congregation, to the UU Service Committee, the UU Legislative Ministry in California, and to our two remaining UU theological schools– in Chicago and Berkeley.  When I know some of the staff, board members, or other volunteers, I have a better idea of what’s going on in an organization, and I can trust my money is being used well.

Give to what you value.  For example, I couldn’t imagine living in a community without a UU congregation or local Public Radio station, so I support them.

Give locally.  Most social change is forged and social services are delivered at the local level, not out of national headquarters. That’s why I try to give to local branches and chapters, rather than to respond to appeals from New York and Washington.  Every year at UUSS our members vote to select the Community Partner organizations with which we share our Sunday offering each week (such as Family Promise, the local SPCA).  I give in the offering basket with confidence that these were nominated and vetted by church members who have close knowledge of each organizations’ programs, staff and volunteer leadership, and who actually see the benefits of the work.

Give with awareness and intention  about what you’re gaining by giving.  Being reflective about what we get out of our generosity personally can help us avoid being manipulated by appeals to pity, guilt, urgency or drama.

Give after taking time to think about it.  Authentic fund raising professionals will respect your wish to take time to consider whether and how much to give.

Never give over the phone. That is, don’t give to solicitors over the phone (unless you are the one who makes the call to the organization).  Phone solicitors usually charge a large fee to the recipient organization.  Don’t give in response to an email unless you have an established relationship and receive regular emails from the organization.

Give to your own well-being.  Take care of yourself even as you strive to help others.  If you are paying high-interest finance charges, for example, work on getting those costs down rather than piling on debt. That will give you more financial security and more freedom to give in the future. Credit card companies don’t need your help.
Decide the total amount you can give in a year, either as a percentage of your income or your asset base or as a specific dollar amount withheld from your paycheck or drawn from your investments.

Of course, I barely follow that last bit of advice. Yes, I do set a percentage of my income for donations.  But when December rolls around, I realize that I can afford to give away more than I thought! This occurs to me as I reflect on the blessings of the past year and the blessings of my life.  When I pause to be grateful, it helps me to be generous.  And being generous makes me feel alive.

Happy New Year!
Yours in service,


Christmas Eve Candle Light Service Prayer 2009

Christmas Eve Prayer 2009

Family Minister                         UU Society of Sacramento, CA

I invite you to take a deep breath with me and let it out.   Now please join me in the spirit of reflection and hope as I offer these words of prayer.

Eternal Source of Love and Grace, bless us this night and bless our world with peace.  With dark skies and a chill in the outside air, we draw near for warmth and fellowship.  We gather to hear the story of a babe in a manger, sing songs about angels and shepherds, and notice one another’s beautiful faces reflected in the light of candles.  We give thanks for the children among us.  May their anticipation cheer us to open our hearts to wonder,  and to gratitude for the gifts of life.  We give thanks for the grownups, who not only bring rich memories of years past but also help us build new memories.

We give thanks for the blessings that give the season its texture:  music, literature, and other arts; special food and lots of it, and the personal donations of time and money that make a difference in the world.  Let us remember those who are working this night at various jobs, and care for those who are out of work and hoping for better times.

Many of those we love are traveling in this season; may they be safe and have good experiences.  On Tuesday our member Cxxxs Bxxxx had a car accident and now is in intensive care, as she recovers from neck surgery.  We send our love to Cxxxx.  May we send healing prayers to all those who suffer in body, mind or spirit.    For many of us, this season brings to mind those we have lost.  In our sadness may we find comfort in precious memories.  Among us are those with “sorrows unrelated to the season but which feel all the more pointed now.”[i] May we find ease in the embrace of community.  .

Given that we all have lonely times, may we strive to reach out so that we might give and receive the gifts of warmth, attention, and understanding.

On this night we call to mind those who are hungry, homeless or without stable housing.  Let us be grateful for people who extend the hand of compassion, generosity and hospitality, and who know how much it means to share with others.  We extend our care to those in zones of war, occupation and other places of violence, those who serve there and those who call such places home.  Let us pray for justice and reconciliation–and for enough courage to achieve such holy aims.

We give thanks for the abundance of this earth—for its gifts of food, water, wilderness, and countless dazzling forms of life whose claim to existence is no less worthy than our own.  May we grow in stewardship of the gifts of our precious planet.

While we observe Christmas tonight, we know that we live in a land of many faith traditions, each with its own gifts of wonder, wisdom, and compassion.  Let us call forth all the good will of humanity to share these gifts, and move toward the vision of an earth made fair.

Spirit of Life, bless us this night and bless our world with peace.  So may it be.

Now let us take a half-minute of silence to be present in our bodies and our breathing, to feel ourselves fully here, together on this night.

[i] Quoted from an email from a parishioner this morning.

Winter Solstice Sunday sermon–2009

Winter’s Wisdom

December 20, 2009

Family Minister,  UU Society of Sacramento


“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Deck the Halls,”“All Beautiful the March of Days.”


I grew up in the Midwest, and lived in Indiana and Illinois until my mid-30s.  We had cold winters there, but you could not count on a white Christmas—it didn’t snow that often or stay that cold.  Twelve years ago I moved west, to the San Jose area.  That was where I learned that winter can happen without snow.  One sunny afternoon in San Francisco I sat at an outdoor café, without a coat—it was too warm.  I kept saying to myself:  “It’s December 31st!  I can’t believe it!”  Winter in the Bay Area, as well as in Sacramento, has lots of fog early in the morning, clear sunny days, chilly nights, and rain.

It’s pleasant here, and by now I’m used to our California climate.  Yet Midwestern weather patterns are imprinted on my soul. This makes it hard for me to keep track of dates and seasons.  Two weeks ago I strolled in my neighborhood where a strong wind had showered the streets with brown leaves, and kept enough yellow and red leaves on the branches of the big trees to play with the bright warm sunshine.  The wind was strong and a bit chilly, so I walked on the sunny side of the street.  I said to myself, “What a perfect October day.” Then I remembered that it was December and there were 20 shopping days till Christmas.

Images of winter time in poetry, songs and essays are dominated by ice and snow.  Even though much of this country’s population lives in regions where snow seldom falls, memories are etched in frosty words and pictures.

The music and readings in our Unitarian Universalist hymnals reflect the New England origins of our faith tradition when it comes to climate and weather:  Snow, snow, snow.  Not many words to honor the rejuvenating rain of the western winters.  No poetry to evoke the longings we feel in Sacramento during July and August.  I mean longings like “Get Me Out of Here!”  No lines about our summer night’s cool release:  our beloved Delta breeze.
In the Bay Area I came to love how the hills turn green in the winter, soaking up the rains after the summer heat has taken the moisture and color from the grasses.  The poet Karl Shapiro wrote a poem of his appreciation of our Central Valley winters.  Formerly a professor at the University of California, Davis, Shapiro called his poem California Winter[i], simply enough.

Here’s the last few stanzas:

And skiers from the snow line driving home

Descend through almond orchards, olive farms.

Fig tree and palm tree — everything that warms

The imagination of the wintertime.

If the walls were older one would think of Rome:

If the land were stonier one would think of Spain.

But this land grows the oldest living things,

Trees that were young when Pharoahs ruled the world,

Trees whose new leaves are only just unfurled.

Beautiful they are not; they oppress the heart

With gigantism and with immortal wings;

And yet one feels the sumptuousness of this dirt.

It is raining in California, a straight rain

Cleaning the heavy oranges on the bough,

Filling the gardens till the gardens flow,

Shining the olives, tiling the gleaming tile,

Waxing the dark camellia leaves more green,

Flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile.

In appreciation of our own winter wonderland, and the rains that renew the land, let’s make it rain today.  As a minister I do not claim the power of prayer to bring on rain, or knowledge of any incantations, but our other minister does.  Doug, please make it happen.  [Congregation making sounds of a rainstorm.]


I have a confession.  I am a Christmas-season crank.  Why else would I be wearing a tie with Dr. Seuss’s “Grinch Who Stole Christmas” on it?  And why else would a best friend have given it to me years ago if she didn’t know this about me!

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song goes, but not for me.  Every December, as nights lengthen and obligations pile up, I have bouts of feeling overwhelmed, annoyed, sad, and downright unspiritual.  The reasons may include the shortness of daylight, unhappy memories of holiday seasons from my youth, and the race to get so many things done before the December 25th deadline.   Most years I don’t feel ready for Christmas …till February.

December makes me feel inadequate as a minister.  Our UU tradition validates many kinds of religious observances as well as civic and secular ones.  However, to be as inclusive as possible in making time for those observances, we’d have to make time for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany for starters–but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Human Rights Day, World AIDS Day, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Day, Pearl Harbor Day, New Year’s Day, the Islamic New Year and the Hindu observance of Diwali, in years when it falls in December.  Maybe you’ve thought of a seasonal observance that I’ve overlooked.

Last Monday I was leading an adult enrichment class, and we included the lighting of a Menorah, to acknowledge Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.  One member asked why we had put a Christmas tree in the sanctuary so early in December, but we didn’t have a Menorah in here last Sunday, right in the middle of the eight days of Hanukkah.  Trying to be non-defensive, I explained that our tree trimming party had been held early this year because I was organizing it, and was going to be out of town last Saturday.  And the Menorah?  This year, it slipped by me.  Last year, it didn’t.  Fortunately tonight we have an enthusiastic team of lay leaders organizing the Winter Solstice ritual and potluck dinner, so I’m confident it will happen.  All I have to do is remember to show up!

The month of December is an accumulation of celebrations, a month when holidays are added but not replaced.   But there were simpler times!  After the Puritan revolt in England in 1645, Christmas was cancelled.  When Massachusetts was a Puritan colony, Christmas was against the law from 1659 to 1681  And “anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.”[ii] And I thought that I was cranky!

In years past—long past—winter was a time to start slowing down, at least in cold northern climates.  The growing darkness and harsh weather would force people to ease their pace, huddle together, stay close to home, and gather round the fireplace, the hearth. A century ago in many parts of the country, the wood-burning fireplace was a household’s center of life, drawing folks together for warmth.  Nowadays the wood-burning fireplace is not usually a source of heat or a place for cooking in a house, but an architectural decoration.  It’s a source of nostalgia for an era that many of us didn’t experience.  Also in earlier times, winter provided obstacles to traveling large distances—this kept life simpler and slower, if no less difficult.  Now, the speed of modern travel and the comfort of warm cars has made it easy to become “heedless of the wind and weather.”  Of course, we’re lucky to be able to travel—except for the times we’re like those poor people now snarled in the snowfall on the East Coast.

So, noting such dramatic exceptions, I still think that in our time the winter cannot require us to slow down, especially in this local climate.  Winter can’t make us–but it still invites us–to take some time, stay inside, and go inward personally, to reflect and rest.

Sometimes the only thing that can make us pause or slow down is not our conscious choice but a crisis, like freezing rain, a power outage, an illness.  A hardworking friend has told me that he rarely has to take sick time and stay at home, but when he does get sick it gives him permission to let go.  It insists that he let go.  Being sick enough to have to stay home in bed–but not so ill that you are totally out of it–can be like a vacation, only you don’t get frequent flier miles for it.  Of course, many workers in our state and nation have no paid sick time for family needs or personal illness, and for those without health insurance, an illness can be a disaster, rather than a break from hard work.  Maybe it’s better not to count on a crisis to slow us down.

It takes intention and effort to take a break from our demanding lives.  How about that—it takes effort to let go!  For example, I try to counteract my December stress by keeping to my morning meditation and to my exercise routine as much as I can. I try to get a good night’s sleep.  But I’m not sure any of it works.  Even with all this, I still feel crazy, chaotic and cranky!  I can barely imagine how much worse off I would be without some ways to ground myself.  Actually I can remember Decembers past when I was much more frenzied.  Once was in such a distracted hurry that I backed into someone in a parking lot.  Another time, I filled my gas tank at a self-serve station and drove a mile down the road before I realized that I hadn’t paid.
I guess I’m better now.  I still dislike the early sunsets of this time of year, but I try to counteract my resentment by getting up from my desk in the afternoon at 4:30 or 5:00 and going for a short walk in the neighborhood.  It’s a way to ease myself into the evening, to greet the darkness instead of cursing it, as well as to get one last glimpse of daylight.  This helps me think of winter as an gentle invitation, rather than as a curse.  A song written by Shelley Jackson Denham says:  “Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me.  Let my thoughts go where they will; ease my mind profoundly.  And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal.  Gentle darkness, soft and still, bring your quiet to me.”  (SLT hymnal #55)

I can’t say for sure that any spiritual practice makes a big difference in my experience of the season, but I trust that it helps, even if I’m not able to do it every day.  It’s act of trust and faith that something is going on under the surface of life, something is worth waiting for.  That’s the message of our UU spiritual heritage:   Something is worth waiting for–in every single person, in each one of us.  The late Andrew Wyeth, a painter from Pennsylvania, said he preferred the landscape of a northern winter to that of spring.  He said:  “Something waits beneath [a winter landscape] — the whole story doesn’t show.”

I’ve been thinking of life as a garden, in particular a west-coast winter garden.  Rosalie Wright  has written (in Sunset magazine, 1999) that winter “is the quietest time in a garden.  But just because it looks quiet doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.  The soil, open to the sky, absorbs the pure rainfall while microorganisms convert tilled-under fodder into usable nutrients for the next crop of plants.  The feasting earthworms tunnel along… preparing [the soil] to welcome the seeds and bare roots to come.”

By the time Christmas arrives, I may not have accomplished all my tasks and goals for the month.  I will have experienced my sad, anxious and cranky times.  But I also will be surprised now and then—and have already had surprises, such as when I can see a bigger picture, when I can feel that things are okay however they are happening, however they might happen. If I don’t spend energy fighting against the unpleasant moments of life, I can make room for the hidden, pleasant moments to emerge.  I make room for gladness and grace.

Maybe some of you can find a simple practice to give yourself:  taking a break, sitting in silence, noticing the breath, giving thanks, or otherwise choosing to give yourself a moment before doing the next thing.  To me, that’s the wisdom of the season—an invitation to tend our lives as gently as gardener in the winter.

Winter is a time of preparation—of watching as well as tending.  This means both activity and waiting, motion and rest.  Life’s gifts can’t be ripped open like a wrapped package.  If we watch and wait, and give some attention and faith to what is under the surface of life, its gifts open themselves.

Every person’s life is a reason for gratitude.  It’s a gift.  Life is a gift worthy of tending like a winter garden, worth our patience and our attention.

May you make room for blessings this coming week, this winter season, and in all the days to come.  May you be blessed.

So may it be.  Amen.




Cooperative Housing for Unitarians: Maybe Not for Reality TV

My last afternoon in Boston I too the T south to visit two friends and their new baby and his big brother.  They drove me back in and took me along to a fundraising dinner on Beacon Hill–but not one of those fancy ones.

This was held in a big old house–the Beacon Hill Friends House–a co-op for 21 people.  Residents have individual or double rooms, access to large common rooms with old stuffed furniture, and  they share chores, take turns preparing five common dinners a week, and govern themselves by Quaker Meeting principles.  Room and board (wholesome and home-made board at that) runs $700-$900 a month–affordable housing for anywhere in Boston and a steal for Beacon Hill.

The Friends House has  been in operation over 50 years–and there are other co-op homes with similar longevity.  The usual residency is two years, though folks can request to stay an additional third and fourth year.  The Quakers do not dine together on Fridays, which enabled them to host this dinner for an up-and-coming UU counterpart community.

A small group of smart, cheerful young adult Unitarian Universalists (most of them life-long UUs) has become a planning team to establish the Lucy Stone Co-Op, which they envision to be a co-housing community for 10-20 people based on and governed by Unitarian Universalist values and principles.  They plan to find real estate in the nearby town of Jamaica Plain, southwest of the city.

They’ve gained inspiration from many sources, including individual UUs, residents of other co-ops and Boston Community Cooperatives, an umbrella organization.  In particular, a Jewish co-op has become a center of progressive action and Jewish religious practice that welcomes hundreds of non-resident members and volunteers every year. While most folks currently enthusiastic about this house are young adults, the planning teams hopes for a multi-generational household that crosses lines of class and ethnicity.

Lucy Stone was a Quakerish Unitarian Congregationalist active in women’s suffrage and slavery-abolition movements, and the first woman known to have kept her last name after marriage.

Amid the testimonials by team members and committed donors over dessert, one person made the point that many faith traditions–especially Roman Catholicism–offer their people may opportunities to deepen their faith or their commitment to it:  spiritual retreats, conference centers, worker houses, volunteer missions, lay theological education, etc.  For UUs, however, the options for deepening one’s faith and commitment usually are 1) go to seminary or 2) join  a committee.  (Or go on retreat at a monastery or Catholic meditation center!)

Hence, the planning team hopes the Lucy Stone Co-Op will be a center of liberal religious activism and service, including in community members many more folks than the residence itself would hold.

To finance the purchase they will seek loans from individuals (in $5,000 increments) and UU congregational endowments (in $25,0000 increments), which will pay low interest–but better than CDs and savings accounts pay right now.  With enough donations and investments from supporters, they might be able to finance the place without borrowing from a bank. Target for housing acquisition is 6-9 months.  Once it’s paid off the property will be held by the not-for-profit corporation.

They just got word of a grant for publicity and technical assistance from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism.  They are raising funds to help with closing costs and as much of a down payment.  And they just got a big check from me.   Read more at

Sister Cities: Sacramento-Bethlehem

A parishioner asked me to join the advisory committee of the Sacramento to Bethlehem Sister Cities Initiative.  I think he asked me because of my interest in cross-cultural experiences and international pilgrimages (I visited Unitarian ethnic Khasi tribal villages in far NE India as well as 400-year-old Unitarian sister churches in Erdhely (a Hungarian-speaking Romanian-owned province, known as Transylvania to non-Hungarians).

Visits and cultural exchanges (as noted on their new web site) between Sac and Beth have been taking place for a few years–the Bethlehem mayor has been here at least twice, and his son and grandkids live here.  The only other mayor’s son I knew was in junior high school with me.  When he got in trouble with the law for burglary a number of us had a good burst of Schadenfreude, as kids and Southern Indiana Democrats will do.

Anyway, I do hope to visit Bethlehem–during good weather only–as well as some other Palestinian cities and Israeli cities.  My geographical knowledge is bad, so I need to learn more.  All I know is olive oil, King David and the Babe in the Manger.

Bethlehem’s local government has officially approved the connections but Sacramento’s City Council has yet to vote.

There is  an excellent opinion column in the current week’s issue of Sacramento News & Review, which says that the delay in our city’s official approval is due to political intervention by folks outside of the Sister City community.  Be that as it may, the friendships and exchanges will continue.

Somewhere on this blog is my letter to the city council urging a positive vote.  If you live here, I invite you to contact the Mayor’s office and City Council members with your support.  Check out the HISTORY section on the initiative’s web site to find out the purpose of Sister City relationships if you aren’t sure of where you stand.

Downtown at Night

Last night I went to the Advisory Committee for the Sacramento-to-Bethlehem Sister City Initiative.  I parked several blocks from the meeting place–confused by google maps, as usual–and walked.When I left, after 9 PM, dowtown wa empty.  I walked by City Hall and another government building and was jarred by screeching–loud sounds of attacking, menacing birds.  But the buildings were dark and nobody–and no birds–were around.  It took me some time to guess it was recorded sounds of birds of prey to scare the pigeons–not to scare the poop out of them but to scare them away from a favorite poop site.  I’m new to town–does that sound right to you?