Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Southern Winter Vacation
December 28, 2010, 5:33 pm
Filed under: Travels | Tags:

Day 1–Monday

Barely made my 11:15 PM departure for my redeye flights:  SFO-Cleveland-Raleigh.  Zonked.  A long drive with snow scenes today (sunburned nose to show for it) & a VERY chilly walk around Charleston. Dinner in a local institution. We had swordfish, halibut.  A brass plate at my spot at the table said Tony Dorsett had dined there. Across from me:  Oprah had dined there; next to me, Col. Oliver North. All at the same table, but  not same time, I assume.

Day 2–Tuesday

Went to bed at 8 PM last night/5 PM PST!  Today walked in downtown Charleston, reading markers at historic homes. Sunny day, chilly but warmer.  Lovely walks along river.   Took boat for tour of Ft Sumter.  Only loss after 1861 loss of it was during canon salute to US flag in respect of losing US general, who had been West Pt teacher of the Confed general.  Gunpowder accident blew off shoulder of Confed soldier & he died.  Later, 1862-65, US sieged fort.  Got back to Charleston at 2:40, had oysters and collard greens for a late lunch.  Spent an hour at Gibbes art museum; great collection, current exhibit of horrific, lovely, colorful photographs by J. Henry Fair of toxic sites.  An artist who’s become an environmentalist, he made his frames from a dead maple tree in his own yard and avoids glazing his photos due to the toxins. INDUSTRIAL SCARS:  photos by J. Henry Fair:

Waited only a bit in the cold to get in Jestine’s for soul food.  It’s named after the woman who was the housekeeper/cook for the family of the restaurant owner for many years, and it uses her recipes.  She died at 112 a few years back.  Iced sweet tea is listed as “Jestine’s table wine.”  The place is closed Dec. 25 “and all Jewish holidays.”  Charlie had pea soup, collard greens, succotash.  I had fried whiting, fried okra, vinegar slaw.  I was too full for dessert, so instead of pecan pie I had lemon custard pie.   We walked to Dudley’s for  a drink–a nice, wood-paneled gay bar with a pool table and animated “Wheel of Fortune” game you play with Wii.  We will miss the oyster roast on New Year’s Day.

Day 3–Wednesday

After breakfast we walked to the Unitarian Church of Charleston (oldest UU church in the South) and wandered the very large graveyard.  Drove to the Citatel, South Carolina’s Military Academy (“state-assisted” and hence finally co-ed).  The 2,000 cadets were on winter break, so we drove around the eerie white stucco castle-like buildings and saw the military equipment monuments on the quad, and stopped by the book store.  Later drove to Sullivan Island and visited the Charles Pinckney National Historical Site; he was a prisoner of the British during the Revolutionary war, a drafter/signer of the US Constitution, and breakfast host to Prez Washington.  We went by Fort Moultrie on Sullivan Island; a nearby marker notes that most African Americans are descended from slaves brought here on ships that unloaded on that island.

Most interesting was reading about the Gullah/Geechie culture; Gullah was a spoken language with English vocabulary words, developed by slaves who spoke a variety of West African languages, as an act of resistance so they could communicate with one another and whites could not understand them.  That Natl. Park Service has done an impressive study on Gullah Culture in the Low Country (marshlands of the SE).  Words from Gullah:  bubbah, goober, tote.  Fried chicken and much other Southern food came from West Africa.  So we had some for lunch:  the buffet at Gullah Cuisine in Mt. Pleasant:  collards, cooked cabbage with pork, chopped barbecued chicken, red rice, yellow rice with okra, mac & cheese, fried chicken, baked chicken, yams, mashed potatoes, and plenty more, all for $7.95.  Sweet tea was extra. Table of slightly older white ladies and I discussed a painting on a wall that had puzzled one of them on a prior visit, “Good Friday,” with what looked like an oval plate with a whole fish at each end like a handle and five colorful round cakes with an olive in the middle.  The nearest I could guess was the miracle of the loaves and fishes (5 and 2 of them each, right?) but that wasn’t on Good Friday.

Drove to Beaufort, SC, a lovely river and coastal town famous for “Prince of Tides” and “The Big Chill” and its antebellum homes and hip shops.  Nice walking around.  Episcopal church graveyard has at least two Redcoats killed by Americans (their old stones have small Union Jack flags next t0 them) and several graves with Confederate States of America markers and small Confederate flags, plus a number of graves with regular 50-state USA flags in the ground.  Drove to Savannah in the last, colorful hour of daylight.  Staying on the edge of the historic district, in a renovated 1950s retro motel, the Thunderbird. “Savannah’s hippest hotel.” Cheap too.  Walked to Sixpence Pub for dinner and a waitress who called us honey, y’all, and other nice words.  Back at hotel enjoyed introducing Charlie to ABC series “The Middle” and “Modern Family.”  Each is brilliant in its own way.


Not What She Was Expecting! (Advent Sermon 12/19/2010)

Not What She Was Expecting!

Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 19, 2010

Hymns:  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”; “Deck the Hall”; “Prayer to Holy Wisdom” [tune:  Once in Royal David’s City]; special music: “Coventry Carol”; “Away in a Manger.”

Who’s Been Naughty and Nice: An Exchange of Appreciation

Last Saturday I finished my meeting in Boston and checked my flight status to come home.  Flight cancelled!  Rerouted for Sunday morning, and I would get to Sacramento after church.  Why had I booked a flight that went through Minneapolis!?!  The best that airline could get me for Saturday was a flight into San Francisco, about 100 miles away from my car, Sacramento’s airport parking lot.

So I bought a one-way ticket on Southwest airlines, which gave me a long layover in Denver.  Walking from gate to gate, I saw Santa Claus.  “Come get your picture taken with Santa,” I heard a marketing person call out…to me!  I steered clear of the scene and watched, thinking it was for kids.  “You’re next,” they said.  I stood next to Santa’s big chair, shook his white-gloved hand and grinned for the camera.  The payoff included a $20 airline discount, and an emailed copy of the picture.  But first they walked me through some new photo manipulation software and asked me to take a survey about it.  They showed me how you can take the smile from one picture of yourself and put it on another one if your smile and the rest of you are not all captured at once in a way that meets your expectations.  The survey asked:  “How likely are you to use this Microsoft version of [whatever]?”  I said, “Not likely.”  Not likely even to remember its name. Sorry to disappoint them.

It was a slow night for Santa, so before I left, I gave Santa Claus a minister’s report.  You know: the naughty and nice list.  I started with nice people in the church, so Santa would think I am nice.  I named the greeters and ushers, the musicians, the Book Store volunteers, the cooks, the babies in the nursery, the Sunday School teachers.  Who else do you think I included?  Name some out loud.  [Elicit names of people for a time.]  Yes, I mentioned all those and more.  Raise your hand if you did something good this past year, just one nice thing.  Okay, on the count of three, call our your names all at the same time.  1-2-3 Go!  Yes, I told Santa all your names.  I had so many people to praise from this church.  Now he was ready to hear the NAUGHTY list!  Unfortunately, my flight was announced, and I had to leave.  And that was that.

Sermon:  Not What She Was Expecting!

Here’s a story about the legendary Muslim preacher, teacher and trickster Nasreddin, a Sufi who lived in the Middle Ages. He is claimed by the peoples of three countries: Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.  One day Mullah Nasreddin was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got into the pulpit, he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “No.”  He announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” He left.

The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?”, [GUESS WHAT the people said?] They replied “Yes.”  So Nasreddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!”  He left.

Now folks were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked: “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now, however, the people were prepared.  Half of them answered “Yes” while the other half replied “No.” So Nasreddin said “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and he left.

This is a story about expectations.  Nasreddin wanted to know what they expected of him.  AND he didn’t want to fulfill their expectations.

Almost nobody has been a stranger to having our expectations disappointed.  Most have known frustration, rejection, failure, lack of follow-through, and the heartbreak of loss.  With the passage of time, we may learn that we had incorrect assumptions or that there was a failure of communication about what we expected of others or what others expected of us.  And with time, we get some healing.  In big ways and small, we have experienced the shock of unmet expectations.

This month, these days, are times of waiting and expectation.  People who study the weather, and those who celebrate earth-based spiritual traditions, mark this Tuesday as the Winter Solstice.  I’ve been waiting…for the days to start getting longer!  It will take some time to have enough extra daylight to notice it, but I get a new burst of hope at the Solstice.   In the calendar of the Christian tradition, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a season of waiting, reflection, hope and expectation.  The waiting-time of Advent ends on Christmas, and Advent songs look forward to that:  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “People look east; Love the guest is on the way.”

The Virgin Mary’s waiting time ended on Christmas too.  She was waiting and expectant.  Literally, she was expecting.  The end of her waiting time—that is, the birth of Jesus— is what gave Christmas to the world in the first place.

Imagine her situation:  She is of the lowest possible rank and condition in ancient Palestine:  a teenage girl from a poor family at a time when children, females and poor people have no rights.  She is a Jew living under the military occupation of the Roman Empire.  Fortunately, she is engaged to a man who is a carpenter—good skills to have.  Before the marriage, though, she learns that she is pregnant.  The Angel Gabriel gives her the news, and explains that the baby will be the child not of Joseph, but of Almighty God.  Furthermore, she learns that he will be a teacher, a prophet, a leader for his people and for the world.

Whatever a poor Jewish girl living under military rule could think her life might look like, surely this fate is not what she was expecting.  Nor is her fiance expecting this news.  Given the strict culture there, Joseph could shame her in public for being pregnant, but he plans only to send her away quietly, because he’s a nice guy.

Angel Gabriel comes to the rescue:  “Don’t worry, Joseph, this baby will be the child of the Holy Spirit.  If you parent him, care for him, raise him, you will be doing a great service to your people and the whole wide world.”

Mary says yes, and Joseph says yes, to an unexpected role, yes to a future whose challenges are not yet clear.  When the baby comes due, they are out of town and on the road:  again, not what they expected.  The only place they can find to stay is a stable in Bethlehem, so Mary gives birth with the help of a few local women and some cows, goats, donkeys and other livestock.  I’m not sure what help the animals provide, but they are what she’s got.  Surely not what she expected.

Unfortunately, word gets out that Jesus is a special child, a Jewish messiah, a king-to-be. The Romans’ local ruler, Herod, is not happy about the competition, so he sends soldiers out to take the lives of all young male children.  Angel Gabriel does not protect these innocents, but he does help Joseph, Mary and the baby flee to Egypt.  As ordinary peasants in ancient Palestine, this adventure is not what they expected.

Other than all this drama, the Bible gives no details about the day-to-day struggles and stress that Mary might go through while caring for a baby–or the stress of any parent of any new child.

Two thousand years after Mary, a different woman found herself in the unexpected position of expecting.  In a book she entitled Operating Instructions, California author Anne Lamott writes about her experience as the recovering-alcoholic single mother of an infant.  It’s a funny book, and those who have cared for infants surely would nod their heads at wacky depictions of the new parent’s range of emotions. Lamott expresses her sense of inadequacy, of being overwhelmed and exhausted.  The colicky baby doesn’t sleep, but cries for three and four hours at a time.  His feedings, gas pains, poop, and pee rule her days and nights.  To one like me who’s not had a child, Lamott’s record of the baby’s first year is downright frightening!

Yet Anne Lamott is blessed by the help, care and attention of a circle of loyal friends, relatives, and the people from her church.  They’re all devoted to the child and to her.  In the ancient story of Mary, lots of people gather around.  Shepherds come to look and worship, leaving their own flocks untended.  Sorcerers, kings, astrologers—the ones known as the wise men—come from far away, guided by a star, and on bended knee they display the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  In the Bible, these gifts are literary symbols of the future life of this child, necessary to the story.  But for a new parent of a new baby, they are of no help at all.  No diapers, not a bag or two of groceries, not a covered dish for supper.  No crib or stroller or a mobile to hang above the baby bed, and no baby bed either.  Some cash would be nice too.

Lamott had not expected to get pregnant, but when she found out that she was going to be a single parent, she said “Yes,” not knowing what to expect.  Amid all the struggles, she was moved by the help from so many people and surprised by how much devotion she could feel toward another human being.  She writes about being filled with love, joy and faith just from looking at the baby as he sleept.  It was, she writes, “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  He was like moonlight.”

Lamott wrote the book to make sense of her experiences of the baby’s first year. She’s been a much-loved writer of novels and books about spirituality and her quirky and liberal form of Christian faith.  Last week she was inducted into our state’s Hall of Fame at the California Museum.  As a recovering alcoholic, her successful and blessed life is a world away from anything she could have expected 20 or 30 years ago.  If she wants to feel good about how things have turned out, however, she should not compare herself to the Virgin Mary, who’s a saint, a real saint.  For hundreds of years, icons and statues have held Mary in high esteem.  She’s a woman to worship, the female face of God.  She’s a mother-figure to ask for help, whatever gender, age, or stage of life a person is in.  She is known ‘round the world as the face of compassion for her baby, and for her son as a grown-up radical rabbi, and for the sufferings of the whole human family.  Not a role that she expected.

The stories of these two women tell me this:  We cannot be sure how our lives will evolve and change, cannot know what events, upsets, blessings or surprises lie in our future, or even in the next day.  We don’t know how we would rise to meet those challenges and experiences until they happen.  We can’t know how life will change, or what will emerge from our heart when it does.  Yet we can be sure that there is more beneath our surface than we are able to name and see right now.  There is more courage, wisdom and peace in us than we imagine.  That, for me, is a source of hope.

But practical questions remain for us in moments of pain over the unmet expectations in our lives.  In the face of failure or loss, how do we move forward?  When we fall flat on our backsides after the rug is yanked from under us, how do we begin?  Or, how can we trust the future when we’re holding on so hard to our expectations that our breathing is tight and shallow?  When our sense of possibility is weighted down, when we have no good idea coming to mind, how do we respond?

Two things that help me…  are sitting still and going for a walk.  Of course, these are opposite activities, but they both help me.

In sitting still, I return to the breath, and notice the presence of my body and how it feels.  This helps me begin to find the spirit that sustains me, and feel the ground that holds me up.  I can let myself experience my feelings of disappointment, but I need not run from them.  I breathe, maybe I cry, maybe pray.

Each of us can show kindness to our own feelings, just as we can show kindness toward another’s feelings without taking them on as an all-day burden.  Of course, sitting still with uncertainty, pain or anxiety can be hard, but we can start small, with brief times and then go longer.  It makes a difference.

Going for a walk helps me too.  It gives me time to reflect, to think through the nature of my expectations and the reason for my pain.  It gives me space to think of new possibilities.  As the seasons come and go, when walking regularly I notice that the structure of a neighborhood or the look of a local park stays the same over the year.  Yet there are subtle changes every month, every week, every day.  The scenes around me show that life changes, but the basic structure of life continues.  So it is with us:  our life changes, but our basic human identity continues.  These are my examples, of course, not my prescriptions.

Some folks go hiking as a solitary activity: I don’t go alone; I worry I’ll get lost.  Some go biking or swimming.  After such exertion they come away with a new outlook on the day, a fresh look at life.  Some seek out the help of a counselor, mentor, friend, spiritual director, or life coach.  Some find reassurance in books of wisdom or advice, some in art, music, and various crafts.

One of my colleagues in a recent sermon recommended this:  Watch your own life as if were a movie or a play.   Step up to the balcony and watch it from a distance.  Watch it unfold like a story.  Consider a wider, deeper, longer perspective on life.

In the story I told of Nasreddin, the Sufi preacher flouted the expectations of his congregation:   “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t!” Is this just wacky, or is there wisdom in it?  Perhaps Nasreddin wants them to turn to one another, and speak together.  Maybe he wants them to learn how to practice dialogue, and value it.  He wants them to listen to one another, and bear witness to one another.  Maybe he’s had enough of everybody sitting at his feet, waiting on his every word, and he wants them to look inside for the wisdom they can call upon.  He wants them to look to one another for the wisdom that they can share as a community.

The reason I think we are all here in this place, at worship services and other programs here, is that we seek help and support from a community.  We bear witness to our lives here, and others are witnesses to our lives, and the changes in life.

We make ourselves available for fellowship and friendship with others.

Of course, among our disappointments, among the unmet expectations of life are unwelcome afflictions:  pain and sickness, injuries, and loss of the mental or physical abilities we used to rely on every day.  In one another’s company we bear witness to these changes as well.  As expectations fall by the wayside, and new chapters open in our lives, we bear witness to the spirit that endures in each one of us.

Whether we get an unexpected sorrow, a pleasant surprise, or an intriguing hint of something newly emerging in our lives, we can be there for one another.  People here pretty much look like the same kind of individuals from week to week–and we are the same.  Yet we are changing too.

Those who come to know us will notice our changes and our growth. They can help us discern the newness emerging from our lives, from our spirits.  If we pay attention, we can watch ourselves, and one another, as we grow in spirit.

As new chapters open in our lives, we watch and wait, and we bear witness to the spirit that endures in each one of us.

As we watch and wait,  may the spirit grow in us and among us.  So may it be.  Blessed be.  Amen.

How to say “Mary, You’re Pregnant!” in Christian and Muslim scriptures
December 21, 2010, 10:28 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Most folks in the Western world have read or heard the passages from the New Testament about the birth of the baby Jesus, in particular the visit of the wise men from the Gospel of Matthew and the visit of the shepherds to the babe in manger from the Gospel of Luke.  But a chapter earlier in the Gospel of Luke, we hear an account of when Mary hears that she will be giving birth.  She’s young, poor and not yet married.  It will be a shock to Joseph, to whom she is engaged.  Of course it’s a shock to her as well, because the diagnosis of her pregnancy comes from the Angel Gabriel.
From the New Testament’s Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,  to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

The following text comes over 500 years later….

From the Holy Quran, the third Surah (chapter):
When the angels said:  O Mary, surely Allah gives thee good news with a word from Him (of one) whose name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, worthy of regard in this world and the hereafter, and of those who are drawn near (to Allah).  And he will speak to people when in the cradle and when of old age, and (he will be) one of the righteous.  She said:  My Lord, how can I have a son and man has not yet touched me? He said:  Even so, Allah creates what He pleases.  When He decrees a matter, He only says to it: Be! And it is.  And He will teach him the Scripture and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel.  And make him a messenger to the children of Israel.

December 18, 2010, 8:35 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Philippines bound

I just booked my flights to go on the UU Partner Church Council’s pilgrimage to the UU congregations in the Philippines, in March!  It starts in Manila but we fly to the island of Negros, where there are 29 congregations.

I’ll fly from Sacramento via LAX, going via Seoul on Korean Airlines.  I understand the Inchon Airport in Seoul is VERY nice, and well worth a layover.

Here is a lot of information, with charming pictures from our friends at the San Mateo UU congregation, and some good links, with more short videos.

Go with me! Deadline to register is January 11, but book your flights soon.  Prices are $1,000-1,200.

The trip inside the Philippines is at an all-inclusive rate, depending on how long you wish to stay.  I’m going for the whole nine yards, uh, the whole 14 days.  See more at

Meet the Unitarian Universalists of the Philippines March 2011

Getting Around Marathon Traffic 1st Sunday of December
December 4, 2010, 10:11 pm
Filed under: Becoming and Being Part of a UU Congregation, Uncategorized

If you have never come to Sunday services here on the day of the California International Marathon, BEWARE! About 14,000 people are running this way! This first Sunday morning of December, from 7 AM-noon or later, Fair Oaks Boulevard will be blocked off and opened up in sections, as the marathon moves along it toward downtown. The bottom line is to avoid trying to even cross Fair Oaks Blvd.  Downtown and Midtown folks may want to take 160; but I found that you have to go pretty far west (low numbered streets) to avoid roadblocks along J Street, and then come back east to get on 16th and get to 160.  East Sacramentans, those using Hwy 50, and others south of Fair Oaks Blvd can take Business 80.
From CA Hwy 160, take the Arden Way exit, as if going to Arden Fair Mall, and take Arden down to Howe. Turn south (right) on Howe and then come down to Sierra and turn left.
For Business 80, Take 80 toward Reno, exit Exposition Blvd, continuing as it becomes Arden to Howe. Turn right on Howe and left on Sierra to church.
Those who live near Sunrise and Fair Oaks may be able to get to the second service by take Sunrise or another street north to Winding Way or Sunset (Fair Oaks Blvd. is supposed to be crossable at Sunrise by 9:45) and wend your way toward Fulton, left on Fulton, right on Sierra. If these directions don’t work blame the California International Marathon leaders and get them to write out full directions next year.
See if the marathon’s website is any better than what Ginger and I have just given you, above. If you would like to reserve a helicopter transport, please contact David , Business Administrator. He can solve most any problem. Really. Ask him about the recent major plumbing emergency, which ruined a whole Friday night (and lasted into Saturday) for him, but which will put a few plumbers’ kids through college, if not graduate school.

Parking Lot theft during holiday party

The worst thing that happened is that a relative of a member came and left valuables visible on the seat of the car.  A window got smashed and the stuff was stolen in the dark, rainy night.  There have been a number of crimes of opportunity in our parking lot this past year, and even thefts from inside rooms during the bustle after Sunday services.  Let us remind one another not to leave any opportunity for theft.