NEWS ITEM: In overturning California’s Proposition 8, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals quoted Groucho Marx. “Marriage is a wonderful institution,” Groucho said, “but who wants to live in an institution?”
My deity used to have long hair, beard and flowing robes. Now my deity wears a fake nose, mustache and glasses.
I made that last part up. I’m not really sure what my deity looks like. But ever since I stopped affirming dogma from the church I was raised in — which Mom seemed to think of as the church of my ascension — I’ve been possessed by a cynic’s aversion to any faith community that would have me as a member. It’s become almost theological. My wife would say pathological. She has her logical, I have mine.
And so Groucho has risen to a higher place. Besides, he’s a safer G-bomb to drop in the presence of many in my chosen faith than Someone Else I Might Mention.
Another thing about my faith community is, they’re endlessly earnest, a quality treasured by my wife, for whom my humor and irreverence are, well, her cross to bear. Which is not a metaphor that goes over well with all in my congregation.
I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and have for quite some time been defined less by what I believe than what I’ve come not to, and still struggle to let go of after so many youthful repetitions. I earnestly mouthed “I am not worthy” too many times to fully undo its effect in this lifetime.
And the thing about this lifetime is, it might be the only one I get. At the very least, I believe that living this life assuming there’s a next one, and a place for me in it, is to waste a gift. Mom would disagree. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” she might have said. (Groucho works in mysterious ways.)
My neighbhorhood Catholic church, the one attended by my brother-in-law and nieces and a lot of my friends, put assumption right in its title: Saint Mary of the Assumption. I love that. A church that readily admits to assumption, right there on the signage, is my kind of church. Mom would say I misunderstand the meaning of assumption, but I’m not so sure, which she would say is the problem. Certainty wasn’t a problem for Mom.
UU’s are a collection of belief, disbelief and dissed beliefs, and God language can be a challenge. God is sort of the elephant in the room, which is Hindu in a way. I’m also a lapsed newspaper copy editor, and marvel at the difficulty finding the right words in a faith community that is truly inclusive — truly catholic.
Did someone call me schnorrer? Hurray hurray hurray!
That’s the responsorial in the church of my dreams: The minister says the bold face, maybe while tipping a cigar, and the congregation sings the italics. But that dream won’t come to pass, because churches take themselves so seriously, and so rarely toss in a Groucho quip amid the deep theology and philosophy. Groucho somehow missed the cut for theological reference. He’s like Saint Thomas in that way. Thomas’ gospels got left out, too, but the very doubt that got him excluded makes him my patron saint.
Here’s what I don’t doubt: The importance of beloved community in my life. I think of my congregation as First Church of the Overly Earnest, but that says more about me; I tend to draw a cautionary line around religious faith, like the painted arcs that keep the zealots a safe distance from the women’s health clinic.
We’re a strange fit, UU and me.
What’s great about Unitarian Universalism is it reminds me how great it is — still — to be an American. In a way, it is church embracing state. That’s something I’m decreasingly cynical about. The religion actually embraces democratic process in a way that’s refreshing and rare in my life. But it also invites earnestness, which is a challenge for me.
Earnestness pushes old conviction and reverence buttons. Mom was reverent. In the days when she called butterflies flutter-bys, in the sanctuary of my youth, I tried to follow along to wherever her faith was headed. I’d watch the veil cover Mom’s eyes as she disappeared into some mystical place of repetitious prayer, weaping statues and selectively revealed divinity. Her veil obscured my view of what she saw. It became hard to take seriously, which may explain why humor is the font I dip into so often now. Too often, maybe, like a spiritual defense mechanism.
For me, reverence is earnestness ascended beyond my view. But I must admit, UUs also are rather good at laughing at themselves. There is joy in the mystery. At least, I assume they’re laughing with me, not at me, and I like that about my faith community: I can be right up front with the assumptions.
So when the chalice is lit in the sanctuary of my First Church of the Overly Earnest, I”m like a moth to the flame. A flutter-by without a veil.