Friday, March 1, 2013

Moving to Twitter!

Well, occasional and faithful readers (I think there may be about 20 of you out there, but who knows?), I have made the decision to go to Twitter instead of trying (and failing) to maintain this blog.

I will be posting at random but much more regularly, on topics ranging from Unitarian Universalism to New Orleans to whatever of current interest strikes my fancy.  My Twitter handle is RevMelanieNOLA -- please follow me!

Posting on this blog has been sometimes fun and sometimes a chore.  It has been good to read the occasional comments, and to hear in person from someone that they read the blog.  But I think the brevity and immediacy of Twitter is more current, easier to do, and more likely to keep me posting.

For those with religious interests, my sermons will still be posted on the First Church website:

Thanks for your interest over these years and I hope to stay in touch via this new medium.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hamp Fest at St. Aug

NOTE:  I read recently that the most frequent post in a blog is the apology, "I'm sorry I haven't posted in a while" -- so I'm NOT going to say that!  Life happens, is all.


It was such an honor to be at the St. Augustine fundraiser, the Hamp Fest  (appropriately named for the late great St. Aug Music Director Mr. Edwin Hampton), a 2-day festival of food & music held on the St. Augustine campus in the 7th Ward.

Big Man was booked to play in one of the bands opening for Morris Day & the Time on the second day of the festival, which just happened to be my birthday.  We arrived early, and just managed to find a legal and free parking space within a reasonable walking distance. (I understand that St. Aug arranges for a distant parking lot somewhere in the neighborhood and shuttles for the folks who use it, but that is not the best option for musicians carrying a lot of gear.)  

The artists' green room was like Old Home Week -- there were lots of called greetings and pointing and hugging and kissing back and forth. The Free Agents Brass Band and their family members were there, and Elaine Foster and her bandmates in ELS (doing their fabulous Whitney Houston tribute), the guys in Big Man's band (which is the same band he plays with on Bourbon Street several  nights a week), plus assorted liaison folks from St. Augustine and various other people.  The green room had food set out for the musicians, and it was, predictably, delicious:  fried chicken, fried catfish, barbecued chicken, greens, and a wonderful concoction that was like barbecued shrimp with sausage and potatoes in it (OMG).  There also was sliced cake, but when I saw it was store-bought, I decided to skip the calories and see what would be on offer later at the fest.  (Turned out to be a great decision, see  below.)

I came in for more than my share of positive attention, as Big Man made sure to tell everyone it was my 60th birthday. People said -- trying to be kind -- "You don't look 60!" thus giving me the chance to say, "This is what 60 looks like!"  I gathered hugs and kisses and compliments and was quite the happy woman.

First up on the stage was the brass band, with adults, young adults, and one or two youth players, plus a full Grand Marshall in a tan suit with matching decorated sash and umbrella.  At one point during their set, the marshall came off the stage to dance in and with the crowd, choosing the requisite number of pretty women and a couple of grandmothers -- one of whom "got jiggy with it" to the delight of the rest of the crowd, watching on the big screen set up next to the stage (and another one, as I found out, out by the food booths).

Once again  I am reminded of Why New Orleans Is Different. Watching little bitty kids and elderly folks dancing intricate steps and doing The Butt with the Grand Marshal, I was just overwhelmed with the feeling that such an age-diverse crowd would be unusual elsewhere, and then to have the range of folks not only dancing, but dancing HOT -- where else but here?  One lil boy was just barely out of toddlerhood, and he was killing the steps, as if he had exited the womb knowing how to dance like that.  What can I say?  I love this town.

Big Man and the band were terrific onstage, with a nonstop line-up  of beloved R&B and Motown hits, the 3 lead singers doing great elaborate synchronized steps, and Big Man and the sax player doing some steps of their own.  (No spins, though.)  It was a tight set, well played, lots of dancing by the crowd, and a standing  O afterward.  

Most of the band took this night as just another gig, and left soon after the set, but Big Man and I were very much aware of the honor and  opportunity this was -- like here we are, at *St. Augustine*!  So we stayed, which made us conspicuous, since with the exception of a couple of sound techs working the stage and the sound booth, we were the ONLY white people there.  I'm not exaggerating -- there were no other white folks.  We stuck out, believe you me.

Folks were very, very welcoming.  People came up to Big Man, complimenting him on his playing, and some of the men saying that back in the day they used to play trumpet in the St. Aug band, the mighty Marching 100.  Folks passed us in the crowd, nodding and smiling.  Some said, "How y'all doing?" and some asked warmly, "Y'all having fun?"  Big Man look he detected a few "WTF" looks from some folks but everyone without exception was friendly and welcoming and nice to us.  I did think it strange though -- for isn't the St. Aug Band one of THE highlights of the Carnival season?  Doesn't everyone on the parade route, whatever their color, get a thrill when the word passes down, "It's St. Aug!"?  Why wouldn't white folks want to support St. Aug?  Why were we the only white people there?

Because we stuck out so much, it was easy to find folks we know, or who know us.  Miss Loretta of Loretta's Cafe and Pralines in the Marigny had to come running over in her booth to kiss Big Man on the cheek (he's a regular at her place), and she insisted on me taking a praline cupcake for my birthday.  (Boy, was I glad I didn't eat the junk grocery-store cake earlier in the green room!  The cupcake with the rich creamy praline icing was off the hook!)  The folks at the Vaucresson Sausage booth passed some time with us, talking about their post-K business (they are actually leasing space and time in a *competitor's sausage factory!  I think I wrote about this back in 2007 or 2008), and "forced" me to taste a small piece of their signature Creole hot sausage, the traditional chaurice, which was totally amazing.  All the food there looked great and there was a wide variety.

The way it works is, tickets to the Fest are $40 per person per night.  This gets you inside, and enables you to set up your own chair to watch all the music, and both nights the line-up of bands and musicians is well worth the price.  There are both inside air-conditioned and clean portalets available.  Then, all your drinks and food are separate.  It could total up pretty high if you were hungry and thirsty, but since it's all for a good cause, it's not too onerous.

Morris Day & The Time were late coming onstage (Big Man joked that when they did their well-known call-and-response, "What time is it?" we should shout back,  "It's LATE!"), but we managed to stay for a good part of the set.  They were great, the beat had the crowd rockin', Morris Day kept admiring himself in the gold-framed mirror (I couldn't believe he was still doing that shtick), we danced in the crowd, and a good time was had by all.  

We got home about 1 am, which is normal for Big Man but a big night for me (because I'm 60, don't you know).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Jazz Fest 2012 Second Weekend

Well, another Jazz Fest has come and gone, and we're a little sun-struck, a little over-fed, a little tired from a lot of walking -- but we are well-satisfied in every way.

We made the sensible but still difficult decision to give up on the traditional biggest-attendance day, the second Saturday, both to avoid the crush and to give our niece from Pennsylvania a one-day tour of the city, which we had never done before.  (Poor thing!  On all her previous visits, she barely got to see anything other than what you can see on the route from our house to the Fest!)  So that means our highlights of this final weekend will not include any of the acts on Saturday, May 5 -- and believe me, one of the hardest things in the world for me was to make the choice NOT to see Allen Toussaint!

Here's a recap of our Fest days:

Thursday, May 3 -- J. Monque'D (nostaligic hot New Orleans R&B), The Mighty Supremes Gospel Quintet, the incredible Native American musician Bill Miller (kickin' the tradition to the 21st century!), George Porter and his Runnin' Pardners (like everyone else, we believe in George), the sweet'n'naughty Rosie Ledet & her Zydeco Playboys (what a set!!), the Roots of Music Parade (love-love-love those kids!), the Black Seminoles Mardi Gras Indians (I can almost never pass up Indians), Ivan Neville's Dumpsta Funk, the wonderful Joint's Jumpin' (really hot set!  love the horns!), the Raymond Myles Tribute at the Gospel Tent (very faithful to his arrangements, you could almost picture him being there), and wanted to end with the super-wonderful Esperanza Spaulding and her Radio Music Society, but she had for some  reason requested the Congo Square Stage over the more natural Jazz Tent, where she appeared before, but the sound techs at Congo completely screwed up on sound, resulting in a late show of *over an hour* (unconscionable!!) and then when she went on, poor darlin, they *still* couldn't mike her standing bass.  She was a trouper, and tried to carry on, but an enormous  amount of energy was lost, not to mention time, and there were tunes she had to recast for her strap-on bass, and the whole thing was SUCH a tremendous disappointment.  I couldn't believe that Congo Square messed her up like that, and if I had had Quint Davis's email or phone number,  he would've heard from me!  In disappointment, we walked away and caught the end of Jimmy Buffet's acoustic set, which wasn't what I had planned for but was, as you'd expect, very enjoyable and personal and aimed at a local crowd.  Couldn't let one thing ruin the whole day.

Friday, May 4 (Big Man's birthday) -- Theresa Anderson and her new big band while lying on a blanket and the sun behind many clouds -- absolute perfection!, John Lawrence & the Ven Pa'Ca Flamenco troupe with their incredibly supple and sexy dancer as we enjoyed dozens of raw oysters, Marcia Ball on Acura ("Louisiana 1927" used to make me tear up before the katrina, and now it just wipes me out), Wanda Rouzan's hot and fun set in the Blues Tent, the fabulous street performer Doreen and her trad band (with her lil daughter Dorian on drums occasionally!) knocked the crowd out in the Economy Hall Tent, folks just yellin' out,  "We love you, Dorren!" and she coming back with, "And I love y'all too."  That woman plays clarinet like nobody's business!, Bonerama at Gentilly, caught a little of Mavis Staples in the Gospel Tent, though you couldn't have gotten in there the crowd was so giant, and ending with Little Anthony & the Imperials with their pipes intact & the songs everyone loves in the Blues Tent (what great seats we had!).

Sunday, May 6 -- Big Man was scheduled to play at 1:30 pm on the Congo Square Stage and he was anxious enough about being on time that we were early.  Setting ourselves up in the performers' trailer, we happened to see 2 sax players we know, also backstage, and we waved and called out to them.  They were like, "OMG so relieved to see you!" at Big Man  and bore him  away to their trailer.  Turns out they wanted and needed a good trumpet player and didn't have one.  Big Man was drafted to go on with them at 12:30 pm with Mem Shannon and the Membership (apparently it's a *loose* membership), so we were in the backstage stands for that set and Big Man's real gig with ELS right after.  We enjoyed it all, and so did the crowd.  After that, we dumped the horn case at the car (LOVE that musician parking!!), and headed for the Funky Meters at Gentilly.  (Part of me, tho', was sorry to miss the Sissy Bounce Shakedown at Congo Square -- it got great reivews.)  Then Los Hombres Calientes at Jazz & Heritage (seemed a strange choice of venue for the great Irvin Mayfiend, but whatever) and caught their homage to the orisha Ogun as well as a couple of other tunes.  Ed Volker, late of the Radiators, at Lagniappe, gave us another excuse to do raw oysters and continue to make friends with the staff from Smitty's Seafood in Kenner (hey, didja know they do 50 cent oysters on Mondays and Wednesdays??), then the Boutté Family in the Gospel Tent (terrific!), Rebirth at Congo Square, and the totally great Bonnie Raitt at Gentilly (her intimate rendition of "I Can't Make You Love Me" was heart-breaking and personal, like she was in your living room).  And then we were off to be Neville-ized for the last Jazz Fest with all the Neville Brothers.  Ivan was there!  Jason was there!  Ian was there!  But Aaron's voice was sadly compromised and we all pretended not to notice how it was a full register lower; he kept to occasional back-up singing for the most part, only giving us his personal version of "Amazing Grace" as the very very end.  They did not announce this  as their last Fest, but some of us knew it through the grapevine, but even not knowing, folks had to realize there was something seriously wrong with Aaron.  It was wonderful, really it  was, but it was so so sad, I just cradled my head in my hands and began to sob and Big Man held me tight.  I can't remember how we used to end Jazz Fest before it became the Nevilles' spot, and I don't know how I will feel about some other group or person doing it next year and all the next years to come.  I just know this hurt like hell.

And then Quint Davis came back out and pronounced us all Nevilles, and thanked us for a great Fest, and bud us come back next year, which of course we will, and we walked away full of emotion and Jazz Fest was over for 2012.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Delayed post (sorry, misfiled it!): French Quarter Festival

The weather could not have been better -- sunshine, cool river breezes (even gusty at times), reasonable temperatures (getting kind of cool in the shade).

The festival crowds were in a festival mood:  enthusiastic and friendly, and decked out in bright, colorful, imaginative festival clothes!  We saw some very cute and creative outfits, along with the bizarre and the hot season normal (hat, bandanna, T-shirt and shorts).  I wonder what folks wear at festivals in other places?  Couldn't be as inspired as our folks! 

Both of Big Man's festival gigs went well. On Friday he was part of the Renard Poche Big Band on the Abita Stage, which had a gigantic appreciative crowd of dancing fans.  Big Man played very well, despite the wind gusts trying to steal the music sheets off the music stands.

On Saturday Big Man performed with the affable John Lisi and his Delta Funk band to a smaller but just as energized crowd at the lil House of Blues stage on Decatur, in the deep shade of the old Customs House (now home to the Bug Museum).

While the French Quarter Fest crowds grow and grow, it still hasn't reached Jazz Fest levels and is still an enjoyable laid-back experience.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

First Weekend of Jazz Fest 2012

First of all, a shout-out to the Gods of Weather.  Temperatures were slightly below normal, there were blessed clouds all three days (we want clouds, because they mitigate the sun beating down on us), and there was a brisk breeze, like natural air conditioning, felt especially in some of the tents.

Some of our favorite highlights:

Women's Day on Friday, April 27.  We started in the Jazz Tent with our friend, the delightful Cindy Scott and segued into Leah Chase (yes, Ms. Leah of Dooky Chase Restaurant's daughter), who also had Cindy Scott come back up to duet with her.  Cindy was fabulous, her scatting so smooth and natural, you'd think she spoke in scat!  She called Shamarr Allen up at one point to guest with her and he knocked the crowd  out, trading riffs with Cindy.  And Leah's powerful voice and presence really puts a tune across power.  Later that same day, we also caught Stephanie Jordan doing her tribute to Lena Horne with a big band -- and a guest song or two with her brother trumpeter Marlon Jordan.  We also thrilled to the young and fearsomely talented Sasha Masakowski (who had both her dad and her brother on stage with her) at the Lagniappe Stage -- a small enough venue to be intimate, which we think Sasha needs to be appreciated.  Her Brazilian bossa nova song really impressed us, since we often have trouble remembering English lyrics, let alone Portugese!  We managed to squeeze into the back of the Gospel Tent for part of Irma Thomas's annual tribute to Mahalia Jackson and were blown away by a medley of "I Believe" and "How Great Thou Art." Big Man and I looked at each other, and we both had tears in our eyes!  We also strolled down Memory Lane with the Dixie Cups, but we have to say that the Acura Stage is not the best place to enjoy them (but more on that later).

In addition to all the great women, we also caught part of James Andrews set in the Blues Tent.  It was packed in there, and James was putting on a great show, very lively.  (It's not his fault he's not the trumpet player his brother is, and it's almost not fair at all to compare them.  If his last name wasn't Andrews, you'd be raving about him.)  We also  made to Congo Square for Kirk Joseph's Backyard Groove, and were surprised to find Big Man's colleague in Rénard Poché's band, Leslie Smith, onstage singing a double-entendre laced tune supposedly about food.  So I guess that counts towards another great woman for the day.  We relaxed in the shade and the breeze for the Swedish band, Butch Thompson, for their tribute to Jelly Roll Morton.  Wow!  Really brought back what a genius Jelly was, even if he did have to say so himself.  By accident while catching some food, we saw a bit of the set of the totally crazy Slavic Soul Party! and they knocked us out.  I don't even know how to describe them, but it was high energy and infectious in a really good way.

We ended the day with all the other aging Baby Boomers at the Beach Boys and sang along and tried not to think about how it was their *50th* Reunion.  God, we're all old! was what we were thinking (and likely most of the crowd as well), but it was good stuff and we loved reliving it all.  We walked back to the car singing "Be True to Your School."

Saturday, April 28.  We started at Gentilly for part of Gal Holiday's set.  That kind of old fashioned country-swing is not Big Man's cup of tea, but he indulged me.  I thought she was great and her band was really tight.  What they do may not be for everybody, but they sure are terrific at it.  Then we hustled ourselves to the Economy Hall Tent for our dear friends the Paulin Brothers.  When we arrived, the tent was rockin' -- almost everybody was on their feet, secondlining around the tent, waving handkerchieves and umbrellas (and I saw one of the First Church secondline umbrellas that I had decorated!).  We joined in with feeling, and afterwards got sweaty hugs from Doc and his brothers as we congratulated them on a wonderful set.

After that, we went into the Grandstand for air conditioning, clean restrooms and the interview with Meschiya Lake (did you know that when she first came to town, she lived in Jelly Roll Morton's old house?  or that her trumpeter is also a great keyboard player?).  Then over to the Blues Tent for Luther Kent and his big band (we kept seeing Big Man's trumpet friend Barney, who apparently has like something like 20 Jazz Fest gigs).  We managed to walk fast enough to catch part of Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen on Acura doing their covers of Allen Toussaint tunes.  (Now, there's my pick for the Jazz Fest best album!)  Back across the whole racetrack to Gentilly for Amanda Shaw, who only gets cuter and more talented with every passing year.  (Despite her theme song, for her, apparently pretty DOES last.)  We heard part of Irvin Mayfield and NOJO's set in the Jazz tent only from the outside, because there was no way to get there, also caught part of Walter "Wolfman" Washington in the Blues Tent with several of Big Man's band mates up on stage.

Then it was over to the Lagniappe Stage for Meschiya Lake & her Little Big Horns, plus a pair of excellent swing dancers onstage with her, just like at her sets at the Spotted Cat.  Just a marvelous set, and Meschiya really relaxed and happy-looking (sometimes at the Spotted Cat she hardly smiles).  For some people I spoke to, this set was a real Jazz Fest moment.  (A Jazz Fest moment is when something unexpected and totally wonderful, almost magical, happens.   More on that later.)

We went back to Acura for Voices of the Wetlands and really enjoyed the unusual mash-up of styles and voices, what with Dr. John, Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, Johnny V (Vidacovich), Jumpin' Johnny Sansone, Cyril Neville, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux (in full suit).  All this and concern for our wetlands too -- gotta love it.

Acura was becoming crowded after that with the folks who wanted to hear Tom Petty, but he wasn't on our list.  We wanted to hear the tribute to the late great Wardell Querzergue in the Blues Tent, and my strategy was to get there early and get a great spot.  So we went to the Blues Tent to hear the group before that, which was the Bobby Rush revue, and boy, did we get our socks knocked off!  That's a real Jazz Fest moment, when you think you're just going to get food, or take a break from the sun in a tent, or line yourself up for an act coming on later, and instead, you are knocked for a loop by someone you never heard of!

Bobby Rush is like 79 years old -- but you'd never know it.  His set was action packed, with costume changes, lots of dancing (Big Man was really envying those moves on that old guy), two extremely hot young back-up singer/dancers (who changed costumes even more times than Bobby and who had outrageous sexy figures), a tight, well-rehearsed band, and a routine that goes back to the heyday of the old black nightclubs like the Dew Drop Inn.  This was a complete show -- music, dancing, enjoyable stage patter, good-hearted raunchy talk, good rocking blues singing, and terrific music.  Big Man and I kept exchanging looks.  Why had we never heard of this guy?  He was absolutely wonderful, we'd hardly ever been so entertained, titillated, and amused.  And if we hadn't had to be there for the Wardell tribute, we'd've missed it.  Unbelievable.

Well, when they finally got Bobby Rush off the stage and out of the tent (he was starved apparently for audience contact, and spent a good 15 minutes, shaking hands and giving hugs all around the tent, to the chagrin of the Jazz Fest security people), they set up for the tribute.  Doc Paulin, looking much more relaxed in shorts and a golf shirt was back on hand to contribute trombone to his old boss, and the stage filled with veterans of the various bands and studio ensembles Wardell had put together over the years.  And then it was a joyous romp through Wardell's hits, with most of the audience singing  every single lyric along with the vocalists.  "Groove Me," "Trick Bag," "Barefootin'," "Big Chief" -- they ran through them all, with Wardell's son conducting.  Then they brought out the Dixie Cups, who emotionally thanked Wardell for being their mentor and giving them their first big break.  They went into "Chapel of Love" and a couple of others and of course ended  with "Iko Iko"-- the crowd on its feet screaming and singing, and the Cups throwing personalized Dixie Cups Mardi Gras cups (I got one!!) and personalized napkins for secondlining.  We realized in this setting that the Acura Stage is completely wrong for the Dixie Cups -- they need to be in the Blues Tent where they can interact with people and see us and us interact with them.  They are lost up on Acura, they can't do anything with the crowd, it's all too far away.  (Big Man has played Acura and says the giant crowd doesn't even make you nervous, because they're so far removed from the performers, they may as well not be there.)  Jazz Fest bigwigs, take note.

It was wonderful to remember all that we have Wardell to thank for, all those songs, as a friend of mine said as we walked out of the tent when it was over, "the sound track of our childhood." Yes yes.  Thank you so much, Wardell.  You will live forever.

Sunday, April 29.  Well, there was a decision to make about this day.  You could either decide to completely ignore the fact that Bruce Springsteen was gonna close the Fest with an unprecedented 2 1/2 hour set, or you could resign yourself to what hearing The Boss would entail.  We chose the latter course, although it must be admitted that this was somewhat against Big Man's judgment.  We arrived in time for Trombone Shorty's set (he of the youngest subject of a Jazz Fest official poster ever) and it was great, but your pleasure in it was mitigated by the fact you couldn't extend your arms or legs in any direction and had about 3 feet as your personal space.  Apparently the die-hard Bruce Springsteen fans lined up at the Jazz Fest gates *before 10 am* to snag spots and then never moved all day.

The press of the crowd got a little tighter for Dr. John's set (loved it) and by the time Bruce took the stage at about 4:35 pm or so, your personal space had shrunk to about 2.5 feet.  But The Boss put on a show that was emotional, spiritual, sexy, funny, and totally rockin'.  He had Dr. John come back up for one number -- clash of worlds! -- but otherwise was on stage or on the specially built runway out into the crowd for the whole time.  We boogied, we laughed, we cried, we held each other, we swayed and waved our arms.  It was amazing.  It was worth every single bit of hassle and discomfort and reduced square footage to be there for that whole set.  It was once in a lifetime -- especially for us, as Big Man says he's NEVER doing that again.

And so ended our first weekend of Jazz Fest 2012.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter 2012

taken from an essay by the late Rev. Suzanne Meyer, from when she was serving First UU Church, New Orleans

Lover of the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

This Easter I encourage you to practice resurrection. Note, I did not say, “believe in resurrection,” I said practice it! For the poet Wendell Berry, practicing resurrection doesn't refer to a metaphysical act or a theological proposition. For Berry, the art and science of resurrection is found in those countless disciplined acts of resistance to all of the forces in modern life that dehumanize, oppress, and reduce precious individuals to robots. Don’t let your mind be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer -- wage a guerilla campaign on behalf of love, justice, and joy. Practice resurrection!

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit, they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.

In the springtime, in the greening time, as life is renewed, we must renew our opposition to all the forces that crush the spirit, erode the soul, stifle freedom. We must place our hope in the things that endure. For this is eternal life. Berry says: “Invest in the millennium -- plant sequoias.” In what he calls his “Manifesto,” Berry encourages us to

Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.

Practicing resurrection means expanding the sense of self outward from the rather arbitrary borders of our own skins, becoming so large and expansive that death no longer has any dominion. Buddhist Joanna Macy writes: “The way we define and delimit the self is arbitrary.”

Berry shares Macy’s expanded sense of the self. His theology is juicy, erotic, rebellious, some would say mad. He is a heretic because he refuses to believe that resurrection was a one time only, one-person only event. We are the living dead buried under all of the flotsam and jetsam of modern living, seduced by the false promises of secular materialism. We are cut off from the earth, the soil, the humus, the natural cycles of life and death. Life is an innately spiritual experience; and we have lost touch with that. Much of Western religion has been necrophilic -- death loving, world renouncing. But we have it within ourselves to rise, to become biophilic -- life loving, world embracing. Resist! Refuse! Recycle! Resurrection happens! So practice resurrection. So ends the reading.

“Coming Back from the Dead” A Homily for Easter
by the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger
First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans
Sunday, April 8, 2012

There is a rather famous Easter story that is supposed to have occurred in a New England Universalist church some 60-odd years ago. One Easter Sunday, the choir was processing down the center aisle, singing an old Universalist hymn entitled, “Up From the Grave He Rose.” There was a hot air register in the middle of the aisle and the last soprano got her high heel caught in the grating. She kept on singing, stepped out of her shoe, and kept on walking. The man behind her, thinking he was doing her a favor, picked up the shoe -- and the whole grate came with it.

Nobody missed a beat. The man walked on with the shoe and the grate in his hand, and, still in tune and still in step, the man right behind him fell into the open register and dropped from sight. As the choir sang the final “Allelulia! He arose!” the congregation was startled -- to say the least -- when a shout came from the hole in the floor: “You'd better all be out of the way, because I'm coming up!”

I’m told that the man emerged from the netherworld of the crawl space, as the choir burst into the second Easter hymn, and the whole congregation cheered. Resurrection took place in a Universalist church that Easter, and everyone shared in it.

One of the biggest differences between Unitarian Universalists and our sisters and brothers of more traditional faiths, as Suzanne Meyer points out, is that most of them believe that resurrection was a one-time-only event for one-person-only, with the rest of us promised resurrection only after we die and only if we're good enough, while we religious liberals realize how often such events as rebirth and resurrection occur in each and every one of our lives. We all share in them.

The story of Jesus is not the earliest one we have of a godlike figure dying and rising again. It seems that humans have always needed to be reminded of the possibility and hope of renewal and that is why Easter-type stories of rebirth and resurrection are part of human religious history. (Interestingly, the majority of these early figures are female.) The first deity to die, enter the underworld, and return to the living was the Sumerian goddess Inanna, who was seeking answers and more power. The second was likely the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was seeking her lost love, Osiris. The ancient Greeks had Persephone, who either went willingly or was kidnapped, depending on which version of the myth you choose to go by. Our own name for this holiday, Easter, comes from the name of the Indo-European dawn goddess of the east whose special celebrations always took place at the vernal equinox. In different regions, she was known as Eostre, Astarte, Ashera, Aurora. (Another item of interest is the fact that many scholars believe the Jewish heroine-queen Esther whose holiday, Purim, is also celebrated at the spring equinox, is a manifestation of the Canaanite version of this same goddess.)

The rituals of the springtime dawn goddess varied with the culture and region, but usually included baskets of flowers and spring greenery, a dawn service, and baby animals such as lambs, goats, rabbits. Eggs, symbols of the goddess's sacred womb of rebirth and of the fertility of the spring season, were also part of the holiday in many places. Children were honored as embodiments of new life. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.)

Whether ancient peoples believed in the stories told about their various goddesses literally or metaphorically we will never really know, and it doesn't matter. We religious liberals in the 21st century are free to view them as useful and beautiful symbols, without fretting over historic or scientific accuracy, which is not the point anyway. Rebirth and resurrection are necessary to being human; they are needs from deep within us. We especially seem to feel it at this time of year.

Spring itself feels like a rebirth and resurrection of our earth, the Japanese magnolias and redbuds and forsythias and all the soft new green, lifting our spirits with their beauty and their scent (even when they also irritate our sinuses).

•There's the rebirth and resurrection of finding a religious home where you can be yourself, with all your doubts and questions and life experiences, after you had given up hope that there could be a church for you.
•There's the rebirth and resurrection of finding love when you feel you didn't “earn” it or that you don't “deserve” it. (It's lucky for all of us that love isn’t apportioned that way, because so few of us would get any.)
•There's the rebirth and resurrection of rising again after dealing with addictions and substance abuse, and discovering you can go, one day at a time, into a life of sobriety.
•There’s the rebirth and resurrection of finding a way to keep on keeping on after a tragedy or disaster. (Now, there’s a resurrection First Churchers and other New Orleanians know about first-hand!)
•There's the rebirth and resurrection of finding friends when you need them the most, when an illness or a death or a catastrophe has put you in the tomb-like darkness of despair and alienation. All of these rebirths and resurrections can be celebrated as signs that renewal is always possible, even in a world like ours, dominated by death and tragedy and cynicism and pain.

In Rev. Suzanne’s essay, poet Wendell Berry reminds us that the forces of the tomb are always out there, ready to lay to rest all the mystery and juice and beauty of life in exchange for the mess of pottage that is secular materialism. Believing in rebirth and resurrection means placing our hopes in what endures: love, compassion, the things of the earth, the natural cycles of loss and return.

My colleague Maureen Killoran of our church in Asheville, North Carolina, writes that
[r]esurrection literally means "to rise again," to rise up from the ashes of destruction and, like the phoenix, set forth anew upon the path of life. Each of us, by virtue of being alive, has fallen. Resurrection means to come back from those deaths both large and small, our times of imprisonment in the tomb of the soul. Resurrection means to triumph over opposition, and each of us has, at one time or another, faced [our] fear and moved beyond.

For us as religious liberals, coming back from the dead does not occur when an angel, or some other supernatural being, appears after 3 days or 3 weeks or 3 years to roll away the stones upon our hearts. We come back from the dead when courage and hope reach through our despair and pain; we come back from the dead when we engage the world not as a threat, not as a monster, not even as a necessary evil, but as a delightful challenge. We come back from the dead when we are realistic about what we can accomplish and yet let our sense of mirth and play help us to determine where to draw the line.

On this beautiful Easter day, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on the times in your life when you have been in the dark of the tomb of the soul. It may have been a disappointment so great that you tried to insulate yourself from the world. Or it may have been a loss of someone or something so beloved that you felt abandoned and alone. Whatever it was, each one of us has felt it -- that feeling of fear, dark and cold, like being shut away in a tomb.

From there, I ask you to remember what it was that brought you "back from the dead" -- the person or community that supported, comforted, and encouraged you, who made you feel alive once more. Something or someone came to us when we were locked in a cave in our souls and rolled away the stone, revealing a deeper dimension of hope and connection. This Easter, I encourage you to practice rebirth and resurrection by recalling to mind your own times of hopeful renewal.

Rebirth and resurrection -- they're not unique, legendary, supernatural events, but the stuff of life, your life and mine. And there may be no better time to contemplate all that renews and returns than glorious Springtime. May this Eastertide find us heartened and challenged by our own times of rebirth and resurrection in the midst of the darkness of our times: deception, meaningless, materialism, despair. May we daily find the miracles of hope we need to truly live, instead of merely surviving. So might this be! AMEN –ASHE – SHALOM – SALAAM – NAMASTE – BLESSED BE.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Saints

I hardly know what to write about the Saints right now. The recent revelations about defense coordinator Gregg Williams setting up a bounty program, not just for Saints defense players to hard hit opposition players, but actually with bonuses to *hurt* them and them carted off the field. Something like 27 players were involved and of course Sean Payton had to have known and just turned a blind eye to it. What with the rumors swirling around town about Payton's possibly having had a child with a Saintsations cheerleader (thus prompting Mrs. Payton to decamp back to Houston, in a pricey neighborhood), it's almost enough, just about enough, to make one lose faith in the Coach's probity.

As a pastor, of course I deplore this whole thing. Good hard legal hits are one thing, but I cannot condone hurting other players *on purpose.* That players who were already being paid more than the average -- or even the above-average -- worker needed added incentives to do what was, after all, only their job (the legal part anyway) is especially disheartening. That Jonathan Vilma, the "quarterback" of the defense, was deeply involved is just about heart-breaking, we had such respect and affection for him.

I also cannot agree with those near-rabid Saints fans who claim that "everyone does it" or that it's why we watch football and thus it's all "no big deal." I for one was not watching and cheering for and crying for the Saints because I thought they were just like all the other teams, doing whatever it is all the other teams do. We were supposed to be special, different, *above* all that. If that is innocent to the point of naîve, then I am guilty.

As a Saints fan, my other problem is that this ridiculous, sad, disgusting affair didn't even get us in the Superbowl. It's not like I *want* the Saints to cheat or act like thugs in order to win, but there is something in me that says, dang, we went through all that and they STILL didn't win.

To put the big ol' cherry on top of the sundae, now the Saints front office -- Mickey Loomis and the Bensons -- can't close the deal with Drew Brees. They had to slap a franchise tag on him, for heaven's sake, since they couldn't close the deal with e long-term contract. The local media say he's mad, and who can blame him? His team, that he has performed so wonderfully for, is just about falling apart around his ears, and they were so short-sighted and stupid, they couldn't even see that they needed to change the agenda and make the news stories be about Drew and his big long-term contract, and NOT about the bounty for injury stories. But they had to go and mess that up too. If we lose Drew, you'll know who to blame.

The coming season does not look good. The league wants to make an example of some team to show that the NFL is serious about protecting the health and safety of players, and they're none too happy about all the "I support the Coach and the GM completely" statements coming from Tom Benson. They are very likely going to slap the Saints with all kinds of penalties, suspending Loomis and probably Payton too, big whopping fines, and snatching draft choices.

It's an ugly story, an ugly scene, all the way around. No heroes to cheer for.

I kind of feel the way I used to when I was younger when I was betrayed by a boyfriend, and I'm not looking forward to next season.