Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Blasting in the New Year–and Ringing it in at the Buddhist Church–and with Sacred Fire Dance

It’s 9 PM in California on New Year’s Eve.  Not sure why fireworks are going off all around my apartment building, and people are cheering them.  I can’t see them out of any window, but it sounds as if they are being fired a block away.  Just heard the finale.  These must be New York-ophiles, since it’s midnight there.  [P.S.  Sunday in church, a kid mentioned having seen the fireworks in Old Sac, so they just sounded close to me, but were not.]

At 7 PM I went with a friend to the Sacramento Buddhist Church (also known as Betsuin) for their New Year’s Eve service.  Founded in 1899 and in this Midtown/Land Park location since 1959, it’s a Japanese Buddhist congregation.    One of the oldest, and maybe the largest, of all the 55 Betsuins in the country.

My pal had read that the colors are red and white, so she wore a red top and black jacket.  I wore a white shirt and red tie.  Nearly everyone there had on black.  Or other dark colors, and leather jackets.  Mixed ages, and a diversity of ethnicities, not only Japanese Americans.  The congregation sits in wooden pews of the kind you’d find in any church built in the 50s or 60s, with padding.   We face an altar area, raised a bit like a stage, with a large golden structure in the middle, sort of like an ornate temple on poles with a a relief of the Buddha on the back wall.  A couple of smaller altars to the sides.  We listen to electric organ music from just below the stage area, on the left.   But the crowd is talkative, so I can barely make out the music.

Ministers, assistants and lay leaders come in from the sides, bow at the altar, and take seats along he side.  The chairperson of the service comes to the podium near the organ to welcome us to the service.  From the other end of the stage, an up on the stage or platform, is a pulpit.  From this, a number of people speak, alternating with a series of chants and hymns from the Service Book.  Some chants in Japanese musical notations, others with western notations.   One man leads a responsive reading, giving thanks for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  After every speaker people are invited to [word I can’t make out or remember], and everyone clasps their hands in a prayer pose, many with a string of beads around both hands.  I also can’t quite make out the phrase uttered by a leader and repeated by the crowd, but it happens frequently.

Rev. Bob, the lead minister, gives a short sermon, recalling the year past.  He recalls an official honoring of a Nisei regiment of service men from WWII, and nods to one veteran in the congregation.    He calls to mind the devastation of last March’s tsunami in Japan, and the Betsuin’s response, under the leadership of its president (who is a doctor I met at the end).  They sent over several tons of food and raised $230,000 in relief aid.  They have a “sister Betsuin” in the affected area.

About 35 minutes into the service, they invite us all to rise and come down the center aisle to the front, and then exit the side door to see the bell.  Barely audible over the conversation is the organ again, softly playing “Auld Lang Syne.”

The line doesn’t move much, as there is a receiving line of all the clergy, youth and lay leaders on the way out the door.   My friend had read that they ring the bell 108 times to let go of all the distractions of the past year.  If they are waiting for all of us to get outside for that, it will be a long wait, and those at the front of the line will be cold waiting in the courtyard.

We approach the center altar, and in front of the platform are a few large incense vessels, with bowls of crushed incense in front.  Each person pinches some incense, sprinkles into the gently smoking vessel, and bows–toward the smoke?  Maybe toward the Buddha.  We shake hands with several people in the receiving line.  I introduce myself to the president and then to the lead minister, who has preached in our church a few times.

We walk out the side door, into the hallway, and then out into a small courtyard, delicately manicured with gravel, trees, grass, and larger rocks.  Hanging in the corner is a large gray bell.  We’re in line. A robed Caucasian leader is handing a wooden mallet to everyone.  Each of us approaches, one at a time, and strikes the bell.  My friend hits it loudly, so I do too. There are more than 108 people there, to be sure, so the bell was struck more than 108 times.   Apparently, this ceremony is different, less regimented, than what my friend read about. Well, it is a Buddhist “church” in America.  No tradition is totally pure anyway, no matter what purists of any kind would say.

We watch others do it, and then wander into another room.  it’s the columbarium, where ashes are kept.  It’s a lovely, chapel like square room of wooden cabinets, each with glass about 1 foot high and 30″ long.  People are walking around the sides of the room to pay respects to their ancestors and friends, but they’re also visiting, and quite jovial with one another.  We both walk around and read the names and dates of birth and death.  Some of the boxes are of a lovely etched metal, looking almost like thick books in a library; other boxes are of wood, some smooth, others with etchings.  Often there is a small framed picture of a person or a couple, and sometimes a bracelet of meditation beads.  Many folks were born in the 1910s and 1920s, but some later.  One baby girl, born in 1974, died on the same day.

It’s both a celebratory night and one for reflection on one’s past, and on the transience of life.

At 10 PM, I go over to 23rd and B, near the levee, where a friend and other students of her fire-dancing teacher are doing “sacred fire dance” also known as poi.  To see what it looks like in the dark, see this link from Obsidian Butterfly.  They swirl chains, ropes, and long sticks with alcohol-soaked pads on them, creating fire designs in the sky.  Four of them are doing this at the end of a street by the levee, blocked off a bit by a large van.  A small crowd watches.

From another vehicle a mix of music plays as they go through their numbers:  some solo, with the next performer getting fire from the one about to finish; several are in pairs or threes, but at least one is at the ready to put out the others’ fire when the act is done (or should there be a mishap).  As the chains and “light saber” fly through the chilly night, close by, I can hear that the fire makes a lot of noise–a low, deep swoosh.

After an hour I can’t handle the chill (the fire is still not close enough to warm me), so I say goodbye and head a block away to my car.  A cop in a car pulls up beside me:  “What’s going on over there?”  I explain a few artists are doing fire dancing.

He asks:  “Are you involved with it?”  No, I tell him, I’m a friend of one of the students.

He asks if they have a permit.  “I think so.  She usually does.  She runs a studio.”    He heads over in his car; I see her (the teacher) walking toward him, to answer his questions.  I’ll find out if things turned out okay.

I read a David Sedaris story from Holidays on Ice, while drinking a glass of cheap red wine I  heated up in the microwave, and start to doze at 11:30.  I turned in before midnight, with earplugs so any local revelers could do so loudly with my blessing, rather than my curses.

Happy New Year.


“Thank You for Your Effort” (a new practice of gratitude for a new year)

“Thank you for your effort.”

I remember this from one of my meditation teachers, Arinna Weisman.  I haven’t been on a silent meditation retreat for nearly four years, but I still keep to my morning practice of prayer and sitting meditation.  (I set the microwave timer to go off in 45 minutes–not the same as an ancient bell in a meditation hall, but using it does take watching the clock off my mind.)

On retreat, when the bell or gong rings to mark the end of a session, I would bow toward the Buddha statue and give my thanks to the Buddha nature (and his example of liberation), the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community of others in practice).   I still do that while meditating at home at the end, when the timer goes off.  I bow to the little statue and give thanks for the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, and this practice of meditating. I also give thanks for my effort.

On retreat, after ringing the bell for us to end a sitting, Arinna would say, “Thank you for your effort.”  She didn’t say “great job!” or tell us we had done it just right, or assure us that if it was a meditation filled with distraction or boredom that the next time would be a better one.  How would she know?  That’s not really the purpose of meditation:  getting it right.  The purpose is to practice being present and mindful, practice bringing attention back to one’s present experience, to what’s going on.  The goal of spiritual practice for me is to cultivate peace, peacefulness, freedom, spaciousness, patience, kindness to self and others, and gratitude.  But since these are not quite measurable goals, and I don’t want to evaluate a session in a strict outcome-oriented way, I don’t dwell on them.  I hope my practice works and trust that it does.

It does take effort.  So I remember to give thanks for my effort, my own effort.  I hear Arinna’s voice and I see her face when I do this.

I think this little phrase can be useful in many aspects of life.  When I go for a swim, a walk, or another kind of exercise, I can say to myself, “I give thanks for my effort.”  It doesn’t need to be the best workout ever to do this.

We  send a thank-you note when someone does a favor for us or sends us a gift.  We don’t usually send a bigger card or a longer note depending on the size of the gift or the favor.  We say thanks.

In the new year–or at least in the next few days–I will try recognizing effort, recognizing gifts of all kinds and contributions that others make through their actions, and I will say thanks.  If I’m reflecting on the gifts received while alone, say at the end of a long day, I’ll still say “thank you.”

And when I do something to enhance my own life, health, mindfulness, or serenity, I’ll say, “Thank you.”

Christmas Eve 2011 at UUSS: Prayer, Readings, Homily

Family Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento


Christmas Prayer

Please take a moment to feel settled for a time of reflection and prayer.  Feel your body in the seat, your feet on the floor.  Feel the breath of life rising in you, and then feel it reaching out and mingling with the air, which joins us to all of life on this earth, in all its generations.

Feel your hopes for this time together this night.  Feel your hopes for this season.  Your hopes for those you care about, those in your heart or those held in your prayerful intentions.

Recognize your hopes for this whole world, with all its pain and its dangers and threats.  Recognize your gratitude for this whole world, with all its beauty and its resilience and creativity.

Take a moment to acknowledge that every human life—including yours—holds mysteries and questions, and doubts.   See if you can relax just into a more open acceptance of the gift of life and its questions.

Let your heart receive what it needs as I offer these further words of prayer.

Spirit of Life, Source of Love, on this holiday night, we pause to give thanks for life in all its abundance and all its mystery.  We give thanks for the people, places, and experiences that have sustained us this past year.   On this night of worship and rest, we remember and give thanks for those who are working, especially those who are caring for others or keeping us safe.

We remember those around the world in zones of conflict and oppression, the ones who serve there and the ones who call those places home.  Let us give thanks for those returning safely from military service in Iraq, and remember those still serving abroad.   We remember also the refugees, exiles, and prisoners. We long for the end of conflict and pain for all people, for everyone in every land.   Let us pray–and hope and speak and work–so that all might soon come to know the gift of peace, which is the message of this holiday, and its promise.

Let us remember that each one of us is able to give gifts to others, starting with the gift of our authentic presence.   We can receive and share the gift of respect and kindness.  We can receive and share the gifts of listening and encouragement.  We can receive, and we can share, the gift of peace and stillness.   So may it be in these moments, and in the days ahead. Amen.



Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 9:2-7 (KJV)

Gospel of Luke, 2:1-20 (KJV)

Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2 (The Message translation)



I’m amazed at all the kinds of people who like Christmas.   I know Jews, Hindus, Humanists, atheists, neo-Pagans, ex-Christians and people not elsewhere classified who enjoy sending Christmas cards, exchanging gifts–even shopping for gifts amid the rush.  They like decorating their home, and singing traditional carols.  Some folks make it a point to get to a Christmas Eve service, even though they haven’t been to church in ages—well, they haven’t been to church in a year.  They patronize concerts of Christmas music, holiday dramas and comedies on stage and screen.  They show up for The Messiah, and of course the Nativity Pageant.   Even those of us who stubbornly resist going along with the crowd most of the time…will make room in our hearts to say “Merry Christmas” over and over, and almost never to say “Bah! Humbug.”

I wonder:  In our modern secular society, and our consumerist culture, have we concluded that Christmas is merely harmless?  Do we think of it only as a treat of carols, candles, and candy canes to get us through a time of darkness and chill in the northern hemisphere?  Well, that’s a worthy trait for Christmas to have, but it’s not the only one.   And:  Christmas is not harmless.  I mean the story of Christmas, the divine and human story that gets the whole thing going in the first place.  The story that is the reason for the season… is full of danger.

It’s a story of wonder and love, to be sure.  It’s got a donkey, sheep, cows, and other animals in a stable.  But it’s a story of danger too.  As we’ve heard, the Gospel writers explain that Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem because Joseph is from there.  He has to go to his hometown in order to register for the census of the Roman Empire.   “There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” –this is how the King James Bible says it.

All the people going to and fro, heading back to the places they had left behind.   The roadways–full, crowded in all directions.  No Greyhound bus, no Southwest Airlines, just animals to carry you, or your own two feet.  Robbers and Roman soldiers no doubt find easy pickings among the vulnerable travelers.

When Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, the innkeeper has no place for them.   They share space with farm animals, and she gives birth in a stable rather than at home or in a midwife’s tent.  In those days, infant mortality was a high risk, as it still is today in places of poverty, oppression, and military occupation.  Mortality in giving birth was a high risk also.

In the wilderness, shepherds guard their flocks against predators.  They’re used to being alone out there.  All of a sudden a strange figure appears and calls out to them.  They are “sore afraid,” the story says, even though the Angel of God says: “Fear not!”  Good news comes in a flurry of wings–more angels arrive, with a chorus of praise for this child.  The shepherds follow instructions, risking loss of life or at least loss of some of the flock, as they travel into Bethlehem.

Wise men, coming from afar, follow a dancing star.  Perhaps they have a safer trip than the shepherds and the family. Yet they make a deadly mistake.  They ask the emperor’s local rep for directions to the Christ child’s location.  King Herod, as he’s known, does not hear their good news as good, or as anything but a threat to his status as a local ruler, and to Caesar’s power as a god-and-king in one.  The wise men find the baby in the stable.  After kneeling to offer gifts fit for a king, the wise men head home.  Yet they take another way, avoiding Herod.  In his rage, Herod orders genocide–all the firstborn sons.  The holy family escapes the ensuing raid, but countless others do not.

This is not a story just about a baby being born, it’s about a baby who will challenge accepted power structures, who will try to bring peace, generosity and kindness to a world accustomed to anger, greed, and brutal force.  This baby becomes a prophet.

In these Gospel accounts, the grown-up Jesus proclaims this message:  “Blessed are you poor ones, for to you belongs the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be satisfied.”  But then he says: “Woe unto you that are rich! For you have received your consolation.”  In other words, you’ve already taken about all you’re going to get.

The people in the original Christmas story know of the danger of being born in such a time and place as they inhabit.  But can they know of the danger that this baby’s deeds will bring?  Can they know what his teachings will inspire, and how far they will spread?

How can any of us know what potential resides in any human being, even in a child we nurture and know as our own?  How can we know what any particular birth will lead to?

That simple stable-birth turns out to be an earth-shaking, mind-bending, eye-opening, heart-filling and heart-breaking challenge to that baby’s parents, the rabbis, the Romans, the whole wide world.   But you can say that about any birth, any child.  I don’t have one of my own, but I’ve listened to some of you, and that’s my impression of the experience of parenthood.   It’s an earth-shaking, mind-bending, eye-opening, heart-filling and heart-breaking challenge.

How can we know if any given child will challenge the ways of the world later on:  the astronomer in Europe who says the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the earth around the sun… the nonviolent protestors in India who face the bullets of the British Empire?  How can we, who bow to greet any new children, predict which ones will show great courage: the African Americans who will not budge from lunch counter protests or let police dogs and water cannons turn them ‘round…  Or the college students and other activists of recent days, who “occupy” public parks across the land, calling for economic fairness, and risking pepper spray or a beating as they spark a new movement…  Or the Arab citizens who rise up finally against dictatorships, the Burmese democracy activists, the Chinese dissidents.      So many stories show the faith and courage that reside in every person—in everyone’s heart—and everyone starts out as a child!

How do we know what child will be a philanthropist, a teacher, a cherished volunteer, a health professional?  What child will be a patient parent, loving partner, an actor, an athlete, a good friend?

What child won’t make it?

What child will face medical needs or emotional struggles in life so great that it will draw out of you courage and endurance you could not have expected of yourself?

The Christmas story is, indeed, one of possibility and of danger.  Promise and chance.


What children will be hardworking custodians, cooks, farmworkers, musicians, artists, clerks, or inventors of new technologies?  Which ones will be givers of military service, social service, automotive service, or givers of care in nursing homes and nurseries?  So much potential, in every human life.

Once we draw near to the Christmas story, we can see its theme of danger, and the risks of human life in any age of history.  We remember that it’s dangerous to call into question the unjust ways of the world.  But what calls us, what draws us to the story, is the surprise of the situation and all its characters.

This unlikely story shows the unshakeable simplicity of life–and the gentleness and generosity of human life.

It shows the power of divine love and human goodness, the power to shine amid the shadows of the world.  It shines, and it shows the way to the gifts of life:  the way of patience, kindness, encouragement, and courage.

May we walk this way with one another, and may we help one another.  Let us all help to show the way, as we make our way to the gifts of life.

So may it be.  Amen.


Christmas quotation
December 24, 2011, 2:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Celebrating Christmas gives “a little nudge at the shoulder, as if to say, we’ve been through a lot this year.” — Cameron Crowe, speaking about holiday movies on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday. December 24, 2011.

Giving: My Reflections (on the upwelling of generosity this week!)

Giving:  My Reflections (from the Weekly Message, sent by email to the congregation)

It has been gratifying these past several days!
Here at UUSS we have seen members, friends and guests bring in nonperishable food items, clothing, toys, and personal care items for the Together We Share boxes in the Connection Central Lobby.
Both Doug and I have had members reach out to meet with us to talk about making special donations to the church, and ask us about options and opportunities for making both year-end gifts and for including UUSS in their will or trust planning.   I’ve run into people bringing a check to the office, or filling out a monthly pledge card.   And of course there have been plenty of goodies brought in for those of us who work here.
The holidays bring out a spirit of generosity and connection.  Even when times are tough—perhaps especially when times are tough—the act of giving seems to be a sign of possibility and potential.  Your gifts to UUSS not only show your appreciation for all that this congregation does and all that it means.
Your gifts also keep UUSS doing all the good things that we do together in support of its Mission, Values and Covenant.  Thank you!
Our loyal bookkeeper, Michele, will be back in the office next week.
After Tuesday, when she processes the payday numbers with our payroll service, Michele can receive any year-end gift you would care to make to make to UUSS, whether to the all-important Operating Fund, the Heritage Fund (in memory of a loved one or in honor of a special occasion), or a gift in support of the Master Planning process for the future of this UUSS campus (Details in January Unigram, page 3.)
By the way, last week Michele mailed the quarterly Contribution Report to all of us (sent by regular mail or by email). It includes a summary of both pledge payments and special contributions to UUSS that we may have made, and helps us know if we are current.
If you did not get this and were expecting an email, check your spam or junk folder, since our PowerChurch system’s mail  sometimes gets caught in those filters.  If you still don’t have it, feel free to contact Michele.  She will respond as soon as she can.

With my deep thanks for another blessed year together, and my wishes for a safe and peaceful holiday weekend,

Yours in service,

Family Minister

PS—on the above topic, two years ago my newsletter column for January was entitled:  “The Tax Deadline Approaches:  Don’t Get Taken While Giving!”  If you click the link you can read it on Pastor Cranky’s weblog.

Was Christopher Hitchens Religious?

Hitchens was the British-born immigrant American  journalist, critic, and polemicist who died last week.

Acerbic, smart, wide-ranging and extreme in argument, he was noted for going after Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and religious believers of all kinds. Formerly a Marxist and still a leftist, he nevertheless was a strong advocate of invading Iraq in 2003. In the cause of opposing “Islamofascism,” he would attack anyone who seemed to promote tolerance toward Islam as a religion and as a movement. While he may have done significant muckraking journalism about Mother Theresa (but I don’t know), his attitudes about religion left no room for nuance, complexity, and contradictions in the diverse world of religion.

This is an interesting short article from the Rev. Marilyn Sewell of Portland. It’s posted on the Beacon Press “Broadside.”

See what you think, and feel free to add a comment here.

Video holiday greetings from my new graduate school (scene with me)–4 minutes

Video greetings from my new graduate school (scene with me)