Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Politicians–Local Hopefuls Pitch for LGBT Endorsements

It’s easy to trash politicians, and easy for me to think it’s merited.  Just turn on the national news or open the paper.  (Today I’d like to trash a few Supreme Court justices too.)  But when you look down at the local level, you see that they are just people, and most of them care a lot about their calling and their work.  And they all work hard.

Tuesday night I went to the first-ever endorsement forum of a brand new PAC (Political Action Committee) for the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce (which includes many LGBT-owned, -run, or -friendly area businesses).  I have not joined the Chamber so all I could do was watch and listen.  The PAC endorsed many office-seekers for seats on a local school board, the county board of supervisors, and state assembly.  Several of these folks came by; some of them are Chamber members (not necessarily LGB or T), but even they had to leave the room for the discussions (and hand their ballots in through a volunteer.

The dramatic highlights were three-minute speeches by those seeking office in three city council districts; the June election for these seats (and mayor) is non-partisan.  If nobody gets a majority in a given race, there will be a runoff.

All of the candidates were passionate, thoughtful, and articulate in describing their backgrounds, visions, and qualifications.  Some showed more expertise in the issues than others, some had more connections to leaders in the group (who made strong testimonies while the candidates absented themselves).  None is an incumbent, though some have held office before.  My response to the speeches did not always match the outcome of the vote, but this was the first time I met most of them.  The PAC’s rules state that a person must get 60% in order for an endorsement to be made, and in every case the vote was overwhelming and not close.

I am grateful to all these folks who dare to step forward and stand for election.  They all bring many talents, and already they have served their communities in significant ways.  Their willingness to walk neighborhoods, knock on doors, listen to anyone and everyone who wants to bend their ear–it’s so old fashioned!  It’s nearly an obsolete phenomenon, except in local politics.

Their generosity and commitment has revived Pastor Cranky’s idealism about the political process and the dignity of elected service.

Notable among those endorsed by an overwhelming vote is the young but smart, experienced, gifted and highly esteemed young man who is competing to be my city council member:  Steve Hansen.  When I get his sign for my window from him, I’ll bend his ear about the trashy lots in this neighborhood.



Spirits in Everything: Cosmology in Traditional Maori Religion — (Mid-term theological seminary paper)

for HR4175, Cultural and Faith Traditions of Asia and Oceania

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

March 28, 2012

Introduction

Key aspects of Maori cosmology are the mythic origins of the universe, the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers, the cyclical nature of human life, and the importance of ancestral connections. Rapid Christianization altered the indigenous cosmology, and colonial exploitation led to Biblically-inspired prophets and resistance movements.

Background of Aotearoa New Zealand

New Zealand has nearly four million inhabitants on its North and South Islands, and several smaller ones.  Since 1907 it has been a dominion of the United Kingdom, like Australia and Canada.

It was one of the last areas of the globe to be inhabited by human beings.   The indigenous Maori arrived by canoe from other parts of Polynesia in the fourteenth century.  Maori culture is based on land and kinship links, as is shown below.

Explorer Abel Tasman sighted it in 1642 and James Cook circumnavigated it 1769.   English Christian missionary activity began early in the 1800.  Now, 80 percent of Maori are Christian (but with Maori cultural influences) and the remainder hold to the traditional religion or other western sects.  In 1840 England presented the Treaty of Waitangi to 35 Maori chiefs, making them British subjects and ostensibly granting them land rights.  However, by deceitful translation of key words in the Maori version of the treaty, the English cheated the Maori out of their land rights.  This led to expropriation, displacement, and alienation for the Maori.  By 1850, the violence and imported diseases reduced the Maori population to equal that of the settler.

When the English arrived, the Maori population was 100,000. Now the Maori make up 10 percent of the population (approximately 400,000), mainly around Auckland and other North Island urban areas.[1]  Land wars with colonial militias lasted from 1843 to 1872. Largely urban-based Maori protests took place in the 1970s and 80s for land and other tribal rights, resulting in a standing tribunal to investigate present violations of the treaty if not original ones.  Four Parliament seats are reserved for Maori.  The country’s official name is now Aotearoa New Zealand; the Maori word [pronounced Ao-te-a-roa ]means “land of the long white cloud.”  Maps are at this link.

Cosmology

The German encyclopedia Religion Past and Present defines cosmology as “a specific culture’s orientation in space and time as conceived in words, images and rituals.”  It continues:  “Religious worldviews represent the complete order…. bringing the visible into agreement with the invisible.”[2]  Myths and genealogies were handed down by oral tradition (but written down after colonization).  The Maori worldview comprises myths, genealogies, and ritual practices and prohibitions.

Maori Cosmogony:  Origins of the Universe

Moewa Callaghan, citing the authorities Marsden and Henare, explains the myth that the god Tane “ascended to the highest heaven … to obtain the three ‘baskets of knowledge.’  These baskets contained the knowledge of the creation of the cosmos, of the gods and of humanity.”[3]  What Tane revealed was this:  Te Po is the great void, a realm of darkness, and a source or process of growth and causation.

Callaghan summarizes origins this way:  “Te Hau ora (the essence of life) begat shape, shape begat form, form begat space, space begat time, and time begat Rangi and Papa.  Ranginui was the Great Sky, who impregnated Papatuanuki the Earth.  These are the original parents of creation, including nature and the spiritual powers inherent in the world.  Their son Tane pushed them apart to emerge from their mating embrace, and this opening led to the flourishing of creation.  Humanity is the child of this god Tane and the “dawnmaid Hineahuone, who was formed … out of the red clay.”[4]

A mythic hero common to many Polynesian cultures is named Maui.  New Zealand’s legendary origin is that  Maui used a jawbone as a fishhook to draw the North Island out of the sea; its name, Te-Ika-a-Maui, means “fish-of-Maui.”  The South Island is Maui’s ship.[5]   He is too much of the earth to be worshipped as a god, but he is more than human, and is invoked in rituals for fishing and planting sweet potatoes.

Atuas, Mana and Tapu: The Supernatural Dwells in Nature

“Departmental gods” is the term scholars use to refer to divinities or powers whose influence is focused on particular aspects of nature or human life.  For the Maori, atuas are the gods, spirit powers, and supernatural beings that imbue all of life and creation or, as Hanson says, are “frequent visitors to the physical world, where they [are] extremely active.”  He notes the kinds of unexplained events that were attributed to atuas: weather, the growth of plants, physical or mental illnesses, menstruation, “the fear that gripped a normally brave warrior before battle, [and] the skill of an artist.”[6]

.  “Maori do not acknowledge chance,” writes Callaghan.[7]  Rather, they act in ways to manage, call upon, respond to, as well as avoid the atuas.  James Irwin says:  “[The] gods may be deceived but not overcome.”[8]  The crucial factors for surviving and succeeding in such a spirit-filled world are mana and tapu.  Mana is spiritual or supernatural power, available to chiefs, and invoked by or invested in the rituals of elders, often tribal chiefs or tohunga.   For example, birth rituals known as tohi ora can confer mana on a person.  On the other hand, Maori legend says that “an aborted fetus not given safe burial becomes a malicious spirit.”[9]

Mana is guarded (and ordinary people protected from it) by rituals and by sacred prohibitions and boundaries.  Such restrictions are known as tapu.  Hans Mol notes that tapu sets apart that which is sacred, powerful, significant, or dangerous, or forbidden. [10]

Tapu requirements pertain to food and limit contact with corpses, tribal chiefs, and warriors heading to battle.  They guide the Maori away from offending the gods, lest “the demonic and chaotic would invade one’s world and disrupt personality or the group.”[11]

The concept and practice of tapu is widespread in Oceania, but it is from the Maori usage that scholars of religion coined the English word taboo.[12]

The blending of Christian theology and Maori cosmology began early.  English missionaries translated God into Maori language as Atua, and heaven into the mythical sky-god’s name, Rangi.  Irwin cites two Maori terms for sin:  hara means harm brought by a “ritual failure” (the improper handling of mana), whereas he means an ethical failure, a wrong done to another person.[13]

Over generations, Maori poets and chiefs passed down various legends (not one version) of the origin of the universe and humanity, but after 1858 (when the Old Testament was published in Maori) they “redacted a more uniform version.”  This version introduced a God similar to the Judeo-Christian Almighty, “a preexistent, supreme god, Io, whose essence fertilized the womb of potential being and set in motion the creation of the world.”[14]

Death and Eschatology

James Irwin writes that, absent Christianity, Maori religion has “no well defined eschatology.  The dead either go to the ‘Above’ or the ‘Below’ and life in either place seems to be much as it is here….[with] no suggestion of reward or punishment.” [15]

Moeawa Callaghan explains:  “Ancient Maori, who navigated such long distances did not believe in an end time.  Life returns to Te Po [the realm of darkness] for re-creation and to Te Amo Amrama, the world of light and transformation.”[16]  Hanson confirms that “death marked the return of the spirit to its point of origin.”[17]

More important for Christians to understand, Irwin says, is the Maori’s “solidarity with the ancestors… and the generations to come.” In the Maori Apostle’s Creed, he points out, the word for “communion of the saints” is Kotahitanga, meaning unity or oneness.[18]

Genealogies:  Maori Ancestors in Canoes

The Maori do no think of themselves as part of the branches of a family tree, in the western sense, but “as descendants of the various crews of canoes which landed in New Zealand in the fourteenth century.”[19]  This idea has mythic origins and a cosmic resonance:  “[Where] Westerners see [the constellation] Pleiades in the sky, the Maoris saw the prow of a canoe….  The tail of the Scorpion is the canoe of Tama-rereti in which the star-children and their elders were placed in mythical times.”[20]

A canoe represents one’s family identity and tribal grouping; it symbolizes travel and recalls Maori origins, yet it also suggests instability and the possibility of relocation.[21]  With such prominence in life and history, it is not surprising that the process of a woodworker fashioning a canoe (or builder making a house) is tapu.  The atuas “animated [their] creative work.”[22]

Words of the ancestors provide guidance to the living as people recite proverbs and recount stories.[23]  In particular, tribal recitations of a genealogy (whakapapa) connect people to their ancestors’ experiences and link them to cosmic origins.  Given that identification with particular territory is key to ancestral connections and spiritual identity in general, the colonizers’ expropriation of Maori lands not only brought material hardships but provoked the spiritual disaster of alienation.

Colonialism:  Theft of Land as Loss of Sacred Space

Missionary Samuel Marsden held the first Christian service in New Zealand on Christmas 1814.  Mainly over the North Island, missions from the following traditions spread fast in the early nineteenth century: Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan.  (The largest denominations now are Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Latter Day Saints.[24])   The indigenous Ratana church and smaller Ringatu church are important sects.

When Samuel Marsden raised the English flag in 1814, he did not know that “Maori tribes claimed unoccupied land by setting up a pole and kindling fires.”[25]  In resistance to accelerated missionary conversions in the 1830s, Maori leaders cut down British flagstaffs.

Mana o te whenua means “power over the land.” According to Jean Rosenfeld, to deceive the 35 chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, the British substituted another word for mana in order “to subvert the chiefs’ authority over their territories.”  Her article is not clear if the substitution was in the English or Maori version of the treaty, but other sources confirm that the English misrepresented the agreement the Maori.[26]

The Maori waged war over the loss of their lands from 1843 to 1872. “In 1856, chiefs [of] tribes of the North Island and the South Island gathered around a flagstaff” to form common defense by granting “their mana over their combined territories to the first Maori king.”[27]

The Encyclopedia of Religion says:  “Sacred space is a fundamental feature of Maori religion.  A tribe’s land is marked by wahu tap, ‘sacred places’ named for what happened there and commemorated” in the telling of genealogies.

Land gave the Maori “a collective rather than individual knowledge of place, belonging.  It was the place where the bones of one’s ancestors were buried.”  Hence, the loss of land “meant the destruction of … hapu (subtribal cohesion)….[28]

A sacred space common to all tribes is the marae, an open place near the chief’s house on which the genealogy was recited, and where public gatherings still take place.[29]  In the post-colonial context, the marae appears in tribal areas and urban gathering place.  It has developed into an entire meeting and ritual complex, still under the charge of ritual leaders.

Prophetic Resistance, Maori Syncretism, and Accommodation

Much of the rapid conversion of the Maori took place before the majority of depredations and displacements brought by the colonizers.  In reaction, some of the Maori rejected the missionaries.[30]  Some Christian Maori left the faith for the Maori religion.  Some chiefs and charismatic persons remade their new religion into a source of resistance.

For example, during the land wars against English militias, Maori fighters included “disciples of unconventional tohunga [chiefs] imbued with mana from the Holy Ghost, Gabriel and Michael, as well as the gods of their respective tribes.”  Known as prophets (poropiti), many saw themselves in accounts of the Hebrews’ captivity, liberation and exodus toward the Promised Land.[31]  Though they were Christian, they emphasized Old Testament stories and models for this reason; their leaders took on the role of Hebrew prophet.

In the 1860s, Maori warrior and preacher Te Kooti founded the Ringatu movement; the name means “upraised hand.” (During an exile he studied the Bible, especially Psalms, Judges and Joshua).[32]  In the 1920s, the reformed alcoholic and visionary Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana founded his Ratana sect.  (Smaller or less prominent groups arose also.) Among other leaders, the charismatic Ratana encouraged and practiced faith healing, recalling Biblical models but also responding to the real health crises of infection and mental anguish.

Conclusion

The striking natural places of New Zealand’s islands can make it understandable to even a casual tourist why the Maori saw the world imbued with powerful spirits of life and why the land and sea are the factors of humanity’s place in the cosmos.   This makes the unjust colonial expropriations and dislocations even more tragic.

In contrast to the long colonization history of the Americas, New Zealand has become overwhelmingly western and Christian in a short time.  Yet Maori culture and identity persist in–and shape–the dominant culture.  This is the Maori religious heritage:  honoring nature, human ancestry, a sense of place, and the sacredness of the ordinary.  There is value for all of us in not only respecting this heritage but in heeding it.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Auffarth, Christolph. Cosmology. Vol. 3, in Religion Past and Present, 505-509. Leiden:   Brill, 2007.

Callaghan, Moeawa. Theology in the Context of Aotearoa New Zealand. MA thesis.           Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1999.

de Bres, Pieter H. “The Maori Contribution.” In Religion in New Zealand Society, by         Brian and Peter Donovan, editors Colless. Edinburgh: T. &T. Clark, 1980.

Irwin, James. “The Maui Myth Cycle.” Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand      Theological Review 14, no. 1 (October 1981): 40-45.

Hanson, F. Allan. Maori Religion [First Edition]. Vol. 8, in Encyclopedia of Religion,         5697-5682. 2005.

Mol, Hans. The Fixed and the Fickle: Religion and Identity in New Zealand. Waterloo,       Ontario: Wilfid Laurier University Press, 1982.

Orbell, Margaret. “Maori.” In Religion Past and Present, 37. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Rosenfeld, Jean E. Maori Religion [Further Considerations]. Vol. 8, in Encyclopedia of     Religion, 5682-5685. 2005.

Notes


[1] (Rosenfeld), 5683.

[2] (Auffarth 2007).

[3] (Callaghan 1999), 81.

[4] (Callaghan 1999), 82.

[5] (Irwin 1981),41.

[6] (Hanson 2005), 5679.

[7] (Callaghan 1999),89.

[8] (Irwin 1981), 42.

[9] (Irwin 1981), 41.

[10] (Mol 1982), 8.

[11] (Mol 1982), 13.

[12] (Orbell 2007).

[13] (Irwin 1981), 43.

[14] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5683.

[15] (Irwin 1981), 45.

[16] (Callaghan 1999), 90.

[17] (Hanson 2005), 5679.

[18] (Irwin 1981), 45.

[19] (Mol 1982), 7.

[20] (Mol 1982), 7.

[21] (Mol 1982), 7.

[22] (Hanson 2005), 5682.

[23] (Callaghan 1999), 89.

[24] (Hanson 2005), 5682.

[25] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5682.

[26] Ibid.

[27] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5683.

[28] (Mol 1982), 8.

[29] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5682.

[30] (de Bres 1980), 32.

[31] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5683.

[32] (de Bres 1980), 35.



SERMON from 3/25/12–Roller-Coaster Ride on Sierra Blvd: Our Congregation’s History—the Last 50 Years

 

Part 2 of a 2-part series given at the

Unitarian Universalist Society

Sacramento, CA

Shared Offering:  To Children’s Receiving Home

Moment of Silence:  In memory of Trayvon Martin, in sympathy with his family, and in solidarity with all who work and long for justice, peace and equity.

Hymns:  51, Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter; 361, Enter, Rejoice, and Come In; 360, Here We Have Gathered.    Vocal music: Across the Great Divide by Kate Wolfe, sung by Tom Hiltunen

Conversation with All Ages

I have an exercise for you.  Think about how long you have been in this congregation.  As you are able, please stand or raise your hand, as I ask these questions.  If you’ve been at UUSS at least 50 years, please rise.   Please remain standing.  If you’ve been here 40 years or more, please rise.  30 years or more.  20 years or more.  10 years or more.  5 years or more.  3 or 4 years; that includes me so I should stand.  If you’ve been here 2 years, 1 year or less, or if you just walked in the doors, please rise.  Give yourselves a hand.

Sermon

Perhaps in the year 1959, when the members of this congregation bought this five acres, a former horse ranch, they thought they could create a haven from the world.  They couldn’t.  The struggles of the world entered their lives and this church.  The people of the church did not hide behind these hexagonal walls.  Our members gave leadership to the local community.  As a church, we engaged in the ups-and-downs of the nation.

Let’s remember how we got here.  The original Unitarian congregation in Sacramento was established in 1868 by 17 families.  (They had been drawn together by the preaching of a minister from San Jose came up here on horse and buggy every Sunday.)  Until 1915, we met in theaters and meeting halls downtown.  Then we moved to a cedar-shingled house at 27th Street between N and O Streets.  We constructed this building in 1960 as our fellowship hall.  A sanctuary was to be built later, over in the grove of oak trees.   Didn’t happen.

During this Baby Boom era, most churches were bursting at the seams.  In 1962 we had 500 adult members.  1963, 600.  1964, 700 adults, with “several hundred children.”   Rather than getting a second minister, our church leaders chose the idea of spinning off new congregations.

Across North America many smaller, lay-led UU fellowships sprang up in the 1950s and 60s, part of a growth strategy of the denomination.  In 1962, the new Central UU Church met in our old church building on 27th Street, as we had not sold it yet.  This ended in 1965.  Yet in that same year, the South Area UU Fellowship started meeting, in the very same building.  Our minister lent his presence and support.  Forty families launched this fellowship.  As listed on the Sacramento Bee’s “church page,” Sunday service topics included social and political issues and religious and moral values.  It lasted three years, till the building was sold.

In 1964, several other families from our church rented the Grange Hall in Fair Oaks, and started the North Area Fellowship.  Attendance that year was 46 adults and 26 children.  One member recalls having to be at committee meetings every night.  This routine led working parents to burnout.  In spite of their vitality and their efforts, the group eventually stopped meeting.  Many of them merged back into UUSS.

It was not until 1991 that a permanent second congregation was founded in Sacramento, with denominational help and much effort by local Unitarian Universalists.  The UU Community Church celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, with about 100 members and a full-time minister.   Members there are friends to many of us, and a few people attend both churches.  So far they have been a nomadic church, renting space south of downtown.[i]

Our minister from 1960 to 1970 was Ford Lewis. He nearly declined our search committee’s invitation to be the candidate, given the painful rifts in the congregation over the forced retirement of Ted Abell, our minister of the prior 15 years.   The church hadn’t known that Ted had a brain tumor, and he died five months after leaving us–right after we started using this building, which he had helped us to achieve.

Ford Lewis was born in 1914 to a Baptist family in the Ozarks–southern Illinois.  In the Depression, his family lost their farm to foreclosure.  At age 20, Ford stayed back to close down the farm, as the rest moved to Arkansas.   He couldn’t afford state university tuition in Arkansas, but a friend lured him to Salem College, in West Virginia.   The school’s president got him a job pruning apple trees in the college orchard, and Ford’s aunt lent him $50.  Later, back in Arkansas, Ford earned a graduate degree, interrupted by navy service in the Second World War.  He and Barbara Lewis came to us after he served as an associate minister at First Unitarian of Portland, Oregon.

Soon after his arrival, we had a capital campaign to start construction of the first rooms of the Religious Education building, to which we added more sections later.  Till all the rooms were built, we had double Sunday school sessions.  We used an old cottage left here by the former owners.  We put kids and teachers on the stage, in the kitchen, the alcoves, and a rented trailer.

Helen Bradfield led Sunday School for the next decade or so, with 33 volunteer teachers and a committee of 10.

Highlights:

A weekly Church School newsletter—The Juniortarian.

Festivals on Easter, Christmas, and United Nations Day.

A favorite course—The Church Across the Street—with field trips to other houses of worship.

Our senior high youth group was part of Liberal Religious Youth, attending regional and national UU conferences.

Boom times!  Yet “by the end of the 60s, attendance in our Church School was dropping rapidly.”  Our historian wrote:  “At the beginning of the decade, we thought we had many answers, but by the end we were not so sure” (108).

We had many discussion groups for adults as well as volunteer opportunities.  In 1961, congregation members founded Theater One, a group which continues producing community theater to this day.  Today, in fact:  a matinee at 2.

The local Planned Parenthood chapter started in our church.  In 1963, Helen Gardiner, the president of our Women’s Alliance, noted that poor women in Sacramento (among others) could not get information about birth control.  The church allowed her space for meetings of the Planned Parenthood steering committee, which included Evelyn Watters from UUSS.  Ford Lewis chaired the advisory committee.

In March of 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., called on American clergy from all faiths to join a voting rights protest in Selma, Alabama.  Days earlier, a state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man, as he tried to protect his 70-year-old mother from a police beating.  On March 7,a nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery had been turned back at a highway bridge by police with brutal force, giving the day the name of Bloody Sunday.  Our minister Ford Lewis went, among thousands of other clergy.

Three white northern UUs ministers went to dinner one evening in a black-owned restaurant in Selma.  After they left, they were attacked.  A white mob clubbed and kicked Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen, and James Reeb.  (An elder in our church told me that Ford Lewis had been invited to go to dinner but had declined in order to rest.)  Two days later, James Reeb died.  One of Sacramento’s short-lived UU spinoff churches was renamed in Reeb’s honor.

In 1969, the Black Power movement confronted the white privilege and power structure of our denomination as well as that of other mainline Protestant faiths.  The Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly made a large funding commitment to African American organizations.  A year later, the UUA canceled this promise when a new UUA president found out the previous administration had mismanaged the finances and there was no money.  The wounds of this controversy have run deep and long among friends of all colors and commitments in our UU movement.[ii]

Another cause of turmoil for us in the 1960s and 70s was this country’s war in Viet Nam.    Either quietly or publicly, many ministers and churches—including this one—helped young men avoid the draft by filing for status as Conscientious Objectors or by moving to Canada.  Some churches gave more vocal and radical opposition to the war.  Sometimes the acrimony pitted friends against one another, even split congregations.  [I hope our church’s written history on this era can be filled in a bit more.]

In that era, the U. S. government spied not only on activist groups, but on churches, sending agents to infiltrate congregations.  Jack Mendelsohn, then minister of Arlington Street Church, our flagship church in Boston, has told a story of when a young man admitted having attended Jack’s church.  But his military service was coming to and end, he said.  He liked the church very much, and wanted to join it!   If there are any spies here today, please know you are as welcome to be here as anyone.  Just please remember to turn in your pledge card.

During the women’s movement in this country, lots of activist energy came from religious women.  Much of it took place within congregations, especially Unitarian Universalist ones and at the denominational level.  In 1977, delegates to our denomination’s General Assembly approved the Women and Religion Resolution.  A landmark for us.  This committed our denomination to eliminate sexism in governance documents and policies, UUA hiring, ministerial credentialing, and hymnbooks and worship materials. Women’s Alliances in this and other UU congregations included many activists, and sent money to the UU Women’s Federation.  Our Alliance began in 1898, hosting literary and artistic events, giving money to charities and the church.  It continues, with meetings the second Thursday morning of each month.

In 1971, Ted and Marguerite Webb and their family and came from Boston to Sacramento in 1971, when our search committee named him as the ministerial candidate.  Born in Maine, Ted grew up as a Universalist long before the merger with the Unitarians.  He served northeastern churches and in a UUA District office.  Ted served us here until 1983. When the Alliance opened membership to men, Ted was the first one to join.  He attends church now at age 94, as our Minister Emeritus.

Advancements during Ted’s ministry—the start of the Religious Services Committee.  It continues now, with a number of lay worship leaders.  The Public Forum —led by Mark Tool, Ben Franklin, Mike Weber, and other members.  Volunteer speakers came to address timely issues; admission fees helped the church budget.  The Forum continued until a few years ago.  The Servetus Club started then as an activity group for single adults.  In 1983, it had 100 members, many of them not from the congregation.  It continues now with monthly meetings.

In 1973 Anna Andrews became the director of both adult and children’s religious education, serving for five lively years.  The fee was 5 dollars per student (116).  These 18 banners of diverse religions and cultures of the world [around the top of our sanctuary] were created by artists and craftspersons in the congregation in 1982, near the conclusion of Ted’s ministry.

Ted shocked the church when he announced his resignation, after 12 good years.  Our church historian wrote that Ted he was burned out by the demands of serving this large church with no assistant, and by a stressful controversy involving a church staff member.

In a newsletter column Ted expressed his disappointments and joys.  He had wanted us to be more engaged in social action in the community and state, given that we are in the capital city.  Yet years later he did express joy at the work of the UU Legislative Ministry in California.  It was founded in 2001 by lay leaders at the UU Community Church.  Several of us here are donors or volunteers for the Legislative Ministry.

Ted also expressed regret that our financial giving was not as strong as it could be.  He said this kept us from pursuing our full potential and from paying better compensation to hardworking staff members.  Yet he was gratified by the sense of adventure, humor, and friendship which he felt among us, and by the commitment of our lay leaders.  The congregation celebrated Marguerite and Ted with an event at the River Mansion, a luncheon after a Sunday service and a generous monetary gift.

In the early 1970s, few women ministers were serving Unitarian Universalist congregations, and we had almost no openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender ministers.  In thirty years, this changed.  The 1980s and 1990s were a time of learning, struggle, frustration and growing openness.  By 2000, over half of our ministers were women.  The first woman to serve this church was Eileen Karpeles, who came here in 1989 as an interim minister.  From 1992 to 94, the Reverend Richelle Russell was assistant minister.  From 1997-99 the Reverend Shirley Rank served as pastoral care minister.  In the position in which I serve ,the Reverend Lyn Cox was here with you for three years.  Then the Reverend Connie Grant served here for two years.

In the early 1990s many UU congregations began a process of self-study and consciousness-raising in order to be more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people and their families.   This work still takes place in our denomination.  It leads to certification as an official Welcoming Congregation in the UUA.   This church earned that recognition in 1996.[iii]

In 1990 we called as minister the Reverend Don Beaudreault.  He stayed only five years before pursuing a call to another church.  [To save time I’ve skipped a number of interim ministers in this history, but they are listed on the website.]

Our next settled minister was John Young.  A number of members remember his gifts of intellect, preaching and leading adult education classes.  Yet many experienced the relationship as antagonistic.  A mismatch, perhaps.  His tenure ended in six years with a negotiated resignation and severance payment.  No matter how generously such a departure is handled, nearly everyone feels bruised.  Healing takes work and a long time, but some folks do drift away from church.[iv]

In that year, 1997, I began a ministry in the Bay Area.  Later, at our UU district ministers’ meetings I met your interim ministers, Sidney Wilde and Dennis Daniel, a heterosexual married couple with twinkly eyes and storytellers’ enthusiasm.  In 2000 they told us that the Sacramento search committee had found a candidate, some guy named Douglas Kraft.[v]  Who?

One minister said, “Can he handle them?  Will they eat him up?”   During his week of candidating with you, Doug may have wondered that himself!  In reality, as he recalls, he did see a prickliness in the congregation.

Yet he also sensed love under the surface, a deeper caring.  He saw the commitment of the lay leaders to their congregation in good times and bad.  “These were not fair-weather friends,” he says.  Doug grew up as a UU in Houston, attended national youth conferences with many other kids who ended up as ministers, married a Quaker, and attended our seminary in Berkeley.  Over four decades he has interspersed parish ministry with work as head of a program for street kids, a pscyhotherapist, and computer graphics programmer.

Doug writes books, plays the guitar and writes songs.  This is too much talent, so I’ve had him abducted.  He won’t be coming back tonight after all.

Doug’s 12 years here have included, most notably, his aging.   Seriously, though:  you and he have established Ministry Circles, the Lay Ministry team, Worship Leader trainings, the Program Council, and two services on Sunday mornings.[vi]  Recent years have seen better financial transparency and balanced budgets, rather than draining bequest funds to cover deficits.  A few years back, our church’s Mission statement was reaffirmed, and we adopted a long range plan.

Last month the congregation approved the Building and Grounds Master Plan by a unanimous vote.  It’s on the back wall and our website if you’d like to see it.  During Doug’s time you’ve had four seminary interns.  The ministry position I hold has been funded continuously for the past nine years.

Doug and lay leaders remember the days of long, argumentative meetings.  The Board was a lightning rod for frustration and unkindness in the church.  In his 10th anniversary report a couple of years ago, Doug said that Board meetings are shorter now and more satisfying.  So are congregational meetings.  More people now are willing to stand for election and serve their congregation.

“The general mood is more optimistic and less prickly,” Doug writes. “We … enjoy one another more.”

Originally a church of city members, in the past half-century we’ve become a regional congregation.  Thank you to all of you who drive a distance to come here!

Our wider embrace has become not only geographical, but theological.

In the1980s and 90s, Unitarian Universalists across the continent started getting spiritual… again.[vii]  Rather than disavowing religion, a new generation of adults wanted to explore it.  Jewish UUs looked into their culture and spiritual roots.  Some of us began to visit the Bible—again or for the first time ever.  Unitarian Christians found inspiration from the radical teachings of Jesus.  Some of us took up Buddhist meditation, contemplative prayer, or yoga.

We turned back to Thoreau and Emerson and found nourishment in contemporary spiritual writers.  Pagans ritualized the turning of the seasons.  In 1995, the General Assembly added earth-based spiritual traditions to and official list of the sources of our living tradition.

None of this has been an easy transition in the UU movement.  A rationalistic humanism had held sway since the 1920s.  Many ministers and lay people had assumed humanism’s unending and exclusive dominance.   They had thought of a UU church as a refuge. It was an alternative to religion.  Now it has become a religious alternative.

Our embrace is larger now.  Our welcome is wider.  We are a home for seekers as well as skeptics.  Many of us identify as both seekers and skeptics!   Let’s remember, inclusiveness is not only a value, it is a practice.  Building community takes work, in good times and bad.  But it’s worth it.

Let us be grateful for this legacy, and …

Give thanks all those, named and unnamed, who have brought us to this moment…

Be joyful that we have the chance to build and pass forward a legacy of our own for this congregation.

Let us move into the future with an ever-wider embrace.  Let us move into the future with joy and hope. Amen.



[i] On April 22 they begin renting from Pioneer Congregational Church, in Midtown.

[ii] If you want to learn more about this controversy, Google UUA Black Empowerment Controversy.  The Wilderness Journey, a recent video shows people on all sides of the issue recalling those times.

[iii] LGBT people seeking a new church can find out which ones are Welcoming Congregations at the UUA website: http://www.uua.org/directory/congregations

[iv] While John was here, the church hired the Reverend Shirley Ranck as a second minister; she’s known as an author adult curricula on earth-based and feminist spiritual traditions.  As I understand it, she departed after two years here in the months after John’s resignation, not out of conflict but to a steep drop in funding.  If you can tell a more accurate history of recent years, please update our history!

[v] Our compiled history, In Good Times and Bad, goes through Ted Webb’s ministry, ending in 1983.  We have well-organized church archives covering the last 30 years, but we’re waiting for people to step forward to update our congregation’s history.   This means I can say only a little about the years at UUSS before Doug arrived.

[vi] The Program Council supports all the program activities and committees, which frees the Board to focus on finances, personnel, facilities, and long-range plans.

[vii] In 1868, our church was founded as a liberal Christian congregation, and it remained so for the first half century.  Starting in the 1920s, religious humanism grew to theological dominance here and in many Unitarian churches.  In 1960s and 70s, many UU churches reflected a religion dominated of social concern activism.




Family Minister’s Resume

Given that Members of the congregation will vote on the motion to call me as the Associate Minister very soon, I thought I would post part of my resume.   The Board of Trustees and a Board-appointed Task Force have held four meetings for conversation with and about me as the prospective Associate, and in reflection on my four years here on a year-to-year contract.



Call Me Foolish! Call Me Faithful! — Family Minister’s church newsletter column for April

Unigram newsletter April 2012


The big vote approaches!

A few days after you read this, UUSS members will cast their votes on the Board’s motion for the congregation to call me as a settled associate minister.       As I write this article two weeks earlier, half of our UUSS households have not filled out a pledge form for the coming budget year.   This makes me a bit nervous.

The two most precious things about churches with congregational governance is the right to choose their own clergy and the right to sustain and fund their own programs, with no outside interference or dependence on a hierarchy.  Of course, with rights come responsibilities.

Without financial support from all of our pledging friends as well as our members, UUSS would not be such a strong community, giving safe harbor, sharing our beacon of love and justice.   It matters!

If you are a member, I hope you show up and vote.  If somehow you missed the Membership Orientation courses and forgot to sign the book as an official member, consider joining UUSS after the vote.  Meanwhile, you can still give your feedback and ideas to the Board, ministers, and members regarding this vote and the other business of significance.

I look forward to the vote.  I find pleasure in the date of the occasion:  April Fool’s Day!

We’re not looking for a simple majority vote by a bare quorum.  We’re hoping for a 90% or more “Yes” vote by a large turnout of members.  However this may turn out—a strong affirmation of our ministry together or a surprise message that maybe we’re not so well matched for a longer commitment—I have faith in this congregation and your future.

As a reflection of your vitality, size, needs and vision, you have had a full-time second minister on staff continuously for nine years.

I have been honored to serve for four of those years.  I’ve grown personally and learned much from our lay leaders, adults, youth and children–not to mention our gifted, caring and compassionate lead minister.

Yes, I’m nervous about the pledge results and excited about Sunday’s vote.  But I have faith in this congregation’s ability to rally, step up, and move forward into the future.

With a firm foundation of our heritage, openness, creative lay leadership, mission, values and covenant, I know that the congregation will shape the future as it lives into it with joy and love.

Yours in service,


PS—If you haven’t turned in a 2012-13 pledge form yet, please contact the office.  Your commitment right now can be pivotal to the future of this thriving congregation.  Thank you!

 



“The Best Man” — 1960 Tony-winning play by Gore Vidal, at my church’s community theater

At last Friday’s opening of The Best Man, the UUSS playhouse had the highest opening-night energy level in my recollection.  Gore Vidal’s political drama was presented by my church’s 51-year-old community theater group, Theater One.   Roberta Stewart, here since the early years, is the director.  We have a number of experienced community-theater actors, some fairly new to the stage (or returning after a long interim since high school or college theater), and some members with professional experience on stage and screen. They are a dedicated team!

For me the play is a blast from the past of political history.  I was born in 1961, when it won some Tony Awards but lost the  Best Play prize to The Miracle Worker.  A Sacramento News and Review writer says it’s Gore Vidal’s best play.  It’s about a battle for the presidential nomination of an unnamed political party in 1960, but that was in the era of party-convention drama, smoked-filled room dealings, and last minute changes.   Nowadays, nominees usually have their delegates sewn up well before the convention, which is more of a coronation and PR occasion than a business meeting.  Few platform or campaign positions are determined now at conventions.  I can’t think we are better off, with SuperPACS (thanks to the Citizens United court ruling), bundling of campaign donations, and big-money and TV commercials determining decisions about the last man standing (still it’s a man, alas).

(If you want to read more–and weep–about the undermining of our democracy, check out Thomas Frank’s essay in the April 2012 Harper’s Magazine.  It’s not online yet, but you can get the gist of it from this blurb about his new book, Pity the Billionaire.)

  Now back to the show:

The lighting and sound design were well-planned and effective, and the set was evocative of the hotel suites where so much wheeling and dealing used to take place, while delegates haggled on the convention floor or perhaps hung out in the nearby taverns of an unfamiliar city.  (But no TGIF chain, Chili’s or Hooter’s in 1960.)   The leads in the cast really looked (and dressed) their parts, evoking both the public persona and the vulnerability, venality and some strong convictions that lurked behind the roles: candidates, political wives, king-makers, press corps members, and an ailing, plain-spoken, lame-duck president. As a nighttime worker  here in my minister’s office, I know they worked long and hard, and with creative thoughtfulness, to make it happen.

The drama is engaging, and Vidal’s humor a delight to hear.  On opening night, pauses in some of the dialogue kept the show from having as much dramatic energy as the script contains, but actors stayed in character and covered for one another when necessary, and after that first show I am confident they have picked up the pace.   Perhaps it would serve us well to have a discounted “preview” night for future plays, as happens in professional theater.  That way the audience would expect that there are a few bugs to work out, but we’d have an audience for the energy it gives back to the performers, which helps them in fine tuning for a later show.  Then opening night could be the next night.

This play is an excellent choice for this political year; Broadway agrees, for the revival of the play will open April 1 in NYC.   I might like to see it if I visit friends there in July, but I was happy to have a front-row seat at my church for 1/10th  of the cost of a Broadway show.  (No tickets here are more than $14.) We had a new feature, organized by our PR chairperson:  an opening-night gala reception before curtain, including dry wines poured by our own “Sweet” winemaker.  The snacks lasted through the intermission and I snagged a final slice of cheese after the show.  (The reception was free, because selling wine and beer costs more than it brings in, given the county alcohol-sales permit you have to buy for every event.)

It’s an enjoyable experience for a pastor to watch a great play presented by a cast and crew whom he knows and loves, and Friday night there were plenty of church friends and relatives in the crowd, among others, who also enjoyed the show.

I am grateful to Bobby, cast and crew for introducing me to this play, and providing a live and lively experience of it.

I recommend it!



SERMON–Taming the Reptile Brain: Living with Peace in an Age of Anxiety and Anger

Sunday, March 18m 2012

Unitarian Universalist Society, Sacramento

Hymns: Wake Now, My Senses; Spirit of Life/Fuente de Amor; Blessed Spirit of My Life.

 

Prayer:   by Harry Meserve

Singing the Living Tradition #496

From arrogance, pompousness, and from thinking ourselves more important than we are, may some saving sense of humor liberate us. For allowing ourselves to ridicule the faith of others, may we be forgiven.  From making war and calling it peace, special privilege and calling it justice, indifference and calling it tolerance, pollution and calling it progress, may we be cured.  From telling ourselves and others that evil is inevitable while good is impossible, may we stand corrected.  God of our mixed up, tragic, aspiring, doubting, and insurgent lives, help us to be as good as in our hearts we have always wanted to be.  Amen.

Sermon

Sometimes when I read an article about politics on a website, I scroll down and look at the reader comments.   Big mistake!  The lack of respectful conversation–or any true conversation–stuns me.  Many who disagree with the writer or dislike the subject will say unfair things about the people involved or the writer.  When their opinion is the opposite of mine, their hateful comments can make my blood boil.  If their position is one I agree with, then a cheap shot will embarrass and dishearten me:  “Wait, I’m on the same side of the issue, but I can’t bear to be associated with such mean-spirited people.”  The back-and-forth attacks really upset me.  And bad spelling makes it worse.

Yet I must confess, when I’m reading my email, if I feel impatient, hurt, misunderstood, or angry, I have an urge to fire off a righteous retort or a defensive blast.  It’s so easy to vent by hitting the send button, and then regret it later.  Of course, the internet didn’t give birth to potshots and hurtful or

hateful words, it only gives them a powerful platform, always at the ready.

We live in an age of anxiety and quick anger.  It’s easy to take offense, and then hang on to it.  Reactivity and righteousness spill over into all our relationships:  family, friends, groups and organizations.

Even though it can be destructive, such behavior is based in our survival instincts.  It comes from the ancient part of our brain—the reptilian part.  The stimulus for survival takes place in a part of our head where brain activity is automatic.  Consider:  when a reptile sees another being, it does not ask, “Can I eat it?”  or, “Will it eat me?”   Its brain just reacts automatically.  It does not reflect.   From this reptile brain comes our so-called “fight or flight” response.  There is no rationalizing, just an impulse.  We have impulses of which we are not conscious.

Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University, writes:  “Contrary to popular belief, conscious feelings are not required to produce emotional responses.  [Our feelings] . . . involve unconscious processing mechanisms.”[i]  These are primitive circuits, he says.  Through evolution, they have been passed along to all mammals, including us.

Even so, what makes humans different from other animals is our ability to think about the future, assess alternatives, make plans.  We can reflect on the consequences of our actions.  Unless, of course, the reptile brain leads us to react, without reflecting first.

Yet it’s not always easy to reflect.  The part of our brain known as the amygdala “can activate [our] arousal system,” if it senses danger, according to LeDoux.  This can affect how our nervous system will process experiences in the future.  The body’s responses to pain can affect the thinking parts of the brain.  In other words, our mental and physical memory of painful events can lead us to react in fearful ways, even when there is no current threat.  Panic disorders come to mind, as does post-traumatic stress.  Things that objectively should not seem threatening can stimulate a given fear and generate a “fight or flight” reaction.

Few things annoy me more than to be told I am overreacting! However, I can see that a reaction out of proportion to a perceived harm or threat could be a habit of mine, or at least a habit of my nervous system.  We can manage our habits for the better, or we can make habits worse.

Because I work and study in the field of religion, I’ve learned a lot about the damage done to congregations by people and groups who let their reptile brains lead their actions.  Peter Steinke is a family therapist, Lutheran pastor, and organizational consultant.  He studies and works with churches in painful conflicts, and this keeps him busy.  At a workshop I attended some years ago, Steinke said, “Not only is church conflict a growth industry, it is getting meaner and nastier.”[ii] In just a few years, his work with congregations in distress had grown by 200%.  In many conflicts, some people can be very mean.  They do things to one another or say things about one another in contradiction to their stated religious principles.

But churches are not unique.  All kinds of organizations have conflicts, some of them in violation of their stated principles and ethics.  In corporations, clubs, charities and schools; in committed couples and in families, humans have disagreements and stress.  It is part of being in relationship. What matters is how we manage ourselves in the midst of conflict, and how we settle our differences.

In Steinke’s view, most conflicts have to do with anxiety in the system.

Anxiety, of course, is normal.  It is our longtime companion.  Steinke said: If you don’t have some anxiety, you’ll never make any changes.  Just as the pain felt when you touch a hot stove burner can make you pull your hand away, anxiety can serve you in good ways.  For example, the anxiety of loneliness can provoke a person to search for a place of community, for friends, or for a partner.  Problems in society can provoke the anxiety of sadness, frustration, or outrage.  These feelings may lead a person to get involved in making a difference.

The word anxiety comes from a Latin word which means to strangle or choke.  That describes the physical sensation of being in a state of high anxiety.  And, just as we don’t get enough air if we’re being choked, if we’re highly anxious we have less ability to give attention to the options we can choose when facing a challenge.  Anxiety can cloud our awareness the way muddy water clouds a pond.  It can keep us from seeing clearly.

Steinke identified several triggers of anxiety in congregations.  These triggers include the issues of theology, authority, music, money, leadership styles, worship styles, and staff changes.  Anxiety in church life can be provoked by any change between something old and something new.  Fast changes can be disconcerting, yet the slowness of change can be frustrating.  Growth can trigger anxiety in churches, but so can numerical decline.  Sexuality is a charged issue as well.  Imagine all the anxiety in those denominations and churches still unresolved on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender church members or the credentialing of gay ministers.

Issues having to do with property, buildings and space are also triggers for stress in a system.  Steinke said this is understandable, for building issues are territory issues.  Territory is a matter of survival for all animals, including us.  Territory—maybe this is why moving is a big source of stress, as well as kitchen and bathroom renovations.

So it seems, a church is a minefield of human stressors—but so is any relationship of importance.  In any setting, anxiety-triggers have to do with our sense belonging and safety, with identity and inclusion.  We want to be connected to others in meaningful ways.  At the same time, we want to assert our identity and be recognized as individuals.  In human evolution, identity and belonging have been matters of protection and survival.   Even if we can understand the origins of stress and conflict, this doesn’t make it hurt any less.

In all social institutions, Steinke said, there’s been a trend of conflicts with more secrecy, deceit, lying, and self-righteousness.  Some groups not only want to get their way, they want to be seen as right.  They not only want to be right, they want to punish the losers.  I’ve been here for four years, and I think our congregation shows healthy habits, has good skills to engage in disagreement and to respond well in times of challenge and anxiety.

Yet in the country at large, we find ourselves in another big election year.  Self-righteousness is on the rise, perhaps more than ever.   On television, radio and the internet, all the shouting and interruptions, the attacks and accusations, appeal to the combativeness of our reptilian brain.  Yet even as they excite us, they raise our anxiety.  They don’t bring us together, they separate us.

In a family system or in an organizational one, anxiety can spread.  It can be contagious.   According to Peter Steinke, when a group experiences anxiety, there is “an automatic shift of attention and energy” away from reflection and into action.  Under stress we are less clear about all the options available to us. The more a group feels the grip of its anxiety, the less available the group’s values will be for it to draw upon.  This is often why people in organizations can commit acts that violate the group’s own ethical values.  They do not respond, they react.  Sometimes individuals, sometimes whole communities, just react.

However, anxiety is a normal emotion.  Sometimes it can help us.  The question is not how to repress it, but what to do about it when it emerges.  If we recognize anxiety—and respect it—we might keep anxiety from ratcheting up, feeding on itself, tightening its grip.

There are steps we can take, as individuals or by group agreement.  For example, I mentioned how tempting it is to put my anxiety into an email.  For this reason, I try to avoid having important conversations by email.  It’s too easy for my words to be taken in a way I did not intend, and easy for me to take another’s words wrong.  If, as happens now and then, I decide I will write an email about an issue of some tension or confusion, I try to write a draft and save it for a day, to sleep on it before sending it.  This practice lets me vent my feelings, and it lets me reflect.  I may revise an email after sleeping on it.  Or I may delete it, and pick up the telephone instead.

Steinke gives the same advice to families having troubles that he does to leaders of churches in conflict.  This is to maintain clear boundaries between yourself and others.  First, be aware that you need not own another’s anxiety, and need not take responsibility for it.  Second, learn to recognize your own feelings of anxiety.  Own your anxiety, but not that of others.

One way that families and groups avoid inflaming tensions is by the use of  I-statements. For example, “I believe that…” is better than “Everybody agrees…” or “It’s clear for anyone to see that….”

In a stressful conversation or disagreement, Steinke advised, don’t label others or question their motives.  Instead, say how you feel, where you are coming from, what your intentions are.   Rather than make accusations about another’s motives, one can say, “I feel….” or “My intention is….”  Rather than demanding, one can say, “I would like this…”  or “I am making a request that….”

Rather than attacking another person for making a demand we don’t like, we can say “I am not able to do that,” or, if necessary, “I am not willing to do that….” The emphasis is on I and me, not on judging or labeling the other.  By using I-statements, we assert our own needs and set our limits without raising the stakes by accusing others.

It’s good to remember that we have no control over what other people do or say; we have a choice only about what we do.  In case of a verbal attack, it can be tempting to fire back a counter attack.  Steinke suggested more “I statements,” such as “I feel as if I’m under attack and I don’t like it.  I am not able to respond right now.”  Sometimes when I’ve heard hurtful words—about someone else or directed right at me—I’ll say “Ouch!”  That’s my I-statement.

Leaders can be lightening rods for anxiety—leaders of a country, or a congregation, or a family.  For example, a parent is in a leadership role with children.  It takes practice to keep from taking a child’s outburst personally, and to keep from reacting in ways that ratchet up the anxiety.  In whatever setting you might provide leadership, it can hurt to be a lightening rod.  Yet in moments of anxiety, the most important influence we can have on a group is the choice of our own words and behaviors.

We shouldn’t take responsibility for another’s anxiety, but we should accept our own.  We can do this by being aware of our own feelings and experiences.  No need to repress feelings.  Not helpful to take them out on others.  We can recognize our emotions without reacting.  This calls for building our skills of self-awareness.

One way to do cultivate awareness is to sit quietly to be with our feelings, or go for a walk.  The poet Wallace Stevens wrote:  “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”

A meditation teacher of mine has compared the practice of mindfulness to waiting for muddy water in a pond to settle.  The particles of mud ease to the bottom of the pond, and the water becomes clear.  So can it be with our minds.  This teacher has practiced mindfulness meditation for decades, yet even her mind can play tricks on her.   For such an esteemed person, many of her habitual thoughts and feelings are less than flattering.

She admits that her mind and body go through reactions all the time.  Everyone’s  mind has its habitual thoughts, she says.  Mine does.  How about your mind?   She says that her habitual thoughts and feelings include boredom, irritation, resentment, grief, and judgment.  Funny, I thought those were my habits.

Even when going for a walk, or sitting calmly, watching the breath or eating a meal, her attention wanders.  The attention jumps to habitual thoughts, especially those of self-blame or self-criticism.  But when she notices the mind doing this, she tries to be kind about it.  Rather than judging herself for habitual thinking, she just recognizes it.  She nods and smiles and takes a breath.

In fact, she regards her habits of mind as her longtime companions, never to leave her.  When irritation, self-blame, arrogance or any other unpleasant thought arises in her mind, she greets it:  “Hello, judgmentalism, my old friend.” She does not try to fight it off, she just sees it and feels it.

“Ah, resentment there you are again.  Welcome!”

“Ah, craving, here you are.  Welcome back!”

“Hello, self-loathing, my old pal.  I recognize you.  I bow down to you.”

She does not fight the feeling.  She allows it a moment in the spotlight, but then she lets it be.  She gives it a bit of space in the corner of her awareness, but not the whole room.[iii]

I’ve tried her approach in my own practice—and haven’t often been successful.  Yet by this stage in life, I am unlikely to discard all of my stubborn mental habits.  Rather than despair, I’ll try to see my habitual thoughts and reactions as my longtime companions.   They’re along for the journey, but not in charge of it.

Whatever feelings might arise, they are merely our companions; they need not be our drivers.  Perhaps we can try to put this idea into practice.  When anxiety that comes up—notice it, look at it, even smile at it.  Take a breath.

It’s not necessary to do the first thing that any impulse tells us to do.  Our anxiety may not have all the truth about a situation we’re in.  Especially if it’s hot or strong, our anxiety may need us to take it for a walk around the lake.

Perhaps the practice of awareness is a way to peace—within ourselves, in our communities, in the world.  We can aware of what we’re feeling.  We can own our feelings and recognize the feelings of others.  We can practice patience.

Let us keep a little place for the reptile in our heads.  Let us give it good care.  But a reptile shouldn’t run our lives.  With courage and kindness, let us accept our emotional experiences, and notice our habits of mind.  With courage and kindness, let us practice the ways of peace.  May it be so.  Amen, and blessed be.


[i] “Emotion Circuits in the Brain.”  Joseph E. LeDoux.  Annual Review of  Neuroscience.  23:155–184 (2000).  See   http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.neuro.23.1.155?prevSearch=leDoux&searchHistoryKey=

[ii] Notes from attendance at a workshop and conversation with Peter Steinke, at Grace Lutheran Church, Palo Alto, CA, 2005.  See his books at http://www.alban.org/bookdetails.aspx?id=2830.  For consultant resources: http://www.healthycongregations.com/

[iii]Remembrances from a dharma talk by Arinna Weisman, at a retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, CA, 2005.  Her book is A Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation.  Find her blog, videos, etc. at http://arinnaweisman.org/