You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2011.

Our district has been grappling with a painful situation: the firing of our District Executive, Cilla Raughley. Many (all too many) Unitarian Universalists of the Pacific Central District, including the congregation I serve (the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, a.k.a. UUCPA), don’t even know that we’re part of a district, nor have any idea what services to expect from–or responsibilities to assume towards–the district. However, some of our members are paying attention, especially since Cilla was a member of UUCPA until she became DE. (A District Executive may certainly belong to a congregation, but some decide that it is best not to belong to any one district church, preferring an option such as membership in the Church of the Larger Fellowship.)

If you’ve ever been in an organization whose leadership went through a crisis, you’ll know it raises pastoral issues and issues of communication. One of the skills of community-making is knowing how to act when we have incomplete or conflicting information about matters of concern to the community. So I used my most recent newsletter column to share what I’ve learned from hard experience.

UUCPA is in a tender position because so many of us know and love Cilla. She and her husband Andrew have played important roles in our congregation, chief among them friend to many of us. Unitarian Universalism was not only Cilla’s employer, but her community, and she and Andrew must be feeling very alienated from their community. I hope you will extend them all the comforts of friendship. We need not know what happened, or what position we take, in order to express our support and affection.

Since employment decisions (with all their necessary secrecy) create strong feelings, conflict, and confusion, I want to urge us all to be mindful of what words and actions help build community in such a time. I have seen the damage done in these situations when we fill the gaps in our knowledge with gossip and speculation. We do it because we want to know what really happened; we have our theories and loyalties; we try to stitch a coherent story out of many and conflicting versions; but in rushing to replace our uncertainty with firm statements for which we have no real support, we do harm to real people. It is best if we:

* assume good intentions of everyone involved;

* remember that behind abstractions such as “the District Executive,” “the UUMA chapter,” “the PCD Board” and “the UUA” are ordinary people who, like us, love our tradition and are doing their best to make the decisions that will benefit it;

* ask ourselves, before we speak, whether what what we are about to say is true; if it is necessary; and if it is kind;

* remember that we are all Unitarian Universalists seeking to build a community together based on the principles we share.

Advertisements

A few months ago, the Worship Associate for the Sunday service touched my heart with a few words. She gestured toward the piano where our wonderful pianist, Veronika Agranov Dafoe, had just played the offertory in her usual stunning way, and said, with a little shake of her head, “A human being wrote that music. And another one played it.” I can’t even remember now who the composer was–maybe Chopin, whom I suspect is Veronika’s favorite, or maybe Mozart himself–but I thought of that moment again last night when I heard Mozart’s Requiem at the San Francisco Symphony. What a wonder that a member of our species created that, and 200 others recreated it for us to hear.

Two more drawings from Monday’s session. The first is more polished, and more successful in general, than the second; both benefit from my focusing on the torso (I could spend 20 minutes just trying to get the feet right). Must do more of that, even bring the focus in even tighter.

Unitarian Universalists need to be countercultural.  We need to be countercultural because there is much in our home culture (I’m thinking of US culture, but it applies everywhere there are UUs) that needs to be challenged.  One such characteristic (and here I’m definitely speaking of the US) is the tendency to equate progress and future orientation with a dismissal of the past.  Tear down the old to build the new. Adopt this exciting new technology and don’t bother to save anything from the one it replaces.  Favor youth over age. Why learn history?–it’s boring and irrelevant. That’s our modus operandi as US Americans.

So Unitarian Universalist ministers are walking in step with the dominant culture when we diss the “gray hymnal,” Singing the Living Tradition (SLT).  There were a few such occasions during the UUMA CENTER Institute in Asilomar earlier this month, which is why I bring it up. There was a lot that bothered me about the “uh-huhs!” that followed the hymnal-bashing, and the gleeful trashing of the past was bothersome element #1.  Hymnals are not just songbooks; they are repositories of history. For example, SLT records a very brief window in our history, between the adoption of the seven principles and five sources in 1985, and the addition of the sixth source in 1995.* And of course, it holds melodies and words that, like the beautiful brick buildings of old mill towns, I would hate to see discarded in favor of the new, no matter how beautiful the new might be (and the songs we are proposing to put in their place are sometimes as unbeautiful as the factory-built, vinyl-sided crap that now occupies the towns, but that’s a topic for another post).

When we changed over to the gray hymnal, what did we do with all the blue ones? In the case of most congregations, we discarded them, maybe keeping one on hand for the library (or not) but not using them anymore.  That great reading that didn’t make the cut for SLT? Forget it. The vast legacy of Kenneth Patton, whose mark is all over the blue hymnal as it was all over the Universalism (and humanism, and UUism) of his time? Reduced to eight nuggets (and most of them are indeed solid gold). Your mother’s favorite hymn? Gone. What a waste.

I appreciate the openness to other music that characterized the week at Asilomar.  We sang music my congregation almost never uses, and a lot of it was great.  It was cool to find spiritual meaning in pop songs that usually make me change the station (but seriously, UU ministers singing “love, lift us up where we belong!” in worship sound much better than Joe Cocker.  Of course, I think just about anything sounds better than Joe Cocker). I have lots more to say, good and bad, about the music of Institute week, but only praise for the willingness to break out of the hymnal(s) and try some new-for-us music.

However, in creating my home music library, I don’t throw out the old stuff when I buy the new, do you?  I bought a Dixie Chicks CD last fall–for me, this is cutting edge–and I still listen to my Beatles albums. (Is it okay to call them albums? I’m seriously dating myself, aren’t I?)  And that Dar Williams disc that I almost wore out the first six months I had it. And the late Beethoven quartets. And so on and so forth. Let’s not bury the hymnal just because we make the radical discovery that there are excellent songs for worship outside it.

Something I would like to bury is the mantra I heard a couple of times during the week and predict will be repeated ten times more at General Assembly, “No church that’s growing sings from a hymnal.” I want to see some documentation before I take that seriously. Also, I would like to know what it actually means. Individual congregations or denominations? Does it mean they don’t even have a hymnal, or that they do but they tend to project the words on a screen rather than use the books? I suspect it is simply a very broad translation of “mainline denominations are not growing,” which is itself a sloppy statement. The Catholic church and the Mormon church are not, technically, mainline denominations, because that’s shorthand for “mainline Protestant denominations,” but they are not independent or evangelical; they are both growing; and they both have hymnals.

I strongly favor expanding our music sources.  I especially favor getting our noses out of the books so we can look at each other.  I’ve purposely made our new Thurday evening services hymnal-free because something different happens when we sing music that doesn’t require reading.  But they use music from SLT, because it is powerful and beautiful.  Let’s not throw that beauty and power away.

__________

*The first five sections of the hymnal, encompassing 356 of the 415 hymns, correspond to the then-five sources. Also, the Principles and Purposes (which also include the sources) are printed on page x-xi.

From yesterday’s figure drawing session. The munchkin declared this “the most beautiful drawing I’ve ever seen!”

Me, I’ve seen better, even in my own batch from this day. I gave the arm too dark a line and could never repair it, so it looks nailed on like a Barbie’s; the shading on her stomach and right shoulder is also too abrupt. The outer line is heavy all the way, which flattens out the shape. Still, those are errors caused by too heavy a hand on the shading, and since my lifetime habit is to be too light, I think they’re errors in the right direction. And there’s a lot I’m happy with: the hand, even though it isn’t quite right, because it was a challenge; and the shading of the right knee and breastbone.

I asked my daughter what she liked so much about it. She said the black part around the edges, though she wanted to know why it got grey and stopped. I told her I’d run out of time. We had an interesting conversation as she asked why I put the black in and I tried to explain the concept of background.

It was an art-filled three-day weekend. My big Christmas gift to Joy was a weekend workshop at the Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland, coordinated with my Wonderful In-Laws so that they took care of Munchkin and we could take the class together. Joy had already taken a mosaic workshop in San Miguel, with results that you can see here. This was my first go at it–another art form, like quilt, collage, and assemblage, that makes things out of other, often broken, things–and I could see myself seriously getting into this medium. I can’t show the results, because our digital camera is broken and putting a 12″x12″ concrete stepping stone on my scanner would probably be a bad idea.

Then I had my figure drawing session on Monday as usual. I can’t miss it every time Joy and the munchkin have Monday off, so off I went while they had a nice morning at home together. I wanted to get a four-mile walk in, which means a circuitous route to the studio since it’s only about 2 miles away. Unsure how hilly the route I’d planned was, I left much more time than I needed, and with over half an hour to spare, I went to Arizmendi, the fantastic worker-owned bakery that has recently opened in the Mission District, and over my second breakfast, thought about what I wanted to do differently in the day’s session. The previous two sessions, I hadn’t liked my drawings much. I decided on a few approaches: be bolder with shading, especially making sure to put in all the small variations in surface; get back to putting in a dark background where that was what made an edge stand out, rather than inventing a line that wasn’t there; focus on just one part of the body with each drawing; and above all be brave. It ended up being a good session.

Another change I made was to bring some sketch-grade paper, which has a rougher texture than the newsprint I’ve been using. I don’t know if it deserves the credit for yesterday’s improvements, but I like the way it grabs the charcoal, and it feels like an achievement to draw on nice white paper without seizing up from a fear of mistakes.

I’ll post one or two drawings a day instead of one big gallery, so here are two, ten minutes each. The second one here is probably my favorite from the day–I like the shading on the belly and thighs.

figure drawing 02 21 11 d 10 min figure drawing 02 21 11 e 10 min

Jane Rzepka, one of my preaching teachers from seminary, had the enviable/unenviable job of leading the opening worship for close to 400 Unitarian Universalist ministers at the CENTER Institute last week.  We worship with great enthusiasm and appreciate great preaching, but it also must have been a little like preaching to a congregation every member of which has their arms folded across their chest and a “let’s see what you’ve got” look on their face. Jane sailed right in, throwing down a gauntlet before all the promises of transformation (the slogan for the Institute was “be changed!”). She claimed that Transformation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Naturally this caught my attention, since my congregation’s mission is “to transform ourselves, each other, and the world,” and I am what you might call Big on Transformation. She said–I’ll have to paraphrase here–that we tell people they come to church to be changed, and we tell them that they are welcome just as they are, and we can’t have both.

I doubted this, but I kept my metaphorical arms unfolded and filed it away to think about afterwards, and just listened to the sermon. The turn she took was to urge us to let go of our wish for Transformation with a capital T and let ourselves experience the “small-t transformations” that the week could bring. That the small transformations matter.

That’s one way to bridge the paradoxical wishes to welcome people as they are and to change them. But what came to my mind was a purer one, which, though no less paradoxical than the problem as Jane posed it, seems somehow to offer a solution. After all, the Buddhists have been grappling with exactly this problem since the Buddha stood up from the place he’d been sitting under that tree.  If samsara is nirvana, why are we striving for nirvana? If we must give up striving, what are we doing meditating? Are we enlightened as we are or must we change?

And the Ch’an/Zen variety, of course, developed paradox to a high art.  What I thought of when Jane said “you can’t have it both ways” was this story from the Ch’an master Qingyuan:

Thirty years ago, before I practiced Ch’an, I saw that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. However, after having achieved intimate knowledge and having gotten a way in, I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have found rest, as before I see mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.

If I could grasp that paradox, I’d be a Zen master too. Instead, it slips away and won’t be spotted except in the corner of my mind’s eye. But it seems intuitively right to me.  We are enlightened as we are and we are not yet enlightened. We need to be changed and we need to see that mountains are mountains.

In contrast, Jane’s advice to stick with small-t transformation sounded like a halfway measure. But I don’t think it was. I think that, like a skillful Zen master, she was guiding us away from the preoccupation with Transformation that itself can stand in the way. Stop trying to be changed! Just visit the ocean, talk with colleagues, sing a few songs. Chop wood and carry water. Let go of the desire for nirvana and live in samsara, and then (she didn’t say, because it would have spoiled it) you might find that samsara is the nirvana you’ve stopped looking for.

The morning’s news brought yet another report of a California official telling public employees that they need to give up a chunk of their pensions.  This one was the mayor of San Jose.  It’s a statewide problem, as cities, counties, and the state find that their pension funds don’t have enough in them to pay out the contracted amount.  As the wife of a state worker and a user of state services, I’m really tired of the public-employee bashing.  (I know the pension system needs to be reformed.  But you can’t change the terms retroactively.  We signed the contract and then we gambled with the pension funds, and lost. In a trustee, that would be called irresponsible stewardship, if not malfeasance; for the citizens of a state, it means suck it up and pay what we promised.)

So when I heard that Wisconsin’s governor was trying to eradicate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state employees on everything but wages, and limit their raises to inflation–work for Wisconsin and tread water!–I was depressed but not surprised.  So cynical have I become about the attitude most people take toward public employees that what surprised me was the fervor of the protests.  Actually, I didn’t hope for any protests except a few squawks from the usual suspects.  Instead, the last I heard, the Democratic state senators refused to show up for the vote, denying a quorum. Twenty-five thousand people turned out at the Capitol, and it’s cold in Madison.  (Yeah, a temperature in the 40s isn’t cold compared to what they’ve been going through this winter. But try standing outside in it all day.) Teachers are walking out and schools have been shut for lack of staff. The president spoke up on behalf of public employees. People seem to actually care.

One of the great regrets of my life is that I will probably never join a union. Despite their flaws, they are so eminently sensible to me, their history so much a part of the struggle for justice in this country, that I’d like to have my very own union card (I could show it to the National Guard if necessary). Lacking one, I sing “Union Maid” to my daughter, tell anyone in a purple SEIU hat “That’s our family’s union!,” honor picket lines, read Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, proudly claim the identity of worker, and watch events like those in Wisconsin with hope that the newly inaugurated GOP governors around the country are watching too.  Maybe, like the leaders of Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, etc. this week, they’re wondering if they can quite get away with what they’d planned.

  • Write case study for seminar.
  • Write newsletter column and upcoming service description, already late in violation of my promise for my ¨43 things in year 43.¨
  • Pack.
  • Pick up friend, colleague, and guidemother of my daughter, Darcey Laine, at airport.
  • Clean interior of car to the point that Darcey and I can both fit our stuff in it for the drive to the conference center, beautiful Asilomar.
  • Respond to those absolutely can´t-delay e-mails.
  • Do too many other little items too boring to mention.
  • Post to my blog that I won´t be posting until next weekend at the earliest.

Once at Asilomar:

  • Walk on boardwalk.
  • Learn a lot from seminar.
  • Reconnect with lots of colleagues.  Eat dinner at PassionFish with five of them (reservations already in hand).
  • Cry.  It´s been a sad and stressful week.

Caltrain's Baby Bullet train at Diridon Station, San Jose (photo by snty-tact)

Caltrain is in trouble. It’s a major commuter line, running from San Francisco to Gilroy and serving San Jose, tenth-biggest city in the country, and Silicon Valley, where, according to Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, one-third of venture capital invested in the US is spent. A mighty important transit service, you would think, yet it doesn’t even have its own dedicated funding source. It’s funded by three area transit agencies that do have taxes dedicated to funding them, and that decide each year how much they’ll give to Caltrain. It hasn’t been enough. Right now things are so bad that Caltrain is in danger of shutting down completely within a year, and is planning to cut back service drastically this year–which, of course, would cause ridership to plummet.

We only refer to a few kinds of transportation as “public,” but the fact is that no transportation system in this country thrives without public funding. Transit can’t survive on passenger fares alone, any more than the highways are funded by tolls. The federal government subsidizes car travel to the tune of almost $80 billion a year, which is well over half the Department of Transportation’s budget. (My wife, who knows a lot about this stuff, reminds me that the interstate highway system, launched in the Eisenhower administration, is the biggest public works project in the history of the country. These Republicans, always taxing and spending!) Trains have had to compete with airlines as well, while both the airlines and airports have received government funding far outstripping that of railroads and transit. And that’s just federal funding; states also fund roads, bridges, highways, and airports more generously than they fund rail. We’ve gotten what we’ve paid for: gridlocked roads everywhere and a marginal rail system.

Transit can’t be done by halfway measures. The service has to be fast and frequent enough that it makes other options unattractive. For example, I would take transit to work much more often if it ran earlier on Sundays and more frequently on weekdays, but since the train can’t get me to work on time on Sunday, and leaves me waiting an hour for the next train on weekday nights, I usually drive. More bicyclists would take the train if it had more bike cars, but it can’t do that and carry its capacity of riders–unless it has a lot more funding and can run more trains. Partial and insecure funding just creates a system that turns would-be users away.

It’s the same story with Amtrak and the once-thriving private railroads that used to serve the whole country. Amtrak receives less than $1 billion a year, and not surprisingly, has become less and less useful and relevant since its creation in 1970, but there are members of Congress who seriously propose that we cut what little Amtrak funding remains. McCain is one of the worst–man, did we dodge a bullet when we declined to make him President.  He’s not proposing that we de-fund transportation–our tax dollars will still pay for air and car travel.  But when it comes to rail, he insists it be purely private.

The solution being sought right now by the BayRail Alliance includes a lot of private help: Stanford University and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group are funding polling and studies. That help is key, but long-term–even past the next few months–Caltrain needs serious public funding, because it’s competing with heavily government-funded options. If we want transit and rail service, we ought to fund them at the levels we fund the roads and highways, or cars will become our only option.

Enter your e-mail address to receive e-mail notifications of new posts on Sermons in Stones

Follow me on Twitter

Links I like

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: