Archive for March, 2011


Running on rice paper…

I did not watch Kung Fu during its original run, but a decade after the final Cain adventure aired, I did see a few episodes in rerun on TV.  I only recall two things.  One was the recurring motif of the old master teaching a lesson of peace and understanding to young Cain (“Remember, grasshopper, the best solution is a peaceful solution”), and then, coming out of the flash-back, grown-up Cain kicking and beating the crap 0ut of some crackers in the Old West.  Seemed like mixed messages to me, even if those crackers were asking for it — maybe they dreamt of world peace and understanding between peoples while they were unconscious.  The other scene I remember struck me immediately and has stayed with me.  In every episode, the older Cain would flash back to his training; in one episode, this involved his walking on rice paper.  At first, young Cain tore that paper up as he walked along it like a little galoot.  Later, in successive flashbacks — is this how flashbacks work, by the way, where you recall the first, and the next, and the next?  my flashbacks seem to be more random — we see Cain get better control and, in the final flashback, before he beats up that episode’s crackers, he’s gliding over the rice paper with nary a wrinkle, and no holes at all.  When I saw that, I thought — that’s what I want to do.  As much fun as the violence seemed, it was the walking on rice paper that I really wanted to do.  The ability to do that was cool, and it involved a lot less wear and tear on me and others.  Of course, I never got any rice paper — I tried a few times with the Chicago Tribune (so sorry, Gene Siskel, for stepping on your face again and again) — no holes in the paper if I walked on the paper over hard wood;  a few mini-holes when I walked on it over shag.  I figured that I was probably doing it wrong — Cain was walking on rice paper, not newsprint, after all, and I was walking on a Chicago newspaper, and everything in Chicago is tough.  Even the klutzy little Cain could probably have walked over newspapers on a hardwood floor, and there were no shag carpets in those ancient Chinese temples (or in Hollywood replicas thereof).  As with most of my “oh, it’d be great…” reveries, I gave up my efforts in a day or two, but that image has stuck with me for decades. 

I often think about it as I move through life — “imagine you are walking on rice paper — keep your step light.”  I don’t often succeed, even in my imagination; I often lumber through life, more Hulk, less Astaire, but I find it pleasant, thinking, even for a moment that I do not sit, stand or walk heavy on this earth, but can move with grace and a certain lightness.  It is not a goal I’ll ever reach — though I take some consolation that Cain never reached his goal of true peace ( he got the rice paper part down, but still ended up beating the crap out of someone each episode) — but so far the aspiration to walk, or run, or dance on rice paper helps to keep me in better relation with the world — it sometimes keeps me from reacting without thought or empathy, and it keeps me hopeful about the world and my potential therein.  The other option is to give up on me (“I can’t do this, so why try?”) and to give up on others by either dismissing them or granting them too much power. 

A new day brings more rice paper if I but dare and dream.


Demon dogs and peaceful pugs…

My wife Carla and I have pugs, as most of you reading this will know.  One of our pugs, Pippin, who was something of a bully in her younger days, gets very territorial when we try to lift her onto our laps.  She begins to utter a low growl, and her face seems to turn into a compact ball of bile.  When she gets in this mode, it immediately causes Alice and Phoebe, two of our other pugs, to switch to attack mode.  Without intervention, most times Alice and Phoebe attack, and we have a dogfight in progress, and Pippin gets the worst of it.  The fights, such as they are, do not go on for long, as Carla and I have learned how to break them up fast, separating the dogs until they calm down. 

Another pug, Irma, does not start fights by growling, nor jump into fights once started.  She knows what she wants —  food, lap time, peaceful time in her place, and walks.  She is pretty confident that she’ll get these, though when it comes to the occasional snack, it is Irma who yips the loudest.  We call it the “death scene from Camille, hyperactively enacted by Irma.”  Still, for the most part, Irma is the best behaved of our pugs. 

I think this comes from an internal confidence she has — she knows she’ll get fed; she knows we’ll take care of her;  she has confidence in her own abilities — if we fail to close a door, or leave food within range, it is usually Irma who notices this and takes advantage of the situation. 

Pippin, Alice and Phoebe, on the other hand, work from a lack of confidence and worry.  Pippin, former dominant, and now frailer, figures that by making a lot of angry sounds she’ll be able to dominate the situation.  It doesn’t work.  But that’s her strategy and she’s sticking to it.  Alice, who from her puppy days was intent on rooting out aberrant behavior, is quick to respond in kind, as is Phoebe, who is the youngest, and the most like Pippin when she first joined our family.  Again, the strategy doesn’t work — we intervene, and the dogs get time out.

I know something about anger.  For men of an Irish background, emotion is a tricky business.  Anger, though, is generally o.k. to exhibit, and so much of one’s emotional range gets played out in one angry note.  Anger is the counter to fear, but to rely on anger means to inhabit a world of fear — your anger today gives you protection from, and maybe dominance over others who seem to be a threat.  But one day, those who live in fear of you will find a way to turn the tables.  And knowing that, or fearing that, brings even more anxiety.  A moment of god-like certainty and power comes at an awful psychic cost.  And during that moment of power, if one can step outside and take a look, the powerful angry person looks awfully alone.  Ultimately, it’s a lose-lose situation.

So what do I get out of this — look to Irma for an example.  Try to live life as a win-win game, rather than a win-lose game, or even a lose-lose game.  Assume that you have the skill set (which might include a healthy level of improvisational ability) to do the job.  Be reasonably assured that the universe is not a hostile environment, and that you have the wherewithall within to help you past the bumps. 

In my Roman Catholic days, I remember a prayer that we were encouraged to say every morning — the “Morning Offering.”  For most of my grammar school days, I had a copy of this stuck on the headboard to my bed.  Occasionally, I’d look at it.  In it you offered up yourself, with all your gifts and all your faults to God.  I don’t make such an offering every morning any more (I didn’t as a kid either, though the prayer stuck to my headboard was always there), but I do think that it’s not a bad way to look at things.  There are times when we feel overwhelmed, cornered, trapped, incapable of meeting the day.  But we’re the only means we have of meeting those challenges.  Running away doesn’t work; anger may keep those troubles at bay, but troubles at bay begin to look more and more terrifying.  So, ready or not, we’re ready — we were “born ready.”

Irma would certainly agree.


As one door closes…

Here is my final report to the Steinke Group.  It seemed best to me to quote it in its entirety:

My own final report to the Steinke Group, the Board and All Souls Church.

delivered 3-4-11


This past Wednesday night, I had the job of being the recorder at the presentation of the Steinke Action Team Report to about 25 members of the congregation.  As such, I felt it was my duty to keep silent and record.  I only spoke up once, to help clarify why behavior of members towards one another was included in the Leadership and Governance section.

What I heard disheartened me somewhat.  I got the sense that most of the people in attendance felt that our recent troubles were the fault of Rev. Lee Devoe.  I also got the sense that they felt that people felt that such troubles were an aberration here, and, with Rev. Devoe now gone, we can move straight ahead and get a settled minister.  As such, I cannot be hopeful for any meaningful address of the problems inventoried in Rev. Steinke’s report to the congregation.  I do not mean that things won’t be done.  I’m sure they will, but doing stuff is not the same as addressing problems and working together for a real solution. 

When someone has a substance abuse problem, the first step, which must happen before any real change can take place, is for the person in question to admit that s/he has a problem.  As long as the person is in denial, the problem, still hidden from the person’s sight (perhaps willfully so), cannot be addressed.

If there was no serious problem to be addressed, if the matter was all (or largely) Rev. Devoe’s fault, why did we call in Rev. Steinke?   Unless the Board opted to call in Rev. Steinke to humor those calling for action, and for no other reason, I have to draw the conclusion that All Souls does, indeed, have some issues that ought to be given serious and vigorous attention. 

I would go further and say that the church has some issues that are long-standing.  In 1996, Nancy Heege and Rev. Helen Bishop delivered a report to the members of All Souls at a service in Conover.  Looking at the service in which that report was delivered, and reading the report itself, I was struck by the similarity of issues mentioned as of concern:  the lack of trust of the congregation in the Board it had elected and in its minister; the division of the congregation into opposing camps (in ’96, it was described as those who hate John Weston, and those who hate those who hate John Weston – it brought a laugh from the group); failure of communication;  a deep division between the humanists and those who have some theistic leanings;  failure of members to commit to the church financially (trust issues again).   The only issue mentioned in the Heege-Bishop report that no longer seems to be a problem was the RE program (thanks, Judith, and all the volunteers who have really done such a great job on All Souls’ RE program).  The matter of financial commitment, or the attempts to convince people to cut support as a means of bringing pressure to bear on the Board and minister this past year were not mentioned in the Steinke report – Rev Steinke has said that it is best to address only 3 or 4 issues so that there is some hope of a fix.  Still, this failure to commit resources still seems to be a problem.

Dori Bader mentioned a 1-year progress report following the Heege-Bishop report given to the Board under Andy McCanse’s presidency.  I have not seen that report.  If the issues brought up in that report were dealt with, why do they still seem to be burning issues in the congregation today, as evidenced by Rev. Steinke’s report?  My guess, and I admit, it is only a guess, is that some initial efforts were made – and I believe that John Weston and Jo Beck did their part in addressing the concerns in that report – but nothing more than cosmetic changes were made, victory was declared, and the problems covered over.  That same problems recur 14 years later with little appreciable progress towards solution gives me little hope that these problems will be addressed this time.  I heard someone say that, now that we had the report, the real work must begin.  I agree.  I’m not sure we have the drive necessary to see it through.  It cannot be simply a matter of declaring victory and disengaging.

Let me raise a few questions that I hope get some consideration.  I don’t want an answer to these questions.  This isn’t for me.  These are aimed at getting those interested to think about issues that an outsider (and potential new member) might have, and that we, as a loving community, should be thinking about.

  1. Are we a dogmatic church or an open church?  When I was in grammar school, I remember a nun cutting off debate on the relative value of Protestant v. Catholic belief.  She said, “Ours is the true religion.”  That seemed a bit presumptuous.  I figured there had to be true and good people in other faiths who felt similarly about their religious paths. Some here at All Souls, having escaped dogmatic Christianity, have adopted a dogmatic atheism in its place.  I am calling no one’s tradition out here.  I do suggest that such dogmatism puts up a wall (unintentional perhaps) between people.  I think the greatness of the Unitarian tradition is its openness, the opportunity for each member to discover his/her own path.  That discovery is helped by sympathetic listening, and hindered greatly by a sense on the part of the seeker of a wall facing him/her.  Can we be a truly open church, with open minds and open hearts?  It’s a great challenge, but one not beyond our capabilities.
  2. Can we practice deep listening?  I once dated a woman who stated that we “listened other people into existence.”  When we don’t listen well, it feels to the speaker that his/her own words and thoughts are devalued.  Many of us are pretty tough, and can get past that barrier, but it does hurt and sting when it happens.  Will we listen patiently to each other, or treat every conversation as a form of debate, where we’re trying to win an argument, or solve “their” problem?  I do not set myself up as an expert here, but as a pretty bad listener myself – I think, though, that deep listening can lead to a rejuvenated and renovated church.
  3. Will we listen to concerns voiced by others without judgment, or a rush to offer a fix?  I heard some people here in the church voice dismissals of what Christine Robinson, Nancy Heege, or Keith Kron had to offer when they spoke about what they saw here as concerned and loving outsiders.  “The UUA is trying to change us, or to butt into our business.”  Those three people were here out of concern for us. I was grateful for what they said, and let it sit with me for a while.  They were not dismissive of who we are, but concerned that we take a good look at ourselves.  I’m not sure we’ve done this yet.  In a similar vein, when the local ministers all raised concern about the treatment of Rev. Devoe, I heard people dismiss their missive outright, thinking that the ministers were closing ranks against us congregants, or perhaps they were just deluded by Rev. Devoe’s wily ways.  Again – loving concern expressed respectfully by competent people in our denomination is dismissed too quickly here.  Let their words sit with you for a while – don’t just do something, sit there, and listen.
  4. Can we practice radical hospitality?  I think we do a pretty good job when it comes to people coming through the door.  We are great when we have company, gracious and smiling and welcoming.  Can we practice that with our fellows here at the church?  Can we practice that with people who don’t think as we do?  We had a lot of new members come through the door during Jim Eller’s tenure as minister.  From what I hear and see, a few have remained, but many have moved on – perhaps radical hospitality would have made staying seem more promising than leaving.
  5. Are we open to change?  Change I think can be terrifying.  Openness to change, to a new way of looking at things and doing things was exactly what Ralph Waldo Emerson was advocating in the 19th c.  Yet, even in a denomination that grew out of Calvinism with its darkly deterministic ideas of poor sinners and an angry God, which embraced democratic ideals and democratic practice, his vision of change and openness were terrifying and many of the Unitarian ministers were critical and dismissive of Emerson.  Young people entering our denomination are much more open to a variety of views than perhaps we have been.  As they enter our church as members, will we be willing to share power with them, not as junior members of the institutional ALL SOULS UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST, but as equal partners?  That’s frightening, I think.  I think though it is a great opportunity for courage and generosity of spirit.  Meet this challenge – don’t be too quick about asserting we have met it – and I think you’ve really got something.
  6. Can we come up with creative and loving ways to address bad behavior and hostility in this sacred place?  I found the level of animosity shown Rev. Devoe troubling (I still do).  And I found the animosity shown those Board members who were not getting tar, feathers and the rail ready equally troubling.  In the Steinke report, one member regarded this animosity towards the minister and members failing to denounce her the “ugliest iteration” of the problems we have with leadership here.  I am at a lost as to what to do here.  I think that all members have to be ready to speak out against such bad behavior when it happens, but I think more is needed.  What can be done creatively, and subversively, perhaps, to fan the flames of goodwill at All Souls? 
  7. Can we be?  or must we do?  At the discussion session, someone suggested “Don’t just sit there, do something” as a mission statement.  I think All Souls is the hardest working church in the business.  I think we need to do a lot of work on the just being.  Who are we when we take our good deeds away?  Are we just filling our time with duties to avoid an uncomfortable and awkward silence? 
  8. Can we love ourselves? 

I hope I have hurt no one in what I have said here.  It was not my intention, but my own clumsiness sometimes leaves someone bruised, with me blissfully unaware.  If I have hurt anyone by these words, I apologize.  I hope this letter may be some help.

All Souls has been my religious home for the past 15 or so years.  I signed the book on All Souls Day (November 2), something which the Roman Catholic boy within.  As such, I hope that this “ugliest iteration” results in real work (and play) towards a loving and lovely future.  If my questions and observations help, I am glad.  If you find another path to that loving and lovely future, I’m equally glad.

At the end of this church year, I’ll be ending my partnership with All Souls as a member.  The past year and a half my wife encountered quite a bit of hostility here, and she chooses not to stay in this place.  She must seek her truths elsewhere, and I must be with her.  On this matter, I do not intend to call anyone or any group out.  My hope for a new and improved All Souls is genuine.  I expressed my doubts regarding the Steinke process playing out productively,not to throw a wrench into the works, but so that the works can work in a truly interdependent way.

Of course, you’ll all remain in my mind and in my heart.