Mindfulness meditation is not religiously neutral

Recently I read a blog post by Amod Lee on mindfulness meditation and whether it might be problematic for Christians. Lee notes that some Christian groups have mounted legal challenges to teaching mindfulness meditation in public schools, on the basis that mindfulness meditation is a religious practice, not a secular technique. Lee goes on to say that he is “not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved,” but rather wants to consider this issue “as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation.” Coming from that perspective, Lee argues that mindfulness meditation could be problematic for Christians:

“A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.

“That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian — or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.”

I found this argument helpful for me personally: I meditated for years, and finally stopped because I hated it. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I never like meditation because I felt all the meditation techniques I was taught pushed me towards a negation of the self. By contrast, when I learned meditative techniques of self-inquiry while studying transcendental phenomenology in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, I found those techniques deepened my self-understanding without negating the self. Husserl’s technique led me to an understanding of intersubjectivity — that is, awareness of the self as a node in an intersubjective web of many selves — and eventually this led me to a sense that awareness of intersubjectivity is a highly desirable spiritual outcome. Similarly, meditative practices of observing non-human organisms, inspired in part by Henry Thoreau’s journals, also led me an awareness of my (non-negated) self as part of a web of intersubjective selves, many of which are non-human selves. Rather than negating the self, my own spiritual exploration led me to understand my connection with other selves, an outcome I find personally more rewarding.

My personal spiritual exploration leads me to expand on Lee’s conclusion: mindfulness meditation carries distinctly Buddhist content that people other than traditional Christians might also be cautious of, and even actively dislike. It is, in short, not a neutral practice.

(One last note: I’ve been to Unitarian Universalist worship services and workshops where the minister or workshop leader leads some kind of mindfulness meditation exercise with the unspoken assumption that everyone present will want to do mindfulness meditation. It would be wise for Unitarian Universalists to realize that mindfulness meditation is a practice borrowed from another tradition, to be careful that we do not misappropriate it, and if we do use it to remember that some Unitarian Universalists will find it distasteful or unpleasant.)

Religious attendance may be down, but income is up

Over the past decade, our congregation has seen flat attendance, slowly declining membership — but a modest increase in income when corrected for inflation. Turns out we’re not alone:

“A new nationally representative study from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds that revenue is not necessarily declining along with attendance….

“‘We’re not hiding the fact that there are many congregations experiencing decline, or that it’s a major success to be simply maintaining,’ said David P. King, director of the Lake Institute and a co-director of the study. ‘But despite a narrative of decline for religiosity in America, there’s a wide diversity of what’s happening. A decline in participation does not necessarily equate with (a decline) in finances.’ Or as the study succinctly states: ‘Among congregations that are declining in attendance, there is not necessarily an automatic corresponding decline in revenue.’ “

Article.
National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices study.

Clergy hit a new low in perceptions of ethics and honesty

Gallup has been polling people in the U.S. since 1977 about perceptions of the honesty and ethics of various professions. These Gallup polls rate the perceived honesty of professions as “very high/high,” “average,” or “very low/low” (with the obvious addition of a choice for “no opinion”).

In Gallup’s most recent poll about perceptions of the ethics and honesty of various professions, the nursing profession again tops the list, with 84% of people giving them a “very high/high” rating, 15% giving them an “average rating,” and 1% giving them a “very low/low” rating.

By contrast, only 37% of people give clergy as a profession a “very high/high” rating for honesty and ethics; 43% give an “average rating,” 15% give a “very low/low” rating, with the remainder offering “no opinion.” In their report, Gallup made a special note of the decline in the perception of clergy honesty and ethics:

“Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985. Positive views of the honesty and ethics of the clergy dropped in 2002 amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, and although positive ratings rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been steadily declining since 2012.”

However, although the Catholic sexual abuse scandal is foremost in many people’s minds, evangelical Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton notes that there are other clergy scandals affecting some people’s perceptions of clergy. Throckmorton specifically mentions the recent accusations of clergy financial misconduct at Harvest Bible Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch near Chicago: when some whistle-blower bloggers made those accusations public, rather than addressing the accusations, Harvest Bible Church sued the bloggers for defamation. Throckmorton contrasts Harvest Bible Church with Willow Creek Church, another big evangelical Christian megachurch which recently ousted its founding pastor after credible allegations of misconduct; subsequently the entire leadership team resigned, realizing their leadership had been compromised by their poor handling of the allegations, and realizing that the church needed to get a fresh start. (Throckmorton’s most recent blog post about Harvest Bible Church, which links to the Gallup poll, is here.) We could add more examples from outside evangelical Christianity of how organized religious groups respond poorly to accusations of ethical lapses and dishonesty: the many accusations against the Church of Scientology and their opaque responses come immediately to mind.

One thing that I get from Throckmorton’s post is that poor governance goes hand in hand with decline in trust in clergy. And we should distinguish governance from polity. The hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church should in theory be more effective at removing unethical clergy than our Unitarian Universalist congregational polity; more than one unethical Unitarian Universalist minister was able to continue their unethical ways because the Unitarian Universalist Association cannot prevent a local congregation from hiring whomever they want as minister. However, all too often the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy covered up clergy misconduct. The Unitarian Universalist Association, by contrast, has recommended that search committees carry out careful background checks of potential new clergy hires; in Unitarian Universalism, the failures in governance too often take place at the local level, representing the biggest weakness of congregational polity is dealing with ethics; but on the whole, despite the weakness of its polity, Unitarian Universalists have a somewhat better record of dealing with clergy misconduct than the Roman Catholic Church. Again, my point here is that no type of polity is immune from ethical lapses; the real issue is good governance practices within whatever polity a religion might have.

I suspect, therefore, that the decline in the perception of clergy honesty is linked to a wider decline in trust of organized religion — a decline that in many cases is deserved. Lay leaders and clergy, regardless of our polity, need to be scrupulously careful about maintaining good governance practices that are transparent and that strengthen accountability; and when ethical violations arise, we need to address them quickly and transparently.

Chicken hat

For quite a few years now, while serving in four different congregations, I’ve been doing a No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant as an intergenerational service on one of the Sundays before Christmas.

The simple costumes are what make this participatory pageant so much fun. Back in 2003, I bought a bunch of rubber animal noses at a theater supply store in Berkeley to serve as costumes for the farm animals who gather around the manger. These rubber noses have to be rubbed down with alcohol after every performance, which is easy enough for the cow, camel, and pig noses — but the chicken noses have lots of hard-to-reach interstices, and are difficult to clean adequately.

So this year I decided to come up with alternate costume for the chicken. Starting with with a cotton baseball hat and some yellow and red felt, here’s what I came up with:

Chicken Hat

I think this chicken hat will be a fun addition to the No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant.

Guide to visiting other faith communities

Here’s a five-minute video I made about what to pay attention to when you visit services at a faith community that’s not your own. Drawing on Ninian Smart‘s seven dimensions of religion, the video suggests that when visiting another faith community it’s most interesting to focus on three of Smart’s seven dimensions: the emotional/experiential, social, and material dimensions.

Preferred pronouns

Non-binary gender meets arts-and-crafts…. I was trained up by old-school DREs (Directors of Religious Education) who addressed many congregational issues with arts and crafts projects and filing systems. Sure, arts and crafts and filing systems can’t address every social challenge, but you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish through simple means.

In our congregational, we’ve been thinking about non-binary gender. How do you educate people about non-binary gender? How do you make non-binary gender seem fun and interesting? If you were trained up by old-school DREs, the answer would be obvious: stickers! Stickers and a filing system for them!

You can see my prototype above. We’re going to try it out this Sunday, though I expect a number of problems. First off, an index card file box is not the ideal storage system, and and it may not work well during real-world coffee hour. The stickers may prove to be a bit small, though I had to size them to fit on our name tags (recognizing that people who would use these might have one or more other stickers on their name tags already, e.g., rainbow sticker, UUSC sticker, etc.). And I’m sure someone will criticize my choice of personal pronoun sets (’cause we’re Unitarian Universalists, and we love to criticize each other).

Aside from the inevitable problems, I think three things will work well from the start: 1. the stickers will affirm those who don’t fit into binary gender (even if they don’t use the stickers because they don’t want to be out about it on Sunday morning); 2. the stickers will serve an educational function; and 3. everyone likes stickers!

Specifics of how I formatted the stickers are below: Continue reading “Preferred pronouns”

Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees

The BBC has posted the full text of Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” here.

The executive order states in part: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.” By the same logic, the executive order itself should support the Constitution, including the right to religious belief set forth in the First Amendment, viz.: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What is particularly problematic here is that Trump, like both his presidential predecessors, is using executive orders too broadly. This particular executive order has the effect of proscribing persons with certain religious beliefs, notwithstanding that the courts have generally held that, while certain destructive religious practices (e.g., Hindu suttee, human sacrifice, etc.) can be prohibited by law, religious beliefs cannot be regulated by Congress. Trump’s use of a presidential executive order can be seen as an attempted end run around the First Amendment. US District Judge Ann Donnelly has issued a temporary stay of the executive order, though she did not attempt to rule on its constitutionality — that will be left to another court.

Although Trump has stated that this executive order does not target specific religious groups (i.e., Muslims), the effect of the order is to severely limit the admission of Muslims into the United States; under the order, no visas will be issued to nationals of seven countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all of which are Muslim-majority countries, according to the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC notes that in an interview of Friday, Trump specifically said that Christians “would be given priority among Syrians who apply for refugee status in the future” (BBC’s paraphrase), thus implying that the government gives preference to certain religions.

All people belonging to faith communities should be wary of this executive order; we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of our religious beliefs in the United States, and this executive order is a definite step towards establishing state-sanctioned religious beliefs, insofar as it brands certain beliefs as not acceptable. As noted previously, Trump has indicated that Christian refugees will be considered exceptions under this executive order, but Christians should also be worried, unless you’re sure that you hold exactly the right kind of Christian belief that will receive government sanction. Atheists and agnostics, you too should be worried about the creeping establishment of government-approved religion!

Write to Trump right now to express your concern. You can send your email to president@whitehouse.gov — if you prefer to send classic mail, address your letter to:
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Do this RIGHT NOW. Then tell ten friends to write letters as well. Let’s make sure the White House receives a million or more letters opposing this executive order within a week.

I’ll put the text of my email below, along with a sample email you can tweak for yourself….

Continue reading “Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees”

Short practical guide to grief

You can find tones of books about grief, but (speaking as a minister) I haven’t seen a short practical guide to grief — the practical things I find myself saying to lots of people right after someone close to them (spouse, parent, child, sibling, etc.) has died.

Everyone is different and experiences grief differently, but many peole experience the following:

— The first seven to ten days after the death, the grief is pretty raw. You may find yourself bursting into tears at the slightest provocation; and if you find yourself laughing at some memory the next instant, that’s normal too. It often helps to be with family, or if you don’t get along with family, then to be with good friends. You know how Jews sit shiva for a week after someone dies? That makes total sense. If you only get two or three bereavement days off from work, still you can cancel all your other commitments.

— After the initial shock and raw grief, numbness sets in for most of us (thankfully) for about three months. The grief is still there, but you can pick up with your ordinary life — although from the outside you may look a little out of it at times.

— When that initial numbness wears off, often about three months after the death, that can be the toughest time. Co-workers, friends, and family often expect you to have moved on with your life, and no one is bringing you dinners at home, or treating you extra gently. But here’s the grief, coming in waves, back again as strong as ever. Because grief tends to come in waves, so you might be fine one minute, than overtaken by a wave of grief the next. Be careful when driving!

— For most people, grief lasts about 18 to 24 months. The first year is often the hardest, and the first anniversary of the death can be very tough indeed. In fact, do yourself a favor, and don’t plan anything big on the first anniversary of the death — or do something like plan to have the gravestone installed, or some other commemorative thing like that.

OK, that’s the basic timeline. Remember, grief comes in waves, so you can be fine one minute, and not very functional the next — one minute you might have energy to start working on a project, or start cleaning the house, or whatever, and the next minute about all you can do is sit and cry.

Remember to eat regular meals, you need the energy. Exercise is a good idea, too. Don’t forget to sleep. Breathing is also a good idea; nice slow relaxing breaths can help a lot.

And of course, the reason I’m finally writing this post is that my dad is about to die. So this is a good way of reminding myself of what I need to pay attention to.