Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: "Visions of Paideia & The Politics of Public Education" (Delivered 1-26-14)

My remarks this morning are bookended by appealing to a concept from Ancient Greece. I first encountered the concept of paideia when I was a student in college. Paideia was the name given to a week-long event held on campus immediately before the start of the spring semester in which students, professors, and community members were invited to offer and attend informal classes. Despite the fact that participation was voluntary and no credit or compensation was offered, professors and students alike spent a considerable amount of time preparing lessons and lectures, and students flocked to these classes morning, afternoon, and evening in order to learn something new. It was a little like Communiversity. The true meaning of paideia defies easy definition. It can mean learning for learning’s sake. However, it would be more accurate to think of paideia as education that helps to form us as human beings. You can contrast paideia with the Greek word techne, or learning in order to master a skill. Paideia is education that shapes our lives. In Latin, the term that comes the closest is “Humanitas.” Humanities, we’d say.

***

This morning I am going to talk about public education, funding public education, and the politics of funding education. We are experiencing a crisis in public education funding here in Kansas. This may seem like an unusual topic to bring up in a church service. I believe I’m justified in talking about politics and public education for at least two reasons. The first reason is that this is a subject that matters. How we fund public education impacts the well-being of our children and the well-being of our communities, in the present as well as in the future. How we fund education can help determine social mobility, whether our society is one of opportunity and possibility for all or one of a growing divide between rich and poor, between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Marilynne Robinson writes, “If we educate [our children] well, we give them the means to create a future we cannot anticipate. If we cheat them, they will have the relatively meager future we have prepared for them.” Simply put, education matters and religion has a responsibility to address things that matter.

The second reason I’m justified about talking about public education is that it matters to us. We are the parents who send our children to Kansas schools, the teachers and staff members who work at Kansas schools, and the tax-payers who pay for education. We are the ones who worry about our children and grandchildren. We worry about whether or not we will be able to call our state a good place to live. I’m speaking on this topic because education matters to us and as a minister I’m called to speak about what matters to us. This morning I want for us to grow in solidarity with each other. I want us to commit to work, independently and together, to support stronger public education in Kansas.

State funding for education initially decreased under Governors Sebelius and Parkinson who compromised with the legislature on austerity measures as a result of the financial crisis and recession. These cuts have been preserved, and actually increased, under the Brownback administration, as the governor and legislature have chosen to make enormous cuts to the income tax, especially for the wealthiest Kansans, rather than restore funding for education. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, from 2008 to the present day, Kansas has cut spending on public education by 16.5%, the fourth deepest cuts of any state in our country. Only Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arizona have made steeper cuts to public education. Adjusted for inflation, we spend $950 less per student now than we did five years ago.

A lawsuit filed in 2010 challenged whether the legislature was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide suitable funding for education. Last year a panel of judges ruled that education is, in fact, underfunded in Kansas and ordered the legislature to increase funding by around $600 per student at an annual cost of about $440 million to the state. That ruling was appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, and the decision was expected to be handed down at the beginning of this month. We’re still waiting. In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that the court may wait until after the legislative session adjourns in May to issue its ruling. A New York Times opinion piece from earlier this month stated,

If the Kansas Supreme Court orders restoration of the funding, legislators are threatening to amend the state’s Constitution by removing the requirement for “suitable” school funding and to strip Kansas courts of jurisdiction to hear school finance cases altogether. And if the amendment fails, they have vowed to defy any court order for increased funding or, at the very least, take the money from higher education.

So, that’s where we are now: A Kansas Supreme Court decision looming, a defiant legislature preparing to dig in and resist, and Kansas’ children and educators caught in the middle, trying to learn and teach in underfunded school systems.

This drama that we observe locally is part of a larger campaign designed to attack and undermine public education in our country. Indeed, it is a part of a larger movement to attack most forms of government spending, and whatever organizations, institutions, unions, and laws that are left that stand in the way of plutocracy. The unemployed are portrayed as lazy. Welfare recipients are attacked as morally deficient. SNAP recipients are called gluttonous. (Stay after the second service this morning and participate in the Harvesters “pack-a-sack” service project and you’ll see that there is nothing glamorous about receiving food assistance in America.)

Along these same lines, educators are attacked and slandered. Teachers are called  unaccountable. Teachers unions are called thuggish. Schools are said to be failing and underperforming. Last spring, a right-wing think tank known as the Kansas Policy Institute ran a series of ads around the state claiming to show that a shockingly high percentage of Kansas students were not reaching academic standards. The advertisements were fraudulent. The true percentage of students not achieving academic standards was quite small. Attacks on public education try to paint public schools as inefficient, wasteful, and underperforming. They try to get voters to support legislators who will starve public schools of funding. It is a vicious cycle. Disinvest in education. Then criticize school performance in order to justify further disinvestment in education.

Why the attacks on public education? I think the attacks have multiple and overlapping origins. But, most of the attacks simply have to do with money. Education is by far the biggest budget item at the state level. Education is paid for with tax dollars. If you don’t want to pay taxes, you don’t want to fund public education. In recent years we’ve seen enormous income tax cuts here in Kansas, cuts that have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest individuals, those who have the most and who need tax cuts the least. That $440 million that the courts ruled needs to go back into education? That puts those tax cuts in jeopardy, not to mention presenting an obstacle to the Brownback administration’s overall goal of eliminating the state income tax altogether.

Furthermore, in an age of privatization, when so many government functions, everything from prisons to Medicaid to child support collections, are being turned over to private, for-profit companies, it would only make sense that private educational institutions would want a slice of the pie as they lobby for a voucher system. It’s about money. Should those who live and work in Kansas be required, through their taxes, to provide a suitable education for all the children of Kansas? Should those of with the most wealth, the most resources, especially those who have more than they could ever possibly need, be obligated to provide more for the common well-being of all? My answer to these questions is a resounding yes!

The extreme opposite of public education for all is the idea that every family should fend for itself, that public education should be abolished and that it should be limited to those who are able to pay for it. That’s a third world approach to education. That’s not the world I want to live in. Currently, Kansas education funding laws provide for a nominally level playing field, sort of. It is actually more of a level playing field than exists in other states. The operational budget for school districts – the money that pays for teacher and staff salaries, for example – comes from the state, but school districts are able to fund buildings and technology from local resources. This raises an interesting question. Should residents of Johnson County be required to subsidize education across the state? Should every district have to fend for itself? I’m for a system that levels the playing field though I am also sympathetic to communities in wealthier districts who want to be able to go above and beyond for students, even more than they already do through booster activities, fundraisers, and private educational spending. If we let each district fend for itself, we might help some children at the expense of others across Kansas. We fall short of the obligation we have to all.

If you want to go deeper into issues of education funding, I would recommend that you get in touch with Game On for Kansas Schools. I would also recommend attending the Mainstream Coalition forum at Colonial UCC in Prairie Village on February 20th. The title of that program is Education Under Assault.

It is a lie to say that public education is failing in Kansas, or in the United States, despite what those misleading ads from the Kansas Policy Institute may say. They are simply not true. It is fair to say that public education faces challenges. But it is stupid to argue that those challenges can be met and overcome by underfunding public education and starving our schools. Money matters! A recent report from the Albert Shanker Institute concluded that school spending is positively correlated with student outcome. At the same time, the challenges that we face are not as simple as just restoring funding to education. As long as the gap between rich and poor in our country is as massive at is, as long as poverty is endemic, there will continue to be inequalities in education.

When John F. Kennedy challenged our nation by saying, “We choose to go to the moon,” he didn’t turn around and cut NASA’s funding. No, he gave it ten times as much financial support. It was a common endeavor that we paid for together, accomplished together, and celebrated together. We should regard public education in the same way: a common endeavor, a national treasure, an institution of national pride that we need to pay for, accomplish, and celebrate together. Public education is a public good worthy of our investment.

Just as there are some looney tunes who insist that we never actually went to the moon, there are some people today who hold public education in contempt. At the beginning of this legislative session, not quite two weeks ago, Governor Brownback spoke at a Christian prayer gathering held in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Courtroom. It was there that he previewed his “State of the State” address, in which he blasted the Kansas Supreme Court. This prayer gathering featured speakers from the Concerned Women of America and the Culture Shield Network, a new right-wing Christian political organization based here in Kansas. Among the prayers spoken that day in front of the Governor and legislators, was a prayer that parents would “lay down their lives” to take back control over their child’s education, and that, “children will come out so strong that we will not lose them to secular colleges.” Secular colleges? You mean like KU and K-State? You mean like Washburn, Wichita State, Pittsburg State, and Emporia State? You mean like Johnson County Community College? What utter contempt for public education. What utter contempt for higher education. What fear and suspicion of learning and free inquiry. What anti-intellectualism.

***

In the ancient Greek world there was the concept of paideia, an education that shapes our humanity. Not just education for the purposes of learning a specific skill, but education as formation, developing the essence of what it means to be human. Sorry, Concerned Women of America. Sorry, Culture Shield Network, but public education, when it does what it is meant to do, when it’s well-funded and given the resources it needs to thrive, is about formation. Not in any narrow, ideological sense. Not in a parochial sense. But in an expansive sense. It exposes children to the amazing insights of the natural sciences and the logic and language of math. It exposes children to foreign cultures and languages, to different worldviews, to diverse voices, and to the breadth of human diversity. It asks children to make sense of history and to learn from it, to understand our world and ourselves. It teaches children to ask critical questions and seek deeper understandings. It gives them exposure to music, art, drama, and sport. It forms children, helping them to become good citizens and productive members of society.

When education is underfunded and attacked, it is our children’s loss and our loss and our future’s loss. We can and must do better.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sermon: "Mandela and the Limits of Forgiveness" (Delivered 1-19-14)

Reading
The reading this morning is from an article titled, “Nelson Mandela: Four Acts of Forgiveness that Showed South Africa [the] Path away from Apartheid” that appeared the day after Mandela’s death in December. This article, poorly written as it is, is representative of many of the tributes to Mandela that have come out over the past several weeks.

Having spent 27 years in prison for trying to end white-minority rule…, Mandela became an emblem of peace by reconciling with the individuals who had been the instruments of oppression during his captivity.

Here are four acts of forgiveness by South Africa's first black president which pointed the way forward for a divided country to become united.

Mandela invited one of his former jailers to a dinner marking the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.
Christo Brand was a jailer responsible for guarding Nelson Mandela at Robben Island and then at Pollsmoor Prison. Speaking about the relationship which developed between the two men, Mandela said it "reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars."

Mandela invited his former prison guard to his inauguration ceremony as South Africa’s president.
Prisoner warder Paul Gregory and Mandela developed a bond during his long captivity, according to the anti-apartheid icon. Gregory's "soothing presence" and "courtesy" marked him out as different to most of his colleagues in Mandela's eyes. On becoming president of South Africa in 1994, he invited Gregory to the inauguration ceremony.

Mandela had lunch with the man who tried to have him killed
Percy Yutar was the state prosecutor at the 1963 Rivonia treason trial at which Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to hard labor for life. Yutar demanded the death penalty for Mandela. In 1995, Mandela invited Yutar to dinner where they enjoyed a kosher meal. Mandela said that Yutar had only been doing his job.

And, Mandela donned the Springbok rugby jersey at the 1995 rugby World Cup final
During the apartheid era, few symbols summed up oppression for Mandela and his ANC colleagues more than the hated green Springbok jersey. At home matches, the pens in which black South Africans were made to stand were always full of fans cheering the opposition. So Mandela was making a huge statement by wearing a green jersey at the World Cup final in 1995. He presented the trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar, sending out a strong message… that it was time to put aside enmity and become a united country.


Sermon
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela describes the cases that came to him as a lawyer serving Africans in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1950s.

It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.

Every week we interviewed old men from the countryside who told us that generation after generation of their family had worked a scraggly piece of land from which they were now being evicted. Every week we interviewed old women who brewed African beer as a way to supplement tiny incomes, who now faced jail terms and fines they could not afford to pay. Every week we interviewed people who had lived in the same house for decades only to find that it was now declared a white area and they had to leave without any recompense at all. Every day we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.

Mandela is describing only a small part of the apartheid regime that dominated South Africa for a period of several decades of the 20th century, in which the racism and greed of colonialism became law. Apartheid was marked by murder, torture, and brutality, by political repression and widespread human rights violations, by theft and impoverishment, and by systemic racial oppression.

Since Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, I’ve been devouring stories and writings about his life and legacy, from his tribal childhood, through his rise as a young political leader within the African National Congress, to his twenty seven years as a political prisoner, to his release and election as the President of South Africa, to his role in helping to bring stability to a nation in which a white minority has subjugated the other 80% of the population.

As people around the world have celebrated his life and memory, Mandela has been celebrated and honored, as a leader of forgiveness, a leader of healing, and a force for reconciliation. Those memorializing him have focused on the power of his forgiveness. African-American syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts put it bluntly, “Mandela forgave. He forgave the government that segregated him to the margins of society and made him an outsider in his own country. He forgave the jailers who tried to break his body and spirit during his long incarceration. He forgave his country for hating him.”

Tributes like these are inspiring. They describe a spiritual capacity so far beyond what most mere mortals are capable of. These stories stir us. And, frankly, they’re also somewhat troubling and disconcerting at the same time. When we talk about forgiving Apartheid, one has to ask whether there are any limits of forgiveness. How does one forgive decades of systemic murder, torture, brutality, repression, theft, and impoverishment? How does one even begin to forgive?

What are the limits of forgiveness? How is it possible to speak of forgiving the Rwandan genocide? The killing fields of Cambodia? Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans? War crimes and atrocities? In our own nation’s history, what would it mean – what would it look like – to forgive the slave trade, slavery, and Jim Crow? How in the world would one even begin to think about forgiving the Native American genocide, the Trail of Tears, forced displacement, and the reservation system? Can forgiveness ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the Holocaust? Are there limits to forgiveness?

Returning to South Africa, coming back to Nelson Mandela, we’ve been hearing these stories over the past month. We’ve been hearing about Mandela inviting his prison guards to his inauguration and breaking bread with his tormentors. We’ve heard, over and over again, Mandela’s quote about leaving prison after twenty seven years as a political prisoner. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

How are we to evaluate these actions, these words? Do we find them heroic? Do we find them challenging? Or, seen differently, do we find them at all distressing? Do any of us say, to Mandela and to the South African people, you have a perfectly acceptable reason for being angry, for being bitter? Such a response is understandable, isn’t it?

At the most recent meeting of the worship team and during the most recent meeting of Wednesday evening’s sermon small group, I asked the members of these groups for their reactions to these various examples of forgiveness offered by Mandela – inviting a prison guard to his inauguration, wearing the green jersey and shaking the hand of the rugby captain, and so on. Several members talked about how moved and amazed they are by this capacity for forgiveness. One person told me about a trip she had taken to Cambodia. She engaged one of her guides in conversation and the conversation turned to the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The genocide they perpetrated against their own people accounted for somewhere in the neighborhood of two million deaths, roughly twenty percent of the country’s population. The guide claimed that the country had forgiven and moved on. This guide obviously can’t speak for a nation, and something may have been lost in translation. But, what do we make out of a statement like that? Another member of the church I spoke with had a different reaction to Mandela as a figure of forgiveness. He said, “Call me a cynic, but all that seems like a bunch of political theater.”

In the articles I’ve read, I’ve been fascinated by a few writes who have complicated Mandela’s relationship with forgiveness. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Bill Keller remembers spending a day observing Mandela during his presidency in the mid-90s. He recalls his surprise when Mandela sided with the wealthy owner of a chain of grocery stores over the striking workers at his stores. He paints a picture of a “less saintly” Nelson Mandela,

Another thing that stays with me from that day is that Mandela could be mean. He is celebrated, rightly so, for the strategic forgiveness that enabled him to bargain with his erstwhile tormentors and even include them, for an interim period, in his cabinet.

But to include them did not mean to love them. On my day of watching, there were flashes of entirely human rancor, especially in his acerbic asides about his predecessor and partner in history, F. W. de Klerk, who had become a deputy in the unity government. Mandela took several opportunities to portray de Klerk as a small-minded conniver… With unmistakable relish, Mandela disclosed that he had just stripped de Klerk of his authority overseeing administration of the intelligence service.

Keller presents forgiveness as an act of carefully crafted statesmanship. Elsewhere, Ron Krabill opines that Mandela’s commitment to forgiveness was similarly “strategic.”

Media coverage of his death has focused heavily on Mandela’s ability to forgive those who sentenced him to prison for 27 years for his work against apartheid and his pursuit of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. But forgiveness is part of, not an exception to, his identity as a revolutionary… Mandela supported reconciliation rather than retribution because he believed it offered the best way forward for the revolution…

We might recall that Mandela’s fiercest critics included some of his closest political allies, his comrades. They wished he would seize the property and wealth that South African whites had taken during Apartheid years and redistribute it among those from whom it had been taken. Mandela rejected this approach. He chose a path whose goal was allowing people to live together. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote of South Africa’s path forward,

Mandela’s administration would later decide against holding criminal trials for former members of the apartheid government for many practical reasons. [One of those reasons was that they knew that] after the trials, everyone would still have to live with each other. When we recognize this – that we have to live with each other, or we either have to live with each other or withdraw from the human family, forgiveness seems possible.

This quote is nothing if not practical. And that, I suppose, is the point that those articles I cited make. Mandela’s acts and gestures of forgiveness helped to make progress towards a practical outcome: a more peaceful country, a more stable nation.

So, what might we learn, what might we take away, from such extreme examples of forgiveness? When I look at Mandela, I feel like I’m watching a champion marathon runner when I myself am barely learning to crawl. The good news for us is that most of us will never be put in a situation where we are asked to forgive a genocide that we are forced to live through. We’ll never be asked to forgive our captors after three decades of wrongful imprisonment. There but for the grace of God go I.

But while it is unlikely that we will be challenged to practice forgiveness in its most extreme forms, our lives – by virtue of us being human and living with other humans – will present us with opportunities to forgive others and to ask for forgiveness. That others can run marathons does not make it any easier for us to jog around the block. It just proves it’s possible. It just proves it’s possible.

About a decade ago I read a book about forgiveness in South Africa. The book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, was written by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist who worked with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The book is about her visits to Eugene de Kock, who had been the commanding officer of South Africa’s national police and had directed kidnapping, murder, and torture hundreds of times over, and who was sentenced to a 212 year prison sentence for his crimes against humanity. In this book, the author struggles over what it would mean to forgive Eugene de Kock. She comes face to face with his humanity. She even considers whether his sentence should be lessened and whether he should be freed.

In Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book we also meet Peter and Linda Biehl. In the late days of apartheid, their daughter, Amy, a college student at Stanford, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time in South Africa and was murdered by two South African youth. The parents, Peter and Linda, came to South Africa and took on the task of transforming the boys, no older than Amy, who had murdered her, from killers to constructive members of society. They took on their daughter’s killers as their own children, educating them, and turning tragedy into redemption.

What, indeed, are the limits of forgiveness?


We may not be asked in our lifetime to run marathons of forgiveness, to climb the tallest mountains of forgiveness, or to swim the widest seas of forgiveness. In our lifetime we will be given the opportunity to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Let us do what we can to take a first step, and then to take one more step.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Sermon: "Inviting Mara to Tea" (Delivered 1-12-14)

First Story
It is told that on the night before the Buddha became enlightened, as he sat under the Bodhi tree meditating, he was attacked repeatedly by the Demon King Mara. Mara tried to prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment by tempting him and afflicting him with harmful emotions. Mara tried to get the Buddha to give into greed, lust, anger, doubt, and more. But Mara was unsuccessful.

Even after the Buddha reached enlightenment, Mara would still come around from time to time. One time he came to visit the Buddha while the Buddha was in his home. Ananda, the Buddha’s most loyal attendant, saw Mara approaching and told him to go away. Mara asked Ananda if he might be invited in. Ananda was quite sure that the Buddha would turn Mara away, but Mara asked Ananda to go ask his master himself. Ananda went inside and told him about the visitor that had come. “It is wonderful to have a visitor,” the Buddha said, “Invite him in and seat him at the place of honor at the table, and put on some tea for my guest.” Ananda was wary but did as his master instructed.

There are different stories about what the Buddha and Mara talked about during the visit. Thich Nhat Hahn offers one version of the story. He says that not only did the Buddha welcome Mara in, but even greeted Mara with a hugging meditation. Thich Nhat Hahn writes,

Buddha just looked at Mara in a very loving way and he said, “Dear friend, how have you been? Is everything okay?” Mara said “No, not okay at all. Things go very badly with me. You know something, Buddha? I’m very tired of being Mara. Now I want to be someone else, like you. You are kind; wherever you go you are welcome. You are bowed to with lotus flowers, and you have many monks and nuns with very lovely faces following you. You are offered bananas and oranges and kiwis and all kinds of fruits.

“As a Mara I have to wear the appearance of a Mara. Everywhere I go I have to speak in a very tricky language. I have to show that I am really Mara. I have to use many tricks, I have to use the language of Mara, I have to have an army of wicked little Maras and, if I breathe in and breathe out, every time I breathe out I have to show that smoke is coming from my nose… So I have come to propose to you that we exchange roles. You be a Mara and I’ll be a Buddha.”

The Buddha looked at Mara very calmly, smiling to him, and asked this question: “Mara, do you think it’s a lot of fun being a Buddha? People don’t understand me—they misunderstand me and put a lot into my mouth that I have never said. They have built temples where they put statues of me in copper, in plaster, sometimes in emerald, in gold. And they attract a lot of people who offer them bananas, oranges, citrus, and a lot of things.

“Sometimes they carried me on the street in a procession. I don’t like being a Buddha like that. You should know that being a Buddha is also very difficult. I don’t think that you would enjoy being the Buddha. The best thing is for each of us to stay ourselves and try to improve the situation and enjoy what we are doing.”

Second Story
The story of Kisa Gotami, is a story I first learned in my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school in my hometown of Wayland, Massachusetts. The story goes like this. Kisa Gotami was the mother of an only son. She loved her son deeply, but tragically her son became ill and died rather suddenly. Kisa Gotami became wracked by grief. She hurried into the village and desperately went to the various healers and monks begging for someone, for anyone, to perform a miracle and bring her son back to life. All of the healers and monks told her that they didn’t have the power to do that, but that if anyone did, it would be the Buddha. So, Kisa Gotami went to visit the Buddha to ask him bring her son back from the dead. The Buddha told her that there was a magical spell that could make her wish come true, but the magic spell required that she bring him a white mustard seed from a home that has never known death.

So, Kisa Gotami set out across the countryside, the valleys, the mountains, the forests. She visited palaces and mansions along with modest dwellings. In each home she visited she inquired about a white mustard seed and also asked if the home had ever known death. Each family she talked with had a story to tell, the death of a grandparent or great-grandparent. The death of a spouse. The death of a child. At first Kisa Gotami was annoyed and disappointed. None of these people can help me, she despaired. But then she realized the lesson was that she was not alone. She found healing from her connection with others. She became transformed in her desires, transformed in her heart.


Sermon
This morning I’m going to talk about inviting Mara to tea, an act that is really hard and challenging and uncomfortable. In doing so, I’m going to turn to the writings and teachings of psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, who offers a different interpretation of the story of inviting Mara to tea.

Many of the stories and teachings of Buddhism have a common thread running through them. The thread is that running away from what troubles us, avoiding what’s painful to face, and only seeking happiness are not effective ways to live. If avoidance and escapism are your default settings for getting through life, then Buddhist teachings and wisdom stories will challenge you. The lessons this tradition has to offer are lessons of engagement rather than pushing away, of staying in the game rather than running for the hills. These lessons really challenge me. They may challenge you too.

There’s actually going to be a lot of Buddhism at church this month. Next Sunday there will be children’s fellowship at both services and the program they’ll be doing together is Laughing Yoga. And then the week after that, two of our members will be beginning an adult religious education class based on the book Taking the Leap by Pema Chodron.

Let’s return to the story about inviting Mara to tea. Remember, Mara is the Demon King who comes to tempt the Buddha with intense emotions – anger, doubt, greed, and so on – that threaten to corrupt him. Here is how Buddhist teacher Tara Brach interprets the story,

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.

When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully driving him away. Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness. We express such wakefulness of heart each time we recognize and embrace our hurts and fears.

I think that Mara can appear as either an internal psychological state or emotion or as an external opponent, something outside of ourselves that bothers us. I think that it is important to invite both Maras to tea. How many of us have difficult feelings well up within us? Anger, self-doubt, anxiety, fear, worry, disappointment? When I feel those things, I’d rather run away. I’d rather shut the door and hole up. I’d rather avoid those feelings and come up with ingenious distractions. But what Tara Brach teaches, what the Buddhist stories I’ve shared teach, is that what we actually need to do is to face those tough feelings, to invite Mara in. To name Mara. And to treat even our deepest fears and worries with compassion. Hi, I see you. Hi, how are you doing?

And, we actually begin to get some power over those fears when we name them, acknowledge them, and face them. As a friend of mine puts it, “A good look at the worst that can happen disarms it, and you can often see that your deepest fears are often very unlikely. Hospitality with what scares us is hard work but it often takes the teeth out of the monsters, much like shining a light under the bed for your child… We mustn’t dismiss our fears or flee from them, but we can shine a light on them. We can invite Mara to tea, over and over and over again.”

Tara Brach tells the story of an older teacher who was invited to give a speech at a very large and prestigious gathering. As it turns out, this teacher was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the time, he was completely fine. Nobody could tell except for his closest friends. As he walked on stage, in front of this gathering, his mind went blank. He completely forgot the talk he was prepared to give. Not only did he forget what he had planned to say, but he also realized he didn’t know who his audience was or why he was even there. Tara Brach tells that what he did in that moment was to simply begin to name his feelings, to name what he was experiencing, to name what is happening right now, and to bow to it. Fear. Bow. Racing heart. Bow. Embarrassment. Bow. Confused. Bow. And, finally, through naming all the things he was experiencing, he calmed down and was able to say that he was sorry that he was unable to give the audience what they had come to hear.

Tara Brach writes, “Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.”

This lesson, this teaching about inviting Mara to tea works not only for the emotions and feelings that cause us to struggle and panic and suffer. It also applies to opponents or adversaries we encounter outside of ourselves. Next Sunday I’m going to be talking about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. One of the things I’m really struck by as I read about and study Mandela’s life is his capacity to sit down to tea with people who had really hurt him. I am fascinated by the story of Mandela having lunch with a government official who had schemed to have him assassinated during the early days of apartheid.

Who in your life do you run from, hide from? Who in your life do you avoid? Who in your life do you need to invite in to sit down for tea?

This is scary. This isn’t easy. It certainly isn’t comfortable. But, as uncomfortable as it is, facing our fears, facing our anxieties, and facing our pain – and facing those who we’re struggling to be with – can be a pathway forward for us.

Like the Buddha, may we invite Mara in for tea when Mara comes to pay a visit.

Like Kisa Gotami, may we find peace in our companionship and in our connectedness.

May we have the courage, and strength, for our lives to move in these directions.