© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
May 4, 2008

Challenges and opportunities. These are the raw materials from which we fashion our lives. On October 8, 2000, I told you about the personal challenges and opportunities which led me into ministry. Today I will review my personal and professional journey and add some reflections about the past eight years.

You may recall that I was born in an Illinois farming community, and my parents were divorced when I was three. My lifelong interest in personal transformation began as a desire to heal my mother's pain and my own unhappiness. Mother tried to fix her life by running away. After we left Illinois we moved every year or two, living in small California towns from the Imperial Valley to the redwood forests. She kept searching for a truly satisfying teaching job, but she always wound up frustrated.

Just as Mom wanted to feel better at work, I wanted to be happier at school. I was an emotional child who laughed easily and cried easily. I would get so caught up in the humor of cartoons at the movies that my laughter probably disturbed the whole audience. When we walked out of the theater, my little jaw would be aching. But I hated it when mean kids teased me just for the pleasure of making someone feel bad. Between the second and third grade, we moved to McFarland, north of Bakersfield, and I saw that changing towns could give me a fresh start. I decided to systematically suppress my feelings so I would no longer be a target for bullies. I consciously and deliberately shut off my emotions so well that later I needed therapy to find my feelings again. So in a naive, primitive way, I was already exploring deliberate personal change. And I learned from my mother's example that running away wasn't enough. Personal transformation comes through inner work.

So there were challenges. But I was also lucky in many ways, partly because I was an early reader, fascinated first by science and then by religion. In junior high I loved reading about Buddhism and Hinduism, and I didn't see any ultimate conflict between these teachings and Christianity.

My adolescence was mostly ghastly, as it is for many teenagers, but then I went to the University of Redlands where I could fully indulge my love of learning. I practically lived in the library. At Redlands I especially loved competitive debate, which taught me how to argue convincingly for both sides of an issue. Through this training in conceptual flexibility I realized that most people suffer from a sort of "normal insanity" of overinvestment in their own viewpoint. One reason I tend to be a skeptic is because I don't think we know very much.

I had grown up wanting to be a Methodist minister, but in college I became skeptical of traditional Christian theology. Then in 1963 I read in a news magazine that Unitarian Universalism was thriving, and most UU ministers were not Christian. I visited our church in Riverside and immediately felt that I had come home. The second Sunday I attended Riverside was right after a Unitarian Universalist clergyman, James Reeb, was clubbed to death by white racists during an integration campaign in Alabama. A special collection was taken so their minister could fly to Selma for Reeb's memorial service, and I saw twenty dollar bills dropped into the plate. I was glad that UUs cared about racism and other social issues.

In 1965 I entered Claremont School of Theology, majoring in social ethics with a special focus on peace and disarmament. After Claremont I led human potential programs in the Washington, D.C. area for several years, and I personally explored bioenergetics, gestalt, meditation, yoga, est, the Silva Method, etc. I returned to California in 1976 and became a state-licensed psychotherapist. I worked for 15 years as a counseling minister at Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church in Costa Mesa. I also took writing classes and I wrote three books, mostly on stress reduction. I tend to have a high-stress personality, and one good way to learn stress reduction is to teach it.

Many of my emotional problems were due to plain old negative thinking. Although I still get into unhappy moods, there's a big part of me that doesn't take those negative feelings seriously any more. I know that emotions are just a lot of mechanical whirring and clanging inside my head, and I know that feelings come and go. In 1981, at age 61, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and died five weeks later. Although we'd had little contact with my father, he offered to drop everything and come help take care of her. And so I began getting to know Dale Schriner. More about that on Father's Day.

In 1987, while still serving as Minister of Counseling in Costa Mesa, I was offered a part-time ministerial position at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach. I accepted, because I was wanting to focus more on institution-building and leading worship. While at Laguna I continued to write and practice psychotherapy.

Laguna Beach wanted me to emphasize preaching, which suited me fine. Both then and now my sermons have tended to be "high fiber," with lots of content. I guess I'm a throwback to the old days of scholarly ministry. Even though my preaching tends to be on the intellectual side, I've tried to include spirituality and human interest. It's probably common toward the end of one's career to feel like a dinosaur, but I hope this scaley old reptile has managed to warm up to a nearly-mammalian level.

Even though I love to share my ideas, I don't want people to blindly accept them. We grew up programmed to be passive, focusing on what teacher said, rather than on our own responses. Watching TV reinforces this passivity. And then with sermons we reinforce it in our churches! I talked explicitly with the Laguna congregation about inwardly interacting with sermons, readings, and other parts of the service. For example, right now you could notice what you are thinking and feeling as you hear my life story.

I was first attracted to our denomination as a haven for freethinkers. That was a negative motivation, becoming UU so that my beliefs would not be restricted. At Laguna I realized the tremendous power of embracing all positive theologies and philosophies. Unitarian Universalism has achieved one of the most important and life-giving breakthroughs in the history of religion, the shift from being belief-centered to being value-centered.

Humanity needs this new vision. We are never going to unite the world by trying to get everybody to agree on one theory of reality. Most people can't even unite their families around one philosophy of life. It is much more empowering to unite around shared values.

I enjoyed my work at Laguna enough to want full-time ministry, but they didn't think they could afford a full-time salary. So I went into ministerial search. But I was also involved in another search - the quest for a lasting love relationship. For many years I had wanted to marry and raise a family, but most of the women I found attractive already had children and did not want more. After I reached fifty, I decided I was not going to become a father. Then in 1995 I experienced a marvelous little miracle, by walking into a neighboring UU church one Sunday, sitting down beside someone who just happened to be church-shopping, and just happened to have a lot in common with me! Jo Ann and I shared a hymnal, and the rest is history.

I became your minister on September 1, 2000. At first, comments about my sermons were less positive than the feedback I had received at Laguna Beach. But I thought I understood what was wrong and I believed that things would get better. I guessed that I was being compared to your previous settled minister, whose preaching was dynamic and outgoing. This is one reason former ministers need to step back and let the new minister bond with the congregation, but even then the bonding process sometimes goes slowly. I knew that I needed to adapt my preaching style to Mission Peak, and I worked hard at doing that. After a couple of years I started feeling more comfortable, and now this is just "home" to me. Your interim will only have two years with you, so do let that person know what you appreciate.

At Mission Peak I have continued to emphasize the shift from being belief-centered to being value-centered, but this idea is still controversial. Some UUs believe that our diversity weakens us, and prevents us from making a positive difference in dealing with economic and political issues.

I myself think diversity is a source of our strength. More and more people are hungry for an open-minded religion that honors many paths to truth. They are realizing that the best way to respond to unfathomable mysteries is to humbly admit our own ignorance. That frees us to turn our attention to what we can know. We can know that we hold certain core values in common and we can move forward together to realize these values. It is powerful, not weak, to admit the limits of our knowledge and focus our energies on making this a better world.

Also, since our knowledge is so limited, how would we know whether we are strong or weak in our impact on society? It could be that we are influential far out of proportion to our numbers. I could spend a whole sermon just listing the good works of UUs as individuals, as congregations, and as a denomination. Even so, because the world is so complex, there is no way to quantify exactly how much good we are doing. The impact of any good deed is mysterious. Positive effects ripple outward from our actions, and we cannot see where our influence stops. So we act out of love, in the faith that love usually helps. If someone thinks our loving actions are ineffective, we should ask, "How do you know? What is your standard of successful social action, and how could you tell if your standard has been achieved?"

Let's imagine that an all-knowing god adds up the sum total of good works that Unitarian Universalism has accomplished, and assigns it a number, say "+1000 karma-units." Fine, but from our ignorant human perspective all we know is that:

We have tried certain things.

We have seen some progress.

And we still have a lot of political and economic problems.

That is all we can know now, it's all we could know in 1980 or 1960 and it will be all our grandchildren can know in the year 2100.

If, instead of being "1000 karma-units," our impact was 500, or 100, or 10,000, that would make no difference whatsoever to those who believe we are ineffective. Admitting our ignorance about our own effectiveness allows us to stop worrying about whether we are successful enough, and focus instead on how we could do more.

No doubt we still have plenty of room for improvement. But having seen so many positive changes in Unitarian Universalism in the past 45 years, I'm willing to show a little patience. Our openness to change opens us to continuous transformation. Our worship services, our ministry, and the way we conduct our business is quite different now from 25 years or 50 years ago. Integrating, consolidating, and fine-tuning such rapid changes doesn't happen overnight. Those who run rapidly uphill over stony ground sometimes stumble, and that is no cause for shame. I am proud to be part of a movement that is realizing the power of value-centered faith.

As I look back at my ministry I see that I have had certain gifts and certain limitations, and I became today's Chris Schriner because of the way these challenges and opportunities were woven together. My time with you has had some challenges, and it has mostly been a wonderful chance to grow in my understanding of ministry, in my professional skills, and in my ability to connect with other people. In a few weeks, this aging dinosaur will lumber off to explore new terrain. But his not-yet-fossilized old heart will always be warmed by memories of our time here at Mission Peak.

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