I’m getting caught up on On Being podcasts, and just listened to Krista Tippet’s conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson. She’s the author of the book Composing a Life, and daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
One of the things she touches on is the value of being a participant-observer in life. It’s something she learned from her parents, who, as good anthropologists, learned to both carefully observe and actively participate in the cultures they were studying. Bateson notes that the observing part includes self-observation, being aware of how what one is doing and seeing is affecting oneself.
Bateson says: “There’s a huge benefit in being a participant-observer. There are people who just observe and don’t engage with others. There are people who just engage and don’t think about what’s happening. And to learn to be simultaneously observing and learning, but at the same time to be fully present, was a marvelous thing to learn. And it’s a marvelous way to live, actually.”
She doesn’t use the word, but it’s another way of talking about mindfulness.
I wonder if this approach to life as a participant-observer is one of the keys to healthy living in a polarized culture. It might free us up to be more curious and empathic for why people do what they do, think what they think, and why we respond the way we respond. It doesn’t exempt us from actively participating in promoting our vision of a just and merciful society, but by mindfully observing our environment and ourselves, it keeps us from becoming a mere function of the system in which we participate.
Easier said than done. Likely essential for sane and wise living.
In November of 1957 a group of students in Columbus started meeting together. They were all from other places. What they shared in common was an upbringing in a Mennonite congregation, and a desire to fellowship with each other. As the group grew, they went from informal gatherings to establishing a new congregation, with charter membership established in September, 1962. Over the next three years the young congregation would hire their first pastor, purchase the Neil Avenue Presbyterian Church at West 6th and Neil, and grow to a regular Sunday attendance of around 100, with a quarter being preschool age.
In those early years the fellowship was active on the OSU campus. Members joined a rotation of WOSU radio’s “Morning Devotions,” sharing 15 minute reflections. On Armed Forces Day, the group sponsored a viewing of the film “Alternatives,” which displayed ways other than the military of serving one’s country and community. They also wrote a letter against racial discrimination in student housing. As they grew into a congregation they became engaged in work in the American Addition, a predominantly African American neighborhood on the near east side that had been largely neglected by city services. And they cared for each other as life happened to all of them.
If you’re reading this, you have in some way been impacted by the life of that fellowship which we now call Columbus Mennonite Church. Because the 50 year anniversary (counting from 1962) occurred during a pastoral transition, we’re making a big deal of the 55 year mark, celebrating it this weekend. A program Saturday evening will involve food and story-telling, and we’ll be joined in worship Sunday by former members coming from out of town. It will be a time not just to look back, but to consider who we are in the present moment.
Speaking of the present moment, I’m grateful that Mark created space as worship leader on Sunday to lament, ponder, and speak about reactions to the pro white supremacy demonstrations in Charlottesville over the weekend. As we continue to commit ourselves to the difficult and ongoing work of being an anti-racism congregation, I commend to you an essay written Monday by Tobin Miller Shearer titled “Seven roadblocks that get in the way of dismantling racism in the church and society (and strategies to overcome them).” It is addressed especially to white people.
August 9, 2017
An early morning run
along a familiar trail.
The air is cool for August.
The Olentangy crawls along
There’s a fog over the water,
the river in another state,
hovering over itself,
contemplating its own possibility
vacate the predictable flow,
disappear and appear
The planet turns slowly and already
the sun is claiming the air.
The river remains,
and follows its course.
My breath becomes mist in front of me
and I move through it,
along this path
that leads toward home.