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At the end of the film, I raised my fists in the air.  It was spontaneous, reflexive, exultant.  I was speechless.  In the six weeks since I’ve been wondering if it might have been the best film I’ve ever seen in a theater.  And in the six weeks since I haven’t been able to think of a better one.

Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over a period of twelve years.  For a few days each year, he gathered the same cast and crew and shot the next series of scenes in the life of a Texas family.  The film centers around a boy called Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six-years-old when shooting began.  By the end of the three-hour picture, he is eighteen.  Viewers watch him grow up before their eyes, moving from a bright-eyed little boy lying in the grass watching clouds to a gangly adolescent looking for his place to a confident college freshman with a sense of excitement about an open future.  Yet despite the film’s title, Boyhood, and the fact that it does center itself on Mason’s experience, it isn’t really about boys.  You don’t need to have been a boy to appreciate it.  You don’t need to be a parent to be moved by it.  You don’t need to have lived in Texas or grown up in the suburbs to get it.  Because the film’s subject is more universal.  The film is about time.  And what it shows so vividly is the movement of time in the lives of every character—Mason, his sister, their parents and friends.  And while we each have a vague idea of the passage of time on the small scale of hours, days, or weeks, it is another thing altogether to sit down for a few hours and watch twelve years slip by on the big screen.  “Time is but [a] stream,” said Thoreau, “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away. . .”[1]  As I walked out of the theater, I had almost no sense that three hours had passed.  But for the rest of the day, and for parts of every day since, I have felt the shining quality of particular moments, my mind wakened to them by a director’s twelve years of work.

In his essay on the film, “Making Real What We Cannot See,” poet Dan Chiasson writes that time is the real actor; the people on the screen are simply the media through which it speaks.  “Naturalism,” Chiasson says, “is. . .the ultimate special effect.”[2]  And while there is a narrative to the film, basically the story of the ups and downs of Mason and his family, it seems of little importance.  What we get from the film is time.  And questions about how it passes and if we notice.  Nowhere is this portrayed more simply than in one of the film’s early scenes.  Mason and his family are moving to Houston.  As they clean their house before leaving, Mason’s mother stops at the doorframe where they have marked his height every year.  She gives Mason a jar of white paint and the boy quietly brushes over the marks with a tentative look on his face.

It isn’t easy to think about the passage of time and it isn’t something that we do very often, caught up in time’s stream as we are.  But Richard Linklater’s film suggests that we open our eyes, in a way, to the cycles and seasons, lest they pass unobserved and our lives with them.  It is, in a way, a kind of wisdom teaching, which leads us to this morning’s reading from our sacred stories, one of the most well-known passages from the Hebrew Bible and also one of the strangest inclusions in the biblical canon.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, or Qohelet, is all about the passage of time and the ways that we notice it and puzzle to find some order or meaning in it.

In his excellent study of the wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, professor Robert Alter explains that the perspective of Hebrew wisdom literature is “. . .universalist.  It raises questions of value and moral behavior, of the meaning of human life, and especially of. . .right conduct.”[3]  The wisdom writers, deeply philosophical in their approach, were searching for ways of being human in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty.  They felt the passage of time, the quick movement of cycles and seasons, and they wished to respond by noticing and by living meaningfully and well.  The wisdom books bear certain themes in common, but Ecclesiastes stands out for its bleakness.  The writer of Ecclesiastes, referred to as “the Preacher,” struggles more than the others to find something he can hold.  He sees the cycles and seasons, but a larger purpose seems to elude him.  In fact, the Preacher is so reluctant to offer comfort that generations of scholars have wondered how exactly this book came to be included in the Hebrew canon and then carried over into our Christian Bibles.  One scholar went so far as to call him the Hebrew Bible’s “skeptic par excellence.”[4]  So what are his words doing in our Bibles?

Biblical scholar John Barton reminds us that all too often Christians assume that the Bible is a book full of things with which we must agree.  We bring to our reading of the text an expectation that it is some kind of “book of right belief” when that is not what it is at all.  The Bible is rather “a collection of narratives, laws, poems, aphorisms, biographies, letters, and visions.”[5]  Only when we see it as such and begin to free it from the weight of expectation can we ever begin to hear what it is trying to say.  Read it without preconceptions, Barton says.  Listen to it.  And enter into its questions.  So let’s listen for a moment to Ecclesiastes.

As we mentioned, the passage we heard this morning one of the most well-known in Hebrew literature.  “Everything has a season,” it begins, and then proceeds to offer a beautiful series of poetic contrasts.  There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. . .a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.  On and on go the lines, and most of us hear them and focus on the experiences they describe.  We think of our own experiences with birth and death, our own work in the garden planting and pulling, our own times of deep grief and great happiness.  Yet these experiences are not actually the point of the Preacher’s reflection:  time is.  Life’s ups and downs are simply time’s stage.  The focus of this passage are the cycles and seasons themselves moving through and circling back in time.  This is evidenced by the lines that follow the poetic contrasts.  Most churches when they read from this book stop at the end of the litany’s times for this and times for that.  But right after, Ecclesiastes poses a stark question.  What gain is there in all of this?  Put another way, what is the point?

The Preacher in the wisdom book has seen too much to offer an easy answer.  His answer is this:  Everything has been done in time, God has put this knowledge in our hearts, and yet we really don’t see, we really don’t grasp, what is happening.  Who among us really gets the passing of time?  The Preacher in the text famously counsels that all is vanity or, in Alter’s translation, “mere breath,” and it is here that we are invited into a kind of conversation.  Do we agree with him that all is vanity?  Does his weariness and skepticism resonate?  Do we share his view that we cannot understand the passing of time or apprehend what is happening around us?

I think many of us might answer yes and no.  On the one hand, we may well agree with Ecclesiastes.  Of all the things we cannot control, time may be the greatest.  It moves without stopping and always will.  There is nothing we can do to pause it or slow it, and each of us is pushed or pulled through it without being asked for consent.  Every Sunday we gather in this place a week older whether we like it or not.  Every Christmas we’re a year older.  Before we know it, we’re twelve years older, like the characters in the film, still ourselves but changed.

Yet on the other hand, we may not completely agree with Ecclesiastes.  For we do have some control over our time.  Not control over its passage, but control over its use.  Each of us is given the chance, every day, to wake up, to notice, to seize the shining moments and name them for the ordinary miracles they are.  Every week we gather in this place to mark time and to celebrate it.  The light streams through the windows.  The children grow before our eyes.  The ancestors surround us in the churchyard and we feel held in wakeful attention.  Through a kind of spiritual practice, we train ourselves over time to notice the passing of time and to give thanks for every day.  This is the wellspring of our gratitude, this grounding in what we already have.

In her memoir An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes of coming to terms with time and the spiritual practice of trying to pay attention:

How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself around the bend?  Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live; I trapped and paralyzed myself. . .Too little noticing, though—I would risk much to avoid this—and I would miss the whole show.  I would wake on my deathbed and say, What was that?[6]

Dillard may offer the real wisdom here.  For we cannot notice everything.  But we really must notice some things.  And so each of us is encouraged to find ways of waking and watching every day.  This may be in church.  It may be reading the sacred stories.  It may be in prayer, meditation, or yoga.  It may be on a walk or in the garden.  Or it may be in a time of sadness or illness or one of the other things for which there is a season.  But the idea is to pay close attention to the time we have. . .the time that has us.

At Circular, I think that we are as skeptical as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, but not as weary.  We never really throw in the towel, though we certainly understand the struggle.  Instead, we try and ground ourselves in sustaining spiritual practices, the first of which is gratitude.  And on this Harvest Sunday, we come in gratitude for a community where we can be our true selves over time.  Whether we are six or sixty, we gather to mark the days, to celebrate the seasons, and to find within them the holiness that lies all around.  We offer our thanks for its proximity.  And we open our eyes to its beauty.

Amen.

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 92.

[2] Dan Chiasson, “Making Real What We Cannot See” in The New York Review of Books, September 25, 2014, accessed online at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/boyhood-making-real-what-we-cannot-see/

[3] Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), xiv.

[4] James Williams in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 277.

[5] John Barton, What is the Bible? (London: Triangle, 1991), 56.

[6] Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988), 155.

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I am haunted by Berkeley cartoonist Tom Toro’s image from The New Yorker.  The adult in a tattered business suit explaining to the children the good old days before we exhausted the Earth.  “We created a lot of value for shareholders.”

The cartoon cuts to the quick of our short-sighted thinking, the ways we frame complex ethical decisions that will affect the generations based on momentary profit and loss calculations.  Try telling that to the kids.

With the cartoon in mind, I was troubled to read a recent article detailing South Carolinians’ enthusiasm for offshore drilling.*  As many of you know, the federal government recently approved seismic testing off the Eastern seaboard; an advance form of oil exploration.  The testing is expected to kill tens of thousands of marine mammals and may cause further disruptions that we do not understand.  All in the name of pursuing fossil fuels that, once refined and burned, will only add to the warming of our atmosphere.

There are now promising developments in sustainable energy technologies, including wind and solar.*  I cannot help but wonder why we aren’t focusing more urgently on the clean forms of energy that we will be able to live with in the future.  And I cannot help but wonder why we take such a narrow view of economics.

The small human economy of dollars, cents, and fiscal years, pales in comparison to the great economy of the natural world. Were we to think about that, we would consider the value of animals and plants, the richness of biodiversity, the health and abundance of fisheries, the delight in aquatic recreation, and the needs of future generations.  The value in our South Carolina coast isn’t really reducible to cash.  How do you put a price on a sunset swim at Sullivan’s Island, the soft sand free of tar and sludge?

Those of us who have lived on the Gulf Coast know well the risks of offshore drilling.  Though the damage has faded from our newspaper pages, fishers and scientists are still coming to terms with the devastating effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.*  Just beneath the waves, nature’s economy has taken a loss that we do not even know how to quantify.

I suppose my question is a variation on the old “Is nothing sacred?”  Are we willing to put the Atlantic ecosystem at risk, including the animals, plants, and beaches that support our fishing and tourist industries, in pursuit of an energy source that we know we need to move away from?  Are we willing to continue thinking of economics according to the limited construct of human barter and trade?  Or are we willing to begin a new conversation about value beyond money and investment beyond the short term?

I wonder how you see this.  And I wonder what it would take to move opinion in our state (and in Washington, where binding decisions will be made by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management).  I invite you to share your thoughts on nature’s economy, our own, and how the two might meet.

With aloha,

J

*Nathaniel Cary, “Boom or Bust: Offshore Liquid Gold Rush,” The State, August, 25, 2014.

http://www.thestate.com/2014/08/25/3640203/boom-or-bust-offshore-liquid-gold.html

*”Sunny Outlook for Solar Energy in South Carolina,” The Post and Courier Editorial Board, September 1, 2014.

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20140901/PC1002/140909964

*Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, “BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill’s Impact on Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Discussed,” The Times-Picayune, January 27, 2014.

http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2014/01/bp_deepwater_horizon_oil_spill_1.html

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I’m posting this morning’s teaching to the blog.  Thoughts, comments, and observations are welcome, especially by those who try the active listening the teaching suggests.  With aloha,

J

***

The cover of the book caught Sara’s eye and she picked it up. Bright blue with white lettering, it stood face out on the recent arrivals shelf at City Lights Books in San Francisco.  We were in California visiting family and knocking around the city as we do every summer.  And City Lights has become an unofficial tradition, a bookstore that we can’t resist for its history with the Beat writers, its left of center sections on politics and cultural studies, and its third floor poetry room with worn rocking chairs and hand-painted signs that encourage browsers to “Have a Seat and Read a Book.”  So we were walking the shelves at City Lights when Sara began to leaf through the book with the bright blue cover and laugh.  After some time with it, she handed it to me.  I looked at the title—Men Explain Things to Me—and the author—Rebecca Solnit—and started reading the opening essay right then and there.

Rebecca Solnit has been one of my favorite essayists for years.  Her blend of anger, humor, critical intelligence, and lived experience appeal to both the head and the heart.  Yet her essay “Men Explain Things to Me” was unusually powerful.  I stood in the aisle of the bookstore turning the pages, laughing as Sara had before me and muttering “Amen”s and “true that”s.  And I’d like to share with you a truth from Solnit’s essay that followed me out of the store, onto the streets of San Francisco, and all the way back home to Charleston.  Honestly, it is a truth that has changed my perception every day since.

Rebecca Solnit begins the book with a story about attending a party at an affluent home in Aspen, Colorado some years ago.  The owner of the home was a man of renown with whom she began to speak near the end of the evening.  The man told Rebecca that he had heard she was an author.  When she replied that she was, he asked what she had written.  She told him of a recent subject before he interrupted to ask if she had heard of another new book written on the subject.  It was supposed to be a wonderful book, he’d read about it in the Times, and so on.  As the man kept talking about this book, Rebecca’s friend Sallie, who had been listening in, tried to interject.  “That’s her book,” Sallie said, motioning to Rebecca.  But the man just kept talking.  “That’s her book,” Sallie repeated, three or four times according to Rebecca until it dawned on the man and his face registered some embarrassment.  For a moment he stopped talking, but then started up again.  Rebecca and Sallie quietly walked away.  It was an awkward moment, of which Rebecca writes, “I like incidents of that sort, where forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow. . .”  “Men explain things to me,” she continues, “and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.”*

Reading Solnit’s essay I laughed and shook my head for two reasons.  The first is that as a somewhat soft-spoken man, I have had the experience of being talked over many times.  But the second reason I laughed was much more confessional and much more important.  As I read Solnit’s description of the boorish man, I recognized a near perfect description of myself just two months ago at the church picnic.  A lovely and intelligent woman was trying to share something with me when I eagerly spoke over her, offering my opinion on, get this, I book I hadn’t finished reading.  Later that same day I realized that I had been a complete heel, but I’m afraid the damage had already been done.  I had the chance to listen to someone and to learn something and I missed it.  All I learned is that sometimes I can be a real fool.  So for the rest of this teaching, I’d like to ask that you consider that I am not a man explaining things to you, but I am a man sharing with you what I have learned by listening to women, starting with Solnit.

A few days after reading Solnit, we stumbled across a piece on the Huffington Post that underscored everything she had written.  In her article “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn,” Soraya Chemaly brings to light the fact that what Solnit experienced is experienced by countless women and girls around the world.  “I routinely find myself,” she says, “in mixed-gender environments (life) where men interrupt me.  Now that I’ve decided to try and keep track, just out of curiosity, it’s quite amazing how often it happens.”*  Chemaly goes on to offer many examples of the ways women’s voices are suppressed by being routinely ignored, discounted, or talked at or over.  This teaches young women something very untrue about themselves:  that their voices do not count as much, are not as valuable as, a man’s.  It starts in childhood, she writes, when parents are shown to interrupt girls “twice as often” as boys and “hold them to stricter politeness norms.”  Such bias is an inherited trait in our culture, so much so that most of us don’t even notice that we’re doing it.  The way to break the spell, according to Chemaly, is to name it and then give girls ten words of empowerment.  The words are formed into three short sentences, available for use by any girl or woman whenever needed.  Chemaly encourages girls to practice these sentences every day:

“Stop interrupting me.”

“I just said that.”

“No explanation needed.”

If we do this, she says, “It will do both boys and girls a world of good.  And no small number of adults.”  To which I can only add that the good might include bringing a bit more wisdom into the world.  For only when we stop talking and listen can wisdom ever get her word in edgewise.

Interestingly, among the women’s voices not often heard is the voice of Wisdom herself.  There is an entire corpus of biblical material referred to as wisdom literature that rarely gets its due.  The wisdom books typically refer to the books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, the books of Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, and a few other scattered passages here and there.*  This wisdom material “constitutes about 12 percent of the combined canonical [Hebrew Bible] and Apocrypha,”* though it’s fair to say that 12 percent of Sunday sermons wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.  In part this is because most Protestant Bibles don’t even include the Apocrypha, though Catholic and Orthodox Bibles do; but perhaps more tellingly is the fact that the wisdom material is strange and circumspect, often devoid of easy answers and requiring a deep, listening search.

This morning’s text is drawn from The Wisdom of Solomon, and it contains one of the places where Wisdom is personified as a woman.  Another place is Proverbs Chapter 8.  But the Wisdom passage occurred to me after I read Solnit and Chomaly and while I began a new practice, attempted a new practice, of spiritual listening every day.  In the reading we’ve just heard, we are told of the scribe’s search for Wisdom and what is required in finding her.

“Wisdom shines brightly and never fades,” says the text.  “She is readily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her. . .”*  The lines continue, assuring us of the simplicity of the task.  “She is quick to make herself known. . .[and] for those who are worthy. . .on their daily path she appears to them with kindly intent, meeting them half-way. . .”*  This is a beautiful image of Wisdom out in the world, available to all who will seek her and even seeking them out herself, but in a subtle manner.  She meets people half-way.  She is available to those who will come the other half.  By looking.  By listening.  And, as the text says, by the desire to learn.  This is where it starts.  The earnest seeker of Wisdom must have the desire to learn, which means the desire strong enough to make ourselves vulnerable and stop talking about all that we do not know.  No more men explaining things to her.  No more clueless preachers at the picnic.  But spiritual searchers, men and women willing to let their guard down and greet every person as a bearer of truth.  Wisdom beckons us beyond our blind spots.

It is a truth about us all, wrote the prescient philosopher William James, that we are afflicted by a certain blindness.  That blindness is “in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.”*  Each of us is implicitly biased toward our own feelings and perceptions and it takes a conscious effort to recognize this and develop new patterns and practices to mitigate it.  Put another way, we only begin to see when we know that we are blind.  We only begin to hear, when we know that we are deaf.  And so we begin, with great humility, to acknowledge this and to ask ourselves who we are not seeing, who we are not hearing. . .  In James’ words, “neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer.”*  We would be unwise to think that we know it all.  The path to wisdom, simply put, is to see and to hear all the observers, to join in a greater circle of knowing and being known, slowly apprehending the truth being unveiled when we move beyond our own small egos into something much greater.  And if that’s a bit wordy, if that sounds too much like a man explaining things to you, then perhaps I might suggest something better.  A spiritual practice for your week.  It is something that has been teaching me every day since I walked out of the bookstore in San Francisco.  And I invite you to join me in trying it.

Listen to the conversations around you and pay attention to the gender of the participants.  Notice how many times women, in particular, are interrupted, talked at, or talked over.  Observe how many things never get said because no one is listening and feel the great lack, the void of wisdom.

Listen to yourself in conversation, not only if you’re a man, but perhaps especially if you are.  Notice how many times you either interrupt or are tempted to do so.  Observe whether you are really listening to the person or just thinking about what you’re going to say next.

And then practice the art of active, spiritual listening.  Interrupt the interrupters so that someone has a chance to finish.  Find your own ways of saying, “Stop interrupting,” “I just said that,” and “No explanation needed.”  Treat every conversation as a learning exercise, where wisdom can be found by those who will truly seek her rather than trying to prove how clever they already are.  And call this what it is:  good theology.  An article of faith for those of us who believe that every person is equal in dignity and value and that every voice ought to be heard.

In the name of Wisdom. And in the love of learning.  May it be so.

***

*Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 4.

*Soraya Chemaly, “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn,” The Huffington Post, June 30, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/10-words-every-girl-should-learn_b_5544203.html

*John Gabel, Charles Wheeler, and Anthony York, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 137.

*Ibid., 153.

*The Wisdom of Solomon 6.12, Revised English Version.

*The Wisdom of Solomon 6.13a, 16b.

*William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” in The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 146.

*Ibid., 163.

photo‘Tis the season again.  Evening tee-ball games and morning box scores.  Though there are still a few more school days, summer is essentially upon us.  We spent Memorial Day with a dear colleague and her family — both of our boys with ball caps pulled down, raising their eyes from barbecue plates to shout for a favorite batter on the television.

This morning was no different.  At the breakfast table, we read aloud from baseball writer Roger Angell’s portrait of Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson.  Angell is a national treasure whose delightful prose bringings the box scores to life.  In Richard Ford’s introduction to Angell, “When writing itself is good — accurate, words chosen well, when it’s thorough, proportioned, good-spirited — then the game is returned to us better than we first knew it, making us ready and eager to watch or even play it again.”*

That’s how we felt over cold cereal, as we imagined the 1968 World Series with Angell as our guide:

Gibson stretched and threw again, and Horton, a righty batter, flinched away from the pitch, which seemed headed for his rib cage, but the ball, another slider, broke abruptly away from his fists and caught the inside corner of the plate.  Tom Gorman, the home-plate umpire, threw up his right hand, and the game was over.*

“You’re out!” we cheered, before rushing out the door to beat the school bell.  On the way to class, we walked past the fields to which we’ll return this evening to see an older friend in his league’s championship game.  ‘Tis the season indeed.

Perhaps what was loveliest about the start to the day was that it felt like a kind of spiritual practice.  No, we didn’t rise early to read from holy books or prostrate ourselves in prayer.  We just spooned out the cereal and the stories in equal measure.  We nourished ourselves on good sentences, great ballplayers, and the ways our smallest actions can turn into poetry.  For what is spirituality, anyway, if not the mindful attention to the turn of a phrase, the swing of a bat, or the simple pleasure of reading aloud in the morning?

I suppose it raises the question this season:  How do you ground yourself for the day?  In what do you delight?

With aloha,

J

*Roger Angell, Game Time: A Baseball Companion, ed. Steve Kettman (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003), viii.

*Ibid., 176.

IMG_0426By request, I’m posting Sunday’s teaching as a blog entry.

When things feel overwhelming, my initial tendency is to run away, just get out of the scene. That’s always been an issue for me. . .But in some ways I continue to look for the tough situations because I know that’s how I’m going to grow. Luckily or unluckily, they keep coming up.  (Bernie Glassman)*

When I stepped out of the car in the early morning, the heat was already stifling. It hit me in the chest, the sticky air making it hard to draw a deep breath. I knew what to expect, having gone to school not far down the highway. But knowing and feeling are different things. As I looked at the low sun over the prairie, I knew we were in for a hot day. I vividly remember the sweat beginning to run down my back and stick to my shirt before I had even finished saying hello at the welcome table. I had stopped there to ask how I could help. “Would you pass out the water?” they asked.

For the first half of the day, then, that’s what I did. I stood beneath a small canopy and received other activists. One by one they pulled up in cars with out of state plates, piling out to be hit by the growing central Texas heat. They looked at the field of white crosses by the side of the road, each one bearing the name and photograph of a Texan killed in the war in Iraq. They looked at the great tent that had been pitched, under which gathered a couple of dozen Gold Star Mothers for Peace, parents who opposed the war and whose sons and daughters had died in it. Then they looked at me, the skinny guy at the welcome table, motioning to them. “Here,” I would say, handing them water bottles off the pallet. “You’re going to need to keep drinking all day.” Periodically I would stray from the tent and walk around passing out the bottles. People were red-faced and clammy. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

It’s a strange thing to see so many people gather in such an inhospitable place. But we hadn’t been drawn to the heat so much as to the tension. For the tent under which the group gathered had been pitched just outside the president’s ranch. It hadn’t really been a planned thing, but there was a mother, grieving her son, who went to see the president to ask him to stop the war. She wasn’t allowed to see him and so she sat down at the side of the road and said she’d wait there. A local farmer offered his land, a large tent was donated, and then other mothers began to come, clutching pictures of their sons and daughters, and telling stories. It was an act that Zen teacher Bernie Glassman calls “bearing witness,” a way of going to a deeply conflicted place and just sitting there and feeling it. The mothers bore witness to the cost of war. Many of us were drawn to sit with them. And to listen.

That’s what I was doing as I spent time there. I listened to mothers tell of their sons and daughters. I listened to them ask how to prevent this from happening to other mothers. I listened to their voices crack as they began to cry. I cried, too. Everyone cried. Because we were bearing witness.

Yet one thing that became clear right away was that the spontaneous community that had gathered was committed to living peaceably. This was made plain to everyone when we arrived. We sought to embody the peace we proclaimed, and we did not wish to be violent in manner or speech, among ourselves or toward those with whom we disagreed. So there was a strange calm in the encampment, something almost as palpable as the heat. In fact, so committed were we to this vibe that, at one point, without giving it much thought, I stood to walk toward the black Secret Service car that had been idling about twenty yards away all morning. It was so hot and there was no way the car’s air conditioning could keep up. So I approached the car, walking slowly with my hands out, each one holding a cold bottle of water. The door to the car opened and an armed man stood up. “Would you guys like some water?” I asked. The expressionless man looked at me, then ducked down and appeared to whisper to his colleague. He stood up again with an answer. “No.” “Okay,” I said, “but if you guys get hot we’ve got plenty of water. Just holler and I’ll bring some over.” The man nodded and got back into the car where he sat for the rest of the day, sweating while the engine ran.

I tell this story simply to illustrate that the longer I stayed among the peaceable people, the more everyone began to look like a sister or brother. The mothers, their children, the activists arriving, the Secret Service agents, and even the distant president somewhere behind the fenced entrance to the ranch. It was the most unusual combination of heat, tension, solidarity, and suffering. Yet it was also uncommonly beautiful in the way people spoke and acted toward each other even in the midst of such an intense setting. And what’s more, it was a day of surprises, the best of which was this:

About lunchtime someone came to the welcome table to ask if anyone was an artist. I said that I could freehand things, and he said that would be more than enough. He led me to another small tent that was being set up with a medic who had just arrived. Some of our people were now on the verge of heat exhaustion. I was handed a posterboard and some markers and asked to make a sign with a large red cross on it. I set to it and began to talk to the medic. As I colored the cross, I learned that he had just come in from Indiana. It reminded me of the peaceniks Sara and I had known in Indiana and brought a smile to my face. I thought of the activist who had been jailed, the one we had all written, and thought I’d make conversation. “What part of Indiana are you from?” I asked. “Indianapolis,” he replied. With my head still down I continued. “Did you ever know a guy named Carl Rising-Moore?” There was a moment of silence and I looked up. The man was smiling and trying not to laugh. “Yeah, that’s me, man,” he said. At which point we both started laughing. “Hey,” I said, once the laughter subsided. “We wrote you letters while you were in jail.” And then his face turned like those old drama masks, from laughter to sorrow or at least something very tender. “Thanks, man,” he said, and his eyes welled with tears. It was a great surprise, meeting this man who had borne witness and for whom my wife and I had once tried to do a good turn by sending him letters. And for a moment the world felt so small, all of us connected, as we sat on the prairie and laughed and cried as if we were crazy from the heat.

According to the mystics, the sacred always shows up as a surprise, usually in closer places and smaller ways than anyone really expects. This is true in most every tradition; in the Christian tradition, it is often referred to as Christ in the stranger’s guise. This morning’s sacred story offers such an image, as it tells of two travelers on a journey who unexpectedly meet the figure of Jesus. It’s part of a series of stories that the early Christians told about the ways Jesus was present with them in dreams and visions, shared meals and experiences. What strikes me about this story is its strange sense of playfulness. Jesus follows along with the travelers, never revealing who he is, until, at the end of the day, they stop and make a meal together. In the sharing of what they have, they see that the stranger is Christ. Then, just at the moment of recognition, he is gone.

Since I was raised on stories like this, it wasn’t hard for me to look, at various times of the day, and imagine the sacred in a sister or a brother. Looking back, surely it was in the mothers holding pictures of soldiers. Surely it was in the activists drinking water and sitting in solidarity. Surely it was even in the men in the black car sweating as much as we were. But it was easiest to glimpse in Carl Rising-Moore’s laughing and crying, in that moment of recognition I’ll never forget. “Yeah, that’s me, man,” he said. And at the end of the day, he was gone.

I think the story comes back to me this week because some of us are trying so hard right now to bear witness. We are not bearing witness in the way that the Gold Star Mothers did, bringing the moral weight of their loss to the president’s gate. And we are not bearing witness in the way that they did, spontaneously pitching a tent and sitting for a time to tell a story. What we are trying to do is meant to be longer lasting. We have pitched a big enough tent to draw in a gathering that is multiracial and interfaith. We have begun to build an organization and a structure to support it. We have started to make a real impact in our community. And we have made some obvious mistakes and felt some sharp growing pains. But what we mean to do, and I believe will get much better at, is bear witness. At the heart of our justice ministry in Charleston is an attempt to bear witness to the places and people in our community that are suffering. We have pitched our tent to sit with those who really need a job. We have pitched our tent to sit with those who are desperate for an education. We have pitched our tent to sit with those who could use a first opportunity or a second chance. We have pitched our tent to sit with those who have not shared equally in the prosperity of our city, and by this I do mean the black community that still suffers disproportionately in nearly every category our justice ministry has researched. In short, we have pitched our tent to sit with those who are hurting under a status quo that we have all inherited but that could be changed. If we will but bear witness to the real stories of our sisters and brothers.

To be honest, my initial impression of our justice ministry’s work this week is that as a community we have not borne witness well enough. There is much we need to do in terms of our communication, staging, and handling of public events so that we are clearer and our voices kind and respectful. But what we may need most of all is to return to the heart of the matter: we as a justice ministry seek to bear witness to the injustices in our community. We gather under a tent, sometimes in the heat, to take the steps that we can take to turn things. Which doesn’t mean that it will be quick or easy.

At the end of the day, a folk singer arrived. As the sun dropped behind the horizon, it left traces of pink and orange in the sky. Overhead stars were already emerging. I walked away from the big tent and through the field of crosses. I looked at each name and face, trying to hold them for a moment, wanting somehow to bear witness to the reality that these were my sisters and brothers. And I stopped at the edge of the makeshift graveyard and listened. From the brightly illumined tent came a song, a soft rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” I heard the folk singer’s voice. I heard the Gold Star Mothers’ voices. I heard Carl Rising-Moore’s voice. And I heard my own voice, joining in raspy harmony as the first cool air of evening fell over us all. Years of struggle lay ahead. But we sang just the same.

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We’ll walk hand in hand

Some day

With aloha,

J

*Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, The Dude and the Zen Master (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2012), 234-235.

 

 

Over the weekend we took in the new Wes Anderson picture.  As Anderson fans know, his films exist in worlds all their own, recognizable for their eccentric detail and vivid, childlike wistfulness.  I love Anderson’s films because each one offers a variation on common themes delivered in a lovely deadpan.  Others find his films insufferably particular, which I can understand.  I think Anderson’s films either resonate with a viewer or they don’t.  Here’s why they resonate with me:

To begin, Wes Anderson films are visually delightful.  From the sets and costumes to the shot composition, it is clear that the director takes great pleasure in arranging for audiences just what we will see.  Then there’s the dialogue, which may be the sharpest funny-with-a-straight-face writing in a generation.  Afterwards, there is the cast of actors who serve as Anderson’s de facto repertory company — Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, and Tilda Swinton come to mind.  Most importantly, in my estimation, are the themes.  In a Wes Anderson picture, we know that just beneath the comic surface of things lies a deep sadness.  Anderson himself has said that the key to each of his characters is a hidden grief, sometimes revealed, but not always.  (Max in Rushmore, for example, is motivated by a longing for his deceased mother; a fact mentioned only passingly in the script.)  I might add that another key is childhood and our relationship to it.  In every Anderson film, I am struck by the conflation of roles:  children behave like grown-ups and grown-ups behave like children.

One of the themes in Anderson’s work, then, is delight laid over a deeper pang of nostalgia.  The filmmaker creates worlds that are too fragile to last and invites us to enter them for a couple of hours and join him in romantic reverie.  It harkens back to youth.  Writer Michael Chabon puts it this way:

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises, that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken.  We call this period of research “childhood.”*

That’s how I feel when I watch an Anderson film, and The Grand Budapest Hotel was no different.  Well, with one exception.  I was surprised by the film’s violence, which seemed a new feature, and, in places, a graphic one.  The momentary realism of the violence felt a bit out of place juxtaposed against the rest of Anderson’s magical world, which made me wonder if that was part of the point.  To add a degree of starkness, the picture contains fascist troops that appear on the outskirts of things and then assert themselves in ways that slowly take over all.  The world of imagination is broken by brute political force.

As this happens, Gustave H., played by Ralph Fiennes, laments the passing of what once was by periodically pausing to recite romantic poetry.  Along the way Anderson offers his usual platter of enjoyments:  eccentric characters, secret societies, elaborate plans, deadpan dialogue, and daring getaways.  We had so much fun watching the film that it wasn’t until later that its themes began to sink in.  The fascists were gray and humorless.  The heroes were flawed and fanciful.  The poetry was interrupted by outside events barging in to take over.

Though the film was, in many ways, a comedy, I have been thinking about it seriously ever since I walked out of the theater.  On Sunday evening, I read the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warning that the effects of climate change are already being felt, creeping in at the outskirts of our lives, though we know they will soon push into the center.  On Monday, I read of the Affordable Care Act and was reminded of both how many people have been helped by it and how many still fall through the cracks and have no health insurance or access to quality care.  And just this morning, I read that children in our state have fallen far behind the national average in metrics related to health, education, and poverty.  Problems creep around the edges and elicit longing for a time when things were fairer and simpler.  If such a time ever really existed.

It raises the question of Anderson’s worlds and our own.  How might we, grown-ups and children, reckon with what has been “irretrievably broken”?  How might we protect and preserve what still might be kept?  And, following Anderson’s lead, how might we do our work with a bit of panache along the way?

With aloha,

J

*Michael Chabon, “Wes Anderson’s Worlds” in NYR Blog, the New York Review of Books online, January 31, 2014.

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/jan/31/wes-anderson-worlds/

 

photoI’m still adjusting to daylight savings time.  Not the shifting of the clock so much as the changing of the light.  It feels a bit strange to be starting the carpool when it’s dark and the bedtime ritual when it’s light.  Every year at this time, I find myself fumbling for the rhythm in a new season.  Yet there is something else that I do this time of year.

Thanks to the Massachusetts Conference UCC, many of us have taken on the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast during the Christian liturgical season from Ash Friday to Easter Sunday.*  The carbon fast is designed to heighten our environmental awareness through readings, questions, and suggested spiritual practices.  On Sunday, for example, we were encouraged to remove one light bulb from a fixture in our homes and to keep the lights off in every room save the one we’re in at any given time.  Doing so, we learned, could save approximately 55 lbs. per year of CO2 emissions.

Such small acts are spiritual practices.  Not only do they produce an empirical good in terms of lowering our carbon footprint, they inculcate in us a different kind of awareness.  Keeping only one light on, I am grateful for basic needs met.

With this in mind, I was delighted when I arrived at church today to find that the new light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs had been installed in the sanctuary.  These bulbs are far more efficient than incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs.  Standard incandescents “convert only 5 to 10 percent of…electricity into light; they waste the rest as heat.”*  LEDs, by contrast, convert about 60 percent of their electricity into light, saving pollution and lowering the bills simultaneously.  I smiled to think that our Preservation and Maintenance Mission Group is on a carbon fast of its own, quietly putting our environmental ethic into practice, one day and light bulb at a time.

It brings me to the weekly question:  What small acts, from removing a bulb to pumping up your bike tires, might you engage in this season?  I can’t wait for your answers, which I’ll read by one light.

With aloha,

J

*See the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast page at the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ website http://www.macucc.org/pages/detail/2410.

*David Pogue, “New Reasons to Change Light Bulbs,” The New York Times, March 20, 2013.  Accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/technology/personaltech/cheaper-led-bulbs-make-it-easier-to-switch-lights.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

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Last Tuesday I began the day with zazen, the Zen form of sitting meditation.  It’s a simple practice, focused primarily on breathing while letting go of the thoughts that cloud the mind, or at least watching them pass in the morning quiet.  I set my cushion by the translucent curtain in our living room.  While I sat, the room brightened with sun.  That would have been enough to call it a good day.

Once I rose from the cushion, however, I put on a record while I made breakfast.  Beck Hansen’s “Morning Phase” had just been released, and I was eager to hear it.  Despite the title, I’m not sure I realized how perfectly suited the record was for a.m. listening.  It began with a short string arrangement before segueing into a gentle lo-fi lullaby that slowed down my already easygoing start to the day.  What followed was forty-seven minutes of focused morning warmth.  Maybe it was the dappled early light.  Maybe it was the after effects of the cushion.  Or maybe it was the lush harmonies of the songs themselves.  But it had been a long time since I fell head over heels in love with a record.

Musically speaking, what struck me right away was the record’s intentionally slow tempo.  Its ingredients–“major-to minor transitions, contrary motion in vocal harmonies, metrical changes between three-beat and four-beat patterns, open guitar tunings”*–swirled slowly in my head, adding, if not a spring to my step, then a sublime soundtrack to my day.  Yet there was something else that followed me from that first listen.

Beck’s record exists as a coherent whole.  Every song transitions into the next as movements in a sleepy symphony or clouds of thought floating through the mind’s eye in meditation.  After nearly a week of listening to “Morning Phase,” I cannot bring myself to listen to just a track or two.  It’s a full forty-seven minute experience.  Writing in the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones echoes the sentiment:

…Beck and some of his closest collaborators cast a benevolent spell that refuses to break.  The album speaks powerfully and directly, without gimmicks or puns, and it maintains a near-total gentleness.  After listening to “Morning Phase” almost fifty times, I can’t find a single thing wrong with it.  Even if you listen to popular music all day, every day, you don’t get many albums like this…*

Perhaps there are more than a few of us, then, in search of slowing the tempo and finding coherent experiences.  In my own case, this begins with framing the day in a certain way, grounding myself for my work in the gratitude I feel after a morning sit and a Beck sing-along.  Which brings me to an easy question:

What movements and music ground you?

With aloha,

J

*Ben Ratliff, “Songs for the Start of the Day,” New York Times, February 24, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/arts/music/becks-new-album-is-morning-phase.html

*Sasha Frere-Jones, “A New Voice: Beck Puts it All Together,” New Yorker, February 17, 2014.  http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2014/02/17/140217crmu_music_frerejones

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Last year sometime, we decided to jump into our first Lowcountry kayak.  We’d kayaked before, but it had been a while.  Hearing of a local deal, we headed to Shem Creek for the afternoon special: all we could paddle for one low rate before sunset.  Once there, we were handed life jackets and paddles and shown to a boat with its nose already in the creek.  With the science teacher at the helm, the boy birder in the middle, and the naturalist preacher at the rudder, we shoved for the Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary.

Ever the English major, I had envisioned an idyllic paddle across a slow swell toward the rookery where we could admire a variety of seabirds nesting and fishing.  Yet no sooner did we paddle into the creek than we were overwhelmed with afternoon boat traffic.  Swift fishing boats and large party barges motored past, rocking our tiny kayak in their wakes.  As we neared the harbor, the waves only grew.  Halfway out it became proper exercise.  We dug our paddles in order to skirt the shipping lanes, wondering if anyone could see our tiny red hull as it rose and fell.  As a parent, I found it a bit nerve-wracking.  The boy, for his part, thought it was hilarious.  When waves crashed over the bow, he didn’t think about overturning; he just went with the furious flow.

We made it to Crab Bank where we found respite watching the skimmers.  Soon, however, we were pushing across the water again, angling for the relative safety of Shem.  As the boy kept laughing, I became aware of my own inability to let go.  I had been hoping for something calmer, something more under control.  I had been holding an idea in my mind about the way I wanted things to be.  It brings to mind the words of the Zen teacher Bernie Glassman:

Most of us aren’t just being, we’re rowing to get someplace, to some other shore, to a goal or some ideal place we want to reach.  So where are we headed?  What’s the other shore?

In Zen we say that the other shore is right here under our feet.  What we’re looking for–the meaning of life, happiness, peace–is right here.  So the question is no longer, how do I get from here to there?  The question is: How do I get from here to here?  How do I experience the fact that, instead of having to get there for something, it’s right here and now?  This is it; this is the other shore.*

Glassman goes on to say that, even though he knows this, he still finds himself thinking there is somewhere else he needs to be.  Over there, wherever that is.

I bring this up because it seems relevant to our church in a season of change.  As Circular begins planning to add a second worship service to welcome and make room for our many new members, friends, and guests, it can be challenging to stay in the present moment.  We’d like to get somewhere by solving this problem, addressing its logistics, and planning and preparing for things to be just so.  Yet we can expect more than a few waves along the way.  The only question is:  Can we enjoy the ride?  See our kayak as half full?  Realize that where is are is right where we need to be?

Somehow I think that in a church full of kayakers, we’ll be all right.  I have already heard many of you laugh as two years of waves have crashed over our bow.  Yet we paddle away, with the wind in our hair and the water on our faces.  This week I’d like to ask, as we move toward our congregational planning meeting, what you have learned about going with the flow?  What spirituality do you bring to our boat?  What ideas have you got?  What kayak stories can you share?

I can’t wait to read your responses.  And I can’t wait to see you Sunday.

With aloha,

J

*Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, The Dude and the Zen Master (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2012), 31.

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When we moved to Charleston, one of the first things I noticed was the air.  Having lived in one of the country’s smoggiest cities for more than a decade, a city that regularly warned its residents to stay indoors on high ozone days, the Holy City was literally a breath of fresh air.  I couldn’t resist taking walks at lunchtime, strolling down Meeting Street and drawing deep lungfuls of the Charleston breeze.  The combination of jasmine, sea salt, and sun on cobblestone made for some of the best breaths I’d ever taken.

So it has been with deep concern that I have followed the debate over cruise ships docking downtown.  I don’t mind the ships themselves; I can see them as I cross Cumberland Street many mornings on the way to my office.  What I mind is the idling diesel engines and the toxic particulates they spew into our Lowcountry air.  I wondered early on why we hadn’t taken the same tack as other destination cities like Seattle and Honolulu and required plug-in shoreside power.  Thankfully, City Councilman Dudley Gregorie has introduced a resolution that would add shoreside power to the new passenger terminal our State Ports Authority would like to build.  Charleston City Council meets tomorrow night, February 25th, at 5:00 p.m. in City Hall to consider the resolution.  I’ll be there waiting when the doors open.  I write to invite you to join me.

The Post and Courier printed an excellent Op-Ed in the Sunday paper making the case for shoreside power as a win-win.*  I recommend the article to you, but I would like to highlight a single sentence that provides all the justification any of us should need:

. . .the Medical Society of Charleston and the state medical association have both called for shoreside power to all but eliminate emissions that can harm people’s hearts and lungs and have been associated with cancer.

As a minister who works within sight of the cruise ships and welcomes hundreds to the church every week, including young children, I cannot imagine allowing this pollution to continue when such an easy fix is at hand.  We owe it to ourselves, our friends and neighbors, our children, and, indeed, even the flora and fauna of the peninsula to preserve the air that each of us depends on.  Please read the Op-Ed and join me at City Council tomorrow night.

I should also mention that another vital issue will be considered at the meeting.  City Council will discuss the needed addition of bike lanes to the Legare Bridge over the Ashley River.  These bike lanes could reduce pollution, ease congestion, and add a sustainable transportation solution to our growing community.*

Much is at stake at the City Council meeting.  Will we have shoreside power to preserve our air?  Will we move toward bike lanes and green our city a bit more?  Perhaps most importantly, will you come and add your voice for the health of our beautiful city?

With aloha,

J

*See http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20140223/PC1002/140229761/1021/a-simple-vote-for-cleaner-air

*Charleston Moves is an excellent local organization working for “a safe, bike-friendly region.”  I encourage you to visit their site to learn more about the Legare Bridge effort.  Additionally, the Coastal Conservation League has been a leader in preserving our natural home in the Lowcountry.  CCL has led much of the effort for shoreside power.  To learn more about these groups, please visit them online at:

http://charlestonmoves.org

https://coastalconservationleague.org

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