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There was almost nothing to see.  Just flowers on the grass.  Just posters on the fence.  Just people standing in silent clusters, gathered to cry and to pray.  The boy fell silent and I took his hand.  We stood where Walter Scott had fallen.  We said his name.

The sky was gray and smelled of rain.  And the ministers gathered and stood in front of the microphone.  “We have only come to pray,” one of them said.  “No speeches.  No interviews.”  Then we prayed.  Asked for strength.  Hoped for courage.  And choked for a moment on our own anger and confusion.  Why were we standing here in this field?  Why was he shot in the back?  Why did this keep happening over and over again, all of us watching in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, North Charleston.  We stood by the flowers and prayed.

Then just as suddenly as we had begun, we stopped.  We stood in the sticky breeze and hugged each other quietly, nobody knowing whether to stay or to go.  We looked at the ground, trying to imagine.  We should carry this place with us.  Everyone should.  “The rain is coming,” said one of the ministers.  “But it will not wash the blood away.”  Nor the flowers, which were left there in silent witness.

We walked back toward Remount Road, where the boy stopped at a booth.  Black Lives Matter t-shirts waved in the wind.  We counted out ten dollars and he pulled the shirt over his dress clothes.  It bore the image of a red stop sign, its message childlike and pure.  Tears like raindrops stung my cheeks.  What kind of world is this?

The past two weeks have not been an easy time to reflect on who we are and what we are doing.  But they have been a time that has forced the question.  It was pushed to the surface of our consciousness by a video taken and shared.  We watched and we witnessed.  And many of us were sickened and sleepless.  So we come to church again, this Earth Sunday, normally a high and holy day and a festive one, but this time we come with a heaviness of heart and mind, a soul weariness born of story after story of unarmed black men killed, now drawn close enough to us that we can walk to it and stand there, laying flowers on the grass.  Perhaps the grass itself has something to say, reminding us that our days are fleeting and should be put to good use.  Or perhaps it can strengthen us somehow, if we lie on it and take a rest there, hoping for the hum of the earth to soothe us.

It seems a good time for the lectionary psalm, which may have been written by one equally weary and confused.  “Answer me,” it begins, “when I call, God of my justice!  Give me relief from my distress!”[1]  It’s a far cry from confidence.  The poet calls out to the God who is sometimes hidden.  The author is looking for justice, looking for relief, and he cries out, hoping to hear something other than his own voice.  My old professor taught this as a classic lament.  The psalmist, he said, desired not so much a dialogue with God, but a simple confirmation of God’s presence.[2]  Are you there? he wants to know.  Can you hear me and answer?  Even so he prays, because he is drawn to do it, raises his voice as the rainclouds come.  “So many are asking,” he utters, “‘Does good even exist anymore?’”[3]  It sounds like a prayer you might say in a field.

The psalmist doesn’t stop there, but he stays there for a time.  He bears witness to his own voice and to the struggles of his own people.  It’s a trademark of Hebrew literature, this honest speech, threaded through a tradition not often preached.  The lament tradition.  The motif of God’s hiddenness.  The shouting of prayers at a slate sky.  It’s an acknowledgement of our grief and the ways we wish for something clearer.  Would that a voice would answer.  Would that a light would break.  Would that justice would be done.  The dead would rise and be restored.  Those responsible held to account.  But for a moment the psalmist just holds it all.  He neither smooths it nor offers a salve.  He just names the truth of experience.  “So many are asking,” he says.  We are all asking.  He is not the only poet to do so.

The Kentucky farmer’s words rise to the surface as well, his lament the same as ours, his search for comfort in a comfortless time.  “When despair for the world grows in me,” he writes:

 

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

 

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.[4]

 

The theme of lying down and resting, another motif in the psalms.[5]  For along with the praying to a hidden God is lying down in the arms of the world.  They go together, challenge and comfort, related somehow if not in an easily discernible way.  “In peace I’ll lie down,” says the psalmist.  “In peace I will sleep.”  After one day’s tears and before the next day’s struggle, we’ll breathe deeply and lie down in a kind of natural rest.

In between the morning newspaper deliveries and their worsening headlines, we took bicycles to the Sea Islands.  Past St. Helena, through an historic Gullah landscape, to the lighthouse nestled among coastal pines.  The peace of wild things.  The boy dug his feet into the pedals, the rise of the trail challenging him, his tires spinning on slippery needles.  But the air smelled of earth and wood.  And the sound of wind in branches was a nourishment, the call of laughing gulls gliding overhead.  What kind of world is this?

The writer said that she knew even as a child what kind of world it was.  A world of blinding good and evil both.  But a world to which we all belong.  “I was born knowing how to worship,” she said, “just as I was born knowing how to laugh.”[6]  It comes to anyone who has ever walked through the forest in wonder or stood at the shore or climbed into the branches of a great shade tree.  The problem is that we are taught to divide it up.  To parcel it out.  To draw distinctions and divisions among people and places and animals and plants.  Then, having compartmentalized things for our own small purposes, we lose the sacred sense of the whole.  Worse, we violate it.  We do harm to it.  We minimize it and begin to forget it.  Until we think the neighborhoods really are different.  Until we think the people are.  Until we think the earth is, and we fall into the delusion of separateness.  But the writer and the children know that we can do better.  They know that we can see more.  So they stand with us, holding hands and laying flowers.  They ride with us, hollering through the forest, letting go of the brakes.  They call to us, asking us to take the risk of crying and resting and savoring and then getting up again and going back to work.  That’s what the earth does, bearing her seasons, one after the other.  You’ve seen this all before, she says.  There is death.  There is winter.  There are long rows of stormclouds drawn toward the sea.  And there is also life.  There is springtime.  There are flowers that bloom and are carried, placed on the grass where we remember and give ourselves in love.

“You [do] put a joy in my heart,” says the psalmist.[7]  In spite of it all.  For the beauty is still there. And the earth holds us all.  Which is as earnest as our thanks can be this Earth Sunday in Charleston.  We are grateful for the natural beauty of our place and we hold it in reverence and wonder.  Every day we delight in it and move with its tides and seasons.  And we are grateful for the breath we are given, praying only that we will use the days we have in a way that honors the sacred whole.  We name as a part of that sacred whole our brother Walter Scott.  And the grass where he fell.  And the flowers laid there.  And the rivers that surround it.  And the forests by the sea.  And the laughing gulls folding their wings to rest.

“So many are asking, ‘Does good even exist anymore?’”  To which we can only answer that it does exist.  In the hearts of men and women.  And in the good earth that sustains us every day.  We bear witness to it as the poets and children always have.  By telling the truth.  By laying our flowers on the grass.

J

 

[1] Psalm 4.1a, The Inclusive Bible.

[2] Samuel Balentine, The Hidden God: The Hiding of the Face of God in the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 153.

[3] Psalm 4.6a.

[4] Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things” in Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (New York: North Point Press, 1987) 30.

[5] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 11.

[6] Alice Walker, “The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven is that You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind” in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 298.

[7] Psalm 4.7a.

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This Sunday is Earth Sunday, a high and holy day in our family.  It is a day when we celebrate our relatedness to the natural world.  We mumble prayers of gratitude for the beauty all around us.

Yet this Earth Sunday is clouded by grief.  Our community has become one of the latest to make the headlines in the ongoing American tragedy of racial profiling and police brutality.  Today we are speechlessly sad and angry about the killing of Walter Scott eleven days ago in North Charleston.

And the question comes:  how to celebrate the good earth even as we lament the injustice we see.

In my own life, the two have been related.  For while I have sometimes been seen as an activist, I have always been the barefoot boy from Kailua, Hawaii, drawing strength from the salt and the sand.  Many people in the Lowcountry know exactly what I mean.  Which is good, because we need some strength right now.

As I reflect on it, the words of Alice Walker come to mind.  In her book The Color Purple, she relates a discussion of spirituality in the midst of still oppressive life experiences.  Her characters draw not from the human world but from the natural order as they seek to make sense of things:

 Here’s the thing, say Shug.  The thing I believe.  God is inside you and inside everybody else.  You come into the world with God.  But only them that scratch for it inside find it.  And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for.  Trouble do it for most folks, I think.  Sorrow, lord. . .

     It? I ast.

     Yeah, It.  God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

     Don’t look like nothing, she say.  It ain’t a picture show.  It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. . .

     Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you.  She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.

     She say, My first step from the old white man was trees.  Then air.  Then birds.  Then other people.  But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child. . .it come to me:  that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all.  I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.*

I feel a little like that today.  As we celebrate Earth Day and lay flowers in the dirt for Walter Scott, I feel like things are bleeding.  My prayer is that they will be broken open somehow, that they will remind us of the truth that we are all related.

With aloha,

J

*Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt, 2003), 195-196.

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What Would Kurt Do?  That’s what I’ve been asking myself while watching his home state politicians pass a mean-spirited and blatantly discriminatory bill under the guise of free religious expression.  Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite Hoosier, so I turned to his writings for their trademark bittersweet humor.  He put Indiana, and the rest of us, in context:

. . .there is certainly nothing new about a tragically and ferociously divided United States of America, and especially here in my native state of Indiana.  When I was a kid here, the state had within its borders the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and the site of the last lynching of an African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Marion, I think.

But it also had, and still has, Terre Haute. . .the birthplace and home of the labor leader Eugene Debs.  He lived from 1855 to 1926, and led a nationwide strike against the railroads.  He went to prison for a while because he opposed our entry into World War One.

And he ran for President several times, on the Socialist Party ticket, saying things like this:  “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs pretty much stole that from Jesus Christ.  But it is so hard to be original. . .*

Vonnegut reminds us of the American paradox, showing that our best and our worst, our brightest ideas and darkest shadows, are a part of every state, no less here in the Southeast than in his native Midwest.  And just this week two of our own state representatives are introducing bills that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender South Carolinians from discrimination.  According to this morning’s Post and Courier, Sen. Brad Hutto and Rep. Todd Rutherford are leading this effort.*

“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Hutto.*  Which is another way of saying that we ought not create different classes of people, as Debs saw.  We ought to expect and demand equal treatment under the law for every person.  But not everyone feels that way.

Already there are South Carolina lawmakers speaking out against Hutto and Rutherford’s move to protect the LGBT community from discrimination.  Our state, like Vonnegut’s, shows both sides of the American paradox:  the love and progress that push us toward that more perfect union and the fear and hate that fight to hold us back and create different classes and rankings of people.

So what would Kurt do?  And what can we do?

Write.  Call.  Fight.  Make fun.  Then write and call again.

Let’s remind our representatives that we are the country of humanists and humorists, big enough for all.  We are not the country of haters and homophobes.  And we can make that plain by supporting the bills put forward by Sen. Hutto and Rep. Rutherford.

The U. S. Constitution already protects free religious expression.  It’s a nice document and should be read more widely.  How about we add something at the state level that protects real people, our sisters and brothers?  Please join me in writing and calling.

With aloha,

J

*Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008), 17-18.

*Ed Buckley, “States Should Act to End Discrimination,” The Post and Courier, April 2, 2015, http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150402/PC1002/150409882/1021/

*Cassie Cope, “Bills Would Ban SC Businesses from Discriminating Against Gays,” The State, April 1, 2015, http://www.thestate.com/news/business/article17159618.html

*I have not been able to detemine the senate bill number.  At present, calling your representatives in support should do.  I will post more information as it becomes available.  Clergy friends, you can also join me in signing the statement “Clergy Unite Against Legalized Discrimination,” https://docs.google.com/a/charleston.k12.sc.us/forms/d/1aQWX1-lh5sLoVZS_gNxxb92bv0CWbXvcFmFAbyT3Zt8/viewform

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We have two weeks left to write the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) during the public comment period regarding seismic testing and oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic, Gulf, and Alaskan coasts.  As our government decides whether it will grant leases to big oil companies, we are asked to send our thoughts, including how these activities would affect the culture, economics, and general livelihood of the places we live.

Here in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, the stakes could hardly be higher.  We have a  7 billion dollar coastal economy that depends on healthy seas.  Our particular place relates to the ocean in innumerable ways — from the recreational (surfers, kayakers, boaters) to the economic (shrimpers, fishers, oystermen and women) to the aesthetic (birders, photographers, vacation home renters) and the soulful (dog walkers at dawn, kids drawing circles in the sand).  It is almost impossible to imagine the Lowcountry without clean, healthy water.  Almost. . .

Watching the devastation that has followed the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we do have a picture of what can happen to an entire region.

Many of us saw the effects of that spill in 2010 and have followed it since, reading of fishers still out of business, massive wildlife die-offs, dead zones in the ocean, and disease and mutation spread among the living animals.  We are just beginning to understand the toll that has been taken, and, while we wait to learn how deeply the ecosystem has been altered, no new regulations have been imposed on the industry whose carelessness accounted for the disaster.

And now comes the proposal for leases to explore new waters, including those off our own Atlantic coast.  So now is the time to call and write.

I attended the BOEM open house in Mt. Pleasant last week and spoke with officials who encouraged us all to write in, again naming how oil and gas leasing would affect us.  I sat at a panel of computers that had been set up and wrote of the people, culture, and economics of the coast.  I wrote of the abundant diversity of wildlife.  I wrote of our natural relation to the sea.  And I wrote that the risk wasn’t worth the reward, putting all this in peril for the chance at a small amount of a non-renewable fossil fuel.  The letter was full of passion, and I realized at a certain point that it was a love letter.

I wasn’t writing it just for myself.  I was writing it for the children, the grandchildren, and the great grandchildren.  I was writing it in the hope that we will pass them the clean, healthy seas that make life here so beautiful.

Today I ask you to write a love letter, too.  BOEM is taking comments from all citizens, regardless of where we live.  For all who love the ocean, this is the time to pick up your pen or fire up your keyboard.

With aloha,

J

 

Additional resources:

From the Coastal Conservation League:

http://coastalconservationleague.org/projects/offshore-drilling-2/

From Saturday’s Post and Courier:

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150314/PC1002/150319609/1021/south-carolinians-unite-against-seismic-blasting-offshore-drilling

From the Post and Courier Editorial Board:

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150222/PC1002/150229804

To leave public comment:

http://boemoceaninfo.com

 

 

IMG_7382Peter and Rosemary Grant homeschooled their children in a cave or sometimes in a tent. They were the only sheltered places on the island of Daphne Major, a small cinder cone in the Galápagos chain. When they first set foot on that inhospitable island, the two evolutionary biologists couldn’t have known they’d spend 40 years there. Nor could they have known what they’d observe. They just knew they had gone for the finches. It was a nearly perfect laboratory for them; large enough to support hundreds of finches and small enough that the Grants and their students could band, number, and recognize almost every one.[1] Their children got in on the game, too, joining their parents in collecting data on the birds after finishing their school lessons. Evenings the family would read, listen to one of their daughters play the violin, or walk to the water to see one of the sea lion pups they’d befriended. “It was magical,” said Nicola Grant, the oldest daughter, “like what the Celts call ‘thin places’ — places where the veil between heaven and earth is frayed. . .”[2]

The veil was thinner than anyone thought. For, as the Grants observed the finches, they slowly began to realize what they were seeing. Over the years, they noted things they would have expected, like changes in the finch population based on excessive rain or drought. But they also witnessed something they would never have expected: the development of an entirely new lineage of birds. As writer Jonathan Weiner put it, “[the Grants] were watching evolution in real time, evolution in the flesh.” No one knew it could happen so fast. The Grants published the results of their work last year in a book entitled 40 Years of Evolution.[3] In it, they detail the emergence of the new lineage, which can be briefly described as the arrival of a large finch from a neighboring island. This finch had a strange song, he was adapted to feed on both the seeds of plants and the nectar of cacti, and he mated with the local finches over a period of 13 years. That lineage has now lasted for 30 years and seven generations, yielding descendants that are more suitably adapted for survival on Daphne Major. All of this unfolded before the Grants’ eyes, they witnessed it and delighted in it. There on the small cinder cone island, the thin place between heaven and earth, the marginal space between adaptation and extinction, they watched as the four billion year old story of evolution played out on a small stage right in front of them. It took their breath away.

It is interesting to consider the finches today, on a day when we come to remember and celebrate Charles Darwin, who spent five weeks in the Galápagos himself, famously observing the different adaptations of the birds in the island chain. Today begins Darwin Week, a series of events sponsored by the College of Charleston highlighting the conversation between religion and science in our search for truth and meaning. This week our church joins with 448 congregations in 45 states and 13 countries to affirm that religion and science are partners in the search, not adversaries.[4] And it is interesting to consider the finches as we draw from one of the wisdom teachings of our tradition, a text that talks of birds and lilies before raising a vital question for anyone interested in science, religion, and the ethic toward which they lead us.

In the sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew, Jesus offers a saying to his students. “Look at the birds of the air,” he tells them:

. . .they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly [Parent] feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?. . .Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.[5]

On the surface it’s a beautiful teaching, trading in natural images in order to relieve anxiety. Do not worry so much, Jesus seems to be saying, but trust in life’s mystery and give thanks for it. Yet right in the middle of the teaching lies the telling and troubling question: Are you not of more value than they?

On the one hand, it’s a rhetorical question. Jesus is asking if we aren’t at least as valuable as birds and lilies. If they manage without worry and if they find provision, then we should also live as naturally and free. Yet on the other hand, the question is a real one. For religion has long placed humans at the center of its narratives, oftentimes at the expense of the natural world, which has been deemed a commodity for our consumption and control. In many if not most religious schemes, it goes without saying that humans are more valuable than animals, plants, and other forms of life. Part of what science has been showing us and what evolution has been teaching us, however, is that our connections are much deeper and closer than we have previously imagined. But the question of value is a real one and it gets to the heart of the current debate between those of us who see religion and science as partners and those of us who see them as adversaries. And it clarifies what’s at stake.

In his wonderful book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen brings the tension to light. Religious critics of evolution, he tells us, often claim that a blind or random process of natural selection displaces the idea of God. That may be true, Quammen admits, but it’s not what’s really at stake. “Let’s be clear,” Quammen writes:

This is not evolution versus God. The existence of God—any sort of god, personal or abstract, immanent or distant—is not what Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed godliness of [Humanity]—the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored. . .[6]

To listen to Quammen is to begin to hear the deep anxiety of the religious critics of evolution. People are afraid of being displaced from the center, being made to feel less special, being set as equals with birds and lilies, mushrooms and mitochondria. Perhaps because their religious teachings have inculcated the idea that in order to be special we must also be superior. And if we aren’t superior, then we become anxious and insecure about our place in the order of things. But the whole point of Jesus’ teaching is that we let go of our anxieties and insecurities. “Can any of you by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?” Perhaps we should consider the birds again.

It seems clear from the body of Jesus’ teaching, that the question he poses is the rhetorical kind. We’re at least as valuable as the other animals and plants. Yet we need not place ourselves above them, rather beside them as members of the kind of egalitarian community he formed among his followers. It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself adapted the teachings of his tradition to suit the environment in which he found himself. He started a new lineage, as it were, and it has survived and been passed down through the generations. Yet there are radically different variations, as we know. Some strands of Christianity are the anxious kind, struggling to claim uniqueness as a way of dealing with existential anxiety. And some strands of Christianity are trying to learn to let go, moving beyond the illusion that we are at the center of it all into a much larger story with countless beings our kindreds and equals. Today we celebrate that larger story and the ways we are, in Darwin’s words, “ennobled” by it. Philosopher Donald Crosby puts it best, describing the movement from our superiority to a deep and abiding equity with all things. “We can note,” he writes:

. . .that all species are special. . .Our difference as humans from other creatures of the earth is relative, not absolute, a difference of degree, not kind. We are animals and, like other animals, we depend crucially upon such things as the warmth and energy of the sun; the photosynthesis of plants and their place within the food chain; the water in the clouds, rivers, and seas; the fertility of the soil; the microbes and minerals in the ground and in our bodies; the intricate relations of species, including our own, with one another and with their natural environments; and the laws of nature. To acknowledge these facts is not to demean us or to denigrate our status in the scheme of things. It is to celebrate our participation in the community of creatures, our oneness with the earth, and the privilege of our being at home here.[7]

Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he told us not to worry. Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field. Watch the finches on the island. Feel your participation in the community of creatures, your oneness with the earth, the privilege of being at home here. Friends, this is the kind of religion that the world could use. It is needed in our city, our state, our country, and the wider world. And there is much at stake.

I don’t need to remind many of you that in the past year the voices of anxious religion tried to insert creationist ideas into the public science curriculum in our state. Many in our church called, wrote letters, and even drove to the State Board of Education in Columbia to testify on behalf of sound science standards. And I don’t need to remind you that in the past few weeks, we have heard the voices of the anxious anti-vaccinators, who dismiss the science of vaccinations and have brought back the measles, one of the most contagious diseases we’ve got. Whereas we had achieved a kind of herd immunity, protecting our most vulnerable children, we must now go back and restate the case for the common good of immunization. And I don’t need to remind you that there are voices in our government, many in control of powerful chambers and committees, that cast doubt and skepticism on the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change and the grave dangers it now poses to life on earth as we have always known it. For a growing number of theologians and scientists alike, this represents the most important ethical issue of our time. And we find ourselves in the position of trying to engage those who would deny what is happening to the natural world and shirk the responsibility of protecting, preserving, and passing it on to our descendants. So as we gather this Evolution Sunday, we do so knowing that what we are doing matters greatly. And the religion that we practice is telling. Is our religion anxious and anthropocentric? Or is it willing to let go and embrace the larger whole? More importantly, is it able to begin telling of the larger whole in ways that evoke our senses of reverence, wonder, and awe?

For at the heart of it, that is what we are doing. And that is what Darwin showed. He, more than anyone, displaced us from the center of things. But when he did, I think he connected us more deeply in a different way. His religious point of view, which was as unorthodox as it was beautiful, called us to look and to listen again to the great family of which we are a part. “There is grandeur,” Darwin famously wrote at the end of The Origin of Species, “in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”[8] Put another way, there is a meaning that is greater than ourselves alone. We are but participants in it.

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said. “Are you not of more value than they?” To which we can only answer with a smile. No. We are not of more value. We are kin. And for that we say, the religious and scientific alike. . .

Amen.

 

[1] Jonathan Weiner, “In Darwin’s Footsteps,” New York Times, August 4, 2014.

[2] Joel Achenbach, “The People Who Saw Evolution,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 23, 2014.

[3] Peter and Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[4] See the Clergy Letter Project at http://www.theclergyletterproject.org

[5] Matt. 6.26-29, New Revised Standard Version.

[6] David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (New York: Atlas Books, 2006), 208-209.

[7] Donald Crosby, Living with Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 100.

[8] Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Philip Appleman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 174.

IMG_3686We learned this week that our state poet laureate’s inaugural poem will not be included in the governor’s inauguration.  Marjory Wentworth’s verses were inspired by the rich and bittersweet history of South Carolina, along with the hopes and dreams of our neighbors shared through social media.  Yet the governor’s office, breaking with tradition, claims there is no time for the two-minute poem.

NPR and others report what many of us feel: the poem is not being included because of the truths it tells.*  It is the job of the artist, however, to reflect the reality she sees and invite us to consider it critically and creatively.  In philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s words, artists “are not the reliable servants of any ideology. . .they always ask the imagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways.”*

Marjory Wentworth does this particularly well.  Her poems invite us beneath the surface of things to the deeper texture of our state and its many histories.  What we find there is both richer and more revealing than we might expect.  Her inaugural poem, “One River, One Boat,” brings to light the best and worst of who we are and invites us to ask where we go from here.  As Carol Ann Davis writes, “Marjory treats us to both the bitter and the sweet simultaneously, asking the reader, with her generous but persistently questioning intellect, to draw the finer and truer difficult conclusion.”*

It’s a shame that the poem won’t be read at the statehouse.  But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t read it — all of us who live in South Carolina and are committed to telling the truth about where we’ve come from as a way of getting to where we still want to go. . .

I invite you to follow the NPR link below and read Marjory’s poem.  Read it quietly.  Read it aloud.  Read it to yourself.  Read it to your family.  Read it to the past, present, and future.  And read it on inauguration day where it belongs.

With aloha,

J

 

*See Laura Sullivan, “For S.C.’s Poet Laureate, An Inauguration Poem Without An Inaugural Audience,” January 14, 2015, accessed online at NPR News: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/01/14/377028376/for-s-c-s-poet-laureate-an-inauguration-poem-without-an-inaugural-audience

*Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 24.

*See Carol Ann Davis’ foreward in Marjory Wentworth, New and Selected Poems (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2014), xv.

IMG_6636In 2006, the author Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to some high school students in New York who had contacted him for an English assignment. The letter was short and sweet, filled with a few words of advice for living. “I do not make public appearances any more,” Vonnegut began, “. . .[but] what I had to say to you. . .would not take long, to wit:” And here followed his instructions:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now. . .[1]

That was the sum of Vonnegut’s advice, amended only by the instruction to his audience that art should be their nightly homework only it wasn’t to be turned in to any teacher but themselves. The letter was an admonition to artful living: Go create something, well or badly, and savor the meaningful effort.

I’ve been thinking about Vonnegut’s letter this week as we round the corner into a new year. I’m not one for resolutions, generally, finding them somewhat arbitrary around the beginning of the Roman calendar. But I do see myself as a work in progress and my life as something I am trying to craft into some lived expression of who I really want to be and what I value most deeply. This is one of the things we do in religious community, we gather in a great art project, trying to encourage each other to flesh beautiful things into the world of ordinary experience. Or, put another way, maybe we try to help each other see what is already there, waiting to be shown. I think artists can help us with this.

Earlier this year, I was influenced by the art of John Duckworth at the City Gallery. Many of you saw his exhibition, “Awake,” which invited us to sit through our busy monkey minds and return to the center through breathing and meditation. In one of our conversations about that work, John spoke of the first gallery filled with video images. The final product was a short presentation that moved through scenes of the city and the sea, the mundane details of life, the buzz of a cell phone and chime of e-mails. It felt quick, but lifelike, the distractions both familiar and newly presented. But John’s first attempt, he said, had gone differently. His first splicing was made of short, staccato images, just a few seconds each. When he showed them to friends, the thing moved too quickly and felt frenetic. It hurt their heads. John laughed as he spoke of it, realizing the creative and experimental nature of the process itself. You sort of try things to see how they go, cultivating and curating along the way. By the end, you come out at a place that couldn’t have really been predicted so much as arrived at through a process of “curious anticipation.”

Earlier this season, I was influenced by my writing while sitting at the computer screen. After time spent in the company of artists, I looked at my own work with words, ideas, and images. There by my laptop sat the usual stack of books, the pages of notes, and the ideas that I had been thinking through for a few days. I wrote a page here, took a page off there. Like all teachings, some of the things I thought would emerge did not, and others rose to the surface, following from one paragraph to another in surprising ways. Half the footnotes went unused and the stack of books were returned to their various shelves at the end of the day, leaving me with a curated serious of pages and the questions that always lie at the end: Did this say what I meant to say? Or perhaps something better or worse than intended? And what might it evoke in others? What artful questions and responses might follow?

And earlier this week, I was influenced by my son, who, among all his Christmas presents, was most delighted by the fact that his mother cleared off the garage workbench just for him. He spent the better part of two days standing over it in safety goggles and an apron, hammering, drilling, and painting. He emerged with two new wooden toys, a boat and an airplane, and a request that we take the former for sea trials, which we did. But this was not before his own hours of trial and error. The nail that bent and had to be pulled. The paint that stuck to the newspaper and needed to be redone. The boards that hadn’t lined up and the vise that kept coming loose at the wrong time. To watch a kid in the workshop, focused so intently on the project at hand is a subtly spiritual thing. Because he, like any artist, like any of us, was trying to make an idea into a reality. He was taking the materials he had and shaping them into something meaningful and well-made.

In his 1929 Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University, John Dewey began with an observation that we each seek a kind of security in two ways. The first of these is by “attempt[ing] to propitiate the powers which environ [us] and determine [our] destiny.” If we cannot conquer our destiny, then we try to “willingly ally [ourselves] with it” somehow. Put another way, we try to get out of the way of the things we cannot control. But the second way we seek a kind of security is “to invent arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account. . .[we] build shelters, weave garments, make flame [our] friend instead of [our] enemy, and grow into the complicated arts of associated living. . .[this is] the method of changing the world through action.”[2] So we take hold of the things we can control. Dewey reminds us that we’re always working with both, the things that are beyond our control and the things that are well within our reach. A part of our work is reaching for the right materials and shaping them into what we can, as Vonnegut might say, to make our souls grow.

All of this is nothing more than the call to an examined life. For any artist knows that the start of a project is to sift through the materials you’ve got, which include not only the raw elements of paints, brushes, cameras, and dance shoes, but also the existential elements of thoughts, questions, and life experiences. It is out of these that we begin to make something of ourselves, something we curate and then present to the world, hoping that it might add a little beauty to the picture. So we might begin this new year by asking about the materials of our lives. Each of begins the year in a different place, in a different chapter, with different talents and abilities. But all of us have something that needs to be fleshed out, something that is as unique to us as our DNA. Part of our congregational tradition is the conscientious celebration of everyone’s uniqueness. And it is also a part of our faith tradition, perhaps found best in this morning’s reading, which was written by another artist long ago.

The first chapter of the Book of John, commonly known as the Prologue, is one of the most deeply philosophical texts in the Bible. As Willis Barnstone notes in his introduction to the book, the Prologue contains “the richest and most eloquent passages of spiritual inquiry” in the Christian Testament, weaving strong Gnostic elements with Neoplatonism and the desert wisdom of the Essenes.[3] In short, the author is working with a number of very different philosophical materials, trying to hew a new story that is equal parts poetry, philosophy, and narrative. It begins in the beginning by saying that what came first was a word:

In the beginning was the word

And the word was with God,

And God was the word.[4]

This word may be like the divine idea. The spark that leads the artist to begin filming. Or the preacher to lose track of time at the computer. Or the boy to reach for the hammer at his workbench. Or any of us seizing the hours of the day and putting them to creative use. It begins with a word, an idea, an impulse or inspiration that needs fleshing out.

Through [the word] everything came about

And without it not a thing came about.

What came to be in the word was life

And the life was the light of people. . .[5]

It’s a beautiful image and an artful one, which the old author then turns into something not often highlighted in church. There was a man named John, and he came “in testimony of the light.” He was a bearer of it, an artisan, we might say, who tried to show the light and the means to access it. “He was not the light,” John said:

But he came to testify. . .

The light was the true light

Which illuminates every person

Who comes into the world.[6]

Put another way, maybe the light was the art in everyone, the thing that we all bring and are asked to flesh out. Our religious ancestors called it the inner light. We sometimes call it the light of conscience. Old John called it the true light which was life. And Jesus didn’t call it anything so much as flesh it out himself, testifying to it by living his own days so artfully. He took the materials he was given and shaped them into the love and light he could see inside. “You have heard it said, but I am saying this. . .” “You have seen it done, but I am doing this. . .” No more eye for an eye, only forgiveness. No more ethnic and tribal enemies, only one family. No more heaven insufferably far away, only one kingdom spread out on the earth for anyone who can learn to see it. And to shape it.

Which is where we come in this January 4th. The question for us, this artful Sunday, is how we might curate the days we have into lives lived meaningfully and well. Some of us will do this by leaving church with Vonnegut’s assignment in mind. We’ll go home and sing, dance, or draw. Some of us will do this by leaving church with our own creative projects in mind. We’ll go home to write that brief, prepare that lesson plan, or cook dinner with the new realization that this is our creative work. And some of us will do this by leaving church with the existential questions raised by John and Jesus. We’ll go home to ask, as we should, what light we can bring into the world and if the lives we’re living reflect our best ideas and values. They’re wonderful questions, all. And this year we should welcome them with all the enthusiasm of artists stepping in to the studio. . .

of a day

a week

a year. . .

Amen.

 

[1] “Kurt Vonnegut Urges Young People to Make Art and ‘Make Your Soul Grow,’” accessed online at http://www.openculture.com/2014/04/kurt-vonnegut-urges-young-people-to-make-art-and-make-your-soul-grow.html

[2] John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1929), 3.

[3] Willis Barnston, The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 445.

[4] John 1.1, The Restored New Testament.

[5] John 1.3-4.

[6] John 1.8-9.

 

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I’m posting the Sunday teaching to the blog.  Thanks to my friend Ryan McKinny for this photograph from the peaceful demonstrations in New York.

Suit Up for the Struggle (Mark 1.1-8)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

December 7, 2014

 Professor Cornel West calls it his uniform. “I have four or five of these,” he says, referring to the tailored black suit, vest, and tie that he always wears. “I just cycle through them.”[1] It’s a classic look, almost Nineteenth Century with the pocket chain and cufflinks. And in the suit he cuts quite a figure. Equal parts passion and style, West explains that you’ve got to dress for the struggle.

This might sound flip if you’re not familiar with Professor West and his work. But if you are, then you know that he is anything but a shallow man. For a generation, he has been one of the leading public intellectuals in the country. He has taught at Princeton and Harvard, though he is now back where he started at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the inheritor of American philosophical pragmatism, deeply rooted in the ideas of Peirce, James, Du Bois, and Dewey. He is a committedly prophetic Christian, which almost always gets him into hot water. And he is, by his own description, a jazz and blues man trying to marry the life of the mind with the soul of the street. He does this better than anyone I can think of, but he always does it in that old black suit.

It’s “coffin-ready,” he says, laughing. “If I drop dead. . .I got my tie, my white shirt, everything. Just fix my Afro nice in the coffin.”[2] Professor West’s joke is only the beginning of his prophetic speech. With it, he means to wake us all to the fact that each of us is on the hook to answer the questions: What kind of life do we want to live before we die? Who do we want to be? What do what to do? Where will we join the struggle? And how much love do we really have to give? From these questions comes a searing critique of the American status quo.

I’ve been thinking of Professor West all week, in part because I’ve been reading his new book, Black Prophetic Fire.[3] I’ve been staying up later than normal to read it because it’s so good. The pages jump with intellect, humor, and a deep lament of what is happening in the country. Each chapter takes up one of the great figures of the Black prophetic tradition, people like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Ida Wells. The lives discussed each embody a kind of fire, a prophetic passion that burned in each person for a different order than the one in which they lived, for an America that might draw closer to fulfilling her unfulfilled promises. Which is the other reason I’ve been thinking of Professor West all week. It’s hard to think of a time when our country has felt as anguished as it does right now. With the grand jury in Missouri last week and in New York this week, both failing to try police officers who had killed unarmed black men, in one case, choking a man to death while dozens of bystanders looked on, we are again brought face to face with the deep racism in our history and the ways it continues to play out every day in the lived experience of the Black community. It brings us into hard contact with the prophetic truth that this is still, in many ways, a racist country. We don’t like to talk about that because it brings us a lot of pain. But we need to talk about it. We must talk about it. Because it’s killing our children. And our consciences are not clean.

Theologian James Cone explains that where we are now is a consequence of where we’ve come from. America’s founding sin, he says, has always been white supremacy. For all our talk in Declarations and Constitutions, we began by offering full liberty only to white, male, European, property owners. We built the country on the cardinal contradiction of beautiful rhetoric and brutal reality. And it has played out ever since. From slavery to emancipation to Jim Crow to economic exploitation, mass incarceration and police brutality, we have continued to see a pattern of deep discrimination. Professor Cone explains it this way:

All I ask of whites is to put themselves in black people’s place in this society. . .and then ask themselves what they would say or do. . .Would you be angry about 246 years of slavery and 100 years of lynching and segregation? What would you say about the incarceration of one million of your people in prisons—one-half of the penal population—while your people represent only 12 percent of the U. S. census? Would you get angry if your racial group used 13 percent of the drugs but did 74 percent of the prison time for simple possession? Would you caution the oppressed. . .to speak. . .with calm? What would you say about your sons who are shot dead because their color alone makes them. . .suspects? What would you say about ministers and theologians who preach and teach about justice and love but ignore the sociopolitical oppression of your people?[4]

These are strong questions that James Cone asks with real urgency. Like his friend Cornel West, Cone is asking because he means to rouse us. He is trying to stoke a bit of fire in our bellies, to help those of us, mainly white folk, imagine and and listen and try to understand the ongoing trauma, and then join the struggle in love. This is what prophets always do. They tell us profoundly uncomfortable truths that resonate at the deepest level. Because at the deepest level they know we all want something better. At the deepest level they know we are all dehumanized by the status quo. And into this status quo comes the season of Advent.

There’s hardly a better moment to open the Book of Mark and read the first eight verses. The oldest of our four canonical gospels begins with an epigraph from the Hebrew Bible and a story about another prophet who appeared on the scene.

The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote:

Here is my messenger,

whom I send on ahead of you

to prepare your way!

A voice of someone shouting in the wilderness:

“Make ready the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.”

 So John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness calling for baptism and a change of heart. . .And everyone. . .streamed out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan river, admitting their sins. And John was dressed in camel hair [and wore a leather belt around his waist] and lived on locusts and raw honey. And he began his proclamation by saying:

 “Someone more powerful than I will succeed me. . .I have been baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with holy spirit.”[5]

It’s interesting to imagine John in his old clothes. That uniform we are told he wore made of camel hair and leather. It doesn’t sound quite as snappy as Cornel West’s slim black suit, but maybe it served the same purpose. Because every day John got up and joined the prophetic struggle, standing at the margins of things to call out what he saw. Perhaps prophets are destined to live at the margins, not too close and comfortable with the seats of power, but not so far gone that they can’t still be heard. Somehow their call creeps in and it draws us out. Admit to your sins, they cry. Confess your estrangements. Recognize your brokenness. Name the harm that has been done. Make it all plain. And then. . . Kindle a new fire. Breathe in a new spirit. Tell of a new love. Join a new movement. Because even now it is being born in the hearts of men and women. It’s an Advent message for days like these. Maybe it’s an Advent message for a church like ours.

Over the past few weeks and months, so many in this congregation have been engaged in work that directly touches the racist structures and systems in our society. We are in the schools with kids, we are doing environmental mission work, we join with others in the larger Charleston Area Justice Ministry, we write letters and speak out, and many also stand with other community groups like the NAACP and the Urban League. These things are a part of who we are and they reflect our commitment to justice for all. But so many of us have been noticing lately that something new is stirring. There is a broader uneasiness, a deeper realization of our unresolved racism that keeps coming to the surface. We’re seeing it and feeling it differently. People are marching in the streets all over the country. People are writing on posterboards. People append their notes and messages with hashtags that read: #handsupdontshoot, #blacklivesmatter, and #icantbreathe. As columnist Dani McClain wrote on Thursday, the Civil Rights Movement itself came out of a moment just like this one.[6] What would it take, she wonders, to make that happen again? How might we fuel that prophetic fire and then join in its new incarnation here and now? Friends, that is the prophetic question. But it is also an invitation. To put on our uniforms and get dressed for these days.

To be sure, none of us knows where this is going. We stand at the edge of it, like old John in the river, like Cornel West in a march. But even as we do, we cry out, voices shouting in the wilderness to prepare the way. Which begins in our hearts. When we get out of bed every day and suit up. We can imagine John getting up and tying off his camel hair coat. We can imagine Cornel getting up and buttoning his buttons. And we can imagine ourselves in the same way. This week some of us will get up and put on the badge of Charleston County School District teachers. Some of us will get up and put on scrubs at the Medical University. Some of us will get up and put on the clothes of parents and caregivers. Some of us will get up and put on the backpacks of students. Some of us will get up and put on the insignia of a fire or police department. Some of us will get up and put on a food and beverage apron or a clergy robe or a shrimper’s boots or a bicyclist’s helmet. But all of us will get up and go into the present moment, a time when our country is awake with uneasiness and in need of prophetic voices. And that’s all of us.

For if the new civil rights are going to come. And if the old status quo is going to go. Then it’s going to take people of good faith of every race and in every context to suit up for the struggle and work like crazy out of love. As the Baptizer said, what’s coming will be like a whole new, holy spirit. And as the professor said, it will be like an answer to the questions: What kind of life do we want to live before we die? How much love do we really have to give?

Friends, let us not avoid these questions. Let us hasten to meet them.

Amen.

 

[1] See “Cornel West on His Uniform,” a Prepidemic Magazine interview accessed online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPOIVmLz88I

[2] Andrew Goldman, “Cornel West Flunks the President” in The New York Times Magazine, July 22, 2011, accessed online at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/magazine/talk-cornel-west.html

[3] Cornel West with Christina Buschendorf, Black Prophetic Fire (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).

[4] James Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy” in Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, ed. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003), 9.

[5] Mark 1.1-3 in The Five Gospels: New Translation and Commentary by Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Polebridge Press, 1993).

[6] Dani McClain, “The Civil Rights Movement Came Out of a Moment Like this One” in The Nation, December 4, 2014, accessed online at: http://www.thenation.com/blog/191969/civil-rights-movement-came-out-moment-one

 

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I can hardly imagine a more beautiful wedding.  The bride and groom, both naturalists, outdoors on the farm where they live.  Friends and family gathered beneath the branches of a great live oak.  Behind us, a flooded rice field filled with wading birds.

After the short ceremony, a string band struck up Appalachian folk songs.  We dined under a tent in the open air.  Grown-ups made toasts, children danced, and at least one boy I know snuck a plate of pulled pork to the farm dog.  The sun set behind the live oak, burning bright pink through the tangled silhouette as the music played on.

I fell asleep that night with a smile on my face.  Not only for the bride and groom, but for everyone.  The wedding they shared with us, and the love it made a place for, seemed greater than the sum of its parts.  And I felt gratitude for all of the varieties of love that I had seen.  There was romantic love, to be sure.  The look on a person’s face when he or she makes a promise and gives a ring.  Yet all around were so many other forms. . .

There was the love of parents for the bride and groom.  There was the love of sisters, brothers, friends, colleagues, and old roommates.  There was the love of other couples who had come, remembering their own vows.  There was the love of singles who stood on the bank in smiling support.  There was the love of the boys and girls who made fast friends.  There was the love of everyone for the friendly farm dog.  And there was the love of nature itself, in which the whole scene was set.  All of these varieties put me in mind of Darwin’s words:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the branches, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

It’s an evolving thing, I suppose, our understanding of love.  This morning I give thanks for the ways it continues to unfold in our minds and lives, in our culture, and in our society.  And I welcome your thoughts on love’s tangled bank.

With aloha,

J

*Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (writing from home – full reference forthcoming).

photo

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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