photo credit: Trena Walker

photo credit: Trena Walker

We’re All in the Same Boat (Luke 8.22-25)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

July 3, 2016

“Dad, is it all right if Jesus has a Han Solo body, pirate legs, and a George Washington wig?”  He asked without looking up, piecing together spare Legos into a passable messiah.  I smiled in return and asked to see.  “He looks good,” I replied, as I turned the figure over in my hand.  Yellow skin.  White hair.  Star Wars vest.  Buccaneer breeches.  “We need some disciples as well,” I added, but he was already working on them.  A small crew for the fishing boat, also made of leftover pieces.  Police officer.  Rebel trooper.  Ninja.  He connected heads, torsos, legs, until there was a small crew of disciples.  We placed them in a cloth bag next to a carved wooden boat and set them by the front door so we’d remember them on the way to church.

Such was the lesson plan for the fourth day of Vacation Bible School.  Our story was drawn from Luke Chapter 8.  It told of Jesus and his disciples pushing off in a boat and sailing into a storm.  I was charged with telling the story to two groups of kids.  The first group, aged 5 and 6, was a large and inquisitive bunch.  The second, group, aged 3 and four, was smaller but even more curious.  It occurred to me that we might read the story, then play act it with Lego people, running through it a few times to ensure that everyone had a turn.  Rev. Anya Leveille, who co-taught the Bible stories, brought a mottled blue sheet that looked very much like the ocean.  We laid out the sheet and the kids gathered around it.  I read the story through the first time and then reached for the bag.

It wasn’t long before we had assembled our beach scene and then pushed the wooden boat out onto the smooth waters of the sheet.  And here, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to retell the story, as we told it together, adding a few visuals along the way.

We remember that Jesus and his disciples shoved off and began to sail.  Jesus, we are told, fell asleep on the calm waters.  Every time we mentioned this a child would reach over to the boat and push Lego Jesus over onto his side.  And while he slept, a squall whipped up around them.  At which point the kids on all sides of the sheet began to ruffle and shake it, causing the boat to rock, and the Lego Jesus and his disciples to roll around uncontrollably.  The kids giggled as I narrated the disciples waking Jesus and crying for help.  Their storm grew more and more violent, tossing the Lego figures out of the boat over and over (we kept replacing them), and the room grew louder and louder, giggles turning into belly laughs until Lego Jesus said Stop! and the wind and the waves died down.

Children restored the Lego disciples to dignified standing positions.  Jesus took his place at the bow of the boat in order to instruct them.  The sheet was drawn tight again, smoothed out in a display of calm.  And Jesus asked them why they didn’t have more faith?  Or as some translations put it, more trust?  Or as we rendered it, there among the 3 to 6 year olds, why they were so worried?  The kids all looked at the Lego figures, as if the wisdom had issued forth from there.  A sheet on the floor.  A wooden boat.  A Han Solo-pirate-George Washington Jesus.  Where is your faith?  And why are you so worried?  I asked if anyone in the room had ever been worried.  Heads nodded and hands went up.

The great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”[1]  Suzuki Roshi meant that we are all impermanent and must learn to live with this reality.  He surely didn’t mean to reference the story of Jesus and his disciples’ fearful journey on a boat.  But he tapped into their anxiety all the same.  The disciples were worried about their lives.  When the storms came and the waves rose, they cried out.  They were holding on to the only solid thing – the boat – aware that it might not be enough.  And when they roused Jesus and he called to the waves and the wind to calm themselves a couple of things happened.  First, ancient hearers would have instantly recognized Jesus’ importance as a healer and teacher.  Calming the waves was a sign of his greatness.  But second, and more importantly, a metaphorical meaning is made.  Jesus asks them about their faith, their trust, and their worry.  And as a wisdom teacher he is not simply referring to the waves on the surface of the water.

Jesus is asking about the trouble in our souls.  I know this because every child could share something he or she was worried about.  And it wasn’t the weather.  When we talked about calming the storm, they went right with the metaphor.  We calm the storm by taking a deep breath, they said.  I take ten breaths in a row, one boy said.  Ten.  We calm the storm by saying a prayer.  May we say a prayer in our class? asked one girl.  Yes, let’s say a prayer together and experience its calm.  We calm the storm by leaning on each other or by relying on our friends and parents for help.  Yeah, my parents, one boy said, and looked both homesick and happy at the same time.  And I know I was teaching the kids as we leafed through the Bible’s pages and pushed around our wooden boat.  But they were teaching me, too.  Why do you think I sign up for Bible School every year?

Yet there was another part of the week that related directly to the children’s part.  Every day this week after Vacation Bible School was over, I met with one or more grown-ups about one or more things.  There were the usual projects and planning meetings.  But there were also the usual pastoral conversations.  And in every case, there was a storm.  I heard two different stories of the deaths of adult sons.  I heard three stories of struggles with addiction.  I heard two more stories of depression.  I heard a story of the return of cancer.  The stories were excruciating.  I found myself wiping my eyes over and over again.  And listening.  And sitting in my office, where the kids had sat earlier, play acting responses to life’s stormy seas.  Only none of it was pretend.  For the kids would know suffering in their lives.  The adults did know it.  And all of us were crying out for help in our own ways, all of us were trying to still the waters.  The funny thing is, when we call out, the Christ who comes is always nearer than we think.

The kids picked up on this right away.  They always do.  We’re all in the same boat, here to help each other.  The themes of our week reinforced this – they were:  God Creates, God Helps, God Loves, God Calms, and God Sends.  But the only way God does these things is through us.  Through each of us.  Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey.  Whatever age we are.  Whatever spare pieces we’re made out of.  We bring ourselves to the table, step into the circle, and take care of each other.  It doesn’t fix everything, necessarily.  For there is still suffering.  But it adds love to the picture.  Which is one way of understanding God.

Pema Chödrön writes, “There’s no way to make a dreadful situation pretty.  But we can use the pain of it to recognize our sameness with other people.”[2]  I believe that’s true whether you’re 5 or 55, the only difference being that so often kids are better with ambiguity and uncertainty than grown-ups are.  For they already know that they’re not in control.  And they know that things happen that make no sense.  Yet they’re trying to find their place in relation to others and to all that is.  As are the best grown-ups, who recognize that everyone who’s lived long enough has suffered and deserves a little more compassion and a little less judgment from the rest of us.

That’s how I hear Jesus’ question about our faith.  It’s not a judgmental question; it’s a compassionate one.  Why do you worry so much?  Have faith in your ability to reach out.  Have trust in those all around you.  Take the risk of taking care and letting others care for you.  Remember we’re all in the same boat.  I know he never said that, but I think he might have if he had been sitting in a circle of Bible School kids. 

Writing of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch say, “Jesus’ liberating ministry and its continuation in the church. . .embody eschatological transformation differently understood, accessible in the present rather than anticipated for the future.”[3]  Or, as we taught our children this week, we love and care for each other here and now.  There is no need to worry about the rest.  No need to fight the waves that are too big for us or seek to control that which is out of our hands.  We can simply take the moment that is ours and put it to use.  Creating.  Helping.  Loving.  Calming.  Sending.

At the end of the week we stood at the edge of the churchyard as parents stopped to pick up their Bible School students.  Boys and girls hugged and fist bumped.  They carried crafts and snacks.  They clutched homemade rockets and colored balloons.  Lego Jesus had already been taken home, but as we waved goodbye to each other his lesson remained. 

Take care of each other.  We’re all in the same boat.

Amen.

 

[1] Quoted in Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2012), 3.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] The English Bible, ed. Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012), 126.

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The Long Walk Back to the Dugout (Eccl. 1.12-18)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

June 12, 2016

 

The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. ‘All is vanity.’[1]

 

So wrote Melville’s narrator, whose quote rose to mind after I watched the last boy strike out swinging to end the season. The boy had taken a bad hack at a pitch that was nearly over his head; his swing a combination of self-defense and malaise. It had been a long season for the team. They had lost all their games but one, usually by margins of ten or fifteen runs. As the other team poured onto the field in celebration, I watched our last batter take the long walk back to the dugout, where his teammates sat, sweaty and covered in infield dirt. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows.

More than any American author I’ve read, Melville alludes to the Bible. This may be due to the length of his work or it may be due to his literary disposition, but as he considers his major themes of agency, fate, meaning, and ambiguity, Melville refers over and over to biblical stories as reference points. And right in the middle of Moby Dick he name drops King Solomon (aka the Man of Sorrows) and a book of wisdom largely attributed to him. It’s one of the stranger books in the Bible, so strange that scholars have argued over how it got to be included, but it is also one of the most poetic. If ever there was a book to read to a baseball team after a strikeout to end a crummy season, it is Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesisates is written in the voice of one called “the Preacher” in the English language or Qohelet in the Hebrew. According to literary critic James Williams, the Hebrew’s meaning is elusive, derived from a root meaning “to gather” or “to assemble.”[2] So the preacher is some sort of gatherer, almost, for the purposes of this meditation, like a coach. The preacher, the coach, gathers the seekers of wisdom and offers them his book of sayings. Only they’re not funny or motivational so much as world weary and stoic. This speaker, Williams says, “is the skeptic par excellence” of the Hebrew Bible.[3] He questions the wisdom in the order of things; indeed, he wonders if there is any. Because he has stood at the plate and taken so many swings, played so hard, and has little to show for it beyond the capriciousness of the game itself. Sometimes you swing hard and hear the crack of the bat as the ball finds a gap or sails over the wall. More often than not, however, what you hear is the thwack of the ball in the catcher’s mitt after you swing right through it and struggle to regain your balance. “I gave my heart to seek and search out wisdom,”[4] says the coach. But maybe the wisdom is that even the best ballplayers take the long walk back to the dugout two times out of three.

True idealists, of course, are the first to hang their heads. They’re the first to kick the dirt, throw their caps, and glare at the ump. Because they gave their hearts. They gave their souls. They put everything into the swing. And if that last batter hadn’t quite done so, flailing at a soft throw that was high and outside, it was only because he had cared so much all season that he was finally worn out. And after watching our boys’ Little League ball club, I went back to Ecclesiastes and read Qohelet not as a stoic or a cynic, but as a spurned idealist. He wanted more than he found. He wanted meaning that was clear and unambiguous. He wanted to hit the ball hard, on the screws, to drive it deeply out of the park and win the game he’d been born into. And we can hear in his weary voice that he’s a great lover of the world, a romantic at heart. He didn’t want to strike out looking.

“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” Coach Qohelet says.[5] But again here he sounds more like a player. He has seen everything that life can throw at him and has come away with frustration. He has seen that there is a season for everything, a time for every curveball under the sun. And we can understand what he means. Because so many of us have seen the same thing. We have gamely dug in at the plate and taken our best swings, too, often with little to show for it. The season we’ve just had may be the best example of all.

I mentioned that our boys had their worst season ever. The lessons they learned were mostly about staying with the fundamentals, trying to manage strong emotions, showing respect and good sportsmanship, and building character through, as the old ballplayers say, doing it the right way. The great educational theorist John Dewey spoke of habits and how we create them over time to shape ourselves into life-long learners and participants in larger projects. Dewey critiqued habituation, which was adjustment to an unjust status quo and spoke instead of the development of healthy habits, which often stood in contrast to the current scheme of things. “Active habits,” he wrote, “involve thought, invention, and initiative in applying capacities to new aims.”[6] That’s what our boys were learning as they practiced and played, working hard to adjust, improve, and not give up even when the status quo put them in a deep hole at the bottom of nearly every first inning. But that’s what we were all learning this season. Just think of the year we’ve had.

We stepped up to the plate in greater Charleston. We dug in and took a few swings at some of the most intractable expressions of racial discrimination and violence in our city and state. We pulled on the jerseys of our different teams – the NAACP, Quality Education Project, Metanoia, Charleston Area Justice Ministry, SC Community Loan Fund, Black Lives Matter, Forward Together, Gun Sense SC, and others – and we swung hard for the fences, hoping to hit one out with an audit of policing practices after Walter Scott. . .or to close the loophole and require background checks on gun purchases after Mother Emanuel. . .or to protect our public schools and teachers from deep, almost draconian cuts. . .

And in every case, after the chants and protests and interviews died down, all we heard was that thwack in the catcher’s mitt. As the other team poured onto the field in celebration, we took the long walk back to the dugout to find each other sitting, sweaty and discouraged. We know we’ll have other chances and other seasons. But we also know that it hurts. We know that our hearts ache. Because they are full of love, not so much for the game itself, but for our teammates. For every last kid born into a status quo where the playing field has never been equal. The lawns and equipment not the same. The strikes and balls called differently by skin color and neighborhood.

It wasn’t an easy season to watch from the stands. And it wasn’t an easy season to play, taking that long walk back to the dugout with everybody watching. But it brought to light a different kind of wisdom in our home. Around the same time our boy’s team had struck out to end the season and some of our justice initiatives had also struck out, we stood in the front yard playing catch. We were working on good habits and the boy was throwing well. The pressure of the game had been lifted for a time and the smile had returned to his face. He was throwing hard and straight, the ball popping into my old glove and leaving my hand with a slight bruise. Nice throw, I told him, before asking the question that we’ve been asking ever since: If something is really hard, I asked, does that make it bad?

He held up his glove to receive the return throw and thought about the question. Catching the ball, he fired it back, along with his answer. No, he said. If something is really hard, that does not make it bad.

And while there is no definitive answer to Qohelet, if there were going to be one it might come from a boy on a last place team, who had looked at every slider and curve that could be thrown and swung through most of them. He had seen it all, too, everything under the sun. But he hadn’t seen it as meaningless, as vanity or vexation. He had seen it as hard.

There was nothing wrong with things being hard. And there was nothing wrong with being frustrated, needing a break, winding it down and playing for a while without the pressure of the lights and the crowd. Sometimes it just made sense to go back to basics and play catch because you loved it. The rest would follow from there.

It made me think, as we stood throwing the ball, that perhaps the truest of all men was not the Man of Sorrows. Perhaps the truest of all people, is the Person of Habits. Habits as John Dewey would describe them. The truest of all people is the Person of Thought, Invention, and Initiative. The person who can ask the question in order to come back with an answer that he or she can live into. Because before long there will be another season. And we’ll each be invited to pull on our jerseys and step up to the plate again.

It isn’t all meaningless. But it can be hard. And maybe, just maybe that’s all right.

Amen.

 

[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), 380.

[2] James Williams, “Proverbs and Ecclesiastes” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1990), 277.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1.13a, The English Bible.

[5] Ecclesiastes 1.14, The English Bible.

[6] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 51.


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Surfing had, and has, a steel thread of violence running through it. I don’t mean the roughnecks one encounters in the water—or, very occasionally, on land, challenging one’s right to surf some precious spot. The displays of strength, skill, aggression, local knowledge, and deference that establish a working hierarchy in the lineup. . .No, I mean the beautiful violence of breaking waves. It is a constant.[1]

So writes William Finnegan in his wonderful memoir.  It’s a perfect summer read, not only for its evocation of the ocean’s pull, but the way it floods the reader with memories, bubbling and bobbing to the surface as we do after a wave’s collapse.

At the end of the school year, we always head for our local break.  It is normally gentle, suited for children and families with an offshore wind preferred by kite surfers.  But occasionally the sets rise and swell, slapping hard at waders and boogie boarders and knocking them down.

As in life, all is well with the gentle push and pull until a big one comes out of nowhere and we never know what hit us.

So it was with the boy on the first full day of summer.  He has read the waves all his life, trying to solve what Finnegan calls “the first order problem. . .what are these waves doing, exactly, and what are they likely to do next?”[2]  And he’s good at it.  On a trip back to my boyhood break on Oʻahu last year, he spent the better part of every day paddling hard and dropping in on his belly, leaning in to the curl on his boogie board and riding the foam all the way to the beach.  Then he would rise, smiling and sandy, pick up the board, and turn seaward.

I watched him, all piscine ease and boyish enthusiasm.  Which is how he looked a couple of days ago until he waded out of the water with a summer shiner; a bruise inflicted by a combination of packed sand, a king tide, and one of those out of nowhere back slappers that broke at an unnaturally steep angle and drove him downward before he could react.

He shook it off.  But there will be others.

And it made we think how we’re all like that.  We paddle into each day to read what is on the near horizon, to catch it, to make the best and enjoy the ride.  Sometimes we wait.  Sometimes we watch.  Sometimes all the conditions are right and we drop in and feel ourselves carried on the swell.  And sometimes we get a pretty good shiner and stand in the foam, smiling and shaking our heads.

With aloha,

J

 

[1] William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (New York: Penguin Books), 82.

[2] Ibid., 75.

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The Risk of Being Religious (Proverbs 8)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

May 22, 2016

William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience has become one of the most influential texts in American philosophy and religion. No serious student of either gets very far without engaging James and his arguments. He stands, in Cornel West’s estimation, as “the most profound. . .and unpretentious public intellectual in [our] history.”[1] And The Varieties of Religious Experience is his magnum opus. But it didn’t start out that way.

The book is actually the collection of James’ Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University. He traveled there to offer them in 1901 and he was nervous about it.[2] At the time, Edinburgh was one of the intellectual centers of Europe – the city of Hume, Smith, and Ferguson. And James arrived as the lowly American, having steamed from a country that was only beginning to find its voice and take its place it the world of ideas. He wondered if he’d be taken seriously. He wondered if there would be any crowds at all. What he didn’t wonder was whether or not he had something to say.

During James’ first lecture, we are told that about 250 people came to hear him. It was a respectable crowd, and James began with self-deprecation and humor. I’m only an American, you see. Not a specialist. Not an academician. Not the type you’re accustomed to hearing. And then he launched into a strikingly bold series of talks. As he did, word got around and the crowds began to swell. Here was an American who was redefining what it meant to think religiously. He was bringing science and poetry and psychology to bear. He was stressing individual experience and asking deep, existential questions about it. And he was avoiding matters of doctrine and metaphysics altogether in order to ask about something closer, more immediate and practically useful. James wanted to know what our attitude was toward the world. Put another way, he cared much less about the ideas we held in our minds than the ways those ideas led us to live, the ways of being they called forth from us. Shall our religion engender meek and conventional habits? he wondered. Or shall it give us the courage to take risks in the face of uncertainty and live boldly and free?

I thought about William James all week because of a conversation I had with Eddie Glaude over lunch. We are both students of James and we were talking about the times we are living in and the courage that is called for. At one point, the conversation moved so quickly that we were practically finishing each other’s sentences. He was talking about the existential courage we read in James and I shouted like a child, “We’re on the mountain pass!” He punched me in the arm in recognition of the reference as the rest of the table wondered what on earth we were so excited about. We’ll return to the mountain pass allusion, which is drawn from James’ essay “The Will to Believe,” but we need to take one step back before we do. Back about eighty years before James went to Edinburgh.

In his lecture here at Circular Church, Eddie Glaude began by referencing Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry.”[3] Actually, he referenced it when he got off the plane, after we first shook hands in the airport concourse. We greeted each other and were talking. Eddie asked about how things were in Charleston and made a comment about the times we were living in. And as we spoke he invoked Shelley. “Imagination is the battleground,” he said. We wondered what it would take to imagine different times than these, different possibilities. And that was one of the major themes of Eddie Glaude’s time with us. After so many years of having our imaginations confined, constricted, and hemmed in. . . After so many years of living with a stale status quo where the divide between rich and poor grows and the resegregation of our communities and schools deepens. . . After so many years of participating in an economy that destroys and depletes the earth and puts us all in peril. . . Could we imagine differently? Could we widen our notions of what is possible? Could we break through our inhibitions in newly expansive ways?

“Reason is to Imagination,” Shelley wrote, “as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”[4] Put another way, our reason is here to serve our imagination, not the other way around. We are to take the risk of imagining first and then let our reason and science come around to support the dream of something different. Shelley made a beautiful case for the poet’s role in fostering the imagination. But Glaude made a case for the church’s role. . .and the community’s. We are at a crossroads, he suggested. We are in trying times. And the only way forward is to think differently. To imagine better.

The old wisdom writers knew about living at a crossroads. They said it was there that the voice of Wisdom could be heard. At least by those who could discern. And then take the risk of joining their voices with hers in the marketplace of contested ideas. Listen to the description of it the text we’ve heard from Proverbs:

It is Wisdom calling,

Understanding raising her voice,

She takes her stand on the topmost heights,

By the wayside, at the crossroads,

Near the gates at the city entrance;

At the entryways, she shouts,

“O men [and women], I call to you;

My cry is to all [hu]mankind.[5]

What follows is a description of Wisdom’s attributes. She is personified here in the feminine. Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible, Wisdom is always feminine and she is always there. Proverbs says that she was present at the beginning, before the water and the hills and the earth. And she can be found in every time and place by those who seek her and by those who have courage. That word shows up halfway through the proverb. “Mine are counsel and resourcefulness,” Wisdom says, “I am understanding; courage is mine.”[6] The entire chapter is something of a poem to the many ways Wisdom comes to us, but I stayed with courage. In part, because it resonated so deeply with the wisdom of William James. And in part, because the times we are living in call for it themselves. “Courage is mine,” sang Wisdom. But is it ours? I wondered.

I am struck by how often in my line of work people come to me looking for a way out of having courage. That is, people come to me looking for certainty. They seek assurance. They seek consolation. They seek the avoidance of tension or unpleasantness. And here I am not necessarily talking about church people. But anyone who knows I am a minister. They assume that I am in the business of making life easier. But I’m not. I’m in the business of making life more honest. I’m in the business of translating Jesus and James. I’m in the business of asking people to take risks and to work for change in themselves and the world. It takes a lot of courage. And we are hardly certain what the outcomes will be. The only thing we are certain of is our will, as James would say. We are certain of our conviction, which is rooted in nothing more complicated than love.

When it comes to working for change, for example. We work because we love the world and we love each other. Not because it is easy or assured. Not because the pathway ahead is clear. Rather, we work because we are in love with it all and because we understand that love makes certain claims on us, asks things of us like the taking up of a cross, as Jesus said, the willful acceptance of something that is difficult, challenging, and unsure. That is what we were talking about when Eddie Glaude punched me in the arm. Love is the reason we work. And our courage derives from it. Therein lies the Wisdom. She is present when we take the risk of standing at the crossroads, hearing her voice, and then acting in love, accepting the consequent unknown.

That, dear friends, won’t fit onto a bumper sticker. But it sure is good religion according to William James. And here are his words on it, a quote that he drew from James Stephen and used to concludes hi essay “The Will to Believe”:

In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. . . . If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a [person] chooses to turn [their] back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent [them]; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that [they are] mistaken. . . . Each must act as [they think] best; and if [they are] wrong, so much the worse for [them]. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.[7]

It’s a different kind of religion than we hear about conventionally. And it requires a different kind of faith. Faith grounded not in certainty, but in a kind of love that would have us act boldly and unafraid.

You may wonder if such faith really works or if there is an abiding Wisdom in it. All I can offer from my own experience is this: At one of the most uncertain moments in my life, when my own health was gravely in doubt, I received a note from a friend and professor. He was an old naturalist and a lover of William James. I opened the note and read in his hand of his love and concern for me. The note ended: Be strong. Have courage.

I did not receive any other words that made me feel better than those. Because they were so honest. My friend knew that the outcome was unclear. And all that he did was say that he loved me. And encourage me to be strong. Which was all that I needed. Surprisingly, I made it past that particular mountain pass. But only to arrive at another. And another. Like the place we are now in Charleston, South Carolina. As race relations are incredibly strained. As a presidential election plays to our fears. As an economy moves more wealth to the very rich while the middle class eclipses and the poor are shunted off and segregated out of view.

The question is whether we can imagine things differently. Whether we will dare to do what James would do. Or Shelley. Or Glaude. Or Wisdom herself, whispering to us at this crossroads.

Will we hear her call? And will we summon the existential strength and courage to step into the uncertainty in love?

Amen.

 

 

[1] See the dust jacket to The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[2] See BBC Radio’s In Our Time: Philosophy podcast, “William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience,” May 12, 2010, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s9ftw.

[3] Professor Glaude’s lecture, “Democracy in Black,” is available through the Circular Congregational Church podcast on iTunes or streamed online at: http://www.circularchurch.org/glaude.

[4] Percy Bysse Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” in The Major Works (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009), 675.

[5] Prov. 8.1-4, TANAKH translation.

[6] Prov. 8.14.

[7] William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Writings of William James, ed. John McDermott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 735.

This week Radiohead released a single from its new album, Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination for president of the United States, and I attended the Jewish Federation of Charleston’s Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance. They all seemed to go hand in hand.

Radiohead’s single, “Burn the Witch,” was accompanied by a brilliant and disturbing animated video done in the style of 1960s British children’s specials. In it, a stranger to a bucolic village observers the way newcomers or “others” are met with ostracism and violence. Virpi Kattu, the video’s animator, said that the project was meant to conjure “the blaming of different people. . .the blaming of Muslims” that has reemerged as a dangerous trend in Europe.

It’s a soundtrack, I think, for current American politics. The rise of Donald Trump, once considered something of a joke, has now shaken many of us and unsettled our friends around the world who are watching. There’s no need to go over the litany of his hateful and bigoted comments here, but he represents the most dangerous kind of populism, blaming the “other” and playing to people’s fears and insecurities. After demonizing and diminishing different religions, cultures, ethnicities, and even genders, he now stands as a neo-fascist candidate in a major American political party.

I couldn’t help but think of it as I sat in the sanctuary of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim last evening and listened to the stories of survivors. They were demonized, too. They were ostracized and blamed and ultimately subjected to unspeakable violence on a scale that none could have imagined. At the end of the service, we said, “Never again.” We vowed to speak against such hatred wherever it was taking shape in our world.

Like Europe. Or the United States. In 2016.

I begin the day with headphones on, Thom Yorke’s falsetto in my ears. His is a song of warning, a song that we should join in singing. Never again starts today.

With aloha,

J

photo credit: Mary Edna Fraser

photo credit: Mary Edna Fraser

I got my first glimpse of the Lowcountry through an airplane window. As we neared Charleston, all I could see was water. Rivers snaked in every direction, lacing together and catching the glinting sun. I squinted my eyes. The plane descended along the coast and wheeled over the harbor. More water. And bridges. It’s all water, I thought. I wasn’t sure there was anything else.

When we moved here we bought a house not too far from the water. A mile in one direction led us to a harborfront park; a mile the other way was an oysterbed trail. I could smell the water in the mornings. I could feel it moving around me. And if I ever forgot, the nesting osprey would remind me as she carried fish back to her fledglings. I was a boy by the water and had been drawn back to it. But much had changed since I was a boy. Now I knew that the water was rising.

I made the mistake of mentioning this at the park when we were getting to know other parents in the neighborhood. I asked about mitigation plans for climate change and sea level rise. I’ll never forget, as we stood not five blocks from the water, the other dads looking at me. What do you mean? they asked. It was a conversation stopper.

I hadn’t intended to cause any offense. But to me reality was not offensive. I was simply trying to listen to what the earth was saying and ask how we might answer. Would we relate to it in new ways? Would we adapt and change? Would we preserve some of our exquisitely beautiful place? Would this be our spiritual practice?

I learned as much as I could about our place. I read books about the salt marsh. I checked the tides and learned their patterns. I walked with my wife at the same place on the beach and watched the changes in light and current. I explored the marsh every Saturday with my son. We saw the grass turn colors and the fiddler crabs grow. I fell in love with it all. We all did. But it felt so fragile. So many people were moving in like us. Yet so few were talking about it in the park. How would we protect and preserve this?

Bo Petersen of the Post and Courier wrote of the danger earlier this year. I picked up the paper from the lawn while looking for the osprey. “More than 2,000 species of plants and animals,” he wrote, “are found along the Southeast and Gulf coasts that are found nowhere else. . .and they are disappearing under the heels of more than 80 million people and their predecessors, who since Colonial times have stomped out 85 percent of the habitat the creatures—and we—need to survive.” Our region had now been declared a biodiversity hot spot, according to Petersen. Such hot spots “cover little more than two percent of the Earth’s surface but hold 50 percent of its plant species and 42 percent of its vertebrates.”[1] I read the article and then read it again. This was a rare and beautiful place, it said. Yet we were depleting and destroying it. None of us knew what was really being lost. There was too much richness to measure. How does one place a value on time and tide, wind and water, watching fiddler crabs with a boy and feeling the sun on your skin?

I met Mary Edna Fraser and asked her. This time it was a conversation starter. I had contacted her after seeing her artwork. I had been moved by the batik images. They were glimpses of the Lowcountry through an airplane window. They were all water, I thought. We met for breakfast and I asked about mitigation plans for climate change and sea level rise. Her eyes lit up. She told me of conservation groups and efforts. She wondered about what religious communities could do. She spoke of the power of art to help us see. The waitress kept the coffee coming. When the pancakes were gone we had a plan.

So we gather today surrounded by beautiful batiks that remind us of what is at stake. They evoke our senses of reverence, wonder, and awe, as does the natural light that always falls through the colored windows. We have transformed our sanctuary into a meditation hall for Earth Day. The batiks are hung as banners of blessing. A blessing of the good earth. A blessing of its myriad forms of life. A blessing of the Mystery from which it all emerged. But also a blessing of the work we have to do. Because as surely as we sit here this morning the sea is rising and the cars are idling and the construction cranes are coming. We are taking more than the earth can give back. We have lost our indigenous senses of gratitude and reciprocity. And we are neglecting the generations to come. This confession must be spoken in the meditation hall. We are sorry for the ways we have considered only ourselves and not the countless sisters and brothers in our great earth family.

The psalmist had a sense of confession. In this morning’s text, one of the earthiest psalms, he began with the language of wonder. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” he said, “the sky proclaims [God’s] handiwork.” We cannot look up without knowing. Day or night. Sun or stars. Gull or osprey. All of it speaks of the Mystery the Hebrews called God. The world is constantly telling us things, the psalmist said. Not with words, but in a language of its own. “Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out. . .Their voice carries throughout the earth.”[2] This is confession in the truest sense. The psalmist is seeking to tell the bare truth. To articulate what should not be left unsaid. To ask others, Can you see this? Can you hear this?

Yet there is a second kind of confession in the psalm. The old poet moves from ecstatic language to something more existential. The second section of the psalm speaks of ethics, covenants, and responsibilities. There is a sense of oughtness here. We ought to follow the rules of right relation. The Hebrew torah is filled with such rules, but they are meant to be observed religiously. The rules are a part of spiritual practice. And while all of us interpret the rules in the light of our current context as people of faith have always done, that’s part of the point. Because our current context is one of deep ecological crisis. So much of the ancient religious rites were concerned with reciprocity in human and natural relationships. When we lose the sense of reciprocity, we also lose the balance. Things tip. We deforest. We overfish. We take without returning. We become estranged. This is the sin meant by the psalmist. The sin of placing ourselves at the center, which Buddhists would call delusion. But the delusion isn’t true. And it isn’t even beautiful. The truth is that there is no center at which to place ourselves. Everything is connected, related, interdependent. And in healthy ecosystems everything is mutually enhancing and sustaining in ways that are about the whole and not just a single part. As process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead envisioned it, everything is perishing, but nothing is lost. Life carries on in novel ways, emerging, evolving, and expressing itself. If we will leave it the resources to do so.

When the psalmist encouraged us to follow the Lord’s precepts, it was an encouragement to act ethically. The ethic was grounded in wonder, but it was bound by this concept of reciprocity.

When we bought our house I remember thinking of it. How would we live lightly on this land and with other creatures? We were tied to the system of automobiles and highways. Would we bicycle sometimes? Would we eat lower on the food chain? Would we make the house more energy efficient? Would we speak at the city council meetings and work for protection and preservation? Would this be our spiritual practice? We knew our answers to the questions, but the answers seemed to matter more than ever. We were under no illusions that our house was permanent or protected from the wind and waves of the sea’s steady rise. Yet it was still a conversation stopper.

When we have asked in churches, in schools, in the park and other places, many have continued to say, What do you mean? And our only response—the only response for all of us—is to sing the wonder of the psalmist. Can you see this place? Can you hear this place? And then to ask each other for an ethic of reciprocity. Can you love this place?

I still go out early every morning to pick up the paper from the lawn. I am always interested in what Bo Petersen will have to say. Or the osprey. Sometimes I stand there for a moment. I smell the water. I feel it moving around me. And I wonder what it will be like seven generations from now.

“May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable,” said the psalmist. And may my actions honor the earth, say we all.

Amen.

 

[1] Bo Petersen, “Southeast Coast Threatened ‘Hot Spot’ for Vital Habitat,” Post and Courier, February 29, 2016, accessed online at http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20160229/PC16/160229457/southeast-coast-threatened-x2018-hot-spot-x2019-for-vital-habitat

 

[2] Psalm 19.1-3, TANAKH translation.

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Lay Your Easter Lilies Down (Luke 24.1-12)
Jeremy Rutledge, Mt. Zion AME and Circular Congregational Churches

March 27, 2016

Eight days ago we met Congressman John Lewis. He had come to Charleston as part of a bi-partisan delegation from Washington. A group of Senators and Representatives were making a pilgrimage through South Carolina that included stops in Columbia, Orangeburg, and Charleston. Charleston was the culmination of the journey, and lawmakers stopped here to listen to the survivors and family members from Mother Emanuel AME Church and others from the Charleston community. They had come to hear the story of forgiveness, a story for which Charleston has now become known. And they heard the story in the words of survivors and family members from Mother Emanuel.

It was in this context that we met Congressman Lewis. One of the forums was held in our church, and so it was an honor to welcome him. Many of you know John Lewis, often referred to as the conscience of the Congress. As a young man and organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped lead the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He was badly beaten on that bridge and left for dead. But he survived somehow and carried on, walking with Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel and thousands of others whose names we do not know. Ordinary men and women who held hands and linked arms and walked the bridge together. So it was a rare privilege to shake the hand of John Lewis and welcome him to Charleston. He took a seat in the front pew and waited for the program to begin.

The program was not billed as an Easter program. It was an afternoon to hear what had happened in Charleston and to reflect on the story of forgiveness. But as I joined the Congressman and others to listen, all I could hear was an Easter story. Because person after person told a story of how life persisted in the face of death and despair. Person after person spoke of how love was stronger than hate and would last longer and carry us through. Person after person spoke of a kind of faith that gave them strength, even though we were not there yet, even though we were still standing by the tomb wondering what had happened. Ms. Felicia Sanders spoke first.

Ms. Sanders survived that night last June, but her son Tywanza did not. Together they had been left for dead, like John Lewis, but while Ms. Sanders stayed quiet, her son stood to face his attacker. Tywanza was the one who looked him in the eye and said, “You don’t have to do this. We mean you no harm.” Ms. Sanders told the story so powerfully that you could have heard a pin drop or a pew creak. “We mean you no harm,” she spoke, and the words echoed off the walls. But then she moved into her own story, telling about her understanding nine months after that night. “I tried to run from this platform,” she said. “I didn’t want it.” And as we listened it was clear. Here was a woman who had just gone to Bible study and been thrust somehow into a nightmare of grief coupled with a national spotlight. Who would want that? And how would a person handle that? Ms. Sanders handled it in the way of her faith. “I realized,” she said, “that Jesus took ordinary people and did extraordinary things with them. . .[so] I’ll take the platform.” She spoke of it a little more, highlighting that Jesus was just an ordinary person, a carpenter. Denmark Vesey was a carpenter, too, she said. She wasn’t a carpenter, she explained, but she was a carpenter’s daughter, which was close enough. And so she was doing what needed to be done, just another ordinary person bearing witness to the power of love that was greater than hate.

Listening to Ms. Sanders would have been enough, but she was followed by Ms. Nadine Collier. Ms. Collier stood and spoke of the forgiveness she had offered at the hearing, the words she had said that had gone out around the world. “You took something very precious from me,” she said, “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”[1] Those words and the forgiving words of other survivors and family members startled people. How could people look into the face of hatred and offer love? How could they stand raw and grieving and speak words of forgiveness? How could they maintain such strength, dignity, and grace in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of such an enemy? But their words were the beginning of a conversation, not the end. And they gave us questions with which to struggle, questions that we need to ask ourselves if we are to get to the life that Easter promises, the life that we have come to mark and celebrate this day.

Theologian James Cone wrote that what many did not understand was that the forgiveness being spoken of in Charleston was not an easy forgiveness. It was not forgiveness as absolution. It was not forgiveness as forgetting. And it was not forgiveness as a salve or a way of covering over our deep grief. Rather, in Professor Cone’s words, “It [was] victory out of defeat. It [was] the weak overcoming the strong. It [was] ‘You can’t destroy my spirit. I have a forgiving spirit. . .You are not going to destroy that.’ When [the families] forgave, it [was] a form of resistance, a kind of resilience.”[2] Ms. Collier herself made it even clearer. “Forgiveness is power,” she said. And she went on to say that no one could have power over her. Not over her heart, not over her spirit, not over her life. In forgiving she was refusing to let anyone else have power over her. In forgiving she was refusing to hate in the way that she had been hated. She was choosing the way of love instead. And it was an Easter choice. It was the choice of a woman still standing near the tomb but unwilling to be defined by it.

We heard from others, friends and family members who spoke powerfully. Ms. Alana Simmons, who had started the Hate Won’t Win campaign. Mr. Melvin Graham who said that forgiveness was a journey he and his family were on, but they weren’t there yet. And then Congressman Lewis himself, who stood and addressed the families briefly. “You are so right,” he said to them, “it is better to love. The way of peace is a better way.” He said it as someone who knew. But he said it to others who knew. And he thanked our sisters and brothers from Mother Emanuel for their witness for peace. He thanked them for opening all our hearts to the questions of how to choose the way of peace, how to walk the path of forgiveness. None of us were there yet, he said. But we were all walking together. And today we walk on Easter.

According to the Gospel of Luke, we are not the first ones to gather in grief. And we are not the first to be surprisingly transformed. As Luke tells it, on the first day of the week after Jesus had been crucified, a number of women came to his tomb at dawn. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several others. They had come bringing spices they had prepared for the tomb, but when they arrived the stone was rolled away. The women went inside, but the body of Jesus was gone and they could not find it anywhere. They were puzzled by this, the text tells us, when suddenly two figures, heavenly emissaries in dazzling clothes appeared to give them some news. The women were frightened, but the emissaries spoke to them in a question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And this was the way the Easter message was first shared. With a question. Why are you looking in this place? Why have you come to this tomb? Why are you so frightened and confused? The one you are looking for is again among the living. The verses that follow explain how it was foretold that Jesus would rise, how the women then told his friends and disciples, and how the men did not believe them but considered it an idle tale. All of them except Peter.

Peter ran to the tomb, we are told, and stooped to look inside. He did not find Jesus either, but instead he saw the linens in which he had been wrapped. They were lying there. And it’s interesting how the physical elements in the story hint at a kind of existential freedom. A stone that had been rolled away. Bindings that had been undone and laid down. An indication somehow that even death’s grip had been loosened. Not as strong as love, though none of the women or men in the story were able to understand what that meant. They were amazed and perplexed. But they weren’t clear. It was the beginning of a conversation, not the end. It was a conversation we’re still having today. If the life that Jesus taught us was stronger than death, if the love that he embodied was stronger than hate, and if the faith that he possessed was stronger than fear, then how do we attain those things, how do we carry them forward in a world where death and hate and fear are all around?

Part of it, I think, is by telling the stories over and over again. The stories of how Jesus’ first followers understood that his life and spirit could not be extinguished. And the stories of how the families in Charleston understood forgiveness and faith as forms of resistance, as kinds of resilience. In telling the stories we remind ourselves of who they were, but also of who we are and what our work is to do. As Professor Eddie Glaude writes, “How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.”[3] Professor Glaude reminds us that the way we remember, the way we tell stories affects how we see ourselves in the world and whether we are empowered to work for a better world, a different world than the one we’ve got. Which is exactly what our sisters and brothers from Mother Emanuel are helping us to do. They are helping us to ask how we remember. And they are inviting us to join them on a journey toward forgiveness, a journey that we are trying to make, though it will really take all of us to get there.

So Jesus’ friends and students went out, we are told, amazed, perplexed, and a little confused. But somehow clear on what his charge had been to them. To be people of peace. To be people of reconciliation. To be people of inclusion. By laying down their swords. By forgiving each other seventy times seven. By welcoming all to a common table and sharing what they had. And here is where Luke’s story of the resurrection becomes more mystical. For the Gospel of Luke is historically connected to the subsequent Book of Acts. They were originally one book, one story, and many scholars simply refer to them as Luke-Acts. There is no separation between the story of Jesus’ life and its continuance through the lives of his followers, who bore out his teachings in the world and carried on the movement in his name. So the resurrection became greater than simply what happened to the person of Jesus, it became what happened to an entire community. When they put the teachings into practice, they understood that Jesus still lived in and through them. His spirit was not gone from the world, never would be, not as long as his teachings were breathed to life by women and men and children who were not afraid. “Ordinary people,” as Ms. Sanders would say, “doing extraordinary things.” Which brings us back to Easter in Charleston.

We gather this morning as a people still standing by the tomb. In the past year, we have laid flowers on the sidewalk at Calhoun Street for our sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel. We have laid flowers in a field off Remount Road for our brother Walter Scott. We have laid flowers for many others we love and remember. And no one needs to tell us in Charleston how the women and the disciples once felt. We have gathered over and over again with tears on our faces to pray and to sing and to take care of each other, and we will do so again as the anniversaries approach. But we also gather as a people who know something about resurrection. We have been amazed and perplexed by the life that has come to us even in the face of death. We have been startled by words of forgiveness in the face of unspeakable suffering. We have been transformed by the truth that love is stronger than hate and that hate will not win. We have seen it with our own eyes. And we stand like the women, we stand like Peter, not entirely sure how it has happened. Only sure that we want to join in. Join in to this life. Join in to this love. Join in to this Easter story born among us here and now.

So we lay our Easter lilies down to remember our dear ones. We lay our Easter lilies down to honor the survivors and family who have become our teachers. We lay our Easter lilies down to bear witness to the forgiveness we have seen, the acts of resisting hate and choosing the way of love instead. And we lay our Easter lilies down so that we can take the hand of our neighbor. For the new life that comes comes to the entire community. Black and white. Women and men. Old and young. Gay and straight. All of us together holding hands, linking arms, moving past what has divided us and marching forward together.

“The way of peace is a better way,” said Congressman Lewis. Friends, this Easter let us remember that the way of peace is Jesus’ way. When we put it into practice, he is newly alive and so are we.

Amen.

 

[1] Nikita Stewart and Richard Pérez-Peña, “In Charleston, Raw Emotion at Hearing for Suspect in Church Shooting,” The New York Times, June 19, 2015.

[2] David Remnick, “Blood at the Root,” The New Yorker, September 28, 2015, 30.

[3] Eddie Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York, Crown Publishers, 2016), 46.

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After all the words, there is a golden silence. It falls over Dostoevsky’s paragraphs, or rather in between them, after 260 pages of existential questions brought to a boil. It’s a silence at the heart of one of Western literature’s most powerful scenes, an episode from The Brothers Karamazov, wherein one brother tells another a fable about Jesus Christ coming back to earth.

Some of us know the story and some of us may not have heard it. But we’ll all recognize the silence at the end. Because it is, again, golden, powerful, haunting and irrevocable. Rarely has there been such a wise silence, unless it is in the Bible itself, which we’ve also heard from today. But let’s start with Dostoevsky, who wrote years ago but sounds as if he has just written to American Christians living in something like the opposite of golden silence. Rather, we live awash in words and politics and pronouncements. And we crave the silence that is truth. And the conscience that we hear when the volume is turned low enough for us to listen.

In Dostoevsky’s imagination, Jesus comes back to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He returns to the people in Sevilla and walks among them, instantly recognized for the way he touches and heals. He creates a commotion by this gentle way of being, and almost instantly the church authorities are made aware and they are none too happy to see him back. Jesus is taken into custody where he is interrogated by an archbishop of the church, the Grand Inquistor, he is called. And the Inquisitor fills the air with words that precede the silence. His words are angry, controlling, fearful, and cynical. And he berates Jesus for coming back and for interfering in the church’s work of keeping people calm and under control.

I’ll let you read the passage for yourself, but I might just warn you of its breathlessness. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor speaks paragraphs that are longer than pages; there are no breaks. He goes on and on, telling Jesus he has no right to come back, explaining that the freedom Jesus offered was too much for people, complaining that Jesus’ appeal to conscience was a torment, and lecturing Jesus on just how much trouble he had caused, how much unrest he had brought into the hearts of women and men. Of course, the more the Inquisitor says, the more he damns himself and an entire ecclesiastical structure based on domination and control. And Jesus’ silence in response speaks for itself. In some ways, it speaks for all of us.

Hold for a moment that silence and consider our current context. Our news cycle washes us in words every several hours. Like the Inquisitor, it does not stop to breathe or to let us respond; it just rants, accuses, and lectures. We sit, listening like Jesus, unable or unwilling to speak. Or perhaps just uninterested in adding to the bluster. It’s exhausting, sometimes, listening to the intensity of the negativity, feeling the energy of the cynicism. And as I reread Dostoevsky’s fable this week, I couldn’t help but see the Inquisitor dressed not in a Medieval Spanish cassock, but in a modern American power suit with a bright tie and a sea of placards behind him. Because the Inquisitor is explaining to Jesus that the people are afraid and need to be told, the people are restless and need to be ruled, the people are suffering and need to be distracted with bread, circuses, and the promise of a better day, though the Inquisitor confesses that he believes in no such thing. It’s an authoritarian populism he’s pedaling, a refutation of freedom, and a cynical, existential copout. And it reads like a page from the playbook of a frontrunning American politician.

Yet Jesus says nothing to the Grand Inquisitor. He lets the silence speak. And he lets us feel what is wrong. He leaves us with the freedom the Inquisitor so despises. The freedom to feel our consciences stir. The freedom to disagree with what is being said. The freedom to find our own voices and consider when and how we will finally raise them, crying out against the divisive and nasty rhetoric that only increases our shared suffering. The silence is a high point of Dostoevsky’s book, and the only thing he adds to it is a single act of Jesus. At the end of all the Inquisitor’s ranting and raving, the book says:

The old man [the Inquistor] would have liked [Jesus] to say something, even something bitter, terrible. But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer. The old man shudders. Something stirs at the corners of his mouth; he walks to the door, opens it, and says to him, ‘Go and do not come again . . . do not come at all . . . never, never!’ And he lets him out into the ‘dark squares of the city.’[1]

Dostoevsky leaves it there. The head of the church throws Jesus out into the street, shouting at him to go and never return. And the man for others, who has offered nothing but a kiss, walks out of the place where he is no longer welcome. A second silence settles in. And with it the questions of all the ways and places we would throw him out today.

Literary critic James Wood writes of Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christianity. True Christianity in the novelist’s understanding, “was not reasonable,” Wood says. “It was perhaps a kind of lunacy. It existed not on the bread of reason but on the yeast of faith.”[2] And, we might add, on the wisdom of silence. Because it is the silence that exposes the lunacy. Jesus’ teachings are, in fact, crazy when compared to culture and convention. The freedom that he was teaching, the liberation that he was offering, the mysticism that he was embodying, and the new social order that he was essentially proposing based on the brotherhood and sisterhood of all was ridiculous. He was an absolute radical and all he had to say for himself was nothing. Nothing but whatever any of us would say for him after listening to the silence. After watching him give a kiss and walk away. Which is very close to what he does sometimes in our sacred stories.

This morning we heard two readings from the Book of Luke for Palm/Passion Sunday. This is the day we begin the Christian observance of Holy Week, when we welcome the stories of Jesus’ last days into our own lives to consider their existential questions for ourselves. We remember that Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey colt in a silent inversion of conventional expectations. He was no Caesar, he was no Inquisitor, he was no charlatan or politician. He was an itinerant trying to start a revolution of values. And he let the value speak for itself. Children were valuable to him. And women. Lepers and outcasts were valuable to him. And tax collectors. Fishers and laborers were valuable to him. And traditional enemies and adversaries. And bread was valuable to him. Not the bread and circus kind, but the take and share kind, giving and receiving according to ability and need. And lilies and sparrows held value. And all his earthy metaphors. Wheat, tares, mustard seeds, living water. These are the things he said were valuable and beautiful before falling again into silence. Before riding in on that lowly donkey and letting the crowds work out the rest.

There will be other inquisitors in the story. Roman governors, thieves on crosses, and those calling out from the crowd, but the story isn’t breathless so much as breathtaking. Jesus really doesn’t offer rants on the meaning of it all; he seems to just hold the scene, watching and listening, waiting to give it the final pronouncement of a kiss.

People sought to get rid of him, we are told. People always have. But we have also always been haunted by him, but what the Grand Inquistor accused him of. “Instead of a firm foundation,” he said:

. . .you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond our strength. . .instead of taking over [our] freedom, you increased it. . .You desired. . .that [we] should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm ancient law, [we] had henceforth to decide for [ourselves], with free. . .heart[s], what is good and what is evil, having only your image before [us] as a guide—[3]

And therein lies the poetry. The wordless Christ leaves the Inquisitor and the rest of us with the blessing and curse of his guiding example. The beauty is that we know what it means. No further explanation is required. No volumes of doctrine. No slogans on placards. Just the silence of seeing that the kingdom is all around. Just the silence of wondering what places he is being thrown out of today. Churches, no doubt. Political rallies, to be sure. Tent cities, certainly. Or a hundred other places where he keeps trying to show up, riding in on the donkey of the day, bringing his unbearable silence.

Amen.

 

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 262.

[2] James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (New York: Picador, 2005), 67.

[3] The Brothers Karamazov, 254-255.

IMG_1630Growing up in the Christian church, I was told not to judge. It’s a good message, one that Pope Francis recently reiterated. Who am I to judge? he asked reporters on a plane, and the message was beamed worldwide. But it was really just simple Jesus stuff. Judge not, he said, rather clearly all those years ago. And I was told to heed that admonition. But I was never taught how.

It occurred to me later in life, after college and seminary, after years of professional ministry, that I had never been given the tools I needed to become less judgmental. I had never been taught any skills, shown any techniques, or been a part of a group of people working on this habit and trying to slowly break themselves of it. Until I joined the Zen Center in Houston.

I initially joined for the silence. If you’ve spent any time in congregations, you’ll know why. My life was made of words – words on paper, words spoken into microphones, words of committee meetings and reports and the endless stream of e-mails – so I relished the silence. I rose early and drove to the zendo, where I padded barefoot across the boards and sat silently to start the day. It was the beginning of being taught, but I didn’t know it at the time.

As I became more involved, I attended evening classes where people began to put Zen into practice. Breathing deeply, trying to pay attention, looking and listening to things outside our own minds and the limited perception of ego. None of us were doing it right, we were all still limited in our perception, but it was nice to be in a group where everyone knew that. We are trying to become less judgmental and more compassionate, we’d say. And to a person it was difficult for us. Because to a person we had grown up Christian.

One of my own learnings was that the more time I spent in the liberal Christian church, the more my mind and intellect grew. And the more time I spent among Zen people, the more my senses of calm and compassion grew. And both nurtured my commitment to social justice, to the idea and the practice of compassion toward all beings. So here I stand, a liberal Christian minister who still sits zazen because it helps me to avoid the judgments that Christianty taught me. It helps me to work on becoming more compassionate. Judge not, Jesus said, but he didn’t tell us how. I am grateful that we have monks for that.

You may wonder why I’m telling you this. And the answer is simple. Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed, both inside and outside of church, that people seem on edge. Many I know are nettled, chippy, the veneer of politeness having worn thin. And I don’t know if it’s the political season that has turned all our stomachs. Or the grief we are still working through, or perhaps repressing, from the horror of 2015. Or just the sadness in the stones of this place, our beautiful city that was also a capital of the American slave trade. There’s a strange energy in Charleston sometimes, like the rocks are trying to speak and they can’t. But for whatever reason a great number of people I know have seemed bitter, more salty than before. I think I have felt the same way.

So I went back to the words of Jesus, who taught us not to judge. But he was really teaching us not to rush to the worst conclusion, not to make the unkind assumption, not to paint others with a certain brush, creating a false us and them dichotomy. Judge not, he said. And you shall not be judged:

condemn not, and you shall not be condemned: forgive, and you shall be forgiven. . .for with the same measure you use, it shall be [measured] to you again.[1]

Then he told them about a person who was so concerned with others that he pointed out the specks in their eyes without ever seeing that he had an entire log, a great plank in his own eye. It’s a beautiful exaggeration, the kind of thing you might hear in our political discourse these days. Only Jesus wasn’t belittling anyone else. He was asking each of us to do our own work. But again, he didn’t tell us how.

Professor Thupten Jinpa, the former Tibetan monk and primary translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently addressed the question. After many years working with a program of Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, he wrote a book entitled A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives. The book is steeped in the contemplative and the scientific and it offers practices to help us develop compassion in our own lives. Yet rather than talking about it, I’m going to spend the rest of the teaching time with his brief guided meditations that might help us see things in a different, less judgmental way. For if the church has so often told us to do things without teaching us how, then we have the ability to change that. We can gather and ground ourselves in a practice that will have an immediate effect.

Early in the book Jinpa writes, “There is an intimate and dynamic link between how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us on the one hand and how we experience them on the other. This, in turn, influences how we act.”[2] Put another way, our perception shapes our experience and our experience shapes our action. So often we wrongly perceive and the experience that follows leads us to act in ways that are unhelpful. Jinpa is trying to help us perceive differently from the start, shaping our experience and then action in compassionate ways. So the first meditation he offers helps us to frame the day. It is called Setting Our Intention. If we begin our days by doing this, we can move away from the rush to judgment. Let me guide us through this practice in Jinpa’s words:

First, find a comfortable sitting posture. . .[Let] the soles of your feet [touch] the ground, which gives you a feeling of being grounded. . .Once you have found your posture, relax your body as much as you can, if necessary with some stretches, especially your shoulders and your back.

Then, with your eyes closed if it helps you to focus, take three to five deep, diaphragmatic or abdominal breaths, each time drawing the inhalation down into the belly and filling up the torso with the in-breath from the bottom to the top, like filling a jar with water. Then with a long, slow exhalation, expel all the air from the torso. If it helps, you can exhale from your mouth. Inhale . . . and exhale. . . .

Once you feel settled, contemplate the following questions: “What is it that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?”

Stay on these questions a little and see if any answers come up. If no specific answers surface, don’t worry; simply stay with the open questions. This may take some getting used to, since in the West, when we are asked questions we usually expect to answer them. Trust that the questions themselves are working, even—or especially—when we don’t have ready answers. If and when answers do come up, acknowledge them as they arise, and stay with whatever thoughts and feelings they may bring.

Finally, develop a specific set of thoughts as your conscious intention—for this day, for instance. You could think, “Today, may I be more mindful of my body, mind, and speech, in my interaction with others. May I, as far as I can, avoid deliberately hurting others. May I relate to myself, to others, and to the events around me with kindness, understanding, and less judgment. May I use my day in a way that is in tune with my deeper values.”

In this way, set the tone for the day.[3]

The gospels don’t tell us how Jesus set the tone for his days. But they do tell us that he often woke early and went out to meditate and to pray. Perhaps he was setting his intention, grounding himself in his deepest values so that he could more naturally put them into practice.

But once the tone for the day is set, there are other ways we can breathe the teachings to life. Jinpa offers a lovingkindness meditation and a compassion meditation to help us perceive others differently and then act accordingly. I’ll be brief for the purpose of time, but I invite you to the lovingkindness meditation in the words of Jinpa again:

Choose a comfortable sitting position. . .take three to five deep breaths, bringing each one all the way down to your abdomen and then gently releasing it. . .

Now think of someone for whom you feel a great amount of uncomplicated affection. If it helps, you can use [an image]. . ., but it’s not necessary. . .simply think or feel the presence of this person as tangibly as possible. If you are able to visualize, try and imagine as vividly as possible this person whom you hold dear and care for deeply. Notice how you feel in your heart as you think of this person. (Here heart refers more to the area around your heart than to the physical organ.)

If feelings of tenderness, warmth, and affection arise, stay with them. If no specific feelings arise, don’t worry. Just stay with the thought of your loved one. Silently repeat the following phrases, pausing after every line.

            May you be happy . . .

            May you be free from suffering . . .

            May you be healthy . . .

            May you find peace and joy.

Now refresh the thought of your loved one, engendering feelings of warmth, tenderness, and affection, if you can, and again silently say these phrases. You can repeat the steps of this practice for a little while, say, for three to five minutes.

Next, imagine as you breathe out that a warm light emerges from the center of your heart that carries all your feelings of love and connection. This light touches your loved one, bringing him or her peace and happiness. And once again, silently repeat the phrases.

            May you be happy . . .

            May you be free from suffering . . .

            May you be healthy . . .

            May you find peace and joy.

Now wishing with all your heart that your loved one achieves happiness, rejoice in the thought of his or her happiness. Stay in this state of rejoicing for a minute.[4]

The compassion meditation is very similar, only in it we replace someone for whom we feel uncomplicated affection with someone a little more complicated. We center our thoughts on someone we know is suffering, someone who is grieving, someone who is anxious or afraid. We may also focus our thoughts on someone with whom we have disagreed, had a misunderstanding, or become angry.

We put this person at the center and we hold them in compassion.

May you be free from suffering . . .

            May you be free from fear and anxiety . . .

            May you find safety and peace . . .[5]

This is a beautiful practice, and I can attest to how it softens our perceptions of others, the ways we experience them, and then the ways we act toward them. Jinpa’s words provide a gentle program for deepening compassion in ourselves. As he writes, “There is more to loving-kindness and compassion than [just] wishing.”[6] There is sitting and breathing and imagining and beginning to perceive things differently. Until we see that we are very much alike, after all. No need to judge. No need to condemn. No need to point out the speck in a sister or brother’s eye when we could cleanse our own vision and see the world anew.

I have noticed, after resuming this practice this week, that I have been unintentionally smiling at people. So many of them smile back. And I have been asking more questions, open-ended ones. And I have been seeing how beautiful people are and how they all look a little like children—excited, worried, afraid, curious. And the less I judge and the more I welcome, the more I am grateful to my Buddhist teachers for helping me to live more like a Christian. Or at least like a follower of Jesus, who told us not to be so judgmental. And then left it to us to learn how.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Luke 6.37, The English Bible (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).

[2] Thupten Jinpa, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2015), 63.

[3] Ibid., 74-76.

[4] Ibid., 121-122.

[5] Ibid., 124.

[6] Ibid., 128.

IMG_1227

 

And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey. . .

 

Luke, Chapter 9

 

This, your life had said, its only pronoun.

Here, your life had said, its only house.

Let, your life had said, its only order.

 

Jane Hirshfield, “When Your Life Looks Back”

 

They shuttered the place without warning. One Saturday it was open, cracked vinyl booths by the plate glass windows. The same couples sitting in the same places. Servers greeting them by name and knowing their orders ahead of time. And the next Saturday it was closed, deadbolt fixed into place. The letters on the sign thanking loyal customers. Inside the booths were empty and the kitchen dark.

We felt a surprising sense of loss. Their pancakes were the best, we had decided upon moving here. And they knew us by name, too. It was a warm place, not physically – physically it was often cold and we sometimes ate with our coats on, steam rising from the plates as we passed the syrup – but it was warm emotionally. The warmth was genuine, everyone from the host to the line cooks smiling and saying good morning. More like a second home than a diner. Slide into the booth and the coffee was on its way. It was a ritual community, all of us sitting in the same places, knowing and being known, waiting and being fed, looking out the window to watch the seasons pass.

In the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, “It might be good to open our eyes and see. . .to experience all the times and moods of one good place.”[1] That place for us was the diner, its times and moods seen through the plate glass window. The last Saturday we were there may have been the best. It snowed lightly and we watched the flakes fall while we ate. All the times and moods indeed.

Lent is the season when Christians are often encouraged to give something up, to forgo some enjoyment in order to mark the time and pay a different kind of attention. Often I adopt such a practice, but this year has not felt the same. Because this year something was taken that we did not choose to give up. And while a diner is a small thing compared to the profound losses that many have experienced, it was something. Something whose pleasures could not be reduced to vinyl booths and sticky syrup dispensers. It was more than the sum of those parts. It was people saying good morning and breaking bread, the most ordinary acts of love and kindness. And its absence left us with questions.

Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “that everything changes is the basic truth.”[2] It is true for everyone everywhere and it is true about everything. We cannot change the fact that things change, we can only change whether we accept or deny this truth. We suffer, according to Suzuki, when we pretend that things are permanent, though they have been dependent and transient all along. It’s an ancient wisdom, clear to anyone who has ever looked at him or herself in the mirror over time, seen the vinyl of the booth buckle and crack, or watched the moving clouds through the plate glass window. Everything changes. But why do we get so attached?

When Jesus, our great teacher, sent out his own students to preach and to heal, he gave them advice on how to be transient. “Take nothing for your journey,” he said, and then spelled out what not to take:

Take. . .neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, nor money; neither have two coats. . .whatsoever house ye enter. . .there abide, and thence depart. And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet. . .[3]

And here we’ve heard the verses in archaic translation, highlighting their strangeness and a kind of transience as this rendering has been read for hundreds of years, passed from our ancestors whose whispers we can only wonder about. But the words advised not even taking a walking stick or a bag in which to carry things. No food or money or even extra clothes. Jesus’ advice to his very first students was to be free of attachments and not be deluded into thinking any one thing or any one place was permanent. Travel lightly, he said. Move from place to place. Shake the dust off and keep going.

According to Brother David Steindl-Rast, “Jesus’ message and his teaching method were completely integrated.”[4] He, too, traveled lightly. And he carried himself with a deep sense of impermanence. Lent reminds us of it. Every year we enter its season of stories through wildernesses and along roads, all of it leading toward an end that we know is coming. He can’t stay. He is as mortal as the rest of us. But the kingdom he is teaching is greater than himself. The love to which his life alludes. Its movement in the world. He said it later, not to his students, who were putting it into practice, but to the conventionally religious, who didn’t get it:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo! here or, lo! there, for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.[5]

Greek scholars shift the translation to “among.” Behold, the kingdom of God is among you. To look anywhere else is to look in the wrong place. To fix it anywhere else is to fix it in the wrong place. Because it isn’t a place. Not a temple or a church or a diner or a booth. The places are just windows. The thing itself is in all places.

This is not easy to see because we become attached to things so quickly. With a subtlety we can barely recognize, we begin to infuse things with meaning, sometimes so much so that we can no longer differentiate. It’s the old problem of the finger pointing at the moon. The finger pointing is not the thing. The moon is the thing. But neither is our beautiful church building the thing. Neither is the diner with its worn booths. Or the room where a child grew up. Or the hospital where a dear friend died. Or the park where a couple went on a first date. Or the favorite chair by the window for reading. Or any other place or thing. All of them are simply pointing beyond themselves to experiences that cannot really be captured, only signified in some way. But the sign is not sacred. We should not get so attached.

It’s so simple as to be radical. We know that the child’s room is not itself the love between parent and child. We know that the church is not itself the kingdom of God or the Mystery we claim. We know that even our bodies are, in some sense, not themselves us, or not the whole of us. They break down, too, not meant to be permanent. But our lives and are loves are greater than the sum of our sinew and bone. And Lent invites us to embrace this somehow, to set out along the path taking nothing of permanence with us. Unless that thing be love. That’s traveling lightly. And that’s traveling well.

Jesus knew something about it. According to John’s gospel, Jesus, the one institutional Christianity has tried to make so permanent, affixing his image to every children’s Bible and crucifix, said this at the first Easter: “Do not hold on to me.”[6] Perhaps it was another way of saying not to get too attached. Or at least not to the wrong thing. Because the thing Jesus taught his followers to value was the movement itself, the kingdom all around, born out in the love between sisters and brothers on earth, here and now, wherever two or three gathered to breathe it into life, to put it into practice.

Which doesn’t mean that we don’t still get a little wistful. For the Jesus who has been remembered to us. Or pictured on our Sunday school posters. Or dreamed up in our own reading. Still get a little wistful. For the booth. Or the plate glass window. Or the sticky syrup dispenser. That everything changes is the basic truth, said the Zen master. We know that down deep, but we had still hoped to keep it the same.

It leaves us with good questions for Lent. What shall we let go that we know is not permanent? Some sign, some image, some thing, some habit. . . And what shall we hold and celebrate and pass on? Some love, some movement, some community of skeptics and sages to which we are joined. . .

They shuttered the place without warning. But we carry with us the shining memory of watching snowflakes while we ate. And the idea that whatever it was we found there can be found anywhere. If we will travel lightly enough to go off looking for it, knowing that it is not only here or only there. It within you, he said. It is among you. Do not hold on. I send you out.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Esther deWaal, A Seven Day Retreat with Thomas Merton (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1992), 20.

[2] Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Boston: Weatherhill, 2006), 102.

[3] Luke 9.3-5, The English Bible (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).

[4] Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast, The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1994), 41.

[5] Luke 17.20-21, The English Bible.

[6] John 20.17, The English Bible.

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