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?




[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:

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

[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,


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.



[1] Bo Petersen, “Southeast Coast Threatened ‘Hot Spot’ for Vital Habitat,” Post and Courier, February 29, 2016, accessed online at


[2] Psalm 19.1-3, TANAKH translation.


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.



[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.


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.



[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.




[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.



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.




[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.


I paused outside the Rutledge Building to admire the lettering. I had never seen my name in such large print, emblazoned onto a stone wall as a part of the state government campus. The drive to Columbia had gone smoothly and it was nice to get out of the car and stretch my legs. I looked at the letters a while longer and smiled before walking inside. Through the glass doors I met a security guard. Behind her on the wall were the letters again: Rutledge Building, they read. She stopped and asked to sign me in. What is your name? she asked. Jeremy Rutledge, I replied. How do you spell that? she asked. Such was my introduction to the South Carolina State Department of Education.

After spelling my name, I took the elevator down to the basement where a hearing was being held. The Education Oversight Committee was presenting to the board and much was at stake. An upstate senator had been pushing to have religious ideas inserted into science classes in public schools; in particular, he had lobbied for creationism to be taught alongside evolution by means of natural selection. After spending more than a decade in Texas, I had grown accustomed to the fight. Every few years it seemed we had to defend sound science against its religious detractors in an argument that our country had been having since the Scopes trial. We had been glad to move to South Carolina, where the standards were known to be better and there was some state pride about the objectivity and integrity of the curriculum. But thanks to a general fuzziness about the separation of church and state, the upstate senator wanted his religious ideas pushed on every public school student. So we were back in the same old argument. Sara and I wrote an Op-Ed entitled, “Don’t Inject Religion into Science Class,” which the Post and Courier published, and I drove to Columbia to testify as a clergyperson who affirmed sound science and saw it as no threat to my faith. I was joined by several others from the group South Carolinians for Science Education, and I remember taking the stand that day.

I believe I made a clear case for scientific literacy and content expertise. Religious communities can teach whatever they’d like on Saturday or Sunday, I explained. But in science class, we expected science teaching and nothing else. Curriculum was not to be politicized or adjusted to someone’s bias or doctrine; it was to be offered as a part of the body of scientific knowledge, a body that, for centuries now, has relied on Darwin’s foundational theory to understand the complex relationships among things, be they cells, stars, or the famous finches of the Galápagos. I didn’t get too carried away, just made a straightforward case for public education standards and scientific literacy, throwing in something about STEM fields, medical research, competitiveness, and the future careers of our students. I was only allotted a few minutes. As I offered my prepared remarks, some board members listened intently and some never made eye contact, doodling on their agendas or looking at their smartphones. Afterwards, other citizens testified – university professors, retired public schoolteachers, parents – all of us asking that religious ideas be kept out of science class. I was pleased that we were all speaking in one voice and thought things had gone just right until something happened that wasn’t on the agenda.

Once every citizen had his or her allotment of minutes, the upstate senator introduced a guest who had been flown in from a creationist think-tank on the West Coast. This person was called an expert, given an unlimited amount of time, and allowed to make a presentation. I leaned in to listen and was shocked to hear the most scientifically inaccurate information I had ever heard. The man went on and on about how the science wasn’t settled, the jury wasn’t in, and we shouldn’t teach our children about evolution alone when we could also teach them what, he claimed, was the equally credible idea that natural selection hadn’t occurred but that something else had happened. And he stopped just short of saying that God had spoken it all into existence in seven days, but that’s what he was getting at. None of his content was scientific. All of it was deeply biased. And he held forth in front of a panel of politicians, not content experts, whose job it was to decide what our students learn in science class. I had a very hard time sitting down for it. I had a very hard time staying quiet.

Finally, the board chair put an end to it and called for a vote. And the board voted to basically table things and leave them as they were. They didn’t adopt any new standards, either the recommended standards with the latest science or the amended standards that included creationism. So things reverted to where they had been and basic science was saved by a stalemate. No religion in science class after all. I breathed a sigh of relief and then looked for the upstate senator. He was nowhere to be found. Having lost in his attempt to rig the process, he left before the hearing was over and took no questions. As I drove home, I thought of what I said within my limited time. And I thought of what I wished I had been able to say, the heart of the matter, which would have taken a few more minutes.

I would have told the board that I had spent years doing doctoral work in the field of religious naturalism. Religious naturalism is a school of thought that grounds itself in the natural world and its empirical observation, finding the more we learn, the more our senses of reverence, wonder, and awe are deepened. Many of the most religious people I have ever known have also been the keenest intellects, applying all their hearts and souls and minds and strength to the task of understanding where we came from and how we are related to all of life on earth. These naturalists were deeply influenced by Darwin and by the sense of interconnection that his research inculcated. Put in the words of Ursula Goodenough, the cellular biologist who advocates religious naturalism:

Blessed be the tie that binds. It anchors us. We are embedded in the great evolutionary story of planet Earth, the spare, elegant process of mutation and selection and bricolage. And this means that we are anything but alone.[1]

Goodenough writes this in the context of a few hundred pages on the origins of life, the development of biodiversity, the complexity of multicellular organisms, and the price we pay for such complexity in eventual breakdown or mortality. But the more rigorous the science, the more shining the sense of wonder. I wish I had time to tell the board that teaching our students sound science was no threat to their religious or philosophical practice outside the classroom; it might, as a matter of course, enliven their personal searches for truth and meaning.

I would have also told the board that the scientific method was a key instrument for living. Only through observation and testing can we refine our understanding, not through lazy thought or unchecked opinion. In the words of the great American educator, John Dewey:

By science. . .is meant that knowledge which is the outcome of methods of observation, reflection, and testing which are deliberately to secure a settled, assured subject matter. It involves an intelligent and persistent endeavor to revise current beliefs so as to weed out what is erroneous, to add to their accuracy, and. . .to give them such shape that the dependencies of the various facts upon one another may be as obvious as possible.[2]

In other words, the scientific method over time leads us to a deeper and truer understanding of who we are and how things work. It rids us of error, whether the error be a flat earth, an orbiting sun, or an exceptional anthropocentrism. And it leads us to see the real relationships among things, the “dependencies of facts,” as Dewey wrote. Like Earth circling the sun. People made of carbon derived from the stars. All of us sharing DNA with mice and mushrooms. Cycles and seasons binding it all in a Goldilocks scenario, everything “just right” for the emergence and sustenance of life.

I would have told the board about the ethic this leads to, a sense of reverence for the whole and an urgent need to care for it and to pass it on. And here I might not have drawn on the vast body of scientific literature, but rather on the sacred texts of my tradition, which have taught me to look beyond myself and to act in ways that account for the larger good. We heard one of those texts this morning, commonly called the greatest commandment.

In Mark Chapter 12 we are told of a time that one of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him which commandment was the first among them:

And Jesus answered. . .The first of all the commandments is, Hear O Israel; The Lord our God is one. . .and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.[3]

Taking for granted the evolution on display in the teachings themselves, as Jesus revised and adapted his tradition for his day (e.g. You have heard it said, but I say unto you. . .), the great commandment implores us to love holistically. Love with our hearts. Love with our souls. Love with our minds. Love with our strength. Love with every part of ourselves, including our intellect and observations, our questions and concerns, our deepening understanding of who we are and how we are related to the whole. And with it a new revelation about who our neighbor might be – not only every human sister and brother in this increasingly connected world, but every rock and tree and flower and fawn. All those mice and mushrooms with whom we share DNA or the salt and brine of the marsh and its every inhabitant. Our neighbor is all around. And we are to love every living neighbor as we love the Mystery we call God. There is no difference. This is the greatest commandment. And this is the ethical summons.

In the words of Ursula Goodenough again:

Our story tells us of the sacredness of life, of the astonishing complexity of cells and organisms, of the vast lengths of time it took to generate their splendid diversity, of the enormous improbability that any of it happened at all. Reverence is the religious emotion elicited when we perceive the sacred. We are called to revere the whole enterprise. . .and all of its myriad parts as they catalyze and secrete and replicate and mutate and evolve.[4]

To which we might only add that we are called to love it. To love the whole enterprise, every neighbor, as we would love the Mystery from which they came. Yet love as Jesus taught it wasn’t simply a matter of sentiment. It was a matter of acting ethically. For he taught ethics, not doctrine; ways of being and relating that made for a commonwealth of all, what he called the kingdom. And in order to live so ethically we must be scientifically literate. We must know what is at stake. What is at risk. What stands to be lost and at what cost. Lost when we do not know the value of a thing, the value of all things, and the fragile balance in which they are held. That’s the heart of the matter. And that’s what I wish I’d had time to say. Well, that, and maybe inviting the entire board for a walk in the woods where they could make their own observations, where the natural world could speak for itself. Who knows, maybe they would have felt what poet Mary Oliver felt when she stood before the honey locust tree:

I must close my eyes

to take it in

to bear

such generosity. . .

and I hope that you too will pause

to admire the slender trunk,

the leaves, the holy seeds,

the ground they grow from

year after year

with striving and patience;

and I hope that you too

will say a word of thanks. . .[5]

Which is all I was trying to say as a religious naturalist standing before the State Board of Education. A prayer for the natural world and for our children to know their place in it. Not a special place, above everything else. But a connected place, a part of everything else.

Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, he said. And I walked out of the Rutledge Building and into the shining world, its truth brighter than any basement lights. I wondered how long until I’d have to go back and testify again.



[1] Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 75.

[2] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 209-210.

[3] The English Bible: The New Testament and Apocrypha, ed. Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 111.

[4] The Sacred Depths of Nature, 170.

[5] Mary Oliver, “More Honey Locust” in Evidence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 17.

IMG_6236They were the same boys and girls we see every day, walking between the ball fields on the way to school. Only we couldn’t make them out earlier this week. Not from under their scarves and caps and swollen jackets. Most of the kids walked more briskly than usual; the air had a bite. But a handful I noticed walked more slowly. Pulling their scarves down they giggled at the sight of their breath. They puffed like train engines, slowing to watch their breath float for a moment before disappearing. I couldn’t help but join them, marveling at the exchange we make several times a minute but never see. Wondering at how intricately related we are, the old philosophical question of where everything else ends and we begin.

I had a professor who had asked that. An old empiricist, whose eyes glimmered as he pondered inhalation and exhalation, the exchange of O2 and CO2 at the molecular level, the tissues and transfers that blurred the lines between self and world until it wasn’t at all clear which was which, only that they were interdependent. We dallied in the cold until we were almost late when one boy walked over to a bush and breathed into it. White clouds of breath covered brittle green leaves. “I’m giving it my breath,” he said, and then dashed through the school doors before the final morning bell. I stood for a moment, smiling at the sentiment. Who needs a burning bush, I thought, when you have a breathing one? Who needs a miracle far away, when there is one here and now, made visible by the cold to every boy or girl with eyes to see?

The old Hebrews had a slightly mystical word for it: ruah. It was a guttural word and in divinity school we were trained to say it that way. It was funny, but you couldn’t say the word for breath or spirit in an airy way; you had to say it with the force of your diaphragm and the back of your throat. So that your body knew you were saying it. It was the breath that made us human, said the old creation stories. From the very beginning, when God created the earth and sky and sea and then all the beings in them. God was said to have shaped people out of earth, out of dirt, and then brought them to life with breath. It was God’s own breath that was passed. The Mystery itself gave it to us. “So God fashioned an earth creature,” says our Inclusive Bible. “And breathed into its nostrils the breath of life.”[1] Out of all the elements of the Hebrew creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, this strikes me as the most poetic and beautiful, the one feature that blends the mystical and the scientific. Our breath brings us to life. Our breath makes us human. Our breath is a gift from the Mystery itself. Otherwise, we would just be dirt. But instead here we are. As I live and breathe, they say.

I suppose there was another reason I was struck by the kids watching their breath. The book on my nightstand was written by a young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with cancer at the very end of his residency. Just as his life was about to begin, he learned that it would be coming to an abrupt end. The surgeon’s name was Paul Kalanithi and he titled the book When Breath Becomes Air. I won’t spoil it for you, but it reads as a deep meditation on the meaning and value of life and also as a call to wakefulness. Kalanithi looked back to see that the life he had been living was the only life he was going to get. There wouldn’t be the long future as an attending at a teaching hospital, the marriage and family and old age that he had imagined. Just the single breaths, one after the other until they stopped. In an early passage in the book, he wrote rather hauntingly of breath when deciding whether to continue studying literature or turn to medicine:

I spent a year in classrooms. . .where I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was only confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience.[2]

And there is the summons. Words were weightless when compared to direct experience; best to forgo the speculative and dive into the sensual world, embodied and felt. Interestingly enough, all Kalanithi could leave us were words, his breath transcribed onto a page. But his words evoke tangible things, especially in relation to the hospital, where so many of us have been jarred into physical awareness, pulled from our minds into the heart pounding, short breathing anxiety of cloth gowns and cold rooms. I wanted that direct experience, Kalanithi said. And he found it, as both doctor and patient.

The naturalist theologian Henry Nelson Wieman wrote of the value of the summons, seeing our breath and its impermanence as a teacher of wisdom. We deal with the experience of our finitude, he said, by “treat[ing] the experience as [a] means of deliverance from those preoccupations which hinder the emergence of insights leading to ways of life more rich and comprehensive than those previously attained.”[3] It’s a breathless sentence, I know, but put another way Wieman was calling us to let our mortality change us. Creative transformation was his word for it. And while some might interpret mortality in ways that lead to anxiety or despair or spin it into a narrative of meaninglessness, Wieman invited us to something much deeper. Why not let our mortality open our eyes to wonder and gratitude that we are here at all? Why not live lives that create and add meaning, seizing the moment that is ours and living life to the fullest for ourselves and others? Why not see that the questions we are afraid of are sometimes simply the doorways to our liberation? Mortality need not be a curse. If we focus on our breath it may be a blessing. A simple wonder that grounds us in the here and now, standing like children blowing warm air onto frozen leaves.

Perhaps the link between Kalanithi’s call to direct experience and Wieman’s invitation to lay aside our anxieties are the old spiritual practices of meditation and contemplation that focus on breathing. These practices can be found in every tradition, but nowhere are they more central than in Buddhism, particularly the Zen practice of zazen sitting. The Catholic monk and Buddhist priest Ruben Habito, who has spent his life in both traditions, writes of the way intentional breathing changes us over time. Through quiet ritual, we sit on a bench or cushion, adopt a wakeful posture, and begin breathing deeply in through our noses and out through our mouths. No words are required. No sacred texts or creation stories. Just the felt experience of breath and the ways it connects the inner and the outer. Rather than the unconscious breathing that we are always doing, a conscious focus on our breathing brings us back to center, grounding and settling us. “The fact is,” Habito writes, “most of us have actually forgotten how to breathe and have thus lost touch with the core of our own selves.” Recovering “the art of breathing naturally,” we can “be at home and at peace.”[4]

It’s a paradox of a kind. Voluntarily pausing to consider the involuntary. Reflecting on impermanence as way of grounding ourselves. Sitting aside as a way of connecting. Habito speaks of it with a smile:

. . .focusing one’s whole being in the here and now with every breath is not shutting oneself off from the rest of the world but plunging oneself at the heart of the world by attuning oneself to the vital core where things are happening. . .As one focuses on the here and now by following the breath, one “tunes in one’s receiver,” as it were, to realize one’s connectedness with everything else that is vivified by the same breath.[5]

This feeling of deep interconnection leads to the creative transformation that Wieman was talking about. Or the shining direct experience of Kalanithi. Or the poetic mysticism of the Hebrews. Or the giggling affirmation of elementary school kids. All breath is connected. If we can see it.

With this in mind, we might just ask a final question about the spirituality of our breath and its use. If breath is a sacred thing, and I believe that it is, then we might ask what we do with it. None of us knows how many breaths we will have, but we do know that we can choose how we spend them. Will we use our breaths in ways that are wasteful, adding to the atmosphere of idle speech, gossip, and careless or hurtful commentary? Will we use our breaths in ways that are helpful, blessing the world with words of caring and kindness, checking on friends, saying prayers, asking sincere questions, and naming our loves? Will we use our breaths in ways that are liberating, telling the truth, speaking with clarity, and raising voices of justice and inclusion for all? Will we use our breaths in ways that are vulnerable, speaking of our own struggles and needs without posturing or pretending? Will we use our breaths in ways that are healthy, running, swimming, stretching, doing yoga, embracing the beautiful bodies we have been given? Or will we use our breaths in other ways, ways that add whimsy, poetry, and wonder into a world that would be the better for it?

They’re all good questions, questions that we might take up in the morning as we begin the day. Any morning and any day will do, but winter days have a special quality. The ones when we can see our breath, if only for a moment. The ones when we can dally in the cold until we are almost late, walking over to a bush to breathe into it. White clouds of breath covering brittle green leaves. “I’m giving it my breath,” we say.

Would that it were so, friends. May it be so with us.



[1] Gen. 2.7, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 2009).

[2] Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (New York: Random House, 2016), 43.

[3] Henry Nelson Wieman, Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958), 56.

[4] Ruben Habito, Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth (Dallas: Maria Kannon Zen Center Publications, 2001), 43.

[5] Ibid., 54.

IMG_0422Not two weeks ago, Mary Harris handed me a slip of paper at one of our Charleston Area Justice Ministry events. She knew I was a fan of poetry, and her note encouraged me to read a piece by the Palestinian-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. It was an easy sell because I love Naomi Shihab Nye; she lives in San Antonio, the city of my father, and I heard her read once in Texas, asked her to sign a book for Sara. Anyway, Mary’s note encouraged me to look up a prose piece entitled “Gate A-4”; it can be found in Naomi Shihab Nye’s 2008 book, Honeybee. Or on Facebook, where it has become something of a meme among my friends, though in an abridged form. This morning I’d like to read the whole thing, and I’d like for it to be the meditation with perhaps only a note of commentary from me. As we begin the season of Advent during a time of heightened fear and anxiety. As we share the elements of communion during days when migrants travel in search of welcome and shelter. And as we hold out the theme of hope after a year of deep grief and bitterness. I can’t think of a better, more beautiful story to tell than Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4.” Listen and let its longing wash over you as we start the season:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway. Min fadlick. Shu-bit-see-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.[1]

I read and reread “Gate A-4” after Mary Harris recommended it to me. After the news of attacks in Beirut and Paris. After the terrible pronouncements from our politicians that refugees were not welcome here. After the voices of fear ratcheted up on every news channel. I went back to Gate A-4. I grounded myself in images of women sharing what they had and making a place of love and welcome. I imagined sitting on the floor of an airport trying a new delicacy. A Palestinian cookie that I had not heard of but was heartened by. If mamools are out there, then maybe it’s true. Not everything is lost. Maybe powdered sugar can soften our hearts. Or a common language can soothe our souls.

It’s a simple vision to set the season and we heard the prophet speak of it. At the beginning of Isaiah there is a description of the House of God. It will be known because people of “all the nations shall stream to it.”[2] And because there “they shall beat their swords into plowshares”[3] and learn to live together in peace. There’s no powdered sugar in the vision, but there might as well be. Because its dream is equally sweet. It is the dream of Gate A-4. The House of God. Who knew it could be found in an airport in Albuquerque? Who knew it could be found in a church in Charleston? Who knew it could be found anywhere people will sit and listen and laugh and hold hands and share what they have?

“This can still happen,” said the poet. All we need to do is take the cookie. Or better yet offer it. And then see what this season will bring us.



[1] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4” in Honeybee: Poems (New York: Greenwillow Books, 2008), 162-164.

[2] Isa. 2.2b, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Isa. 2.4b.


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