A Revolution of Values (Luke 1.46-55)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

December 17, 2017

 

In the Black Theology Unit at the American Academy of Religion, Michelle Alexander addressed a room that was filled to capacity. People sat in the aisle and leaned against the wall to hear her. Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow and Visiting Professor of Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has become one of the leading prophetic voices of our times. For years, she has told the truth with a passion and clarity like few others. The crowd leaned in when she spoke.

Alexander offered some prescient thoughts on the state of the country and the role of people of faith in the freedom struggle. She responded to panelists and took a few questions. But there was one thing she said rather off the cuff that got the room going. Responding to a question about church, she said, “But if church is anything, ought it not be rehearsal for revolution?”[1] The room erupted into a chorus of Amens and Mmm-hmms. Because every person there understood how revolutionary the Jesus story really was.

To be clear, the revolution to which Alexander referred was nonviolent. She did not mean a call to arms. Rather, it was a revolution of values that the church ought to be a rehearsal for. In church, we gather to stage the world the way we’d make it if we could. We would treat each other equally and arrange ourselves in egalitarian ways. We would welcome all without judgment or condition. We would share what we have, giving to each as they had need. We would forgive each other as we would hope to be forgiven for our many shortcomings. We would lay down our swords and our violent words and thoughts and commit ourselves to living peaceably together. We would put the children first and say that the kin-dom belongs to them. We would put ego in its proper place, at the margins, not the center of the story. The revolution would begin inside of us. That is where it would be born. Shouldn’t church, Alexander asked, be the place where that happens?

Michelle Alexander was not offering a Christmas mediation, but it began to sound like one. Because every Christmas we rehearse the most revolutionary story of all. That an impoverished, refugee family gave birth to a baby who would challenge an empire—well, who would challenge all our empires—with his egalitarian vision. He would grow up to break all the rules, offending religious leaders and disturbing political officials. His people would not be the powerful, but those who had no particular power. He saw them as his sisters and brothers, called them the very children of God, spent his time walking with them, talking at tables and wells, telling stories and saying that inasmuch as we have shown kindness to the least, then we have shown it to him; inasmuch as we have loved our neighbor, we have loved the very mystery we call God. Talk about a revolution of values.

We come to Christmas every year sometimes barely aware of what we are saying or doing. We dress our children as shepherds and sheep. The choir sings “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” We tear up at the candles and the memories, but do we pause to hear what is really being said and sung? Do we hear what Jesus’ mother herself said, sang to him before he was born? He heard the words. How about us?

. . .Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

     and my spirit rejoices in God my

             Savior,

for [God] has looked with favor on the

     lowliness of [this one] servant.”[2]

She recognized that her place in society did not determine her value. And she sang of it to her son:

“[God] has shown strength. . .

has scattered the proud in the

             thoughts of their hearts. . .

brought down the powerful from

     their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly. . .

has filled the hungry with good

     things,

and sent the rich away empty.[3]

Every year we read this as if it is a gentle song. We read it as if it might soothe our minds. As if it might go down smoothly in a country where child hunger is an epidemic, millions live without the basics, and a tax bill now stands to redistribute wealth to the very richest in our society. Indeed, America today reads like an inversion of Mary’s song. We lift up the powerful and push down the lowly. We put more food on the table of the well-to-do while taking it from those who haven’t had a meal in days. We send the rich away richer and tell the poor and the hungry and the homeless to pull themselves up. You may have read that just this week a United Nations report revealed that 41 million Americans meet the definition of living in extreme poverty.[4] We are now a nation of the people Mary was singing about.

God favors the vulnerable, she sang, but empires never do. Thank God, we sing, that our lord was not a lord at all, not a king of any kind, but a commoner. When he was born, he sang his mother’s song, too.

As will we if we choose to follow his way. Which is what Christmas is all about.

There is a reason we listen for Mary’s song during the darkest time of year. There is a reason we join our voices in singing it. And there is a reason so many of us come to church these days, filling the room to capacity. . .

We want a revolution of values.

This season let us make a place for that revolution in our hearts.

Amen.

 

[1] Author’s notes from “Michelle Alexander and Walter Fluker: The Mystical Prophetic in Black—A Special Look at Mass Incarceration and the Black Lives Matter Movement” at the American Academy of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, November 18, 2017.

[2] Luke 1.46-48, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Luke 1. 51-53, NRSV.

[4] Ed Pilkington, “A Journey Through a Land of Extreme Poverty: Welcome to America,” The Guardian, December 15, 2017, accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/15/america-extreme-poverty-un-special-rapporteur

 

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The Song in Our Hearts (Ps. 100)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 26, 2017

 

In April 1845, the great philosopher William James delivered a lecture to undergraduates in Harvard University’s Holden Chapel.[1] His lecture title was a question that caught the students’ attention before he even began to speak: “Is Life Worth Living?” To ask the question was more than a little blasphemous. Harvard was a religious college, its students convinced not only that life was worth living but that there were prescribed ways in which it must be lived. They were, no doubt, full of the certainty of youth and optimistic about their futures. But James was in a different place. He had lived through a number of difficult experiences, including a long struggle with depression, and so the question for him was more than academic. He wanted an answer to the question of whether life was worth living, knowing that it was oftentimes challenging. And he wanted others to search for an answer alongside him.

What was striking about the lecture was the answer he arrived at. Through thoughtful exposition, James did not answer that yes, life was worth living. His philosophy was imbued with ambiguity and he had too many examples of suffering to settle in to the conventional wisdom that life was worth living simply because others said so and it was impolite to press them any furher. Yet he also did not answer that no, life was not worth living. For his own life had been filled with adventure and passion, he found it deeply meaningful, and he couldn’t reduce it to a simple series of events or cold cosmic chance. But if James couldn’t offer an absolute yes or an absolute no to the question, then what could he offer to the undergraduates as he spoke to them in the chapel? He answered with a beautifully conditional maybe. Maybe, James suggested, life was worth living if we were to live it in a certain way. For James, that meant waking to life, ambiguity and all, and throwing ourselves into the deep risks and adventures of living. As philosopher John Kaag explains, it was “the ardent, yearning attempt to make good on life’s tenuous possibilities.”[2]

John Kaag would know something about James’ answer. In his book, American Philosophy: A Love Story, he weaves the philosophy of William James and other American thinkers like Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey into his own personal narrative. At an earlier point in his career, Kaag found himself at a particularly painful place. Unsure how to answer the question of his life’s meaning and worth, Kaag stumbled into an old library in the New Hampshire woods. The library had belonged to William Ernest Hocking, the former chair in philosophy at Harvard, and it contained thousands of extremely rare books. They had belonged to all the thinkers Kaag had spent his life studying, and many of the books had been written in by the likes of James and his contemporaries. As he read the books and their margins, Kaag found himself in a kind of conversation with his philosophical heroes. And I won’t spoil the book for you, except to say that the summons he received was to embrace his lived experience, to take it for the chance it was. Every time Kaag went to the library, he came out again to look at the world and his place in it with fresh eyes.

I heard John Kaag talk about his experience at last week’s gathering of the American Academy of Religion in Boston. A small group of us in the pragmatism seminar stayed late one evening for his lecture — 30 or 40 out of the 10,000 students and scholars in attendance, we squeezed into a small room and peeled off our overcoats and scarves. As Kaag spoke on life’s meaning, a surprisingly neglected question in both philosophy and the liberal arts these days, he grew animated and alive. Citing James’ ideas on making good on life’s possibilities, Kaag said that our experiences should be life affirming for us, not in the abstract, but in the emotional tenor of our individual lives. We should take from our experiences a learning — we should embrace this learning, examine it, and put it to use in the cultivation of our lives. There was a kind of joy in Kaag’s voice as he spoke. He was answering the question of whether life was worth living as James had, with a maybe, but that maybe was shot through with a faith in what our lives and the lives of others might still become. Of course life may be worth living. If we live it to the fullest.

In his essay “What Makes a Life Significant,” William James described the challenge to living fully and admonished his hearers to take action. What was wrong with the world, according to James, was that an “irremediable flatness” had taken it over. “Bourgeoisie and mediocrity,” he said, “are taking the place of the old heights and depths” of experience.[3] The world was lacking in zest. People were sleepwalking through the days, unawake and unalive. And his call was that of the old prophets. “Divinity lies all around us,” wrote James, “and culture is too hidebound to even suspect the fact.”[4] He then called his hearers to more thoroughly examine their own lives, to see and listen to other people, to marry their ideals with their actions, and to listen deeply to their consciences calling them to wake up and live with intention. He put it poetically, saying that life can be significant, it can be well worth living, if we listen to the nightingale of its meaning singing in our hearts.

John Kaag heard James’ call. And his lecture was a heart song if ever there was one. At the end of his time, the song resonated and carried over into the question and answer session. (I might just add that if you haven’t been to a Q & A with 40 philosophers, they’re really fun.) Many philosophers put their hands up, but the question that caught the room’s imagination involved Kaag’s understanding of transcendence in life. How did he define that term and understand it? Kaag thought about the question for a moment and said that the problem with transcendence was that people were tempted to think of it as other, as far away, as fundamentally different from. But “it’s always already right there,” he said.[5] It’s so close that you can’t see it. Like this, and then he rushed to the front row, took both hands of the closest professor listening, and looked deeply into his eyes. It’s this. Right here the whole time. Always already here. We just don’t stop to notice.

For a moment the room fell silent and everyone smiled. One or two old professors wiped their eyes. And all I can say is that there was a great joy in the room. Maybe life really was worth living, we thought, and maybe its meaning was so close and so accessible that the discovery of it came as a great surprise. This is the scene I thought of when I opened the lectionary reading to Psalm 100 this week. Because Psalm 100 is a song of jubilation; it is the nightingale’s song of its own author’s heart. The old Hebrew poet believes very deeply that life is worth living and he sings as much, but taken as part of the psalms as a whole, we know that there is a depth to what he is saying. Throughout the Book of Psalms, we find psalms of lament, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of searching and confusion, not unlike James’s struggle with the highs and lows of his own lived experience. Yet in the midst of it all, the old psalmist sings with such strength that his song is infectious.

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth,” he begins. “Worship the Lord with gladness, come into [God’s] presence with singing.”[6] And the song continues by grounding our lives in relationship, gratitude, and steadfast love. It’s a song of such zest that I’m sure even William James could have sung it. There’s nothing bourgeois or mediocre in its lines. Rather, the psalm sings the highs of life, its great adventure, leaving the lows to other psalms in the collection. But it’s the boldness that stands out. It’s the risk of singing loudly enough that everyone else can hear. Which is an act of faith.

The psalmist sang that we should come into God’s presence. James wrote that divinity lies all about us. Kaag said that it’s close enough that we can take it by the hand. And we say that maybe they are right. Maybe life is worth living, is worth more than we can say, if we were live as if in the presence of divinity in every moment. But this ideal requires action. Its song is both praise and sometimes protest.

Before we left Boston, an unusual thing happened. Hundreds of scholars took a public stand. In what is now called the Boston Declaration, they called our country to affirm that life is worth living by making choices that support and sustain life, promote human joy and flourishing, and protect and care for the earth and our children. The declaration is too long to read to you in its entirety, but I’ll include it in this week’s newsletter. For now, listen to how it begins:

As followers of Jesus, the Jewish prophet for justice whose life reminds us to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. . .we hear the cries of women and men speaking out. . .we commit ourselves to following Jesus on the road of costly discipleship to seek shalom justice for the least, the lost, and the left out. We declare that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression from the deepest wells of our faith. . .God asks us to make a decision: “Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil. . .Choose life.” Following Jesus today means choosing life, joining the Spirit-led struggle. . .[7]

It’s surprising how much the statement sounds like a song. Because page after page, you can hear philosophers and theologians answering with James’ maybe. Maybe life is worth living if we answer with the song in our hearts. A song that sings of more than our own lives, but of all lives, which we believe are inherently valuable.

What strikes me about the Boston Declaration is how countercultural its song is. Choosing life in this moment of death, choosing hope in this moment of despair, and choosing depth in this moment of the superficial, is to sing something truly subversive. And what inspires me is how many people hear the song. The nightingales in our hearts sing of life’s meaning in this moment. Our work is not only to listen for the song, but to join it.

Somehow I think that William James would approve. Or the psalmist. Or anyone who believes that maybe life really is worth living if we live it boldly, to the fullest.

Amen.

 

[1] John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 3-9.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] William James, “What Makes a Life Significant,” in The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 168.

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] Author’s notes from John Kaag’s lecture at the meeting of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy and the Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought at the American Academy of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, November 19, 2017.

[6] Psalm 100.1-2, New Revised Standard Version.

[7] The Boston Declaration, accessed online at https://thebostondeclaration.com

 

 

Finding Wisdom in Hard Times (Wisdom of Solomon 6.12-16)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 12, 2017

 

I am struck by a scene from an old Preston Sturges film called “Sullivan’s Travels.” The premise is nearly perfect: a Hollywood director, wanting to make a movie about hard times, and realizing he has never suffered, dresses in ragged clothes and rides the boxcars with the down and out. He is seeking to learn through experience, which is one of the definitions of wisdom. But he isn’t very good at it.

Finding himself out of luck and out of money, the director, played by Joel McCrea, walks into a diner near the railroad tracks and orders a cup of coffee. A woman’s voice from the other side of the room interrupts and tells the cook to make it a full breakfast of ham and eggs. The woman, played by Veronica Lake, sits down next to Joel McCrea and becomes his guide for the rest of the film. In many movies of the period, the starlet was something of a sidekick to the lead male character, but not in “Sullivan’s Travels.” Rather, Veronica Lake is the only character who is unflappable. She is wry and wily, but also curious and adventuresome. She won’t let Joel McCrea go it alone, and ends up leading him, though he seems unaware of it most of the time. It’s a comedy with a social conscience, but it’s more that that: the film is an extended meditation on wisdom.

Wisdom in our sacred stories is commonly understood in two ways. First, as a characteristic developed over time through hard experience. And second, as a character who appears in biblical literature in feminine form. Lady Wisdom or Divine Wisdom speaks in different places in the Bible, but never as forcefully as the masculine-themed deity she complements. Instead, like Veronica Lake, Divine Wisdom seems to speak from the other side of the room, interrupting what the men are talking about to change the plotline altogether. That is, if the men will listen.

I say this because our scriptures are so full of men. They were written by men featuring mostly male characters, they were chosen by groups of men who determined what would be included in the corpus of biblical literature, they were preserved by men with an eye toward holding on to their own power, and they have been interpreted mostly by men without much concern for women’s lives or experiences. To underscore this point, I might just ask you to consider how many men you know from the Bible, from the heroes called patriarchs to the man Jesus, who is understandably central to our faith. Then consider how many women you know; fewer, no doubt. Then add all the times women are referred to as this kind of woman or that kind of woman with no proper name given. Then wonder about the character of Lady Wisdom herself. She is one of the most powerful voices in the Bible, yet I dare say many Christians have never heard of her.

I was introduced to Wisdom by one of the wisest women I’ve ever met. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is arguably the most important feminist biblical scholar of the past 50 years. And I say she is wise, rather than smart, because her wisdom was not won from all of her advanced degrees or her lauded academic work at Harvard Divinity School. Rather, Elisabeth’s wisdom comes from the stories of women all around the world. When she is not in class teaching future ministers and professors, she is often in small reading groups in different countries, sitting with the sacred stories in the bible and in the world. She may be the least pretentious brilliant person I’ve ever met. Because she’s wise. And she insists on being called only Elisabeth, which is part of her commitment to radical egalitarianism.

In her essay “Towards a Feminist Wisdom Spirituality of Justice and Well-Being,” Elisabeth offers a short introduction to Divine Wisdom. “In the bible,” she writes:

“Spirit (Ruach)” – “Presence (Shekhinah)” – “Wisdom (Chokmah)” are all three grammatically feminine terms. They refer to very similar female figurations in the Hebrew Bible who express G*d’s saving presence in the world. . .Traditional the*logy has focused on the Spirit, who is in Latin grammatically masculine, whereas feminist the*logy has rediscovered the Divine in female Gestalt or form. Jewish feminists have rediscovered a spirituality of Shekinah. . .[and] Christian, especially Catholic feminists have elaborated the female figure of divine Wisdom. . .Several books of the bible speak about Her, some of which, however, are not found at all or only in an appendix in Protestant versions of the bible.[1]

As Elisabeth explains the rediscovery of the hidden Divine Feminine, there is both a joy at finding Her and a bitterness that she has been withheld for so long. Or perhaps just not heard, speaking from the side of the room to those who would not listen. That was my experience, anyway; that she was not heard. I was raised by feminists who had never read the additional books of the Apocrypha. My parents were Protestants from Texas. They knew the books of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament backwards and forwards, but if you had asked them to find this morning’s reading they wouldn’t have been able to do it. The Wisdom of Solomon wasn’t in any Bible in our home. I didn’t have a Bible with the Apocrypha in it until I went to seminary and bought an Oxford annotated version with all of the books in it; everything Christians around the world read, not just well-meaning Texans who didn’t know what they were missing. And now I’ve given my son the whole Bible with a little encouragement to listen for the Wisdom in it.

So when the lectionary offered a text from the Apocrypha with the voice of Divine Wisdom, I couldn’t resist. She was calling from the other side of the room, with an offer better than ham and eggs. It was an invitation to go a different way.

“Wisdom is radiant and unfading,” says the text. “She is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.”[2] The words are as lovely as a poem, but there’s a bite beneath them. Wisdom is easily discerned, but only if loved. . .not hard to find, but only if you look. It wasn’t hard for Joel McCrea to see that he ought to go along with Veronica Lake because his eyes were open. He was trying to look and listen differently, to escape his own conventional habits and patterns and learn what else there was.

According to the Wisdom of Solomon, the way to find Wisdom is to rise early and seek Her. She will be found at the gate; other texts say she lives at the crossroads. She whispers in the places where people meet, where stories meet, where questions meet and are asked and answered and deepened. “She goes about seeking those worthy of her,” says the text. “She graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”[3] So the promise is that if we authentically search for Wisdom, she will be there. Again, only if our minds and hearts are open. But when we find Her, the reward is sweet. It is, as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza says, “a state of the human mind and spirit characterized by deep understanding and profound insight.” She continues:

Wisdom is the power of discernment, deeper understanding, and creativity; it is the ability to move and dance, to make the connections, to savor life and to learn from experience. Its root meaning comes to the fore in its Latin form sapientia, which is derived from the verb sapere = to taste and to savor something. Wisdom is intelligence shaped by experience and sharpened by critical analysis. It is the ability to make sound choices and incisive decisions.[4]

With this understanding in mind, it seems that we could use a little more wisdom for these hard times. And by that I mean both the characteristic — intelligence shaped by experience and sharpened by critical analysis — and the character — the Divine Feminine given to provide balance to a church and a culture that have been too masculine for too long. If the old movie is any guide or the old sacred stories are, then perhaps the most important thing we can do is set out on a path away from the familiar. We can pull on our traveling clothes and go in search of wisdom. If Joel McCrea could pull on Depression-era rags, then surely we can pull on our pink-eared protest hats and hit the streets to look for, listen to, and learn from women’s stories.

I won’t tell you what Joel McCrea finally learns in the film because I don’t want to spoil the ending. But I will tell you that he couldn’t have learned it by himself. The only way he found Wisdom was by leaving the comforts and constrictions of home. . .so that She could find him.

Amen.

 

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Towards a Feminist Wisdom Spirituality of Justice and Well-Being,” (São Bernardo do Campo: Nhanduti Editora, 2009), 2-3, accessed online at http://www.nhanduti.com/Mangostao.English%20texts/Fiorenza.Eng.pdf

[2] Wisdom of Solomon 6.12, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Wisdom of Solomon 6.16, NRSV.

[4] Schussler Fiorenza, “Towards a Feminist Wisdom Spirituality of Justice and Well-Being,” 4.

 

Finding Our Way (Matt. 5.1-13)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

October 15, 2017

 

My father the anthropologist used to say that we’re all interested in two related questions: Where have we come from and where are we going? I wasn’t thinking of those questions when I got out of the car on Sand Island, a small industrial spit in the middle of Honolulu Harbor, but I was thinking of them an hour later. They’re questions of stewardship, broadly speaking. They ask how we are spending our lives.

What we had gone to see on Sand Island was a living monument to the questions of where we have come from and where we are going. It was a 62-foot double-hulled Hawaiʻian sailing canoe called Hōkūleʻa. Hōkūleʻa was built by members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in the ancient way and she was sailed using the tools available to the old Polynesians; namely, the sky and the sea. Hōkūleʻa was part of the Hawaiʻian cultural resurgence, tying people to their ancestors and a deep sense of what it meant to be Hawaiʻian in time when the culture was being lost and the stories eclipsed. Nainoa Thompson, Hōkūleʻa’s captain wanted to, in his own words, “look to the past to strengthen our future; to bring the technology, wisdom, and values of our ancestors into the present; and to call upon them to help us navigate to a brighter destination. . .”[1]

It’s a beautiful story of indigenous pride, but it is also a story of a people finding their way. In order to know where they were going, Hawaiʻians asked where they had come from and what their resources were. To begin, Thompson and others combed Pacific islands for the old ones who still knew the methods of traditional navigation. These involved reading the sky and the sea. The stars, always fixed in their relation to each other, provided reference points. The sea, changing in temperature and current, offered real-time data. Even the behavior of birds offered clues to the Polynesians who spread across the world’s largest ocean using only their double-hulled canoes. Many will tell you to this day that they view the Pacific Islands as one vast nation made of many peoples who were not divided by the sea, but connected by it.

With this in mind, we were excited to see Hōkūleʻa. She had just returned from a voyage around the world and was in dry dock for an inspection. We arrived just before they closed the gate and a friendly man let us in and showed us around. It turned out he had been part of the crew that had sailed the last leg from Tahiti. We walked up to the canoe and looked at her admiringly while the man told us stories. I was struck by Hōkūleʻa’s smallness. 62-feet long, as I mentioned, but only 20-feet wide. Two hulls banded together with a cabin atop them, which would later remind me of the twin questions of the past and future banded together by the present. And just across the parking lot the beginning of the vast blue Pacific. The man we were talking to traveled thousands of miles across the ocean on this tiny vessel. He spoke of how high the waves were, how bright the stars. As if to underscore the point, he smiled as he said, “We sailed from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi using only two things: observation and dead reckoning.” Meaning the combination of where it looked like they were and where they thought they were. Reconciling the two, the crew found their way across the deepest ocean.

I’ve returned to that image again and again of late because it seems to me that we’re trying to find our way through this moment. A part of this has to do with the convulsions in our country and our politics, a part of this has to do with our spiritual search and the loneliness I believe is growing, and a part of it has to do with our relationship to the natural world and the need to set down our screens and watch the stars, but, in every case, I feel that we may be a bit lost. We may be at sea, feeling the depth of the waters around us, not knowing quite how to make it back home.

I have shared a Hawaiʻian story, but with respect we must name that we are not Hawaiʻian. We can learn from that culture and then look at our own. But if Hawaiʻian people are any guide, and who better to guide us than a wayfinding people, then we might look to our own resources. We might take Nainoa Thompson’s advice and look to the past to strengthen our future, call upon it to help us navigate to someplace brighter.

This is something we try to do in church. We ask where we have come from and where we are going in conversation with our ancestor Jesus and the early communities that formed around his teachings. These are our cultural resources and if we claim them they can also be our reference points and guiding stars. They may also run counter the dominant culture in which we live, which prizes things that the early Christians did not. For example, the earliest Christian communities valued simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, and peaceable living. Contrast this with our current American culture, which values money, possessions, status, and force of arms. The difference is so great that in order to find our way as people of faith we must go back to the stories of who we are and where we came from. Only then will we be able to read the signs of the present moment and chart a course ahead.

I’d like to suggest this morning’s scripture reading as one that might ground us in the wisdom of Jesus. It is the Beatitudes, one of Jesus most beloved teachings, known for the beauty of its poetry and the longing of its vision. The Beatitudes are the first of five major teaching discourses in the Book of Matthew, each of them designed to help us understand who we are and who we might become going forward. Yet Matthew himself is drawing from the past, as is Jesus. Matthew’s gospel, more than any other, references Hebrew literature and tradition, highlighting the Jewishness of Jesus and the long line of ancestors from which he derives. Jesus is setting out on his own way, but he knows where he has come from. His guiding stars are the law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings, which he uses even as he observes where he is and what is happening around him. Part of what is happening around him is the marginalization of different people during a time of empire. He sees those for whom the status quo does not work, for whom religion is a harm and economics a tool of exploitation. And he joins himself with these, calls them his sisters and brothers. The canoe he is sailing has room enough for the ones who have never been invited before. It is a boatload of enemies and outcasts, searchers and skeptics, the bruised and the brokenhearted all looking for a place to belong. Jesus’ message is good news to them; good news that runs counter to the culture.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes:

Jesus is remembered and presented by the early church as the faithful embodiment of an alternative consciousness. . .[and] the one thing the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion, the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order.[2]

What Bruggemann is getting at, I think, is that Jesus imagines things differently because he has a sense not only of who he is, but who his sisters and brothers are. He knows where he has come from—the deep teachings of Judaism; he knows where he is—surrounded by sisters and brothers on the margins; and this enables him to know where he is going—into a new vision of a beloved community of equals. This is nowhere more plain than in that first discourse in Matthew, the Beatitudes.

When the crowds came to hear him, he sat down, taking the traditional teaching position of a rabbi, and shared with them what his movement was about, who his kin-dom was for:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, he said, for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, he said, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, he said, for they will inherit the earth. And then he kept going, turning the status quo on its head. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those with pure hearts, those who make peace, and those who are persecuted for these dreams and visions of the way the world could be. These are the ones, he says right after, who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And while he didn’t exactly mean the salt of the sea or the light of the stars, his words are a guide for us. If we look to the meek and the mournful, if we look to the poor in spirit and the pure of heart, and if we see who is on the margins and pull them into our boat, this is the beginning of the way.

It brings us back to stewardship, insofar as it brings us back to the questions of where we have come from and where we are going. We have come from way back, from the times and the teachings recorded in our sacred stories. We have come from the law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings. Yet we have also come from Jesus’ creative interpretation of those things and his translation of them through his own life and teachings. And we have come from the earliest Christian communities, which tried to put the Beatitudes into practice with their commitments to simplicity, sharing, egalitarianism, and peaceable living. We go into the future with this past to strengthen us. And it is a future that will need us.

It’s no secret that we live in turbulent times. We are sailing the deep waters, hoping to make our way through. Many in the past year have shared how much this community means to them. We have found safety here and sanity. It’s as much a lifeboat as a sailing canoe. Yet we have also found vision and voice. It’s a place where we dream together of a Beatitudes-based world, where all have what they need and everyone is welcomed in. Soon you will receive a letter that includes a vision of where we are going with regard to programs, staffing, justice work, and education in the year to come. I hope that you will join us in pledging your time, energy, and money to the mission of Circular Church. These pledges help us know what resources we have to make the vision real, to bring it to life in the months ahead. But what I hope most is that our giving will be joyful and even proud because what our time, energy, and money make possible is something that really is different than the status quo. Every week we come here, and for at least an hour or two, the world is almost as it should be. All of us on the canoe, sailing the deep waters together on love’s way home.

After we had spoken with the man for a while, it was time for the crew to go home. We thanked him and took one last look at Hōkūleʻa. We asked how long she would be in for repairs. Not long, he said. And then he explained there were many more places to go.

Amen.

 

[1] Nainoa Thompson, “Mālama Honua: Hōkūleʻa’s Voyage of Hope – Part 4, Right Direction,” accessed online at http://www.patagonia.com/blog/2017/03/malama-honua-hokuleas-voyage-of-hope-part-4-right-direction/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 88.

Lower East Side, New York

 

Who would you be if you could try again? (Luke 22.14-20)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

October 1, 2017

 

Early in the week we watched the movie “Groundhog Day.” I hadn’t seen it since I first saw it in the theater in 1993. I remembered the movie being funny, I remembered it being clever, and I remembered it being rated PG. I also remembered the premise. Bill Murray, playing a television weatherman, finds himself stuck in the same day, February 2nd, in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. No matter what he does that day, he wakes up the next morning to live the same day all over again. His alarm clock plays the same song, he looks out the window at the same scene, he greets the same people at breakfast, and so on. These are the things I remembered about the movie, and I thought it might be a help during these times. Because it has begun to feel like every day we’re getting up to the same bad news. Another hurricane or earthquake. Another protest for black lives. Another piece of mean legislation proposed. Another hateful or insensitive tweet from the president. It feels like the long winter in the movie “Groundhog Day,” and I wondered how the movie might speak to this moment.

What I hadn’t remembered about the movie, however, was its heart. Sure it was funny and clever and rated PG, but it also struck at something so deep that I don’t think I really understood it 24 years ago. Bill Murray’s weatherman begins as a kind of self-absorbed jerk and makes a narrative movement toward becoming a better person. This in itself is standard Hollywood fare. But the existential seasons he goes through are not. When faced with the same day over and over again, he first panics, then embraces the opportunity, then falls into a deep depression, then tries to seduce his love interest, Andie Macdowell, then really falls in love with her, then lets go and begins to love everyone and simply live as if his one day mattered. . .in a way that he had never lived before. It’s a breathtaking movement, made all the more powerful by the fact that it is not preachy at all. It’s deadpan. For example, in one scene Murray sits with two local sad sacks at a bar and asks them straight out. “What would you do,” he asks, “if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One of them takes a drink and stares into space while the other one answers, “That about sums it up for me.” In a sense, that’s the movie’s question: Is it possible not to be stuck in one place, to live each day differently, and to do things with our lives that matter?

While I didn’t appreciate the movie’s depth when I first saw it, many did. Screenwriters Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis began getting mail right away. Christian ministers wrote that they had captured something about the heart of the gospel’s idea that we are all redeemable. But rabbis also wrote that it was a perfect depiction of mitzvah, good deeds done to repair and restore the world. Buddhist monks wrote of the cycle of samsara that we are all stuck in until we begin to break through with spiritual practice and insight. Pagans wrote of the way new life in spring pushes through winter’s dark. And psychologists wrote that the movie reminded them, more or less, of every one of their patients. Writing of the movie on its 20th anniversary, James Parker observed, “The makers of ‘Groundhog Day’ appeared to have struck, almost by accident, a water main of meaning. The Message, as I heard it, was this: There is a way back, a way through the imprisoning mystery of yourself, a way back into life.[1]
That is the first part of the message I heard. That it is possible to try again. It is possible to rise to each new day and choose to be the person I wish to be. Nothing binds me to the past. Nothing determines the new day. I am confined only by my inability to imagine things otherwise. Every viewer puts himself or herself in the place of Murray’s weatherman. When he begins to change, we all realize that we might, too.

Yet there is a second part of the message. The weatherman changes because he moves beyond his love of self and begins to love the whole. By the end of the movie he knows, and genuinely loves, everyone in the small town because he has spent so much time with them that he has begun to see how beautiful they are. It is a conversion not unlike the one Thomas Merton had while standing on the sidewalk. “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,” Merton wrote, “in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness. . .”[2] Merton continues by describing what he felt was seeing every person as God saw them and the wonder and beauty of it nearly hurt his eyes.

It’s hard to think of a more Christian message than that. Or, in the spirit of the movie, a more Jewish or Buddhist message. But in the context of our own tradition, I was struck by the emphasis on trying again. Behold, I am doing a new thing. I was lost but now I am found. Like being born again into a different way of life. Our faith suggests, if not complete certainty, then ways of living and being that are grounded in love and that believe in the possibility of change, transformation, and redemption. We don’t have to be stuck in the same day, doing the same things, as the same people. We can get out of bed and make different choices. Which is not to discount the difficultly of change. The movie suggests it takes Murray’s character an untold number of days to slowly become a better person. But the movie’s heart hangs on the idea of possibility. It is possible to try again.

It brings us to communion in a strange way. Because if there is one thing we do over and over again, it is communion. Here at Circular we do it in the same way every month, which I believe is actually a comforting and grounding practice. We make the same circle, we share the same elements, we say more or less the same things, but we ourselves are never exactly the same. From month to month we change. Jobs change, lives change, kids grow, parents age, dear ones die, anniversaries pass. The circle is a kind of marker for us. Every time we come to it we remember where we were the last time. We remember who we were. And we are offered the chance to ask again who we would like to be.

Jesus would have understood this when he began the ritual. Because he was engaging in the same kind of practice. He and his students were sharing the Passover meal. We heard it this morning in Luke’s telling. Luke, incidentally, is the only gospel to point out that this is the Passover. He seems keen to let us know that this is something Jesus and his students would have done time and time again. Yet Jesus reinterprets the meal and brings it into the present moment in a way that suggests its transformative possibilities. He took the unleavened bread and the cup of wine and said that they themselves were new. This is myself, broken and offered. This is the cup of our covenant together. Keep doing these things even after I am gone. In order to remember me. But also in order to remember my teachings and let them live in you. He mentions that the kin-dom is coming, still waiting to be realized. But it also seems, as so often with Jesus, that it is fulfilled in the moment, in the performance of it. Perhaps both are true. We are waiting to be changed. And we are becoming changed. So long as we join in the circle of participation. Which is all the weatherman did in the movie.

I’ll leave it to you to determine exactly what happened that created the change at the end of “Groundhog Day.” To their credit, Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis wrote a couple of ideas that they decided to leave out so that viewers could interpret things for themselves. But I believe what made the change was Bill Murray’s participation. Something happened inside himself that allowed him to let go of the things he couldn’t control and take hold of the things he could. Only then did he begin to see the possibilities all around him. Only then did he fall in love with it all.

It’s an invitation, I think. To watch the movie. To break the bread. To pass the wine. To try again. And to fall in love with it all.

Today may it be so with us.

Amen.

 

[1] James Parker, “Reliving Groundhog Day,” The Atlantic, March 2013, accessed online at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/reliving-groundhog-day/309223/

[2] Thomas Merton, quoted in Albert Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 122.

Shrines at the Lawa‘I International Center in Kalaheo, Kauaʻi.

 

A Personal Peace Treaty (James 3.13-18, Matt. 5.9)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

September 17, 2017

 

You’ve heard this story before, but as writer Sherman Alexie says, when you tell a story enough times it becomes a kind of song. So here’s the story. May it become one of our songs.

We gathered to hear the great Zen master teach. Several hundred of us, maybe a thousand, sat cross-legged in a gymnasium converted into a makeshift zendo. We began our days with silent meals, we sat for hours in meditation, then we listened to the dharma talks of Thich Nhat Hanh. He was teaching us the cultivation of peace.

Outside the world was on fire. We had just invaded Iraq, a country that had not threatened or attacked us, and we were responsible for the deaths of thousands and the displacement of untold numbers of others. The peaceniks gathered to hear Thich Nhat Hanh had heavy hearts. Some of us had bruised hearts. Hard hearts.

And Thich Nhat Hanh put us to work. He was angry, too, he said. He was grieved. But none of us could allow those feelings to plunge us into despair or powerlessness. No, the world needed peacemakers more than ever. And each one of us was a peacemaker waiting to be realized. We just needed the tools.

He put us through a kind of compassionate boot camp. We worked on our breathing. We paid attention to our strong emotions. We bowed to each other as we came and went. We smiled to our neighbors. And we just acted peacefully. The practice began to take effect during the week. By the end of it, Thich Nhat Hanh had us writing love letters to the president and the generals, sharing tea with each other along with our most vulnerable stories, building stone cairns by the river as monuments to our gentle resolve. Then he gave us all a book.

It had just been published and the boxes came straight to our retreat. He signed each copy and passed them out. The book was titled Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World. It began with the simple instruction that he’d been offering all week:

True peace is always possible. Yet it requires strength and practice, particularly in times of great difficulty. To some, peace and nonviolence are synonymous with passivity and weakness. In truth, practicing peace and nonviolence is far from passive. To practice peace, to make peace alive in us, is to actively cultivate understanding, love, and compassion, even in the face of misperception and conflict. Practicing peace, especially in times of war, requires courage.[1]

I have read and reread the book for its practical wisdom and its reminders of things we can do, like the creation of a personal peace treaty, which I’ll mention in a moment. But I have also returned to the book because it is so deeply Christian. Not Christian in the sense that Thich Nhat Hanh holds some creedal view of Jesus; he does not. But Christian in the sense that it so clearly resonates with the life and teachings of Jesus, for whom Thich Nhat Hanh has long expressed a deep admiration. Christian in the sense that it seeks to put down swords, turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, and have the courage to live and work from a place of love instead of fear. Christian like the passage we’ve heard from the old letter of James.

James caused a stir by not caring about doctrine too much but focusing instead on spirituality and ethics. He was the one who famously said we should be doers of the word not merely hearers of it. And in Chapter 3 of his short letter to the early church, he offers a thought on how to live wisely. Who is wise and understanding, he says, will show it by their lives. If we’re bitter, selfish, and boastful, then we’re not religious in any meaningful way. But if we’re peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, then we might be practicing the true religion after all. It is, in many ways, a good strong word about how we act and speak, how we treat others, and how we live and move in the world. James ends his thought with a beautiful verse, which is why we chose this passage for Peace Sunday. A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Put another way, if we plant the seeds of peace, we will reap its sweet fruit in our lives and the life of the larger community.

It sounds like something Jesus would have said. He spoke in agrarian metaphors. Parables of fields, farmers, and sowers. And he said that those who made peace would be blessed. They would be called the very children of God. The only thing he didn’t do was provide us the exact tools. Which brings us back to our Buddhist brother, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. . .[But] to work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart.”[2] So the Zen master has spent his life trying to teach us how to develop an inner peace and calm that we may then carry into our larger work for peace, justice, and equality.

On that first retreat I attended, he did this by encouraging us all to develop what he called a personal peace treaty. This is something that we wrote down and could say to ourselves or even hang on our wall. In Creating True Peace, he offers an example.

To make a personal peace treaty we can write: “Dear Self, I promise to practice and live my daily life in a way that will not touch or water the seed of violence within me.” We are determined in every moment. . .to nourish loving-kindness within us. We can also share this commitment with our beloved ones. We can go to our partner, our son or daughter [or friend], and say, “My dear, beloved one, if you really love me, please do not water the seed of violence in me. Please water the seed of compassion in me. I promise to do the same for you.”[3]

It’s a simple sounding practice, but all the more transformative for it. A small step that leads to others. If we name the intention to live peaceably together, then we must try to make that happen. And Thich Nhat Hanh offers examples of mindful practices of meditation and gratitude. He offers individual and family peace treaties. He counsels the creation of a breathing room or space where anyone can go when they are angry and there sit to breathe and cool down when needed. He shares the example of a family crisis averted when parents and a child agreed to sit in their quiet room together until their hearts were in a more peaceful place. What a precious gift to give to each other, he says. And it is as close to us as our willingness to participate in it.

But who is wise and understanding? The ones who are peaceable, gentle, and full of mercy with each other. The seeds they plant and nourish will bloom.

So if this story were to become a song, here’s how we would sing it. We would remember that in a time of war, hundreds of people, maybe a thousand, gathered for a week and lived in quiet peace together. We would recall the smile of the old Zen master who said that the heart of both Buddha and Christ’s teachings was the practice of nonviolence in our hearts and our world. We would draft personal and family peace treaties. We would ground ourselves in prayer and meditation. We would retreat to a breathing room or space when needed. And we would make this all into a kind of song. A hymn of peace made out of every ordinary voice saying, beloved, let us water the best seeds in each other. Let us have the courage to make peace in this time of war.

All these years later I am still trying to develop a peaceful heart. The times we are living in make that work both more challenging and more necessary. The peace of Buddha and Christ is not passive or weak. But it brings a stillness to our work for justice and our labor for a better world. And it brings a smile to those who put it into practice.

So let us go home and make a treaty today. Dear Self, I promise to practice and live my daily life in a way that will not touch or water the seed of violence within me. I promise to do what I can do to make my story part of the song of peace.

Amen.

 

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World (New York: Free Press, 2003), 1.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), 74.

[3] Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace, 7.

Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton

Low Frequency (Psalm 96)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

August 20, 2017

She spoke in such a low register that I almost didn’t know anyone was speaking at all. Besides, it was the middle of the night. But her question was persistent. I rose and rubbed my eyes. Outside? I asked. Yes, she tiptoed. And I followed.

We walked out onto the lanai. It was two o’clock in the morning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The sky was a planetarium. Sara grew up going to astronomy camp, but I grew up going to church. So she read the stars like a map and I read them like a poem. She pointed out the constellations. We looked at the Pleiades, a cluster of hundreds of stars, a handful of which are visible to the naked eye. According to the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, they’re about 100 million years old, 1/50 the age of our sun, and the closest of them is 425 light years away. But to our naked eyes, they were right there, a part of the story of our night. We watched for a while, admiring the view and feeling ourselves placed on the cosmic map in a way that we rarely do. It was awe-inspiring and mostly silent. We heard the rhythmic rolling of waves on the beach. We heard our own breathing. And we looked up.

Looking into the night sky has always been about what we see. The ancients looked up, just as we do, and were struck silent by what they saw. But looking into the night sky is also about what we hear. The questions spoken in such a low register that if we’re not attuned, we won’t pick them up. We fall back to sleep. But if we are looking and listening deeply, then we’ll hear the questions of stars, breath, being, and time. They’re the richest existential questions, illumining our minds like the nighttime sky. And they may well surprise us.

In her book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, physicist Janna Levin writes of the discovery that surprised everyone working at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (or LIGO) when they finally turned their detector on after years of construction.[1] Scientists had expected to hear something eventually, but instead they heard something right away. Before they had even finished calibrating all of the equipment, Levin says. What they heard was the sound of two black holes colliding one billion four hundred million light-years away. They heard it in the middle of the night, by accident. LIGO equipment in Washington had been shut down, but equipment in Louisiana had been left on when frustrated workers put down their tools and walked away. A gravitational wave passed through the Southern sky that night and was picked up. When researchers slowed down the signal, they found it was audible to the human ear. They hadn’t expected to hear anything because they hadn’t finished tuning the equipment to the high frequencies they thought they needed. But the sound of black holes colliding came in at such a low frequency. Nobody had seen that coming. What the universe had to say was uttered in a low register. It was less angelic than expected, more guttural. And it was beautiful. When researchers heard it, it brought tears to their eyes.

I’ve been thinking of that story all week because we’re moving toward the total solar eclipse tomorrow. There’s a lot of excitement around the house. You can hear a podcast of Janna Levin playing while the boy makes pinhole cameras out of old cereal boxes.[2] But I’ve also been thinking of that story because we are living through such difficult times. There’s a lot of grief and anger around the house. You can hear a podcast of Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about Charlottesville while yours truly publishes anguished prayers on Facebook.[3] Our country’s original sin of white supremacy continues to haunt us, has risen to the surface so violently, and has been courted and encouraged by the bigots and bullies in our political and civic life. I have wondered if there isn’t something being said or sung in a low register in this moment, something guttural that we might hear if we really knew how to listen.

In his book, The Spirituals and the Blues, theologian James Cone writes of how singing of low times has sustained and inspired black Americans throughout their history. Cone studies the tradition of religious spirituals and secular blues, uniting them in a common song of struggle and possible redemption, but always rooted in the here and now; the real, lived experience of black people. He quotes the jazz musician Charlie Parker: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”[4] To which Cone adds that his own theology is a kind of music. “I write about the spirituals and the blues,” he says, “because I am the blues and my life is a spiritual.”[5] If you read Cone’s theology, it comes across like the dark of night of the soul. He is honest about the racism in our history, naming it for the sin it has always been and continues to be. But if you look into his pages long enough and listen deeply to what he is saying, the sound you hear is as guttural and beautiful as anything the LIGO researchers heard.

I sat down with James Cone in New York at the beginning of my sabbatical. We had a long lunch and talked over many things. At one point I asked him what he made of the social upheaval of this moment. It didn’t take him long to answer. It is our past coming back to haunt us, he said. If you look back into our history you will see all of it. And he offered a litany of examples from the past, fleshed out in the present. For Cone, what ails us is less about a single political figure or a current political program, as dangerous as those can be, and more about the cycles and seasons that return and replay over time, trapping us for centuries. The moon wheels in front of the sun, blocking it out for a moment, but as the old wisdom writer Qohelet said, there ain’t nothing new. At least not until we do what we have never done before and get to the root by telling the truth as Cone does, working toward repair and restoration, giving back all that has been taken, and daring to believe that the way it has always been is not the way it has to be. That would be a song more guttural and beautiful than any of us have ever heard before.

James Cone says his own work for justice is soundtracked by B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Mahalia Jackson. In my own case, when I am weariest I always turn to Aretha Franklin’s 1967 masterpiece, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” which is 32 minutes and 51 seconds of straight up medicine. But there is another source of music that we share as Christians in the struggle for social justice. We grew up reading the psalms, which we were raised to stare into as texts, though they are really songs if you are attuned to them. This morning’s psalm is one that longs to move beyond the way things have always been. It looks to the sky, but only with its feet planted on earth. And its lines offer us a vision of the ways they might be joined.

O sing to the LORD a new song, it begins. Sing to the LORD, all the earth.[6] What follows is language extolling the Hebrew God, whose name is a mystery, but whose works are not. The psalmist extols the mystery, encourages reverence before it, and invokes natural imagery. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, he sings.[7] It’s a nice glance skyward on the eve of an eclipse. Then the psalmist moves to a word about judgment. The LORD is coming, he sings, to judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with truth.[8] And I must confess, friends, that I may not have really heard this psalm in the past because I was listening at the wrong frequency, hoping for something more angelic. I didn’t know what to do with words of ancient judgment, which sounded superstitious and off-putting. But this week when I reread the psalm, I finally heard something at a lower frequency. I heard the yearning, the groaning, the guttural longing in the judgment. The psalmist was tired of the status quo and wanted things to be put right. Righteousness and truth would be the standards. Goodness and decency. Ethics, care, and reciprocal relationship. And in this moment I sure could sing that song. Because day after day we see the bigotry and bullying. We are not told the truth. We are subjected to all the old cycles, seasons, and symbols of hate. And I think I might welcome a little righteousness and truth. I think I might hear what the psalmist is singing. The question is: What song will we sing in return?

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to sing a larger song. I’m still listening for it, in a way. It’s coming in at such a low frequency that I have trouble staying attuned. I pick it up for a moment, then lose it again. It’s a song of weariness—we are so tired of the same old seeds of hatred. It’s a song of sustenance—we look into the night sky to get our bearings. It’s a song of paradox—we are angry with our bigoted brothers and sisters and yet we are trying to learn to love them because they are our relations. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us, we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically.[9] It’s a song of yearning—we dream of a different day when we break free from all the old cycles. It’s a song of curiosity—we wonder if somehow, in all of this unrest, there isn’t the best opportunity we’ve had to create something new. And so I have begun to look forward to tomorrow’s eclipse for the most surprising of reasons. I’m not sure I care if I see the eclipse at all. I care if I see and hear my brothers and sisters.

In her essay, “Among Others,” Helen Macdonald writes of how watching an eclipse is essentially a social experience. We are not watching by ourselves, as isolated beings, apart from all that is. We are watching precisely to locate ourselves in a larger story, in a greater song. Macdonald writes of the current eclipse as a kind of medicine for what ails us in this hateful time. “The most distressing present-day crowds,” she writes:

are those whose politics are built from fear and outrage against otherness. They are entities that define themselves by what they are against. Yet the simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way. Confronting something like the absolute, our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn, there can be no them, only us.[10]

 

And that, dear friends, is the song. I know that it comes at a low frequency, not easy to hear in this moment. But eclipses themselves are low frequency events, only coming around now and then to remind us. I pray that when we gather on our beaches and boardwalks, when we put on our glasses or stare into our pinhole cameras, when we stand beneath a sky that slips from sunlight to stars and reminds us of our place that we’ll hear what the psalmist said the heavens were singing. The song that is less angelic, more guttural. And all the more beautiful for it. May it bring tears to our eyes.

Amen.

 

[1] Janna Levin, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 205-212.

[2] Inquiring Minds, Episode 140, “Janna Levin – This is the Sound of Two Black Holes Colliding,” July 8, 2016.

[3] Democracy Now! “Ta-Nehisi Coates on Charlottesville, Trump, the Confederacy, Reparations, and More,” August 15, 2017.

[4] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 5.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Psalm 96.1, New Revised Standard Version.

[7] Ps. 96.11a.

[8] Ps. 96.13b.

[9] Quoted by Sara, sourced at Goodreads.com.

[10] Helen Macdonald, “Among Others,” The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, August 6, 2017, 3.

photo credit: Existential Comics

Hitting the Road (Matt. 21.1-11)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

April 9, 2017

 

When she received the bad news, Norma Jean Bauerschmidt looked her doctor in the eye. Her cancer was advanced, he had said, and surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy were unlikely to do much. But he needed her thoughts on a course of action. Norma Jean drew a breath and made her choice. I’m 90 years old, she said to the doctor. I’m hitting the road.

She left the doctor’s office, rented an RV, and did just that. She took her son, daughter-in-law, and their dog along with her and the whole thing became a bit of an internet sensation. They logged thousands of miles and covered 32 states with the time she had left. Norma Jean did things she had never done before, savoring each one. She climbed into a hot air balloon. She sat for a pedicure. She ate key lime pie. And she woke to a very beautiful sense of the present. In spite of her mortality. More likely because of it.

It’s a beautiful story for its spirit. Norma Jean looked at the odds, figured the time she had left, and hit the road, enjoying every moment. And it’s a beautiful story for its existential courage. She knew where the road was going.

I read the story after she died in October last year and thought immediately of Palm Sunday. Because Palm Sunday tells the story of Jesus hitting the road. And it plays with our understanding of mortality, asking questions of who we would be if we knew our days were numbered, which they are. It’s a story that we often tell with great seriousness, as if we must march to the grave bearing heavy crosses. But what if we spent our last days as Norma Jean did, foot on the gas with all our people in the backseat. Let’s see this thing before we’re gone. Let’s hit the road.

I don’t know if Jesus was as whimsical as Norma Jean. But I don’t know that he wasn’t. His wisdom teachings and his way of being both seem delightfully off kilter. And sometimes I feel that the institutional church has understood him about as well as Norma Jean’s doctor understood her. We sit down with him every year, telling him that his days are numbered, asking if he’s willing to go through the usual rigmarole. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. But the diagnosis is the same. It’s mortality either way.

And just this year, thanks to Norma Jean, I imagine Jesus looking us in the eye and saying with a smile, I’m 33 years old. I’m hitting the road. Then swinging onto a donkey and loping off like the unconventional character he was. Because he was that, friends.

He was unconventional politically. We see it in the text. The people, expecting a certain kind of king, lay cloaks on the ground to welcome him. They think of him as a messiah in traditional terms. He’ll come to rule, preside over, care for. But he knows that’s not his road. His kingdom is already spread out all around. It is lilies and sparrows, enemies and outcasts, the least and the lowest. It isn’t the kind of kingdom anyone ever wanted, then or now. A kingdom of the least and the lowest? And with nary a sword. That’s no kind of kingdom.

And he was unconventional religiously. We see it in his life. Breaking all the rules from the time he was a boy. Sitting in the temple to interpret. Reading the prophet’s scrolls and declaring that every captive be freed, not some other time, but there and then, in the moment the words were said. Chiding people for their hypocrisy in observing the letter of the law without living its spirit. All the law can be spoken in a single breath, anyway, he said. Love God and your neighbor as yourself. Every neighbor. Do it by hitting the road and riding your own donkey past all the old dividing lines. Find Samaritans, tax collectors, fishers, prostitutes, lepers. Neighbors every one. God’s beautiful, shining children.

When he entered Jerusalem, they all asked, Who is this? The crowds said it was the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. But they really had no idea. They thought he would save them. When in fact he came to wake them up. You have your diagnosis, he hinted. And you are 10 years old, 25 years old, 40 years old, 60, 75. You should be hitting the road.

What a beautiful message, so often overlooked by institutional Christianity. Because the church that was formed in his name turned so conventional over time. It was conventional politically, siding with unjust structures and systems. It was conventional religiously, offering people promises of certainty, no existential courage required. Which takes all the fun out of it. And it takes all the faith out, too.

Because the truth is, all of us live in the not knowing. We don’t know how many days we have. We don’t know where to find certainty. We don’t know what our lives are about. We don’t know all kinds of things that we never admit we don’t know. And the church has faltered greatly in suggesting that knowing is the point. Instead of living. We read stories like this and want to know the ending. What will happen to Jesus? Will he be all right in the end? What will happen to us? Will we be all right in the end? Those were never the most important questions, according to Jesus. And when they asked him he asked back. What will happen to the lilies? What will happen to the sparrows? Stop worrying about things you cannot know and live your life. Stop worrying and simply love God, love this world, and love everything in it.

It’s an existential wisdom, completely uninterested in the clinging questions of ego. It invites us to hit the road. Climb into a hot air ballon. Sit for a pedicure. Eat key lime pie. But more than that. Care for the earth. Fight injustice. Speak unvarnished truth. Hit the road to your true self and find out how beautiful it is. Only then will you know what he meant. Only then will you find it, here and now.

I don’t know if Norma Jean was a person of faith, but she was a person who was free enough to hit the road. And she experienced there what so many of the great teachers have taught. That in laying down her life, she could find it again. In hitting the road, she could make for herself a home. A home in the present moment, the gift beyond any words.

Norma Jean’s family learned the lesson, too. A public invitation to her funeral asked that people not send flowers to the service. Send them to someone you love, it said. Today.

Amen.

Choosing Not to Make So Many Choices (Psalm 116.1,2,5-9)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

March 19, 2017

On the eve of Ash Wednesday I made a Lenten choice. Aware that the six weeks leading to Easter are Christianity’s most contemplative season, I thought of the most contemplative place I know. During Lent, I thought, I’ll pretend I’m at Green Gulch.

Green Gulch is a Zen Farm I’ve visited for years. North of San Francisco Bay, it sits nestled inside a steep valley leading toward the sea. I’ve long romanticized it for its beauty, its quiet, and the way everyone there is a cross between a Buddhist monk and a farmhand. Sojourners with shaved heads sit meditation in the morning, then pull on dusty work boots and farm during the day. And for some reason I thought I might duplicate that in Mount Pleasant.

What I thought was that I would observe the regimen and diet. I would begin the day in meditation, eat only vegetarian food, refrain from alcohol, and live the clean, boring life of a monk for six weeks. Yet it began more comically than I could have guessed. First I had to find my zafu, the Zen meditation cushion that I have used for years. To my embarrassment, it could not be found, forcing me into the realization that maybe I hadn’t been meditating as much as I thought. After a full day of looking, I found it wedged under a piece of furniture, covered in dust. Then came the meal planning. When I mentioned a Green Gulch diet, I thought we’d just eat as always and leave out the meat. But Sara remembered what I had actually eaten at Green Gulch and began planning accordingly. Plain steel oats for breakfast, fresh kale, brown rice, and tempeh for dinner. All washed down with tea or almond milk. It’s a lovely, cleansing diet, but I hadn’t thought that I’d be learning new recipes every day. While the boy did his homework in the kitchen, I was busy learning how to bake tofu so that it’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Leaving off alcohol was the easiest part because I didn’t have to learn anything new. I already knew how to make tea.

As with any new practice, I smiled at myself living into it. My mind was busy when I sat to meditate. My hands were slow slicing tofu. But after a few days I began to feel the relief of my choice. Or rather my lack of choice. Because what I had chosen set me on a path and took other choices off the table. I didn’t have to think each day about how I would start the day, I would simply meditate. I didn’t have to ask myself whether I would eat meat that day, I had already chosen not to. I didn’t have to be an expert once I had the basics down, I could make the rice, chop the kale, brew the tea, and free my mind of all those decisions.

At the same time I was reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. Soojung-Kim Pang, a science writer and visiting scholar at Stanford, organizes his book into daily routines and deep practices that stimulate creativity by allowing our minds and bodies to rest. In my case, the choices I had made were daily routines. Making them for a season was closer to a deep practice. The whole effect, of course, was to allow my mind to rest from the constant decision making about small things — how to start the day, what to eat, and so on — and let it work on other things in more creative ways. In the introduction to the book, Soojung-Kim Pang reminds us that in 1899 William James was already warning of Americans’ tendency to overwork.[1] We are panting and expectant, James observed, breathless and tense. Indeed. So much so that some of us want to pretend we are at a Zen farm.

Part of our breathlessness is the pace we have created for ourselves. Almost everyone I know complains of it. We rush from one place to the next, answering to our smartphone calendars. We flood ourselves with information, getting the latest news updates many times a day. We make calls, answer e-mails, and text our way through the hours before blinking awake when we finally switch our devices off just in time to go to sleep. It’s mentally and maybe even spiritually exhausting.

And a part of our breathlessness is the work itself. We have our vocational work, which occupies much of our time, including paid and unpaid vocations. But we also have our work for equality and social justice. We feel the times we are living in and the urgency of the moment. So many are threatened these days, from trans kids to black lives to refugees and immigrants to poor and working people who need health care. We are working at church, we are working in our justice ministry, we are working in other groups around town, and the work really matters. We are going to need to keep doing the work for years, but, in order to keep doing it, we need to find a balance. On a daily basis, we need to rest.

One model we might draw from was a man who lived a generation ago. He wrote of the need for both contemplation and action, and he lived his life on a bridge between the two. Thomas Merton was a brother in a Cistercian monastery in Kentucky. He was deeply involved in the antiwar movement, in the freedom struggle for racial equality and civil rights, and in the other social issues of his day. But he was also a quiet man, a writer and an artist, who spent a great deal of time in reflection. As much as anyone, the choices he made set him on a certain path. In choosing the monastery, his daily regimen was determined. In choosing nonviolence, his commitment was clear. In choosing to see the world and himself in certain ways, he was relieved of so many other choices. He never needed to ask after that if he would take up the sword or support the arms race, he had decided not to. He never needed to ask if he would work for social justice, he had decided that was the way of love. He never needed to ask if he would begin his day in contemplation or prayer, he had decided there was no other way to begin.

In her book, A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton, theologian Esther de Waal takes readers through a series of exercises in slowing down and learning to see. She does this not only with Merton’s words, but with his art. Merton wrote, It might be a good thing to open our eyes and see.[2] And then he opened his eyes and took out his camera. He photographed the world as he saw it in a very simple way. Merton tried to see a place in every time and season of the year. So he photographed the same things over and over again. Wheelbarrows. Tree stumps. Watering Cans. Gates. He was trying to look at the ordinary objects and moments in a life and see the beauty in them. To realize, in the words of our opening prayer, that we have what we seek and don’t need to rush after it. He chose to see the sacred in the simple, holiness hidden in the everyday, all around. That choice relieved him of so many other choices, choices that were mostly just distractions.

The Lord protects the simple hearts, wrote the psalmist, in one of Thomas Merton’s favorite lines. I was helpless so the Lord saved me. And my soul was turned back to rest.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, one worth revisiting during this season. Perhaps at the end of another overscheduled day, when we climb into bed and switch off the lamp. The Lord protects the simple, we might whisper. Turns our souls to rest. Which is an easy thing to say, as easy as saying I’d like to pretend I’m at Green Gulch. But it’s trickier to do.

The other Lenten practice we’ve adopted is Sara’s. She resolved to switch off all screens at 9:00 p.m. and give the final hours of the day to drinking tea and reading quietly. She wanted to allow her mind to rest, to put the day’s work and the bad news of our politics on the shelf and leave them until morning. If I was purifying my body with deep breathing and kale salads, then I think she was purifying her mind with calm and quiet before bed. But, friends, do you know how difficult it is to switch off screens these days? Because there’s always one more article to read about how shockingly bad things are, and there’s always John Oliver or Samantha Bee ready to make us laugh and cry about it. So lest our family sound like we’ve got it all together, I am authorized to confess that we’re not quite batting a thousand with this Lenten practice. I’d say about half the time we’ve switched off at 9:00 p.m. to notice the loveliness all around us. And I’d say that about half the time we’ve tuned in and shaken our fists at the iPad, harrumphing our way toward bedtime like the spiritual novices we are. I suppose that why we call it spiritual practice. And I suppose that’s why we make the commitments in the first place. Because we’re trying. We’re setting our intention. We’re making certain choices. And we’re hoping that the choices will keep us from having to choose all the time. Having to choose every day who we want to be when we really already know in our hearts. . . We want to be people of contemplation and action, people who are centered and compassionate, people who are awake to their lives and deeply attuned to both their challenges and their wonders. We want to be, in a very real way, whole. So we make certain choices and put ourselves on a path.

I don’t know what your Lenten choices might be or even if you’ve made any. But it’s not too late to pretend you’re at Green Gulch or to switch off your screen at night and enjoy the contemplative comedy of being human. Or it’s not too late to make some other choice, something that centers and grounds you. The most important thing is to make the choice yourself instead of having it made for you by the incessant rhythm, pace, and pressures of your day.

The Lord protects the simple hearts, you know. The hearts that choose to look and listen anew.

Amen.

 

[1] Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 9.

[2] Esther de Waal, A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1992), 15.

If Jesus were trying to get into the U.S. these days, we wouldn’t let him in.

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

March 12, 2017 (Matt. 2.13-15a)

There’s a line halfway through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer that lands like a fist to the chest. It is the last line in a paragraph of longing. The narrator, a Vietnamese refugee now living in the United States, has offered a long litany of things remembered from his homeland. The music, the noodle soup, the parks, the mangos, the bomb craters, the mud roads, the sea. It’s a breathless, page-long paragraph that grows in intensity and grief until the narrator catches himself at the end. The most important thing we could never forget, he says, was that we could never forget.[1]

When I read that sentence I had to put the book down for a moment. I have never been to Vietnam, but I grew up around people who could never forget. Most of you know the story of my father’s work with Vietnamese refugees in Hawaii in the 1970s, then later in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1980s. My American boyhood was punctuated by visits to Vietnamese markets and Buddhist temples. I remember the grandmothers putting extra spring rolls onto my plate. You’re a growing boy, they said. And the monks inviting me to slip off my shoes and pad across the cool floor of the meditation hall. So while I never went to Vietnam, a part of it came to me. It welcomed me into its own culture and traditions, hidden just around the corner from the dominant culture of which I was a part. If you knew where to look, my father taught me, and if you were a good listener and respectful, you could learn many stories.

I couldn’t help but wipe the tears away, then, when I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen read from his work last month at the University of Georgia. He ended his first reading with the sentence that had struck me so hard. The most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget. And I wasn’t tearful because being in a roomful of Vietnamese-Americans conjured my boyhood and my father, although it did. I was tearful because I felt like the majority community had forgotten. As I sat in the hall on campus, I was aware of the current attempts to ban refugees and immigrants from entering our country. I couldn’t decide if we had forgotten who we were or if we had misremembered, if we had never really been who we thought we were at all.

One thing Viet Thanh Nguyen does perhaps better than anyone is put theory into practice. His first book was fiction, The Sympathizer. It tells the story of a double agent, skillfully playing with questions of identity known to any refugee community. His second book was nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It offers the theory that undergirds the storytelling. And his new book is a collection of short stories, The Refugees. It could hardly have come at a better time, sharing fictionalized versions of the lived experiences of Vietnamese people who fled their country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen has spent a lifetime telling the same story in different ways. But it is a story we desperately need to hear.

At the heart of his project is a certain ethic. And I offer it here because it has something to do with faith. Nguyen is asking us to tell true stories. He begins by asserting that every war is fought twice, the first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory.[2] So he considers how we remember. The most common form of remembering, he suggests, is remembering our own. When we tell stories, we remember those who were like us. We favor them, take their sides, imagine ourselves in their places, confirm our allegiance to the group. Remembering our own is the most natural way to tell a story, but it is also the narrowest. Moving beyond this, Nguyen offers a second way we tell stories. We remember others. When we tell stories remembering others, we try to consider those who are not like us. We include their points of view, we value their experiences, we try to tell a fuller story and offer a whole picture. But Nguyen cautions that when we do this we too often implicitly compare these others to ourselves, whom we take to be normative. We remember others only insofar as they actually relate to us. A third way of remembering, which Nguyen would like to move us toward, is remembering our shared inhumanity. When we remember ourselves, he says, we are remembering our humanity. When we remember others, we are trying to affirm their humanity. But the truest story, he says, especially in wartime, is that a deep inhumanity is realized. Everybody on every side is human, but everybody on every side is conflicted, complicated, and capable of acting in cruel and inhumane ways.[3] To paraphrase my old professor Bill Schulz of Amnesty International, the first rule of ethics is that nobody’s hands are clean. That’s what Nguyen would say, adding that it’s also the first rule of storytelling.

We may wonder what ethics and storytelling have to do with faith. But we gather on Sunday in a place where we tell stories every week. We read sacred stories, passed down to us. We tell personal stories of how our lives are going. We listen to the stories of others over coffee or during the time of prayer. And we’re trying to tell our stories in a true way, recognizing our own complex subjectivity. We are beautifully and wonderfully made, but sometimes we all act in ways that are cruel and inhumane. We remember this is true about ourselves. It is true about others. It is true about all of us. We find it in the stories.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ story according to Matthew, we remember our inhumanity. We don’t often focus on it because we read it at Christmastime. All the kids are here and families who haven’t visited for a while. So we center on Joseph and Mary, the birth of their baby, the poetry of shepherds and angels and hills. But Jesus represents a threat to the existing order. He is born, called king, and revered. King Herod, the sitting monarch, hears of the baby, senses him as a rival, and seeks to kill him. And this is the beginning of our faith, our own origin story. A baby is born who will teach a different ethic. He will speak prophetic critique. He will practice radical inclusion. He will follow the way of creative nonviolence. And he’s a very real threat to the status quo. Kill him, says King Herod, and an angel warns his parents. Get up, says the angel, take the child, and flee to Egypt, and remain there. . .Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.[4] They were refugees.

Anyone who is forced to flee is a refugee. And at the very heart of Christianity is the story of two refugee parents and their child. We should hold that story in mind anytime we read the headlines. I leafed through The New York Times earlier this week and read an article detailing who is barred and who is not according the ban that is scheduled to go into effect this Thursday.[5] Syrian refugees are barred, it said. Parents and children fleeing for their lives. It wasn’t an easy article to read, and afterwards I looked forward to The New Yorker. But the last issue in February had a story about the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe fleeing war.[6] Approximately 100,000 children a year. The next issue I picked up had a story about the new Underground Railroad from the U. S. to Canada, as refugees flee our country in hopes of a safer, more welcoming place.[7] Since 2011, it said, requests for asylum in the U.S. have grown tenfold. And our response to the requests is to delay and deny. It leaves little doubt in my mind that if Jesus were trying to get into the U.S. today, we wouldn’t let him in. Or if he were already here, we might drive him away.

Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us that the refugee crisis is related to another crisis, a crisis in our imagination. Refugees are fleeing war, as they always have. And we are making more and more war. We have so narrowed our imaginations that we see war as a kind of solution, we militarize every problem, we invest all our resources in violence and its machinery and then find ourselves surprised that we are engaged in unending wars. According to Nguyen, wars are no longer discreet events for us. War is our way of life. It is our condition. We now spend 51% of our resources, he says, on the military. We now have over 800 bases in foreign countries. We now have an administration that seeks to gut social programs in order to spend even more money on militarization. And this is the crisis of our imagination. That this the way we see ourselves? That this the way we see others? That this the way we see our future?

Those who resist war, says Nguyen, fight for the imagination, not the nation. And if we would resist, we would have to do so with our imagination. Which has everything to do with faith.

The refugees Mary and Joseph watched their baby grow up possessed by a religious imagination. He was a prophet and a poet, a teller of stories and a crosser of boundaries. He encouraged us to receive others with grace and hospitality and to welcome and include all people, especially the most vulnerable and those we have been taught are our enemies. He refused the way of violence.

It is with him in mind that we, as people who claim to follow in his way, must free our imaginations to see what he saw. And to say what he said. And to live the way he lived. Because we all know he wouldn’t have turned them away. The families and children who are fleeing. Those who are cold and hungry and afraid. The refugees who are coming to our door. I wonder, in the spirit of Viet Thanh Nguyen, how their stories will be told. And I wonder, in the spirit of Jesus, if we will turn them away as enemies or welcome them in as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.

At the end of his final talk, I handed Viet Thanh Nguyen a copy of The Refugees and asked if he might sign it for my dear friend, Phuc Luu. Phuc and his family left in 1974, I said. We lived near each other in Houston, but we didn’t meet until we were grown. He was my best man. Viet looked up at me with a smile. At your wedding, he asked. Yes, at my wedding, I said. He finished signing the book, handed it back, and we spoke for a moment longer. As I walked out of the building, I opened the book to the first page and looked at the inscription, written in a beautiful hand from one refugee to another. To Phuc Luu, it read, May you always be at home.

Amen.

 

[1] Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 239.

[2] Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 2.

[3] Author’s notes, Betty Jean Craige Lecture, featuring Viet Thanh Nguyen, University of Georgia, February 13, 2017.

[4] Matthew 2.13-14, New Revised Standard Version.

[5] Anjali Singhvi and Alicia Parlapiano, “Trump’s New Immigration Ban: Who is Barred and Who is Not,” The New York Times, March 6, 2017.

[6] Lauren Collins, “The Children’s Odyssey,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017.

[7] Jake Halpern, “A New Underground Railroad,” The New Yorker, March 13, 2017.