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.

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Beginning with Ourselves (Mk. 8.22-26)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

February 26, 2017

I think that it might be useful, in order to survive our present crisis, to do what any individual does, is forced to do, to survive his [or her] crisis, which is to look back on his [or her] beginnings.

(James Baldwin)[1]

In my own beginning was the Hawaiian kindergarten. On the windward side of the island of Oahu. A playground with folded cliffs for a backdrop. A mile or two from the sea. I still remember the room. Our sandals lined outside the door. My friends padding barefoot between their desks. They were Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, and a few were haole, or white, like me. It was a multicultural classroom with no majority racial or ethnic group.

This is the part of the story that everyone who knows me has heard. But the second part of the story is the harder part. I changed schools when my parents moved us back to their home of Texas. My father became the minister at a very affluent church with a prestigious private school attached. I was enrolled in a new class. I still remember the room. No sandals outside the door. Everyone buttoned up in crisp uniforms. Sitting quietly at their desks. They were all white.

I had never been anyplace like that before. My parents said that I came home from the new school with a question. Where is everybody? I asked. And by that I meant where were the Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Filipino kids. I knew they were somewhere. But they weren’t in my class. I do not remember how my parents answered the question, but whatever words they provided did not console me. I remember a palpable grief, my first. I missed my friends. I didn’t like this new class. I didn’t like it that everyone was white. I didn’t like being separated.

In his essay “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin wrote that “one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.”[2] I am not sure that I was at war with my society as a young boy, but I am sure that I was grieving my society. And it was only when I began to look at my life through the lens of race that I realized something about myself that was so obvious that I had never seen it before. I am still the same boy with the same question. Where is everybody? That question is at the heart of the way I see the world and the work to which I have given myself. And I still feel, more often than I care to admit, that I am in that second classroom, dropped into a separate space where everyone is white. If you have lived in a multicultural space and then been forced into a monocultural one, then you have felt the loss yourself. My fear, however, is that so many in greater Charleston, children and grown-ups alike, live and move in patterns of separateness with no way of knowing what they are missing.

Last year the president of our denomination, John Dorhauer, stood in this sanctuary and told part of his own story through the lens of race. He shared that a professor had asked him to write his autobiography in this way and, as a white man, he hadn’t known how to do it. He drafted and redrafted his story until the race and ethnicity of every character in it became apparent. And then he saw some things that he had never seen before. The experience was so powerful that he, along with our church’s national leadership, developed a curriculum extending our work in racial awareness with the hope of achieving a greater wholeness. The curriculum is entitled “White Privilege. Let’s Talk,” and it begins with an invitation to tell our stories in a new way. It is, as Baldwin said, useful for each of us to look back on our beginnings. Only then can we address the crisis in which we find ourselves. And by crisis I mean the racial moment signified by de facto segregation in housing and education, the killings of unarmed black men and women by police and neighborhood watches, the presence of white nationalists now at the highest levels of our government, the protest movements that have arisen in response, and the proximity of hate in our own community. Many of you saw the same thing I did as you drove home from church just last week. A large Confederate flag waving over Marion Square, two blocks from Mother Emanuel AME Church.

Sometimes the enormity of the problem seems too much. But we have a chance this Lent to raise our consciousness and begin taking transformative steps together. It starts by reflecting on our own stories. Who we are. Where we came from. How we first understood or experienced race. How we understand the current state of things. And what it means for us as people of faith. As people who believe in what Omid Safi taught us just last week. That love, beauty, and justice are linked. That we are all of us lost and looking for the way home together. The way home is love. But not the sentimental kind of love, the kind that Martin Luther King called “emotional bosh.” We mean the hard working, critical thinking, risk taking kind of love. The love that wants to see what is really going on.

So beginning next week for the six weeks of Lent, we are invited into an all-church study. We’ll gather just after 9:00 a.m. in the sanctuary for an opening session and then break into small discussion groups. The idea to engage the material as a whole church came from the program staff, the worship mission group worked on logistics, the choir generously agreed to adapt their schedule, and our church council approved the idea unanimously and enthusiastically. The contents of the curriculum include Spiritual Autobiography Told through the Lens of Race, Whiteness as the Norm, The Cash Value of Whiteness or Whiteness as a Tax-Exempt Status, and On Becoming an Ally.

Now at this point there are some who may be getting nervous. I am reminded that every black pastor I’ve told about this has given me a double-take. You’re doing what? So it may help to clarify what exactly it is that we are and are not doing. What we are not doing is gathering to shame white people or to make anyone feel guilty. We are not pointing fingers and assigning blame. And we are also not affirming our self-awareness or patting ourselves on the back to affirm how good we are for doing this kind of work. What we are doing is trying to learn to tell a better story. We are trying to tell the whole truth. We are trying to be church together in a way that is deeply challenging and even transformative. We are trying to see some things about ourselves that we haven’t always been able to see. We are trying to change the way things are, beginning with ourselves.

According to our sacred stories, the way to change is through sight. Like the man at Bethsaida. He was blind, we are told. The people brought him to Jesus in the hope of healing. Jesus took the man outside the village and spread saliva on his eyes, asking if he could see. The man described his first impressions, people whose figures were blurred like trees. Then Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes a second time and the man’s sight was restored. He could see everything, the text says, “clearly.” Biblical scholars note that while the early gospel of Mark includes this episode, both Matthew and Luke omit it. Some have suggested that its two-part healing is problematic and makes Jesus appear to be less powerful somehow. But I find the story especially powerful because it takes place in stages. Seeing doesn’t happen right away. It may take some time. Some work. Some trusted friend to touch our eyes and ask what things look like to us. That’s the invitation this Lent. To take the risk of seeing things more clearly and then asking what that might mean in our own lives. How we might become more loving. How we might become more beautiful. How we might become more just. How we might become more whole.

Perhaps what excites me most is that we’ll be able to do this work together. For if I am still the boy asking where everyone is, then I would like to know what boy or girl you are. What is your spiritual autobiography told through the lens of race? How do you look back on your beginnings? What do you see when you do?

Just a couple of weeks ago, I sat in a conference room in Cleveland for another strategic visioning meeting of our national church. There are only nine of us in the group and we are white and black, gay and straight, men and women, married and single, with diverse abilities and perspectives. As I have mentioned before, I am the only member of that group who is a straight white man. And I say this with a smile because anytime I’m in a room where there is no clear majority, I feel right at home. It was like kindergarten again. And that group brainstormed and planned for ways to make our church look more like our world. Because, thankfully, the world really is more like a Hawaiian public school than a Texas private academy. Anyone with eyes to see already knows that. The work that our national church is now doing embraces this reality and celebrates its possibilities. Beginning with ourselves, we are asking what it means to be a church of love, beauty, justice, and radical inclusion in the years to come. A part of that work is bringing some things into clear sight.

Then Jesus led the man out of the village, put saliva on his eyes, and asked, Can you see anything? Seeing was the first step on his journey to wholeness. Friends, may it be the first step on our journeys as well.

Amen.

 

[1] James Baldwin, “The White Problem” in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Vintage International, 2011), 91.

[2] James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 685.

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Coming in from the Cold (Ex. 23.9, Heb.13.2)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

February 5, 2017

 

Every story begins inside a story that’s already begun by others. . .

(Richard Blanco)[1]

 

She ducked into the church because it was cold outside. She had been on a run. But it was February in New York and the chill was too much. She ducked into the church and only then realized it was Sunday. Elaine stayed at the back for a moment, warming her hands, and looked from the shadows into the sanctuary. A priest in vestments stood at the front. People rose and sang together. The old building was warm with light and color. And she realized that it was the place she most needed to be.

Like any visitor to any church, she had a backstory that no one knew. The woman in running clothes was Elaine Pagels, a Princeton professor and noted historian of early Christianity. She was in the city for medical appointments and had received the worst news. Her two-year-old son had pulmonary hypertension, a condition the doctors couldn’t cure and predicted would be fatal. She hadn’t been able to sleep at all. Finally she rose, left her sleeping husband and son, laced up her sneakers, and ran. Through the cold city, block after block, until finally she ducked into the church. There in the vestibule the tears filled her eyes. She stood for a moment, wondering.

I think of Elaine’s story often. Just about every Sunday. Just about every time I see someone walk through the door for the first time, stand in the vestibule or Keller Hall and wonder. Sometimes they look around for a moment. Sometimes they stand and squint, looking for a place to sit. Sometimes someone greets them, offers them coffee and a bulletin. And I always wonder what their story is. What cold they might be ducking in from or shelter they might seek. Because we have all been there. Sleepless, on the run, not sure where to go, ducking in someplace looking for a refuge.

What Elaine found in that church in New York was a place that “spoke to her condition.”[2] She found a place that allowed her to be who she really was without any strings attached. And who she really was was beautiful. She had spent her life studying early Christianity. She knew of the thousands of doctrinal disputes, the splinter groups and stories of councils and their arguments. She also knew of the earliest Christians and their gospels, the gnostic literature that presented Jesus as a mystic and a wisdom teacher. Her scholarship focused on these gospels, the ones early Christians would have known and used, though most of us have never heard of them since they didn’t make it past Irenaeus, Constantine, and the other gatekeepers of what would become the orthodox canon of Biblical literature. But Elaine found in that church something that resembled the early Christians. A community of care, a communion circle of sharing, a radical welcome of strangers as guests, and rituals connecting the divine and the human, a pageantry of the Golden Rule lived out week to week. “I know from my encounters with people in that church,” she wrote, “believers, agnostics, and seekers, that what matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe (or what we do not believe).”[3] Put another way, what matters in religious experience is the experience itself. And Elaine experienced welcome. She experienced a place she could come in from the cold.

It’s a striking image these days. Because while we haven’t had much cold winter weather, then the storms of our politics have more than made up for it. Perhaps you’ve noticed what I’ve noticed lately. More and more people showing up on Sunday, ducking in from all that is going on outside and looking for a refuge. Not a week goes by, not a day lately, that we don’t receive more bad news. In the world of politics, for example, our health care is threatened, our Muslim friends are singled out for discrimination, refugees fleeing dangerous lands are turned away, scientists are censored, and there are whispers of hateful executive orders to be directed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. I could go on, but I won’t. The winds of the worst kind of change are blowing and God knows we all need some shelter from them. In the world of personal relationships, things are no better. Every week you share with me about employers you have trouble talking with or family members. Strangers have been shouting and throwing things at demonstrators here in our own city. Everyone’s on edge and we wonder how much worse it might get before it gets better. And in the world of the mind, there are storms, too. As the scientific method, critical thinking, and even facts come under threat, we wonder if we will be attacked for holding these commitments. Which is to say nothing of being progressive or liberal Christians in a city that is staunchly conservative in its religious expression. Many of us duck into church every Sunday as the professor once did, wondering if there’s still a place here for people like us, people with more questions than answers, people looking for love and acceptance more than old dusty doctrine that may or may not make sense.

So it’s cold outside. In our politics, in our personal relationships, in our minds. And we are here standing in the vestibule looking in on a community that still gathers in a circle every first Sunday to break bread and pass it around. Is this the place for us, we wonder. Is this what we most need?

According to our sacred stories, one of the key elements of our faith is that of welcoming all. We heard two short excerpts this morning. One from the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus. Do not oppress the alien [or the foreigner], for you know how it feels to be [one]; you yourselves were [foreigners] in Egypt. And from the Christian Testament in the book of Hebrews. Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unaware. We read these scriptures together as bookends, from early in the Bible to late in its pages. If we look through the Bible, in fact, we find dozens of such admonitions. Be careful how you treat the alien, the foreigner, the stranger, the enemy. For we have all been those things before. And show hospitality to all. Receive every person with kindness, compassion, and grace. Welcome her or him in from the cold. For you don’t know the story, you can’t say what they’re seeking shelter from. Perhaps that person is a Muslim who feels attacked by our policies. Perhaps that person is a lesbian who has been shunned by the church of her upbringing. Perhaps that person is a skeptic who wonders if he and his questions are welcome. Perhaps that person is a Millennial who wants to see if institutional religion has any value. Perhaps that person is a professor, red-eyed with grief, nowhere else to run, looking for a safe place to pray and to cry.

If the story of Jesus is any example, then this may be the gospel itself. This welcome. This acceptance. This inclusion. It’s not a gospel of doctrine or dogma. That’s what Elaine had learned in all her studies of the early communities that followed Jesus. All the doctrine came later, the product of theological and political storms. But the gospel itself was more experiential. The gospel itself was the welcome. It was the love. It was the kindness of strangers making the world they wanted, ritualizing it in a space they called sacred, for an hour or two every Sunday. And it spoke to her condition.

That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why we keep coming. Not to turn out perfect people or pretend to be pious. But to welcome each other in from the cold. To break the bread and pass it around. To share the wine and juice together. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this so that you might see the sister or brother who is right next to you. Do this and let your heart be warmed by it. In a world that is a little too cold, do this. . .

Amen.

 

[1] Richard Blanco, For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 6.

[2] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2005), 27.

[3] Ibid., 6.

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The 200-Year Present (Matt. 5.1-12)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

January 29, 2017

We talk about politics as though they were a purely rational exercise in the world of deeds and powers, but how we view the world and act in it has roots in identities and emotions. There is, in other words, an inner life to politics. . .  

(Rebecca Solnit)[1]

We were walking in the rain, but our spirits were not dampened. Women, men, and children filing down the sidewalk in slick coats and rubber boots. And pink hats with cat ears. Homemade signs whose letters ran with the water. But the message was clear. Women’s rights are human rights. Build bridges not walls. Love not hate. This is who we are. This is why we march.

Half a day in the rain and no one complained. Women, men, and children smiled with water on their cheeks, hugged in soaked shirts, held wrinkled hands to the sky in fists of solidarity and two-fingered peace signs. Everywhere I looked I saw something beautiful, every conversation I had was enlivening and empowering. So many off their couches and onto the street, walking and singing in the rain. Yet one image stays with me. A young girl walking in galoshes. Her long wet hair falling down her back, partially covering a poster she wore like a sandwich board. Future Voter, it read, the V appearing as a check mark on an imagined ballot. She was walking near me for a time and that first word caught my eye. Future.

I must confess that there were also words in my head while we marched. They were the words of a great teacher named Elise Boulding. Elise worked on conflict resolution and I had heard her words in a talk by her student John Paul Lederach, now well known in the field of peace studies himself. John Paul shared an idea that Elise had shared with him. It was called the 200-year present. It’s an idea about time and ethics, an idea about how far backward and forward love’s arms can reach. It’s such a good idea that I’d like to read you a transcription of John Paul’s talk. These are his words, but they played in my mind while we walked in the rain. Let them play in your mind, too, for just a moment:

We do not live in a present that is a fleeting moment, that as soon as I speak this word, it is over. We don’t even live in the sense that it is only exclusively today or this week or this year. We live in a 200-year present. . .I want to illustrate this for you. . .

So go back in your memory to when you were a very young child, and remember the lap that you sat on, the people who may have stroked your face, who may have tussled your hair, who may have held your hand when you took your first steps. But don’t just remember any person. Try to remember the oldest person that you would have known at your youngest age. . .

Now when you have that person’s face, maybe their hands, the softness of that touch, the bigness of that lap in your mind, I want you to think approximately what year or decade might that person have been born.

Now I want you to go to your existing family right now, your extended family, your neighborhood, and I want you to think of the face and the small hand of the youngest child that you know in your extended family or in your wider extended set of meaningful relationships. The youngest child you know. Get that young child’s face in your mind. . .

When you have that person’s face in mind, imagine that person a grandmother enjoying her children. Imagine that person a grandfather enjoying their great grandchildren. Imagine the decade they might live to see as those grandchildren come. . .

Now Elise would always say, that’s your 200-year present. The birthdate of those who have touched, held, molded, and shaped you, and the date out to which those who are the youngest will live. These are the lives that have touched you and that you have touched. This is big expanse. This is closer to the seven generations, to the notion that we live in a bigger picture than that which, at any given moment, is happening. But it is in that that we have choice. How we will choose to be and respond in that expansive sense of time.[2]

The words played and replayed as we walked in the rain. And as I looked at the young girl in galoshes, I wasn’t thinking only of her. I was thinking of her grandchildren. That’s why I marched.

A day or two later I opened the Bible to the suggested lectionary text. It was a lifelong favorite, Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes in Matthew. I had read it more times than I could remember, but I heard something I had never really heard before. I heard the beginning. I saw in it a kind of march.

When Jesus saw the crowds, it begins. Then he went up to the mountain and sat to teach. Like a speaker standing before the marchers on the mall or in the park by the river. First came the crowds, then came the words. They had come to hear Jesus, to be sure, but perhaps they had come for solidarity, too. An old Mediterranean version of. . . Women’s rights are human rights. Build bridges not walls. Love not hate. And I say this because the movement Jesus was starting was egalitarian. He treated women with dignity and respect. He invited traditional enemies and outcasts. He crossed social boundaries at every chance. He criticized the status quo in both religion and politics. And the crowds came for that. Maybe on some of the days it rained. Maybe they walked anyway. For their mothers and grandmothers, for their children and grandchildren. Because this is what he said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. . .

Blessed are those who mourn. . .

Blessed are the meek. . .

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. . .

Blessed are the merciful. . .

Blessed are the pure in heart. . .

Blessed are the peacemakers. . .

Blessed are the persecuted. . .

Blessed are the young girls in galoshes, for the future belongs to them.

I added that last one, of course, but it seems more than faithful to Jesus’ project. Because he was always looking out for the vulnerable, saying that it was to them that the kingdom was given, it was for them that God was cheering, it was with them that the spirit moved, wherever they went with their meek and merciful, pure hearts.

And lest we hear the words in a way that is too gentle and bucolic, we might remind ourselves of movements and what they sound like. For while I couldn’t detect a trace of meanness on our rainy march, there was an extraordinary amount of energy and passion. We weren’t walking to mumble quiet mantras. We were walking to raise our hands and our voices, to sing and to chant, to not only say that women were equal in dignity and value but to shout it out loud. What if we heard the Beatitudes like that? As if they were printed onto placards and raised against a rainy sky? Blessed are the poor! Blessed are the hungry! Blessed are the persecuted! In a country that is currently on the road to making a great many more of them. Blessed are the ones whose health care is about to be cut. Blessed are those who work without a living wage. Blessed are those who went to college and are mired in debt. Blessed are our soldiers and their families suffering the effects of our endless wars. Blessed are those who are telling the truth about climate change and being censored and threatened for it. Blessed are those fleeing dangerous lands and wondering if they will find refuge here. Blessed are those who keep getting out of bed every day and going to work for the girl in galoshes and her grandchildren.

Friends, that’s the gospel that Jesus preached. It wasn’t a gospel of health, wealth, and success. He wasn’t selling that old American snake oil. No, our itinerant rabbi was teaching what his mother sang to him. My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sang to her baby, the Lord who has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. Maybe when she sang it she thought of the oldest person that held her. Maybe when she sang it she thought of the youngest person she knew as a future grandmother or grandfather. Maybe when she sang it she thought of her own child about to be born. That was the song Jesus heard growing up and then lived out in his own 200-year present, ending with the great question of how he would choose to be and respond in that expansive sense of time.

The question has been passed down to us. We walk with it in the gray of this moment. Dark clouds overhead threaten heavier weather. But behind us our grandmothers and grandfathers are walking. Beside us are girls in galoshes. And before us wait their children and their children’s children.

So we march on, rain or shine.

Amen.

 

[1] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 137.

[2] John Paul Lederach, “Living Now: Rehumanization in the 200-Year Present,” a talk given at the Upaya Zen Center, November 7, 2016, accessed via iTunes or online at https://www.upaya.org/2016/11/lederach-living-now-rehumanization-present/

 

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The Consolations of Stillness (Ps. 46)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 27, 2016

It’s Advent. Our season of watching and waiting. But to be honest, I only feel like watching. There’s no time for waiting. To that end, I offer this story:

I was already weary before the election. Not an easy year. Trials of Roof and Slager going on two blocks from church. Handwritten hate mail in my box. Country’s racial tension at a boil. And the nasty political cycle. Majority of Americans saying they’d had enough.

So I wheeled over to pick up the boy from school. Threw snacks into a backpack. He bounded from the building. We rode to the water, locked bikes, walked out on the spit.

No one was there. Just the onrushing tide. Strong wind off the harbor. Low falling sun. And every seabird we’d ever seen. Albatrosses. Skimmers. Night herons. Great egrets, stilting through the mud. More birds than people. We sat and watched. Passed crackers and water bottles. Quiet enough that you could hear the spartina rustling. Lap of the water on the wall.

Sat, watched, mumbled the words of poet William Stafford:

 

We live by faith in such presences.

 

It is a test for us, that thin

but real, undulating figure that promises,

“If you keep faith I will exist

at the edge, where your vision joins

the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,

feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”[1]

 

I hadn’t understood before. Down in the mud where the truth is. Until I sat, surrounded by herons and egrets, to watch and listen. And I set all our problems in the context of a larger story. A larger story that we are endangering, to be sure, but one that is also greater than us, and will continue no matter what we do. It was a comfort, the truth that there is something greater than our efforts, but I also sat worried. “I think we should keep this,” as Stafford said.[2] I think we should keep it.

I’m aware that the retreat to the outdoors is a feature of privilege, a stereotype of white liberals taking time away to hug trees and write poems. But I reject the caricature. Being outdoors is not a white privilege, but a human one. We are all children of this earth, its rightful inheritors and children, black, white, Asian, Latino, everyone. And grounding ourselves in it is no one’s privilege if not everyone’s. Earth is mother to all of us. Whether you live in my neighborhood or another, there is always an osprey, a dogwood tree, a community garden, or a ladybug climbing the wall. We can all ground ourselves in this larger story. Because we are all a part of it. But I’m not saying anything the psalmist didn’t say.

God, said the old Hebrew poet, is our refuge and our strength, and went on to sing of a greater story. We will fear, he says, of course. Waters, mountains, and kingdoms will move, but something grounding will remain. The works of the Lord, said the psalmist. Which we might translate, with the help of modern theologians, as the mystery, the ground of being, the serendipitous creativity from which we and the universe emerged. It’s not easy to get in touch with this. Especially if we never stop. If we never slow down to look. If we never bike down to the water and sit quietly, watching.

Be still, said the psalmist, and know. Be still. And in the midst of such a harried season, between the politics and the holidays it’s a good word: Be still. It brings us a kind of consolation. Knowing that we don’t have to do it all, acknowledging that we can’t. But grounding ourselves for the things that we can do. As I sat watching the egrets, I wondered about the consolations of stillness. Why is this helping? I asked. And the thoughts whispered as the wind. Being still consoles by focusing oneself on the breath. I breathed in and out. Being still consoles by grounding oneself in a larger story. I thought of the universe story and the wonder that any of us are here at all. Being still consoles by locating us as parts of a greater whole. I looked at the egrets and even the tide as my kindred and kin. Being still consoles by letting our loves rise to the surface. I looked at the scene before me and felt the mystic’s love for the whole. I love you, Lowcountry, I thought. I love you ocean, tide, sun, sky, birds, fish, boy sitting beside me eating crackers as the sun goes down. And this is where my ethic is grounded. In this love. Not anywhere else.

The psalmist might have understood this. Be still and know. Then act accordingly. Which brings me to a final thought.

The stillness isn’t a retreat. It’s a regrounding. The quiet isn’t checking out. It’s checking in. A beautiful paradox of faith. I was watching the world in order to get going. I was letting go of my worries in order to hold on to my work. The work the rabbis have taught: to restore and repair the world. Which is where we are.

We begin the season of Advent in the midst of the most turbulent political time anyone can remember. Our friends are threatened and afraid. Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, women, those of diverse ability, all explicitly threatened by the president-elect and his administration. We know we’re going to have to fight. We’re going to have to stand for all our dear ones. We’re going to have to speak and to say who we are and what we value. It’s a season of watching, to be sure. But there really is no time to wait. Our sisters and brothers, our earth, want to know what we have to say.

So we go outside and ground ourselves for the struggle. We remember who and what we love. And we rise from the places we sit to join the movement until every sister and brother, every being, can flourish.

It’s a salve for our troubled times. As poet Mary Oliver writes, we go outside because “the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields. . .can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”[3]

Maybe that’s Advent’s invitation this year. That we watch and listen so that we might re-dignify our stung hearts. So that we can join the struggle. Because God knows, this isn’t a season of waiting.

Amen.

 

[1] William Stafford, “Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron” in The Way it Is: New and Selected Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1998), 167.

[2] William Stafford, “The Whole Thing” in Even in Quiet Places, (City: Press, year), pp.

[3] Mary Oliver, “Staying Alive” in Upstream: Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 14-15.

fullsizerender

Our Inner Beasts (Luke 6.27-36)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

November 6, 2016

It’s not an easy time. Our politics are fragmented. There’s a meanness in the air. We’re worn and frazzled by the cycle of news and insults. And we’re not sure when it will end.

A New York Times article on Friday revealed that 8 out of 10 Americans are repulsed by the presidential election.[1] Just days before voting we feel more exhausted than inspired.

Yet there was another article in the New York Times last week, something of use from the Book Review.[2] Lois Lowry reread William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies and reflected on it. She wasn’t referring to our political moment exactly, she was gauging how she heard the story now against how she first heard it 60 years ago, but I heard in her essay a call to a deeper question. After reading it, I switched on the computer and Facebook showed me one of those pictures that is several years old. Seven years ago I was walking with Sara and a very small boy who was dressed as a monster for Halloween. He wore a t-shirt with green scales, puffy spikes sewn onto the back, a stuffed tail sticking out behind him. I looked at the picture and wrote this.   A poem about books and children and the season we find ourselves in:

Maybe there is a beast,

suggested Simon

in Golding’s book.

 

What I mean is. . .

maybe it’s only us.

 

You could have missed

his voice

in the tale

of boys’ brutality

and our own.

 

You could have missed

the author’s conviction

that none of us

is better

or worse

than the others.

 

If there is a beast

it isn’t out there

or in some other

but closer still

 

beneath the beating

of our hearts

the drawing of our breaths

the reach

for the conch shell

on an island overrun.

 

What I mean is. . .

if we see the beast

maybe we could

walk with it

for a while

and hear its voice

that of the boy

who is himself afraid

the girl

who is herself unsure.

I was inspired to return to Lord of the Flies this week. Began reading it aloud with my son after school. It didn’t seem any worse than the newspaper. And I’ll wager that many of you know the book because it was required reading at school for some time. But if you don’t know it, then I can tell you this without spoiling it. The story opens on a deserted island where a group of schoolboys has survived a plane crash. There are no grown-ups, and so they are left to create their own sense of social order. The book begins wonderfully and then slowly descends into darker and more difficult places. Throughout, it asks questions about who we really are. And it is Simon, a rather frail and innocent boy, who suggests, 120 pages into the tale, that perhaps the only beast we really need to fear is us. Perhaps the true danger lies within. He is not heard by the other characters, who laugh him off. But his voice haunts every reader, who can grasp that Golding has written an entire book and hidden its moral right in the center. In the whisper of an innocent boy who suggests that there is no innocence at all.

What a good book to read on the eve of an election. As millions are spent on showing how guilty the other person is, how awful and rotten. And while there are substantive differences between the candidates, and while there has been more hate speech, religious bigotry, racism, and misogyny than any of us can remember, we would be wrong to point at the politicians and make them out to be the beasts. That would be a form of scapegoating. And didn’t Jesus just tell a story about that? Thank God, I am not like him or her or them? The world has enough of that self-righteousness without us adding to it. The finer move might be to look within at our own fears and insecurities. We might examine the subtle biases we each hold and the privileges we have been arbitrarily given. We might ask about our own shadowy motives and impulses. We might whisper Simon’s question to ourselves: What I mean is. . .maybe it’s only us.

We should, of course, whisper this in the voting line. As citizens, we should go to the polls, wait there, and vote conscientiously for every office and on every proposed measure. But we should stop short of seeing it as a battlefield, as a zero sum, all or nothing grab for the conch, as the boys on the island would have it. Because no matter what happens, we’re all going to wake up on November 9th in a scarred and hurting land. And each of us can either add to the lasting damage or take some small step in a different direction.

Jesus was especially good at this. I often read him in a confident voice, poetic and forceful. But this week I heard his teaching in a kind of whisper, as if the boy Simon had said it. It has something to do with the beast inside each of us and resisting its temptation toward aggression and conflict. And it’s arguably the most radical thing Jesus ever said, though too few of his followers can be heard saying it these days. I say unto you, he said, Love your enemies. Do good to them. Bless them. Pray for them. Turn the other cheek. Be generous and merciful and your reward will be great. You’ll be called the children of the most high.

William Golding didn’t write this, but perhaps the old author of Luke was on to his trick: Hide the moral right in the middle. Let the readers hear it and be haunted.

What Jesus was teaching was what researchers call “noncomplementary behavior.” Chris Hopwood at Michigan State University and others use this term to describe surprising and novel behavior that disrupts established patterns.[3] Normally, Hopwood says, we mirror each other. If someone treats us with hostility, we are hostile in return. If someone treats us with warmth, we are warm in return. It’s classic, reciprocal behavior. Yet noncomplementary behavior subverts the system by doing the opposite of what is expected. If someone treats us with hostility in this model, we might be warm in return. This, according to Hopwood, is incredibly hard to do. But the results can be extraordinary. They can break up patterns in a way that nothing else can. You have heard it said an eye for an eye. But I say forgive. You have heard that you should hate your enemies. But I say love. You have heard that this person or that person is an outcast. But I say she is my sister, he is my brother, and it is to all of us that the kingdom belongs.

Perhaps this is just a way of looking more deeply, seeing that others are not enemies or monsters. Perhaps it is a way of hearing our own inner beasts, acknowledging that we would like to lash out sometimes because we are afraid and unsure. Perhaps it is a way of reaching out not to the boys in the book review or the Facebook photograph, but to the boys and girls in each one of us, the ones who really are worried about the election and the days that will follow, no matter who wins. And so long as we see each other as enemies, we’ll only deepen our wounds. So long as we think the beast is in someone else, we’ll fail to break free of the habits and patterns that have brought us here.

I don’t know what will happen on Tuesday. But I know what will happen on Wednesday. We’ll get up, take a deep breath, and go out into the world again. Boys and girls and beasts with a question: How to love our enemies so that we no longer even see them as enemies. How to do good to all no matter how we are treated. How to bless everyone we meet. How to pray for those with whom we disagree. How to see that the real battlefield is in our hearts and minds and imaginations.

Maybe we could go out whispering like Simon. And maybe it would make all the difference.

Amen.

 

[1] Jonathan Martin, Dalia Sussman, and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Voters Express Disgust Over U.S. Politics in New Times/CBS Poll,” The New York Times, November 3, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/us/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-poll.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.

 

[2] Lois Lowry, “Their Inner Beasts: ‘Lord of the Flies’ Six Decades Later,” The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/books/review/their-inner-beasts-lord-of-the-flies-six-decades-later.html?_r=0

 

[3] See NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, “Flip the Script,” July 15, 2016, accessed online at

http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485603559/flip-the-script

 

“I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”[1] (Ps. 103.15-17)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

All Saints/All Souls Sunday, October 30, 2016

Most of the town was washed away. Otsuchi had stood for a hundred years, but a half hour of water was too much. When the tsunami came it carried houses, boats, trains. After the waves receded the residents returned. Almost everyone had lost someone. Friends and family among the 19,000 Japanese who died. 2,500 still missing. The grief was almost too great to bear. The people didn’t know what to do. Gradually the word was passed about Itaru.

A couple of years earlier, Itaru Sasaki had been grieving the death of his cousin. He was desolate, in despair, and he did something unexpected. He bought an old phone booth and placed it in his garden. The booth was painted white and had large panes of glass from which you could look out and see the Pacific Ocean. Inside was a black rotary phone. It was not connected to anything. Itaru went regularly to the phone booth to place a call to his cousin. He dialed the numbers, waited patiently, then spoke into the receiver. “My thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line,” he said, “I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”

People heard about Itaru’s wind phone and maybe took him for an eccentric. Until the tsunami came. After that, they started going to Itaru’s garden themselves. They waited in line to place their own calls. Some spoke. Some cried. Some sat in silence, listening to the wind.

We come today for a similar reason. On the Sunday closest to November 1st, we celebrate All Saints/All Souls Sunday. We remember the ones we love who have died. They may not have been the saints of the church, but they were our saints. The dear souls we knew, washed away by the wave of mortality that comes for all of us. But we’re still here, remembering and listening and wondering how to place our own calls. And just for today we might imagine that our church is not actually circular, but that it is boxy. We might see not stained glass, but clear panes. We might not say prayers so much as place calls. Are you there, Dad? we might say. Can you hear me, Mom? Hello, son, daughter, neighbor, friend. It’s me again.

On the one hand, this is a very somber moment, and we bring some bitterness to it. We are not happy to have been put into this box as the ones who are left behind, holding the phone, unable to find the words for how much we miss them. And on the other hand, this is a very beautiful moment, because we are drawn to it. We have come here because we cannot forget, we will not forget, we do not want to forget. And we want to continue the conversation. Even if it is only in our minds and our hearts, even if we are speaking into the wind. But the wind has a presence, doesn’t it?

In his poem “Have You Prayed?,” Li-Young Lee answers the question of prayer by explaining that it is a conversation with his father. It’s a lifelong back and forth with a man who died long ago, but is not entirely gone. “When the wind asks, Have you prayed?,” Lee writes:

I know it’s only me

reminding myself. . .

 

. . .It’s just me

 

in the gowns of the wind,

or my father, through me, asking,

Have you found your refuge yet?

asking, Are you happy?[2]

Of course, it isn’t only poets who ask. The psalmist asked, too. Questions of the wind. The search for refuge. He picked up his own wind phone of prayer and uttered the words, which were then written down and passed to us by our ancestors. We heard a short cutting of the psalm this morning, just a flap, a gust of conversation. But it’s as good as a prayer from Itaru’s garden.

As for people, the psalmist wrote, our days are as grass, as a flower of the field. It flourishes for a time, but then the wind passes over it and it is gone and known no more. But somehow there is a larger picture, according to the old verses. Somehow divine love is everlasting, passing from one form and generation to the next. The flowers are not permanent and neither are we, but the love is and the stories are so long as they are kept, told, and shared.

It’s a rather stunning image. The phone isn’t connected, but the calls continue. We place them back and forth, between the dead and the living. We say their names and ring the bells and we look like them and laugh like them, the resemblance being uncanny.

The wisdom, of course, is in telling this truth. For the true disconnect is not the phone that is not hooked up. The true disconnect is the failure to speak of them, to remember them, to keep them alive in our minds and hearts and actions. Which is what our culture does so often. When someone dies, people stop speaking of them, assuming that the speaking will be painful when the truth is it’s the silence that hurts most. When a person is gone, people rush to act as if they are fine and things are back to normal when the truth is things have never been worse and it feels like there will never be a normal again. When a loved one is no longer here, people act like they’ve been gone forever, when the truth is we were just talking to them, holding hands, washing the dishes. And whether we were just doing that four months ago, four years ago, or forty years ago makes little difference. It’s within our lifetimes, within the days of the psalmist’s flower of the field.

Today we pause for a moment to tell the truth — that they were just here and that we carry them still. They are as close to us as the wind and just as invisibly felt. And there is no shame in calling them up and crying and saying: Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?

Maybe this is something we should do more often. If it is, then perhaps today is the day we are offered a gentle reminder. Saying names and ringing bells we are invited into a conversation with our ancestors. We remember their voices. We celebrate their lives. We claim them our family. We carry their spark in our eyes and in our laughter. And we imagine ways that we might keep listening. We trace the psalm with a finger. We sit on a bench and look out over water. We find a phone booth and pick up the receiver. And they are carried to us on the wind.

Amen.

 

[1] See This American Life, Episode 597: One Last Thing Before I Go, accessed online at: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/597/one-last-thing-before-i-go

[2] Li-Young Lee, “Have You Prayed?” in Behind My Eyes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008), 24.