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In his book Mortality, the great essayist Christopher Hitchens wrote of what it was like to be struck with esophageal cancer. He went to bed one night feeling normal and woke in the morning barely able to breathe. His heartbeat was off, his energy was low, and it took most of his strength to cross his room to the telephone and call for an ambulance. It was a jarring way to wake, and he wrote that the world it ushered him into was a world from which there was no return.

It was, he wrote, “a very gentle and firm deportation. . .from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”[1] Hitchens’ image is a striking one: he was fine, living in the country of the well, and then came the emergency services crew to load him onto a gurney and carry him off to the land of malady. Forever after he would be a sick person, a patient, a mortal in the land of other mortals who had had any other illusions cruelly stripped away. The land of malady would be Hitchens’ new home. He tried to get used to it with his typical keen observation and sharp wit.

“This new land is quite welcoming in its way,” he wrote. “Everybody smiles. . .[and] an egalitarian spirit prevails. . .” So there were some things that he found to be lovely while under the care of strangers in the hospital. But, he said, “the humor is a touch feeble. . .there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst. . .”[2] Hitchens carried on from there and described, in an almost out-of-body way, the intensely physical experiences he underwent. At the beginning of the book, he was still sharp, as the treatment had not yet taken its toll. But from one page to the next he grew a bit more tired. The last chapter contained only bits of notes that he had scratched out, uncollected thoughts and pieces from a man who lived very fully until the day he died.

Christopher Hitchens wrote from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston just a couple of miles from where I lived at the time. I read the columns that turned into his book with great affection, for I had long been a fan of his literary criticism and at least portions of his philosophy. Though Hitchens was a critic of institutional religion, I often found myself saying a morning prayer for him. It was the prayer of an English major for an admired writer, the prayer of a liberal minister for a public intellectual, the prayer of a former chaplain for a present patient, made mostly of quiet mumblings for existential strength and courage. I had learned, as a chaplain, minister, and patient myself, that the line between the land of the well and the land of the sick was about as permanent as a line drawn in the sand on a windy day. And I knew that crossing from one to the other could happen as quickly as making that two-mile trip from the quiet home where I said morning prayers to the massive medical complex where Hitchens lay dying. I learned about that line by walking it with others and by listening to what they said.

This sermon isn’t about me, but I should at least note that my introduction to the line came from my father, who, like Hitchens, was fine until he wasn’t. He began to feel badly at the age of 47, was quickly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died two months later after my mother, my sister, and I took care of him in our home. It was the thinnest of thin places and it was then that I learned that when one person is carried into the land of malady, then everyone who loves them is also carried into a new place, not the land of malady exactly, but the land of caregivers, which is desolate and exhausting in its own way. I continued to walk the line as a professional hospital chaplain for a few years after seminary. I spend most of my time in Oncology, Intensive Care, and the Emergency Room. There are too many stories to tell about that except to say that daily I was impressed by closeness of calamity. The suffering I saw darkened my view in some ways, but the solidarity was equally strong. And what I always carried away was the incredible energy of hundreds, maybe thousands of people, spending all their time and creative energy trying to save each other. It left me speechless sometimes. All of us, together, fighting a common enemy with a thousand names.

And though it might seem that I learned about living with illness from my father or from those years in the hospital, my real learning took place at the congregational level. There I first began to know people outside of the critical care context, and I saw their ordinary courage, day in and day out. I saw how people didn’t want to be relegated to the land of malady, but kept crossing back over to the country of the well to demand their place. I saw people coming to church, going to work, caring for each other, and doing what had to be done with kindness, grace, grit, and humor. So it was people in our church in Houston and people in our church in Charleston that have taught me about the spirituality of living with illness. It’s a spirituality that understands that there may or may not be a cure for our bodies; indeed, ultimately there will not be. But there is a cure for our minds, a way of letting go of our illusions so that we can see more clearly and live more fully.

In his recent book Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande reminds us that there is more than one way to be ill. He speaks of three patterns of decline: the first is that of a terminal disease that people fight but understand where it is heading, the second is that of a chronic disease that is treatable over a long period of time but is not curable, and the third is that of old age, the frailty that comes naturally as part of the life cycle.[3] All of us will meet one or more of these patterns of decline, Gawande says, and it would help us to consider this truth and be honest in our conversations about it. Gawande writes as a physician who has seen unnecessary suffering on the part of those who have not considered their mortality. He urges us to think through questions of illness and aging as a way of getting ready for them. In his own way, he is inviting the question of spirituality. If we know that we will one day become ill or if we already have become ill, then how do we talk about that in ways that are honest and present? How do we avoid denial, illusion, and wishful thinking? More importantly, what would it mean if we did?

Rebecca Solnit writes that it might mean learning to tell the stories of who we really are. She includes in this our hopes and fears, our most vulnerable selves, the deep truths that we stumble into when we really pause to consider that we are finite. An illness jars us, she writes, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It may “invite [us] to rethink, to restart, to review what matters. . .and in breaking [us] from the past it offers the possibility of starting fresh. An illness is many kinds of rupture from which [we] have to stitch back a storyline of where [we’re] headed and what it means.”[4] Listening to so many of you over the past three years, I have heard that again and again. Through illness or injury, we have been broken open, have been invited to rethink our lives, have seen them for the shining gifts they are, and felt the wonder of the present moment, wishing only for its continuance. It’s a beautiful, transparent spirituality rooted in the here and now, the dwelling place of all that holy. Or at least the only place we can see it.

It brings to mind the words of the old psalmist, words the lectionary assigned us for today. Psalm 84 has become one of my favorite psalms, but not for the reasons people might guess. It is, at heart, a song of praise and a celebration of the temple. The old Hebrew poet sings of a sort of happy homecoming when he reaches the worship space. And that’s good. But the text evokes other images, deeper provocations and associations as we trace its lines. A first is that of the nesting bird. In the fourth verse of his description of the temple, the psalmist speaks of a sparrow up in the rafters. She has found a home there and nested; her smallness stands in contrast to the other descriptions of grand courts and altars. Her size reminds me of our own, her frailty like ours. And maybe even her limited vision. Every time I read this I think of the sparrow in the temple as each of us in the universe; we are a part of something grander, more elaborate and sacred than we know. Yet we make a home in our little corner, we walk the rafters with little sense of scale. The sparrow also conjures the words of Jesus, who spoke of birds and lilies when he taught us not to worry.[5] And the temple brings to mind other words, too, like those of the early Christians, who said that our bodies themselves were temples, places for the holy to dwell.[6] So a bird nesting in the temple touches on a number of truths.

Yet there is a second part of the psalm that is even more relevant to anyone living with illness. In the seventh verse, we are told of the pilgrims’ journey to the temple. Most versions render it in sunny language, our TANAKH translation reads as follows:

They pass through the Valley of Baca

     regarding it as a place of springs,

as if the early rain had covered it with

       blessing.[7]

This is a poetic translation, almost a romantic one, making the journey sound easy. But Hebrew scholar Jon Levenson brings something much deeper in his translation. “The Hebrew [here]. . .is quite garbled,” he writes, “one can only guess at its meaning.” But “if I render it accurately [it reads] ‘They pass through the Valley of Tears’. . .”[8] So for Levenson the pilgrimage to the holy place is a journey of tears, the only way to reach the temple involves a measure of suffering through which illusions are shed. He calls it both a natural and a spiritual transformation; natural in the sense that the images are of valleys crossed then climbing into mountains and spiritual in the sense that the tears of the pilgrims are somehow turned into rich, life-giving springs. Could that really be the way to the temple? To the dwelling place of all that is holy? The Valley of Tears? The path of some suffering?

It would be dangerous to say that that is the path, that suffering is required. But it would be truthful to say that many of us have suffered, that all of us will suffer at some point, and that we understand that as a part of the journey. Even more, the suffering may come to inform our spirituality. Perhaps the psalmist’s song is so sweet because he has been through the ringer. Perhaps the sparrow’s chirp is so charming because she is, in fact, so frail. Which brings us back to the spirituality of living with illness.

In his book My Bright Abyss, poet Christian Wiman writes about his own experience and reaches a conclusion about faith. Through illness he has come to understand that:

Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make it this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures. Faith never grows harder. . .[it] changes. . .[it] is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives, rather than any fixed mental product.[9]

And Wiman leaves it there. Faith is not fixed, but is messy and changing and vulnerable and real. It is, in some way, the shedding of illusions, the cure for the common misperceptions that we hold about ourselves and our world. And what are those illusions? I have learned three from friends living with illness. They are illusions that keep creeping back and that illness or injury shake off. It is up to us to see past these illusions or see through them in faith.

The first illusion is the idea that there is some kind of divide between the physical and the spiritual or the body and the mind. So much of our Christian tradition was based on ancient Greek philosophy that divided and separated things. And many of us have spent much of our lives living in our heads, barely aware of our bodies until something goes wrong with them. But illness jerks us back into the truth that we are embodied people and there is no separating our spiritual journey from our physical one. What happens to our bodies happens to our minds and vice versa. The pilgrimage we are making is one of blood and bone, our spoken prayers pushed into the air by lung and larynx. The Hebrews were better at this than the Greeks; they had rules for physical living, they set stones as markers, they were travelers and tribespeople who looked for the holy close at hand.

The second illusion is that we have time. We assume that since we have always been here, at least in our own memories, that we will always be, though we know on some level this is not the case. But we slip constantly into the idea that there will always be time for this or that, that we will always feel well, that tomorrow will come and we’ll be here to enjoy it. But illness and injury teach us that the only time we have is the present moment. We may have many, many more years. Or we may not. The gift is each breath. The gift is each hour. We dare not waste them. Or put off what we mean to do. I think everyone who has been ill has realized this. There is something undone that needs to be done. Something unsaid that needs to be said. I thought I had time, we say. And then the scales fall away and we quickly pick up the phone to call that person. Or get off the couch to do that thing. Because we are gifted with a new awareness.

And the third illusion may be our value systems themselves, or at least what our culture has taught us to value. And while it is cliché to say you can’t take it with you, it is true to say that so often illness or injury bring with them the recognition that all we really want is what we already have, that what matters most is life itself and the love we share with those dearest to us. I never met a patient in the hospital who spoke in conventional terms or status symbols.  No one mentioned their brand of shoes or car or where there house was or how high they had climbed in their career. No, everyone was just a person in a gown. Rather came the questions of a life lived meaningfully and well. Have I shown the ones I love that I love them? Have I told the truth about who I am? Have I given something back? Have I asked what really matters? These are deeply spiritual questions often brought to us by illness, and whether we are ill or not, we should welcome them. We should ask what we value most.

These are hard-edged truths to tell and perhaps for that reason we rarely tell them. But I offer them today in the hope that they will be an existential gift. For if we embrace the spirituality of living with illness or living as caregivers to those who are injured or ill, then we might find ourselves broken open to the beauty of the here and now. We might find ourselves cured of the illusions that hold us back and keep us from living freely and fully. We might find ourselves newly open to those around us who are ill, listening to the wisdom they have to share and holding it in gratitude.

I remember the day that Christopher Hitchens died. I read the sad news and followed the ritual taught to me by African friends. I walked outside with a glass of top shelf whisky and raised it in the direction of the medical center. Then I poured the first sip into the dirt in gratitude. It wasn’t quite a psalm of praise. But I was standing in a temple of sorts. Birds in the branches above me. And I thanked Hitchens for the reminder.

Amen.

 

[1] Christoper Hitchens, Mortality (New York: Twelve, 2014), 2.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] See Marcia Angell’s review, “A Better Way Out” in The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015, accessed online at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jan/08/better-way-out/

[4] Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (New York: Viking, 2013), 137-138.

[5] Matt. 6.25-29.

[6] 1 Cor. 3.16.

[7] Psalm 84.7, TANAKH translation.

[8] Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), 177.

[9] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17-18.

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I returned warily from family vacation. Not because I didn’t want to come home. In fact, I did. I had begun to miss the Lowcountry and was ready to return. But I was concerned about the weight of things. Not the work load so much as the work itself. The work we’ve all been doing. For social justice. For racial equity. For civil rights. For access to education and health care. These are heavy lifts, hard work. Two weeks away without worrying had been like medicine. Thus, the wariness. How to return and keep a sense of balance? How to sustain myself, ourselves, for the long struggle?

The answer, in my own case, is as simple as it is difficult. I rely on regular spiritual practices to keep myself emotionally and physically healthy. Oftentimes people assume that since I’m a minister this means that I rise early and crack open a big Bible or perhaps take to my knees in prayer. That’s actually not the case. I do read the Bible each week, but I count it more study than spiritual practice. And while spiritual practices differ based on personality and temperament, mine include the following four pillars: meditation, running, poetry, and entering the New Yorker cartoon caption contest.

That last spiritual practice is the newest, one I began about a year ago. It was in response to the heaviness of the work, I think. In the evening, when I climbed into bed, I found myself picking up the New Yorker and beginning to skip the articles. I would read those in the daytime, but not in the dark. Not before bed. Before bed I skipped all the serious stuff and went from one cartoon panel to the next, admiring the drawings and chuckling at the captions. The chuckles were nourishing. With every laugh the stresses of the day lightened. With every page my mind loosened its grip on worry and eased into a few hours of rest. The magazine, of course, is filled with cartoons throughout, but on the back page, they publish a blank cartoon and ask for readers to submit captions. Following along each week, readers get three cartoons: a new blank panel, the previous week’s panel with the top three submitted captions, and the panel from two weeks before with a selected winning caption. It’s great fun to read the various captions, to pass the magazine back and forth, to vote on a favorite or make up your own. But it requires a certain playfulness. Which is why I decided to take it up as a spiritual practice. All the serious work we are doing can tip out of balance if there is no silliness on the other side. For if there is a season for everything, as the old wisdom writer said, then daily we should seek a bit of everything—the heavy and the light, the serious and the funny, the holy and the human—before we switch off the lamp and close our eyes. It’s a way of praying if you ask me. Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my caption to keep.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister writes of the seeming paradox in her book Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life.[1] In short three and four page chapters, she writes of the ways opposites inform each other and set the spiritual path. Two particular chapters, in quick succession, get at this. The first, entitled, “The Energy that Comes from Exhaustion,” extols the reader who would rather burn out than rust out. Chittister quotes Thomas Carlyle who said that in life it is better to die of exhaustion than boredom. It’s true, she says, better a life lived to the full, making a difference, working for justice, in service to others, than a life frittered away in individual occupations and entertainments. Yet no sooner does she say this than the next chapter comes along: “The Productivity of Rest and Recreation.” In it, she counsels long periods of rest. Detach from the daily round, she says, unplug from our social media, go for walks, take naps, rest and restore ourselves. Only then can we tap in to our creative energy. Only then can we really do the work. So Sister Joan holds them both together: work as hard as you possibly can and take time to rest and keep your head on straight. Written like someone who knows how to read the cartoons.

In his own book on the subject, the New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff writes that cartoons are all about the pairing of opposites in unexpected ways. Humor, he says, is “a way of saying that life is paradoxical. Humor contains contradictions; it does not resolve them but revels in them. It says that the right way to exist among the contradictions, paradoxes, and absurdities of life is to cope with them through laughter.”[2] He doesn’t mention that laughter is, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “equally as honorable as tears,”[3] or that laughing and crying sound the same from the other room, each cathartic and free. But he does get the truth that laughter is a coping device, a way for us let go of certain things that we cannot control so that we can stay sane enough to do the things we actually can do. This is why it’s good to read cartoons before bed. We could do worse than laughing it off at the end of the day.

It’s too bad that the Bible doesn’t have many jokes in it, let alone any cartoons. Literary critic James Wood notes that in the Christian Testament Jesus weeps but never laughs; in the Hebrew Bible God laughs “at” but not “with,” usually in reference to a group of people deemed wicked and about to receive their just deserts.[4] But if the people in the Bible were human, and we know they were, then they must have laughed at least as much as they cried. They must have needed to because they were people on a journey, which is tiring, and because they were religious, which is funny. I cite as evidence the prevalence of religiously-themed New Yorker cartoons. You really can’t pick up an issue without finding at least one. For example:

The cartoon picturing Moses ascending the mountain and speaking to the cloud. “They broke all the commandments,” he says. “Can they have some more?”

Or the cartoon of God sitting on a great throne and reading a copy of the Bible. God looks surprised and we see words in a thought bubble. “Oh, shoot! How could I have forgotten to tell them about the dinosaurs?”

Or the cartoon of a person standing at the heavenly gates seeking entry. An angelic figure looks down at him and asks, “User name and password?”

Or the cartoon from just this week of God lying on the psychiatrist’s couch. “When did you first realize,” the shrink asks, “that you were a woman?”

These are cartoons based more or less in the Christian tradition, but the religious cartoons continue in a broader context.

Like the orthodox rabbi receiving a phone call. Cheerfully, he tells his congregant, “And remember, if you need anything, I’m available 24/6.”

Or the climber who has reached a great height to find a bearded guru sitting cross-legged. Next to the guru is another man in a business suit. “And this is my cousin Dave,” the guru explains, “who handles the conventional wisdom.”

Or a deadpan favorite. Two Buddhist monks sitting quietly in meditation. One says to the other, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”

I could go on. But the point is that there should be some playfulness to our religion, some lightness in our spiritual practice. If there isn’t we’ll just wear ourselves out. The purpose of the playfulness, however, isn’t irreverence. It is sanity. It is health. It is that coping device that helps us to let go, to rest up, as Sister Joan teaches, for the very purpose of finding our creative energy to work. Which brings us to our morning reading, which isn’t a joke, but might come out in favor of them.

It’s an unusual text the lectionary assigned us this week. Plucked out from the book of 1 Kings, an ancient account that, coupled with the book of 2 Kings, covers more than 400 years of Israelite history.[5] The books follow from one king to the next with story after story of people on a journey, and in this short paragraph we are told of a character named Elijah who is on the run. He has been engaged in a contest with the prophets of another god and has prevailed, but, in so doing, he has made powerful enemies and has been driven into the wilderness for a while. There is a lot more context to this story and you may want to read 1 Kings yourself. Just don’t do it before bed during the cartoon hour. Because it’s a bit violent and strange, best suited for daylight with footnotes and historical context. Well, read it in a metaphorical context and you can read it anytime. Because it’s really about someone who is tired, weary from the struggle, seeking a kind of sustenance and not knowing how exactly to find it.

Elijah goes into the wilderness and sits under a tree. He complains, asks God if he might die, and then falls into an exhausted slumber. During this time, an angel comes to him, touches him, and tells him to get up and eat. There is a beautiful, earthy description of a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of cool water. Elijah eats, drinks, and lies down again. He’s still not ready to carry on. Then the angel returns a second time and says the most interesting thing. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”[6] So Elijah gets up and eats some more and finally finds the strength to keep going.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say this is a funny story. But I can’t help but read it with a smile. The doting angel, like a mother or a grandmother trying to feed a growing child. Get up. You have to eat. And the great leader, reduced to being a regular person who is tired and hungry, in need of a little prodding. Okay. But then back to sleep. Okay, okay. I’ll get up. In all seriousness, however, I think we’re each like that. Maybe Elijah’s stone cakes were his New Yorker cartoons; a bit of sustenance for the long journey ahead. He just needed a little something. A little something to keep going. There’s a broader wisdom in it and the accompanying question of how each of us finds the spiritual practices that nurture us and feed into our creative work to repair and restore the world.

In my own case, I have found that laughing at cartoons helps. Along with meditation, exercise, and rest. And I would encourage each of you to find the things that work best for your own mind and body. Yoga helps. And prayer. The reading of psalms and gospels. Walking by the water. Riding a bicycle. Going to church. Art of any kind. And dance. The key being the constancy of the practice, the rhythm developed over time, and the hope that all of it serves a greater good. We rest so that we can work. We work so that we can rest. It’s a paradox, but not a joke.

So we return to our work this fall in a city that is still grieving. And there is so much for us to do. For social justice. For racial equity. For civil rights. For access to education and health care. And the best way to start may be to laugh a little. To find some sustenance along the way. To curl up with our cartoons, get a good night’s sleep, and rise in the morning to give our creative best. We carry our chuckles along the way, a good caption sticking with us at least as long as a good scripture verse. Like the classics.

The businessman taking a call and looking at his busy calendar. “No,” he says, “Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

Or the two dogs talking to each other. One says, “I had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking.”

Or the cartoon with two panels. In the first, a drowning man shouts to a collie on shore, “Lassie! Get help!!” In the second, the dog is lying on a couch talking to a psychiatrist.

What that last joke laughs at is what our spiritual practice is really meant to address. We help ourselves so that we can help others. And we do it all in the name of something greater than ourselves. A love that would rather burn out than rust out. A love that would choose exhaustion over boredom. A love that would pass the cartoons, switch off the lamp, get some rest, and dream of where we still might go.

Amen.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (New York: IMAGE, 2015).

[2] Bob Mankoff, How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 19.

[3] Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage (New York: Dial Press, 2006), pp.

[4] James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel (New York: Picador, 2005), 7.

[5] Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 3.

[6] 1 Kings 9.7b, New Revised Standard Version.

“Ninety percent of this game is half mental,” said the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. We shared the words with some of the boys on the team, but they didn’t sound as funny after striking out or being hit by a pitch. Tempers flared. Strong emotions flashed. At the beginning of the season, no one was smiling.

Several of the boys had been playing for years. But this was a springtime promotion from coach pitch to machine pitch. No more careful tosses by a grown-up; rather the mechanical launching of a ball across the plate. The team of first and second graders varied widely in height and stance, but the machine didn’t care. Some pitches sailed over boys’ heads; some brushed them back; others grooved right over the sweet spot in the heart of the plate. The boys stepped up, dug in, and took their hacks.

What we noticed right away were the classic ticks of each ballplayer. After a game or two, even without names on their jerseys, we knew who every batter was. The big kid with little bat speed who often struck out, but when he did connect it sent the outfielders running. The short kid who used the bat like a tennis racket, swinging at high balls and punching them through the gap. The young kid, barely old enough to make the team, who punctuated every swing with three to five hard bangs of the bat on the plate. The fast kid who batted left and could beat out even a dribbler to the mound. The kid who pulled his socks tall, like Babe Ruth, he said proudly, and by the end of the season half the team was doing it. Yet with all this personality there was one common denominator: every boy had to step up and take his swings. And every boy had to deal with strong emotions.

“Strike three,” said the ump, and the Montessori kid argued. “But I wanted to run,” he said, kicking the dirt. “Out!” called the coach at first, and the runner threw his batting helmet down in anger. “You’re cheating!” he yelled. “You’re up,” called a parent to the next batter, who wouldn’t budge from the dugout because his feelings had been hurt in an argument. “They’re not listening to me!” he cried.   We watched them from the parents’ section of the bleachers, which was the only section of the bleachers. And we saw ourselves. We saw the strong emotions that well in us all. We saw how hard it is to focus and to try again. One boy summed it up best.

He was the team’s best contact hitter. He wasn’t the fastest or the strongest, but he always put the ball in play. He let the other guy make the mistakes, as the saying goes. During the first game, this boy doubled twice and surprised everyone. And every game after he hit the ball squarely and ran it out. More often than not the other team would bobble the fielding and he’d end up on first or second with a smile on his face. In fact, he was so consistent that he only struck out once the entire season. But it was the most memorable strikeout anyone had seen. It was after that dugout argument and the boy was angry. He dragged his bat to the plate with tears on his cheeks and took three big hacks at bad pitches before throwing his bat down and returning to the bench. It was painful to watch. The boy’s anger burning bright. His strong emotions getting the best of him. He tried and failed to shake it off that night but was back in better form the next game. And at the end of the season, after the last game, when someone congratulated him on his consistency, he said something I’ll never forget. “I only struck out once,” he explained, “due to anger.”

It sounded like something Yogi Berra would have said and I have thought of it nearly every day since. Because I can’t remember feeling more sad and angry than I have this summer. I can’t remember struggling more to stay focused at the plate. I can’t remember seeming so inclined to just take some bad hacks and throw my helmet at the fence. It’s not easy living with strong emotions.

A month or so after the season was over I took my own ballplayer to the movies with this in mind. We bought matinee tickets to see the Pixar film Inside Out after a number of friends had recommended it. The film, as many of you know, takes place largely inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. There, five strong emotions – joy, fear, disgust, sadness, and anger – literally push the buttons that guide Riley’s responses to things happening in her life. The movie offered a beautiful depiction of the struggle we all feel, kids and grown-ups alike, to manage our strong emotions and to live with them without being governed by any single one, but it also offered an emotionally intelligent understanding of how we make and preserve memories, how they shape who we become, and how growing up includes the painful process of letting go. I sat in the dark wiping the tears away while my son belly laughed at the portrayal of anger as a flame-headed ranter and sadness as a low-energy blob.

Pete Docter, the co-writer and director of the film, said he was moved by his own eleven-year-old daughter’s struggles. He saw her change before his eyes from a happy go lucky kid to a moody, teetering adolescent with strong emotions and hormones governing her every move. And he was struck by how hard it is to be a person, to navigate all the ups and downs, to stay focused on who you are when the pitches are coming in wild and high and you’re standing at the plate with tears on your cheeks. Watching his own daughter and trying to be present to her, Docter realize that he couldn’t do it all for her. He couldn’t fix things or change them. He could only give her his love and a few emotional tools. Ultimately, all he could do was sit in the bleachers and watch. In his own words, “You know in your head that your kid has to suffer—that her suffering is hers, not yours, and that she has to find her own way through it. But allowing her to do it is another thing entirely, and the very prospect induces vertigo.”[1] This is what Inside Out show so vividly: the truth that suffering is a part of life and there is no way out of it. We all play the game. But our teammates are not only the big kid, the short kid, the young kid, the fast kid; they are joy, fear, disgust, sadness, and anger.

Of course, we’re not the first to step up to the plate. Our sacred stories remind us that our great teacher, Jesus, was angry, too. Earlier we heard the passage from Matthew where he visited the temple and was angered by the corruption he found there. Religion had been reduced to a transaction, a selling of sacrifices or indulgences, and it made Jesus angry to see. Profiteers preyed on people’s strong emotions and manipulated them, a problem that persists in religion to this day. When Jesus saw it, he shouted and turned over the tables of the money changers. “This is supposed to be a house of prayer!” he cried. “You’re making it into a den of robbers!” But he may as well have yelled, “You’re cheating!” to the coach at first and thrown his batting helmet down in anger. It’s the same thing. And it’s the rare example in biblical literature of Jesus getting really angry. Nowhere does it say that this was a bad thing; just that it was a thing. He was angry. He turned the tables. He yelled and walked off like a Little League player who felt he had been robbed. I think it’s important to hold that image and to hold alongside it some words that Jesus would have learned growing up.

It goes without saying that Jesus never heard that ninety percent of the game was half mental or that the key was just keeping your eye on the ball. But he would have almost certainly been raised on Hebrew wisdom literature like the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a favorite for some of us because, like the film Inside Out, it understands that suffering and struggle are part of life. It also understands, as literary critic Harold Bloom puts it, that life is a “waning but extraordinary gift”[2] and that suffering sometimes intensifies this awareness. It’s an existentialist classic delivered to anyone who has ever been angered by life’s unfairness or by a bad call at the plate. The book moves in a series of proverbs and riddles, and this morning we heard a few of its lines that hint at the relationship between strong emotions and wisdom.

 

Better is the end of a thing than

its beginning;

the patient in spirit are better

than the proud in spirit.

Do not be quick to anger,

for anger lodges in the bosom

of fools.

[And] Do not say, “Why were the

former days better than

these?

For it is not from wisdom that

you ask this.[3]

 

The lines are strange and strong, counseling patience while recognizing that anger is a part of living. The problem is not anger per se, but short temperedness and the holding of grudges. Do not be quick to anger, the old preacher of Ecclesiastes says. Do not let it lodge. And do not pine for some other time or place, saying that something else would be better. None of that is wise. None of that will serve you.

It’s an interesting pairing with Jesus in the temple and the Little Leaguers on the diamond. We all have strong emotions, but the foolish way is to attach to them. The way of wisdom is to name them, attend to them, and live with them in mindful ways so that we may regain our focus and keep playing the game. I think Jesus did this by channeling his prophetic critique. I think the boys did this by continuing to practice and to play day in and day out. I think the writer of Ecclesiastes did this by writing his existential poems and moving with the ebb and flow of dizzying feelings and life experiences. And I think we might each do this by learning new ways of sitting with our strong emotions and recognizing that they can be our teachers if not our governors.

In his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that what we are really seeking is freedom.[4] Our happiness, he explains, is possible, only insofar as we are free. And when we are beholden to strong emotions like anger, then we are not really free. We are pushed and pulled by them, our choices narrowed, ultimately leaving us hacking at life’s bad pitches, striking out due to anger or sadness or fear. Thich Nhat Hanh counsels the development of simple spiritual practices. Tools that we can use to live with strong emotions. Breathe deeply, he advises. Do not judge your emotions. Welcome your feelings and acknowledge that you are suffering. Then breathe deeply again. Say a prayer or a mantra. Keep a stone or a rosary in your pocket. Remind yourself of the fundamentals. Ninety percent of this is half mental.

And if that sounds simple, then it isn’t. Because, as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, we all like to talk and read about these things, but most people do not put them into practice. The key lies in the doing. In the actual meditation. In the real writing of a poem. In the regular drawing of a deep breath. In the smile toward ourselves as we would smile to an eight-year-old. It’s okay. I know you are angry. I know your feelings have been hurt. Just pause and remind yourself that you have everything you need. You know what to do. Stick to the fundamentals. Feet planted squarely. Eye on the ball. Don’t try to do too much with it.

Ultimately, that’s where the boys ended up. By the end of the season the flames had cooled. Strikeouts continued. Runners were called out. But the helmets stayed on and the second grade cussing fell silent. Instead you could see each boy growing up a bit. Learning what he could and couldn’t do. Sensing his own strengths and weaknesses. The big kid, the young kid, the short kid, the fast kid. And the parents watching from the bleachers, cheering them on. “Nice swing!” we shouted. “Good effort!” Maybe it was our own way of saying, “Do not be quick to anger!” Or “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better. . .?’”

Because there are no better days than these, no better summer than this. Strong emotions and all. Our job is not to worry about our feelings, but to learn to live with them mindfully. And our prayer isn’t that we’ll win every game, but that we’ll play our best, stepping up to the plate and swinging freely.

Who knows? Sometimes you hit a couple of doubles and surprise everyone.

J

 

[1] Lisa Miller, “Inside the 11-Year-Old Mind,” New York magazine, June 15-28, 2015, 92.

[2] Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004), 23.

[3] Ecclesiastes 7.8-10, New Revised Standard Version.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York, Riverhead Books, 2002).

IMG_9934

 

He stood next to us on the grass. Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He had a deep voice, soothing and powerful. And he stood next to us, waiting to speak. We had gathered near the corner of Remount and Craig to pray for our brother Walter Scott, killed by a police officer in North Charleston. We had gone to the spot not to make speeches or statements, but simply to pray. We gathered around each other. We laid flowers on the grass. We prayed for our brother, for his family, and for ourselves. And Rev. Pinckney was there. I don’t remember what he said, just the tone of it. Just that deep voice, ushering a calm.

We stood outside on the sidewalk. The church was filled to capacity. No room for anyone else. But hundreds stood outside anyway, bearing the heat, gathering around each other. We had come to pray again. But this time we were praying for him, Rev. Pinckney, and the eight other members of Mother Emanuel AME Church killed in a racist attack on Calhoun Street. I sweated through my suit, but it wasn’t the heat that made me dizzy. It was the memory. Standing next to him in April. Standing for him in June. Wondering who we would be standing for next and when it would ever stop. People filed from the church and met us on the street. Though we had soaked shirts, we embraced anyway, one after the other. People talked and cried. Street drummers played and chanted. A few carried signs and flowers.

The defining image of my own week has been that memory of standing with Rev. Pinckney earlier this year. I have gone back to it every day, wishing that we were still there. Wishing that we were not here. Because where we are seems like someplace we’ve already been, someplace many of us thought we only had to pass through once.

In his book, In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now,[1] Benjamin Hedin begins in the same way. He confesses that he once thought of the movement in black and white, as in the old photographs of bombed out churches and kids having fire hoses turned on them. Hedin’s book, published just this year, goes looking for the movement and asking in what ways it might still be present now. He finds many current expressions, especially in the wake of the killings we have had over the course of the past year. Hedin lists Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and, one thinks, if the book had come out six months later Charleston would have been among the names. We are now joined to that growing list of places where our history of explicit and implicit, individual and structural racism, has surfaced in violent and unspeakable ways. Of course, that history also includes Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis, places that many of us were visiting on a bus tour earlier this week.

I had thought this meditation would be about that tour. Field notes from a civil rights pilgrimage. The text was chosen with that in mind. The place in Genesis where Jacob, convinced that he had heard the divine voice, set a stone marker and called it Beth-el, “House of God.”[2] That seemed good poetry for sacred sites; I imagined reflecting on the markers that had been set in places like Medgar Evers’ home, the Lorraine Motel, and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Incidentally, if some of these names and sites are unfamiliar, then Benjamin Hedin’s book is a very helpful guide through the movement told in the voices of many of its key players. But it wasn’t halfway through our week when all the stories began to blur and then the phone rang late at night and then Rev. Rivers, Rabbi Alexander, and I were on a plane and then we were standing outside on Morris Street with hundreds of people crying and praying.

Rabbi Stephanie put it best in one of our conversations afterwards. She had lost the distinction, she said, between the old civil rights stories and our present context, between the black and white photos of then and the living color of now. I felt the same way, slowly beginning to internalize the truth that we are actually a part of an ongoing story. Maybe no one ever thinks they are. Maybe they are just following their ethic, doing what they feel is right, working for justice and equity, trying to live peaceably, and then all of a sudden they just wake up and realize that there is no other movement besides what is being done in a particular time and place. Like Liberty Hill in the fall. Like North Charleston in the spring. Like Calhoun Street in the summer. Maybe like Columbia in the days to come when we go there and stand in the sun to demand that the racist banner come down and be put away once and for all.

The lines are blurred between then and now because the story is unfinished. And I say that because it is the story of what theologian James Cone calls our original sin: the white supremacy that was a part of our founding and has made us sick ever since.[3] A few centuries into this national project and we still suffer from it. From institutionalized slavery to the segregated South to the new Jim Crow and the de facto segregation we can see on a short walk through different neighborhoods, we as a country are unhealed and unfinished. This week’s racist killings of our dear sisters and brothers brings this truth to bear in its cruelest form. Lives have been taken because we have not told the truth. We have not finished the work. We have not realized that the movement needs us just as badly as we need it. For the status quo is slowly killing us all. I think we may know this. And I think it has turned many of us out onto the streets this week to sweat and to cry and to pray. We don’t know where we’re going, but we know we don’t want to go back inside, back to the way things have been, back to illusion that the struggle was won with the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act or the election of an African American president. We want to wake up to the story here and now. We want to join in the unfinished work.

And so we have. For many of us, everywhere we went this week there was a way of joining in. My first conversation in Charleston, stepping off the plane, was with a baggage claim attendant. I had flown standby and asked if she could hold my suitcase when it arrived on the next flight. She asked where I was going and when I answered the prayer vigil she began to cry. Just like that. A stream of tears on the cheeks of a stranger. I can’t speak, she said. Then I turned on my phone and began to receive messages from just about everyone I had ever met. From all around the country came messages of prayer, love, grief, aloha, anything and everything as people ached for us. We love you, they said. Tell everyone in Charleston we are praying for them. Our hearts are broken. We are undone. But all I wanted to do was get back on the street to the Charleston that I know. And while it was not a consolation, it was a comfort of a kind.

An LGBTQ activist standing next to friends from the Central Mosque. A Pentecostal street preacher welcoming the liberal Christian minister. A college professor motioning to a civil rights lawyer. A police officer handing out water bottles in the heat. Everyone praying. Everyone singing. This is the Charleston that I know. And this, dear friends, is the movement.

If Jacob set a stone in the place where he heard the voice of the divine or came into contact with the sacred, then perhaps our current analogue would be setting an empty water bottle on Morris Street. Or a flower on Calhoun. Or a bulletin here on Meeting, laid in the pews where we gather to sing and to pray and to strengthen ourselves for the days to come. Maybe these places are the new sites of the struggle, the 16th Streets and Dexter Avenues of our time. And maybe we are the ones to carry the story on, not as a reenactment but as a lived experience, the flesh and blood embodiment of the work for equality and justice. For years now, we have been working as a part of a broad interfaith multiracial coalition in greater Charleston.[4] Now, during these most bitter of days, we find that we have each other. Looking back on the old stories, that’s all anyone ever had.

So we’re left at the end of the week not to search for the movement, but simply to see if we can recognize it. And to ask if God is in it, still speaking, as our church says, through the dailyness and the ordinary and the struggle and the love. Even through the tears that we cry for our sisters and brothers. We will never be reconciled to their loss. But we will be resolved. Resolved to take care of each other. Resolved to tell the truth. Resolved to work against the hatred that we have seen with the method that we claim: the nonviolence and love of the American civil rights movement. That is who we are.

I really don’t remember what Rev. Pinckney said, just the tone of it. Just the deep voice, ushering a calm. I do not feel calm today, but I do feel love. And I do feel a kind of strength rooted in that love. I set a stone to mark it. A water bottle. A flower.

Amen.

 

[1] Benjamin Hedin, In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015).

[2] Gen. 35.14-15.

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

[4] The Charleston Area Justice Ministry. See http://www.charlestonareajusticeministry.org

He was a very old man at the time. His reputation had preceded him and we were eager to hear the great theologian. A lifetime spent in the catacombs of books and ideas. He hobbled to the front of the room and cleared his throat. Removed his cap and began to speak in a soft Scottish brogue. All my life, he began with a gleam in his eye, I have studied. And all my life I have wished.

It wasn’t what we expected him to say. Because it was uncertain and wistful. With a dozen books to his name and legions of doctoral students to his credit, we might have supposed we’d hear the voice of authority. But as Professor Macquarrie spoke, he sounded more like someone at the beginning of a thing than someone at the end of it. I put down my pencil and scooted up in my seat.

The professor explained his deep love for philosophy and theology and the intellectual life that had pursued those courses. But there was something beneath it, he said, something within it, that had never been satisfied. He had wanted to experience something himself, to have participated in the truths he sought rather than just considered them. He had wanted to know a kind of mysticism, but, with rare exceptions, he had not been able to access it. So at the very end of his career he had taken up the study of Christian mystics throughout the ages. Their writings were wonderful, ecstatic, full of the poetry of the shining world as glimpsed by those who would imbue it with meaning. He loved to read them. But again, he felt a bit left out. In his own words, he said that he felt like a swimmer standing at the side of the pool, peering into the water and watching others glide beneath the surface. It looked so beautiful, he thought. But he never could figure out how to jump in.

What struck me most, as I listened to the old professor, was how childlike he seemed. Soft voice. Wide eyes. Sincere questions. Not knowing how to do something. Wishing to be like the others. He seemed conscious of it, still trying to find himself in his own skin. Perhaps, as Annie Dillard writes in her memoir, he wished to slide into the pool of awareness of selfhood, “as a diver meets her reflection in the pool. . .[later] wear[ing] it as she climbs rising. . .and ever after.”[1] And though he didn’t say it exactly, it seemed the old professor was telling us that he was stuck there at the water’s edge, watching the mystics and wondering. He couldn’t stay. And he couldn’t go. He just kept looking into the water.

It’s a common dilemma on the spiritual path. We stand at the wayside, dimly aware of what we are and are not looking for, of what we can and cannot say, believe, or do. But some of us stand there anyway, because we are drawn to the edge, to the place where we can gather, the very old and the very young, to share our stories and questions. All our lives we have studied. All our lives we have wished.

I thought of the old professor this week as I read the recent Pew Research Center study on America’s changing religious landscape.[2] Much has been made of the study, mainly for its documentation of the decline of membership in institutional Christian churches, particularly the Catholic and mainline Protestant strands. The rise of religiously unaffiliated persons, or “nones” as in “none of the above,” was also noted, as were a number of other trends. These include the facts that religious communities are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, interfaith marriages are on the rise, switching religions is common, and the Christian share of the population is declining nationwide and has been for fifty years. With the exception of evangelical Protestants, all major Christian groups are losing more members than they are gaining. Many read the study and immediately began to wring hands. It’s the death of the church, they said. We knew it, they worried. But I read it more like the old man at the side of the pool. Oh, there are a lot of us here at the side. We’re not sure we belong in there. But we may be closer than we know.

The rise of the “nones,” on the one hand, is a markedly good thing. So much of what passes for institutional religion is not the kind of thing that people want or feel they need. The data show that people are turned away by religion when they feel it is homophobic, mean-spirited, allied too closely with one political party, and anti-intellectual. All of these are turn-offs and they account for part of the reason the Christian church is in decline. Yet there are still great numbers of people who consider themselves to be spiritual seekers. Declining church membership is not the same as declining to ask questions of existential meaning or to participate in other activities and groups that cultivate the spiritual life. People find reverence and respite in kayaks and yoga groups, poetry slams and book discussions. And these are undoubtedly good things.

Yet on the other hand, the rise of the “nones” is a sad sign that religious institutions have failed to capture the imagination. Or that Christianity has been officially overtaken by the voices that so many of the “nones” reject – those homophobic, mean-spirited voices that speak with certain authority rather than with the voices of wishing and longing, like the wise professor who is finally only able to say what he does not know. I could be wrong in this assertion, that people are looking for more open and liberal churches, because the data is difficult to interpret. The simultaneous rise of the “nones” and slight increase of evangelical Protestants. But I do know that in our own national church, the United Church of Christ, we have seen growth in the churches that are unabashedly progressive and decline in the churches that hold to a more conservative line, unwilling or unable to change with the times and meet people where they are. This was true in the South Central Conference that I came from and seems also true in Circular’s Southeastern Conference. Our church is a case in point; a vibrant, progressive church in the heart of the city.

So we’re living in an interesting moment, a time when nobody really knows what is happening to the church and nobody really knows if it is good or bad. Which seems an appropriate time for this morning’s story, the tale of another old man standing by the side of the pool. Or stealing away in the dark.

John Chapter 3 contains one of the most well-known Jesus stories that we have. Put more precisely, it contains one of the most well-known verses – John 3.16. That verse has been used by evangelical Christians to claim certainty, but within the context of the story there is no such thing. It’s actually a story that might appeal to the “nones” or to the old professor or to any of us who have wondered if there’s a place for us in church. Listen to it for just a moment.

As the story goes, a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, had heard about Jesus. He was intrigued by the teachings of the rabbi, but he dare not risk his reputation by going to seem him publicly. So Nicodemus went under cover of darkness to meet with Jesus and ask him questions. I like to think of him as childlike in the scene. Soft voice. Wide eyes. Sincere questions. Rabbi, he began, we know you’re a teacher sent from God. And Jesus responded with words ambiguous and poetic. The truth of the matter is, he said, and then spoke of being born again in a new way. But how can one be born a second time, asked Nicodemus. I cannot climb back into the womb. And here we see the fallacy of literalism, the text itself playing tricks with a single or simplistic interpretation. It’s a metaphor, Jesus hints. Then more poetry. We’ve got to be born of water and spirit. Of heaven and earth. Don’t be surprised. The wind blows where it will. You hear its sound. But you don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going, do you?

We might just stop for a moment and admire the scene. Halfway through the chapter with John 3.16 in it, we have a religious leader who misunderstands by taking things literally and a rabbi who answers him with crazy Zen-like wisdom. Jesus is urging the birth of a new consciousness, the beginning of a new way of seeing, the moment of jumping into the pool rather than just looking. None of it makes sense until you jump. But the old man doesn’t know how. He’ll leave in the night carrying his questions home to bed. It’s understandable. The religion Jesus was teaching was so different than what he had known. It’s so different that what so many of us have known.

God so loved the world, we American Christians have been told, that God gave the child so that through belief we might be saved, inherit a new kind of life. Yet the words have often been spoken without kindness and with judgment, used more to exclude unbelievers than include old men and mystics. And the context is usually left out, all the ambiguity and double-meaning in the Greek, the playfulness of Jesus’ wisdom, the sincerity of the Pharisee’s search. Not to mention the better verse, John 3.17, which makes a very particular point of saying that God did not sent the child into the world to condemn it. And this bears repeating in church: God did not send the child into the world to condemn it. But only for the purpose of saving, healing, teaching a new way of being.

We as the church bear responsibility for making that clear. And for making a place for both the ones who would like to stand by the pool and the ones who are already in it. Which is something left out of the recent Pew study that might be worth including in our consideration. There is a paradox in the spiritual life that many of the mystics discovered. The same mystics that the old professor pored through, looking and listening for wisdom. One of the greatest of them, Meister Eckhart, a 14th Century Dominican, taught that he was only ever able to find something by taking leave of it. He only found God, he said, when he left God. When he set aside broken forms and symbols and set out into the unknown. Relieved of the pressure of certainty, he finally waded into the pool. And this may be what church can offer.

In my own case, which mirrors many of the “nones,” I assumed I would have to leave the church. I made the decision in seminary, while studying philosophy and religion, and came home to tell my pastor about it. I’m sure I won’t work in a church, I told him. Is that all right? He wasn’t an old man, but he was old enough. His eyes gleamed with the question he asked in return. Well, do you want to be where you are? Would you rather be anywhere else? I do want to be where I am, I told him, and I would not rather be anywhere else. That’s all you need to know, he replied. Just follow the path and be your true self. He may as well have said the wind blows where it will. You hear its sound. But you don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going, do you? None of us do.

And now look. I was never able to leave. Because I always found myself in communities that made a place for me to stand at the side of the pool, inviting me in at my own pace and in my own time. And all the objections that I had were shared and celebrated and a different way was offered. I objected to the way the church treated women, and I found churches that offered women equality in leadership and ordination. I objected to the way the church hid from science, and I found churches that celebrated evolution and our deep connection to natural reality. I objected to the way my lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers were shamed and ostracized, and I found churches that not only celebrated LGBT identity but hung banners and marched in parades to say all are welcome here. I objected to the harsh dualism that churches maintained, the false divide between heaven and earth, and I found churches that spoke of beloved community, here and now, spread out among all that is. I objected to churches that were too serious and too certain, and I found churches with senses of humor and the humility to say that life is full of uncertainties and ambiguities. We’re all in it together, just trying to work it out. And so all my reasons for leaving were the reasons I stayed. The paradox of a modern day mystic, perhaps. Or just a regular person trying to be honest. Trying to find a place to be real. Which brings us back to the old professor.

I remember after a couple of weeks with him we were having sherry on the lawn. It was a tradition. To emerge from the gothic archways and greet the world. Swill a small glass of strong wine before dinner. We looked out over a meadow and spoke of religious experience. And then we stopped talking and kept looking. Perhaps the truth is that that was the religious experience. Could jumping into the pool be so easy?

Yes, said Jesus. It’s like looking at the world with new eyes. Like being born and seeing. And according to our sacred stories, after Jesus himself had died, the old man Nicodemus came back and helped to bury him.[3] He had never forgotten their conversation. He had never stopped looking into the pool.

Amen.

 

[1] Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: HarperPerennial, 1988), 11.

[2] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015, accessed online at http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[3] John 19.38-40.

FullSizeRenderThe first book I read for my first class in seminary had a cartoon on the cover. The class was a Hebrew Bible class; its professor, a renowned Oxford man. And the first book we were assigned was entitled simply, What is the Bible?[1] It was written by a scholar named John Barton, and, as I say, featured a cartoon on the cover. The cartoon pictured a bearded God sitting on a cloud reading a copy of the Bible. God is frowning, clearly perturbed. Above his head is a thought bubble. I’ve been misquoted, God thinks.

Looking back, I can’t think of a better way to have begun seminary than with that cartoon. Because in one smirking stroke it invited all the first-years into the world of biblical literature. This isn’t what you think, the cartoon hinted. It isn’t what you’ve heard. And if you have ever opened the Bible and frowned or heard it used in ways that perturbed you, then pull up a cloud next to God. We’ll have our own little book group.

I thought of that cartoon a while back, as I sat as part of a panel discussion in front of a group of College of Charleston students. I had been invited to explain how a liberal Christian reads the Bible and another minister had been invited to share how a conservative Christian does. And, as we sat in front of the college kids, the other minister held up his Bible and began to wave it around. It was a lovely book, a big, black leatherbound thing with gilded pages. He shook it as he spoke, explaining that the Bible says this and that, though he didn’t reference anything outside of the writings of Paul, a few of the slightly more problematic texts if I recall. I don’t know what I looked like sitting on the panel next to him, but it was probably something like that God cartoon; frowning, perturbed, feeling that the misquotes were getting a bit out of hand. And when I was given my turn to speak, it occurred to me that I hadn’t brought my Bible at all. There was nothing to wave. Only stories to tell. And my Bible isn’t leather and gold and all that. It is an old, clothbound beat up thing that’s been written in and stepped on, carried in backpacks and on airplanes and occasionally used to press a flower in a pinch. If the truth is told, I don’t usually consult one Bible, anyway. I have six or seven that I like, all different English translations, each evoking something quite different than the others. Every week, as I prepare the sermon, I start with the following:

The New Revised Standard translation, which remains the standard American Protestant seminary Bible.

The TANAKH translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was prepared by the Jewish Publication Society and best draws out the narrative and poetry of the Hebrew.

The Revised English translation, which is rendered in British English and sounds more like Harry Potter than the others.

The Five Gospels Jesus Seminar translation, which is brash and punchy, adding an edge to Jesus’ countercultural wisdom teachings.

The Restored New Testament, which is Willis Barnstone’s translation, perhaps the most literary of them all with Jesus’ words and parables lined out like Whitman poems.

The Inclusive Bible translation, which never refers to God as male and always includes, along with the patriarchs, all the matriarchs, mothers, and midwives.

And, believe it or not, the King James translation, which is stilted and strange, reminding me that the words are from a very different time and place and that I shouldn’t get too familiar.

I didn’t tell any of this to the College of Charleston students. Or to the other minister and his thick black book. I focused on something else. I went back to the misquote. Or the mischaracterization.

The Bible doesn’t speak in one voice, I told them. It never has. That’s what makes it so interesting. And that’s what makes it so difficult. Then I ran down a cursory list of the types of literature that it contains – myths, poems, hymns, parables, narratives, and letters to name a few – and the many cultures and historical contexts included in our broad anthology. Think of Hebrew tribes telling oral stories and hoping to preserve them. Think of prophets warning against injustice and thundering words of judgment. Think of wisdom writers puzzling over the problem of evil and the meaning of our days. Think of Jesus’ followers telling the story of his life, passing on his teachings. Think of the early churches writing letters to each other. Think of how any of these things made it into the Bibles we have now, their contents selected by early church councils. Think of all the saved material we are just discovering; the gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Judas. Such wonderful voices. Such rich stories passed down for us to read and interpret together.

As we began to talk about the Bible as literature, I noticed that a great many of the students were engaged. They leaned forward in their chairs a bit, perhaps hearing what I hadn’t yet said, that it is only when we stop taking the Bible so literally and simplistically that we can finally start taking it seriously and find its true texture and richness.

Of course, the other minister was appalled. The Bible does speak in one voice, he said. I think he meant it spoke in his voice, but I didn’t say that because I thought it would have been tacky. It might have also been true. Because I never do remember him opening it, never do remember him responding to the questions that had been raised in any open or curious way. And I have made a little light here, but with respect I should note that there was great worry in his voice. There was fear of not knowing, fear of too many voices, fear of a lack of clarity or of the idea that if we started to deconstruct one thing, then perhaps everything would fall apart. I didn’t assuage his fears when I offered that for liberal Christians the Bible contained sacred stories that we read and revere, but it was not the only source of our faith. The Bible itself is one voice among many, including the voice of reason, the voice of tradition, and the voice of lived human experience. We each incorporate these many voices as we seek to live meaningfully and well, conservatives do it just as well as liberals. For as we sat on the panel in front of the college crowd, neither one of us was speaking objectively about the Bible; we were speaking about our own cultural traditions within Christianity. We were two voices among many. Which brings us, however strangely, to the text we’ve heard today.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, a time on the church calendar when we read the old story from the Book of Acts that tells of the coming of a certain Spirit among the people. It’s an interesting story and an unusual one, a story that ties liturgists everywhere in knots as they try to pronounce a litany of ancient regions. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, they read. From Phrygia and Pamphlia, wherever those places might have been in the ancient Mediterranean world. As the story goes, something like a wind came upon the people and then the appearance of something else. Like tongues of fire, we are told. And then the people could speak in other languages so that all could hear and understand. It’s a story of mystical unity within a context of great diversity. Many biblical scholars have pointed out that it’s a sort of mirror opposite to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. At Babel, everybody talks and there is great confusion. At Pentecost, everybody talks and there is clarity at last. It’s clever, but in order to get the joke, readers have to have started a few thousand pages and a few thousand years earlier. Readers have to be familiar with more than one voice.

The text itself contains a number of voices. There is the narrator, commonly thought to be the ancient physician attributed with the writing of the Book of Luke. There are the characters speaking within the story. There is Peter, who stands to offer a teaching or a sermon of his own. There is the Hebrew prophet Joel, from whom he quotes extensively. And there is God, whom the prophet says has promised to pour out this Spirit in the first place. According to the story within the story, God says:

I will pour out my spirit

on all humankind.

Your daughters and sons will prophesy,

your young people will see visions,

and your elders will dream dreams.[2]

And here we have a quite beautiful representation of what it means to read and pass down sacred stories. Peter stands to speak and he quotes what he knows of his tradition and its prophets. He surely didn’t hold out a leatherbound book and wave it around. He just drew from the poetry that he had learned. A spirit poured out. Young people dreaming dreams. Old people seeing visions. New life, like wind, breathed among them all.

We can picture the cartoon God sitting on a cloud thinking that’s a bit more like it. Not a misquote at all. But a memory. A story. A whisper of sorts to kindle our imaginations. That’s what the Bible is for.  That is the reason we read it at all.

We read the Bible because it gifts us with the literary imagination. In its stories we hear our own stories. The midwives saying no to the Pharaoh. The daughter finding Moses in a basket. The people wandering in the wilderness. Or the brother who wrestled his shadow by the river. The prophet who called out for one greater than he. The boy who sat in the synagogue and taught the teachers. The wisdom in the words about laying down our swords, forgiving seventy times seven, and loving the neighbor and the enemy and the outcast. Or the poems and the hymns and the letters. Our help comes from the hills. Even the rocks cry out. My soul, it longs. No one has ever seen God, but everyone who loves is born of that mystery. These are the Bible’s voices, and if we listen long enough, sit with them quietly enough, then we might hear a kind of unity in their diversity. It may not be the kind that we can easily bind and wave, but it may be something much better than that.

It may be what I told the college kids that night and what I now tell you: that maybe the voice with which our sacred stories speak is the voice that won’t let us go. It isn’t the voice of worry or warning. It is the voice of the questions that call to us, questions about who we are and what we are doing. Are we living meaningfully and well? Are we putting into practice the things we hold dearest? Are we engaged in this conversation with ourselves, our stories, our reason, experience, and tradition?

Somehow I think the cartoon God sitting on a cloud would like it if we were. So tired of being misquoted, perhaps that God would appreciate a few new stories. Like the story of Pentecost, people coming together, young and old, to read and dream it all again.

Amen.

 

[1] John Barton, What is the Bible? (London: Triangle Books, 1991).

[2] Acts 2.17b, The Inclusive Bible.

IMG_7467I think I started to pray at the moment I stopped knowing how. It wasn’t a prayer made of words. I was at a loss for words. It was a prayer made of not knowing. So it was quiet. I’m not sure I would have called it a prayer at the time. I would have told you that I didn’t know how to pray anymore.

The reason I would have told you that, my senior year in college, was grief. I had returned home that fall to help take care of my father, who was struck by a very aggressive cancer. He lived only two months and we took care of him at home. The work was physically and emotionally exhausting; all the medicine and equipment, all the friends coming to say goodbye. But as tired as I was, I had trouble sleeping. Often after everyone had gone to bed, I sat up at the kitchen table, staring blankly at the empty pages of a notebook. I should write something, I thought. Maybe a prayer. But I didn’t know how. All I knew was how not to.

I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to pray for my father to get better. I had seen the scans and the doctors’ faces. I knew what pancreatic meant. Praying for him to get better seemed like a set-up. I could see him getting worse every day. No words whispered into the air would cure his jaundice or cause his hair to grow back. No unseen hand was going to reach down and turn the mutating cells. No miracle was going to happen that would reverse nature’s course when all the medicine in the world couldn’t do it. And I wasn’t going to pray for that. I knew better. I started off praying simply that I would be a good son and strong for my parents. Those prayers were earnest, but soon they, too fell into silence. I had nothing to say.

The great Chicago school theologian Bernard Meland once framed it this way: What we are trying to do, he said, is feel at home in the universe without cultivating any illusions.[1] Meland wondered if we could ever really do that or if we could do it in such a way that developed deep reservoirs of joy and meaning and not just existential angst. I suppose it was my question, too, senior year. Sitting at the table I was trying not to cultivate any illusions. How then to pray in reality?

It’s a good question, I think, and one with which so many of us have struggled. Yet it isn’t one that’s asked often enough in religious circles, where traditions are commonly passed without explanation, forms assumed without thought, and clichés inserted into awkward silences. I’ll pray for you, we say, without saying any more. And though I found such sentiments somewhat comforting back during my own dark night, I also wondered what my friends and family meant. Were they bowing their heads and closing their eyes? Or were they wondering, too?

Looking back, the first real prayer that I was making was simply honest speech. Just saying that I didn’t know how to pray, didn’t hope for a miracle, wanted only to be helpful and loving and present, was an attunement toward the reality I was living. Anything else would have felt like a form of denial and the days seemed too short for that. But as they went, something began to happen, evolving with the hours as wordless prayers turned into practices. I will bring your medicine. I will hold your hand. I will laugh with you. I will read while you rest. I will be here trying not to worry and worrying anyway. That was the turn for me. I stopped worrying about the wrong things – How do I pray? Am I doing this right? – and I started worrying about the right things – How can I be fully present? How can I help? How can I be attuned to the here and now?

In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus offers some words to those of us who have wondered how to pray. As Willis Barnstone tells us, of all the gospels Matthew’s book is the most poetic, containing sayings and aphorisms to whisper like mantras.[2] His Jesus draws close to the poor and disenfranchised, whether their outsider status is physical or spiritual. And his Jesus says this when teaching about authentic religious practice:

Take care not to perform your good deeds before other people

So as to be seen by them. . .

When you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet. . .

 

And when you pray, do not do so like the actors.

They love to stand in our synagogues and on the corners

Of the open squares, praying

So they will be seen. . .

I say to you, they have their own rewards.

 

When you pray, go into your inner room and close the door

And pray to your [Abba] who is in secret. . .[3]

It sounds like something an itinerant rabbi would say, someone who had a knack for going into the wilderness or onto the mountainside by himself to think on things and pray over them in his own way. It is an encouragement toward honesty, I think. Do not pray self-consciously in the way that you think others expect. Or in the way that you have seen done before. Or in the way of words and the limits of their expression. Indeed, Jesus follows by saying that we should not babble so much; in Barnstone’s rendering he uses the word glut. A glut of words won’t help, he teaches, perhaps a bit playfully. And then he offers a mantra. One of his most well-known. The Lord’s Prayer. Here, try this, he says, and gives us lines to repeat, to hang our hats on, to sit with when we haven’t got any of our own, maybe mumble at the kitchen table in a pinch.

And the words try to bring heaven and earth together, attune them somehow in the present moment. On earth as it is in heaven. Today is our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive. So may it be. It’s a very beautiful prayer and not much of a petition, honestly. Jesus is not really teaching us to ask that the world be changed to suit us, but that we develop a prayerful practice so that we might serve the world. Remember his own prayer that he wished the cup would pass but he intuitively knew it wouldn’t? Remember his mysticism that the truest prayer was in ordinary physical acts of kindness and love? But when did we help you when you were hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison? Oh, when you did it for anyone, you did it for me.

Maybe that was Jesus’ way back. After all, he had known his share of religious people and he had seen them praying loudly and publicly. He was publicly engaged, too, as we all should be, but this engagement came from his private grounding, his own deep spiritual practice. And at its heart, that’s all prayer is.

Brother David Steindl-Rast writes that what matters most is prayer, not prayers.[4] It is the practice of the thing that counts, not the words. And the practice takes many forms. Some of those forms actually are public. And many are private. Some are made of words. And many are quieter still. Some require the closing of the eyes. And many ask that we open them ever wider. Which is what I tried to do this week as I considered the subject of prayer and hoped to offer us a few pathways into it. Here is what I saw, alongside many of you:

Sunday we sat together in the curved pews, listening as a person here or there stood and named a person, a joy, or a concern. The voice speaking was the truest prayer of all. Pray for my friend. Pray for my daughter. Pray for my worry. Please. And then we did. Attuned ourselves in silence to what is really happening in life. Said words of love and courage.

Monday I wrote a poem. Sent it to dear friends whose sons are growing and soon to leave home. Images of those boys, whom our son had admired, doing the dishes on a church retreat. Brothers cheerfully drying pots and pans. A prayerful memory rekindling feelings of joy, gratitude, and friendship.

Tuesday we sat for noontime meditation on the shaded balcony of the Meeting House. Striking the bowl three times, a small group of staff and friends sat in silence. We breathed. We listened to the many varieties of birdsong. We felt the sweat bead on our backs and the cool breeze funnel between the buildings. We can train ourselves, we said, to be more “open and accepting. . .[to] lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds” so that we might better work with whatever life brings us.[5]

Wednesday we gathered with our friend and youth minister Matt to hear his story and to celebrate his path toward ministry in our progressive Christian tradition. We listened and shared. We asked clarifying questions. We spoke of hopes and fears. And then someone got up and took a book from the shelf. She read a blessing for the way ahead. A prayer not of benediction, but beginning.

Thursday we pulled chairs into a circle in a hospital waiting room. We did bow our heads and close our eyes. Focused our attention amidst the loud televisions playing soap operas and local news. We took deep breaths and we said words of prayer for a dear friend and husband and father. For the doctors and the nurses. For the hands of love. But when did we care for you when you were sick? Right now. God be with them all, we prayed. Love be present here.

Friday I ran on the treadmill. Punctuated the regular pace with bursts of nine and ten miles per hour. Lungs filling, heart pumping, muscles singing and stretching. It was a childlike prayer, a jubilant embrace of having a body and feeling its pleasure. The old monk’s mantra came to mind. With every step, I have arrived. With every step, I am home. Trainers pounded the treadmill in gratitude.

And Saturday we stood together on the beach. Feet in the sand, hands joined in a great human chain, bearing witness to the beauty of the earth and our deep concern for its well-being. We do not want seismic testing to harm our marine mammals and fishes, we said. We do not want to industrialize our shore and drill in its fragile waters. We want to protect this place. We want to reduce our consumption and invest in cleaner forms of energy for a sustainable future. It was a prayer of love and protest, ending in the best place of all: barefoot by the sea.

So every day there was a kind of prayer, its forms spread throughout the week, changed by the context. But every one of them was an honest way of speaking. Every one was an attempt to relate to reality without cultivating any illusions. Which is all any of us are trying to do, whether we are standing in church to name something we would like held in prayerful concern or sitting at the kitchen table without any words at all. It’s okay, Jesus said. The not knowing. Just the doing. We can pray in secret. We can pray a mantra. We can go into the wilderness or onto the side of a mountain. And there find what we need.

That’s what I found at the kitchen table. The not knowing was just the first step.

Amen.

 

[1] Bernard Meland, “Elementalism and Creaturalism,” in The Chicago School of Theology—Pioneers in Religious Inquiry, Volume II, ed. Creighton Peden and Jerome Stone (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), 220-221.

[2] Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 218.

[3] Ibid., 234-235.

[4] Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast, The Ground We Share: Everday Practice, Buddhist and Christian (Boston: Shambhala, 1996), 65.

[5] Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind (Boulder: Sounds True, 2013), 1-2.

 

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In his book Love Letter to the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh writes of the depth of our connection to all that is:

If we think about the Earth as just the environment around us, we experience ourselves and the Earth as separate entities. . .[but] when we look deeply at the Earth we see that she is a formation made up of non-Earth elements: the sun, the stars, and the whole universe.  Certain elements, such as carbon, silicon, and iron, formed long ago in the heart of far-off supernovas.  Distant stars contributed their light. . .

A lot of our fear, hatred, anger, and feelings of separation and alienation come from the idea that we are separate from the planet.  We see ourselves as the center of the universe and are concerned primarily with our own personal survival.  If we care about the health and well-being of the planet, we do so for our own sake.  We want the air to be clean enough for us to breathe.  We want the water to be clear enough so that we have something to drink.  But we need to do more than use recycled products or donate money to environmental groups.  We have to change our whole relationship to the Earth. . .*

[But] real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet.  Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.  When we recognize the virtues and talents of the Earth, we feel connected to her and love is born in our hearts. . .

Every morning when I wake up and get dressed, I leave my hut and take a walk.  Usually the sky is still dark and I walk gently, aware of nature all around me and the fading stars.  One time, after walking, I came back to my hut and wrote this sentence: “I am in love with Mother Earth.”  I was as excited as a young man who has fallen in love.  My heart was beating with excitement.*

I think of Thich Nhat Hanh this week because the coming days offer us several ways to express our love for the Earth.  On Saturday, many of us will gather for the annual Hands Across the Sand observance at Folly Beach.  We’ll have a press conference at 11:30 a.m. to speak against seismic testing and offshore drilling, and we’ll call each other to new practices of conservation and sustainability needed to protect our oceans.  Afterwards, we will walk to the beach where we’ll stand barefoot, hands and hearts linked as we bear witness to the beauty of the Earth.

On Sunday, we will gather in between church services in Marion Square downtown for the annual Blessing of the Bikes at 10:00 a.m.  In partnership with Charleston Moves, we invite everyone, religious and non-religious alike, for a simple blessing for safe riding and sustainable living.  We will also have a moment to remember all the riders who are no longer with us; those represented by ghost bikes in every city, including the one that stands in Charleston in memory of our dear Edwin Gardner.  We conclude by ringing our bike bells and pedaling off along the peninsula, the most childlike prayer of all.

In each case, we are trying to “change our whole relationship” and to express real love.  But it’s only the beginning.  As developers push our fragile ecosystem, as our governor lobbies for offshore drilling, and as our president opens new leases in the pristine Arctic while continuing to delay on a Keystone XL pipeline decision, we know that change will have to begin with each of us.  And it will have to come from our deep connection to the Earth.  That connection is best strengthened by time outside.  And solidarity others who share our love.

So please join us on Saturday and Sunday.  Bring flip flops and kick them off.  Wear bike shoes and clip them in.  Hold hands and ring bells and join with all who say:  We are in love with Mother Earth.

With aloha,

J

*Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2013), 9-10.

*Ibid., 29-30.

 

FullSizeRenderWe walked up the steps to The Joe, feeling better about our chances. It had rained all day and we wondered whether a game would be played. But the clouds seemed to be moving on and a nice crowd milled in the concourse, lining up for hot dogs and posing for photos with the team mascot. We found our seats in Section 204 and sat down to look at the evening line-ups. The boy reached for his bag of Cracker Jacks and ripped it open. He crunched them quietly as a soft breeze blew in off the Ashley.

It didn’t take long until he found it. Thin paper square pulled from the bag. Bright red diagonal stripes and the blue-bubbled message: Surprise Inside! Guess What’s Inside? He looked up with a bright smile. For a moment neither of us wanted to open it.

It’s funny, but I have found myself feeling, every day this week, the way I felt last Saturday night at the ballgame. Because life keeps handing us surprises, from moment to moment, and daring us to open them, asking if we can guess what’s inside. And I don’t only mean the best surprises. I mean the scary ones, too. Because this week has reminded us rather strongly of what we already knew: we are living in a very surprising time, and it seems like almost anything could happen.

On Monday evening, for example, eighteen hundred of us gathered at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in North Charleston. It was our justice ministry’s annual Nehemiah Action, and we had come to ask county officials to help us fight wage theft in our community. We wanted help recover wages for workers who had not been paid. But this required an advocate, a line-item in the county budget, and a specific response to our question, “Will you do this?” I was on the program as one of the negotiators, alongside my friend and colleague, the Rev. Nelson Rivers. And though we thought we knew how things might go based on our previous meetings with public officials, we weren’t completely sure. All night I sat holding my agenda like a Cracker Jack prize. Surprise Inside! Guess what it will be.

The good news is that we were all pleasantly surprised on Monday. After a solid year of hard work, our officials said yes to our research, our proposal, and the funding to make it happen. We’ll need to follow through and find the requisite votes on the County Council, but with the Chair and Vice-Chair behind us, we can be hopeful as we continue the work. But there was bad news, too. It kept coming every day.

While we gathered Monday evening, our sisters and brothers in Baltimore were suffering. Yet another unarmed black man died at the hands of police in what is now shown to be a national epidemic of brutal patterns and practices. Just weeks after the tragic killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, we add yet another name to our long litany: Freddie Gray.

By Wednesday things had reached such a point in Baltimore that they played their own ballgame with the gates locked. The Orioles hosted the White Sox in front of an empty stadium. No one cheered during the six-run first. No fans grasped after the home run balls that rolled down the bleacher steps. No hawkers called of hot dogs and beer. Talk about a surprise. Can you guess what’s inside? In Baltimore’s case, can you guess what’s outside?

Outside were mostly peaceful protests. Community leaders, clergy, parents, youth, even gang members gathered to demonstrate and to pray. There were also some violent acts of looting and fires set, which were highlighted by the media and replayed over and over. But as we all watched Baltimore this week, I think we had that sense that maybe anything could happen. The newspaper became another Cracker Jack prize. Every morning we had to ask ourselves if we wanted to open it. But something else happened every morning, too, at least in my own case.

The stranger the news has become—people marching in the street, baseball games in empty stadiums, the Pope talking about climate change—the more I have felt that we are living in a time of great cultural foment. Something is happening now and it is something in which we are all invited to participate. None of us knows exactly what it is, the new civil rights movement, perhaps, or the just the old one that has been slowly burning the whole time, its flames suddenly brightened, stoked by all the stories we can no longer look away from. It is happening now, and it has made me think of all the people in our history who joined the movement in their time and place without quite knowing what it would be or how it would turn out. I think of the story of Duncan Winslow as an example.

Duncan Winslow was an enslaved man living in Tennessee at the outbreak of the Civil War. He managed to escape and join the Union Army, marching back South with them in order to help free others. In 1864 he was badly wounded at the Fort Pillow Massacre, where Confederate troops cut down unarmed black men who were trying to surrender. Somehow Winslow escaped that day, hid in the brush and made his way to the river after dark where he boarded a boat to safety. Years after the war, when he was living quietly in Illinois, a local politician came to his door seeking his support. “Don’t forget,” said the politican. “We freed you people.” To which Winslow raised his wounded arm. “See this?” he said. “Looks to me like I freed myself.”[1]

It was a surprising answer. And a true one. The Cracker Jack reply of someone who had seized his own moment in history, torn it open, and joined in. Which is exactly where we are. The thing is, no one ever knows that what they are doing in 1864 is something big. No one ever knows that 1968 will always be remembered. No one ever knows that 2015 will go into the books. We just get out of bed, open the newspaper, and think it’s an ordinary day. Until we go outside and realize that there are people on the street. Until we recognize that we are holding something in our hands and it is asking us a question: Surprise Inside! Guess What’s Inside?

According to our sacred stories, Jesus saw his own moment as a shining opportunity. In Luke Chapter 4, he took the old scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read from it aloud. Who knows, maybe he held it for a moment and wondered if he should open it, like a kid clutching a paper square. The scroll contained surprising words of its own, words of beauty and power. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” it read. And has anointed me “to preach the gospel to the poor. . .to heal the brokenhearted. . .to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”[2] What words to read. The spirit is upon me. And it has given me work to do. The old prophet speaking for himself in his time and place. But more than that. Jesus taking it as his own. “Today,” he said, “is this scripture fulfilled. . .”[3] In other words, I will do these things. I will join this work. Surprise!

It sounds like a crazy thing to say, that Jesus himself will bring healing, deliverance, and liberty. And it sounds like a crazy thing to ask of his followers, that we join him in this prophetic work. But perhaps we should ask ourselves how crazy it really is. Would it be any less crazy to say that we will not bring any healing, deliverance, and liberty? Would it be any better to say that we don’t have any work to do, we’ll just stay home and watch the bad news? We’ll just hold on to this scroll, this prize, this day, too worried to open it, too afraid to be surprised?

Jesus, of course, taught us not to hold things so tightly. He opened the scroll and then he lived out the words. He took the poetry from the page and put it into practice. And it was a liberating thing. Maybe he didn’t have all the answers either. Maybe he knew that almost anything could happen. Maybe he didn’t care about all that. Maybe he was just too full of love to sit idly by when the brokenhearted and the bruised were out there on the street.

Professor Benjamin Hedin writes about what happens to everyone who becomes an activist in the name of their own prophetic dreams and visions:

 

. . .[it is] toil, effort, and enervation, but it is also the opposite of that. It is a liberation in itself. . .Suddenly you’re in the right place and doing the right thing, so all those questions that normally must be batted away from conscious thought—why don’t I stand up for what I believe in; why aren’t I doing more—are no longer there. The self, unmanacled in this way, feels much lighter.[4]

 

What a surprise, then, this freeing of the self as we join with others to do the work of justice. And let us make no mistake. That was Isaiah’s work. And Jesus’ work. And Duncan Winslow’s work. And our work. We think we’re going to fulfill these words. We think we’re going to free ourselves. We think we’re going to join the struggle. We think we’re going to open this prize and see what’s inside. For the time has come, friends. And we are the ones fortunate enough to be living it.

We had to leave before the ballgame was over. But we stayed long enough to see our team rally from a four-run deficit to tie the game, so we left liking our chances. The Cracker Jack prize turned out to be a Detroit Tigers sticker, which the boy pocketed for later. But the real gift was the moment itself. We crossed the street and paused in the parking lot to watch the stars come out. And maybe we knew that almost anything could happen.

There and then. Here and now.

Amen.

 

[1] David Williams, I Freed Myself: African-American Self Emancipation in the Civil War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1.

[2] Luke 4.18, King James Version.

[3] Luke 4.21a.

[4] Benjamin Hedin, In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015), 193.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

and I wake in the night at the least sound

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

I go and lie down where the wood drake

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

 

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

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

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

J

 

[1] Psalm 4.1a, The Inclusive Bible.

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

[3] Psalm 4.6a.

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

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

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

[7] Psalm 4.7a.

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