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.

 

10151280_10203638622226570_4895509359087270198_n

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.

FullSizeRender

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.

IMG_8403

This Sunday is Earth Sunday, a high and holy day in our family.  It is a day when we celebrate our relatedness to the natural world.  We mumble prayers of gratitude for the beauty all around us.

Yet this Earth Sunday is clouded by grief.  Our community has become one of the latest to make the headlines in the ongoing American tragedy of racial profiling and police brutality.  Today we are speechlessly sad and angry about the killing of Walter Scott eleven days ago in North Charleston.

And the question comes:  how to celebrate the good earth even as we lament the injustice we see.

In my own life, the two have been related.  For while I have sometimes been seen as an activist, I have always been the barefoot boy from Kailua, Hawaii, drawing strength from the salt and the sand.  Many people in the Lowcountry know exactly what I mean.  Which is good, because we need some strength right now.

As I reflect on it, the words of Alice Walker come to mind.  In her book The Color Purple, she relates a discussion of spirituality in the midst of still oppressive life experiences.  Her characters draw not from the human world but from the natural order as they seek to make sense of things:

 Here’s the thing, say Shug.  The thing I believe.  God is inside you and inside everybody else.  You come into the world with God.  But only them that scratch for it inside find it.  And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for.  Trouble do it for most folks, I think.  Sorrow, lord. . .

     It? I ast.

     Yeah, It.  God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

     Don’t look like nothing, she say.  It ain’t a picture show.  It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. . .

     Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you.  She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose.

     She say, My first step from the old white man was trees.  Then air.  Then birds.  Then other people.  But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child. . .it come to me:  that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all.  I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.*

I feel a little like that today.  As we celebrate Earth Day and lay flowers in the dirt for Walter Scott, I feel like things are bleeding.  My prayer is that they will be broken open somehow, that they will remind us of the truth that we are all related.

With aloha,

J

*Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt, 2003), 195-196.

FullSizeRender

What Would Kurt Do?  That’s what I’ve been asking myself while watching his home state politicians pass a mean-spirited and blatantly discriminatory bill under the guise of free religious expression.  Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite Hoosier, so I turned to his writings for their trademark bittersweet humor.  He put Indiana, and the rest of us, in context:

. . .there is certainly nothing new about a tragically and ferociously divided United States of America, and especially here in my native state of Indiana.  When I was a kid here, the state had within its borders the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and the site of the last lynching of an African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Marion, I think.

But it also had, and still has, Terre Haute. . .the birthplace and home of the labor leader Eugene Debs.  He lived from 1855 to 1926, and led a nationwide strike against the railroads.  He went to prison for a while because he opposed our entry into World War One.

And he ran for President several times, on the Socialist Party ticket, saying things like this:  “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs pretty much stole that from Jesus Christ.  But it is so hard to be original. . .*

Vonnegut reminds us of the American paradox, showing that our best and our worst, our brightest ideas and darkest shadows, are a part of every state, no less here in the Southeast than in his native Midwest.  And just this week two of our own state representatives are introducing bills that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender South Carolinians from discrimination.  According to this morning’s Post and Courier, Sen. Brad Hutto and Rep. Todd Rutherford are leading this effort.*

“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Hutto.*  Which is another way of saying that we ought not create different classes of people, as Debs saw.  We ought to expect and demand equal treatment under the law for every person.  But not everyone feels that way.

Already there are South Carolina lawmakers speaking out against Hutto and Rutherford’s move to protect the LGBT community from discrimination.  Our state, like Vonnegut’s, shows both sides of the American paradox:  the love and progress that push us toward that more perfect union and the fear and hate that fight to hold us back and create different classes and rankings of people.

So what would Kurt do?  And what can we do?

Write.  Call.  Fight.  Make fun.  Then write and call again.

Let’s remind our representatives that we are the country of humanists and humorists, big enough for all.  We are not the country of haters and homophobes.  And we can make that plain by supporting the bills put forward by Sen. Hutto and Rep. Rutherford.

The U. S. Constitution already protects free religious expression.  It’s a nice document and should be read more widely.  How about we add something at the state level that protects real people, our sisters and brothers?  Please join me in writing and calling.

With aloha,

J

*Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008), 17-18.

*Ed Buckley, “States Should Act to End Discrimination,” The Post and Courier, April 2, 2015, http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150402/PC1002/150409882/1021/

*Cassie Cope, “Bills Would Ban SC Businesses from Discriminating Against Gays,” The State, April 1, 2015, http://www.thestate.com/news/business/article17159618.html

*I have not been able to detemine the senate bill number.  At present, calling your representatives in support should do.  I will post more information as it becomes available.  Clergy friends, you can also join me in signing the statement “Clergy Unite Against Legalized Discrimination,” https://docs.google.com/a/charleston.k12.sc.us/forms/d/1aQWX1-lh5sLoVZS_gNxxb92bv0CWbXvcFmFAbyT3Zt8/viewform

IMG_2377

We have two weeks left to write the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) during the public comment period regarding seismic testing and oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic, Gulf, and Alaskan coasts.  As our government decides whether it will grant leases to big oil companies, we are asked to send our thoughts, including how these activities would affect the culture, economics, and general livelihood of the places we live.

Here in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, the stakes could hardly be higher.  We have a  7 billion dollar coastal economy that depends on healthy seas.  Our particular place relates to the ocean in innumerable ways — from the recreational (surfers, kayakers, boaters) to the economic (shrimpers, fishers, oystermen and women) to the aesthetic (birders, photographers, vacation home renters) and the soulful (dog walkers at dawn, kids drawing circles in the sand).  It is almost impossible to imagine the Lowcountry without clean, healthy water.  Almost. . .

Watching the devastation that has followed the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we do have a picture of what can happen to an entire region.

Many of us saw the effects of that spill in 2010 and have followed it since, reading of fishers still out of business, massive wildlife die-offs, dead zones in the ocean, and disease and mutation spread among the living animals.  We are just beginning to understand the toll that has been taken, and, while we wait to learn how deeply the ecosystem has been altered, no new regulations have been imposed on the industry whose carelessness accounted for the disaster.

And now comes the proposal for leases to explore new waters, including those off our own Atlantic coast.  So now is the time to call and write.

I attended the BOEM open house in Mt. Pleasant last week and spoke with officials who encouraged us all to write in, again naming how oil and gas leasing would affect us.  I sat at a panel of computers that had been set up and wrote of the people, culture, and economics of the coast.  I wrote of the abundant diversity of wildlife.  I wrote of our natural relation to the sea.  And I wrote that the risk wasn’t worth the reward, putting all this in peril for the chance at a small amount of a non-renewable fossil fuel.  The letter was full of passion, and I realized at a certain point that it was a love letter.

I wasn’t writing it just for myself.  I was writing it for the children, the grandchildren, and the great grandchildren.  I was writing it in the hope that we will pass them the clean, healthy seas that make life here so beautiful.

Today I ask you to write a love letter, too.  BOEM is taking comments from all citizens, regardless of where we live.  For all who love the ocean, this is the time to pick up your pen or fire up your keyboard.

With aloha,

J

 

Additional resources:

From the Coastal Conservation League:

http://coastalconservationleague.org/projects/offshore-drilling-2/

From Saturday’s Post and Courier:

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150314/PC1002/150319609/1021/south-carolinians-unite-against-seismic-blasting-offshore-drilling

From the Post and Courier Editorial Board:

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150222/PC1002/150229804

To leave public comment:

http://boemoceaninfo.com

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers