We’re boarded up and battened down as Hurricane Matthew approaches the Lowcountry.  We’ve watched the storm rake the Caribbean and pull alongside the continental United States.  We’re staring at satellite images and looking skyward, wondering.

My own soundtrack for the day is another Radiohead song.  The band released a stripped down version of “The Numbers” yesterday in a video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  In it, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and a drum machine offer a beautiful rendition of a bittersweet song.

We are of the earth, Yorke sings.  To her we do return.

The future is inside us.

It’s not somewhere else.

It’s a fitting theme for days when we watch, wait, and wonder.  How do we understand our relatedness to the earth, sky, and sea?  What does it mean to live at such an elemental level, to be stripped of our illusion of separateness and flushed from our homes by forces much greater than ourselves?  Where is the discussion of our changing climate and the ways we continue to exacerbate the problem, contribute to the feedback loop, warm the seas to strengthen the next storm and the next?

I’ve been reading while waiting.  At least a few writers are raising the questions.[1]

But however this storm goes, there will be work to do when we get home.  We’ll take the boards from our windows and, hopefully, the scales from our eyes.

We call upon the people.

People have this power.

With aloha,



[1] Oliver Milman, “World Needs 90 Trillion Dollar Infrastructure Overhaul to Avoid Climate Disaster, Study Finds,” The Guardian, October 6, 2016, accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/06/climate-change-infrastructure-coal-plants-green-investment

Paul Krugman, “What About the Planet?” The New York Times, October 7, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/07/opinion/what-about-the-planet.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0



They don’t dance because they’re guarding their stuff.

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

Sunday, October 2, 2016 (Luke 22.14-20; Acts 2.42-47)

When I thought of World Communion Sunday, I thought of the dance. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes it in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. People coming from all over. Bringing what they have harvested to share and joining in a great circle. It’s a ritual of thanksgiving they call the giveaway. And everyone is a part. She remembers the berries best. Bright “strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, currants”[1] that stain your fingers and burst in your mouth. The people bring what they have and offer it. Then they take some in return. Then they dance.

Kimmerer reminds us that in indigenous cultures a person is understood to be wealthy if he or she has enough to give away. If a person can be generous, if a person can share, if a person can pass gifts along to his or her neighbors and children, then that person is truly rich. What else are gifts for, if not for giving? And they have all been received anyway, out of the earth’s mysterious abundance. We offer them up. We take what we need. We share the rest. We taste the tart fruit. We smile, laugh, tell stories, and dance. At least this is the idea.

Kimmerer writes that sometimes a new person or family will come to the thanksgiving ritual for the first time. All too often, she says, they understand the gratitude, the gifts, and the celebration without understanding the ethic of reciprocity. So they take what is offered. And then take some more. They make a pile of their presents and are afraid to leave it. They don’t dance, Kimmerer says, because they’re guarding their stuff. Which is another way of saying they miss the fullness of the ritual, the depth of the relationships being expressed. No one is going to take your stuff. There is no such thing as your stuff. It’s all part of the circle. Let go. Join the dance.

I thought of this image as I prepared for World Communion for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s so earthy, taking the materials on hand to celebrate what is sacred. Jesus and his followers took the Passover bread and broke it. Kimmerer and her clan pass the raspberries. And the second is that its ethic of sharing is so strong. The early Christian communities shared with each according to need, guarding no stuff as their own but holding it in common, as gifts to be shared. First Nations people still do the same. At least the ones who have been brought up attending the giveaway. And maybe the ones who find their ways into it, hoarding at first until the way of the ceremony begins to dawn on them. Do I want to sit by myself next to a pile of things I won’t share? Or do I want to join in a larger circle, move to the rhythm of giving, receiving, and not worrying?

We heard excerpts from our sacred stories this morning inviting us to remember our spiritual ancestors as those who taught and joined in an ethic of sharing. We do not know if they were dancers, but we do know that they did not guard their stuff. The Book of Acts, the earliest narrative of Christian community, reminds us that the community they sought to create was egalitarian, non-hierarchical. Everyone was welcomed into the circle. And everyone was given what they needed. What was valued was not material wealth so much as the dignity of each person and the life he or she was living. So they shared the stuff. Because the stuff didn’t matter. Brothers and sisters mattered. Women, men, and children. With particular emphasis on those who had been left out before. Outcasts, enemies, the shamed, the shunned the suffering. And so the circle became a circle of healing.

They were following the teachings of Jesus, who not only refused to guard his stuff, he refused to guard his life. He let go in the most radical way, dancing his expansive dance until the hoarders had enough of it and put him on trial. He was threatening the way of things and inviting others to do the same. And he knew it. But he said that the stuff would never matter. Only the people. And the lilies and sparrows. And the circle into which we are joined, drawn by the hand of the God he was telling, breathed into life by stories, parables, and jokes.

All these years later when we make our communion circle, we’re remembering what he taught and how he lived. But the only way to really join his dance is to stop guarding our stuff and follow a different way. And by stuff we mean material stuff — wealth, status, the trappings of our acquisition and competition. But we also mean spiritual stuff — ego, judgment, fear and the aversion to risk. We can’t dance if we’re guarding our stuff. But if we were to walk away from it. . .

A few weeks ago I met a colleague for lunch in Washington, DC. I was on foot near the Mall and, looking for a landmark, I asked that he meet me at a favorite place, the National Museum of the American Indian. I love the museum for its exhibitions of the art, culture, and storytelling of the indigenous nations of the Americas, but I also love it for its cafeteria. You pick up a tray and move through the cafeteria by region, looking at the foods that were a part of each place. So it’s cranberries in one place, salmon in another. Corn, rice, and buffalo meat. We filled our plates with native cuisine and sat in the cafeteria comparing notes on our work in progressive UCC churches. It was a life-giving conversation, but not just for the content. It was life-giving for the sharing, for the giving and receiving of our lives. For breaking bread together, surrounded by strangers, who were also our kin. I chose to walk back to my hotel after that, eager to stretch my legs and my mind after the rich food and conversation.

I went without a map, angling across the Mall, then moving at right angles depending on what the crossing lights said and which side of the street was shadowed. At some point I realized I was near the White House and decided I would walk past. And as I approached I could see a large crowd, a mass demonstration, and hear the sound of drumming. Thousands were there on behalf of our sisters and brothers at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. As you know, a large corporation is trying to push an oil pipeline through the sacred lands of the Sioux people who live there. The pipeline would carry nearly half a million gallons of oil a day over the watershed that the Sioux use for drinking water.[2] The tribe doesn’t want the pipeline any more than the people of the city of Bismarck did. But that mostly white city was able to have the pipeline diverted due to threats to public health. So it was diverted through the heart of Indian Country. Now native people have camped there, putting their bodies in the way of the proposed pipeline, in the largest gathering of tribes in many generations. Over 280 tribes are now assembled peacefully, where they are singing, praying, drumming, and dancing.[3]

I stand with our sisters and brothers at Standing Rock. So I stopped at the White House and listened to the drums, read the signs, and spoke with a few people as the daylong vigil disbanded. One man carrying a homemade sign walked beside me as we left. I asked him how the day had been. He told me it had been good but that he was tired. He just got in after several weeks encamped at Standing Rock. Then he told me what it was like.

It was beautiful, he said. The people were empowered. They spoke their prayers out loud. They welcomed every new person. They shared what they had. Food, tents, sleeping bags. They were committed to nonviolence. But they were also committed to their children. And their children’s children. And so they were going to stay. At night they circled up and sang songs, told stories, and looked at the sky. It was kind of the way things should be, he said. Not the way they are. Then the man needed to cross in a different direction. We waved goodbye to each other. Peace brother, we said. I carried on for a few blocks and watched the sky turn pink and blue as the sun fell.

And they’re all communion stories, you know. Anytime we stand for each other and the earth. Anytime we break bread or pass the berries around. Anytime we see that there is a larger dance, a greater invitation. . .and we walk away from all the stuff we’ve been sold and join in.



[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 380

[2] See Robert Redford, “I Stand with the Standing Rock Sioux,” TIME Magazine, September 26, 2016, accessed online at http://time.com/4501580/dakota-access-pipeline-protest/.

[3] See David Archambault II, “Taking a Stand at Standing Rock,” The New York Times, August 24, 2016, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/opinion/taking-a-stand-at-standing-rock.html?_r=1.



“The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming. . .” (Ps. 19 & 121)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

September 4, 2016


The temple bell stops—

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.


I was awakened by the breakfast bell. Overslept without knowing. Rubbed my eyes at the sound, surprised by the daylight. I had arrived tired. With a cough from the wildfire haze that had sunk over the valley. Packed an overnight bag and crossed the bay to Marin. A pilgrimage I had made many times. Golden hills slanted toward the sea. An old horse barn turned into a zendo. A farm that smelled of incense and eucalyptus in the morning, sunshine and dust in the afternoon. A small room with no lock on the door. A paper nameplate that read Rutledge.

I don’t know what makes a place sacred. Why we are drawn to a site or wish to return. I don’t why Jacob set a stone or why Jesus stole away before dawn. Unless it was the felt quality of the experience. Some connection in the quiet. In my own case, the pilgrim’s yearning was a part of it. The return. Every time I returned begged the twin question that my father used to ask: Where have we come from and where are we going? He had been gone a long time, hidden as the poet said, in the hills and vales, “among all that is.”[1] But now the hills themselves were asking. I sat up in the bed and listened to the fading sound of the bell.

The heavens declare the glory of God,

   the sky proclaims [divine] handiwork.

Day to day makes utterance,

   night to night speaks out.

There is no utterance,

   there are no words,

   whose sound goes unheard.[2]

I slid the door open. Put feet into sandals damp and cool. Looked out over what I could see of the hills under a low slung Pacific fog. Walked mindfully, having slept through zazen. I remembered the old kinhin breathing we had done with each step. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. One hand over the other, walking like a forest monk. Joining the end of the line. The chant of gratitude had ended, but I held it in mind. This food is the gift of the whole universe. I bowed to the others. I bowed to my bowl.

Back in my room was the book I had brought. Peter Matthiessen’s story of pilgrimage and presence. He had traveled to Nepal with the biologist George Schaller hoping to glimpse a rare snow leopard. But a few paragraphs into the book, it becomes clear that Matthiessen on a different kind of pilgrimage. On the third page, he reveals that he has brought a small green bronze Buddha with him; it had sat beside his wife’s hospital bed when she died of cancer the year before. Pico Iyer observes that as readers, “we realize that the ‘path’ that Matthiessen has referred to is an inner as well as an outer one.”[3] Matthiessen accepted Schaller’s invitation to trek through Nepal. But he is looking and listening for more than leopards.

I turn my eyes to the mountains;

   from where will my help come?[4]

It’s a question asked or possibly sung by the psalmist. Some scholars consider it a song of ascent, something known to pilgrims in the hills above Jerusalem. Perhaps they didn’t know what made a place sacred, either. Perhaps they were just drawn to it or wished to return. Perhaps there they could set a stone, say a prayer, or sing of the old twin question: Where have we come from and where are we going?

I’m sure that’s what Matthiessen was asking of himself and of the family to which he would return. He had come from a place of long suffering. He was going an uncertain way into a future that was not what he had planned. And his book holds the questions implicitly, as he looks to the hills, as he reflects on the wisdom writers, as he deepens his Buddhist practice, and as he considers the Universe itself the great Zen scripture.[5] Like Bashō did. The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming. . .

The book, which I had been reading before sleep, offered no ultimate answer, only the bell’s invitation to wake up. One passage rang in my mind as I sat at the breakfast table. Early on his pilgrimage, Matthiessen writes of immersion in the world as something that is natural to us all before we forget it.

In his first summers, forsaking all his toys, my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through.[6]

I looked at my bowl of oatmeal. Simple and full. I inhaled its rising steam, added milk and walnuts. Our breakfasts were eaten in silence. All that could be heard was the clink of spoon against bowl. Scrape of chair. Sound of pouring coffee. I felt at rest at the very center of the universe. Not that my table was the center. But that any place was. Any bowl of oatmeal accepted in gratitude.

I wished that everyone could eat one meal a day in silent contemplation. Feel the nourishment of the food. Smile at dear ones around the table. Make sure that everyone had enough. Then carry the empty dishes together. Dip them in soap and water. Walk into the morning light feeling awake and alive. Not an observer, but a part. Which is why I had gone to the hills. To be reminded.

If the twin question is where have we come from and where are we going, then it is held together by the present moment, by where we are. And if a pilgrimage is anything at all, then it is going to a place for the purpose of realizing where one is and being present there, inasmuch as anyone can be. The old Hebrew poets had beautiful language for this, evoking the sky and the hills as signs of sacred handiwork, telling of the earth and all that is in it as our relations. The law or the precepts were written in the stars, on our hearts, spelled in flesh and bone as we relate in body, speech, or shuffled prayer on the way to breakfast.

But the old Hebrews were also known for their prophecy. The spoke not only of wind and whisper, but of fire and demand. They thundered right relation and warned those who neglected, abused, or oppressed their relatives. Yet the two are related. The prophets must have gone to the hills, too, seeking sustenance. The poets must have come down from them, renewed and ready to do the work of restoration and repair. These are great themes of our religious tradition, handed down to us in Hebrew literature and in Christian story, bound and hallowed and come to be called sacred. We hold these themes in the present moment. In between where we have come from and where we are going.

Such thoughts came and went as I angled down the hillside toward the sea. It was too cold to swim. But I was only going to listen. To the bell of water and wind. The one that the psalmist heard. I was only going to follow. The path that was inner as well as outer. The one that Matthiessen had gone. I was only going to ask. The questions of past and future held together in the present. The ones my father had given. I was only going to “stand rapt for near an hour.” As the boy had done. The boy in the great sandbox of the world.



[1] Wendell Berry, “Three Elegiac Poems” in Collected Poems 1957–1982 (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 51.

[2] Psalm 19.2-4, TANAKH translation.

[3] Pico Iyer’s Introduction to Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008), xx.

[4] Psalm 121.1 TANAKH.

[5] Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 32.

[6] Ibid., 38-39.

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The Fruit of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12.4-11; Gal. 5.22-23)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

August 28, 2016

I was on my bicycle riding toward him when I saw it happen. On my way to meet my son at the end of the school day so we could ride home together. It wasn’t a long ride, only about a mile, and I was pedaling slowly on the shady side of the street when I saw a different boy coming my way. He was younger than mine, perhaps first or second grade. He pumped his bike hard, wobbled under the weight of his backpack, hit a slick patch of dried leaves on the sidewalk, and went down. It was a hard fall, his bicycle slipping out sideways and coming down right on top of him. I was still half a block away and pedaled quickly to reach him. When I got there he wasn’t moving.

I jumped off the bicycle and bent to help. Are you all right? I asked. The boy craned his neck to look at me. His glasses were bent and his helmet skewed. He grimaced and tried to speak, but he had the breath knocked out of him. He nodded and I put a hand on his shoulder. Let’s get you untangled, I said. Does this hurt? No, he shook his head. And we gently unthreaded him from underneath the bicycle. He raised himself to a sitting position and began to draw deeper breaths. We took a look at him. Nothing seemed to be broken or even terribly swollen. But his knees and elbows were bloodied, his face and helmet were covered with dirt and leaves, and his glasses needed adjustment. Where’s home, I asked him, and he pointed across the street. He was almost there. And before I could offer to help, he sprang to his feet, jumped on his bicycle, and darted across the street, looking back with a big grin. I watched until he reached the driveway where his mother was waiting. I saw him showing her his knees and elbows, collecting a hug. I climbed back onto my own bicycle and continued on, charmed by the boy’s combination of fragility and strength. Aren’t we all like that, I thought.

That boy occurred to me this week as I reviewed some of Sharon Welch’s work in preparation for her visit as our fall theological lecturer next month (Sept. 23rd and 24th). Sharon is arguably the most significant feminist ethicist of the past generation, though her work is more well-known to divinity students and professors than to the general public. Yet her ethic was embodied by the boy who got back onto his bicycle and rode home, not five minutes after being rather badly shaken. And it was captured by the smile he shot me, the backward glance of gratitude, and the resilient pumping of the pedals. Having lost control, having suffered the scrapes, and knowing the risk, he went right back to it for the joy of riding. . .and for the promise of home.

At the heart of Sharon Welch’s ethical project are the ideas of control and risk. We have spoken of her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk in previous teachings and in our theology book group, whose podcast is available online if you’d like to hear it. But the short version is that she invites us to do ethics, to live and be and act in the world, in ways that are not focused on control. We cannot control the outcomes of our work. We do not have certainty about how things will go. We are never sure what exactly will happen once we begin to work for social and environmental justice. Welch reminds us that people of privilege, particularly white and educated people, are accustomed to exercising control and having things go as we expect. When they don’t, we are tempted to give up quickly. This is too difficult, we say. It isn’t working. What’s the use? Sharon says this as a highly-educated white person herself, who has spent much of her life working in the struggle for justice in the privileged contexts of divinity schools and universities. She saw this “ideology of cultured despair,”[1] first hand and sought to counter it. She wanted to build a more resilient ethic. Why stay on the ground when you could get back on the bicycle?

Her subsequent ethic is an ethic of risk. In it, she draws from communities that have not always held power or who have had it taken from them, particularly African-American communities, indigenous communities, and communities of women. There she finds an ethic that is not based on control or outcomes, but seeks instead to exercise itself over long periods of time without ever giving up. An ethic of risk acts not out of certainty, but out of love. It invites people to join in the movement for freedom because the work itself is beautiful and has value, bringing joy and community in the here and now even as we work together for the someday. An ethic of risk does not promise that we will not fall of the bicycle. It knows we will fall off many times, perhaps becoming badly hurt. All it promises is the fun of riding in the first place, the vivid, sensual reward that makes the risk worthwhile.

As a part of her ethical project, Sharon Welch always maintains a stance of self-reflection and critique. Part of the risk she invites us to take is to ask, over and over again, if the work we are engaged in is healing and healthy or if it could be turned toward harmful ends. She sees religious experience as fundamentally amoral and the only way to judge the quality of a religious experience is to ask about the effects it achieves. Does it lead us to be resilient, compassionate, generous, and grateful? Or does it lead us to be fragile, judgmental, acquisitive, and unappreciative?

In an essay she wrote on the Spirit for the Constructive Theology Workgroup, Sharon wrote of the Spirit as she was brought up to understand it. “I was raised in a tradition in which we were taught to welcome the gifts of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence was varied as the pulse of life itself—sometimes wild, fierce, and tumultuous, but just as often, just as important, quietly gentle, reassuring, and sustaining.”[2] The Spirit, then, brought gifts that were multiple but constitutive of good ends. It was made manifest through people in any number of ways. Just as the old letter to the Corinthians reminds us:

There are diversities of gifts but one

Same spirit. And there are


Of services and one same lord. . .

But the manifestation of the spirit

Is given to each one so as to gain

From it the good. . .[3]

The letter offers a brief litany of gifts—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy—and celebrates that we are all different yet held by a common breath, a spirit that lives and moves and breathes through us all. But Sharon Welch reminds us that self-reflection and critique are themselves gifts of the Spirit. She writes:

As much as we were taught to welcome the gifts of the Spirit, we were also taught to discern the Spirits. My uncle taught me that one can recognize that a Spirit is to be welcomed if it leads us to feel more love for other people. . .[but] we learned to question people who claimed to be led by the Spirit but used that power to denounce others or to distance themselves from others self-righteously. We questioned the Spirits who brought fear and established fear-based hierarchies.[4]

“By their fruits you will know them,” she says, and then speaks of the fruits of the kind of Spirit that we might welcome. The good fruits are the embrace of others, the celebration of texture and difference, the inclusion of the many, the inculcation of connection with our neighbors and our earth, and the delight and mystery we feel at being a part of the natural whole. These are the fruits of what we might really call the Holy Spirit, because they help us to hallow, to revere, to bow before all that is and then to relate to it with an ethic of reciprocity and care. These are fruits that people have always recognized.

The old letter to the Galatians offers its own litany:

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy,

Peace and long-suffering, kindness, the good,

Faith, gentleness, and self-control.[5]

And if we had a little more of these things in our religion and culture, we might be all right. A little more love and joy and peace and long-suffering. No giving up. Just getting back on the bike. Pedaling our way to the someday, even as we savor the dappled shadows on the leafy sidewalk. Sure, we might slip on the same leaves. But we might also find each other there, one knee in the dirt, one arm reaching out. Are you all right?

This is all metaphor, of course. I’m talking about our work for social and environmental justice in South Carolina. I don’t just mean riding bicycles. I mean working to desegregate our schools, I mean trying to restore broken trust between the community and the police, I mean fighting for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, I mean protecting voting rights, I mean pushing for access to health care for all, speaking out for living wage and equal pay for women, protecting our delicate coastal ecosystem, rendering white privilege visible and beginning to dismantle it in our lives and institutions, speaking out for bicycle lanes and public transportation, and remaining deeply committed to the freedom struggle in all its forms, the movement for dignity and equality that continues in our day and time. This is incredibly difficult, lifelong work. And we have no guarantee of the outcomes. The only promise we have is that we won’t see the end of the work. We are simply here to play our part, to fulfill our role, to honor those who have gone before and imagine the ones who will come after, and to use our gifts as best we are able to bring a little more love into the world. We have fallen off the bicycle many times in the work. And we will fall off again. But our charge is not perfection. Our charge is to keep on pedaling.

I was thinking of that boy earlier this week as I rode home with my son from school. I hadn’t seen him in a while and wondered how he was. And as my mind began to drift, I was pulled back to the present moment by an unpleasant sound. It was the skid of tires on gravel and my son slowly going down in the road, skin onto hot cement without anything I could do. I jumped off the bicycle and bent to help. Are you all right? I asked. He looked at me and smiled, untangled himself, and sat for a moment rubbing his sore knee. Then he asked for his backpack and reached inside. He had packed Band-Aids for just such an occasion.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, and long-suffering. Kindness, the good, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Blood, dirt, and leaves. Band-Aids, balancing acts, big grins, and the courage to try again.



[1] Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 104.

[2] Sharon Welch, “Discerning Spirit: An Interrelational Communal Perspective” in Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes, ed. Serene Jones and Paul Lakeland (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 266.

[3] 1 Cor. 12.4-5, 7, The Restored New Testament, trans. Willis Barnstone.

[4] Welch, “Discerning Spirit,” 266.

[5] Gal. 5.22-23a, The Restored New Testament.

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Playing Tennis with Tolstoy (Luke 17, 20-21; 18.16-17)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

August 14, 2016


When I stepped onto the court, I didn’t think of any of the traditional greats. King, Navratilova, McEnroe. None of them came to mind. I set my bag down with a smile. Unzipped the racket from its cover. Uncapped the tube of tennis balls. Stuffed a couple in my pockets and carried another to the baseline. I bounced it a time or two, getting the feel of the hard court, drawing a deep breath of morning air. And I thought of Russian literature.

Late in life Leo Tolstoy took up tennis.[1] After decades of wrestling with existential questions, and during a period of what seemed to be deep discouragement, he picked up a racket. Earlier in life, Tolstoy had made fun of the game. He considered it a bourgeois distraction, a waste of hours that could never be regained. He had no time for it, not when he was after the meaning of life, the purpose of existence. But late in life, having arrived at no clear conclusion, he walked to the baseline himself. Bounced a ball a time or two. And served.

There’s a lovely old photograph of him on the court, likely taken by his wife. In it, the great Russian novelist stands ready to play in dark wool trousers and a white, long-sleeved shirt. His gray beard falls across his chest and his eyes are tight with concentration. Just behind him stands his doubles partner, another man obscured by Tolstoy’s body; across the court are two women in high-collared dresses who wait to return serve. It’s a serious looking photograph, but by all accounts Tolstoy was anything but serious when he played. He runs around like a little boy, his friends observed. He plays with abandon. He moves with surprising spryness. What’s got into him?

So it was Tolstoy I was thinking of as I tossed the ball into the air and brought the racket around. Muscle memory recalled my tennis teacher’s instruction. It was all form and concentration. Eye on the ball. Hit it cleanly. Follow through. Then feet moving. Wait for the return. Square up. Breathe. And so on. I began to delight in the simple playing of the game the way Tolstoy did. Soon I was running like a little boy myself. Delighting in getting out of my mind and into my body. For playing tennis is more physics than metaphysics; its questions are for the here and now. No time to fret about the future when a ball hits the line and you are dashing to get to it. In between rallies, at a water break, I imagined what such an exercise might have meant to Tolstoy.

According to Maria Popova of the Brainpickings blog, Tolstoy had reached a crisis near the end of life.[2] The literary fame he had achieved felt hollow. The decades of intellectual searching had left him without clarity. The faith of his childhood had vanished. And his quest after life’s meaning had left him deeply worried that there was no real answer at all; that life was a kind of cruel joke that ended too quickly without any redemption or resolution. A heaviness weighed on Tolstoy and he began to despair. It also appears that he may have suffered with serious depression, about which little was known at the time.

In his book, A Confession, Tolstoy wrote of the problem he was trying to solve. “Without fail,” he said, “everyone forms some relationship to the universe, since a rational being cannot live in the world without having some kind of relationship to it.”[3] Religion, according to Tolstoy, was that relationship to the universe, and morality was a way of living that followed from that relationship. Put another way, as Tolstoy tried to work out how he related to the whole, he was trying to work out his religion. He wanted it to mean something.

He remembered that as a child his life was filled with sensual meanings. And in his autobiographical work, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, he wrote so beautifully that no reader could be left unmoved. In particular, he remembered falling asleep, the voice of his mother, the touch of her hand, his feelings of safety and contentment. Then he asked, “Will the freshness, unconcern, need for love and strength of faith you possess as a child ever return? What time could have been better. . .?”[4]

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became grown, I put away childish things, says the old letter to the church at Corinth. But Tolstoy had hoped to go the other way. Having found himself late in life, he wanted to pick up the childlike again; to find and to feel the rich beauty and meaning in the ordinary. But he wasn’t sure it could be regained. At least he couldn’t think his way to a solution.

It’s a problem for so many of us, especially in the West. Our theological and philosophical projects are fraught with thinking. I stand guilty as charged with my man Leo. Because for most of my life I have believed in salvation by bibliography, I have hid in the world of ideas, I have spent 45 years thinking my way through meaning and meaninglessness with many teachers, including old Russians I never met. And I spent a good deal of my life in the construction and deconstruction of arguments, becoming skillful at it, and for a time thinking it really mattered. To some extent, I suppose it does. I would never trade all the exercises in clear and rigorous thinking. But the thinking itself never offered a way out of the conundrum. Just a deeper way in. One book led to another, the stacks of the libraries too deep to get through in a lifetime. The only way out was by being, by doing, maybe even by playing.

In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett includes a chapter called “Flesh.” In it, she writes of the wisdom that is found in embodied experience. Not simply the mental work or the life of the mind, but the physical work and the life of the body. “We are matter,” Tippett says, “kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone. To sink into that is a relief, a homecoming.”[5] She follows with a lengthy discussion of how we might develop a deeper mindfulness of our bodies as ourselves in the wonder of the present moment. Thinking is good, she encourages us. But not at the expense of being. We should not get lost in our minds and miss all the dimensions of lived experience. Our bodies tell certain truths, she says, that our minds deny. Among these truths, that we are “fluid, evanescent, evolving in every cell. . .never perfect.”[6] Which is what children know. Which is what Tolstoy was struggling to find again. He just needed to stop thinking about it.

Jesus was once questioned by the religious leaders of his day. They asked when the kingdom of God would come, and he answered, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”[7] This saying, one of Tolstoy’s favorites, is recorded in Luke Chapter 17, one chapter before Jesus said something else about children. “Suffer little children to come unto me. . .for of such is the kingdom. . .Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”[8] They’re related in Luke’s account: the kingdom is all around, and little children can see it and enter in. And they’re related in Tolstoy’s trouble: thinking about it won’t get you there so much as living and moving and being will. Which brings us back to the court.

It seems to me that if Tolstoy ever did have moments of true religion they may have been on the tennis court. Because it was there that he was expressing his relationship to the universe in the most natural, childlike way. He ran like a boy. He played with abandon. He moved spryly and unselfconsciously. And there he stopped worrying for a moment about his life’s meaning and simply participated in it. The cure for his melancholy was life itself.

It sounds like such a simple lesson, but it isn’t. For we all spend so much time in our minds. Working through philosophical problems or perhaps drawing up grocery lists. Rushing from one work or home project to the next. Listening to the constant stream of news on television, radio, and mobile devices. It’s enough to leave us fraught and anxious, stuck in our minds. Or to send us back to the tennis court.

When I stepped off the court, I was no longer thinking of anything. I was just feeling. Cheeks flushed. Hair damp. Hand blackened by grip tape. I returned the tennis balls to their tube. Zipped the racket into its case. Drank cold water from the bottle. I felt like a boy again. Enlivened and enraptured by the world and by my good fortune to be a part of it. Whatever the kingdom is, I thought, it isn’t far away. Neither shall they say, Lo! here or, lo! there. It is within. It is all around. Any child can tell you that. Or any old Russian with a racket. I thanked him for the reminder.



[1] See Gerald Marzorati, “Why Tolstoy Took Up Tennis,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2016, accessed online at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-tolstoy-took-up-tennis.

[2] See Maria Popova, “Leo Tolstoy on Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World” at Brainpickings, June 3, 2014, accessed online at https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/03/tolstoy-confession/.

[3] Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, trans. Jane Kentish (New York: Penguin Classics, 1987), 137.

[4] Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, trans. Judson Rosengrant (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 56.

[5] Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 57.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Luke 17.20b-21, The English Bible.

[8] Luke 18.16b-17, The English Bible.

photo credit: Trena Walker

photo credit: Trena Walker

We’re All in the Same Boat (Luke 8.22-25)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

July 3, 2016

“Dad, is it all right if Jesus has a Han Solo body, pirate legs, and a George Washington wig?”  He asked without looking up, piecing together spare Legos into a passable messiah.  I smiled in return and asked to see.  “He looks good,” I replied, as I turned the figure over in my hand.  Yellow skin.  White hair.  Star Wars vest.  Buccaneer breeches.  “We need some disciples as well,” I added, but he was already working on them.  A small crew for the fishing boat, also made of leftover pieces.  Police officer.  Rebel trooper.  Ninja.  He connected heads, torsos, legs, until there was a small crew of disciples.  We placed them in a cloth bag next to a carved wooden boat and set them by the front door so we’d remember them on the way to church.

Such was the lesson plan for the fourth day of Vacation Bible School.  Our story was drawn from Luke Chapter 8.  It told of Jesus and his disciples pushing off in a boat and sailing into a storm.  I was charged with telling the story to two groups of kids.  The first group, aged 5 and 6, was a large and inquisitive bunch.  The second, group, aged 3 and four, was smaller but even more curious.  It occurred to me that we might read the story, then play act it with Lego people, running through it a few times to ensure that everyone had a turn.  Rev. Anya Leveille, who co-taught the Bible stories, brought a mottled blue sheet that looked very much like the ocean.  We laid out the sheet and the kids gathered around it.  I read the story through the first time and then reached for the bag.

It wasn’t long before we had assembled our beach scene and then pushed the wooden boat out onto the smooth waters of the sheet.  And here, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to retell the story, as we told it together, adding a few visuals along the way.

We remember that Jesus and his disciples shoved off and began to sail.  Jesus, we are told, fell asleep on the calm waters.  Every time we mentioned this a child would reach over to the boat and push Lego Jesus over onto his side.  And while he slept, a squall whipped up around them.  At which point the kids on all sides of the sheet began to ruffle and shake it, causing the boat to rock, and the Lego Jesus and his disciples to roll around uncontrollably.  The kids giggled as I narrated the disciples waking Jesus and crying for help.  Their storm grew more and more violent, tossing the Lego figures out of the boat over and over (we kept replacing them), and the room grew louder and louder, giggles turning into belly laughs until Lego Jesus said Stop! and the wind and the waves died down.

Children restored the Lego disciples to dignified standing positions.  Jesus took his place at the bow of the boat in order to instruct them.  The sheet was drawn tight again, smoothed out in a display of calm.  And Jesus asked them why they didn’t have more faith?  Or as some translations put it, more trust?  Or as we rendered it, there among the 3 to 6 year olds, why they were so worried?  The kids all looked at the Lego figures, as if the wisdom had issued forth from there.  A sheet on the floor.  A wooden boat.  A Han Solo-pirate-George Washington Jesus.  Where is your faith?  And why are you so worried?  I asked if anyone in the room had ever been worried.  Heads nodded and hands went up.

The great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”[1]  Suzuki Roshi meant that we are all impermanent and must learn to live with this reality.  He surely didn’t mean to reference the story of Jesus and his disciples’ fearful journey on a boat.  But he tapped into their anxiety all the same.  The disciples were worried about their lives.  When the storms came and the waves rose, they cried out.  They were holding on to the only solid thing – the boat – aware that it might not be enough.  And when they roused Jesus and he called to the waves and the wind to calm themselves a couple of things happened.  First, ancient hearers would have instantly recognized Jesus’ importance as a healer and teacher.  Calming the waves was a sign of his greatness.  But second, and more importantly, a metaphorical meaning is made.  Jesus asks them about their faith, their trust, and their worry.  And as a wisdom teacher he is not simply referring to the waves on the surface of the water.

Jesus is asking about the trouble in our souls.  I know this because every child could share something he or she was worried about.  And it wasn’t the weather.  When we talked about calming the storm, they went right with the metaphor.  We calm the storm by taking a deep breath, they said.  I take ten breaths in a row, one boy said.  Ten.  We calm the storm by saying a prayer.  May we say a prayer in our class? asked one girl.  Yes, let’s say a prayer together and experience its calm.  We calm the storm by leaning on each other or by relying on our friends and parents for help.  Yeah, my parents, one boy said, and looked both homesick and happy at the same time.  And I know I was teaching the kids as we leafed through the Bible’s pages and pushed around our wooden boat.  But they were teaching me, too.  Why do you think I sign up for Bible School every year?

Yet there was another part of the week that related directly to the children’s part.  Every day this week after Vacation Bible School was over, I met with one or more grown-ups about one or more things.  There were the usual projects and planning meetings.  But there were also the usual pastoral conversations.  And in every case, there was a storm.  I heard two different stories of the deaths of adult sons.  I heard three stories of struggles with addiction.  I heard two more stories of depression.  I heard a story of the return of cancer.  The stories were excruciating.  I found myself wiping my eyes over and over again.  And listening.  And sitting in my office, where the kids had sat earlier, play acting responses to life’s stormy seas.  Only none of it was pretend.  For the kids would know suffering in their lives.  The adults did know it.  And all of us were crying out for help in our own ways, all of us were trying to still the waters.  The funny thing is, when we call out, the Christ who comes is always nearer than we think.

The kids picked up on this right away.  They always do.  We’re all in the same boat, here to help each other.  The themes of our week reinforced this – they were:  God Creates, God Helps, God Loves, God Calms, and God Sends.  But the only way God does these things is through us.  Through each of us.  Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey.  Whatever age we are.  Whatever spare pieces we’re made out of.  We bring ourselves to the table, step into the circle, and take care of each other.  It doesn’t fix everything, necessarily.  For there is still suffering.  But it adds love to the picture.  Which is one way of understanding God.

Pema Chödrön writes, “There’s no way to make a dreadful situation pretty.  But we can use the pain of it to recognize our sameness with other people.”[2]  I believe that’s true whether you’re 5 or 55, the only difference being that so often kids are better with ambiguity and uncertainty than grown-ups are.  For they already know that they’re not in control.  And they know that things happen that make no sense.  Yet they’re trying to find their place in relation to others and to all that is.  As are the best grown-ups, who recognize that everyone who’s lived long enough has suffered and deserves a little more compassion and a little less judgment from the rest of us.

That’s how I hear Jesus’ question about our faith.  It’s not a judgmental question; it’s a compassionate one.  Why do you worry so much?  Have faith in your ability to reach out.  Have trust in those all around you.  Take the risk of taking care and letting others care for you.  Remember we’re all in the same boat.  I know he never said that, but I think he might have if he had been sitting in a circle of Bible School kids. 

Writing of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch say, “Jesus’ liberating ministry and its continuation in the church. . .embody eschatological transformation differently understood, accessible in the present rather than anticipated for the future.”[3]  Or, as we taught our children this week, we love and care for each other here and now.  There is no need to worry about the rest.  No need to fight the waves that are too big for us or seek to control that which is out of our hands.  We can simply take the moment that is ours and put it to use.  Creating.  Helping.  Loving.  Calming.  Sending.

At the end of the week we stood at the edge of the churchyard as parents stopped to pick up their Bible School students.  Boys and girls hugged and fist bumped.  They carried crafts and snacks.  They clutched homemade rockets and colored balloons.  Lego Jesus had already been taken home, but as we waved goodbye to each other his lesson remained. 

Take care of each other.  We’re all in the same boat.



[1] Quoted in Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2012), 3.

[2] Ibid., 96.

[3] The English Bible, ed. Gerald Hammond and Austin Busch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012), 126.


The Long Walk Back to the Dugout (Eccl. 1.12-18)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

June 12, 2016


The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. ‘All is vanity.’[1]


So wrote Melville’s narrator, whose quote rose to mind after I watched the last boy strike out swinging to end the season. The boy had taken a bad hack at a pitch that was nearly over his head; his swing a combination of self-defense and malaise. It had been a long season for the team. They had lost all their games but one, usually by margins of ten or fifteen runs. As the other team poured onto the field in celebration, I watched our last batter take the long walk back to the dugout, where his teammates sat, sweaty and covered in infield dirt. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows.

More than any American author I’ve read, Melville alludes to the Bible. This may be due to the length of his work or it may be due to his literary disposition, but as he considers his major themes of agency, fate, meaning, and ambiguity, Melville refers over and over to biblical stories as reference points. And right in the middle of Moby Dick he name drops King Solomon (aka the Man of Sorrows) and a book of wisdom largely attributed to him. It’s one of the stranger books in the Bible, so strange that scholars have argued over how it got to be included, but it is also one of the most poetic. If ever there was a book to read to a baseball team after a strikeout to end a crummy season, it is Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesisates is written in the voice of one called “the Preacher” in the English language or Qohelet in the Hebrew. According to literary critic James Williams, the Hebrew’s meaning is elusive, derived from a root meaning “to gather” or “to assemble.”[2] So the preacher is some sort of gatherer, almost, for the purposes of this meditation, like a coach. The preacher, the coach, gathers the seekers of wisdom and offers them his book of sayings. Only they’re not funny or motivational so much as world weary and stoic. This speaker, Williams says, “is the skeptic par excellence” of the Hebrew Bible.[3] He questions the wisdom in the order of things; indeed, he wonders if there is any. Because he has stood at the plate and taken so many swings, played so hard, and has little to show for it beyond the capriciousness of the game itself. Sometimes you swing hard and hear the crack of the bat as the ball finds a gap or sails over the wall. More often than not, however, what you hear is the thwack of the ball in the catcher’s mitt after you swing right through it and struggle to regain your balance. “I gave my heart to seek and search out wisdom,”[4] says the coach. But maybe the wisdom is that even the best ballplayers take the long walk back to the dugout two times out of three.

True idealists, of course, are the first to hang their heads. They’re the first to kick the dirt, throw their caps, and glare at the ump. Because they gave their hearts. They gave their souls. They put everything into the swing. And if that last batter hadn’t quite done so, flailing at a soft throw that was high and outside, it was only because he had cared so much all season that he was finally worn out. And after watching our boys’ Little League ball club, I went back to Ecclesiastes and read Qohelet not as a stoic or a cynic, but as a spurned idealist. He wanted more than he found. He wanted meaning that was clear and unambiguous. He wanted to hit the ball hard, on the screws, to drive it deeply out of the park and win the game he’d been born into. And we can hear in his weary voice that he’s a great lover of the world, a romantic at heart. He didn’t want to strike out looking.

“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” Coach Qohelet says.[5] But again here he sounds more like a player. He has seen everything that life can throw at him and has come away with frustration. He has seen that there is a season for everything, a time for every curveball under the sun. And we can understand what he means. Because so many of us have seen the same thing. We have gamely dug in at the plate and taken our best swings, too, often with little to show for it. The season we’ve just had may be the best example of all.

I mentioned that our boys had their worst season ever. The lessons they learned were mostly about staying with the fundamentals, trying to manage strong emotions, showing respect and good sportsmanship, and building character through, as the old ballplayers say, doing it the right way. The great educational theorist John Dewey spoke of habits and how we create them over time to shape ourselves into life-long learners and participants in larger projects. Dewey critiqued habituation, which was adjustment to an unjust status quo and spoke instead of the development of healthy habits, which often stood in contrast to the current scheme of things. “Active habits,” he wrote, “involve thought, invention, and initiative in applying capacities to new aims.”[6] That’s what our boys were learning as they practiced and played, working hard to adjust, improve, and not give up even when the status quo put them in a deep hole at the bottom of nearly every first inning. But that’s what we were all learning this season. Just think of the year we’ve had.

We stepped up to the plate in greater Charleston. We dug in and took a few swings at some of the most intractable expressions of racial discrimination and violence in our city and state. We pulled on the jerseys of our different teams – the NAACP, Quality Education Project, Metanoia, Charleston Area Justice Ministry, SC Community Loan Fund, Black Lives Matter, Forward Together, Gun Sense SC, and others – and we swung hard for the fences, hoping to hit one out with an audit of policing practices after Walter Scott. . .or to close the loophole and require background checks on gun purchases after Mother Emanuel. . .or to protect our public schools and teachers from deep, almost draconian cuts. . .

And in every case, after the chants and protests and interviews died down, all we heard was that thwack in the catcher’s mitt. As the other team poured onto the field in celebration, we took the long walk back to the dugout to find each other sitting, sweaty and discouraged. We know we’ll have other chances and other seasons. But we also know that it hurts. We know that our hearts ache. Because they are full of love, not so much for the game itself, but for our teammates. For every last kid born into a status quo where the playing field has never been equal. The lawns and equipment not the same. The strikes and balls called differently by skin color and neighborhood.

It wasn’t an easy season to watch from the stands. And it wasn’t an easy season to play, taking that long walk back to the dugout with everybody watching. But it brought to light a different kind of wisdom in our home. Around the same time our boy’s team had struck out to end the season and some of our justice initiatives had also struck out, we stood in the front yard playing catch. We were working on good habits and the boy was throwing well. The pressure of the game had been lifted for a time and the smile had returned to his face. He was throwing hard and straight, the ball popping into my old glove and leaving my hand with a slight bruise. Nice throw, I told him, before asking the question that we’ve been asking ever since: If something is really hard, I asked, does that make it bad?

He held up his glove to receive the return throw and thought about the question. Catching the ball, he fired it back, along with his answer. No, he said. If something is really hard, that does not make it bad.

And while there is no definitive answer to Qohelet, if there were going to be one it might come from a boy on a last place team, who had looked at every slider and curve that could be thrown and swung through most of them. He had seen it all, too, everything under the sun. But he hadn’t seen it as meaningless, as vanity or vexation. He had seen it as hard.

There was nothing wrong with things being hard. And there was nothing wrong with being frustrated, needing a break, winding it down and playing for a while without the pressure of the lights and the crowd. Sometimes it just made sense to go back to basics and play catch because you loved it. The rest would follow from there.

It made me think, as we stood throwing the ball, that perhaps the truest of all men was not the Man of Sorrows. Perhaps the truest of all people, is the Person of Habits. Habits as John Dewey would describe them. The truest of all people is the Person of Thought, Invention, and Initiative. The person who can ask the question in order to come back with an answer that he or she can live into. Because before long there will be another season. And we’ll each be invited to pull on our jerseys and step up to the plate again.

It isn’t all meaningless. But it can be hard. And maybe, just maybe that’s all right.



[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), 380.

[2] James Williams, “Proverbs and Ecclesiastes” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1990), 277.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1.13a, The English Bible.

[5] Ecclesiastes 1.14, The English Bible.

[6] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 51.


Surfing had, and has, a steel thread of violence running through it. I don’t mean the roughnecks one encounters in the water—or, very occasionally, on land, challenging one’s right to surf some precious spot. The displays of strength, skill, aggression, local knowledge, and deference that establish a working hierarchy in the lineup. . .No, I mean the beautiful violence of breaking waves. It is a constant.[1]

So writes William Finnegan in his wonderful memoir.  It’s a perfect summer read, not only for its evocation of the ocean’s pull, but the way it floods the reader with memories, bubbling and bobbing to the surface as we do after a wave’s collapse.

At the end of the school year, we always head for our local break.  It is normally gentle, suited for children and families with an offshore wind preferred by kite surfers.  But occasionally the sets rise and swell, slapping hard at waders and boogie boarders and knocking them down.

As in life, all is well with the gentle push and pull until a big one comes out of nowhere and we never know what hit us.

So it was with the boy on the first full day of summer.  He has read the waves all his life, trying to solve what Finnegan calls “the first order problem. . .what are these waves doing, exactly, and what are they likely to do next?”[2]  And he’s good at it.  On a trip back to my boyhood break on Oʻahu last year, he spent the better part of every day paddling hard and dropping in on his belly, leaning in to the curl on his boogie board and riding the foam all the way to the beach.  Then he would rise, smiling and sandy, pick up the board, and turn seaward.

I watched him, all piscine ease and boyish enthusiasm.  Which is how he looked a couple of days ago until he waded out of the water with a summer shiner; a bruise inflicted by a combination of packed sand, a king tide, and one of those out of nowhere back slappers that broke at an unnaturally steep angle and drove him downward before he could react.

He shook it off.  But there will be others.

And it made we think how we’re all like that.  We paddle into each day to read what is on the near horizon, to catch it, to make the best and enjoy the ride.  Sometimes we wait.  Sometimes we watch.  Sometimes all the conditions are right and we drop in and feel ourselves carried on the swell.  And sometimes we get a pretty good shiner and stand in the foam, smiling and shaking our heads.

With aloha,



[1] William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (New York: Penguin Books), 82.

[2] Ibid., 75.


The Risk of Being Religious (Proverbs 8)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

May 22, 2016

William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience has become one of the most influential texts in American philosophy and religion. No serious student of either gets very far without engaging James and his arguments. He stands, in Cornel West’s estimation, as “the most profound. . .and unpretentious public intellectual in [our] history.”[1] And The Varieties of Religious Experience is his magnum opus. But it didn’t start out that way.

The book is actually the collection of James’ Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University. He traveled there to offer them in 1901 and he was nervous about it.[2] At the time, Edinburgh was one of the intellectual centers of Europe – the city of Hume, Smith, and Ferguson. And James arrived as the lowly American, having steamed from a country that was only beginning to find its voice and take its place it the world of ideas. He wondered if he’d be taken seriously. He wondered if there would be any crowds at all. What he didn’t wonder was whether or not he had something to say.

During James’ first lecture, we are told that about 250 people came to hear him. It was a respectable crowd, and James began with self-deprecation and humor. I’m only an American, you see. Not a specialist. Not an academician. Not the type you’re accustomed to hearing. And then he launched into a strikingly bold series of talks. As he did, word got around and the crowds began to swell. Here was an American who was redefining what it meant to think religiously. He was bringing science and poetry and psychology to bear. He was stressing individual experience and asking deep, existential questions about it. And he was avoiding matters of doctrine and metaphysics altogether in order to ask about something closer, more immediate and practically useful. James wanted to know what our attitude was toward the world. Put another way, he cared much less about the ideas we held in our minds than the ways those ideas led us to live, the ways of being they called forth from us. Shall our religion engender meek and conventional habits? he wondered. Or shall it give us the courage to take risks in the face of uncertainty and live boldly and free?

I thought about William James all week because of a conversation I had with Eddie Glaude over lunch. We are both students of James and we were talking about the times we are living in and the courage that is called for. At one point, the conversation moved so quickly that we were practically finishing each other’s sentences. He was talking about the existential courage we read in James and I shouted like a child, “We’re on the mountain pass!” He punched me in the arm in recognition of the reference as the rest of the table wondered what on earth we were so excited about. We’ll return to the mountain pass allusion, which is drawn from James’ essay “The Will to Believe,” but we need to take one step back before we do. Back about eighty years before James went to Edinburgh.

In his lecture here at Circular Church, Eddie Glaude began by referencing Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry.”[3] Actually, he referenced it when he got off the plane, after we first shook hands in the airport concourse. We greeted each other and were talking. Eddie asked about how things were in Charleston and made a comment about the times we were living in. And as we spoke he invoked Shelley. “Imagination is the battleground,” he said. We wondered what it would take to imagine different times than these, different possibilities. And that was one of the major themes of Eddie Glaude’s time with us. After so many years of having our imaginations confined, constricted, and hemmed in. . . After so many years of living with a stale status quo where the divide between rich and poor grows and the resegregation of our communities and schools deepens. . . After so many years of participating in an economy that destroys and depletes the earth and puts us all in peril. . . Could we imagine differently? Could we widen our notions of what is possible? Could we break through our inhibitions in newly expansive ways?

“Reason is to Imagination,” Shelley wrote, “as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.”[4] Put another way, our reason is here to serve our imagination, not the other way around. We are to take the risk of imagining first and then let our reason and science come around to support the dream of something different. Shelley made a beautiful case for the poet’s role in fostering the imagination. But Glaude made a case for the church’s role. . .and the community’s. We are at a crossroads, he suggested. We are in trying times. And the only way forward is to think differently. To imagine better.

The old wisdom writers knew about living at a crossroads. They said it was there that the voice of Wisdom could be heard. At least by those who could discern. And then take the risk of joining their voices with hers in the marketplace of contested ideas. Listen to the description of it the text we’ve heard from Proverbs:

It is Wisdom calling,

Understanding raising her voice,

She takes her stand on the topmost heights,

By the wayside, at the crossroads,

Near the gates at the city entrance;

At the entryways, she shouts,

“O men [and women], I call to you;

My cry is to all [hu]mankind.[5]

What follows is a description of Wisdom’s attributes. She is personified here in the feminine. Indeed, in the Hebrew Bible, Wisdom is always feminine and she is always there. Proverbs says that she was present at the beginning, before the water and the hills and the earth. And she can be found in every time and place by those who seek her and by those who have courage. That word shows up halfway through the proverb. “Mine are counsel and resourcefulness,” Wisdom says, “I am understanding; courage is mine.”[6] The entire chapter is something of a poem to the many ways Wisdom comes to us, but I stayed with courage. In part, because it resonated so deeply with the wisdom of William James. And in part, because the times we are living in call for it themselves. “Courage is mine,” sang Wisdom. But is it ours? I wondered.

I am struck by how often in my line of work people come to me looking for a way out of having courage. That is, people come to me looking for certainty. They seek assurance. They seek consolation. They seek the avoidance of tension or unpleasantness. And here I am not necessarily talking about church people. But anyone who knows I am a minister. They assume that I am in the business of making life easier. But I’m not. I’m in the business of making life more honest. I’m in the business of translating Jesus and James. I’m in the business of asking people to take risks and to work for change in themselves and the world. It takes a lot of courage. And we are hardly certain what the outcomes will be. The only thing we are certain of is our will, as James would say. We are certain of our conviction, which is rooted in nothing more complicated than love.

When it comes to working for change, for example. We work because we love the world and we love each other. Not because it is easy or assured. Not because the pathway ahead is clear. Rather, we work because we are in love with it all and because we understand that love makes certain claims on us, asks things of us like the taking up of a cross, as Jesus said, the willful acceptance of something that is difficult, challenging, and unsure. That is what we were talking about when Eddie Glaude punched me in the arm. Love is the reason we work. And our courage derives from it. Therein lies the Wisdom. She is present when we take the risk of standing at the crossroads, hearing her voice, and then acting in love, accepting the consequent unknown.

That, dear friends, won’t fit onto a bumper sticker. But it sure is good religion according to William James. And here are his words on it, a quote that he drew from James Stephen and used to concludes hi essay “The Will to Believe”:

In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. . . . If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a [person] chooses to turn [their] back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent [them]; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that [they are] mistaken. . . . Each must act as [they think] best; and if [they are] wrong, so much the worse for [them]. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.[7]

It’s a different kind of religion than we hear about conventionally. And it requires a different kind of faith. Faith grounded not in certainty, but in a kind of love that would have us act boldly and unafraid.

You may wonder if such faith really works or if there is an abiding Wisdom in it. All I can offer from my own experience is this: At one of the most uncertain moments in my life, when my own health was gravely in doubt, I received a note from a friend and professor. He was an old naturalist and a lover of William James. I opened the note and read in his hand of his love and concern for me. The note ended: Be strong. Have courage.

I did not receive any other words that made me feel better than those. Because they were so honest. My friend knew that the outcome was unclear. And all that he did was say that he loved me. And encourage me to be strong. Which was all that I needed. Surprisingly, I made it past that particular mountain pass. But only to arrive at another. And another. Like the place we are now in Charleston, South Carolina. As race relations are incredibly strained. As a presidential election plays to our fears. As an economy moves more wealth to the very rich while the middle class eclipses and the poor are shunted off and segregated out of view.

The question is whether we can imagine things differently. Whether we will dare to do what James would do. Or Shelley. Or Glaude. Or Wisdom herself, whispering to us at this crossroads.

Will we hear her call? And will we summon the existential strength and courage to step into the uncertainty in love?




[1] See the dust jacket to The Heart of William James, ed. Robert Richardson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[2] See BBC Radio’s In Our Time: Philosophy podcast, “William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience,” May 12, 2010, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00s9ftw.

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

[4] Percy Bysse Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” in The Major Works (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009), 675.

[5] Prov. 8.1-4, TANAKH translation.

[6] Prov. 8.14.

[7] William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Writings of William James, ed. John McDermott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 735.

This week Radiohead released a single from its new album, Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination for president of the United States, and I attended the Jewish Federation of Charleston’s Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance. They all seemed to go hand in hand.

Radiohead’s single, “Burn the Witch,” was accompanied by a brilliant and disturbing animated video done in the style of 1960s British children’s specials. In it, a stranger to a bucolic village observers the way newcomers or “others” are met with ostracism and violence. Virpi Kattu, the video’s animator, said that the project was meant to conjure “the blaming of different people. . .the blaming of Muslims” that has reemerged as a dangerous trend in Europe.

It’s a soundtrack, I think, for current American politics. The rise of Donald Trump, once considered something of a joke, has now shaken many of us and unsettled our friends around the world who are watching. There’s no need to go over the litany of his hateful and bigoted comments here, but he represents the most dangerous kind of populism, blaming the “other” and playing to people’s fears and insecurities. After demonizing and diminishing different religions, cultures, ethnicities, and even genders, he now stands as a neo-fascist candidate in a major American political party.

I couldn’t help but think of it as I sat in the sanctuary of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim last evening and listened to the stories of survivors. They were demonized, too. They were ostracized and blamed and ultimately subjected to unspeakable violence on a scale that none could have imagined. At the end of the service, we said, “Never again.” We vowed to speak against such hatred wherever it was taking shape in our world.

Like Europe. Or the United States. In 2016.

I begin the day with headphones on, Thom Yorke’s falsetto in my ears. His is a song of warning, a song that we should join in singing. Never again starts today.

With aloha,