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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care not to perform your good deeds before other people

So as to be seen by them. . .

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

 

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

They love to stand in our synagogues and on the corners

Of the open squares, praying

So they will be seen. . .

I say to you, they have their own rewards.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

[3] Ibid., 234-235.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With aloha,

J

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

*Ibid., 29-30.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

There and then. Here and now.

Amen.

 

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

[2] Luke 4.18, King James Version.

[3] Luke 4.21a.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

and I wake in the night at the least sound

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

I go and lie down where the wood drake

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

 

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

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

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

J

 

[1] Psalm 4.1a, The Inclusive Bible.

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

[3] Psalm 4.6a.

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

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

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

[7] Psalm 4.7a.

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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.

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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

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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

 

 

IMG_7382Peter and Rosemary Grant homeschooled their children in a cave or sometimes in a tent. They were the only sheltered places on the island of Daphne Major, a small cinder cone in the Galápagos chain. When they first set foot on that inhospitable island, the two evolutionary biologists couldn’t have known they’d spend 40 years there. Nor could they have known what they’d observe. They just knew they had gone for the finches. It was a nearly perfect laboratory for them; large enough to support hundreds of finches and small enough that the Grants and their students could band, number, and recognize almost every one.[1] Their children got in on the game, too, joining their parents in collecting data on the birds after finishing their school lessons. Evenings the family would read, listen to one of their daughters play the violin, or walk to the water to see one of the sea lion pups they’d befriended. “It was magical,” said Nicola Grant, the oldest daughter, “like what the Celts call ‘thin places’ — places where the veil between heaven and earth is frayed. . .”[2]

The veil was thinner than anyone thought. For, as the Grants observed the finches, they slowly began to realize what they were seeing. Over the years, they noted things they would have expected, like changes in the finch population based on excessive rain or drought. But they also witnessed something they would never have expected: the development of an entirely new lineage of birds. As writer Jonathan Weiner put it, “[the Grants] were watching evolution in real time, evolution in the flesh.” No one knew it could happen so fast. The Grants published the results of their work last year in a book entitled 40 Years of Evolution.[3] In it, they detail the emergence of the new lineage, which can be briefly described as the arrival of a large finch from a neighboring island. This finch had a strange song, he was adapted to feed on both the seeds of plants and the nectar of cacti, and he mated with the local finches over a period of 13 years. That lineage has now lasted for 30 years and seven generations, yielding descendants that are more suitably adapted for survival on Daphne Major. All of this unfolded before the Grants’ eyes, they witnessed it and delighted in it. There on the small cinder cone island, the thin place between heaven and earth, the marginal space between adaptation and extinction, they watched as the four billion year old story of evolution played out on a small stage right in front of them. It took their breath away.

It is interesting to consider the finches today, on a day when we come to remember and celebrate Charles Darwin, who spent five weeks in the Galápagos himself, famously observing the different adaptations of the birds in the island chain. Today begins Darwin Week, a series of events sponsored by the College of Charleston highlighting the conversation between religion and science in our search for truth and meaning. This week our church joins with 448 congregations in 45 states and 13 countries to affirm that religion and science are partners in the search, not adversaries.[4] And it is interesting to consider the finches as we draw from one of the wisdom teachings of our tradition, a text that talks of birds and lilies before raising a vital question for anyone interested in science, religion, and the ethic toward which they lead us.

In the sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew, Jesus offers a saying to his students. “Look at the birds of the air,” he tells them:

. . .they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly [Parent] feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?. . .Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.[5]

On the surface it’s a beautiful teaching, trading in natural images in order to relieve anxiety. Do not worry so much, Jesus seems to be saying, but trust in life’s mystery and give thanks for it. Yet right in the middle of the teaching lies the telling and troubling question: Are you not of more value than they?

On the one hand, it’s a rhetorical question. Jesus is asking if we aren’t at least as valuable as birds and lilies. If they manage without worry and if they find provision, then we should also live as naturally and free. Yet on the other hand, the question is a real one. For religion has long placed humans at the center of its narratives, oftentimes at the expense of the natural world, which has been deemed a commodity for our consumption and control. In many if not most religious schemes, it goes without saying that humans are more valuable than animals, plants, and other forms of life. Part of what science has been showing us and what evolution has been teaching us, however, is that our connections are much deeper and closer than we have previously imagined. But the question of value is a real one and it gets to the heart of the current debate between those of us who see religion and science as partners and those of us who see them as adversaries. And it clarifies what’s at stake.

In his wonderful book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen brings the tension to light. Religious critics of evolution, he tells us, often claim that a blind or random process of natural selection displaces the idea of God. That may be true, Quammen admits, but it’s not what’s really at stake. “Let’s be clear,” Quammen writes:

This is not evolution versus God. The existence of God—any sort of god, personal or abstract, immanent or distant—is not what Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed godliness of [Humanity]—the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored. . .[6]

To listen to Quammen is to begin to hear the deep anxiety of the religious critics of evolution. People are afraid of being displaced from the center, being made to feel less special, being set as equals with birds and lilies, mushrooms and mitochondria. Perhaps because their religious teachings have inculcated the idea that in order to be special we must also be superior. And if we aren’t superior, then we become anxious and insecure about our place in the order of things. But the whole point of Jesus’ teaching is that we let go of our anxieties and insecurities. “Can any of you by worrying, add a single hour to your span of life?” Perhaps we should consider the birds again.

It seems clear from the body of Jesus’ teaching, that the question he poses is the rhetorical kind. We’re at least as valuable as the other animals and plants. Yet we need not place ourselves above them, rather beside them as members of the kind of egalitarian community he formed among his followers. It’s worth remembering that Jesus himself adapted the teachings of his tradition to suit the environment in which he found himself. He started a new lineage, as it were, and it has survived and been passed down through the generations. Yet there are radically different variations, as we know. Some strands of Christianity are the anxious kind, struggling to claim uniqueness as a way of dealing with existential anxiety. And some strands of Christianity are trying to learn to let go, moving beyond the illusion that we are at the center of it all into a much larger story with countless beings our kindreds and equals. Today we celebrate that larger story and the ways we are, in Darwin’s words, “ennobled” by it. Philosopher Donald Crosby puts it best, describing the movement from our superiority to a deep and abiding equity with all things. “We can note,” he writes:

. . .that all species are special. . .Our difference as humans from other creatures of the earth is relative, not absolute, a difference of degree, not kind. We are animals and, like other animals, we depend crucially upon such things as the warmth and energy of the sun; the photosynthesis of plants and their place within the food chain; the water in the clouds, rivers, and seas; the fertility of the soil; the microbes and minerals in the ground and in our bodies; the intricate relations of species, including our own, with one another and with their natural environments; and the laws of nature. To acknowledge these facts is not to demean us or to denigrate our status in the scheme of things. It is to celebrate our participation in the community of creatures, our oneness with the earth, and the privilege of our being at home here.[7]

Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he told us not to worry. Look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field. Watch the finches on the island. Feel your participation in the community of creatures, your oneness with the earth, the privilege of being at home here. Friends, this is the kind of religion that the world could use. It is needed in our city, our state, our country, and the wider world. And there is much at stake.

I don’t need to remind many of you that in the past year the voices of anxious religion tried to insert creationist ideas into the public science curriculum in our state. Many in our church called, wrote letters, and even drove to the State Board of Education in Columbia to testify on behalf of sound science standards. And I don’t need to remind you that in the past few weeks, we have heard the voices of the anxious anti-vaccinators, who dismiss the science of vaccinations and have brought back the measles, one of the most contagious diseases we’ve got. Whereas we had achieved a kind of herd immunity, protecting our most vulnerable children, we must now go back and restate the case for the common good of immunization. And I don’t need to remind you that there are voices in our government, many in control of powerful chambers and committees, that cast doubt and skepticism on the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change and the grave dangers it now poses to life on earth as we have always known it. For a growing number of theologians and scientists alike, this represents the most important ethical issue of our time. And we find ourselves in the position of trying to engage those who would deny what is happening to the natural world and shirk the responsibility of protecting, preserving, and passing it on to our descendants. So as we gather this Evolution Sunday, we do so knowing that what we are doing matters greatly. And the religion that we practice is telling. Is our religion anxious and anthropocentric? Or is it willing to let go and embrace the larger whole? More importantly, is it able to begin telling of the larger whole in ways that evoke our senses of reverence, wonder, and awe?

For at the heart of it, that is what we are doing. And that is what Darwin showed. He, more than anyone, displaced us from the center of things. But when he did, I think he connected us more deeply in a different way. His religious point of view, which was as unorthodox as it was beautiful, called us to look and to listen again to the great family of which we are a part. “There is grandeur,” Darwin famously wrote at the end of The Origin of Species, “in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”[8] Put another way, there is a meaning that is greater than ourselves alone. We are but participants in it.

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said. “Are you not of more value than they?” To which we can only answer with a smile. No. We are not of more value. We are kin. And for that we say, the religious and scientific alike. . .

Amen.

 

[1] Jonathan Weiner, “In Darwin’s Footsteps,” New York Times, August 4, 2014.

[2] Joel Achenbach, “The People Who Saw Evolution,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 23, 2014.

[3] Peter and Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[4] See the Clergy Letter Project at http://www.theclergyletterproject.org

[5] Matt. 6.26-29, New Revised Standard Version.

[6] David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (New York: Atlas Books, 2006), 208-209.

[7] Donald Crosby, Living with Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 100.

[8] Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Philip Appleman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 174.

IMG_3686We learned this week that our state poet laureate’s inaugural poem will not be included in the governor’s inauguration.  Marjory Wentworth’s verses were inspired by the rich and bittersweet history of South Carolina, along with the hopes and dreams of our neighbors shared through social media.  Yet the governor’s office, breaking with tradition, claims there is no time for the two-minute poem.

NPR and others report what many of us feel: the poem is not being included because of the truths it tells.*  It is the job of the artist, however, to reflect the reality she sees and invite us to consider it critically and creatively.  In philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s words, artists “are not the reliable servants of any ideology. . .they always ask the imagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways.”*

Marjory Wentworth does this particularly well.  Her poems invite us beneath the surface of things to the deeper texture of our state and its many histories.  What we find there is both richer and more revealing than we might expect.  Her inaugural poem, “One River, One Boat,” brings to light the best and worst of who we are and invites us to ask where we go from here.  As Carol Ann Davis writes, “Marjory treats us to both the bitter and the sweet simultaneously, asking the reader, with her generous but persistently questioning intellect, to draw the finer and truer difficult conclusion.”*

It’s a shame that the poem won’t be read at the statehouse.  But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t read it — all of us who live in South Carolina and are committed to telling the truth about where we’ve come from as a way of getting to where we still want to go. . .

I invite you to follow the NPR link below and read Marjory’s poem.  Read it quietly.  Read it aloud.  Read it to yourself.  Read it to your family.  Read it to the past, present, and future.  And read it on inauguration day where it belongs.

With aloha,

J

 

*See Laura Sullivan, “For S.C.’s Poet Laureate, An Inauguration Poem Without An Inaugural Audience,” January 14, 2015, accessed online at NPR News: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/01/14/377028376/for-s-c-s-poet-laureate-an-inauguration-poem-without-an-inaugural-audience

*Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 24.

*See Carol Ann Davis’ foreward in Marjory Wentworth, New and Selected Poems (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2014), xv.

IMG_6636In 2006, the author Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to some high school students in New York who had contacted him for an English assignment. The letter was short and sweet, filled with a few words of advice for living. “I do not make public appearances any more,” Vonnegut began, “. . .[but] what I had to say to you. . .would not take long, to wit:” And here followed his instructions:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now. . .[1]

That was the sum of Vonnegut’s advice, amended only by the instruction to his audience that art should be their nightly homework only it wasn’t to be turned in to any teacher but themselves. The letter was an admonition to artful living: Go create something, well or badly, and savor the meaningful effort.

I’ve been thinking about Vonnegut’s letter this week as we round the corner into a new year. I’m not one for resolutions, generally, finding them somewhat arbitrary around the beginning of the Roman calendar. But I do see myself as a work in progress and my life as something I am trying to craft into some lived expression of who I really want to be and what I value most deeply. This is one of the things we do in religious community, we gather in a great art project, trying to encourage each other to flesh beautiful things into the world of ordinary experience. Or, put another way, maybe we try to help each other see what is already there, waiting to be shown. I think artists can help us with this.

Earlier this year, I was influenced by the art of John Duckworth at the City Gallery. Many of you saw his exhibition, “Awake,” which invited us to sit through our busy monkey minds and return to the center through breathing and meditation. In one of our conversations about that work, John spoke of the first gallery filled with video images. The final product was a short presentation that moved through scenes of the city and the sea, the mundane details of life, the buzz of a cell phone and chime of e-mails. It felt quick, but lifelike, the distractions both familiar and newly presented. But John’s first attempt, he said, had gone differently. His first splicing was made of short, staccato images, just a few seconds each. When he showed them to friends, the thing moved too quickly and felt frenetic. It hurt their heads. John laughed as he spoke of it, realizing the creative and experimental nature of the process itself. You sort of try things to see how they go, cultivating and curating along the way. By the end, you come out at a place that couldn’t have really been predicted so much as arrived at through a process of “curious anticipation.”

Earlier this season, I was influenced by my writing while sitting at the computer screen. After time spent in the company of artists, I looked at my own work with words, ideas, and images. There by my laptop sat the usual stack of books, the pages of notes, and the ideas that I had been thinking through for a few days. I wrote a page here, took a page off there. Like all teachings, some of the things I thought would emerge did not, and others rose to the surface, following from one paragraph to another in surprising ways. Half the footnotes went unused and the stack of books were returned to their various shelves at the end of the day, leaving me with a curated serious of pages and the questions that always lie at the end: Did this say what I meant to say? Or perhaps something better or worse than intended? And what might it evoke in others? What artful questions and responses might follow?

And earlier this week, I was influenced by my son, who, among all his Christmas presents, was most delighted by the fact that his mother cleared off the garage workbench just for him. He spent the better part of two days standing over it in safety goggles and an apron, hammering, drilling, and painting. He emerged with two new wooden toys, a boat and an airplane, and a request that we take the former for sea trials, which we did. But this was not before his own hours of trial and error. The nail that bent and had to be pulled. The paint that stuck to the newspaper and needed to be redone. The boards that hadn’t lined up and the vise that kept coming loose at the wrong time. To watch a kid in the workshop, focused so intently on the project at hand is a subtly spiritual thing. Because he, like any artist, like any of us, was trying to make an idea into a reality. He was taking the materials he had and shaping them into something meaningful and well-made.

In his 1929 Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University, John Dewey began with an observation that we each seek a kind of security in two ways. The first of these is by “attempt[ing] to propitiate the powers which environ [us] and determine [our] destiny.” If we cannot conquer our destiny, then we try to “willingly ally [ourselves] with it” somehow. Put another way, we try to get out of the way of the things we cannot control. But the second way we seek a kind of security is “to invent arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account. . .[we] build shelters, weave garments, make flame [our] friend instead of [our] enemy, and grow into the complicated arts of associated living. . .[this is] the method of changing the world through action.”[2] So we take hold of the things we can control. Dewey reminds us that we’re always working with both, the things that are beyond our control and the things that are well within our reach. A part of our work is reaching for the right materials and shaping them into what we can, as Vonnegut might say, to make our souls grow.

All of this is nothing more than the call to an examined life. For any artist knows that the start of a project is to sift through the materials you’ve got, which include not only the raw elements of paints, brushes, cameras, and dance shoes, but also the existential elements of thoughts, questions, and life experiences. It is out of these that we begin to make something of ourselves, something we curate and then present to the world, hoping that it might add a little beauty to the picture. So we might begin this new year by asking about the materials of our lives. Each of begins the year in a different place, in a different chapter, with different talents and abilities. But all of us have something that needs to be fleshed out, something that is as unique to us as our DNA. Part of our congregational tradition is the conscientious celebration of everyone’s uniqueness. And it is also a part of our faith tradition, perhaps found best in this morning’s reading, which was written by another artist long ago.

The first chapter of the Book of John, commonly known as the Prologue, is one of the most deeply philosophical texts in the Bible. As Willis Barnstone notes in his introduction to the book, the Prologue contains “the richest and most eloquent passages of spiritual inquiry” in the Christian Testament, weaving strong Gnostic elements with Neoplatonism and the desert wisdom of the Essenes.[3] In short, the author is working with a number of very different philosophical materials, trying to hew a new story that is equal parts poetry, philosophy, and narrative. It begins in the beginning by saying that what came first was a word:

In the beginning was the word

And the word was with God,

And God was the word.[4]

This word may be like the divine idea. The spark that leads the artist to begin filming. Or the preacher to lose track of time at the computer. Or the boy to reach for the hammer at his workbench. Or any of us seizing the hours of the day and putting them to creative use. It begins with a word, an idea, an impulse or inspiration that needs fleshing out.

Through [the word] everything came about

And without it not a thing came about.

What came to be in the word was life

And the life was the light of people. . .[5]

It’s a beautiful image and an artful one, which the old author then turns into something not often highlighted in church. There was a man named John, and he came “in testimony of the light.” He was a bearer of it, an artisan, we might say, who tried to show the light and the means to access it. “He was not the light,” John said:

But he came to testify. . .

The light was the true light

Which illuminates every person

Who comes into the world.[6]

Put another way, maybe the light was the art in everyone, the thing that we all bring and are asked to flesh out. Our religious ancestors called it the inner light. We sometimes call it the light of conscience. Old John called it the true light which was life. And Jesus didn’t call it anything so much as flesh it out himself, testifying to it by living his own days so artfully. He took the materials he was given and shaped them into the love and light he could see inside. “You have heard it said, but I am saying this. . .” “You have seen it done, but I am doing this. . .” No more eye for an eye, only forgiveness. No more ethnic and tribal enemies, only one family. No more heaven insufferably far away, only one kingdom spread out on the earth for anyone who can learn to see it. And to shape it.

Which is where we come in this January 4th. The question for us, this artful Sunday, is how we might curate the days we have into lives lived meaningfully and well. Some of us will do this by leaving church with Vonnegut’s assignment in mind. We’ll go home and sing, dance, or draw. Some of us will do this by leaving church with our own creative projects in mind. We’ll go home to write that brief, prepare that lesson plan, or cook dinner with the new realization that this is our creative work. And some of us will do this by leaving church with the existential questions raised by John and Jesus. We’ll go home to ask, as we should, what light we can bring into the world and if the lives we’re living reflect our best ideas and values. They’re wonderful questions, all. And this year we should welcome them with all the enthusiasm of artists stepping in to the studio. . .

of a day

a week

a year. . .

Amen.

 

[1] “Kurt Vonnegut Urges Young People to Make Art and ‘Make Your Soul Grow,’” accessed online at http://www.openculture.com/2014/04/kurt-vonnegut-urges-young-people-to-make-art-and-make-your-soul-grow.html

[2] John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1929), 3.

[3] Willis Barnston, The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 445.

[4] John 1.1, The Restored New Testament.

[5] John 1.3-4.

[6] John 1.8-9.

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