IMG_6236They were the same boys and girls we see every day, walking between the ball fields on the way to school. Only we couldn’t make them out earlier this week. Not from under their scarves and caps and swollen jackets. Most of the kids walked more briskly than usual; the air had a bite. But a handful I noticed walked more slowly. Pulling their scarves down they giggled at the sight of their breath. They puffed like train engines, slowing to watch their breath float for a moment before disappearing. I couldn’t help but join them, marveling at the exchange we make several times a minute but never see. Wondering at how intricately related we are, the old philosophical question of where everything else ends and we begin.

I had a professor who had asked that. An old empiricist, whose eyes glimmered as he pondered inhalation and exhalation, the exchange of O2 and CO2 at the molecular level, the tissues and transfers that blurred the lines between self and world until it wasn’t at all clear which was which, only that they were interdependent. We dallied in the cold until we were almost late when one boy walked over to a bush and breathed into it. White clouds of breath covered brittle green leaves. “I’m giving it my breath,” he said, and then dashed through the school doors before the final morning bell. I stood for a moment, smiling at the sentiment. Who needs a burning bush, I thought, when you have a breathing one? Who needs a miracle far away, when there is one here and now, made visible by the cold to every boy or girl with eyes to see?

The old Hebrews had a slightly mystical word for it: ruah. It was a guttural word and in divinity school we were trained to say it that way. It was funny, but you couldn’t say the word for breath or spirit in an airy way; you had to say it with the force of your diaphragm and the back of your throat. So that your body knew you were saying it. It was the breath that made us human, said the old creation stories. From the very beginning, when God created the earth and sky and sea and then all the beings in them. God was said to have shaped people out of earth, out of dirt, and then brought them to life with breath. It was God’s own breath that was passed. The Mystery itself gave it to us. “So God fashioned an earth creature,” says our Inclusive Bible. “And breathed into its nostrils the breath of life.”[1] Out of all the elements of the Hebrew creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, this strikes me as the most poetic and beautiful, the one feature that blends the mystical and the scientific. Our breath brings us to life. Our breath makes us human. Our breath is a gift from the Mystery itself. Otherwise, we would just be dirt. But instead here we are. As I live and breathe, they say.

I suppose there was another reason I was struck by the kids watching their breath. The book on my nightstand was written by a young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with cancer at the very end of his residency. Just as his life was about to begin, he learned that it would be coming to an abrupt end. The surgeon’s name was Paul Kalanithi and he titled the book When Breath Becomes Air. I won’t spoil it for you, but it reads as a deep meditation on the meaning and value of life and also as a call to wakefulness. Kalanithi looked back to see that the life he had been living was the only life he was going to get. There wouldn’t be the long future as an attending at a teaching hospital, the marriage and family and old age that he had imagined. Just the single breaths, one after the other until they stopped. In an early passage in the book, he wrote rather hauntingly of breath when deciding whether to continue studying literature or turn to medicine:

I spent a year in classrooms. . .where I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was only confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience.[2]

And there is the summons. Words were weightless when compared to direct experience; best to forgo the speculative and dive into the sensual world, embodied and felt. Interestingly enough, all Kalanithi could leave us were words, his breath transcribed onto a page. But his words evoke tangible things, especially in relation to the hospital, where so many of us have been jarred into physical awareness, pulled from our minds into the heart pounding, short breathing anxiety of cloth gowns and cold rooms. I wanted that direct experience, Kalanithi said. And he found it, as both doctor and patient.

The naturalist theologian Henry Nelson Wieman wrote of the value of the summons, seeing our breath and its impermanence as a teacher of wisdom. We deal with the experience of our finitude, he said, by “treat[ing] the experience as [a] means of deliverance from those preoccupations which hinder the emergence of insights leading to ways of life more rich and comprehensive than those previously attained.”[3] It’s a breathless sentence, I know, but put another way Wieman was calling us to let our mortality change us. Creative transformation was his word for it. And while some might interpret mortality in ways that lead to anxiety or despair or spin it into a narrative of meaninglessness, Wieman invited us to something much deeper. Why not let our mortality open our eyes to wonder and gratitude that we are here at all? Why not live lives that create and add meaning, seizing the moment that is ours and living life to the fullest for ourselves and others? Why not see that the questions we are afraid of are sometimes simply the doorways to our liberation? Mortality need not be a curse. If we focus on our breath it may be a blessing. A simple wonder that grounds us in the here and now, standing like children blowing warm air onto frozen leaves.

Perhaps the link between Kalanithi’s call to direct experience and Wieman’s invitation to lay aside our anxieties are the old spiritual practices of meditation and contemplation that focus on breathing. These practices can be found in every tradition, but nowhere are they more central than in Buddhism, particularly the Zen practice of zazen sitting. The Catholic monk and Buddhist priest Ruben Habito, who has spent his life in both traditions, writes of the way intentional breathing changes us over time. Through quiet ritual, we sit on a bench or cushion, adopt a wakeful posture, and begin breathing deeply in through our noses and out through our mouths. No words are required. No sacred texts or creation stories. Just the felt experience of breath and the ways it connects the inner and the outer. Rather than the unconscious breathing that we are always doing, a conscious focus on our breathing brings us back to center, grounding and settling us. “The fact is,” Habito writes, “most of us have actually forgotten how to breathe and have thus lost touch with the core of our own selves.” Recovering “the art of breathing naturally,” we can “be at home and at peace.”[4]

It’s a paradox of a kind. Voluntarily pausing to consider the involuntary. Reflecting on impermanence as way of grounding ourselves. Sitting aside as a way of connecting. Habito speaks of it with a smile:

. . .focusing one’s whole being in the here and now with every breath is not shutting oneself off from the rest of the world but plunging oneself at the heart of the world by attuning oneself to the vital core where things are happening. . .As one focuses on the here and now by following the breath, one “tunes in one’s receiver,” as it were, to realize one’s connectedness with everything else that is vivified by the same breath.[5]

This feeling of deep interconnection leads to the creative transformation that Wieman was talking about. Or the shining direct experience of Kalanithi. Or the poetic mysticism of the Hebrews. Or the giggling affirmation of elementary school kids. All breath is connected. If we can see it.

With this in mind, we might just ask a final question about the spirituality of our breath and its use. If breath is a sacred thing, and I believe that it is, then we might ask what we do with it. None of us knows how many breaths we will have, but we do know that we can choose how we spend them. Will we use our breaths in ways that are wasteful, adding to the atmosphere of idle speech, gossip, and careless or hurtful commentary? Will we use our breaths in ways that are helpful, blessing the world with words of caring and kindness, checking on friends, saying prayers, asking sincere questions, and naming our loves? Will we use our breaths in ways that are liberating, telling the truth, speaking with clarity, and raising voices of justice and inclusion for all? Will we use our breaths in ways that are vulnerable, speaking of our own struggles and needs without posturing or pretending? Will we use our breaths in ways that are healthy, running, swimming, stretching, doing yoga, embracing the beautiful bodies we have been given? Or will we use our breaths in other ways, ways that add whimsy, poetry, and wonder into a world that would be the better for it?

They’re all good questions, questions that we might take up in the morning as we begin the day. Any morning and any day will do, but winter days have a special quality. The ones when we can see our breath, if only for a moment. The ones when we can dally in the cold until we are almost late, walking over to a bush to breathe into it. White clouds of breath covering brittle green leaves. “I’m giving it my breath,” we say.

Would that it were so, friends. May it be so with us.



[1] Gen. 2.7, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 2009).

[2] Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (New York: Random House, 2016), 43.

[3] Henry Nelson Wieman, Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958), 56.

[4] Ruben Habito, Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth (Dallas: Maria Kannon Zen Center Publications, 2001), 43.

[5] Ibid., 54.

IMG_0422Not two weeks ago, Mary Harris handed me a slip of paper at one of our Charleston Area Justice Ministry events. She knew I was a fan of poetry, and her note encouraged me to read a piece by the Palestinian-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. It was an easy sell because I love Naomi Shihab Nye; she lives in San Antonio, the city of my father, and I heard her read once in Texas, asked her to sign a book for Sara. Anyway, Mary’s note encouraged me to look up a prose piece entitled “Gate A-4”; it can be found in Naomi Shihab Nye’s 2008 book, Honeybee. Or on Facebook, where it has become something of a meme among my friends, though in an abridged form. This morning I’d like to read the whole thing, and I’d like for it to be the meditation with perhaps only a note of commentary from me. As we begin the season of Advent during a time of heightened fear and anxiety. As we share the elements of communion during days when migrants travel in search of welcome and shelter. And as we hold out the theme of hope after a year of deep grief and bitterness. I can’t think of a better, more beautiful story to tell than Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4.” Listen and let its longing wash over you as we start the season:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway. Min fadlick. Shu-bit-see-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.[1]

I read and reread “Gate A-4” after Mary Harris recommended it to me. After the news of attacks in Beirut and Paris. After the terrible pronouncements from our politicians that refugees were not welcome here. After the voices of fear ratcheted up on every news channel. I went back to Gate A-4. I grounded myself in images of women sharing what they had and making a place of love and welcome. I imagined sitting on the floor of an airport trying a new delicacy. A Palestinian cookie that I had not heard of but was heartened by. If mamools are out there, then maybe it’s true. Not everything is lost. Maybe powdered sugar can soften our hearts. Or a common language can soothe our souls.

It’s a simple vision to set the season and we heard the prophet speak of it. At the beginning of Isaiah there is a description of the House of God. It will be known because people of “all the nations shall stream to it.”[2] And because there “they shall beat their swords into plowshares”[3] and learn to live together in peace. There’s no powdered sugar in the vision, but there might as well be. Because its dream is equally sweet. It is the dream of Gate A-4. The House of God. Who knew it could be found in an airport in Albuquerque? Who knew it could be found in a church in Charleston? Who knew it could be found anywhere people will sit and listen and laugh and hold hands and share what they have?

“This can still happen,” said the poet. All we need to do is take the cookie. Or better yet offer it. And then see what this season will bring us.



[1] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4” in Honeybee: Poems (New York: Greenwillow Books, 2008), 162-164.

[2] Isa. 2.2b, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Isa. 2.4b.

IMG_1251The boy laughed out loud as I read to him. His mother had fallen asleep while listening, but his eyes were wide as I turned the pages of Mark Twain’s classic tale of childhood rebellion. I chuckled, too, at the boy and at the book. Because Twain was so deeply in tune with the yearning we all have to be free of encumbrances, to be our own boy or girl, to break the rules that others have been laying on us. I should have known after the Preface, in which a winking Twain offered the following disclaimer: “Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves. . .”[1]

Reading the book, I was reminded of what I once was myself, but I was reminded of more than that: I was reminded of who we all are, of who our church is, and of who we might still become depending on our interpretation of the rules. This is, in part, because there is so much religion in Mark Twain’s book. It is offered from a child’s point of view and is therefore very funny. Tom Sawyer is forced to go to church and, with it, to go against his nature somehow before meeting Huck Finn, who is not forced and seems rather fancy free. Consider the contrast.

In order to prepare for church, Tom is given a basin of water and sent outside to wash himself. He promptly pours it out and returns to the house, pretending to dry his face. He is caught in the act and forced to wash again and readers can imagine him scowling and frowning at the unpleasantness of it all. He put on a suit and a straw hat and, according to Twain, “looked exceedingly improved and uncomfortable.” Being so clean “galled him,” and we are left to picture the boy with his hair brushed and his shined shoes marched into church where he would sit stiffly in the pews. Incidentally, the minister “droned along monotonously” while Tom fished his pockets and found a beetle with which to engage himself.[2]

Anyone who has ever been a child in church knows exactly what this feels like. The bath. The church clothes. The endless talking of grown-ups and the shushing. Stop wiggling. Stop kicking the pew. Stop giggling or burping or doing other things that come naturally to you. So as I read I got the joke as well as my own boy did. We all remember the religious world of rules that we were ushered into. And we all remember waiting for the Benediction or the Postlude so we could bolt from the pews and get some fresh air. Yet after reading and laughing for a while, we reached a passage that quieted us. We read it twice it was so good. And we wondered at the introduction of Huck Finn.

In contrast to Tom’s experience, Huck is described as something of a boy Whitman. His life is pure poetry; an evasion of every rule. Here is the description of him from Chapter Six when he is first introduced:

Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on door-steps in fine weather, and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or to call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.[3]

I don’t know whose eyes were wider when we read that passage. He came and went at his own free will. He didn’t have to follow the rules like other children. He was free of all that and, therefore, the luckiest seeming boy in the world. All the other kids looked up to him. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a beautiful description of a childlike longing. To not go to school or church or be told what to do by anybody. Or, to put it into our earliest language, to not have anybody be the boss of us. On some level, we all long for that. We wish that we weren’t so constrained. We wish that we weren’t so scheduled. We wish that we weren’t so predictable or conventional. We wish we were different. But does being different require breaking all the rules?

It’s a good question to ask in a progressive Christian church because being progressive means putting our faith into practice in some different ways. Our rules are not the same as other churches’ rules. We welcome everyone, especially those who have not felt welcome other places. We invite everyone into full participation, membership, and leadership. We share communion with everyone and join with others working for justice in our community. These are rules of a kind, though they are meant to free us rather than hold us back. But it is also good to ask this question in our particular church, which was founded on the idea of dissent. In the 17th Century, when South Carolina was an Anglican colony with a state-sponsored church, the Independent Meeting House (which was us) was founded for all those who dissented or did not belong to the state church or follow its particular rules.[4] Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Huguenots, and many others came here. And while the services were long and formal enough to be Tom Sawyer’s nightmare, there must have been a unique spirit in an early American church that was fairly ecumenical and inclusive for the time. Over time we became more inclusive, especially toward women, people of color, and sisters and brothers of every sexual orientation and identity. But somewhere in our DNA was the idea of dissent, which did have to do with bending the rules or even opting out of them. And sometimes I think that even though we come here dressed like Tom Sawyer, hair combed and shoes shined, we’ve got more than a little Huck Finn inside, more than a little longing to kick off our shoes and roam away, no one telling us what to do.

Of course, we’re not the first ones to have an iconoclastic streak. The founder of our faith was a wanderer. He moved from town to town, teaching those who would gather, rarely holding court in the formal temple setting and more often sitting by the lake, lying on a hillside, or standing by a well. Jesus had inherited the rules of religion, but he hadn’t been content just to take them as a package. Rather, he wanted to get at the spirit of them, the why that was meant to infuse the how. And in Matthew Chapter Five we have a series of couplets attributed to Jesus that show him reinterpreting the rules. You have heard it said, goes the refrain, but I say to you. . .

What follows is more radical than Huck Finn following no rules; it is an invitation for each of us to follow the rules in a wilder fashion than any of us might have imagined before. You have heard it said that you should not kill, Jesus taught. But I say that even anger is bad enough. You have heard not to commit adultery. But I say lust in your heart and your eye is the same thing. You have heard not to break an oath. But I say swearing anything is false. You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say turn the other cheek. You have heard love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. These are some of the most beautiful wisdom teachings of Jesus, meant to haunt us for a lifetime. And many of us have been haunted by them, our imaginations kindled as if we were children again. It would be a near perfect passage if not for the couplet I left out: the one about divorce.

In a jarring departure, there is the inclusion of a teaching that you have heard it said not to divorce except on certain grounds. But I say that anyone who marries a divorced person is like a philanderer. Scholars have bent over backwards trying to interpret this, the best they can do seeming to be an unsatisfying explanation that it’s somehow not as bad as it sounds or that there’s a fairly strong idea that perhaps this is not an authentic saying of Jesus but something passed down by the Matthean community. But we might say, as a progressive church, that it is possible that Jesus did say this and that we don’t actually agree with him. We interpret this in the light of our own context and experience, and in the light of the larger body of his teachings, and say you have heard it said, but we say something else. Because we say that some marriages do come to an end and that is part of life. And remarriages are good and right and basically lovely. We also say, because one of our own rules is honest speech, that these two verses are confusing. We are not completely sure what is going on here, but we are sure that even as we mine our sacred stories for poetry and inspiration, we come across lines that we question, stories that we doubt, and teachings from which we dissent. Being followers of Jesus does not mean that we agree with every single word attributed to him. Being followers of Jesus does not mean that he is always the boss of us. I say that with a smile because somehow I think he would not judge. After all, he is the one who encouraged us to come as children. And he is the one who taught us the compassionate ideal.

Perhaps no one has picked up on this more clearly than Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. In his book, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, Edmundson focuses on three classic ideals of the ancient world: courage, contemplation, and compassion. Homer and Plato are his exemplars of courage and contemplation, but when it comes to compassion he spends a great deal of time on Jesus. “Compassion is the core of Jesus’ ministry,” Edmundson writes. “Compassion is the new ideal, the good news that Jesus brings, displacing the ethos of justice that dominates [before]. . .”[5] We can hear this in Matthew’s couplets, even the confusing one about divorce. You have heard it said, but I say. . . There is a movement from the law as a heartless rule to the spirit as a heartfelt practice. Do not be angry or lustful. Do not swear oaths. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for everyone. Free yourself from the rules and be transformed by a new practice. Because the practice of our faith isn’t reading the lines and deciding whether we agree or disagree any more than it is combing our hair and putting on our shined shoes; the practice of our faith is trying it out, living in such a way that our spirit shines through, the childlike dreams we still have of making a place where everyone can be who they really are, loved and accepted no matter what. Edmundson is on to this, and in a beautiful passage, he comes very close to the heart of Christianity. Who is my neighbor? he asks.

Every man is my neighbor. Every woman is my neighbor. This is the central teaching of Jesus, and though it is not an easy teaching to put into practice. . .it may confer on living men and women a sense of wholeness, presence, and even joy. No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all that lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.[6]

There is freedom in a rule like that. The rule of seeing our interconnectedness and placing our meaning there. It’s a dissenting rule, really. Not a rule that draws lines to leave others out, but a rule that erases lines to invite others and all things in. It’s not Tom Sawyer’s rule of being forced into an unnatural role on Sunday mornings. But it’s also not Huck Finn’s rule of no rules at all. It is rather the rule of the compassionate ideal, sown in our hearts by an itinerant wisdom teacher and by our own boyish and girlish longings.

With a bit of luck or maybe with a bit of grace we can follow that rule into a future that looks bright for our meeting house full of dissenters. If we do it right, then we may read Matthew just like we read Mark Twain, laughing out loud, reminded of what we once were and still could be. . .



[1] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 5.

[2] Ibid., 31, 40.

[3] Ibid., 46.

[4] Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History (Charleston: The History Press, 2008), 13-14.

[5] Mark Edmundson, Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 8.

[6] Ibid.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They pass through the Valley of Baca

     regarding it as a place of springs,

as if the early rain had covered it with


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] See Marcia Angell’s review, “A Better Way Out” in The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015, accessed online at:

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

[5] Matt. 6.25-29.

[6] 1 Cor. 3.16.

[7] Psalm 84.7, TANAKH translation.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Better is the end of a thing than

its beginning;

the patient in spirit are better

than the proud in spirit.

Do not be quick to anger,

for anger lodges in the bosom

of fools.

[And] Do not say, “Why were the

former days better than


For it is not from wisdom that

you ask this.[3]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Gen. 35.14-15.

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

[4] The Charleston Area Justice Ministry. See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” May 12, 2015, accessed online at

[3] John 19.38-40.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will pour out my spirit

on all humankind.

Your daughters and sons will prophesy,

your young people will see visions,

and your elders will dream dreams.[2]

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Acts 2.17b, The Inclusive Bible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care not to perform your good deeds before other people

So as to be seen by them. . .

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


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

They love to stand in our synagogues and on the corners

Of the open squares, praying

So they will be seen. . .

I say to you, they have their own rewards.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[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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