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

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

September 4, 2016

 

The temple bell stops—

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.

(Bashō)

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

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

The heavens declare the glory of God,

   the sky proclaims [divine] handiwork.

Day to day makes utterance,

   night to night speaks out.

There is no utterance,

   there are no words,

   whose sound goes unheard.[2]

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

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

I turn my eyes to the mountains;

   from where will my help come?[4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

[2] Psalm 19.2-4, TANAKH translation.

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

[4] Psalm 121.1 TANAKH.

[5] Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, 32.

[6] Ibid., 38-39.

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

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

August 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are diversities of gifts but one

Same spirit. And there are

Diversities

Of services and one same lord. . .

But the manifestation of the spirit

Is given to each one so as to gain

From it the good. . .[3]

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

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

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

The old letter to the Galatians offers its own litany:

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy,

Peace and long-suffering, kindness, the good,

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

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

[4] Welch, “Discerning Spirit,” 266.

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

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

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

August 14, 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., 67.

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

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

photo credit: Trena Walker

photo credit: Trena Walker

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

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

July 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

[2] Ibid., 96.

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

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

June 12, 2016

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1.13a, The English Bible.

[5] Ecclesiastes 1.14, The English Bible.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook it off.  But there will be others.

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

With aloha,

J

 

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

[2] Ibid., 75.

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The Risk of Being Religious (Proverbs 8)

Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church

May 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Wisdom calling,

Understanding raising her voice,

She takes her stand on the topmost heights,

By the wayside, at the crossroads,

Near the gates at the city entrance;

At the entryways, she shouts,

“O men [and women], I call to you;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Prov. 8.14.

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

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

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

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

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

Like Europe. Or the United States. In 2016.

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

With aloha,

J

photo credit: Mary Edna Fraser

photo credit: Mary Edna Fraser

I got my first glimpse of the Lowcountry through an airplane window. As we neared Charleston, all I could see was water. Rivers snaked in every direction, lacing together and catching the glinting sun. I squinted my eyes. The plane descended along the coast and wheeled over the harbor. More water. And bridges. It’s all water, I thought. I wasn’t sure there was anything else.

When we moved here we bought a house not too far from the water. A mile in one direction led us to a harborfront park; a mile the other way was an oysterbed trail. I could smell the water in the mornings. I could feel it moving around me. And if I ever forgot, the nesting osprey would remind me as she carried fish back to her fledglings. I was a boy by the water and had been drawn back to it. But much had changed since I was a boy. Now I knew that the water was rising.

I made the mistake of mentioning this at the park when we were getting to know other parents in the neighborhood. I asked about mitigation plans for climate change and sea level rise. I’ll never forget, as we stood not five blocks from the water, the other dads looking at me. What do you mean? they asked. It was a conversation stopper.

I hadn’t intended to cause any offense. But to me reality was not offensive. I was simply trying to listen to what the earth was saying and ask how we might answer. Would we relate to it in new ways? Would we adapt and change? Would we preserve some of our exquisitely beautiful place? Would this be our spiritual practice?

I learned as much as I could about our place. I read books about the salt marsh. I checked the tides and learned their patterns. I walked with my wife at the same place on the beach and watched the changes in light and current. I explored the marsh every Saturday with my son. We saw the grass turn colors and the fiddler crabs grow. I fell in love with it all. We all did. But it felt so fragile. So many people were moving in like us. Yet so few were talking about it in the park. How would we protect and preserve this?

Bo Petersen of the Post and Courier wrote of the danger earlier this year. I picked up the paper from the lawn while looking for the osprey. “More than 2,000 species of plants and animals,” he wrote, “are found along the Southeast and Gulf coasts that are found nowhere else. . .and they are disappearing under the heels of more than 80 million people and their predecessors, who since Colonial times have stomped out 85 percent of the habitat the creatures—and we—need to survive.” Our region had now been declared a biodiversity hot spot, according to Petersen. Such hot spots “cover little more than two percent of the Earth’s surface but hold 50 percent of its plant species and 42 percent of its vertebrates.”[1] I read the article and then read it again. This was a rare and beautiful place, it said. Yet we were depleting and destroying it. None of us knew what was really being lost. There was too much richness to measure. How does one place a value on time and tide, wind and water, watching fiddler crabs with a boy and feeling the sun on your skin?

I met Mary Edna Fraser and asked her. This time it was a conversation starter. I had contacted her after seeing her artwork. I had been moved by the batik images. They were glimpses of the Lowcountry through an airplane window. They were all water, I thought. We met for breakfast and I asked about mitigation plans for climate change and sea level rise. Her eyes lit up. She told me of conservation groups and efforts. She wondered about what religious communities could do. She spoke of the power of art to help us see. The waitress kept the coffee coming. When the pancakes were gone we had a plan.

So we gather today surrounded by beautiful batiks that remind us of what is at stake. They evoke our senses of reverence, wonder, and awe, as does the natural light that always falls through the colored windows. We have transformed our sanctuary into a meditation hall for Earth Day. The batiks are hung as banners of blessing. A blessing of the good earth. A blessing of its myriad forms of life. A blessing of the Mystery from which it all emerged. But also a blessing of the work we have to do. Because as surely as we sit here this morning the sea is rising and the cars are idling and the construction cranes are coming. We are taking more than the earth can give back. We have lost our indigenous senses of gratitude and reciprocity. And we are neglecting the generations to come. This confession must be spoken in the meditation hall. We are sorry for the ways we have considered only ourselves and not the countless sisters and brothers in our great earth family.

The psalmist had a sense of confession. In this morning’s text, one of the earthiest psalms, he began with the language of wonder. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” he said, “the sky proclaims [God’s] handiwork.” We cannot look up without knowing. Day or night. Sun or stars. Gull or osprey. All of it speaks of the Mystery the Hebrews called God. The world is constantly telling us things, the psalmist said. Not with words, but in a language of its own. “Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out. . .Their voice carries throughout the earth.”[2] This is confession in the truest sense. The psalmist is seeking to tell the bare truth. To articulate what should not be left unsaid. To ask others, Can you see this? Can you hear this?

Yet there is a second kind of confession in the psalm. The old poet moves from ecstatic language to something more existential. The second section of the psalm speaks of ethics, covenants, and responsibilities. There is a sense of oughtness here. We ought to follow the rules of right relation. The Hebrew torah is filled with such rules, but they are meant to be observed religiously. The rules are a part of spiritual practice. And while all of us interpret the rules in the light of our current context as people of faith have always done, that’s part of the point. Because our current context is one of deep ecological crisis. So much of the ancient religious rites were concerned with reciprocity in human and natural relationships. When we lose the sense of reciprocity, we also lose the balance. Things tip. We deforest. We overfish. We take without returning. We become estranged. This is the sin meant by the psalmist. The sin of placing ourselves at the center, which Buddhists would call delusion. But the delusion isn’t true. And it isn’t even beautiful. The truth is that there is no center at which to place ourselves. Everything is connected, related, interdependent. And in healthy ecosystems everything is mutually enhancing and sustaining in ways that are about the whole and not just a single part. As process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead envisioned it, everything is perishing, but nothing is lost. Life carries on in novel ways, emerging, evolving, and expressing itself. If we will leave it the resources to do so.

When the psalmist encouraged us to follow the Lord’s precepts, it was an encouragement to act ethically. The ethic was grounded in wonder, but it was bound by this concept of reciprocity.

When we bought our house I remember thinking of it. How would we live lightly on this land and with other creatures? We were tied to the system of automobiles and highways. Would we bicycle sometimes? Would we eat lower on the food chain? Would we make the house more energy efficient? Would we speak at the city council meetings and work for protection and preservation? Would this be our spiritual practice? We knew our answers to the questions, but the answers seemed to matter more than ever. We were under no illusions that our house was permanent or protected from the wind and waves of the sea’s steady rise. Yet it was still a conversation stopper.

When we have asked in churches, in schools, in the park and other places, many have continued to say, What do you mean? And our only response—the only response for all of us—is to sing the wonder of the psalmist. Can you see this place? Can you hear this place? And then to ask each other for an ethic of reciprocity. Can you love this place?

I still go out early every morning to pick up the paper from the lawn. I am always interested in what Bo Petersen will have to say. Or the osprey. Sometimes I stand there for a moment. I smell the water. I feel it moving around me. And I wonder what it will be like seven generations from now.

“May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable,” said the psalmist. And may my actions honor the earth, say we all.

Amen.

 

[1] Bo Petersen, “Southeast Coast Threatened ‘Hot Spot’ for Vital Habitat,” Post and Courier, February 29, 2016, accessed online at http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20160229/PC16/160229457/southeast-coast-threatened-x2018-hot-spot-x2019-for-vital-habitat

 

[2] Psalm 19.1-3, TANAKH translation.

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Lay Your Easter Lilies Down (Luke 24.1-12)
Jeremy Rutledge, Mt. Zion AME and Circular Congregational Churches

March 27, 2016

Eight days ago we met Congressman John Lewis. He had come to Charleston as part of a bi-partisan delegation from Washington. A group of Senators and Representatives were making a pilgrimage through South Carolina that included stops in Columbia, Orangeburg, and Charleston. Charleston was the culmination of the journey, and lawmakers stopped here to listen to the survivors and family members from Mother Emanuel AME Church and others from the Charleston community. They had come to hear the story of forgiveness, a story for which Charleston has now become known. And they heard the story in the words of survivors and family members from Mother Emanuel.

It was in this context that we met Congressman Lewis. One of the forums was held in our church, and so it was an honor to welcome him. Many of you know John Lewis, often referred to as the conscience of the Congress. As a young man and organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped lead the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He was badly beaten on that bridge and left for dead. But he survived somehow and carried on, walking with Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel and thousands of others whose names we do not know. Ordinary men and women who held hands and linked arms and walked the bridge together. So it was a rare privilege to shake the hand of John Lewis and welcome him to Charleston. He took a seat in the front pew and waited for the program to begin.

The program was not billed as an Easter program. It was an afternoon to hear what had happened in Charleston and to reflect on the story of forgiveness. But as I joined the Congressman and others to listen, all I could hear was an Easter story. Because person after person told a story of how life persisted in the face of death and despair. Person after person spoke of how love was stronger than hate and would last longer and carry us through. Person after person spoke of a kind of faith that gave them strength, even though we were not there yet, even though we were still standing by the tomb wondering what had happened. Ms. Felicia Sanders spoke first.

Ms. Sanders survived that night last June, but her son Tywanza did not. Together they had been left for dead, like John Lewis, but while Ms. Sanders stayed quiet, her son stood to face his attacker. Tywanza was the one who looked him in the eye and said, “You don’t have to do this. We mean you no harm.” Ms. Sanders told the story so powerfully that you could have heard a pin drop or a pew creak. “We mean you no harm,” she spoke, and the words echoed off the walls. But then she moved into her own story, telling about her understanding nine months after that night. “I tried to run from this platform,” she said. “I didn’t want it.” And as we listened it was clear. Here was a woman who had just gone to Bible study and been thrust somehow into a nightmare of grief coupled with a national spotlight. Who would want that? And how would a person handle that? Ms. Sanders handled it in the way of her faith. “I realized,” she said, “that Jesus took ordinary people and did extraordinary things with them. . .[so] I’ll take the platform.” She spoke of it a little more, highlighting that Jesus was just an ordinary person, a carpenter. Denmark Vesey was a carpenter, too, she said. She wasn’t a carpenter, she explained, but she was a carpenter’s daughter, which was close enough. And so she was doing what needed to be done, just another ordinary person bearing witness to the power of love that was greater than hate.

Listening to Ms. Sanders would have been enough, but she was followed by Ms. Nadine Collier. Ms. Collier stood and spoke of the forgiveness she had offered at the hearing, the words she had said that had gone out around the world. “You took something very precious from me,” she said, “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”[1] Those words and the forgiving words of other survivors and family members startled people. How could people look into the face of hatred and offer love? How could they stand raw and grieving and speak words of forgiveness? How could they maintain such strength, dignity, and grace in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of such an enemy? But their words were the beginning of a conversation, not the end. And they gave us questions with which to struggle, questions that we need to ask ourselves if we are to get to the life that Easter promises, the life that we have come to mark and celebrate this day.

Theologian James Cone wrote that what many did not understand was that the forgiveness being spoken of in Charleston was not an easy forgiveness. It was not forgiveness as absolution. It was not forgiveness as forgetting. And it was not forgiveness as a salve or a way of covering over our deep grief. Rather, in Professor Cone’s words, “It [was] victory out of defeat. It [was] the weak overcoming the strong. It [was] ‘You can’t destroy my spirit. I have a forgiving spirit. . .You are not going to destroy that.’ When [the families] forgave, it [was] a form of resistance, a kind of resilience.”[2] Ms. Collier herself made it even clearer. “Forgiveness is power,” she said. And she went on to say that no one could have power over her. Not over her heart, not over her spirit, not over her life. In forgiving she was refusing to let anyone else have power over her. In forgiving she was refusing to hate in the way that she had been hated. She was choosing the way of love instead. And it was an Easter choice. It was the choice of a woman still standing near the tomb but unwilling to be defined by it.

We heard from others, friends and family members who spoke powerfully. Ms. Alana Simmons, who had started the Hate Won’t Win campaign. Mr. Melvin Graham who said that forgiveness was a journey he and his family were on, but they weren’t there yet. And then Congressman Lewis himself, who stood and addressed the families briefly. “You are so right,” he said to them, “it is better to love. The way of peace is a better way.” He said it as someone who knew. But he said it to others who knew. And he thanked our sisters and brothers from Mother Emanuel for their witness for peace. He thanked them for opening all our hearts to the questions of how to choose the way of peace, how to walk the path of forgiveness. None of us were there yet, he said. But we were all walking together. And today we walk on Easter.

According to the Gospel of Luke, we are not the first ones to gather in grief. And we are not the first to be surprisingly transformed. As Luke tells it, on the first day of the week after Jesus had been crucified, a number of women came to his tomb at dawn. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several others. They had come bringing spices they had prepared for the tomb, but when they arrived the stone was rolled away. The women went inside, but the body of Jesus was gone and they could not find it anywhere. They were puzzled by this, the text tells us, when suddenly two figures, heavenly emissaries in dazzling clothes appeared to give them some news. The women were frightened, but the emissaries spoke to them in a question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And this was the way the Easter message was first shared. With a question. Why are you looking in this place? Why have you come to this tomb? Why are you so frightened and confused? The one you are looking for is again among the living. The verses that follow explain how it was foretold that Jesus would rise, how the women then told his friends and disciples, and how the men did not believe them but considered it an idle tale. All of them except Peter.

Peter ran to the tomb, we are told, and stooped to look inside. He did not find Jesus either, but instead he saw the linens in which he had been wrapped. They were lying there. And it’s interesting how the physical elements in the story hint at a kind of existential freedom. A stone that had been rolled away. Bindings that had been undone and laid down. An indication somehow that even death’s grip had been loosened. Not as strong as love, though none of the women or men in the story were able to understand what that meant. They were amazed and perplexed. But they weren’t clear. It was the beginning of a conversation, not the end. It was a conversation we’re still having today. If the life that Jesus taught us was stronger than death, if the love that he embodied was stronger than hate, and if the faith that he possessed was stronger than fear, then how do we attain those things, how do we carry them forward in a world where death and hate and fear are all around?

Part of it, I think, is by telling the stories over and over again. The stories of how Jesus’ first followers understood that his life and spirit could not be extinguished. And the stories of how the families in Charleston understood forgiveness and faith as forms of resistance, as kinds of resilience. In telling the stories we remind ourselves of who they were, but also of who we are and what our work is to do. As Professor Eddie Glaude writes, “How we collectively remember is bound up with questions of justice. Or, to put the point differently, what we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations.”[3] Professor Glaude reminds us that the way we remember, the way we tell stories affects how we see ourselves in the world and whether we are empowered to work for a better world, a different world than the one we’ve got. Which is exactly what our sisters and brothers from Mother Emanuel are helping us to do. They are helping us to ask how we remember. And they are inviting us to join them on a journey toward forgiveness, a journey that we are trying to make, though it will really take all of us to get there.

So Jesus’ friends and students went out, we are told, amazed, perplexed, and a little confused. But somehow clear on what his charge had been to them. To be people of peace. To be people of reconciliation. To be people of inclusion. By laying down their swords. By forgiving each other seventy times seven. By welcoming all to a common table and sharing what they had. And here is where Luke’s story of the resurrection becomes more mystical. For the Gospel of Luke is historically connected to the subsequent Book of Acts. They were originally one book, one story, and many scholars simply refer to them as Luke-Acts. There is no separation between the story of Jesus’ life and its continuance through the lives of his followers, who bore out his teachings in the world and carried on the movement in his name. So the resurrection became greater than simply what happened to the person of Jesus, it became what happened to an entire community. When they put the teachings into practice, they understood that Jesus still lived in and through them. His spirit was not gone from the world, never would be, not as long as his teachings were breathed to life by women and men and children who were not afraid. “Ordinary people,” as Ms. Sanders would say, “doing extraordinary things.” Which brings us back to Easter in Charleston.

We gather this morning as a people still standing by the tomb. In the past year, we have laid flowers on the sidewalk at Calhoun Street for our sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel. We have laid flowers in a field off Remount Road for our brother Walter Scott. We have laid flowers for many others we love and remember. And no one needs to tell us in Charleston how the women and the disciples once felt. We have gathered over and over again with tears on our faces to pray and to sing and to take care of each other, and we will do so again as the anniversaries approach. But we also gather as a people who know something about resurrection. We have been amazed and perplexed by the life that has come to us even in the face of death. We have been startled by words of forgiveness in the face of unspeakable suffering. We have been transformed by the truth that love is stronger than hate and that hate will not win. We have seen it with our own eyes. And we stand like the women, we stand like Peter, not entirely sure how it has happened. Only sure that we want to join in. Join in to this life. Join in to this love. Join in to this Easter story born among us here and now.

So we lay our Easter lilies down to remember our dear ones. We lay our Easter lilies down to honor the survivors and family who have become our teachers. We lay our Easter lilies down to bear witness to the forgiveness we have seen, the acts of resisting hate and choosing the way of love instead. And we lay our Easter lilies down so that we can take the hand of our neighbor. For the new life that comes comes to the entire community. Black and white. Women and men. Old and young. Gay and straight. All of us together holding hands, linking arms, moving past what has divided us and marching forward together.

“The way of peace is a better way,” said Congressman Lewis. Friends, this Easter let us remember that the way of peace is Jesus’ way. When we put it into practice, he is newly alive and so are we.

Amen.

 

[1] Nikita Stewart and Richard Pérez-Peña, “In Charleston, Raw Emotion at Hearing for Suspect in Church Shooting,” The New York Times, June 19, 2015.

[2] David Remnick, “Blood at the Root,” The New Yorker, September 28, 2015, 30.

[3] Eddie Glaude, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York, Crown Publishers, 2016), 46.