Pentecost For All

Standard

Louis Armstrong’s iconic song, “Wonderful World,” is the default ringtone on my cell phone.

When it rings in public and others hear the song, all of our faces light up. Everyone loves that song. For a moment, strangers and I hear the same thing and are brought together in beautiful communion. What can be better?

Aside from the deep theological meaning of Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit bursting with wind and fire on the Apostles, Pentecost is a vision of the Kingdom and of what it would be like if the Kingdom did come on earth as it is in Heaven.

One doesn’t have to have religion to have a vision of “a commonwealth of peace and freedom”* and to yearn for it and work for it here on earth.

It starts with listening, deep listening, not only to other people, but to creation. To the wind in the trees, to the trees themselves, to the “ancient songs” of the birds, to the stars and the moon, to worms turning the earth, to bees garnering nectar in flowers, the waves on the beach.

All of it, ALL of it, humankind and everything above and below and in the earth, has a tale to tell if only we would listen and hear. Once hearing, we cannot go back to ignoring. We cannot go back to thinking we are better than anyone or anything else. We are all connected.

On Sunday I leave for Washington, DC, for the Poor People’s Congress, the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s continuation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign that was cut short by his murder.

People from at least 40 states will gather to learn and to listen. We will address issues of poverty and all the “isms” that intersect with it with Presidential candidates. Special delegates will testify before Congress. Workshops will teach us how to be better advocates.

I personally know I will need to work extra hard at listening. As the AA slogan goes, I’ll need to “take the cotton out of my ears and stuff it in my mouth.” I’m 66. There’s a whole new vocabulary out there and I have no doubt that I’ll be hearing a lot of it. My “old fartism” could easily be aroused and get frustrated.

But this conference is not only about now, but about the future. The near future is in the hands of people younger than I am.

So I will listen deeply and hope to celebrate Pentecost again.

 

*from The Lord’s Prayer according to the New Zealand Prayer Book

Advertisements

The Interior Journey as Resistance

Standard

In his heartbreaking remarks at a press conference the day after a domestic terrorist shot up his synagogue in Poway, CA, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein made one comment that I’ve been pondering since.

As a way of preventing such violence, he remarked that perhaps even a quiet time first thing in the morning in schools for children to reflect and meditate would be helpful.

While this does not need to be a religious matter, Rabbi Goldstein echoes great spiritual leaders such as the Rev. Thomas Merton and Rabindranath Tagore in his suggestion given in a moment of personal and communal grief. In all faiths and in humanist philosophy and other disciplines, interior reflection is considered a path to maturity and to peace.

I remember how gobsmacked I felt when I realized that one of Polonius’s (Hamlet) great lines is almost never quoted fully. Most people have heard “To thine own self be true.” They rarely absorb the rest of the quote, which is the most important part: “This above all: To thine own self be true and then it followest as the night to the day, that thou canst be false to no man.”

Shakespeare’s point was not just being true to oneself for one’s own sake, which might just be selfish; even criminals can be true to their own evil desires. But when one is true to oneself in order to reach some kind of enlightenment, it will naturally occur that one will be true to everyone else.

The interior journey is the best way of being true to oneself. You might also call it searching one’s soul or taking stock. How else to examine where one is in relation to where one wants to be?

How else to get down and dirty in looking at one’s own behavior and learning to be honest enough to admit when one has been wrong and then resolve to correct the behavior that has caused one to go astray?

It’s true that for many, this is a spiritual practice in attaining the closest possible relationship to the Divine. For all people it can be a way to ensure that one is not false to other people, which enhances a notion of being in community with other people rather than separate and exclusive. The fuller a feeling one has of being in community with all creation, the less one will want to do damage to that creation.

Some people suggest what is called a daily examen, in which one meditates on what one enjoyed most about the day and what one disliked most about the day. The answers can be clues to behavior that is good for one’s life (and others!) and behavior that is not. 

The interior journey is not always easy. Any member of a 12-Step group knows how difficult it is to complete the 4th step, an inventory of one’s behavior that may have been harmful to other people.

The interior journey can also be joyful, though, and energizing as one makes breakthroughs and has epiphanies about oneself and one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses.

It is too glaringly obvious that the violence and corruption in our country is caused by a wish to be set apart rather than brought together with one’s fellow human beings. I can’t even imagine the president or any other member of his cabinet being self-reflective and considering how his behavior affects others. Neither does it appear to me that white supremacists have ever searched their souls.

Nevertheless, the interior journey is one piece of a solution that could help restore morality to our country if only people are taught at a young enough age of its importance. So thank you, Rabbi Goldstein, for such generosity that, even in your grief, you offer us a way forward.

I Believe in a Wall

Standard

I thought that might catch your attention.

I don’t usually post blogs so close together, but my daily Lenten reading from Howard Thurman could have been written today and resonated with what I wrote earlier this week in “Grieving Violence Near and Far.”

“The final thing that my faith teaches me is that God is love. Not only that He is; that he is near; but that he is love. Fully do I realize how difficult this is. There is so much anguish in life, so much misery unmerited, so much pain, so much downright reflected hell everywhere that it sometimes seems to me that it is an illusion to say that God is love. When one comes into close grips with the perversity of personalities, with studied evil – it might be forgiven one who cried aloud to the Power over Life – human life is stain – blot it out! I know all that. I know that this world is messed up and confused. I know that much of society stretches out like a gaping sore that refuses to be healed. I know that life is often heartless, hard as pig iron. And yet, in the midst of all this I affirm my faith that God is love – whatever else He might be.”

Thurman knew all too well of what he wrote. Closely aligned with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and as an African-American who grew up in segregated Daytona, he knew about “unmerited misery,” about “downright reflected hell,” and about “perversity of personalities” personally. All of his books treat in one way or another in how the Divine can help people to overcome these situations. But I had not read a paragraph that was such a naked confession as the one above.

I read it this morning after a group meditation on the holiness of hospitality and “entertaining angels unaware.” Most Wednesday mornings, I am part of worldwide group of people who pray for the world over the telephone. We are led with a guided meditation and then 15 minutes of silence before we offer what the Divine Spirit has said to us during that time. It seemed particularly necessary to pray together today after the slaughter of Muslims in New Zealand.

So after that experience, and then immediately reading Thurman’s meditation, my first response was to think that the amount of hatred and violence in the world today makes it seem not only like an illusion, but almost a profanity to say that God is love.

My second response, however, was to see that love is the only cure for the hatred and violence.

I’m not talking about loving the people who perpetrate this hatred and violence. I’m talking about connecting with all the people who believe in the Divine unity of creation and all beings in it to come together to build a wall of love that will eventually make it impossible for hate to enter in.

That wall is invisible, and it is penetrable for all who see themselves as part of a great whole. This is not to say that there will not continue to be violence, but it will not fragment that wall of love.

May it be so.

Grieving Violence Near and Far

Standard

I sat in the traditional Congregational Church in my little New England town early Saturday evening with many others to grieve and ponder the series of tragedies that hit my town and the world last week.

I had come home from a refreshing vacation to learn, first, that one of those who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash was a local woman, Samya  Stomo, who worked for an organization called ThinkWell. She was young, vibrant, and dedicated to her job of bringing global health initiatives to the under-served. She had visited Africa before; this time she was on her way to Uganda.

sheffield_service_

The Rev. Erik Karas and the Rev. Jill Graham organized a prayer service where people could communally grieve the tragic deaths of members of the community and those who died in the mosque attacks in New Zealand.

The next morning, the town was again rocked by what is being called a murder-suicide. Five people died in their home, which was set on fire. It is not yet known whether the wife, a lawyer, and three young children were dead before the husband killed himself and set the fire.

On Friday we learned about the white terrorist attack on mosques in New Zealand that killed at least 50 people and injured many more.

It was not just a one-two punch, but a one-two-three punch because all of these tragedies could have been averted.

I don’t believe in coincidence. I had started listening to Richard Rohr’s new book, The Universal Christ, during my long drive to North Carolina and back. Aside from the Christian theology, Rohr’s book emphasizes a concept I have believed in as long as I have been able to believe in anything: that every person on earth is brother and sister to everyone else on earth. Genetics proves it as much as theology. I believe it in both senses, and Rohr, a Catholic priest, seems to as well. He speaks to everyone, people of any faith, people of no faith, WE ARE ALL ONE.

And he sees, as many others do, that not understanding this is key to the actions that terrorize our world. Racism, Islamophobia, domestic violence, corporate violence: These can all be traced to thinking that we are not part of a global community, not one with all of creation, not accountable to each other for decisions we make, for taking our own pain on the world, for thinking that our skin color makes us better than anyone else.

One only had to watch Kirstjen Nielsen, head of the Department of Homeland Security, being grilled by Democrats in Congress on the outrage going on at the border with Mexico. As congresspeople were almost in tears trying to get her to give a yes or no answer about the evil policies in which she is complicit, she stared at them as if she had no clue that the damage being done to  babies, children, and adults because of the color of their skin is damage being done to all of humanity. She gave no clue that she felt any responsibility to give a damn about these “others.”

Ultimately, she gave no clue of any self-knowledge that she has willingly put herself into an existential hell on earth as she has put these asylum-seekers into a physical hell on earth.

I cannot bear to think of anyone as irredeemable. But it is not my place now to worry about the fates of those who commit violence on others. My place now is to grieve for my brothers and sisters around the world (and just this morning we learned of those killed in the Netherlands) and hope to persuade people to think of themselves as my brothers and sisters too.

My Neighbor IS Myself

Standard

Mark 12:30-31 

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Over the course of my 66 years, I’ve heard people say that they can’t love anyone else because they don’t love themselves.

While I’ve no doubt that many of them had serious attachment disorders, I’m equally convinced that many people are using it as an excuse not to love, or even recognize, their neighbor.

I think there is a fundamental misinterpretation of what Jesus was saying.

I’m not claiming that Jesus told me directly, but I do believe that God is still speaking and that God speaks to me in many ways. Here is the way in which this commandment is revealed to me:

Love your neighbor because you and your neighbor ARE one. Do for your neighbor what you would do for yourself because you and your neighbor ARE one. Give to your neighbor what you would give to yourself because you and your neighbor ARE one.

I was pretty much born believing this. I don’t know where the belief originated in me, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe this, even through a lot of rocky years of having a very fraught relationship with God. Fundamentally, everyone on this Earth is my neighbor and part of me.

Would I make war on myself?

Would I refuse to feed myself?

Would I not avail myself of medical care?

Do I not try to live with dignity?

Do I not want to live out my spiritual beliefs without hindrance?

Do I not want to have a voice in my community?

If my answers are no, then how could I possibly think that other people deserve to be victims of war, of famine, of lack of medical care, of religious persecution, of silencing?

In agreement with John Donne that “no man is an island, entire of itself,” part of me is diminished every day when I learn of a new, horrific result of the polices that are governing this country and this world.

It is inconceivable to me that the director of Homeland Security can sit stony-faced before Congress and the world and blame parents for the death of their children while in Border Patrol custody.

It beggars belief that a person of wealth can shut down the government and put federal workers on furlough, meaning they will never be repaid for the time the government was shut down.

I can’t conceive of a mindset that allows millions of children to die with the gift of US weapons to a murderous regime.

I thought I had been suffering outrage the past two years; it is not outrage, though, it is grief, pure and simple. Grief that sometimes stuns me into a state of numbness. How do I help my neighbor and therefore help myself? At this time in my life, all I feel capable of is writing about it and speaking out about it, and showing kindness to the neighbors I see in person every day, whether I know them or not.

I’m not sure that is enough. God help us all.

Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

Standard

When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

Why I Love Howard Thurman

Standard

I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

julian

Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.