Thursday, October 28, 2010

W-T-M-G-H ?

One of my favorite prayers, one I find myself coming back to again and again, was written by the Trappist monk, Father Thomas Merton.  It goes like this: 
My Lord God,  I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I even really know myself, and the fact that I think I am doing your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do that, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I appear to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone.  Amen.  (from Thoughts in Solitude)
I love this prayer for it's straightforward and unflinching acknowledgment of my frequent state of fundamental cluelessness.  And it offers a sense of assurance that that's alright, that it's okay not to know what I'm doing because, in the "grand scheme of things," the most important thing is the attitude with which I do them.  "It's the thought that counts," I suppose.

Yes, good intentions may pave the path to hell -- a thought attributed to people the likes of Samuel Johnson and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux -- yet they are, after all, realistically the only thing we've got.  We can't know the outcome of our acts, all the paths and permutations that any behaviors of ours will precipitate.  And we can't be entirely clear of our own motives because we are a tangled mess of free will, patterns, and programming.  So all we can do is the best we can do.  And then, seeing what resulted from that, correct our next action to aim for even better outcomes.

Merton offers one tool for discernment.  "I believe that the desire to please you [God] does, in fact, please you."  Note his humility here.  He doesn't say that he knows this to be so but that he believes it to be true.  He continues, "And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire."

This reminds me of a passage from that wonderful 17th century work, The Practice of the Presence of God in which Brother Lawrence declares that he has taught himself to so live his life for the pleasure of God that, "I would not take up a straw from the ground against [God's] order, or from any other motive but purely that of love to [God]."  In everything Brother Lawrence did, no matter how mundane, he asked himself, "Is this expressing my love of God?"

Which brings me to the acronym that titles this post.  A decade or so it was all the rage for some to wear bracelets bearing the letters W-W-J-D ?  What Would Jesus Do?  The idea was that this would encourage the wearers to pause, before acting, and ask themselves that question -- in this situation, what would Jesus do? 

Of course, for some people it's difficult to imagine what a first century itinerant Jewish preacher, teacher, and healer would do in the face of twenty-first century problems.  And some people found it hard to liken themselves to Jesus -- despite Paul's assertion that "Christ was like us in all things but sin," many people have what I call the Sunday School Cardboard Cutout image of Jesus in which he is some kind of cross between Superman and Obi-Wan Kenobe (without the violence).

Last night I had reason to pray Merton's prayer again and I found myself struck by that phrase -- "the desire to please you . . ."  For that to make sense, of course, you need to anthropomorphize the divine so that you have some kind of Sacred Someone/Something who can "be pleased" by the things we do.  But let's go with that.  There's a dimension of imagination and poetry in all of spirituality any way.

So what if the question we ask ourselves is not, "What Would Jesus Do?" but, rather, "Would This Make God Happy?"

The Great Soul Mohandas Gandhi said that he would ask himself what affect an action would have on the poorest person he could imagine before he would take it.  Perhaps he did this only before taking some big step -- initiating some new campaign, for instance -- or maybe he did it when deciding mundane things, too.  But can you imagine living your life with such a measure to apply to the choices that face you day in and day out?

Last night I found myself caught up with the idea of asking myself the question, "Would this make God happy?"  When I'm tempted to engage in some unhealthy behavior -- scarf down some fast food, for instance, instead of deal with some uncomfortable feelings:  would this make God happy?  When I'm on the verge of taking out my stress and anxiety on my spouse or my kids:  would this make God happy?  When I can feel that it's just laziness that's making me lean toward watching reality TV instead of engaging my regular prayer practice:  would this make God happy?

I don't know how well I'll be able to do this, but I take heart that Brother Lawrence entered the monastery when he was about 24 and he died at age 77 -- he had 53 years in which to practice his practice.  And he does say that it was as hard, at the beginning, for him to do it as it was, at the end, for him not to. 

That gives me hope.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Fall From Grace

Today I had the great joy of facilitating the weekly chapel for my colleagues on the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  I'd described the service like this:
This summer, Erik fell down his basement stairs and shattered his shoulder. Ever the preacher, he’s been dying to get into a pulpit and talk about it ever since. Come find out what the comminuted fracture of his proximal humerus, an ancient Semitic story, and that thing that sometimes gnaws at you in the middle of the night might all have in common, and what our Unitarian Universalist faith has to say about them.

I thought I'd share the homily I wrote (along with the opening and closing words).

In Gassho,


Fall From Grace
a service for the UUA Staff Chapel
October 26, 2010

Call to Worship: At times this is a meeting room, and the work of the Association is done here. At times it is a stop on a tour, and the history of who and where we’ve been is remembered. At this time – right at this very moment in time – there is the opportunity for it to be a sanctuary, a sacred place.

And we are a collection of clergy and laity, Administrative Assistants and Directors, important people and . . . other important people, but in this time and place – including this cyberspace – we have the opportunity to be a congregation.

May we bring all that we are, to all that is here, and create all that can be.

Blessed be, and amen.

Reading: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

(The Christian Scriptures, the Gospel of Luke 10:25-37)

* * *
My formal religious education was begun by the good people at the First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin, NY. (They must have done something right there, because First Presby is, I believe, the only Presbyterian Church to have the distinction of producing not just one, but two Unitarian Universalist ministers.) I graduated to the Presbyterian’s summer camp programs, and my advanced training, if you will, took place over at the camping programs of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. In other words, you could say that I had a fairly mainstream Christian upbringing.

And so I learned the story we just heard, the story of The Good Samaritan, and knew that it’s moral, it’s point, was that we—that I—should strive to be like the Samaritan and do good things for people who were in tough situations, the less fortunate than me. It was all right there in Jesus’ last words, “Go and do likewise.”

It would be a number of years before I learned that most scholars believe that those last words, that whole setting of the story in fact, is a later addition, written so as to try to clarify this otherwise fairly confusing story. It’d be some time before I learned that it is the fact that that neat and tidy moral is, indeed, not the moral of the story which makes scholars believe that this parable may well originate with the rabbi Yeshua himself. And it’ll be some time before I come back to all of this this morning.

First I want to tell you about falling down the stairs.

I work at home three days a week, and I was walking downstairs to my home office when my sneaker caught on a step – you know how your sneaker sometimes has a little too much traction and catches on the floor and you swing your other foot up quickly to regain your footing? Well, I did that, but because I was on a staircase, so there was no floor to regain my footing on. I did a forward roll down the stairs. I bounced off the bottom two steps on my head and then came to a crashing stop on my shoulder.

My wife, who was home at the time, came running down stairs, surveyed the situation, and ran to get an ice pack and call 911. I have to tell you – the pain was pretty intense. I couldn’t move. I felt like my shoulder was dislocated or something. It was really scary. So Mary came back with the ice pack and put it right on my forehead. You see, she could see that I had a lump the size of a baseball and shaped like a horn sticking out of my head. But I could feel the pain in my arm, so I moved the ice to my shoulder. She moved it back to my head. I moved it back to my shoulder. Luckily the ambulance arrived pretty quickly and took me to the hospital.

It’s too late to make a long story short, but it turns out that I shattered the bone in my arm up near the shoulder – the proximal humerus – and broke it into several pieces – a comminuted fracture. A couple of months for the bone to heal. “Long” and “painful” physical therapy to follow on that. And, as you might have guessed, I’m right handed.

When I got out of the hospital the pain was still pretty intense, and the bone itself – although now screwed together with titanium screws – still had to heal, so I was given some pretty powerful pain medication and told to stay in bed. My sister-in-law Judith, my oldest brother’s wife, flew up from North Carolina to spend a week with us, because this week was also the last week of the kids’ summer vacation – during which they didn’t have any camp (they’re six and nine) – and my wife’s first week of nursing school.

Yeah. Take all that in. I broke my shoulder the week that my kids had no summer camp and my wife was starting school. So the worst part of all of this was not the pain. And it wasn’t the weird drug buzz. It was the feeling of letting everyone down. I was supposed to have been picking up the slack. I was supposed to have been supporting my wife as she started this new adventure, reducing the stress in our household, and thanks to this damn fall I was now adding to it.

Ever feel like that?

Ever feel the fear that no matter what you do you can’t do what you most need to do?

Ever feel like a failure? Like you’re not good enough? Or smart enough? Or capable enough? Or strong enough? Or calm enough? Or wise enough? Or sensitive enough? Or perceptive enough? Or savvy enough? Or financially secure enough? Or emotional secure enough? Or just plain enough enough?

Ever feel like that?

I’m guessing you have. I’m guessing you have and that sometimes it keeps you up at night. Or maybe for you it doesn’t hit you at night but comes on you when you’re driving home from work. Or jogging in the morning. The “I’m not enoughs.” But you know them, don’t you? You know them. And at some time they’ve knocked you to the ground, haven’t they? Knocked you flat on your . . . back, haven’t they?

I once had the opportunity to listen to a wonderful Catholic Priest who said that the one of the greatest mistakes the Christian church had made was to forget that Jesus was not a theologian, but a storyteller, and so the parables need to be read from a storyteller’s perspective. And from that perspective, he said, it is impossible for the story we heard earlier to be the story of The Good Samaritan.

For one reason, at the time Jesus would have told it, the Samaritans were a really outside, outcast group, reviled and rejected. Despised. It would have been an incredibly rare Jew who would have been able to put herself or himself into the place of a Samaritan character, yet that’s what you’d have to do if the moral of the story is, “be like the Samaritan.” It’d be like saying, “and after a while, a Tea Bagger came by and tended to his wounds,” or “and after a while, Glenn Beck came by . . .,” or, “after a while Fred Phelps came by . . .” “Go and do likewise.”

Also, oral storytellers usually begin by introducing us to their main character, so that we know instantly who we’re supposed to identify with and who we should focus our attention on. And this story doesn’t start off, “There once was a good Samaritan.” It begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers.”

The character we are to identify with is the person who fell prey to the robbers and, so, the moral of the story is not, “be like the Samaritan.” It’s: you are in a heap of trouble. You’re lying, beaten and bloody, on the side of the road. You’re batter and bruised. And it hurts. Life hurts.

But there is another part to the message, too: Help is on the way. Help is coming, but you’ll need to keep your eyes open and your heart open and keep yourself receptive because it might be coming from a direction you’d never expect. But rest assured, help is coming.

Now our Unitarian Universalist faith has not always been so good at dealing with the first part of this teaching. Oh, we’re pretty good at dealing with the world’s brokenness, the world’s wounds, the systemic problems, but our own? Not always so much. But we’re getting better at it. We’re getting better at finding the ways – the words and the wordless ways – of naming and knowing the pains and the fears and the brokenness we all share because we are, after all, only human.

But we have been good – very good – at sharing the good news that we are not alone and that help is on its way. To our core we believe that and have since the time of our forebears. As I like to put it, “We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in our miraculous universe, bound by love” – that is our message. Love, embodied in this human community, is a force to be reckoned with. It can heal any wound, fix any brokenness, comfort any fear, make anything whole . . . and, therefore, holy.

That love, known in so many ways and by so many names, is the heartbeat of our faith. And when we fall – when I fall . . . when you fall – we can count on it to pick us up, and care for our woundedness, and do what it takes to get us back on our feet again.

I’d like to invite us, now, to sing one of our movement’s favorite songs about this love. We’ll sing it through three times. You don’t need your hymnals – you either know it or you will. I’ll call out the words, and if you really don’t know them be sure to mumble or hum along with feeling. [We then sang Carolyn McDade's "Spirit of Life"]

Closing Words: The Buddha tells us that “life is suffering,” and Christian scriptures tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short,” and if we don’t know this then we at least suspect that it might be true. We’ve all known times when we could believe it. Yet they tell another truth as well – “everything is perfect, just as it is,” and “you are loved beyond your comprehension.” Perhaps they might just be right about this, too. As Sister Julian was taught, “All will be well; all will be well; and all manner of things will be well.”

Blessed me.  Namaste.  Assalamu Alaikum.  Ashe.  Shalom.  Amen.