Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why Do We Think We Were Wrong?

In working on my sermon for tomorrow morning (yes, it's 9:30 on Saturday night and I'm still working on my sermon for 9:15 tomorrow morning!) I came across this sermon I wrote back in 2000.  I have to say that I rather liked it and, so, here it is:

This morning I would like to tell you four stories.
The first happened this summer.  I went into my office one morning and found a note on my desk.  It had been left there by a young man who is tangentially related to our congregation, someone with whom I've talked several times and who was home on vacation after his first year of college.  A few months earlier, in a casual conversation, it had come up that he hadn't yet read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  I strongly encouraged him to do so.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the book it tells the story of a man who answers an ad in the Personals section of the paper which simply said:
"TEACHER seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person."
What follows is a very intriguing, profound, and inspiring account of the lessons this pupil learns at the feet of this teacher (who turns out to be a talking gorilla named Ishmael).  If you haven't read the book yet, you really ought to; it's well worth it.
Anyway, this young man took my advice, which should have told me right off the bat that he was a very special person.  He read the book, and then he slipped into my office one afternoon and left the note that I found that morning.  All it said was:
Rev. Wikstrom --
I read Ishmael. 
I have an earnest desire to save the world. 
Let's talk.
My first reaction, I have to confess, was a bemused and somewhat patronizing chuckle.  "Ah, the naive optimism of youth," I thought to myself.  "Someday he'll learn that it's not that easy."  But even before I could think that whole thought through I stopped short and wondered, "but what if he's the one who can do it, and I miss out on the opportunity to be part of it?"  I called him right away and set up a meeting for later in the week.
The second story happened a couple of months ago when Mary and I went to see the movie Pay It Forward.  That's the one with Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, and the incredible Kevin Spacey.  In it Spacey plays a teacher who gives his students a very open ended assignment:  come up with an idea that will change the world.  And as you've no doubt heard by now, Osment's character comes up with the idea of doing a favor for three people -- something big, something they couldn't do for themselves -- and then asking them, instead of paying it back, to pay it forward by doing favors for three other people.  Those nine people are each then asked to pay their favors forward to three more people, and on it goes from there.  If everyone does their favors the day after the favor was done for them, by the end of two weeks 4, 782, 969 people would have had something good done for them and, of course, each of them would the next day do a big favor for three more people.
I know that some people really loved this movie -- saw it over and over again -- and some people thought it was really schmaltzy and saccharine.  But the point of my story is that walking out of the theatre I again found myself feeling caught between an immediate response of thinking that things don't work like that in the "real world" and really wanting to believe that it was possible.
The third story.  A story of hope.  It comes from the magicians Penn and Teller and, so, I can't tell you whether it's true or not.  I'd like it to be.  They tell of a time when they wanted to try and do something nice for people, along the lines of paying the toll for the car behind you, but wanted it to have an odd, Penn and Teller twist.  One day, while they were eating in a truck stop, they had their idea.  They called their waitress over and, with a theatrical flourish, ordered "A round of jello for the house!" Each and every person in the place was to get one of those little bowls of jello.  After a while a trucker -- a big, beefy, somewhat scary looking guy -- came over to their table carrying one of those little bowls.  "Did you send this over?" he growled at them.  They confess that they had.  "Why?" he wanted to know.  More than a little frightened now, they admitted that there'd been no good reason.  All of a sudden this guy's face softened and he said, "thanks guys.  My mom used to make me jello."  And then he told them that every so often he was going to buy "a round of jello for the house" just to keep this thing alive.  Maybe he still is.
My fourth, and last, story takes place during the height of Apartheid in South Africa.  Nelson Mandella is still in prison, and it seems as though things will never change.  A scheduled political rally is canceled by the security police, and Archbishop Desmund Tutu decides that, if they can't hold their rally, this would be the perfect time to hold a church service.  So he invites everyone who had come for the rally back to his church.  Of course, the security police come to.  They stand in waves outside the church, and they stand, armed, all around the inside of the sanctuary.
That day, in the face of all the evidence of how bad things can be, Archbishop Tutu declares that Apartheid can not last because it is evil.  He looks at those armed guards, he points his finger right at them and says, "You are very powerful, but you have already lost.  Today I invite you to come and join the winning side."  The congregation starts dancing in the aisles. 
Several years later a man who'd been in the church that day is on the dais next to Tutu for the swearing in of Nelson Mandella as President of South Africa.  The man asks the Archbishop if he remembers that day, and Tutu smiles.  "Oh yes," he says.  "And you see?  Today everyone has joined the winning side."
When I was younger, the age of the children who were just up here on the steps, the age of Haley Joel Osment's character in Pay It Forward, or even back when I was in college, I believed that there was a lot wrong with this world but that we really could change things.  So did most of you.  We'd have agreed with Margaret Meade who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has."  We believed that there were a great many people who had "an earnest desire to save the world," and that if we could only begin to work together to act on that desire the world would be saved in no time flat.  As God tells Neal Donald Walsh in Conversations with God, we have at our disposal right now everything we need to end hunger and poverty and oppression all over the planet if only we had the will to do it.  When I was younger I believed that there was a lot wrong with this world but that we really could change things.  Movies like Pay It Forward and books like Ishmael seemed to me to be blueprints for how to do it.  It all seemed so easy.
As I got older I got more cynical.  I know that to many of you I still seem young, but in my lifetime I've already seen far too many examples of "man's inhumanity to man. " (A sexist phrase, to be sure, but one which loses something in translation.)  Over and over again I've seen that we human beings are capable of really terrible behavior toward one another; that everyone does not have everyone else's best interest at heart; that good hearted, trusting people who think the best of everyone often get taken advantage of and hurt.  This world can be a very discouraging place to live.  I've seen on your faces and heard in your voices that you get discouraged too.  And it's not even as simple as thinking that people do bad things because they don't know any better; some people know better and do bad things anyway. 
All of this is true.  It is the way life is.  But what leads us to think that we were wrong when we believed that it can be different than it is?  As a kid I knew that there was a lot wrong with the world -- that wasn't the issue, I wasn't blind to that reality -- I just thought that good hearted, well meaning people could change things.  So why do I now think I was wrong?
Desmund Tutu certainly knew how bad the world can be, but he never stopped believing in how good it can be, either.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Mohandas Gandhi looked out at the same world we do -- an even more discouraging world than many of us will ever see -- yet they never stopped seeing its possibilities.  And maybe that's the key -- recognizing that this life is a paradox and refusing to let either side blind us to the truth of its opposite.  Perhaps the key is to be found in the saying at the top of your Order of Service:  "You see things; and you say, 'Why?'  But I dream of things that never were and I say, 'Why not?'"
Last summer a young man told me that he had an earnest desire to save the world, and I decided to believe him.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I decided to believe in him, and in so doing to believe in myself.  I made a decision to believe in the human capacity to turn random acts of violence and senseless brutality into random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.  I decided to believe that something as simple as doing a good deed for someone else could grow into a movement which could sweep the world.  Maybe something as simple as a "round of jello for the house" would be a good place to start.
This is the season of miracles.  We all believed in them once.  We can decide to believe in them again.  For I do believe it is a choice: a choice to remain open to the possibilities rather than close down in self-protection; a choice to keep our eyes peeled for reminders that the best is true even in the face of evidence that the worst is true as well; it is a choice between listening to voices like the ones we heard here on these steps a moment ago telling us that the best is yet to come, or listening to the voices of the fearmongers who tell us that the end is near.  Put that way, the choice seems easy to me; I know who I'd rather be listening to.
The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, certainly no stranger to humanity's capacity for cruelty, has written words which seem to sum up all I've been trying to say:  "Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. . . .  It would be a pity if we are only aware of the suffering."   It would be a pity.  Let's not make that mistake.

In Gassho,

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Labels . . .

I'm having an on-going revelation . . . experiencing an extended epiphany.

This isn't really anything new, of course, and the specifics of this situation aren't really important, but for what it's worth I offer this story.

I was in the check-out line at Whole Foods yesterday afternoon, and as my eyes wandered while the cashier did her thing I noticed a CD for sale in the "impulse buying" rack.  It was a re-issue of five classic Ray Charles recordings from Atlantic Records.

I've always considered myself something of a Ray fan, and I'd say, too, that I generally just think of him as an incredible musician.  A master.  But if I had to put a label on him I guess I'd have said that he was a popular R & B guy.  Something of a cross-over artist between the popular music of his day and hardcore rhythm and blues.

So I picked up this collection and so far I've listened to two of the albums.  And the first one blew my mind -- all instrumental, all jazz.

Like I said, nothing really new here.  It's not new to say that jazz has its roots in the same blues/gospel loam that gave rise to R & B.  But I've apparently never put "Ray Charles" into the "jazz musician" category in my brain.  But hearing him in this (for me) new context makes perfect sense.

And so I find that all of the file drawers in my mind are being reorganized.  The file drawers for "R & B," "Jazz," "Ray Charles," and "What I Thought I Knew" are all getting cleaned out, reconfigured.

And that's probably a good thing for me to do with all of the files, from time to time.

Maybe you too.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

It'll Take Some Time . . .

When I was in my mid-twenties I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a few months in Japan.  A friend from college, a mime, was putting on a big show in a Tokyo theater and invited me to come work with his troupe.  (He said he needed my "American sense of humor!")  Shut up!  Pantomime didn't revolutionize the theatrical world as we knew it, but it provided a solid foundation for the success my friend Takeo has come to know and it pointed me into the ministry and out of the theatre.

But that's not what I want to write about.  This is actually a political post, as the image on the right no doubt has already made clear.  So why bring up the Japan thing?

Because while I was there I was able to experience a real shiatsu massage.  Takeo's partner, Yoshiko, was a shiatsu practitioner and one day she took on my already achy and creaky body.  When the session was over I asked her how long it would take for shiatsu to return my body to its intended level of health and vitality.  "Thirty or forty years!" was her response.  I was shocked.  She explained,

You're about twenty-five now, so it's taken you twenty-five years to get into this shape.  If you were to make a change today, to start doing all of the right things that you need to do and stop doing all of the bad things you've been doing, it'd take about the same amount of time to get you out of the shape you've gotten yourself into.  But you won't.  You won't make those changes right away or all at once.  And, so, for the first few years of the treatments you'll actually be continuing to make things worse.  So I think it'll take you thirty or forty years to completely reverse all of this.
Those aren't her exact words and, to be honest, all I can claim is that this is how I remember the conversation to have gone.  But regardless of the veracity of this account, the point of the story seems an important one -- when it's taken you a while to get into trouble, it's probably going to take you a while to get out of it.

As I remember the 2008 Presidential campaign, lots of people put all sorts of expectations on candidate Obama.  There were folks who seemed close to deifying him; certainly he was held up by some as some kind of savior.  Yet he, himself, kept saying that things were pretty tough economically and that no one should expect quick fixes.

And while there are those who keep maintaining (falsely) that President Obama enjoyed full control of both houses of Congress at first, the truth is that his policies were fought every step of the way.  He asked for collaboration and received (largely) confrontation.  Who can forget the comment made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while peaking with National Journal magazine about Republican Party priorities for the 2008-2010 Congress, that "the single most important thing we
want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." 

So President Obama inherited a very hurt and aching "body politic."  It had taken at least eight years -- but more, really -- to get into this shape.  If everything were focused on becoming more healthful one could expect, then, that it'd take at least eight year -- and possibly more -- for it to turn around.  Yet it should be clear that during these first three-and-a-half years there has been a willful intention to continue on with unhealthy behaviors, a strident effort to avoid making necessary changes.  How much longer, then, would a full recovery be expected to take.

I believe -- indeed, I find that I have to believe -- that neither the Right nor the Left are "evil."  When I hear, as I do, both sides using virtually the same words and images to demonize the other, and attributing to one another almost exactly the same vices, I tend to disbelieve both.  While, certainly, there are individuals involved in politics today whom I would look at with grave suspicion, on the whole I believe that both major parties (and even their more fringy off-shoots) really do have the best interest of the country at heart.  They just fundamentally differ on how they see the world and, therefore, on what they feel needs to be done.

Yet no one should argue that President Obama has "failed" during his Presidency.  He promised us that things would be hard and that it would take time to make things right again.  He has kept that promise.  And even with the difficulty of the challenge, and the vehemence of the opposition, things have been, and continue to be, improving.  Not quickly.  Not as fast as we would like.  But perhaps as fast as they possibly can.  Surprisingly fast, actually, if you think about it from the point of view of my shiatsu story.

So . . . for this reason -- among many, many others -- I, too, want to give President Obama another term  to try to complete the work he has begun.  And I'd love to see a Congress that will actually work with him for the good of us all.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

If You're Lucky, You'll Read This Book!

James Ishmael Ford has just published a new book:  If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break:  Field Notes from a Zen Life(Wisdom Publications, 2012.)   It follows on the heels of the anthology he co-edited, The Book of Mu:  essential writings on zen's most important koan (Wisdom Publications, 2011), and sits on my shelf right next to his earlier Zen Master Who?  A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen (Wisdom Publications, 2006) and his essential in this very moment:  a simple guide to Zen Buddhism (Skinner House, 2002, 1996).  James is a prolific writer.  (Check out his blog Monkey Mind!)

He's also a unique figure in the sphere of liberal religion.  A Soto Zen Priest, he is also a Unitarian Universalist minister.  If anyone can be said to be involved in the evolution of Buddhism as it encounters the 21st century West, James is the guy.  And in his new book he offers notes on his forty years of being in the middle of it.

And by "it" I mean both Western, or as James calls it, Liberal Buddhism and also the Big IT -- Life.  As I noted in my review on Amazon, in If You're Lucky James manages to write an informative history of Buddhism, an analysis of modern Western Buddhism, and profound teachings on what I've always called The Big Questions.

There is so much in this little book.  I know that I'll be digesting what I've read for a good long while.  Already I can see some of my thinking shifting because of it.

Here's one example.  It's not exactly paradigmatic of the book as a whole, but it is a passage that hit me like a kick in the chest when I first read these three lines.  (But in a good way.)

"We are responsible in a way no other creature I'm aware of is.  We have eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and we have become as gods.  And that godlike quality is responsibility." (p.121)
That's it.  A mere 38 words, and my understanding of God, of myself, and of my place in the universe is forever changed.  It hit me like one of those optical illusions where you see one image if you focus on the foreground and something all together different if your focus is the background.  Usually at first I stare and stare and stare, able to only see one of the two images.  I am honestly unable to see anything but the thing I first see.  And then something shifts.  Or, maybe, everything shifts.  The second image comes into view and I can never not see it again.

That's how this passage affected me -- "that godlike quality is responsibility."  Somehow, out of all of the ways I've heard people describing that thing some call God, I don't think that the word "responsible" has ever been uttered.  And when I've heard people trying to make sense of the idea that "we are made in the image of God," I've heard a lot of talk about how we share the trait of Creativity, or Compassion, or even the Ability to Will, but I've never heard someone say that we're made in the image of God because we, also, are Responsible.

As I said, I need to digest this.  I need to sit with it for a while.  Maybe a long while.  But here are two things that I see right now:

First, it removes for me the capriciousness that is sometimes attributed to "God."  Sometimes it is unintentional and accidental, and sometimes it seems to verge on purposive, but the way people often talk about God implies that God can -- and does -- do anything he/she/it wants.  Because God is declared to be omnipotent -- all powerful, able to do anything -- God can act on God's own whims.  Of course, the whims of God are usually described as making up some kind of cosmic plan, yet so many different things are attributed to God's doing -- everything from hurricanes to Super Bowl victories -- that it certainly seems to me that God doesn't really have a plan after all or that, at least, it's a very unfocused one.

Yet if the quality that describes God best is "responsibility," then that changes everything.  It offers proof, if you will, that three quarters of the things attributed to God's will are not.  Because a truly responsible God would behave a lot differently than Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps would have us believe.  A truly responsible God might be worth . . . well . . . might be worth calling "God."

And if we are "made in God's image," and if our "eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" has, indeed, "made us as gods," and if what changed for us is that now we are responsible, than that makes "responsibility" part of my essential make up.  It makes "responsibility" part of the essence of my humanity.  And this, too, changes everything.  Because the word "responsible" implies, to me at least, a mutual relationship, a sense of equality.  I cannot be responsible to or with someone or something that I see myself as either "above" or "below."  Being responsible, it seems to me, recognizing my innate responsibility in life, is acknowledging that there's a claim on me.  It is a companion to freedom (and free will) and, in many ways, a corrective.

I like books that make me think.  I like books that encourage me to think in new ways.  I like If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break very, very much.  I hope you will read it to.

In Gassho,