This is the text of the sermon I delivered at the congregation I serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, December 4, 2016. You can listen to it if you prefer.
When I was a kid, two of my favorite possessions were a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog and Baba Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now, admittedly a pretty trippy book that has been called a “countercultural bible,” and a “seminal” text for the 1970s hippie culture. And while it’s three-word title is now quite common parlance, at the time it was not. Apparently it was something that his guide, Bhagavan Das, said to Ram Dass during his journeys in India.
Be Here Now. Three simple words. A phrase so simple, and now so common, that we hardly think about it anymore. But I’m in the “think about it” business, so here we go. We’ll take them one at a time.
I. Be. What does it mean to be, to really and truly be? You’ve no doubt seen the bumper stickers – “we are human beings, not human doings.” Yet the dominant culture in our country puts such an emphasis on doing. After a generally superficial greeting of “how are you?”, one of the first questions we ask people we’re meeting for the first time is, “what do you do?” In this culture, most people tend to define themselves by what they do as opposed to what they … be.
Most spiritual traditions teach that we are far more than what we do, that what we do is, quite simply, just “what we do.” Who we are is something far more important and, perhaps, more ephemeral. I’d wager that most of us would have to dig deep to answer the question, “who are you?” without first going through a litany of what we do. This is one of the reasons that people often have something of an identity crisis when they’ve recently retired, or after their kids have just “left the nest” for one reason or another, or have just come through a divorce, or had a spouse die. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people who’ve come to me for counsel say, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” after one of these major life transitions.
So here’s a question: What is the core, the essence of who you are? Can you name it? Can you put it into words? Can you say what is ultimately, fundamentally, foundationally “you” even if all of the things you do were to pass away?
One aspect of being “a people of presence” is being a people who are so alive – so truly and deeply alive – that we can say who we are. Because knowing who you are – knowing who you are – makes it possible to be present in a real and powerful way. And some would say – I, at least, am saying – that the ongoing development and discovery of that answer is a primary purpose of the spiritual life. That’s why one of the principles we hold dear is, “encouragement to spiritual growth.” That is what we’re here for. Not just the popcorn and hummus during the Social Hour.
II. Be here. But just where is “here”? I had the privilege of spending some time in Japan, now many years ago, and I wanted to be able to get around on my own. So I asked my friend and host, Takeo Fujikura, how to say some basic phrases in Japanese. One that I thought might be important was, “Where am I?” (It might come in handy.) Takeo said that there’s really no way to ask that question in Japanese because the answer is self-evident – you are “here.” The question to ask, then, is “Where is here?” (To be honest, I wasn’t sure I remembered that correctly, so I texted Takeo the other day and he told me that I had. When want to know where you are you ask, “Where is here?”)
So where is here? In the context of the spiritual quest, the answer is not only geographic but temporal. Let’s agree that it goes without (much) saying that “be here now” encourages us to be – to be our true, full, authentic self – in the particular locality on the map we happen to find ourselves. In fact, if you think about it from a purely physical point of view, we can’t ever really be anywhere other than where we are. So “be here” must refer to something else, and I’m suggesting this morning that it means to be present here, in this moment.
It is said that most of us spend most of the time anywhere but here in this moment. Nearly all of the spiritual practices we humans have ever devised take that as a foundational assumption. We actually live in the past, or in the future, even when we appear to be present in the present.
“Those roses under my window make no reference to former roses …” That’s what St. Ralph said, and what he meant was that he was looking at these roses, the ones right then outside of his window, and was seeing them in their own particular and specific individual glory. He was not looking at them and seeing the roses he put on his mother’s grave, or the one that his daughter gave to him one day, or the bouquet he gave to his first and truest love, Ellen Louisa Tucker, when he asked her to marry him. (I made those details up, by the way.) What he meant was that his experience of these roses wasn’t clouded by the memories of any of those previous, those “former” roses. Instead, he was seeing only these roses. He wasn’t living in his memories of the past; he was living fully in his present moment.
And if many of us, most of us, carry with us the past in such a way that it clouds the present, so, too, we leapfrog from the present into the future. Some of you right now – hard as it is to imagine – are thinking more about where you’re going to lunch, or how much laundry there is to do when you get home, than the spiritually stirring syllables slipping from my lips. (Astonishing alliteration not withstanding.) As I was cooking the Thanksgiving feast with my family – with a remarkable lack of stress, I might add – I wasn’t so much experiencing that time of familial togetherness as I was wondering if everything would be cooked and on the table on time. And as the meal neared its conclusion I was thinking about how sad it would be when our friends eventually had to leave. And I’ll admit that I was somewhat distracted during that goodbye by the thought of the job ahead of me of putting the food away and doing all those dishes. And while I was doing that I was really thinking about how good it was going to feel to finally crawl into bed. You could say that I missed all of those moment – missed, at least, the full, rich experience of them – because I was thinking about moments yet to come.
Most of us, most of the time, are living in the past or the future more fully than we are in the present. Emerson again: “We postpone or remember. We do not live in the present, but with reverted eye lament the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround us, stand on tiptoe to forsee the future.” We’re not here. We’re there (past) or there (future). Be here. That’s what we’re being encouraged to do.
Yet there’s still one last word. Be here, yes, but be here … now.
Now, you might think that we just covered that while looking at the temporal side of being here. But this here, this now, is not just any here and now. It’s not March 8, 1965, for instance, one day after Bloody Sunday and one day before the marchers’ second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s not January 20, 2009, the day that Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. It’s not even November 8 of this year, the day that Donald Trump was announced as President-elect. It’s today. December 4. And my friends … we’re living in dangerous and frightening times.
And I’m not talking about the policies and practices our incoming President has promised to put in place – disturbing and dangerous though they are. And I’m not talking about the rancorous divide in our country which has never been greater and which seems to be beyond bridging. I’m not talking about the rampant sexism, misogyny, homophobia, outright hatred of all things not white, not Christian, not cis-male, not heterosexual, not “1950’s traditional.” Those things are all frightening, no doubt about it, but they’re not new. Some of us may have been able to ignore or dismiss them, others have been living with them day in and day out. The difference now is that so many more of us have had our eyes opened and are awake to them.
And that’s what makes this such a dangerous and frightening time. So many more of us are awake to the vitriolic injustice that permeates our culture, but when one is just waking up it is so easy – so easy – to hit that snooze button and go back to sleep again, to adjust oneself to the so-called “new normal,” to fall into an acceptance of what should be unacceptable.
When Dr. King spoke to the General Assembly of the UUA back in 1966 he reaffirmed his call for the creation of what he called, “the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment,” because there are some things, he said, to which everyone ought to be maladjusted.
But he said something else that evening. He reminded us of Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, a man who went to sleep one afternoon only to wake up some twenty years later, to a very changed world. But he’d not just slept through any old twenty years, he’d slept through the years of the American Revolution. And Dr. King admonished us not to sleep through the revolution.
One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. […]
The great question is, what do we do when we find ourselves in such a period?
And part of his answer was, “stay awake.”
Being a people of presence means, at least in part, that we are called to be our true, full, authentic selves; that we are called to be here, alive in the fullness of the present moment; and that we are called to be here in this moment, this “now.” To be here and to stay awake.
The great question is, what are we going to do having found ourselves in such a period?