Tuesday, September 26, 2017

This Wonderful Sound

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve -- the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville -- on Sunday, September 24, 2017.  (This re-telling of the parrot's story is my own, with references to the book by Martin and Gabar.)

“Do the little thing that comes from your heart and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.”  That was the message lifted up during Children’s Chapel last week.  “Do the little thing that comes from your heart and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.” 

They’d just heard a story called The Brave Little Parrot, by Rafe Martin and Susan Gabar.  It tells of a little parrot who lived in a large forest with lots of other forest creatures.  One day, during a storm, a bolt of lighting hit an old dead tree, setting it ablaze.  Because of the winds from the storm, soon the entire forest was burning.

The little parrot could smell the smoke, and began flying to and fro, shouting, “Fire! Fire!  Get to the river and safety!” Yet as she flew to the river herself, she could see just how quickly the fire was spreading, and she saw below her many of the forest creatures trapped by the flames.

She had an idea.  She flew more quickly to the river, and asked the elephants to take up water in their trunks and return to the forest to put the fire out.  But the animals there all agreed that it was hopeless.  The cheetah said that, fast though she was, the fire was spreading too quickly.  The elephants said that they were indeed very strong, but they weren’t strong enough to break through those flames.  “We should all stay here by the river where it’s safe,” the animals all agreed.

But the little parrot wouldn’t accept that all was lost.  She dove down into the water, getting her feathers all wet.  And then she picked up a little, cupped leaf that was holding a drop of water, and she flew toward the flames.  When she got to the fire, she shook herself, and droplets of water fell from her body, and she tipped the leaf, and that single drop fell.

Back to the river she flew, diving into the water and getting water in the leaf.  She returned to the fire and repeated what she’d done before.  Back and forth the little parrot flew, until her eyes burned from the smoke and her feathers were singed.  The other animals cried out for her to stop, and yet, she persisted.

It so happened that at this moment some goddesses and gods were drifting overhead in the cloud palace, and happened to look down upon the scene unfolding before them.  “What a silly little bird,” one said.  “Doesn’t she know that the water’s turning to steam long before it hits the ground?”  “Doesn’t she know,” another one said, “that what she’s doing is hopeless?”  

One of the goddesses took pity on the parrot, and changed into a golden eagle.  Down the eagle flew, until it came up on the parrot.  “Silly bird,” the goddess/eagle said, “What you’re doing has no chance of succeeding.  Surely you will die in this effort, without affecting the fire one little bit.”

“Great eagle,” the parrot said without stopping from her work, “time is running out to save the forest and the animals.  With all due respect, I really don’t need advice right now.  I need help.”  And off she flew to once again dip her body in the water, getting her feathers all wet, and filling that cupped leaf with the single drop it could carry.

The eagle flew high, back up to the cloud palace.  For the first time, she felt ashamed.  “We are goddesses and gods,” he thought, “yet none of us is as brave as that little bird.”  And with this thought, the goddess began to cry.  Great, big tears … tears coming in waves … coming in sheets … coming in torrents.  And everywhere a tear fell, the fire went out.  And after the last ember was extinguished, the goddess continued to weep, and these tears brought the scarred forest back to life.

“Do the little thing that comes from your heart,” Leia said in Children’s Chapel last week, “and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.” 

That story was originally a jataka tale from the Buddhist tradition.  Jataka tales are teaching stories, said to tell the experiences of the previous incarnations of the Buddha (who was said to have been incarnated as every kind of living thing before his incarnation as the man who would discover enlightenment).  Pretty sweet, right?  (And in case you’re wondering, you can go to Children’s Chapel whether you have children or not.  Those services take place in the Parlor, at the same time as these sanctuary services take place in … well … the sanctuary.  I tell you, they’re worth a visit.)

But what does any of this have to do with singing bowls and wonderful sounds?

Sound is produced whenever anything vibrates.  Those vibrations cause the medium around it to also vibrate – air, water, jello, what have you.  If these vibrations reach our ears, they cause the tympanic membranes to also vibrate, and our brain converts these vibrations into sounds.

<Invite the bowl to sound … .>  The bell vibrates … the air between it and our ears vibrate … our tympanic membranes vibrate … we hear the sound of the bell.

Now … here’s something cool.  If two sound waves intersect, interesting things can happen.  If the two waves are in sync with each other, they magnify one another.  If, on the other hand, two waves meet that are out of sync, the diminish one another.  If two wave forms that are exact opposites of each other meet … they create silence.

The Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition monks learn a gatha to go along with nearly every act.  A gatha is a short phrase or two intended to remind monks to remain mindful.  There are gathas for when you wake up, when you get out of bed, when you brush your teeth.  And there is a gatha for when you invite a bell to sound:

Listen. listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.

“Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.”  The monk who invites the bell to sound says this silently before placing the striker on the bell.  The monks who hear it say it silently along with the sound.  If it is one of the large temple bells sounding, the monks outside pause in whatever it is that they’re doing and recite the gatha:  Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.  When I was in Japan, working with the Kanjiyama Mime Troupe, there was a temple on one of the mountains that surrounded their studio in the countryside.  When they would sound their gong to call the monks to zazen, its sound would echo.  And when the vibrations from that big, beautiful bell set the air vibrating, and when those vibrations reached my tympanic membranes, I would pause in whatever I was doing:  Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.  I repeat this gatha whenever I sound the chime to call us to worship.  Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that we can use anything as this bell – the doorbell, the ring of a telephone, the red brake light of the car in front of us.  Anything can serve as this bell, calling us back to our true selves.

I think that that foolish little parrot was a mindfulness bell for that goddess.  The sight of that bird brought her back to her true self, called her to be who she really was.  She had forgotten that who she was, in her innermost core; she’d forgotten her better self; she’d forgotten who she knew she could be.  And that brave little parrot called her back to herself.

Do you ever need to be called back to your true self?  I do.  I do … often.  When I am frustrated, or tired, or hungry, or scared … it can be easy to forget who I am.  When my feelings are hurt, or I think I’m being judged, or I hear too clearly my inner demons judging me (always too harshly) … I can so easily lose sight of who I am at my best.  I can so easily act out of my worst.  You too?

Let’s spend the rest of today … the rest of this week … looking for and listening to every mindfulness bell we can.  And when we hear it, let us remember that we have a true self to which we can return … and, if needed, return again, and again, and again.

One last thought.  You know how, when you drop a pebble into a pond, the ripples spread outward, and then bounce back in on themselves?  That one little pebble can affect the entire surface of the pond.  That brave little parrot was a mindfulness bell for that goddess, because she was vibrating her true self, and the ripples of that vibration went in all directions.  The elephants, and the cheetah, and all of the forest animals could feel it – when the vibrations of love she gave off caused their own hearts to vibrate love and compassion as well.

You can I can be bells, sounding pure and clear who we truly are.  We can be the wonderful sound someone else needs to come back to who they truly are.  And when you vibrate love, and I vibrate love, and each of us and all of us vibrate love, those love waves intersect, and amplify one another.

“Do the little thing that comes from your heart and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.” 

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Reflections on the story, "Grandmother's Courage"

On Sunday, September 10, 2017, the congregation I serve celebrated its annual Balloon Sunday.  We heard the story we called "Grandmother's Courage," and my reflections were an exploration of its message.  (Although the story is not included in this post, I think the lessons are clear even without knowing it.)

In seminary I was taught the skill and the art of exegesis.  Exegesis is a word that describes the interpretation of a text – usually a passage of sacred scripture.  It comes from an ancient Greek word that means, “to lead out.”  To do exegesis, to exegete, is to “lead out” the deeper meanings of a text.  Now … like I said … you normally exegete a passage of sacred scripture, but this morning I’m going to exegete the story Leia read a little while ago.

It all starts at midnight.  In many myths and stories midnight is a time of mystery and magic; it’s the transitional point between the day that has been and the day that is coming.  I think it’s important to recognize that Grandmother doesn’t realize that it’s midnight.  She think it’s her normal time of waking, 3:00 (which, for me at least, is not a magical time at all).

Because Grandmother doesn’t realize that she’s at this magical moment – she doesn’t realize that there’s anything out of the ordinary – and apparently neither does her horse.  Smart just plods along the way he always does, and Grandmother is so used to her routine that she’s even able to fall asleep!
But then, as in all good hero myths, something dangerous comes.  Smart and the Grandmother can tell that it’s coming, can sense its approach – it doesn’t suddenly appear.  This, of course, gives them both time to get pretty scared.

What does come suddenly, what does appears as if from nowhere, is that hare.  It just pops up, jumps up onto Smart and then into Grandmother’s lap, and without even pausing for a moment to think about what to do, Grandmother acts.  She acts to save the hare.  It’s just the right thing to do.  She may be scared, but she’s strong.

And then that scary rider comes up.  She can’t make out what, exactly it is, but she knows that it’s dangerous, and she knows that it’s bad.  Have you ever just had a feeling about something that it just wasn’t … right?  That something was wrong, even though you couldn’t put your finger on just what it was?  Well, that’s where the Grandmother found herself.  But even though she was scared, she persisted.

Now I want to pause here for a minute.  It was a hare.  It was a little bunny that she was putting herself in danger for.  It was just a rabbit that she was quite possibly risking her life for!  A lot of people would think that a hare is too small, too unimportant, too insignificant to take such a risk for.  I just wanted to make sure that we all recognized that.

Now my absolute favorite part of the story is the way the Grandmother answers the scary rider.  She doesn’t lie; she answers his question completely honestly.  She gives him the answer he’d asked for, but in such a way that she kept that hare safe.  I love that.  She didn’t lie; she didn’t forget about her values in order to save herself.  She stayed true to who she was, even though it was dangerous to do so.

And then we find that that small, unimportant, insignificant little bunny was something else entirely.  She did a good dead without knowing the full extent of its impact.  She just did what she thought was right without knowing, really, what it was she was doing.  If she’d known that that hair was really a bewitched woman, cursed to run eternally from the pursuit of that rider, it still would have been a good thing that the Grandmother did what she did, but it wouldn’t have been quite so … heroic … would it?

The grandmother did nothing extraordinary, she just “carried on;” she just did what she’d normally do, what her instincts, and her values, and her way of being in the world led her to do each and every day.  But this day, carrying on, simply being herself, made all the difference in the world.

I want to make one more point about this story.  But first I want to remind people of what we talked about last week.  We talked about pots – pots, and bowls, and cups, and people like us that have cracks in them, weak spots, broken places.  And we said that those very cracks, those very weak and broken places, might be the source of some of our greatest strengths.

That was a very individual-focused reflection.  It was intended to remind each of us … each of us individually … you, and me, and everyone else, that we have more beauty in us that we know, and more strength than we can imagine.

But the individual is only a part of the picture.  Because we’re not just a group of individuals here.  We’re a community.  We ritualized that truth when we poured our individual containers of water into that one, communal bowl.  But we didn’t really talk about it much.  We didn’t really focus our attention on it.

I want to focus our attention on it this morning, because the importance and power of the community is also something we need to remind ourselves of over, and over, and over again.  It’s so easy to forget.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the realities of our own lives as individuals, that we can forget the realities of our lives as part of something larger than ourselves, the realities of our lives as part of a community.

So here’s the last thing I want to lift up about the story “Grandmother’s Courage,” the last truth I’d like to lead out of it for us to consider:   the Grandmother was not alone.  She didn’t do the things she did all by herself.  She was in a relationship.  She was part of a community – a community of two, but a community nonetheless.  She was in a relationship with her “faithful companion for close to forty years.”  And when the Grandmother was asleep, Smart was “trembling all over,” and “his mane and tail were still with fright.”  But as soon as Grandmother woke up, as soon as Smart was no longer feeling alone, as soon as that old horse was once again in relationship with his community, he calmed down.  And when the Grandmother’s “heart was pounding [and] palms sweating” from fright, it was Smart who was able to give her the strength to do the heroic thing she did.  Or, rather, the heroic thing that they did, because neither of them did it – neither of them could have done it – without the other.

And we, too, need community to be our best, most true and authentic selves.  We need this community, which so many call their spiritual home, to be as strong, and as beautiful, as we are meant to be.  Only in community can we have the courage “to relax and trust our hearts to guide us even when we don’t think we know what to do,” because only in community can we be sure that we are held in loving hands, with care-filled hearts.

Pax tecum,


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Of Cracks and Flowers

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, September 3, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA.  This was our annual In-Gathering Water Communion celebration.

I have always loved the story Leia just read.  I first heard it years and years ago, and it touched me then.  All these years later it continues to move me.

One of the reasons I so love that story is because I am that pot with a crack in it.  I know only two well what it’s like to be so aware of the places that I have cracks, weaknesses, deficits, brokenness, less-than-ness … where I don’t think I’m good enough (or at least as good as that other person over there).  I have a friend who used to say, “I don’t want to be perfect … just better than everybody else.”  I know only too well those places where I’m not.

There are people who are better preachers than I am.  There are people who are more compassionate and better listeners.  There are a whole lot of people who are better organized.  There are even people who know more than I do about comic books and the Batman.  I know only too well the places where I’m cracked, where I can’t do something as well as I’d like to.  As well as I think I should.

This being for many of us here the beginning of a new school year, I’m thinking back to how it felt to worry that I might not be able to do the work this year.  To worry about whether or not this year I’d fit in.  I know enough teachers to know that it’s not just the students who worry about these things.  See … all of us have cracks, and all of us know it.  Even if we pretend to ourselves, and try to convince others, that we don’t … we do.  And all of us, all of us at least some of the time look at the people around us and wish we could hold water as well as they can.

Does anybody know what I’m talking about?

And sometimes … sometimes … we feel that those cracks are such a problem that we want to give up, or we do give up.  We think, “I’m not good enough, and I’m never going to be good enough, so why bother even trying?”  A lot of people stop drawing after a certain point, or singing, or dancing, because they don’t think they’re any good and won’t probably ever get any better.  My dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket even if it was stapled to his forehead.  But he loved music.  He loved music.  And he had three very musical sons, and I think he really, really wanted to be able to make music, like we could, instead of just listening to it.  So later in his life he bought himself a keyboard, and a couple of “how to play the piano” books … and he never did anything with them.  They sat in a closet.  And I think he never even tried to learn to play because he was so convinced that he couldn’t.  He saw that crack so clearly.  He saw that crack so clearly that it was hard to see anything else.

Does anyone have a crack they’d be willing to share?  Something you wish you could do, or think you’re supposed to be able to do, that you think you’re not good enough to do?  <...>  Yeah.  We know only too well where we’re cracked, don’t we?

But I said that my empathy for the pot with the cracks was one of the reasons I love this story.  The other is the wisdom of the water carrier.  Because the water carrier knows that the pot’s cracks are just part of what makes that pot what – who – it is.  The water carrier knows that the cracks aren’t anything terrible, aren’t anything to be ashamed of.  The water carrier knows that the cracks are just … cracks.

Even more, the water carrier can see that the cracks can be a good thing.  Yes, it’s true.  The pot with the cracks can’t carry a full amount of water.  But it can water the flowers along the path, and that’s something that the pot without the cracks can’t do.  You might even say that that pot’s lack of cracks is, itself, a crack.  And if I know what it feels like to have cracks, and to feel bad about it, then I have to also be willing to acknowledge that there might be something good in them, as well.

In traditional Japanese culture there’s a practice, and a philosophy, called kintsugi.  In the west, if a bowl or a cup cracks, we pull out the crazy glue and try to put it back together so that the crack hardly shows.  We feel great when we can repair it so that the cracks are hardly visible.  Kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer made with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.  Instead of trying to hide they broken places, they highlight them, make them stand out, treat them as something special.  Kintsugi is an expression of the idea that these cracks just show that the object has been used, the idea that the cracks are just a part of the history of the thing.  It’s like someone who is proud of their wrinkles and their white hair because these are signs that they’ve lived and have some experience.

The water carrier knows that the particular cracks in that particular pot are just part of what makes it what it is, just as those parts that aren’t cracked are just a part of what it is.  And I’m here to tell you this morning, to remind myself, that this is true of us, as well.  We may not be “whole” in the way we think we’re supposed to be, in the way we think that other person, over there, is, but our cracks are part of the whole of us.  And we wouldn’t be who we are without them.
And who you are, cracks and all, is beautiful … is powerful … is good.  I mean it when I say each week that each of us – each and every single one of us – is essential for this community being what it is.  Really hear that – you … you specifically … you with your cracks and everything … you are essential for this community to be what it is.  Without you, things would be different … we wouldn’t be who you are.

Each fall we celebrate this truth through our In-Gathering Water Communion.  Each of us is invited to bring a container of water – and if you forgot, or didn’t know, we have some extras up here.   Each of us is invited to bring a container of water, and to come forward and pour it into this common bowl.  Each of us bringing this symbol of ourselves; all of us making this symbol of our community.  We all – each of us – come to this congregation and bring ourselves – strengths and weaknesses both – and we mingle them with one another, and together we create this community (which has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course, which has its own cracks, yet which nonetheless serves to nurture and encourage us all).

The pot only knows its cracks and despairs; the water carrier knows its possibilities.  May we listen to the water carrier’s wisdom, so that we might see more clearly our own possibilities, and so that more beautiful flowers might bloom.