Monday, March 19, 2018

Living Dayenu

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 28, 2018 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA.

The poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, makes quite a bit of “smiling” as a spiritual practice.  “Breathing in, I relax body and mind,” one of his breath prayers goes, “Breathing out, I smile.”  “Smile, breathe, and go slowly,” is his advice on how to live.
A woman came up to him during a retreat to ask him how she was supposed to do all of this smiling when she had some real grief and pain she was going through.  He told her, essentially, that she was being like a television set that thought it was NBC29 just because that was the station playing at the moment.  She thought that she was grief and pain because that’s what was “playing” in her life at that time.  But a TV isn’t just one thing, isn’t just whatever channel happens to be on, even if that channel is on most of the time, making up the background of our lives.  All the other channels are always broadcasting, too.  Yes, there was a lot of grief and pain in this woman’s life, but it wasn’t the only thing, and he told her that she could choose to tune into the Smile Channel, if you will.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that when you find this Smile Channel the Grief-and-Pain Channel has gone off the air.  This isn’t the all-too blithe assertion we should just think “happy thoughts” when things are bad, and all the bad things will go away.  Whenever I hear someone say that I think, “Oh yeah.  I'm just supposed to pretend to be happy.; I'm just supposed to act like everything’s great.  But when I'm done, all my very real problems are still going to really be here, so what’s the point?”  What Tich Nhat Hanh’s television metaphor reminds me is that all too often I pretend, I act like everything’s going wrong, focusing only on my problems and my pain.  I forget that my very real joy is also very much really here.
What makes Tich Nhat Han’s “smiling” a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, is that it’s both really simple, and nowhere near as easy as it seems.  It takes work to “change the channel.”  Not like today.  When I was a kid, if you wanted to change the channel you had to actually get up out of your chair, walk across the room, bend down, and turn that clicky little dial.  Now you don’t even have to exert yourself to pick up the remote, you can just say into the air, “Alexa, please change the channel and put on Grey’s Anatomy.”  Changing channels used to be a bit of work; changing “spiritual channels” still is.
But why do it?  And why do it even in times like these?  Cypress asked some really good questions in her Opening Words:  “Is it appropriate to sing “Dayenu!” [she said] when it seems that so much is going wrong in the world?
Our Chalice Lighting, from the American Jewish World Service’s “Global Justice Haggadah” explicitly reminds us that sometimes is simply is not enough.
And a couple of weeks ago, and a month or so before that, we said together a litany which its author, Viola Abbit, titled, “The Promise That Binds.”  Repeatedly we lamented that, “the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.”
Sometimes, apparently, and perhaps obviously, it is simply not enough to smile and say “Things as they are are enough.  Things as they are, the way the world is, the way my life is, is enough.”  Not at all.  Sometimes, as Dr. King said, we need to be “maladjusted” to the way things are.
And yet … (And there’s that “and yet” I love so much.)
And yet it can be so easy to get caught up in those things, to get lost in them, to forget that the world is not just ugly, and brutal, and mean (in both the sense of nasty and base).  Said another way, it's so easy to think that the world is FOX News, forgetting that Rachel Maddow and John Oliver are both broadcasting, too. 
The  problem here is that when we get so caught up in what is wrong with the world, when we forget that it’s also beautiful and good, we can easily drown in the pain, and become cynical, overwhelmed, and, eventually, numb to it all.  When we see only what is not “enough,” pay attention only to what isn’t okay, we too easy to crawl into a false comfort, pretending that everything is okay.
If we want to really be alive to the full experience of Life, then we need we need to be able to see both Life’s pain and its promise, its beauty as well as its brutality, its grotesqueries and its glory, both.
Which brings us back to smiling, and brings us back to dayenu.  The spiritual practice of living dayenu is not at all about pretending that everything’s okay even when it’s not.  It is about realizing, recognizing, remembering that even when everything’s not okay, something is.  Recognizing that “something,” realizing that there is always something to smile about, remembering that some things are “enough,” grounds us when the maelstroms of malevolence which makes up so much of life threatens to render us mute and impotent.  Living dayenu can give us strength when otherwise our strength might be sapped; can give us hope “when hope is hard to find;” can give us a reason, and a means, to “keep on singing.”
Many of us today have no doubt come here in some sort of pain, worried by some kind of problem that seems pervade every corner of our lives.  Our congregation is right now in the midst of the kind of turmoil it hasn’t seen in a long time, a disorienting dis-ease that some are calling a crisis.  And our country?  Well, I don’t think I need to say too much about that.
But there is so much that is good, and beautiful, and inspiring in the United States – just look at the youth who are taking to the streets and the hall of power.  And there is so much that is well worth celebrating in this congregation – just think about all the loving ways we have reached out and touched one another’s lives, been touched ourselvesand the community around us.  And no matter how it might look to you in this moment, you have had, there are now, and there always will be things in your life to bring a real smile to your face.
I want to end these reflections with a way of practicing dayenu, a tool, if you will, to assist in the changing of our channel when our channel needs to change.  I’m going to teach those of us who don’t already know it the song “Dayenu.”  Not all 15 verses, but even if the chorus is all you know … well … dayenu.  It will be enough.

Pax tecum,

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arthurrashap said...

So, there emerges a change (as I see it) in content and context looking at the event and events that have been the LARGE focus as I have seen it since the most nasty and, for many of us, almost unimaginable event that occurred at our Church aimed at Christina.

As you said: "And there is so much that is well worth celebrating in this congregation – just think about all the loving ways we have reached out and touched one another’s lives, been touched ourselves and the community around us. And no matter how it might look to you in this moment, you have had, there are now, and there always will be things in your life to bring a real smile to your face.

As a child I participated in the family Passover celebration at home and/or in a relative's house. The Dayenu recitation left a big mark. I got to a WOW! that even one of these 'gifts' that was given to a people looked down upon, enslaved, would have been enough and . . . . looking at all the good and special 'stuff' I was very impressed by the caring and love that was visited upon 'us.'

I like, yes I LOVE this thought and the path it opens.
Can we, please, can we celebrate the long and wonderful list of the GOOD stuff that each of us brings and the container that holds it - TJMCUU?

Arthur Rashap

RevWik said...

It's always a dance, isn't it Arthur? A balancing act? Joys and sorrows. Pain and promise. Celebration of where we've been and where we are and recognition of how far we still have to go. In other words: both/and.

arthurrashap said...

Ah, yes. (Yes is a very special word!).
Life is a dance - and that involves:
1. The music - the notes and the space between the notes
2. The partner(s) - is this a solo dance? with a partner (then who leads?); a group experience?
3. The steps- what is/are the baselines?
4. The outcome - who do you "go home" with?

Can we bring who we are and why we are here to this experience of being here and now?
Will we dance with the understanding that the music, the steps, the partner(s), are all
part of our understanding of why we are here and that the words and music and steps and partners are in the dance hall called "Love."