Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Woke and Awakening

My well-worn copy

I love that “woke” is related to “awakening.” “Woke” as an adjective is from African American vernacular, and, as employed by Black Lives Matter, entails social awareness, especially of racism and social injustice. It is now used ubiquitously to suggest someone who is politically aware.

In spirituality, “awakening” suggests spiritual awareness. An early twentieth century authority on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, describes “awakening” as the first stage of a mystic’s lifelong process. She described five stages of a mystic: awakening, purgation, illumination, dark night, and union.

What brings this to mind for me are two recent articles evaluating Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird. One article reviews a book that offers a disconcerting analysis of Lee’s novel as a defense of upper class educated Southern whites distancing themselves from racist “white trash,” as if the latter were entirely responsible for racial barriers, while excusing themselves with the actual economic, political and social power to end segregation.

Jarring as this is for me as a fan of the novel, this appears to be true, and, I hate to admit, could also be said of those who insist President Trump was elected by that infamous “basket of deplorables” rather than by educated, middle and upper class white voters.

The other article, reviewing another related book, explains the writer’s disdain of the novel as insufficiently aware of the African American experience. Only Scout’s character is fully developed, she writes, not that of Tom Robinson or even of Atticus Finch.

I wanted to counter that this is because the book is not about Tom Robinson or Atticus Finch: the book is about Scout and her transformation in the light of her personal experience of events and characters in the narrative. The most authentic representation of African American experience would most likely be found in the writings of African American authors themselves.

The novel's film was released a month after Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous “Segregation Forever” inaugural speech. Though the sterling character of a small-town Alabama lawyer like Atticus Finch might have been a stretch, given the times, as one writer suggests, he serves as a counter to the prevailing ethos of racial prejudice. He gives white readers someone to emulate, something lacking in Lee’s original version, Go Set a Watchman. Thanks be to God for a good editor who advised her to revisit and reshape the story!

All this is to say, as I’ve written in my books and on this blog, To Kill a Mockingbird served as a “woke” experience for this 12-year-old boy from California who had never even visited the South. That, coupled with the Civil Rights Movement and good teachers and preachers, began for me a lifelong journey toward a better understanding of racism and social injustice.

The books of African American authors furthered my growth: Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Stephen Carter, Eldridge Cleaver, James Cone, Frederick Douglass, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, and Cornell West. Articles, reporting, firsthand encounters and presentations by numerous others also contributed to my “woke” process.

Just as “awakening” is only the beginning of a mystic’s lifelong path, maybe we might consider “wokeness” as only the start of political awareness. Maybe we could speak of a “woke-consciousness” that allows further development as well as application to other social issues of our times.

I was struck by the spiritual parallels as I completed reading this past Sunday Howard Rice’s book, Reformed Spirituality. He quotes Flora Slosson Wuellner’s description of spiritual growth in her book, On the Road to Spiritual Wholeness:
As we are healed and pulled together into wholeness, we are shown many things that we had not seen before. We are shown feelings we have had, but which have been repressed. We are shown things we have done, judgments we have made during our days of blindness and insensitivity. We are shown relationships in a new light, and facts to which we had not awakened. And as we wake and see, decisions about what we see begin to rise in freshness and power.

Related Post: Black Lives Matter

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Make America Great Again

What makes me most proud of the United States of America is not its competent armed services, not its vibrant economy, not its “alabaster cities” or “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.”

What makes me most proud of America are our values, values too many have forgotten.

And we share those values with many other nations around the globe.

Welcome, not mere tolerance. Diversity, not mere democracy. Compassion, not mere duty. Justice, not mere equality. Liberty for all, not just the privileged.

We grapple with our sins, whether the displacement of native peoples, the still open wound of slavery, the distrust of difference, the despoiling of our land, income inequality, and our uninvited intrusions into other countries.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with countries who share our values, including our neighbors to the north and south.

We share our abundance with one another, after all, in Jesus’ words, “to whom much is given, much is required.”

We protect one another from ignorance, from want, from illness, from harm, from bigotry, from bullying, even from despair.

We invest in our future generations by celebrating knowledge, science, the arts, values, faith, wisdom, and the environment.

This is the America I know and love. This is the America of which I am most proud. This is the America which brings tears to my eyes when rising for our national anthem, seeing the Statue of Liberty, or witnessing the “naturalization” of immigrant citizens.

This is the America closest to my own values as a follower of Jesus.

Thanks to Raymond Moorea Jones of CNN for the photo.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Lost Gospel of the Woman at the Well

This is the lost Gospel of Marah, the woman at the well to whom Jesus spoke while travelling through Samaria, as described in the Gospel of John, chapter four. It was recently discovered wedged behind a stone of a well in Samaria. This is the Contemporary American Version translation. Text allusion references provided in brackets.

Have you ever met a stranger who seemed to know you inside and out, but without judgment or romance? One who looked straight into your eyes and saw every wound and hope and fear and love? One who valued you, your questions, your opinions, your relationship with all things spiritual?

That was how I first encountered Jesus, the Jewish prophet avoiding the judgmental Pharisees of Judea en route to his home province of Galilee, who essentially was “slumming” it by crossing Samaria. Prophets are rare in this place. Most Jews do not hold Samaritans in high regard and will have nothing to do with us. They view us as foreigners, mongrels, half-breeds, not fully Jewish, and they believe we worship in the wrong way and in the wrong place.

Too, I am a woman, and holy men such as rabbis do not speak to women lest they be defiled by our perceived impurity, which would prevent them from going into the Temple of Jerusalem, for the same reasons the priest and Levite, on their way to the temple, passed by the man who had been mugged along the road, who was then helped by the Good Samaritan who had no such qualms. Yes, that parable of Jesus spread far and wide among us Samaritans. Here finally was a prophet who recognized our worth, and I too had heard this story.

Jesus also had a reputation of including women in his ministry, which scandalized both Jewish and Samaritan men. In fact, Jesus’ disciples were quite flustered when they found us talking. “What is he doing?” “What will people think?” “Does he even know this woman?”

Jesus knew without me telling him that I had had five husbands—two abandoned me for younger women, three were very old and died, and the man who now supported me refused to marry me. Tough times for women economically dependent on men, but Jesus was primarily concerned with the poor anyway. Somehow he knew my situation and I believe that’s why he had compassion on me, engaging me in a very real conversation about the very nature of things, and eventually revealing his calling from God.

The well where we met was already a holy place for me. I used to go there with my grandmother, who would tell me how our revered ancestor Jacob dug this well not only for his family, but for his descendants—all of us. My grandmother taught me that drawing from this well was drawing from our past, our heritage, our ancient story. She taught me that the purest water was to be found in wells dug over underground streams—she said such water was called “living water” because it flowed freely beneath the ground.

It was also at that well that my grandmother told me why she named me Marah, after the bitter water the Hebrews complained about shortly after crossing the Red Sea. Our ancestors were always kvetching with Moses in the wilderness, despite his having led them out of slavery in Egypt. Marah, you see, means “bitter.” Legend says that Moses tossed a piece of wood into the water, and miraculously, the water turned sweet [Exodus 15:22-25]. My grandmother named me Marah to remind herself, she said, that though her daughter died in childbirth, common among women of the time, her bitter grief was made sweet by my birth.

My grandmother’s name, incidentally, was Rachel, named after the love of Jacob’s life, and she told me many, many stories at our village well about those who go before us, those who precede us in life’s caravan, including one other story about the Israelites’ thirst being assuaged when God told Moses to go pound a rock, and up rose a spring in the desert [Exodus 17:1-7].

To me, her stories were my springs in our desert, pounded from the rock of our experience as a people, and after her passing, I passed them on to my only child to survive infancy and childhood, a girl named Mary, who was taken from me when she was only thirteen, by whom or for what purpose I may never know. The choice of my name, Marah, was perhaps prophetic.

This is why I liked to go to the well alone, in the middle of the day, not in the morning with the other women. I liked being alone at the well, thinking of my grandmother and her stories about our ancestors, thinking of my lost daughter and wondering if I would ever see her again.  And that’s when Jesus spoke to me, asking me for a drink of water.

I was surprised, but happy to comply, and in return he told me about spiritual things, how people would worship God in spirit and in truth, rather than in the Temple of Jerusalem or upon our holy Mount Gerizim, where we Samaritans once had a temple.  I gave him a drink of water, and he gave me living water, a Spirit that flowed out of him, into me, and on to all those I gathered from my town, asking them to verify that he might be our long awaited Messiah. They came to meet him at the well, and, our priest handed him a scroll from Isaiah, and Jesus read [from Chapter 55]:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
            come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
            come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
            without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
            for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Incline your ear, and come to me;
            Listen so that you may live.
Says the Lord:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
            and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
            making it bring forth and sprout,
            giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth;
            it shall not return to me empty,
but will accomplish that which I purpose.

And Jesus rolled up the scroll, and gave it back to our priest, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth [Luke 4:20-22].

Then he began to teach us, saying:

Blessed are those who thirst, for they shall be satisfied. [Luke 6:21]
Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, for their thirst shall be quenched. [Matthew 5:6]
Blessed are those led beside still waters, restoring their souls, for they shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. [Psalm 23]
Blessed are those who cast their bread on the waters, for it shall be returned a hundredfold. [Ecclesiastes 11:1 and Luke 18:30]
Blessed are those baptized with water and Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [John 3:5] Let no one forbid the waters of baptism to those baptized with the Spirit. [Acts 10:47]
Blessed are those who give one of my little ones a cup of water, they shall not be without their reward. [Matthew 10:42]
Blessed are those who will drink of the water that I shall give them, for they shall never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life [John 4:14]. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life [Revelation 21:6]. Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” [Revelation 22:17].

Then, passing my jar of well water around for all to drink from it, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” [Luke 22:19] And after all had partaken, Jesus said, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, for my love is strong as death, my passion fierce as the grave—many waters cannot quench my love, neither can floods drown it.” [Song of Solomon 8:6-7]

After two days in the presence of Jesus, my fellow Samaritans told me, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

I begged to follow Jesus anywhere, but he refused, saying, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what grace you have witnessed.” [Mark 5:19] And so I remained, and on the first day of each week, the day he came to us, we gather around the well of our spiritual ancestors and remind ourselves and others of all that he said and did among us, passing the jar of water around, drinking all from it, remembering his promise of living water.

Then we go out from the well, each with a jar of water, and look for those who are thirsty, and give them to drink in his name. Among those who have received this sacrament at our hands have been Philip, who used the water to baptize us when he came here to preach, and Peter and John, when they came to lay hands on us to receive the Holy Spirit. [Acts 8]

My daughter Mary was never returned to me; but I take comfort that Jesus’ mother was also named Mary, a name which is said to mean “child we wished for” and “visionary.”

May all who read this gospel be refreshed in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I gave this as a sermon for Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 23, 2014, using these texts: Exodus 15:22-25, 17:1-7 and John 4:1-30, 39-42. Copies of this Gospel were distributed. Afterward I passed through the congregation with cups of water that had been blessed.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Help Me Understand

"I am the mountain. The mountain is me." --A homemade Zen saying.
Look closely for me at the bottom of this photo of the Matterhorn, taken in 1973. 
I did not have the faith to move this mountain, but I did have the faith to be in awe.

Zen almost silenced me. Or it did, and still I’m blogging!

I’ve written several posts about a book on Zen Buddhism I’ve just completed reading. I found myself becoming quieter and quieter as I read a brief section each day during morning prayer. Part of it was that Zen was telling me to shut up, just be. And part of it was that the whole enterprise had the effect of a Zen koan like “the sound of one hand clapping” to still the mind.

I especially loved this example of Zen mondo (questions and answers): “What is it ultimately?” “Willows are green and flowers are pink.”

“Willows are green and flowers are pink.” I wish I had thought of that when asked some outlandish question during Q&A’s in the church or equally, in the LGBT community, on whether one can be gay and Christian. Or another, “Only those who know it know.”

“Willows are green and flowers are pink.” Also a good answer for thorny theological questions like, how can a good God allow suffering in the world?

“The ‘beauty’ of Zen is the inner power that unites nature and life from within,” Abbot Zenkei Shibayama writes.

I have only an inkling of what that means—some intuitive, receptive neuron in my brain that may or may not get it.

And that’s why I became quieter and quieter as I read. I often get quiet when I don’t understand something, which has saved me from embarrassing moments of pretense.

But I liked it. Like witnessing a magnificent waterfall cascading from verdant cliffs down the face of a grey stone canyon wall to a valley below. Like hearing a musical composition caringly played that lifts the soul to cosmic, heavenly realms. Like the final gasp of an instance of prolonged lovemaking so profound as to put the most elevated sacred texts to shame.

I don’t need to understand something to see its beauty.

Years ago, I occasionally worked with another activist who sometimes questioned my thinking with the words, “Help me understand…” Given the context of our connection and other put-downs of me, I always thought the words were patronizing, as in “Help me understand how you can come to such a crazy conclusion.”

Only recently have I thought perhaps the phrase came from PBS and NPR, whose news interviewers often use the phrase, “Help us understand…” to aid interviewees to better explain their thinking to viewers and listeners.

A seminary professor with whom I served on a school committee told me privately that I sometimes seem to speak aloud mid-thought, mid-thinking process, so that what led to my conclusions were unclear. Perhaps that’s what was happening with my fellow activist. Perhaps that’s what happens on this blog!

Long ago I learned that my own need to understand something could be a means of control. In college, French existentialist author and philosopher Albert Camus spoke to me when he described “true understanding as ‘standing under,’ receiving without being in control (as understanding or ‘superior’ knowledge often implies).” I wrote this in Henri’s Mantle (p 94).

So I have been standing under Zen Buddhism, hoping a little of its wisdom and beauty will gently fall on me.

A final thought from Abbot Shibayama (A Flower Does Not Talk, p 122):

Zen asks us to open our eyes to the realm where subject and object are not yet separated, and I and you are one; and then to live and work in this new dimension.

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