I really don’t know if it’s true: but I cannot forget the story of how to trap a monkey. They say that you take a coconut, punch a smallish hole in it, empty it, tie it to the ground and fill it with a few pieces of good food. Then the monkey comes exploring, sees the food inside the coconut and puts his hand in. He finds he can’t grab hold of the food and get his hand out at the same time. And he won’t let go. Supposedly a monkey will try to hold onto the food even when the people with the nets come ‘round, even when he’s going to get trapped, lose everything, he’ll still try to hold on.
I find this a chilling story because there is something in me that often wants to hold on, to an old idea, to an old idol, to an old pain, even at the cost of losing the gift of the present moment. But what is more important than saying yes to life, saying yes to God? Why would I say yes, and then turn away? Like the son who was asked to work in the vineyard in the lesson we just heard, why would I first say yes then say no, when I am asked to work for the harvest, when I am asked to join in the feast?
What keeps any of us from joining in, from fully saying yes and following through with the chance of this amazing celebration? What are we trying to hold onto? Is it an old idea of failure or success? Is it a worn out list of people we tried to impress when we were younger? Is it an old idea of our religion, of how to act it out and live it out? What are we holding on to that holds us back, that can trap us, trip us up, keep us from turning around to say yes to the present reality of God when that is what matters most?
A Buddhist teacher named Shunru Suzuki writes about “Beginner’s Mind,” which is the chance to do something like you’ve never done it before, to wake up what is new, right in front of you, like you’ve never seen it before. It sounds easy, but it often is not. Still it is crucial to wake up to the choice that is in front of you.
The funny thing is that it’s often those of us who’ve been around religion, around the church for a while, who can most easily fall asleep. We’ve prayed the prayers, read the lessons, taken the class, bought the t-shirt. We’ve shown up Sunday after Sunday and gotten the shape of it into our bones. But after awhile it gets old, dry, formulaic, like something we can bank on. And that’s when what we believe turns from something we live, that lives in us, turns from a living faith to a dead certainty. That is when yes can turn to no.
This shows up pretty regularly in my own faith journey, for there is always a part of me that wants to say, Can’t I take it easy for a while? Don’t I get something from all that work? With all this effort, where in God’s name is my equity? Was all this work for nothing?
And I do know better: know that the practice is good, time well spent. I am convinced, most days, that nothing is lost: that all the work, the effort, the prayers, the bible study, books read and plans made, the parish work-days, vestry sessions, choir rehearsals, meetings met. That showing up for those times can bring us more deeply into the present moment. But we need to let go of who we think we are and what we think we’re about, what we’ve accrued! We need to come to the moment and go to the altar with empty hands and no expectations, so that we can be open to grasp – if only for an instant - how big God’s love and grace can be, how far it will go, how close it will come. We come here – time after time – simply to begin again!
Go back to two other men in another Gospel story. Like the workers in the vineyard they were brothers of the same father. One, who is the prodigal, finally comes back to his senses in a very foreign country, finds himself willing to return, repent, turn around and go home to find charity. The other, older brother, so careful, so right at doing the right thing, stands at the door of the house where the celebration for the returning wastrel is just starting, saying, “What about my equity, what I did right, when I showed up? What’s it worth? What does it matter?
Can you see his hand, his life, caught in the trap of trying to get what he wanted, what seemed to be bought and paid for already, while all the while so much love, forgiveness, renewal, is waiting to be known, received, celebrated? Can you hear the father calling?
Just come into the rich opportunity of the present moment. Don‘t save your life just to lose it, while love is opening the door wide to everyone. When forgiveness opens the door, when the father comes to call you to the party, don’t let your standards, your judgement, your idea of what is right and wrong, good or bad, keep you from joining in this great celebration.
One more story. When I was in seminary in the 1980s there were a couple of TV shows iabout what would follow were a nuclear holocaust to happen: I still remember the pictures of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow the dropping of the big bombs. I was living in Berkeley then, and whenever I would hear the bells in the campus tower striking the hour I would stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end. Looking around while the bells were ringing in the cool spring morning air and the soft light and think: "It could all be over, vanished, finished." And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I would look around and think; "There is a chance, we are not dead yet."
We need to wake up, wake into the grace, the deep hope and opportunity of the present moment, because we are not dead yet. And there is a chance that [in a not quite-easily-understandable way] that we are somehow, by grace, newborn, like children, full of possibilities, full of innocence and promise, full of beginning. So it is time, with empty hands and open hearts, to join with everyone, known and unknown, worthy and unworthy in the great party, the final feast, taking part in, celebrating the harvest, because we are there even now, coming home and waking up to take up this amazing gift of life.
I haven’t written about this because it is painful: because – even as a old hippie with pretensions to the left wing, even as I take a critical look at recent politics and piety in the US and react with disbelief and horror – I still love my country.
But, last Sunday when I was fielding questions about the chaplaincy at a local church, one guy asked about the similarities of the Old Testament lesson for the day – the Israelites getting across the dry bed of the Red Sea while Pharaohs army are mired in the mud to drown – and the situation in Louisiana. I had thought about it, had read the lesson already, ruefully considered the incongruity of the images jouncing together; but it hit me then, as I tried to put words to it, that while I had always seen myself with the Israelites, getting past the army, making towards the wilderness of new community and possibility, that is not my place.
As an American – 10th generation, Mayflower descendant, I carry all the credentials – I now belong to Pharaohs tribe. It is my own people who have sent the troops to protect the mighty and damn the poor and fragile – who forget the meek, those who hunger and thirst. The pictures coming from the American south, as well as those that come from Iraq, show me that there is an evil at work in the country I love. And it breaks my heart.
Four years ago, I went to a service at the local Cathedral for the events of 9/11. I kept my countenance until we sang, “Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears,” and then I lost it. But this is worse. The words that come to me now were chiselled on the base of the Statue of Liberty across the harbor from the building site where the WTC used to stand. They read:
Give me your tired, your poor Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free The wretched refuse of your teaming shore, I lift my lamp beside the golden shore.
I have seen the huddled masses, the teaming shore, and I am deeply ashamed of my country. I pray that God may have mercy on us.
So it is Wednesday and I am at RMIT, sitting in the main cafeteria with a few pamphlets around me, my laptop happily wireless, the hum of activity as students and staff come and go. I feel shy, conspicuous, and surprisingly happy.
I am wondering about a men’s film series here. Maybe Fight Club, Brother, Where Art Thou? The Blues Brothers, plus a few others, as a way to get some men into the support group that Julian Mc Nally, a guy from counselling, and I are facilitating together.
The facts are that men have more problems with suicide, depression, loneliness, suicide, substance abuse, then women do. And, I think, part of that is simply because we don’t talk about it. I was in my late twenties before I found some friends who I could trust enough to share deeply about my own constellations of concerns about family, work, worth, relationships, to say nothing of sex, drugs and rock and roll,
Tennessee Williams writes somewhere, “In a world so full of lonely people, it would be an unforgivable sin to be lonely by yourself.” If you are a man studying at RMIT and want to be part of a good men's group, come by the office (under Sacred Space) Wednesdays at 4:00PM. As we say on the flier, "You are welcome to come and listen, talk and share as you like, meet others and leave when you want, all is less than an hour, guaranteed!"
When I am asked what kind of model I follow for the ministry we are doing at RMIT and La Trobe, I go back to Justin Martyr, a Saint of the second century. He had been a student and a teacher himself. And after his conversion, after becoming a member of the early church, he returned to the academy to talk to the scholars and students of his time about this new way of understanding what God might be about, and how God might be known in the life of Jesus and in the spirited life of the community that was gathering in his name. It took awhile, the intellectuals – educators and newly educated - of the time were suspicious of religions in general and this one in particular, so Justin took time to connect what he know of Christ to the work they were doing in those academies, to meet them where they were. And it paid off in the long run, That world was one of much creativity, chaos and change, a time of scepticism when old and new modes of action and reaction, belief and disbelief were up for re-evaluation: not unlike now. A great opportunity for beginning a new ministry, for sharing a living faith that is big enough for such a world.
September 2005. Friday the 2nd day, 5:20 in the morning. I might be getting a cold. Am I getting cold feet? Could be.
But life is pretty good. I am enjoying work, moving to a new point in getting to know staff on both campuses and being methodical about it, acting like an Enneagram 3 in good ways. I am working hard, which takes me to another way of being in the world. I am speedier, more impatient, more direct in some ways, and that brings in the whole issue of pacing; which brings me to waking up too early in the morning.
I awoke before 4:00 this morning, listened to a radio interview with the woman whose life the TV program “Medium” is based upon – which ended up relating to someone I am seeing at work – and then really didn’t feel sleepy. I have a 7 AM breakfast meeting nearby, so it will be an early day anyway.
How do I prepare for my work? Listening to this medium, who is very clear about her gifts, abilities and priorities, I wonder how obedient to my calling, my unique soul work – however it’s put – I am, how obedient I could be? There’s a woman in the parish who’s very focussed on the Virgin Mary. The other day I wondered to her if there were alarm clocks that rang the Angelus. She said she has icons of the virgin by her bed and always looks at them and prays when she wakes up. it’s not my style, but that’s not a bad way to wake up. How do I prepare for my day? Where do I remember who I am?
I’ve been doing a noon meditation time (“Opening Silence, Recovering Freedom”)at both places where I work, Wednesday at RMITat Sacred Space, and Thursday at La Trobe in my office, and yesterday, when no one showed up, I went back to computer work. Then a young woman showed up at 12:15 and we did do 20 minutes of silence, and it was good for the rest of the day. I find when I meditate I am more grounded, have more sense of flow, get some very interesting ideas – which I am tempted to write down right then! – and finally get a sense of obedience and grace, that I am really here in the service of something else, bigger and better than I can easily understand or speak of.
I get much of the same thing when I do the services of stretches and exercises that Michael Murphy and George Leonard put together in “The Life We Are Given,” a very good book. It ends with some yoga asanas that leave me feeling thankful and right-sized; like I have done and will do good work: an obedient servant.
So I sit here with first cup of coffee to my left, writing on my laptop with Janis Ian on the iTunes , and certainly that is devotional work for me, even links me up with the larger community, church or sangha as you like; but does it keep me balanced, give me foundation, make me remember what I am about and what I serve?
The tentative answer is a qualified yes, but still....