Monday, January 21, 2008

Honoring Dr. King

As we pause to remember and honor the legacy of that greatest of Americans, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I can offer no better meditation than that of Senator Barack Obama. I urge you to take the time to read his sermon delivered yesterday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Here is a part of it:

Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country, we've come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. We've come to believe that racial reconciliation can come easily - that it's just a matter of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the past, and that if the demagogues and those who exploit our racial divisions will simply go away, then all our problems would be solved.

All too often, we seek to ignore the profound institutional barriers that stand in the way of ensuring opportunity for all children, or decent jobs for all people, or health care for those who are sick. We long for unity, but are unwilling to pay the price.

But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a change in attitudes - a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our hearts.

It's not easy to stand in somebody else's shoes. It's not easy to see past our differences. We've all encountered this in our own lives. But what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart - that puts up walls between us.

We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don't think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs. The believer condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the non-believer chides the believer as intolerant.

For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays - on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division across all races and regions; across gender and party. It is played out on television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it even crept into the campaign for President, with charges and counter-charges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation.

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scape-goating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others - all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face - war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What is your deep, driving desire?

Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. - Genesis 6:11-13
The lessons appointed for the Daily Office are bringing us through the creation narrative in Genesis. Too often, we think of that narrative as consisting of the first two chapters of Genesis only; but, beyond the two creation stories we find there, the narrative continues by describing the creation of human culture. What the story tells us is that human civilization if founded on an act of violence fomented by Cain's rivalry with Abel. And from that primal murder the spiral of violence continues until if fills the whole earth.

This is a rather startling idea: that the genesis of human society is an act of violence. It should give us pause when considering the normalcy of everyday violence that we take for granted; the violence upon which we depend to sustain our lifestyle: domination of peoples and cultures, exploitation of workers, and despoliation of the earth itself. These myriad forms of violence make our "way of life" possible. When we stop to think about it, perhaps the idea that human culture is founded upon violence isn't so startling after all.

In the Genesis narrative, God despairs of the possibility of redemption in a world of violence. And yet, through the faithfulness of just one person, Noah, the flood of divine judgment is tempered by the provision of a new beginning, the hope for a different kind of world. All that stands between the total destruction that is the destiny of a world of violence, and the hope of redemption, is the faith of those determined to build a humane society on another basis.
You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny. - Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.5
Only a deep, passionate desire for peace can turn our destiny from the path of destruction that is paved by violence. This is the great spiritual challenge of our day: to become the peace we desire. It is time that the Church gave its undivided attention to shaping our desire for peace and the will to enact that desire. Our preoccupation with sex - and now, with property disputes - is a dangerous distraction from the sin that drove even God to despair: a world founded upon violence.

I suspect that if we attend to our desire for peace, and let go the rivalry and domination that breeds violence, those matters that currently preoccupy the Church would simply disappear.

What is your deep, driving desire?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Who Do You Think You Are?

Who do you think you are?

All of the spiritual masters teach us that the fundamental question is “Who am I” or “What is ‘I’?” The key to true joy, true happiness, true freedom lies in the transformation that occurs when we really engage this question and learn to observe ourselves. Who is this “I” observing “me”?

Jesus said, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34) Spirituality is a matter of right perception of reality, of awareness. And this awareness begins with self-awareness. “You hypocrite,” warns Jesus, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

In his own baptism, Jesus is giving us a sign of the importance of right perception in understanding reality. The ritual act of bathing serves to wash the scales from our eyes, cleansing the lens of perception so that the whole body can be full of light. This is depicted in Jesus’ baptism as the heaven’s opening up, the parting of the veil between ignorance and understanding, darkness and light, to reveal his true identity.

The ritual bath we call baptism condenses in one sacramental moment the meaning of a life-long process of transformation whereby we “wake up” to our true identity. We spend our whole life “washing off” the illusions and attachments that cloud our vision, undergoing a continual letting go of false constructions of our identity to which we cling tenaciously, even as they cause us suffering.

The story is told of a woman in a coma who was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.
“Who are you?” a Voice said to her.
“I’m the wife of the mayor,” she replied.
“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a schoolteacher.”
“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I’m a Christian.”
“I did not ask you what your religion is but who are you?”
“I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.”
“I did not ask you what you did but who you are.”
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.

Anthony De Mello comments after sharing this story: “Your duty is to be. Not to be somebody, not to be nobody – for therein lies greed and ambition – not to be this or that – and thus become conditioned – but just to be.” (Taking Flight, pp. 140-141).

It is very easy for us to confuse our inordinate desires and cultural programming with our identity, and then to become distraught when our desires are unfulfilled or our conditioning bumps up against someone else’s conditioning. We become identified with labels such as I am an “American,” “Republican,” “mother,” “gay,” “Episcopalian,” as if these really defined us. But if I become a Democrat instead of Republican, does the “I” change?

A man asked his friend, “Are you planning to vote Republican?” The friend replied, “No I’m voting Democratic. My grandfather was a Democrat, my father was a Democrat, and by God, I am a Democrat.” The man said, “That’s crazy logic. If your father was a horse thief, and your grandfather was a horse thief, what would that make you?” “Ah,” said his friend, “that would make me a Republican.”

The point is that our convictions are transient. They come with our programming and are subject to change. I am not my ideological persuasion. I am not my thoughts; sit in meditation for any length of time and “I” observe thoughts as distinct from the observer. I am not even my body, or at least, my body is a part of me that changes. Millions of cells in our body are renewed each moment, so that every seven years our bodies are composed of entirely new cells. Cells come and go, just like our thoughts. The “I” remains.

Yet we identify with these transient epiphenomenon, as if our happiness depended upon them, and this causes us suffering. Our attachment to certain pleasures, to acclaim, to financial success, our resistance to criticism, loss, and negative feelings, these are the things to which we cling or we avoid as if our life depended upon them. We thereby gain the world, as Jesus said, but lose our soul. What does it really profit us?

Perhaps the most dangerous form of identification is with religion. A little girl asked her classmate, “Are you a Presbyterian?” “No,” he replied, “I belong to another abomination.” When we cling to religious identities they become abominations – sources of conflict, hatred, and judgment. The lens of perception becomes just as clouded by religious ideology as by any other. As one wit put it, “I see you are a doctor of theology; what kind of disease is that?” A fatal one, I’m afraid.

So, Christian friends, even our Christianity is not something to which we should cling, but a path we are invited to follow to discover who we are. Jesus invites us to imitate him, to be Christ, not to venerate him. He invites us to die to our self so that we might live; to drop our illusions and attachments so that we might become joyous and free. As Meister Eckhart said, “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.”

Who are you? Only you can answer that question, but St. Paul points us in the right direction: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As St. Paul put it, the old man or woman has to die so that the new man or woman can be born, so that Christ, our divine nature, can shine forth. That is what baptism symbolizes – death and rebirth. But what does that look like in daily life?

In his wonderful book, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, the Jesuit mystic Anthony De Mello offers us an outline of the way to discover who we are. It begins with a practice of attention, of self-observation, acknowledging our feelings including the negative ones. This practice yields insight into our inner life and motivations, the multiplicity of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we observe there.

Step one is observation, insight. Step two is realizing that these feelings are in me, not in reality. If I am resentful because my partner didn’t take out the garbage, the resentment is in me, not in him. This yields understanding of the causes and conditions that generate resentment such that I can choose to respond otherwise; perhaps with acceptance or at least action, rather than reaction.

Third, with understanding comes detachment. I don’t have to identify with the resentment. “I” am not resentful. Resentment is simply “there” and I can observe it. It is transient. The feeling will pass. I don’t have to cling to it, creating a whole identity around my resentment.

Finally, with detachment I begin to see that my happiness doesn’t depend upon my partner taking out the garbage. It isn’t him who needs to change, but rather me. When I change, everything else changes. When I am able to drop the resentment, I can begin to perceive myself and my partner, to perceive reality, clearly and compassionately. In Christian terms, “I” can observe “me” dying and Christ being born. This is the transformation that brings joy and freedom. It is the end of suffering, the end of the power of sin and death to define us. God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Insight, understanding, detachment, transformation: this is the life long process of living into our baptism. Once we have removed the log from our own eye, then we can begin to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye, and act (not react) in ways that promote healing and reconciliation in the world. If we fail to take the time to observe ourselves, to discover who we are, then we become like the exhausted woodcutter who kept wasting time and energy chopping wood with a blunt ax because he did not have the time, he said, to stop and sharpen the blade.

Who do you think you are? Isn’t it time to sharpen the blade?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sharpening the Blade

From Anthony De Mello's Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations:

When the Master invited the Governor to practice meditation and the Governor said he was too busy, this is the reply he got: "You put me in mind of a man walking blindfolded into the jungle - and being too busy to take the blindfold off." When the Governor pleaded lack of time, the Master said, "It is a mistake to think that meditation cannot be practiced for lack of time. The real reason is agitation of the mind."

. . .

There was an exhausted woodcutter who kept wasting time and energy chopping wood with a blunt ax because he did not have the time, he said, to stop and sharpen the blade.

. . .

Meditation or in Western terms, contemplation, "non-discursive" prayer, is the means of "sharpening the blade" of perception so that we can inhabit time mindfully rather than "wasting' it. If we fail to sharpen the blade, we find our selves blinded by ego, fear, and resentment, living in the past or the future, rather than attending with awareness to what is right in front of us, right now.

Those of us who have a passion for justice cannot afford to forego spending time sharpening the blade, lest we only exacerbate the causes and conditions that lead to the suffering we wish to heal. Sharpening the blade is the precondition for action that makes a positive difference, rather than merely reacting in ways that keep the cycle of suffering spinning.

Even Jesus took time alone to pray. If he needed to "sharpen the blade," what makes us think that we can do without it?