Vast Insight Surpassing Wisdom

[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names (in the example below, “Quingrang”), Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters, so Quingrang becomes “Light-Inception Peak.” Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]

The Case:

A monk asked Master Light-Inception Peak: “The Buddha of Vast Insight and Surpassing Wisdom sat in meditation for ten kalpas on Buddha-Way Terrace, but the Buddha-dharma never took shape for him. How is it, in all that time, he never wholly became Buddha-Way’s turning seasons?”

“A question to the point exactly,” replied Light-Inception.

But the monk persisted: “After all that meditation on Buddha-Way Terrace, how is it he never wholly became the Buddha-Way?”

“Because he never became a Buddha.”

Setsusho’s Verse

Deaf monk sits beneath a dead branch

Half moon hangs in the sky

In Kenosha, Jacob Blake

Lies in hospital, spine severed

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-21-20

Reusable sandwich bag on our baggie drying rack.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-21-20

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans. I chose the Scripture text for the coming Sunday because we’re planning an outdoor pet blessing, safely physically distanced, no congregational singing. This weekend will be our first attempts at in person public events since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in March. 

Saturday we’ll be hosting an outdoor funeral for long time church member Shirley Young. (We had a “private” baptism last Sunday, originally planned for outdoors, but then quickly moved inside because of rain.) Prior to COVID, these would be familiar events and rituals. Now they are more complicated, more demanding, and–on the positive side of the ledger–an opportunity for our church to come together to do the “normal” things we do. Today (Tuesday) a group of us met at the church to set up a large tent to accommodate our funeral guests. It was good to work together on a task, chat, and look each other in the eyes.

Pet blessing is a great opportunity to remember our emotional and spiritual connection to non-human life on this planet. Many of us know the joy of greeting our pets when we wake up in the morning or when we come home from being away for any length of time. We have known sorrow when a pet dies. Or the contentment of snuggling with something furry. We talk to our pets, feed them, mourn them. They are family.

It is important to remember our intimate connection to non-human life for two reasons: 1) our faith, 2) our continued existence as a species on this planet. Caring for creation is an essential expression of our Christian faith. In our text for this Sunday, St. Paul writes that the whole creation “groans” waiting for humanity to get its act together. God created Earth and humanity as one organic whole. When we harm the planet, we’re harming ourselves. Which leads to reason #2: Scientists have been warning for decades about the devastating impacts of climate change. Life on this planet will continue despite anthropogenic climate change. The question is, Will this transformed planet still be habitable for humans? We have a shrinking window to make the changes necessary to minimize the impacts that are already happening. The time for humanity to get its act together is now.

Gateless Gate 8: What-Next Invents Cartwheel

Hoop Old Cart Broken Round Woodworm

[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. Following that is “Setsusho’s” response!]

Case

Master Moon-Shrine Mountain asked the monks: “When What-Next invented the cartwheel, it had a hundred spokes. But what if hub and rim are broken off, spokes scattered away–do you understand the bright clarity of what it could do then?”

Setsusho’s verse

Deaf monk hears with eyes

Sparkling ripples slapping the raft

As he and Huck and Jim

Light out for the territories

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-14-20

Sporty Red

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-14-20

I had two experiences in the last two weeks that changed my perspective on the accessibility movement for people with disabilities: 1) I listened to a podcast on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act; 2) I had my regular visit to the audiologist.

I’m writing to this topic not only because of these experiences but also because I’m wondering if a part of our vision for the future of First Congregational Church of Granby might be reaching individuals with special needs and their families. I’ll explain, but first my recent experiences.

Did you know there was such a thing as “ugly laws?” I didn’t. That was one of the shocking things I learned listening to the history of the ADA. 

In the United States a number of cities in the 19th century enacted laws that prohibited beggars, poor people, people with mental illness, and people with disabilities from public spaces. An 1881 Chicago law read as follows: 

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense (Chicago City Code 1881).

“An improper person” . . . What a telling line. I had always assumed that the need for making public spaces accessible arose from the ignorance of the able-bodied people designing the spaces. I didn’t realize that the lack of accessibility also arose from a feeling much deeper than that: disgust, embarrassment, that uncomfortable feeling that arises when one encounters someone with obvious physical differences that remind us of the fragility of our own bodies. I am aware of having those feelings myself, for example, when I encounter an amputee or someone with severe mental or physical challenges–particularly, if I haven’t met them before. There is a little moment of adjustment as my mind shifts to encountering this person whose ways of moving through the world are different from mine.

The disabilities movement isn’t only about access to public spaces. The disability movement is saying, “We want you to see us. We are human beings with intrinsic worth. We will not be ashamed of who we are.” This new (for me) perspective resonated with me. I can now see connections with other civil rights movements: racial justice, LGBTQIA+ movements, and women’s movements, for example. 

It also helped me understand the conversations I’ve had again and again with my audiologists over the years. Every time I go in for a new pair of hearing aids (like I did two weeks ago) I get to choose a “color.” There are usually six or seven colors to choose from. Five or six of the colors are different shades of beige, brown, or black–to match skin tone or hair color. But there’s always one color that’s bright. I remember when years ago I chose electric blue. It created quite a bit of consternation for my audiologist and even my family. A few years later I chose emerald green. Once again my audiologist said, “Wouldn’t you rather match your hair?” My newest pair is “sporty red.” Now instead of asking, “Why did you choose that color?” my family asks, “What color did you get!” But my audiologist still somehow felt obligated to ask, “Don’t you want something less visible?” 

Learning the history of the ADA and the “capitol crawl” demonstration of 1990 taught me that visibility is the point.  I invite you to watch the video of Jennifer Keelan, who at 9-years-old got out of her wheelchair, crawled up the steps of the Capitol Building, and changed the world. 

I also invite you to follow the links below for videos of an inspiring weekly worship service called “Parable” developed by Wayzata Community Church, a UCC in Minnesota. 

The service is designed with differently abled people and their families in mind. The joy is infectious. I know it’s difficult to plan during COVID time, but I find this time is a great opportunity to dream. It might seem like a heavy lift for our little church to do something like “Parables,” but perhaps if we partnered with South Church and maybe even East Granby?

In his famous hymn to love the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.”

To be seen and known is to be loved. When we see each other with all of our brokenness and beauty, a new world is possible.

Worship Resource: Pastoral Prayer based on Psalm 23

Hallelujah, I am not alone. Holy God, you walk beside me even through the darkest valley. You walk beside us. Intimate in every way. You feel our fear. You celebrate our joy. You encourage our hope.

Good shepherd, teach us that every moment is your moment, every pasture your domain. Whether you lead us beside still waters or whether our steps take us into the storm’s blast, you are beside us. Your rod and your staff comfort us. 

We often stray. Our discontent, our wish that this moment were somehow other than it is, takes us down all kinds of blind alleys and roads that lead to nowhere. Call us back. Seek us out. Take us in your arms and carry us home, your home, which is right here.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20

Nicole, Fiona, and Olivia at Raye’s Mustard ca. 2010??

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-24-20

Founded in 1900, Raye’s Mustard, located in Lubec, ME, is the oldest, continuously operated stoneground mustard producer in North America. My wife, Nicole, grew up on Raye’s mustard, which she introduced me to when we met many years ago. As a family we’ve been to Raye’s Mustard and toured the facility. It’s amazing to me that they can continue to operate as a profitable business using century-old technology. Inside you can see the giant stones that still turn on the old wooden band and pulley system. I’m a mustard fan, and I’m convinced: Raye’s mustard is the best.

Raye’s Mustard was founded just as the Maine sardine industry was taking off. Mustard was used as a preservative in the canning process, which allowed the perishable fish to be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. During WWI, the U.S. government needed a storable source of protein for the troops overseas, so it contracted with Maine sardine producers to provide for the troops. Maine sardines packed in Raye’s mustard were shipped all over the world making the cannery owners rich. Nicole’s great-grandfather was one of those cannery owners. For a time, Lubec, ME was a thriving town. Until the war ended and the sardines were fished out. Today, the sardine canneries are gone. In fact, Washington County, where Lubec is located, is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. But Raye’s Mustard has been able to adapt and survive. 

The Scripture for this coming Sunday is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The parable starts off ordinary enough: someone plants a mustard seed. What would Jesus’ first hearers expect to follow? From the mustard seed a mustard plant grows. Mustard is a garden plant. It isn’t a shrub; it isn’t a tree, despite the attempts of later interpreters to fit Jesus’ words into modern categories that “make sense.” The point of the parable is precisely that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t always “make sense”; it doesn’t always follow the “natural order” of things. Sometimes in the kingdom of heaven you plant a mustard seed that becomes “the greatest of shrubs” and then, miraculously, becomes a tree! 

It’s the difference between incremental change and discontinuous change. We tend to like incremental change. With incremental change the mustard plant follows from the mustard seed. With incremental change one thing follows logically from the next. We can know what to expect. We can imagine we’re in control. The kingdom of heaven isn’t always like that. The kingdom of heaven is often more like discontinuous change. One plants a mustard seed; one gets a tree. We tend not to like discontinuous change. But are there blessings to be found even in discontinuity? We wanted mustard but we got a tree. And what a beautiful tree! The birds of the air have found a home in it, and their song is beautiful. Discontinuous change isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just unexpected. 

The invitation of the parable is to accept the gifts of the kingdom of heaven even if they are unexpected. The collapse of the sardine industry was an economic and environmental disaster brought on by human greed, not divine will. Nevertheless, Raye’s accepted the gifts of the moment, such as they were, adapted, and grew. We find ourselves in a similar moment of disruption, and I can see how we’re adapting and growing: particularly through the Vitality Team and the Tech Team. While no one wants the disruption of a pandemic, the parable of the mustard seed invites us to expect big, unexpected, beneficial things to grow out of what is currently a time of disruption and loss. 

The Apostle Paul put it this way: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Setsusho’s Verse: Gateless Gate #6: “World Honored One Twirls a Flower”

[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. Following that is “Setsusho’s” response!]

6: WORLD-HONORED HELD FLOWER

Long ago on Spirit-Vulture Peak, Shākyamuni Buddha, the World-Honored One, held a flower up and revealed it to the sangha. Everyone sat in shadowy silence. Then Mahākāshyapa’s face broke into the faintest smile. The World-Honored-One said: “I possess the perfect dharma of the eye’s treasure-house, the nirvana of mind’s mysterious depths, the true form of formlessness, the subtle mystery of the dharma-gate. Not relying on words and texts, outside teaching and beyond doctrine—I here entrust all that to Mahākāshyapa.”

Hinton, David. No-Gate Gateway (p. 18). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

Setsusho’s Verse
Ant crawls across IKEA carpet where a sleepy monk sits.

Amarylis blooms like juice squirting from peeled orange.

Monk, ant, amarylis.

This truth never fails.

Setsusho’s Verse: Gateless Gate #7 “Joshu’s Wash Your Bowls”

[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. Following that is “Setsusho’s” response! Note: “Visitation-Land” is David Hinton’s poetic rendering of famous Zen Master Joshu’s name.]

7: VISITATION-LAND WASH BOWL

A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “I’ve just arrived here in your thicket-forest monastery, Master. Please show me what you have to reveal.” “Have you eaten your mush?” Land asked. “Yes.” “Hurry then, wash your bowl!” At this, the monk was awakened.

Hinton, David. No-Gate Gateway (p. 20). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

Setsusho’s Verse

Bowl specked with cereal sits in the kitchen.

Monk covered in bunny fuzz sits on the sun porch.

Unhindered.

Who washes?

What’s Up with Pastor Todd? 7-17-20

Lolium temulentum a.k.a. darnel or “false wheat”

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-17-20

Several years ago I traveled to Michigan to visit my extended family. Two of my uncles and several cousins are dairy farmers, so I spent time touring the farms that I grew up working and playing on and learning the latest news. At one point the conversation shifted to organic farming. My uncle shook his head. “Yeah, one of our neighbors is farming organically. It doesn’t look like a farm. It’s full of weeds.” Then he went on to explain the point of genetically modifying certain crops is to reduce the need for pesticides. It was a wonderful education in the tough choices modern farmers have to make in order to survive in an era dominated by global agribusiness. 

Scripture for this Sunday’s joint worship service is a parable of ancient agricultural practice. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is known as “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.” “Tares” is an old-fashioned word for “weeds.” Rev. Moon is preaching a series on agricultural themes in the Bible, which feels appropriate to the rural character of our community. 

The Greek word for “tares” or “weeds” in this text actually refers to a very specific kind of plant: darnel, also known as “false wheat.” A brief Internet search informs me that darnel has been known since ancient times. It looks very similar to the more familiar kind of wheat we use to this day to make our bread, cakes, and all kinds of daily staples. Wheat and darnel are almost indistinguishable as young plants, but the fruit of darnel is black instead of the golden color we’re used to. Darnel has its uses, but the grain can sometimes get infected with a fungus that causes illness in humans. All of this added up to a common problem for ancient farmers–sorting the tiny darnel grains from wheat grains at harvest. I can easily imagine that this would be a maddeningly tedious and prohibitively time consuming task. 

So it’s unsurprising that farmers might ask, “Can we eliminate the darnel plants before they mature? That way we don’t have to sort the grain at harvest.” The answer of the parable is “No. Attempting to eliminate the undesirable darnel endangers the desirable wheat. Leave the sorting for the harvest. At that time, the fruit will make plain what is darnel and what is wheat.”

Our spiritual practice is not like modern monoculture. The goal isn’t to eliminate undesirable feelings, experiences, behaviors, or people. The goal is to observe and transform them. Scripture says, “Sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In other words, the goal isn’t to eliminate sorrow, it’s to fully experience it and watch God transform it through faith into joy.” The goal isn’t to change that annoying person but to observe the annoyance arise in our hearts and ask, “What does this person trigger in me that I’d rather not see in myself?” Watch annoyance transform into wisdom. And so on. Observe and let go. Observe and let go. This process can indeed be tedious, time-consuming, and inefficient, but ultimately, the fruit of this organic practice is nothing other than the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. What’s coming up in your garden?