[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, Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters: “Visitation-Land” a.k.a. Zhaozhou/Joshu. Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
Master Visitation-Land stopped at a shrine-master’s hut and called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
The shrine-master simply held up his fist.
“You can’t anchor a boat in water this shallow,” said Land. Then he left.
Later he returned to the shrine-master’s hut and again called out: “Anyone there? Presence? Any Presence there?”
Once more the shrine-master simply held up a fist.
“Ah you–you can offer up and steal away, put to death and bring to life,” said Land. Then he bowed reverently.
The news this week of coronavirus’ spread among our top political leaders reminds us that the pandemic is still very much with us. It is unsettling to think of how the virus is compromising the health of the leaders we count on to guide and protect us. While I pray for President Trump and First Lady Melania’s health along with the many White House staff and congressional leaders this outbreak has affected, I am reminded that each of us hold the other’s health in our hands. Compassion demands care. This is not letting the virus “dominate us”–to use the President’s words. This is simply being sensible. Our faith is not about denying reality. We practice our faith by facing reality and then taking wise action to protect the precious lives God has given into our care. I don’t understand why our President and those around him don’t see what is so obvious to me, but this is the difficult, complicated situation we face.
Regarding the difficult, complicated situation we face: I am so proud of our staff both paid and volunteer. I’m proud of our leadership: Church Council, Trustees, Deacons, Tech Team, our program committees (Vitality, Serve, Explore, Connections, Care Team). I am encouraged by the patience and grace I see in all of you. My “star word” this year is “hopefulness.” When I drew that word from the basket during worship that first Sunday in January, I had no idea that global pandemic was in store for 2020. Nevertheless, I find that 10 months into the year I remain hopeful.
My hope is not that everything will be wonderful and pleasant in the coming months. It seems pretty likely that disappointments, difficulties, and dangers will continue to present themselves. The abundant life that Jesus promises to his followers includes disappointments, difficulties, and dangers along with miracles, bliss, and joy. Abundant life embraces everything.
Psalm 23 says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” This is why I’m hopeful: no matter what the coming months and years will bring, God’s goodness and mercy will never abandon me. Neither will they abandon you.
[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!]
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?”
[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!]
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?”
[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.
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?
I recently heard on a news podcast that something like 70% of Americans think our country is “out of control.” I don’t know where you’re at, but this statistic points to a feeling we’ve been noticing around us and perhaps feeling ourselves for some months now. The recent protests around the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery just add to the generalized feelings of chaos, uncertainty, and grief that we’ve all been facing.
Recently I was invited to join a cohort of clergy and lay people to receive training on hwo to coach individuals and congregations through the COVID pandemic. Training began this week and will continue (online, of course) through the first half of July. We’ve been learning to identify and contextualize the component parts of the circumstances we’re facing in order to more effectively address them and help people through this time.
There are some practices I’d like to suggest that may be helpful in dealing with feelings of grief and feelings of being “out of control.” When circumstances feel out of control, it’s helpful to find ways to “stay grounded.” Staying grounded is a big reason why I spend an hour every morning sitting still and silent, minding my breath. Literally sitting “on the ground” is an incredibly effective way for me to feel “grounded.” Circumstances can be swirling about me, but I know there is a stable place of rest that is always present–literally beneath my feet.
How will you “stay grounded?” Another technique for when you feel out of control is to identify and describe in detail five things near you. For me, it’s the IKEA couch supporting my back, the Sisal trunk that I’m resting my feet on, the roar of a motorcycle engine on the street, the sigh of the breeze through the trees, now the sound and smell of rain. Is the world really coming apart? Yes, in some ways the world is coming apart. In others it’s coming together. And through it all like the finest of thread the rhythms of the universe continue completely unbothered by our small concerns. While some things are out of our control, other things are in our control. Sometimes it’s helpful to focus on the things we can control beginning with where we place our attention.
Many of you are probably familiar with the five stages of grief originally identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross some decades ago: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. Perhaps you weren’t aware that later in her career she identified a sixth stage: meaning-making. Meaning-making is the stage of grief that produces creative new life out of death. For example, parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims creating the organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Or Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, who was recently killed in an encounter with police, testifying before congress in support of police reform.
In the context of our congregational life and our individual lives, I’d like to suggest a powerful question as a tool for meaning-making: “In this time, what are you discovering is ‘essential’ as opposed to merely ‘traditional’?” In other words, what things were we doing before COVID out of mere habit that we’ve found we can do without moving forward? What things have we found we can’t do without that we want to give extra time and attention to moving forward? Loss without a sense of meaning is unbearable. Loss that leads to a simpler, happier, more productive life offers each of us an invaluable opportunity.
Sunday, May 31, 7am: “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd called out for his mother and pleaded with the Minneapolis police officer who had his knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe,” said Mr. Floyd, until he lost consciousness and later died. “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd, an unarmed African American while a white police officer squeezed the life out of him and four other police officers looked on.
When I read the story and watched the video of George Floyd’s death this week I was immediately reminded of Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man who called out, “I can’t breathe,” while a white police officer held him in a choke hold on a Staten Island street corner several years ago.
The stories of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, the nine who were gunned down during a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church–Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson . . . (say their names) are stories of a system of racial violence that goes all the way back to the very founding of our nation; nevertheless, the cry “I can’t breathe” also reminds me of an interview I heard back in March with an Italian doctor responsible for a hospital in Milan overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. He described what it was like to watch his patients die in isolation, their breath cut off as their lungs filled up with fluid. And even though coronavirus doesn’t discriminate based on the color of one’s skin, here in the U.S., people of color are disproportionately dying of the disease because as a nation we refuse to directly confront and address what pastor and activist Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin.” So even in the case of coronavirus, we cannot escape the specter of systemic racism.
Though my chest is tight with grief, anger, and fear on behalf of my family, friends, former parishioners, brothers and sisters in Christ, my neighbors, my neighborhood, my country, I can breathe. And as long as I can breathe I am going to speak out against racism in all its forms wherever I see it. And I see it all around.
Monday, June 1, 3:29pm: Much has transpired in the past 24 hours. While I can only imagine what it’s like for my friends, neighbors, biological family, and faith family of color to experience the repeated traumatization of systemic racism in America, I know that to bear witness to trauma is also to receive that trauma into one’s heart. Emotions in my household remain raw. Nevertheless, I had an encouraging conversation with a small group of Granby town leaders this morning. We are determined to channel the collective energy of our grief and fear into positive action. Our dream is to lead a sacred conversation on race in the town of Granby. I invite you to pray for us, to pray for yourselves and your neighbors, to pray for our town, our nation. I invite all of us to breathe for George Floyd. I invite us to breathe for Eric Garner. I invite us to breathe for all of our brothers and sisters of color who have swung from the lynching tree. I invite us to lament and repent the sin of systemic racism. And then breathe once again, for the healing of your heart, for the healing of our world.
Every Wednesday evening from third grade through eighth grade I would put on my uniform–including the merit badge sash, which I was very proud of–go to church, line up in the “Fellowship Hall” with the other boys according to our grades, and go through the opening exercises of “Cadets,” my church’s more Jesus-y version of Boy Scouts.
The opening exercises included reciting the Cadet’s Pledge, singing the Cadet’s Song (“Living for Jesus”), and reciting the Cadet’s Scripture verse, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).” I liked Cadets. I liked earning the different merit badges for knot tying, wood working, electronics, etc. Of course there was a “Bible” merit badge. One of the things I had to do to earn it was memorize the names of the books of the Bible in order–a helpful skill that I use to this day! I liked the campouts, the fundraising, cameraderie, and I’m grateful to the men who gave their time and resources to mentor young boys like me.
I thought of Cadets when reading the Gospel lectionary for the sixth Sunday of Easter. John 14:15-21 continues Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” which we began studying last Sunday. It’s the Gospel of John’s version of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples before his crucifixion. We study texts like this during the Easter Season to prepare ourselves–as Jesus prepared his followers–to be Christ’s hands and heart for the world. The historical Jesus is a memory. The living Christ is you and I. Contrary to popular belief, loving Jesus is not primarily an emotion. Emotions come and go. Loving Jesus is an action. More importantly, it’s a repeated action. We call repeated action directed toward the object of devotion “spiritual practice.” Worship is spiritual practice, cleaning the kitchen–if it’s done with an awareness of Christ’s presence–can be spiritual practice, donating to the food pantry is spiritual practice, walking the dog can be spiritual practice.
Mother Teresa famously said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Whatever we do–if we do it as Christ’s hands and heart–has the potential to bring us deeper into communion with God and all of life. This is loving Jesus. This is keeping his commandments.