What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-18-21
You’ve probably heard of the “golden rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). It’s part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Versions of the golden rule are found in many other sacred texts from other religions, including a version that is known as the “silver rule”: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done to you.”
I recently encountered the “silver rule” applied to the practice of reaching new people in the book Religious Diversity, What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity by Rita M. Gross. Dr. Gross is Professor Emertia of Comparative Religious Studies at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Senior Dharma Teacher in the Nyingma Lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. Her book was recommended to me by one of the members of Harvard Divinity School’s Harvard Pluralism Project, which I participate in as a representative of the United Church of Christ.
Reaching new people is a mission component of almost every organization–profit and not-for-profit–because every organization is made of people and no individual person lasts forever. So if an institution wants to continue–much less grow–some intentional effort is required. There are many thoughts on how to reach new people as without them no church will survive in the long term, so I thought I would take the opportunity that the consolidation process raises to define more precisely the theology of reaching new people for myself in the hope that others might find it helpful. Dr. Gross’ distinction between universal religion and exclusive religion helpful in this regard.
A universal religion is one that is based on ideas that are potentially relevant to everyone. The three great universal religions are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Since these religions are based on ideas, they can adapt to many cultures and easily spread around the world. Reaching new people is an important part of universal religions.
A universal religion may or may not also be an exclusive religion. A universal religion is exclusive when it says both “Our religion is true for everyone” and “Everyone else’s beliefs are false.” Historically, Christianity and Islam are both universal and exclusive. The project of the universal and exclusive religion is to eliminate religious diversity. When religious monoculture is the end, all kinds of ethically questionable means are justified. The other option is exemplified by Buddhism, which is a universal religion but not exclusive. In other words, Buddhists believe that theirs is a universal truth that is potentially helpful for everyone, but there is no expectation that everyone must become Buddhist. In fact, for some people Buddhism isn’t particularly meaningful, and that’s just fine. Buddhism is universal and pluralist, that is, accepting of many religions and beliefs.
A universal and pluralist religion follows the “silver rule” when reaching new people: “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” Do you want someone pushing their religion on you? No? Then don’t do that. Would you like an invitation from a friend to something you’re interested in? Do do that. My approach to reaching new people is informed by Buddhist practice: I try to be invitational without being overbearing. I try to invest in people without expecting anything in return. I try to respect the dignity and inherent worth of every individual. It’s not my intention to eliminate difference; rather, love invites me to join with all beings in celebration of our God-given, baffling, and beautiful diversity.
[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.
River pools below two boulders
Hermit swims long strokes
Against the current
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-22-20
This Sunday marks both the seventh Sunday of the Easter Season and Memorial Day weekend. The gospel lectionary for this Sunday is John 17:1-11. Jesus has been giving his disciples an extended farewell address following what would be their last supper together. Chapter 17 contains the concluding prayer of Jesus’ farewell address.
My years learning the crafts of preaching and writing have taught me to pay special attention to endings. For example, while I may go off script while preaching the body of a sermon, I always make sure I have a carefully crafted final sentence that will bring my homiletical flights in for a landing. Of all the things one might write or say, folks tend to remember the ending.
Another rhetorical strategy for helping an audience retain information is repetition. In his concluding prayer Jesus repeats the phrase “that they may all be one.” This is the message that Jesus wants to leave his disciples–that he wants to leave us: “that they may all be one.” It also happens to be the motto of the United Church of Christ: That they may all be one.
The UCC motto “That they may all be one” caught my attention while I was a divinity school student. I had left the denomination of my upbringing and was searching for a new church home. While I didn’t know a lot about the UCC, I thought Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, his dream for the world, was a great foundation upon which to build my faith, my vocation, my career.
Over the past 20+ years I’ve learned a few things about the prayer that they may all be one. The most important is this: on the most fundamental level of reality, the level that is beyond human comprehension, we are always already one. In other words, Jesus’ prayer is less an expression of a goal he wants us to achieve and more a description of a reality he wants us to wake up to.
Buddhists use the metaphor of waves and the ocean to explain the confusion we experience around unity and separation. Like waves each one of us is a manifestation of the movement of the great ocean. We are never at any moment not a part of the ocean. In fact, waves are the ocean. We are one with God. We are one with each other. At all times. What affects the ocean affects the waves. What affects the waves affects the ocean. It would be ridiculous for a wave to say, “I am not the ocean,” or for a wave to say to another wave, “You have nothing to do with me.” Yet, that is how we humans too often behave. We act as if an injury to one has nothing to do with us. We wallow in self-pity thinking we are bereft and alone. We become envious or annoyed with others thinking their words or behavior are somehow personally directed at us when more often than not, they are just rolling along, manifesting as one small crest on this great, ever active womb of life.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-7-20
My family and I had a wonderful holiday together in Windsor. We took some time off to focus on reconnecting. Fiona and her boyfriend (who is from Tokyo and stayed with us this winter break) cooked for us. My sister and her family of 6 (!) stayed with us for a week. They filled our sleeper sofas and bunk beds. Olivia directed the Christmas pageant here at FCC Granby and worked lifeguarding shifts at the Jewish Community Center. Even in this age of virtual reality and social media, there is no substitute for simply sharing space. While physical proximity does not guarantee intimacy, it is a key factor for cultivating closeness. (Which, just to drive the point home, is why there is no substitute for dragging your _____ to worship on Sunday morning.)
This week I’ve been settling back into a work rhythm. The answer to “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?” is “a lot.” I’m sitting in my office with the “to do” list Office Manager Sue prepares for me every week, to which I typically add a dozen or so more items. My view is that if my “to do” list doesn’t exceed my ability to complete it, I’m not living big enough. How do I avoid a constant state of overwhelm? Prioritizing and letting go. Even so, sometimes it’s difficult to prioritize. So many things demand attention. In these moments I use a tool I’ve learned in many years of meditation practice: focus on what’s in front of you. Sounds simple enough. But then the question becomes How do I get the things in front of me that are most consistent with my goals and values? This brings me back to the practices of inviting Sue to partner with me in creating a “to do” list and literally putting it on my desk where I will see it. This brings me back to the “big rocks” of Scripture study, sermon preparation, writing liturgy, namely, the spiritual practices that ground me in what is of ultimate importance.
One of my favorite Buddhist Scriptures is called “The Five Remembrances.” It’s part of an ancient text attributed to the Buddha entitled “Subjects for Contemplation.” The fifth remembrance is this: “My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of all my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.” The only place to act is here. The only time to act is now. What are you doing right here, right now? What practices help you align your deeds with your values? Who are your “closest companions?” Are they hindering you on your spiritual journey or propelling you forward? What is your “ground?” Is it a solid place on which to stand?
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 11-6-19
I’m sitting in the Burbank Hollywood Airport waiting for my flight to Hartford. The screen on the wall chatters with a morning show. Around me people take, then vacate the seats at the gate as their flights board. My flight to Hartford isn’t for a couple of hours, so I have an opportunity to let you know what’s up!
I’m returning after spending a couple of days in Los Angeles. My trip had a dual purpose. The primary purpose was to serve as the UCC delegate to the National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian dialogue, which took place on Tuesday at Hsi Lai Temple, a Chan Buddhist temple, in Hacienda Heights. The secondary (although a very close second) was to visist my daughter, Olivia, who is a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The dialogue was interesting. This is our second time meeting. This is how it goes. About twenty of us, Buddhists and Christians of different flavors, sit at a large oval table in a conference room and listen while members of the group make presentations on different topics that the group has previously identified. I was asked to speak to the topic of “Renunciation and Repentance.” Others topics for this dialogue included Buddhist and Christian perspectives on social justice and Buddhist and Christian perspectives on “ultimate reality.” I could tell that the group was going deeper compared to last dialogue because this time “difference” was allowed to arise in the group.
What do I mean by “difference was allowed to arise?” At one point we were talking about Buddhist reincarnation as it relates to Christian salvation. One of the Christians tried to make a connection between the two concepts. The Buddhist presenter shook his head and said, “No, they are not the same.” The conversation then shifted to a discussion of language and its limitations when faced with ultimate reality, which, by definition, is unspeakable.
The purpose of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue is to build connections across religious differences. The first impulse in building connections is to look for commonalities. We naturally do this when we meet someone new. “Where are you from?” one might ask. “Sacramento,” she says. “Oh, my cousin lives near there,” you say. And on it goes. We relax. There’s a good feeling. We’re not so different after all. And we aren’t. A foundational claim for both Buddhists and Christians is that all of life is connected. But if we stay in this easy place of “we’re all the same,” are we really getting at the truth?
Recognizing difference is vital to genuine connection. Integrity has boundaries. It is able to say both “yes” and “no.” Difference gives energy, variety, and beauty to life because difference is also truth. The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Difference can feel sharp. It can feel scary. “What’s happening? Will we lose our connection? Will we argue? Will we fight?” Healthy dialogue allows both commonalities and differences to arise without getting caught in any of them. Instead, we calmly apprise and appreciate them. Commonality and difference. Connection and disconnection. This is the path to truth and beauty. This is the way of the unspeakable.