[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.
[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.
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.
It’s difficult to know what the lessons of the week will be on Monday morning. This is always true. Human beings have a notoriously mixed record in the future-predicting business. Last week was a great example. The first part of the week was what has become “normal schedule.” Monday: get “to do” list from Sue, start at the top with creating Zoom links for the week’s program schedule, write “What’s Up with Pastor Todd,” do the Monday “Daily Devotional,” create staff meeting agenda, write worship for the coming Sunday, and so on.
By Thursday all my plans for the weekend had been blown out of the water. My oldest daughter, Fiona, got a message from her boyfriend, Riku, that his building was under emergency evacuation. Within 30 minutes Fiona and I were driving to Chicago to pick him up and bring him to Connecticut. This circumstance changed meeting plans, worship plans, sleeping and eating plans. What was up with Pastor Todd on Friday was very different from What was up with Pastor Todd on Monday. Here I am today facing yet another Monday and asking, “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?”
I suppose one solution would be to wait until Friday to write my column, but I’ve found it a helpful discipline to begin the week with a self check-in. And the truth is, even in an unusually disrupted week like the last one, parts of what I had written on Monday were still relevant when it came time to preach the following Sunday. My Monday self check-in ended up being a gift to my very different reality seven days later.
There’s a common principle of spiritual practice that encourages us to “be here now.” Mindfulness teaches us to “stay in the present moment.” But I find that this doesn’t exclude looking forward and looking back. Rather, it includes both and gives a stable place from which to reflect on the past and anticipate the future.
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?