And We Both Shall Row
A very dear friend of mine is working through the end stages of his relationship with the man he has been with for over twenty years. Because it is a same-sex relationship, there is no legal marriage to dissolve, no messy divorce procedures to endure. The emotional and spiritual suffering is still there, the anguish of the loss is still there, of course. My heart aches for the path he faces. My wife and I are on the eve of our fifteenth anniversary, to be celebrated March third. Our marriage has lasted through significant difficulty. We have sailed through our share of troubled water and now find ourselves with a depth of years beneath us, clear skies ahead and a fresh wind running along side. It could have been otherwise.
As I approach this milestone in our relationship and see the glorious beauty of many other relationships around me, I also the relationships that did not last, my parents, my brother’s marriages, my friend’s, and so many others around us. I see those who struggle to make their relationship work and others who make it seem so effortless. My wife and I have had to work hard, endure much, and with laughter and forgiveness see each other through these past fifteen years. What are the qualities needed to make it work? What are the hallmarks of a good marriage?
When I speak of marriage this morning, I intend it to mean marriage as it will one day be defined. According to the newspaper a State Supreme Court Justice ruled just this past Friday that “the New York State Constitution guarantees basic freedoms to lesbian and gay people – and that those rights are violated when same-sex couples are not allowed to marry.” We’ll have to see how this goes in the Court of Appeals in Albany, but think it is only a matter of time before enough people affirm what it says on the big blue banner outside our front door, that Civil Marriage is a Civil Right! So, when I speak of marriage this morning, I speak of heterosexual marriage as well as what is now called holy union or partnership. I speak of the relationship regardless of the sexual orientation of the partners in that relationship. And so I ask, what are the hallmarks of a good marriage?
As many of you will have noticed, I have appealed to the wisdom of the congregation to help with this sermon, to help me articulate the qualities needed in a good relationship of this sort. I asked you to send me your thoughts and reflections on what has made your marriage or partnership work. I received many wonderful responses considering the lateness of the call, (the newsletter with my request for your participation only got into your hands a few days ago.)
I asked my own children what they thought were the important qualities needed for a good marriage or partnership and Brin answered immediately, “Humor.” Keenan thought a moment and said “Mutual respect, and trust.” They were quite for another moment and Keenan said “Oh, and love.” “Oh, well, yeah.” As if it was an afterthought. As I laughed, Keenan rushed in to clarify, “I mean as opposed to money or looks.” To which Brin said, “Yeah, Love is more important, but we’re doing ok with money!” Someone once said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
My wife liked what they offered and added communication to the top of her list. Without open communication little else is possible. She also told me marriage is like a dance where you have to know the steps but also how to improvise. Lindberg had used the same analogy to dancers in the meditation this morning saying we are, “partners in the same pattern.”
Toby Anderson sent this:
Here’s my two cents: Each should give the other room to change and grow, then accept and support the change and growth. In the space provided, affection will flourish.
This advice follows that which was offered by Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote, “A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude.” Now, the guardian of Toby’s solitude also offered a few words of wisdom. Libby Anderson wrote:
After almost 44 years I think that I’d say: Love, Laughter, and good conversations are really important. The good conversations come from each finding the other to be interesting. When any crisis occurs it is important to hold on to each other. It gives each partner more strength and deepens the love.
I found it fascinating that one suggested the need to give each one space while the other suggested the need to hold on to each other. As Rilke said, we must be guardians of each other’s solitude, but we must likewise let the other in. We must be equally independent but also mutually dependant. It is a strange mix to talk about but a natural thing to experience. I think many people get caught, however, by going overboard with the dependant part. At least if you listen to the music on the radio. So often the love songs talk about you fill me or complete me or lift me up or how I can’t live without you. I do remember a lyric from the sixties or seventies, (I can’t remember the artist now,) but it said, “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly you’ll loose control.” It is a balance that is needed. Balance seems to have been the watch word of my adult life.
Sara Clavez sent me a wonderful quote that seems to sum this idea up: “Love, like water, can be held only in the open hand.” It is held, but it is also open.
I picked up an e-mail from Kit Hartman yesterday evening that also carries these ideas. She wrote,
Hi Doug, I’m pleased you want to hear from me and have been mulling over in my mind what to say. A cartoon came to mind. George had it pinned to the bulletin board in the kitchen. I think it was Broom Hilda, portrayed in just two panels. One says to the other, “Marriage is when two live together as one,” and the other replies in the second panel, “Yes, but which one?”
I think of two things in regard to marriage. One must place the other above all others, with the exception of a terribly ill child. One must stand sentinel at the gate of the other’s privacy. This second “must” is a steal from a Rilke poem I read long ago. I suppose “must” is a bit stuffy but so be it.
Raney Colvill wrote to me saying, “A solid close relationship with another is one of the most difficult things to achieve.” Raney’s comments covered a lot of ground and I want to share a few of the things she sent me.
I believe that marriage is not 50-50. Each should try to do his/her share but more if needed, esp. if partner is tired, stressed, ill, or hurting in some way. Somewhere I read that a good marriage is when each partner thinks he is fortunate that he married his partner and that his partner does more to make the marriage successful than he does.
Some one mentioned to me (between services during the coffee hour) that she recalled a minister saying that marriage is not 50-50 but 75-75! This certainly fits with what Raney is saying. And she picks up a different point when she writes:
I think it is perhaps more difficult to stay married today because one’s expectations are often higher than when people married years ago. Also, if one has never experienced death or loss of a loved one, failure or at least somewhat difficult times in some way, it may be extremely difficult for them to cope. What I am trying to say as somewhere in one’s life one must develop at least minimal coping skills as far as stress goes before marriage will be successful unless they are a quick study.
Raney’s thoughts about needing coping skills to deal with stress reminded me of a saying. “Marriages are made in heaven. But, again, so are thunder, lightning, tornados and hail.” There will be difficulty and trouble. There will be struggles, and it is important to have adequate coping skills and a solid foundation for your relationship to weather the storms.
Ron Kissick spoke with me on the phone yesterday and the first question he asked me was, “Do you want me to avoid a lot of technical phrases and jargon?” Ron works with couples for a career. He told me that he had learned that the most basic behavior that makes for a quality relationship is a consistent pattern of appreciation. He told me it works in his relationship and in the council he gives to others. To develop a consistent pattern of appreciation with your partner is to develop habits and rituals that call attention to the relationship you share and to the love you build together. It calls for a positive outlook and sharing your wishes, hopes, and dreams with each other. Ron told me this was the core basic foundation of a relationship. If you could hold the positive outlook by sharing your hopes and dreams with each other, and maintain the consistent pattern of appreciation, then, he said, “It makes the struggles doable; not easy, just doable.”
Jeff Donahue reflected on his relationship with his wife, Kay Glasgow and wrote to me:
I don’t think I have anything profound to tell you about successful relationships … the only thing I can think of that’s helped Kay & me is to take the time to have fun and to explore. Concerts, dinners with friends, playing with our pets, and traveling to new places have all contributed to our successful relationship. We have fun together as well as apart — each of us has interests we pursue independently, and I think that keeps us energized, intrigued, and vital.
One couple from our congregation who has been together for almost nine years, reflecting on what it takes to make a relationship work, responded by saying, “Well it’s probably cliché, but the key is communication and mutual respect.” If I were to go back through what everyone sent to me or mentioned to me I think she would be right, it probably is cliché, but there it is: communication and mutual respect. She picked up on another theme as well when she said that she and her partner “are not joined at the hip. We are not like some of those couples who can’t do anything apart. We each have our own interests and passions.” She talked about how they each have their own interests, but they have found ways to enjoy each other’s interests; not because they are interested in the same things, but because they are interested in each other. Another facet of the success of their relationship is in how they deal with problems. “We don’t hide from our disagreements or go off in a huff and then pretend like it never happened. We always discuss it, especially if it is a recurring theme.”
In all of the reading I had done in leading up to this sermon, there was only one piece I wanted to lift up alongside all the wonderful comments all of you had to offer. The piece is one of the essays in the book my colleague Scott Alexander edited about five years ago entitled Everyday Spiritual Practice. The essay I’m thinking of is entitled “Partnership as Spiritual Practice” by Brian Kiely, a UU minister from Alberta Canada. Kiely writes, “I have to work hard to find the elusive equilibrium between me, thee, and us. In fact, for me, partnership has become a spiritual discipline, practiced habitually, intentionally, and with the awareness that the reward is not in the mystical moments of perfect union, but in the journey through the years together.”
This, I believe, is the crux of so much of what has been offered by so many of you. A spiritual practice is something you work at. It caught up in the concept of intentionality. Shoveling the driveway or chasing after a toddler may be good for your physical health but it is not akin to jogging or maintaining an exercise routine. What is missing in the former is the intentionality of a practice or discipline. A marriage can have moments where the behaviors and qualities we have mentioned appear, and it may be enough to hold the relationship together. You may give gifts on anniversaries and birthdays or have tender moments while making up after a fight. But without the regular attention given to the relationship on a day to day level, there will be little reserve built up to get you through the turmoil, mistakes, lapses of judgment, and changes that pervade every relationship.
A common wedding and holy union element these days is a unity candle. This is a ritual where there are two taper candles lit ahead of time. These two candles represent the individuals joining their lives together. A third candle, usually a large pillar candle, is in the center. As the couple uses the two smaller candles to lit the big center candle I tell them it represents the new life into which they now enter. It represents a new way of being for them, a way of being together. I always tell them before hand to not extinguish the two taper candles because they represent their individuality which does not cease to exist with the creation of their marriage bond. And because there was one time I didn’t tell them this and it took all my control to not stop the wedding and relight the two small candles the bride and groom had blown out after lighting the center candle.
Kiely said he has to “work hard to find the elusive equilibrium between me, thee, and us.” The spiritual disciplines he uses enhance his experience of what the third candle represents. This third piece is the relationship itself and it requires as much attention as the two participants involved. And, of course, any relationship carries this element. A relationship between siblings, parent and child, best friends, or lovers will have the elements of me and thee and that which is between us, that which is us. Marriages and same-sex partnerships have, however, a distinction from all other relationships in the depth of intimacy. And perhaps you have heard that the deepest most personal levels of intimacy are also connected to the highest levels of ultimacy. And as such, marriage can be yet another path to God. After fifteen years, I feel I am getting close.
If we can look at our marriages like spiritual practices requiring patience and ritual and attention, we may find the return is like that which any other spiritual practice offers. We will see and understand more about ourselves as individuals and about the world around us, we will grow and deepen and be strengthen. Like yoga or prayer or journaling, with practice and attention on a daily level, your significant relationships can become a vessel for intimacy and growth. With practice, your marriage can be as a boat that will help you weather the storms and carry you into the most intimate heart of life and blessing.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Gracious and loving God,
From whom all things come and to whom all things return
We gather this hour as a people of faith
bound together by our common search for meaning and depth in life.
We pause in our journeys to breath in the nurturing power of our felt community.
Each of us gathered holds our own assortment of joys and sorrows, burdens and blessings
Each of us gathered carries great gifts to offer and deep hungers and pain.
We give thanks this hour for this day, cold and harsh though it may be,
we give thanks for it because it is life, vibrant life.
We give thanks for the multitude of blessings that fill our days
in the form of friends and work and health and love.
And we give thanks for unknown blessings yet to come.
In gratitude we also lift up to thee our needs,
Where there is struggle and hardship, may there be courage.
Where there is adversity, may there be strength of spirit
Where there is heartache and despair, may there be hope and companionship for the journey.
This we ask in the name of all that is holy,
May it be so.
Reading “Vocation” by Frederick Buechner
It comes from the Latin Vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. It is the work that he is called to in this world, the thing he is summoned to spend his life doing. We can speak of a man’s choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation’s choosing the man, of a call’s being given and a man’s hearing it, or not hearing it.
And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing. Listen to your life. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you and probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Stepping Out of the Boat
January 23, 2005
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The point of my sermon today is to convince you all to get out of the boat. But before I can explain that better, I must first tell you two stories.
A monk sat on the banks of the Ganges River with one of his students. As they watched the water flow by, a large scorpion making its way along the steep banks fell into the water and began to struggle and drown. Without hesitation, the monk reached in and pulled the scorpion from the water. As he placed it on the bank it stung his hand.
Several minutes later this same scorpion fell again into the river and commenced to drown. Again the monk reached in and again was stung as he set the scorpion on the bank.
A third time the scorpion fell and a third time it was retrieved by the monk with the same results.
The student could no longer restrain himself. “Master,” he asked, “Why is it that you keep saving that beastly scorpion from drowning? Can’t you see that it is just going to sting you?”
“Yes, I know it is going to sting me,” laughed the monk. “It is the dharma of a scorpion to sting. But it is my dharma to save.” (Elisa Pearlmain, ed, Doorways to the Soul. p 1)
So I’ve been reading this first story for several years now. At first I thought: Yes, yes! Life is like that, my calling is like that. This story is my story because it reminds me that the painful times in this journey have been useful and have deepened and furthered my calling. Later, at other times when I would read this, I tried to change the ending of the story. Why didn’t the monk fling the scorpion several feet away from himself and the water? Or maybe the scorpion was trying to get to the water for some important, though obscure, reason; and this monk was preventing it from doing what it needed to do? Or even, why not grab a stick and let the scorpion climb onto the stick, or use the stick to push the scorpion toward shore and safety? I was looking for a way to take the sting out of the story. But the sting is a part of the story, the sting is a part of life.
This story is about living the life you are called to live despite the external pressures to live otherwise. This story is about having a calling, a vocation. Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and author wrote in his book, Let Your Life Speak, “from our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us. We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.” (p 5)
This story about the monk and the scorpion asks, “What is your high vision for yourself as a positive force in the world?” Or, “How is your life a reflection of God’s love?” But it also holds the warning that life is not without its sting! If you choose to live and work and love in a way that is consistent with your inner voice, you will undoubtedly suffer for it in some manner.
Childbirth is the archetypal image of the pain felt in the process of becoming. Listen to the deep yearning within you, calling you to be in the world in a way you had not thought possible. Maya Angelou, in speaking about the powerful forces at play in the process of becoming, said, “Nobody knows what it costs the bulb, a tulip bulb or an onion bulb, to split open so that green tendril of life can slip out.” That sting is a part of life.
But I am leading us deeper into that sometimes hard edge of vocation, which is a valuable point to explore, but is not where I really want to spend my time. I really want to look at the breadth of this topic and how it applies to you. Vocations and ministries are not reserved for ministers. Everyone can tap into that. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
UU colleague, Roy Phillips recognized some of this and began leading workshops about ten or twenty years ago encouraging members of his church to discover their callings, to discover, as he put it, their ministries. In his book, Transforming Liberal Congregations for the New Millennium, he writes about this:
Liberal congregations need – and I believe are on the brink of – a paradigm shift from membership to ministry. We will see more and more of it as the new millennium approaches. People now seen as members of an organization that delivers them spiritual care will come to view themselves as part of a community of lay ministers expressing their unique core gifts and values in personal and shared ministry – in their homes and congregations, among their friends and strangers, and in their workplaces. (Roy Phillips, Transforming Liberal Congregations for the New Millennium. p 18.)
This concept of Share Ministry that so many people are talking about nowadays is rooted in an understanding of what we are all about as a congregation. I’ve heard that the Quakers have been waiting for a grand change to take place in the culture of churches. They await the remarkable transformation that would accompany the abolition of the laity. Gee, if we get rid of all the laity, all we would have left is the ministry! This is the very shift that Phillips was promoting about ten years ago with his little book, a shift from membership to ministry.
I told you I would need to tell you two stories before I could explain the title of my sermon, “Stepping Out of the Boat.” The second story is from the Bible and it is about Jesus walking on the water. The story of Jesus walking on the water has a fascinating twist that most people don’t talk about. The scene happens in three of the Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and John. In all three, Jesus and the disciples had just finished feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus sends everyone away and tells the disciples to get in the boat and go ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee. He then goes off to be alone for a bit and pray.
Later that night, while the disciples are rowing hard through a storm, the waves are splashing into the boat and the wind is whipping around them, they look up and there is their master, their rabbi, walking toward them on the water. So, what would you do if you were in that boat? They were terrified, according to the report. They thought they were seeing a ghost! They cried out in fear! And Jesus says, “Don’t worry, it’s just me.” And then we find the fascinating twist: Two of the gospel narratives skip this next part and just say, “Then they all landed safely on the other side.” But the Gospel of Matthew adds this part: Jesus is walking toward the boat and says, “Fear not, it is I.” And Peter answers him saying, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “Come!” So Peter gets out of the boat and walks over toward Jesus. Now we’ve got two guys out there walking on the water!
I must admit I was pretty surprised to find this in there. Peter was walking on the water too! I didn’t grow up Christian with these stories being told to me over and over again. I think I actually read the Jefferson Bible before I read the regular full version; and Jefferson’s Bible does not have any of the miracles or healing stories, no virgin birth or resurrection. What is missed when you cut out all the miracles and healings is the opportunity to look past these non-rational supernatural elements in the story and to read yourself into the text at the metaphorical level, to read even the healings and miracles as parables for better living.
So I read this story not as two men actually walking around on water, but as a metaphor about faith and power and the capacity of people like you and me to do things beyond what we thought ourselves capable of. I read this as you and me walking around on the water, living deeply powerful lives. I read this as all of us stepping out of the boat and walking around together sharing the task of living life at a level of depth and power. I am calling to you to come, step out of the boat and join me. You have to be careful when your minister starts comparing himself to Jesus, but it only looks like I’m putting myself in Jesus’ sandals because I’m the one saying “come.” At another time, someone or something called me out of the boat, I’m just calling now for you to get out of the boat too. Later on, perhaps it will be you calling another to come and join us out on the water.
What does it mean to step out of the boat? It means, you are not stuck in the position of a consumer who has shown up this morning looking to get your needs met. Instead, you can see yourself in the position of a co-creator with everyone else in the room, with Vicky at the piano or Gail at the organ and me up here in the pulpit. We’ve all shown up here to create this event together, to co-create this worship moment. Get out of the boat! And throughout your week and indeed throughout your life you are a co-creator with even God, however you conceive God to be. Get out of the boat!
We have as our first principle in Unitarian Universalism the statement that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. We couple that a few principles down with a commitment to the democratic process and it turns out that every one of you here has a calling to which you can respond. Get out of the boat! Ministers are trained to be soloists first. What’s needed is a choir, what’s needed is a whole host of singers to let the harmonies and rhythms role across the waters.
One evangelical minister lamented how his congregation seemed stuck, and he used the analogy of a passenger train’s brake system to describe his church. It seemed to him that every one had access to the brake cord and could pull it at any time forcing the entire locomotive to screech to a halt. All of these wonderful powerful people were situated on committees and boards and positions of power, but all they could do was pull the brake cord. Like the train, there was only one accelerator, located in the front of the train. Access to the accelerator was limited to the ordained clergy. “So in most cases a multitude of boards and committees serve mainly to prevent new vision from taking the church beyond the status quo.” (Carl George, Preparing Your Church for the Future. p 37) OK, so I’m passing out accelerators toady. This is about shared ministry, this is about power. Get out of the boat!
“We are seeing a paradigm shift from membership to ministry,” Phillips wrote. Each of us shares in the ministry. You may think you are just singing in the choir, but you are unique and precious and powerful and your voice is a part of your ministry in this community. You may think you are just organizing the ushers or the coffee servers, you may think you are just teaching a Sunday school class, but you are unique and precious and powerful and you are providing others with opportunities to grow and to serve and to unleash their own ministries. You may think you are just contributing your share of the work that needs to be done, but you are unique and you are precious and you are powerful and what you offer may well be your ministry, may well be your calling to serve. Come, get out of the boat!
A colleague told of a member of her congregation who lived on the curve of a street that in winter became icy and treacherous, and the site of many car accidents. The woman came to see helping people at this corner as a ministry. She tried to get the county to re-grade the road or to put in better lighting, or at least put up sings. She also had a shelf in her kitchen where she kept tea, cocoa and cookies alongside a list of phone numbers for towing companies. She just knew that a couple of times each winter, she would need to go out and see how bad the accident was, occasionally call the ambulance, but likely just invite people into her house, sit them down with a mug of tea and a few cookies, and help them begin to deal with the car accident.
I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “What I am doing here is something I just need to do.” Time and again, people find in this community a path to serve, a path to meet not only the needs of the community, but also the deeply personal needs that arise from within. Time and again, people shake off the notion that they owe this community something for all they have received, and glimpse the shining truth that here is a place where they can offer their ministry.
Come, step out of the boat, here is a place where you can answer your call, a path for your becoming, a community where you can offer your ministry.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Books and Bling
January 16, 2005
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I was with my mother in Boston for most of this week, helping her around the house after her back surgery last month. I drove back to Binghamton Friday night after dinner. Before I left I called my wife to let her know I was about to head out and was warned that there was significant ice affecting the driving conditions around southern New York and that I was to be cautious while traveling through the evening and night. The roads around Boston were clear of this sort of trouble. Traffic and construction were the hazards I had to watch out for there. Actually, I made it home without incident, but there was one point on the trip when I was worried. I was climbing through western Massachusetts toward the Berkshires when I realized the road stretching before me in the passing lane was dark compared to the light grey lane of the right lane where the truck was. A thought flashed through my mind, “I’m driving on ice while passing a truck going up hill at seventy miles per hour in the late evening hours.” The fear that gripped me and froze my heart almost caused me lose control of my senses and my vehicle. But I could tell, after a quick check, that the wet road was not frozen and that was in full control of the situation, and I continued cautiously on my way.
There are situations in life where it feels like we have suddenly found ourselves metaphorically on an icy incline that, while not physically life-threatening, is fear-inducing all the same, and we freeze up and even lose our senses. For many people who care deeply about equality and justice, the issue of Racism can be a slippery situation causing us to freeze up.
The article I used for our reading this morning had a long thread of responses on the website that were shown immediately following the article. I considered printing out the article along with all the responses, the article was about two and a half pages long while the responses would have been well over a hundred pages. This topic sparked a lot of conversation.
One of the responses began with this confession, “I do have a level of discomfort, maybe even fear, in discussing racially relevant topics with members of the black community. I feel that I need to be on guard for personal attacks of racism due to my membership in the white community and how that membership is perceived in regards to racial and social dynamics in this country by members of the black community.”
I don’t think this discomfort, even fear, is uncommon. I remember the story of two friends on there way to a meeting titled “A conversation on race and religion.” The one friend (who was white) commented to his black friend, “I must admit, I’m a little scared that if I try to participate I will say something really stupid and embarrassing.” His friend smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you will.”
Racism has grown complex over the years since Dr. Martin Luther King brought about the revolution to end the legalized segregation of black and white people. Each time we stamp out a large chunk of this problem, multiple smaller insidious versions of the same root take hold and begin to grow. Racism has become difficult to define because as the actions borne of racist attitudes become unacceptable and even illegal, those attitudes remain to be dealt with. It was easy to just look at actions: do you fight for segregation and status quo? Or do you fight for civil rights and racial equality? Now, it can be a little tricky trying to sort out just what exactly constitutes racism. Yet racism is still having its devastating impact on minorities.
Most Americans still live, work, worship, and are educated in a racially segregated America. It was Billy Graham who said back in the 60’s “The most segregated hour in America is still eleven o’clock, Sunday morning.” We each live like Dillard’s pet Amoeba, in a universe “two feet by five” and are confused or frustrated by (or simply dismissive of) those things that do not fit what we know to be true. The limit of our vision may translate into so many areas of life. At different times it will prove to be different things for you. For me, Racism has been at times one of those things that does not fit what I know to be true.
I grew up in the suburbs of Rochester New York, a city with significant racial problems that I didn’t see until I moved back there for a summer as a young adult. I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, having missed the turmoil of the Sixties. I was concerned about nuclear war and sexism and Reagan-omics, but racism didn’t impact me and I suppose I thought it was not a big deal; that it had been dealt with. My “two feet by five” universe had not introduced that issue to me yet.
I could have been one of those people who would have said, “I’m color-blind. Race doesn’t matter. I don’t care if you’re Native American or Asian American or African American or Cuban American. Hey, drop the extra stuff, we’re all Americans!” I didn’t see that this translates to “they” can join “us” who are just plain regular Americans and “they” can leave their extra identities at the door. Well, thankfully my “two feet by five” universe grew a little and I saw that not only is that not going to work because people should not be required to leave any portion of their identity at the door; it also could not work because I have an ethnic identity not to be dismissed.
I am about half Irish, a good bit English, a little Polish, German, and some other ancestries thrown in. Ethnically, I am a Northern European mutt. But that still has an impact on who I am. And yet, I and many, many people who are nothing like me, are clumped together under the racial category of ‘white.’
In their book A many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Steve Kang, and Gary Parrett team up to explore how ethnicity and multiculturalism affect the dynamics of spiritual formation. In the beginning of their book they define their terms and offer this for Race:
Using various biological criteria to locate the concept of race in the disciplines of science – for example, focusing on blood groups, skin color, cranial and skeletal features, and DNA – has not yielded a coherent definition of race. The resulting typologies based on the use of different classificatory criteria can only be construed as arbitrary demarcations that lack biological significance and integrity.
Generally speaking, most people can tell if someone is of European, African, or Asian decent, based on his or her skin color or hair or maybe by the eyes or nose or something like that. Yet unless you can determine biological criteria that holds for every individual you have to concede that the distinctions are arbitrary.
I remember encountering an example of this in connection to DNA. A geneticist and scholar from Ghana basically showed that if you randomly picked out two people from the entire population of our planet and took a sample of tissue from each, examined it at the level of the chromosomes, you would have an 85.2% chance of finding the same characteristics. If you did the same thing only limited your sample of human being to the population of England, you would increase that chance to 85.7%. “In other words,” this geneticist wrote, “aside from being able to predict the grosser physical attributes of color, which defines the racial categories, a person’s race has virtually no predictive value at any biological level.” (Kwame Appiah, In My Father’s House)
Yet contrary to this geneticist’s statement, the grosser physical attribute of color even fails to bring a clear definition with absurd qualities including the “one drop of blood” concept where the child of a biracial couple is considered to be in the racial category of whichever parent is darker, rather than a member of both groups. Even the choices of color names like black, red, white, and yellow (??) when we’re all really shades of brown. I, for example, am sort of a pinkish-sandy color. This isn’t to say Race does not exist or is not real. This is simply to say that Race is not a biologically ground fact. It is a social fact, a social construct whose elements include aspects of ethnicity and ancestry, but only because it is also about history, culture, and self-identity.
In a book published in 2000 entitled Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, the authors investigate attitudes of race and ethnicity among evangelical Christians. One insight that comes up that I find so compelling (and I see over and over again) is the distinction between personal responsibility and systemic or structural issues is regard to racism.
[Emerson and Smith] point out that blacks and whites view the sources of racial tensions very differently, with whites tending to look at the problems as individualistic and blacks tending to see structural issues as the primary source. In the interviews they conducted, the authors found that whites were particularly irritated when suggestions were made that anything other than individual responsibility was to blame for the plight of poor blacks. In fact, whites seemed more irritated by the thought that inequities between whites and blacks might be due to structural issues than they were by the inequities themselves! (Conde-Frazier, Kang, & Parrett A Many Colored Kingdom; p9)
This is where Cosby made his misstep. He started talking about personal responsibility instead of the structures and institutions that continue to oppress poor black people. Interesting, isn’t it; that each side of the black/white division only wants to be talking about the part they can’t control! At least according to the books and the analysis, black people tend to say, “All the trouble is because of the institutional racism supported by white people in positions of power.” Meanwhile white people are always talking about how “every individual has the responsibility to deal with the consequences of his or her own choices.” Suddenly a black celebrity holds a mirror up to his own community and says, “We are not doing a good job with our parenting skills and our attitude toward quality education. We need to take more personal responsibility.”
What would we be saying to ourselves if we could stand to hold such a mirror up to ourselves? What part of the system of racism in our nation do you and I have some control over? Well, of course the answer does not include any specific actions. The mirror would show us our communal attitudes. First off, it would be helpful for all Americans to recognize the distinct facets of their culture. Instead of saying, “I’m white I’m just a basic American, I don’t have a special culture,” you might say, “My people are emotionally subdued, academics who yearn, deeply yearn, for a depth of connection and understanding that is so painfully elusive.” Or you might say, “My people are hard-working people of the earth who became people of the factory and have only recently in the past generation of two become people of the cubical.” Or perhaps you could say, “My people were a coldly practical people who burn easily and so do not go to the beach in the summers and I have left them all behind and have blazed a new trail.” Many of you might say, “My people are no longer my people for I have left them behind.” But tell me who your children’s people will be? Detached generic people with no sense of their culture? This is a major part of our problem. You may already be those children.
I suspect the next thing we might see is materialism and an unhealthy pursuit appear financially better off than we really are. That whole ‘keeping up with the Joneses,” we made that up. And we applaud ourselves for looking like a duck swimming up stream, calm and smooth on top, paddling like crazy underneath. Living lives of quiet desperation. That’s us. And we wonder why young black kids are investing their money in bling! I had no clue what that word meant a couple of months ago. “Bling” or “Bling Bling” is showy materialism like jewelry and hot clothes, fancy cars and even attractive people on your arm could be considered “bling” if they are there for you to be showing off. Typically people like hip hop musicians and Donald Trump are people with “Bling.” I play a part in that. It’s not a direct cause and effect relationship; of course not. It is a systemic and institutional relationship. The sensationalized media and market industry is a reflection of the culture that this nation has chosen. There are things you can do (and many of you probably are doing) in response to it.
The last thing I think I see in that mirror when I look in our mirror is what I could almost characterize as the love affair our nation has with divisiveness in general. We can talk about racial division, but we won’t get too far in that conversation with out talking about economic divisions or religious divisions or political divisions! We seem to breed divisiveness, it’s like there’s something in the water. We are always ragingly divided about one thing or another in this country. Of course it has nothing to do with the water, there’s something in our history, several things actually. We started out as a schism breaking away from the old country. We perpetuated that division time and again and now it feels like to be American is to be against something. And if there isn’t a group out there to be against, we’ll be against a group of ourselves right here at home. I don’t know, that’s probably a bigger problem than just American culture and institutional racism; but it sure seems like we’re particularly good at it.
The hope in all this is that the world continues to change and our little ‘two feet by five’ universes keep cracking and opening out. I read that our nation is becoming Multi-ethnic and multicultural, and that this generation coming of age today is trans-racial, self-identifying with multiple cultures and races.
It is important to move with an eye toward the hope. This week while I was at my mom’s I was preparing for this sermon and I had several books with me. I should have been spending more time with the books from 2000 and 2004 but I had brought along two compilations of King’s speeches and letters. One from 1963 entitled “Why We Can’t Wait” which includes his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The second is a series of his landmark sermons and speeches including the famous I Have a Dream speech in Washington DC, and the very last speech he ever delivered where he talks about having been to the mountain top and having seen the promised land, thankfully someone thought to bring along a tape recorder that night on April 3 1968. And because it’s transcribed it has congregational reaction printed in parentheses so it almost felt like I was there. And I could here the cadence of his voice as he would call on the lines of old Negro spirituals, words from the Hebrew prophets, and symbols of American democracy and weave it all together … and then tell everyone that we need to be dissatisfied, we need to have divine dissatisfaction with the injustices that surround us. He would speak of the obstacles and the difficulties of staying true to the call for justice and the call of conscious but he would say we must have an audacious faith in the future. And what’s more we must work to realize that audacious faith into reality today. We must work to cast aside our divisions and our competitive materialism. We must work until the freedoms that are written into our American law are made real in the lives of even the least of these. We must work to call up the beautiful differences that mark us as beloved children of the same family transcending culture, transcending ethnicity, transcending nations, transcending race until the social construct of race slips softly into the footnotes of history.
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men and women willing to be co-workers with God.”
In a world without end
May it be so.
January 2, 2005
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The master was in an expansive mood, so his disciples sought to learn from him the stages he had passed through in his quest for the divine.
“God first led me by the hand,” he said, “into the Land of Action, and there I dwelt for several years. Then He returned and led me to the Land of Sorrows; there I lived until my heart was purged of every inordinate attachment. That is when I found myself in the Land of Love, whose burning flames consumed whatever was left in me of self. This brought me to the Land of Silence, where the mysteries of life and death were bared before my wondering eyes.”
“Was that the final stage of your quest?” they asked.
“No,” the Master answered. “One day God said, ‘Today I shall take you to the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, to the heart of God himself.’ And I was led to the Land of Laughter.” (TF p 126)
While I was in seminary reading biographies of great religious figures in history, I was most impressed by the mystics. One common element across the different faiths was the remarkable element of ecstatic love the mystics felt. The Land of Laughter is a fitting description of the experience described by countless mystics. So often the experience of God for these people changes them is a way that puts them out of sync with the rest of the world. They become as Fools for God, seeing a reality radically different from what most of us see and understand. I believe that a religious community such as ours, at its best, presents a radical perspective that is different from the standard accepted perspective on life. I believe we should be fools, or at least fools-in-training.
A pious old man prayed five times a day while his business partner never set foot in church. And now, on his eightieth birthday, he prayed thus:
“Oh lord our God! Since I was a youth, not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church in the morning and saying my prayers at the five specified times. Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling, did I make without first invoking your Name. And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner. He drinks and gambles and, even at his advanced age, consorts with women of questionable character, yet he’s rolling in wealth. Lord, I do not ask that he be punished, for that would be unchristian. But please tell me: Why, why, why have you let him prosper and why do you treat me thus?”
“Because,” said God in reply, “you are such a monumental bore!” (TF p27)
Hey, life is too important to be taken so seriously. You’ve heard the quip that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Deep laughter can be prayer just as surely as can tears or a moan. I had a professor tell me she could tell something of the spiritual maturity of a person based on the sorts of things at which that person would laugh. I felt some of the best praise I every received was from my chaplaincy supervisor when she wrote in an evaluation that I had an acutely developed sense of life’s absurdity. I don’t think I quite qualify as a fool, but I could make a case for being able to carry the title of fool-in-training.
There is a story of a western scholar who traveled to the east to learn from a spiritual master. When he arrived the master invited him to sit and share a cup of tea. The master began to pour the tea into the cup for the scholar and when the tea reached the top, the master continued to pour the tea. As the tea spilled out over the top of the cup, the scholar cried, “Stop, stop! The cup is full, it will hold no more.”
The master continued to smile at the westerner and said, “And so it is with you. You ask me to tell you of the wisdom I know, yet what can I offer you when you are already full?”
It is not easy to be a fool-in-training. The full-fledged fools we would learn from offer such compelling and yet confounding lessons!
A Guru promised a scholar a revelation of greater consequence than anything contained in the scriptures. When the scholar asked for it, the Guru said, “Go out into the rain and raise your head and arms heavenward. That will bring you the first revelation.”
The next day the scholar came to report: “I followed your advice and water flowed down my neck. And I felt like a perfect fool.”
“Well,” said the Guru, “for the first day that’s quite a revelation, isn’t it?” (TF p70)
We do not, however, need to pack up and go to China or Tibet to find a holy fool from whom to learn. The character of the fool pervades so many cultures and religions.
From Hollywood’s Forest Gump to Loki, the Old Norse god of Chaos, there are many examples. Puck, Pan and Winnie the Pooh all offer slightly different illustrations of the fool. Native traditions from North America and Africa present trickster characters in the form of familiar animals such as Coyote, Spider, Tortoise, and of course Rabbit. These animals echo through our secular culture as evidenced for example by specific rabbit characters such as Brier Rabbit and Bugs Bunny.
Harlequins, jesters, clowns and fools abound in Medieval and Elizabethan plays and stories. Truffeldino in the Servant of Two Masters, the Fool in King Lear and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are but a few memorable examples.
The greatest archetypal fool is from the story of the Fisherking. In one version of the Arthurian grail legend, the fool wanders in on the king who is dying. The king, who had sought the healing powers of the Holy Grail all his life, had grown old and weary with a sickness that wasted not only his body and spirit but also the land he ruled. When the king sees the fool he asks for a drink. The fool finds a cup, fills it with water and offers it to the dying king, who is instantly healed. The king realizes the cup he is now holding is the very artifact he had spent his life seeking. In disbelief bordering on jealous anger he asks the fool where he had found the precious Grail. The fool shrugs and says, “I’m not sure, all I know is that you were thirsty.”
Herein lays the elegant power of the fool. He, or she, is not really trying to do a great thing. The fool simply sees life differently. The fool lives in the world where the first are last and the last are first. Paradox, irony, and truth are her tools; love and understanding are his goals.
A philosopher, having made an appointment to dispute with Nasruddin, called at the appointed hour and found him away from home. Nasruddin had forgotten their plan and was in the teahouse playing table games and telling stories with his friends. After waiting for some time the philosopher grew angry. Picking up a piece of chalk, he wrote “Stupid Oaf” on Nasruddin’s door and left in a huff.
As soon as he got home and saw this, Nasruddin rushed to the philosopher’s house. “I had forgotten our appointment,” he said, “I apologize for not having been home. Of course, I remembered the appointment as soon as I saw that you had left your name on my door.” (DS p10)
Nasruddin the Hodja is said to have been a real person born in Turkey in the year 1208. Hodja means teacher, and Nasruddin was a teacher/wise man and sometimes a judge. He lived at the time of the powerful conqueror Tamerlane and is said to have won him over through cleverness and humor.
He is said to have died around 1284. Even in death he makes one laugh and pause to wonder. His grave is marked by a single iron gate. The gate is locked – but there are no walls on either side.
Since his death the people of Turkey and many other countries in the Middle East have been telling stories about him. Some may be true; others surely are made up, inspired by his character. Stories are still being made in his name today. Custom has it that when you tell one tale about Nasruddin you must tell another: more to the point, one cannot help but tell another. (DS p10-11)
One night a neighbor strolling by Nasruddin’s house found him outside under the street lamp brushing through the dust. “Have you lost something, my friend?” he asked. Nasruddin explained that he had lost his key and asked the neighbor to help him find it.
After some minutes of searching and turning up nothing, the neighbor asked him, “Are you sure you lost the key here?”
“No, I did not lose it here. I lost it inside the house,” Nasruddin answered.
“If you lost the key in your house, Nasruddin, why are you looking for it out here?”
“Well,” Nasruddin replied, “there’s more light out here, of course.” (DS p101)
Nassrudin rode the train to work every day. One day, as usual, the train conductor came and asked him for his ticket. He began fumbling around in his coat pockets, and his pant pockets, and then in other people’s pockets. He looked in his briefcase, in his bags, and then in other people’s bags.
Finally the train conductor said, “Nasruddin, I’m sure you have a ticket. Why don’t you look for it in your breast pocket? That is where most mean keep it.”
“Oh no,” said Nasruddin. “I can’t look there. Why, if it wasn’t there, I would have no hope.” (DS p 51)
These two stories about lost keys and lost tickets are delightful because they are both entertaining and enlightening. They carry the quality of a good parable in that there is a twinge of recognition for the hearer, but it comes at you sideways. The truth sneaks in on the wings of laughter.
An old rabbi was lying ill in bed and his disciples were holding a whispered conversation at his bedside. They were extolling his unparalleled virtues.
“Not since the time of Solomon has there been one as wise as he,” one of them said. “And his faith! It equals that of our father Abraham!” said another. “Surely his patience equals that of Job,” said a third. “Only in Moses can we find someone who conversed as intimately with God,” said a fourth.
The rabbi seemed restless. When the disciples had gone, his wife said to him, “Did you hear them sing your praises?”
“I did,” said the rabbi
“Then why are you so fretful?” asked his wife.
“My modesty,” complained the rabbi. “No one mentioned my modesty!” (TF p113)
I think the reason I particularly like this story of the old rabbi is how easily I can identify with him. I have a foolish bumper sicker on my car that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” The fool challenges pretentiousness, pokes fun at pomposity, negates preconceived notions. Since I was a teenager I have loved a playful little quip that says, “I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.” It was Ben Franklin who said, “Alas if I ever became truly humble, I would be proud of it.”
A ninety-two-year-old priest was venerated by everyone in town. When he appeared on the streets, people would bow low – such was the man’s reputation his holiness. He was also a member of the Rotary Club. Every time the club met, he would be there, always on time and always seated at his favorite spot in a corner of the room. One day the priest disappeared. It was as if he vanished into thin air because, search as they might, the townsfolk could find no trace of him. The following month, however, when the Rotary Club met, there he was as usual, sitting in his corner.
“But, Father,” everyone cried, “where have you been?”
“In prison,” said Father calmly.
“In prison? For heaven’s sake, you couldn’t hurt a fly! What happened?”
“It’s a long story,” said the priest, “but briefly, this is what happened: I bought myself a train ticket to the city and was waiting on the platform for the return train to arrive when this stunningly beautiful girl appears on the arm of a policeman. She looks me over, turns to the cop and says, ‘he did it.’ And to tell you the truth, I was so flattered I pleaded guilty.” (TF p113-14)
What would you have done if you were in the priest’s position? Granted you’re not a priest, but I bet most of you are not fools either. I certainly am not foolish enough to follow that fine priest’s example. But, then, I don’t think we each need to follow a strict example to really learn to laugh at life’s absurdities and live. I think we need to cultivate that sense of reality that seems so upside down to most people. I think we need to risk our respectability more. As a faith tradition we are too concerned with our respectability, yet being respectable leads us away from being radical and into becoming irrelevant!
The sannyasi had reached the outskirts of the village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him and said, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”
“What stone?” asked the sannyasi.
“Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I should find a sannyasi who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”
The sannyasi rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on the forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.”
The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond; probably the largest diamond in the world, for it was as large as a person’s head. He took the diamond and walked away. All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. Next day at the crack of dawn he woke the sannyasi and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.” (SB p 140)
Indeed, the wealth that makes such foolishness possible is hidden in a radical upside-down understanding of reality where the first shall be last and the last shall be first; where earthly power is nothing compared with the power that is given to the peaceful, the impoverished, the persecuted. But beware, for even peace, poverty, and persecution can be polluted into uselessness if you push them. Beware. Beware! “Sell your cleverness and buy amazement!” (Rumi)
A car accident occurred in a small town. A crowd surrounded the scene so that a newspaper reported couldn’t manage to get close enough to see the victim. He hit upon an idea. “I’m the father of the victim!” he cried. “Please let me through.” The crowd let him pass so he was able to get right up to the scene of the accident and discover, to his embarrassment, that the victim was a donkey. (TF p189-190)
In a world without end, may it be so!
(TF) Taking Flight by Anthony De Mello
(SB) The Song of the Bird by Anthony De Mello
(DS) Doorways to the Soul by Elisa Pearlmain
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I heard of a college professor who began his economics class with a memorable lesson about time management. He took out a large wide mouthed mason jar and placed in on the desk. He then took several fist-sized rocks and carefully filled the jar with them. He asked his students, “Is this jar full. “Yes,” they replied. He then took a bag from behind the desk and poured pebbles into the jar. He shook the jar lightly to settle the pebbles between the rocks in the jar and added a few more pebbles. “Is the jar full?” The class was less certain, a few said “Yes,” but others said “No.” The professor took our two cups of sand and began pouring the sand into the jar. He looked up when the sand was level with the top of the jar and asked, “Now is the jar full?” The students were on to him by this point and many of them quickly answered, No.” Finally the professor took a pitcher of water and emptied it into the jar full of rocks and pebbles and sand. He looked up and asked, “What lesson do we learn from this in relation to time management?” One eager student raised her hand and said, “No matter how full your schedule is, there is always room for more.” “No, the lesson is that you must put the big rocks in first or you will not be able to fit them in at all.”
The big rocks in this lesson represent the big stuff in your life. The big rocks represent your highest priorities. These are things like your health, your family, your career, your financial well being, your joy. If don’t take care to fit those into your life first, you may find they don’t fit into your life at all. If you don’t take care to fit the big rocks in first you may find your life full to overflowing with sand and pebbles of little consequence.
Now, I did not have a professor as interesting as the one from this story, but I did learn this lesson when I took a Stress Management course during my last year at SUNY at Plattsburgh. I did a study on time management for the class and learned that it is not our time so much as our priorities that we must learn to manage. And yet, it is time that everyone gets worked up about. William Penn wrote, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” Time is the ultimate limited commodity. Time is what no one seems to have enough of. We break it down into quality time and down time and overtime.
There is a one-panel cartoon showing God reviewing the slips of paper from the Suggestions box in heaven. “Let see, ‘Needed, more time.’ ‘Not enough hours in the day.’ ‘Could have used more time.’ ‘Not enough time for everything.’ Sheesh, I know what I’ll do different next time.”
People feel crunched for time. People feel busy. If you don’t feel busy, you certainly feel the busy “rush, rush” atmosphere swirling around you in our society. Yet, everybody has the exact same number of hours in a day as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King jr., Stephan Hawking, or Thich Nhat Hanh. Your task is not to find more time but to better manage the time you do have.
Just out of curiosity, if you really had more time, what would you do with it? This is one of those fantasy questions like: “If you suddenly had a million dollars, how would you spend it?” So how about it? If you really could have extra time, time when you aren’t required to do something, just free time, … what would you do?
Will Rogers once said, “Half of our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed though life trying to save.”
Some folks are making efforts to reclaim their time from the busy fast pace at which our societies seem to want us to move. In the September / October ’04 issue of the UU World, our denominational periodical, there was an article featuring the Slow Food Movement. “The Slow Food movement began in Italy in 1986 as a response to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome… The Slow Food International manifesto states that the twentieth century began and developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first inventing the machine and then taking it as a life model.” The Slow Food Movement is not just about taking your time in food preparation and consumption, although that is overt focus. Really what people in this group want is for each person to have the freedom to control the tempo of his or her life. What the Slow Food movement is after is less about food and more about life-style and ultimately sweeping cultural changes.
The alternative to changing the fast rat-race culture is to adapt to it. My wife picked up a pamphlet last week entitled “Your Family and Time Management.” It is published by Abingdon Press and has bible verses scattered throughout, but it is not heavy handed about the religious angle. “Each of us has all the time there is. No one has more than twenty-four hours a day; no one has less. You can’t make, find, steal, store, borrow, or share time. So how do you make wise use of your time?” The pamphlet goes on to make the point that time is a gift of God and you should use your values and principles to determine your priorities and then use your priorities to determine who you use your time. It then lists timesaving hints and suggestions for what to do when you do find that time. “If you commute to work, you may be en route anywhere from 10 minutes a day to as much as an hour, depending on how far away from your job you live (total 50 – 300 minutes a week). Some of the tings you can do in the car (bus or train) include: Listening to motivational tapes, music you love, books on tape; dictate memos; think through problems; enjoy the solitude; sleep, read or write (if not driving).”
It is hard because, for me, and probably more so for many of you, life has become so structured and programmed there is little flexibility to adjust our schedule to wiser uses of my time. And so I read pamphlets that tell me I can’t store, steal, or borrow time but here are ten tips on how to “effectively” use of my “downtime” for healthy spiritual purposes. It’s not stealing time, we’re liberating it. Commuting is a favorite target of simple time management techniques. Did you ever hear those stories of people who would do multiple tasks while driving? Things like shaving and talking on the cell phone while driving; applying make-up or brushing your teeth, eating soup. I’m not making any of these up. I heard one story about a man in gridlock traffic who noticed the guy in the car next to him was sleeping. He rolled down his window and honked to get the man’s attention. The other driver smiled and explained that it was perfectly safe. He always put the car in park when they hit the red light. He would doze until the car behind him started honking, waking him up to see that traffic was moving again another 2-300 feet to the next traffic light where he would repeat the pattern.
Multi-tasking (as clever as it is) doesn’t really solve any problems. It just covers them up. If my attention is scattered across multiple activities with the result that none of them will get my full attention or care. I suspect that if my attention is scattered, my patience will also be effected, at least this seems to be the effect I’ve been seeing over the years. I remember driving past one of those wayside pulpits when I lived in the D.C. area. It was on a very congested road that would regularly be backed-up for a quarter of a mile or so. And a church was there along that stretch of road with their wayside pulpit saying, “impatience is a form of unbelief.” It certainly made me pause and consider the origins and implications of the impatience I was experiencing at that time.
Impatience is a form of unbelief, it demonstrates a lack of faith. And it is surely so easy to see that impatience in this sense is a result of busyness and overworking. I recall the advice from one colleague who would put on his ‘Old-Testament Prophet’ voice and say, “overworking is the only sin against the spirit!” Irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him. All this busyness in my life, am I really that indispensable and important? Or have I somehow chosen to be this busy (not wanting to notice that I had a choice in the matter, but working hard because I guess I should be)?
Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and author has a book called The Contemplative Pastor. This book is targeted toward clergy, but the lessons are applicable to most anyone who wants to lead a life of wholeness. The primary thing he writes about is being unbusy. According to Peterson, we are busy for one of two reasons: I am busy because I am vain or I am busy because I am lazy. (The Contemplative Pastor p18-19)
One reason to appear busy is “to appear important, significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself – and to all who will notice – that I am important.” Imagine entering the waiting room for your doctor’s appointment. If the room is empty other patients, and you peek through the office door and the doctor reading a book, might you wonder if this doctor is any good. Or if you drop your car off at the mechanic’s and the place is crowded with cars and other customers, you might grumble a bit at the wait, but you might at the same time be impressed with how good this mechanic must be. I am busy so that I will seem significant.
Another reason I am busy is because I am lazy. It is easy to abdicate what power you do have over your day by letting events, situations, and other people determine for you what you will spend your time doing. “By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation.” This is not about being too lazy to perform simple tasks. This is about being too lazy to accept the responsibility to choose your tasks because those tasks are a priority rather than letting the tasks choose you because they appear to be urgent. Remember, just because something is urgent does not mean it is important.
The solution, according to Peterson, is found not in the book you might expect he would lead us. Peterson suggestion that the best tool to get unbusy is not the Good Book but the appointment book. Yes, that infernal little ball and chain that keeps you on task and apace with the rat race is just what you need to free yourself from the tyranny of too much busy. (Ibid p22-23)
The appointment calendar is the tool with which to get unbusy. … It is more effective than a protective secretary; it is less expensive than a retreat house. It is the one thing everyone in our society accepts without cavil as authoritative. The authority once given to Scripture is now ascribed to the appointment calendar. The dogma of verbal inerrancy has not been discarded, only re-assigned.
When I appeal to my appointment calendar, I am beyond criticism. If someone approaches me and asks me to attend an event and I say, “I don’t think I should do that I was planning to use that time to pray,” the response would de, “Well, I’m sure you can find another time to do that.” But if I say, “My appointment calendar will not permit it,” no further questions are asked. If someone asks me to attend a committee meeting and I say, “I was thinking of thinking of taking my wife out to dinner that night; I haven’t listened to her carefully for several days,” the response will be, “But you are very much needed at this meeting; couldn’t you arrange another evening with your wife?” But if I say, “The appointment calendar will not permit it,” there is no further discussion.
The trick, of course, is to get to the calendar before anyone else does.
That’s all there is to it. Just put your big rocks on your calendar before everything else. Even if you need to write, “one hour – do nothing” you should still put it into your calendar. You should write it into your calendar lest you get lazy and forget it favor of seemingly urgent activities, or vain and multitask it away.
It was J. M. Barrie, author of the story Peter Pan, who said, “You must have been warned against letting golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.”
In a world without end
May it be so.
May we leave this holy time together refreshed and renewed for the work of the world that awaits us. May we remember to take time for the important things in life. And may we learn to separate that which matters most from that which matters least of all.