becoming wise - part three...

Here are today's worship notes for part three of a "Becoming Wise" series inspired by
Krista Tippett's book of the same name.

The wisdom of the Lord has taken up residence in our flesh – and we’re often too busy to notice. The arc of the Advent/Christmas message in the Christian tradition speaks of incarnation – the Word became Flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us full of truth and grace – and yet time and again we persist in abstractions and disembodied theology that confuse and wound rather than embrace the healing holiness of our embodied selves. In the first century of the Jewish/Christian Common Era, St. John wrote:

In the beginning was the Word – the abstract idea of creative holiness – and this Word was with God, and this Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being, in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He even came to what was his own and many of his own people did not recognize him.

… and this hasn’t changed – nor has our stubborn refusal to listen to the wisdom of the Lord within our flesh. And because God loves us so much – beyond our stubbornness, beyond all hubris and the myriad contrivances we create to keep ourselves distracted and disembodied – the One who is Holy keeps sending us prophets to wake us up and slow us down. Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest who left parish ministry in order to teach young college students in Georgia the wisdom of the Lord in our flesh, once wrote:

Who among us deserves the way a warm bath feels on a cold night after a hard day’s work? Who has earned the smell of a loved one, embracing you on your first night back home? To hold a sleeping child in your arms can teach you more about the meaning of life than any ten (theological) books…. With all of the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, Jesus did not give his disciples something to think about on his last night. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to instruct them… (Why else did he say about the wine and bread and water on dirty feet…) do this – not believe this but do this 0 in remembrance of me?

And so this morning, as I explore with you chapter three of Krista Tippett’s book, Being Wise, in light of the appointed readings from Scripture, let me offer a confession. I most keenly experience the wisdom of the Lord in my body through my tears. Sometimes they are tears of rage, other times tears of joy; I have known tears of bone-numbing grief and confusion as well as the sublime tears of ecstasy. I sobbed in gratitude and awe when my babies were born, I wept like Job when they grew up and moved into their own homes and lives. I have burst into tears in the arms of my lover; I have banged my head against the steering wheel of my car crying for a word of clarity from God about my calling. I bawl during chick flicks, I get misty looking through photographs of my family in days gone by and I have found myself full to overflowing during the singing of certain hymns in worship.

Earlier this week, I even let my tears flow without shame sitting in front of my television set during a political convention when heart and soul were joined by the Spirit in ways that were both gracious and just: we go high when they go low said preacher-in-residence Michelle. Obama and the flood gates of gratitude were opened within me in ways that were thoroughly beyond my control. Now, for most of my life, I’ve been embarrassed and even afraid of these tears: I’m a man, damn it all; I should be more in control of my emotions, right? But clearly that hasn’t always been true – and it was maddening for me for decades. And then my wife, Dianne, and a mentor from a distance, Frederick Buechner, said: Don’t fight your tears – they are trying to tell you something. Welcome them tenderly. Buechner put it like this:

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

For the past 15 years, I’ve been trying to do just that: pay attention to the wisdom of the Lord in my body that is coming forth through my tears. And it is from that place that I’d like to talk with you about the insights Ms. Tippett shares with us in a chapter entitled, “Flesh: the Body’s Grace,” I hope that we might do so in dialogue with the fascinating albeit opaque blessings provided in today’s Bible lessons. Specifically, let’s concentrate on: 1) the connection between eating and ethics; 2) how being at home in our flesh strengthens compassion; and 3) why beauty nourishes a call beyond tolerance into community and social justice.

One gift given to us in Becoming Wise is the reminder that “for most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives.” The farther we travelled away from our primal roots, however, the more and more our faith traditions became abstract and disembodied hints of an increasingly forgotten blessing.

Rituals, you see, are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering and celebration – such actions create visceral containers in time and posture. They are like physical corollaries to poetry – condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import. Rituals tether emotion in flesh and blood and bone and help release it. They embody memory in communal time. (Tippett, p. 58)

Now many of you know that I genuinely despise the way Reformed Protestant religion has abandoned and forgotten our sacramental origins: the way we’ve sanitized Eucharist away from a full fledged feast into a hyper-individualized, antiseptic act of personal piety with shot glasses for chalices and cubes of Pepperidge Farm white bread for a meal – or the way we sprinkle a little water, but not too much, at baptism rather than plunge a body under the water of death – and don’t even get me started on our queasy avoidance of foot washing! Jesus told us to do THAT too in remembrance of him but we have locked away sacramental foot washing as if it were some prehistoric rite of superstition that embarrasses our modern sensibilities.

Our earliest traditions, however, were earthy – and sensual – and included real meals alongside authentic fasting. There were observances in light as well as darkness, processions that were somber and dances that were joyful, tastes and smells that washed over our senses to proclaim: listen to the wisdom of the Lord in your flesh. But in most of Protestant worship in the 21st century, and a far too much in the Roman Catholic realm, too, worship doesn’t feed our senses – it bores us to sleep and numbs us into jumping through the hoops as fast as we can so we can get out of church and on to the more important and fun things of real life.

I think it was Christian educator, John Westerhoff, who said that for most of us worship just takes place from the neck up: it is so full of words that it is a miracle our bodies have not atrophied or turned into stone!

Cut to the first lesson from the Hebrew Bible: the book of Ecclesiastes for Christians who use the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts or the words of wisdom from Qoheleth in the Jewish Tanakh. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity… there is nothing better for a person to do than to eat, drink and sate himself with good things through their toil.” On the surface, it would be effortless to conclude that the Teacher/Preacher, for that’s probably what the Hebrew word Qoheleth means, is filled with despair over the human condition. All we do is work – and then we die. But the truth of the matter is that Ecclesiastes offers us a counter-cultural, radically dialectical poem that boldly articulates how savoring good food can lead us towards a spiritual practice we now know as mindfulness. Three important clues advance this insight:

+ First, vanity, vanity, all is vanity: what do we gain from the toil of our brow… but death?
The English word, vanity, is a poetic but now archaic rendering of the Hebrew word havel. Modern translations substitute futility or absurdity for the 17th century King James language, but these words are abstract and disembodied. Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, writes that “the Hebrew word havel… indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating into the air. It is the opposite of the word ruah, ‘life breath and Spirit of God,” which is the animating force in living human beings.” (Alter, Wisdom Books, p. 340) Do you grasp the nuanced difference? The old and weary Hebrew teacher of the 4th century BCE is saying that after all his study and hard work, he has concluded that most of what passes for existence is a fleeting exhalation, the merest breath. What gain is there for us when all of life comes down to a broken hearted sigh?

+ Second, the opening line of this text tells us that the old preacher, Qoheleth, is a son of David, king of Israel. For generations, Bible scholars assumed that this meant the author was Solomon, King David’s progeny with Bathsheba; but the linguistic clues ground this book in about 350 BCE, nearly 700 years after Solomon. So the working wisdom now is that this is a poetic clue indicating someone with resources, enough to have experienced fully all the ups and downs and possibilities of real life, ok? A verbal shading that suggests that the old teacher has tried everything out. And, having done it all, has concluded that life is a grind: hard work, whether rich or poor, suffering and fear for wise and foolish alike, that leads ultimately to the grave. The core of living, in essence, is the merest sigh that can’t even be seen or grasped.
+ Now most people leave Ecclesiastes right here: all is vanity and despair. If they even bother to read more they conclude that the old preacher is telling us to become cynical hedonists who just eat and drink before we buy the farm. But such dark and despairing words are NOT of the Lord IF we are practicing mindfulness. IF we are living full awakened to the blessings available to all of us when our eyes are open, then we feel God moving within us through our flesh. The best Bible scholars of both Judaism and Christianity teach that Ecclesiastes is a dialectical poem – it places contrasting images alongside of one another in order to push us beyond the obvious into deeper truths – the awareness that sacred joy can be experienced every night at supper. Or that we can learn the meaning of life as our grandson falls asleep on our chest. Or even through the tears shed during a political convention.

The invitation to eat, drink and be merry, you see, is an invocation: you can find the fullness of God in simple, good and delicious food – in a pure glass of water or a full bodied wine – IF you wake up. That’s one of Tippett’s points, too when she discusses food” “Our crises of eating and bodies and food are driving us to revisit the gift of the land, “she writes as well as, “the complexity of ecosystems and the structure of our economies. And at the center of all that analysis, we’re relearning that taste can be a measure of moral good – the freshness of the produce, the life and death of the animal, the vitality of the soil.” In a word, food that tastes good cannot be unethically produced whether that’s a lamb chop or a tomato. And the more we collaborate on producing good and ethically grown food, the more we share these material blessing with one another, the deeper we come to trust one another and practice generous listening.

That’s why I asked you to bring a simple but tasty treat to share for the start of worship: it gets us out of our heads, it helps us practice being our best sharing selves and it lets our body teach us something about the goodness of the Lord through our taste buds. In sharing simple pleasures we become fully awake and alive in our flesh. And that’s the second truth I want to lift up today: how being at home and awake in your flesh and moves us towards compassion rather than selfishness. In an interview with Matthew Sanford, a yoga instructor who has been paralyzed from the waist down since the age of 14 because of a car accident, Tippett writes: when we become at home in our bodies, we become increasingly compassionate towards all bodies. “Our body,” she quotes Sanford, “will be faithful to living in all its forms as long as possible.” Did you catch that? Our body will be faithful to living in all its forms as long as possible.

When we are disconnected from our flesh, we are totally cut off from the grace and holy wisdom of our bodies. Maybe because we’re exhausted or stressed-out – could be we’re addicted to stimulants or trying to get away from excruciating physical or emotional pain – there are times we hate our flesh because we’re out of shape or believe we’re too fat or too skinny or too ugly or too old – and in this state we become islands unto ourselves. We are not embodied; we are not fully alive or fully aware of our relationship to the rest of existence. That is at the point of the second story from St. Luke’s gospel: living in a way – for whatever reason – as if we are the center of the universe cuts us off from blessings.

Jesus never says that wealth is wrong – only if it is used selfishly and without sharing. Having an abundance of crops and resources is not the problem in this parable either: it is just that the farmer has no sense of being part of the wider community. He could be sharing and serving rather than hording. But he acts as if his concerns are the totality of creation – only to discover too late at his unexpected death that such living has robbed him of meaning, depth, connection to the Lord and hope. I rather like the way Krista Tippett puts it in her interview with psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk: “Really feeling your body move and the life inside yourself is critical (for the healing and repair of the world.) Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so. The way I like to say it is that we basically come from a post-alcoholic culture. People whose origins are in Northern Europe had only one way of treating distress: with a bottle of alcohol. North American culture continues with that notion. If you feel bad, take a swig or take a pill. The notion that you can do things to change the harmony inside yourself is just not something that we teach in schools and in our culture, in our churches or other religious practices. But if you look at religions around the world, they always start with moving: dancing, singing, physical experiences. It’s only the more ‘respectable’ people become, the more stiff we become, too.” (p. 87)

Now you may be surprised at this – or not – but the antidote to being stiff and disembodied and addicted involves creating safe places where our bodies can move and rest. Places like: a feast, a cook-out, singing around a camp fire, joyous activities that put us in trusting relationships with other people and get us out of our self-centered fears and obsessions. That’s the second way we can learn the wisdom of the Lord in our flesh.

And the third is living into the creation and sharing of beauty. Now, too often we confuse glamour with beauty. The late poet John O’Donohue, a former Irish Catholic priest, offered this distinction: glamour is manufactured prettiness; beauty in all its nuances is the presence in our moment-to-moment realty that helps us feel more alive. “Beauty is in creation, not destruction; balance, not chaos; the human intellect and the human heart connecting our particular lives to the wholeness of creation.” As Tippett wrote, “Here is the litmus test: does this action reveal a delight in creation and in the image of a creative and merciful God? Is it reverent with the mystery of all of this?” I submit to you that ancient Israel’s psalmist was singing a similar song as she called into question those who held their wealth too dear to share with those in need:

No one will live forever is the refrain of Psalm 49: the rich and the poor shall both perish, the wise and the fool, as well. So, as Jesus asked, what does it profit a man or a woman to inherit the whole earth but lose their soul in the process? What joy is advanced in hoarding when others are in need? What blessing is created by possessing when others are in pain and we could help? The Psalmist, the ancient Hebrew teacher and the Gospel all speak of such selfish individuals with one word: FOOLS. Those who store up their treasures only for themselves cut themselves off from the beauty of God’s love made flesh in creation. They shrivel and die even before this life is complete.

Beauty, you see, evokes ethical living and ethical living strengthens life as well as joy and hope. Beauty is visible and palpable in acts of kindness and goodness. And like feasting and mindfulness, it fortifies compassion in our ordinary lives when we are at our weakest.

Our bodies are one of the most important ways God communicates grace to us if we are willing to feel and respond. St. Francis used to tell his friends: Preach the gospel always – use words only when necessary. Our calling is to bring safety and love to real people. Our ministry is to enflesh the grace of God made visible in the body of Jesus to a world that is afraid, alone and hungry. And as much as I value words – precise, life-giving words and stories and poems – there is a staggering need for the unspoken communication of tenderness and hope in our world.

Let me leave you with this true story from Parker Palmer, the Quaker educator, who once articulated how he learned to listen to God’s love through his experience with psychological depression. In his wee book, Let Your Life Speak, Palmer shares his collapse into depression during his late 40s. “People came to me to encourage me, he says, “but their words only cast me into a deeper darkness.” Then he tells us:

There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon at four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, he from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I am glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of safe connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way… and it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering… a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but willing to hold people in a space – a sacred space of relationship – where the one who is wounded can get a little confidence to come around to the other side from the dark side of the moon.

Lord, let it be so within and among us…


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