The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Leviticus 19: 33-34; James 1: 2-5
February 19, 2017
Our Sanctuary Is Your Sanctuary, Part I
To start, a poem from Marilyn Nelson’s collection of poetry The Meetinghouse, published in honor of our church’s 350 years of ministry. It’s one I’ve shared with many of our boards and committees these past several months, and the time has come to share it with all of you. The poem is entitled “Christians,” and the subheading reads “Rev. Stephen Colton, Minister, First Congregational Church, 1829-1840.” Under that, we see another subheading that says: “The Amistad trial, New Haven and Hartford, 1839-1840.” The Amistad, you’ll recall, was a ship on which slaves being shipped to the United States enacted a successful mutiny, only to be captured by a naval ship in the Long Island Sound. Thereafter, the Amistad was docked in New Haven, where the ship’s African population was placed on trial. It was a moment when a convulsive geopolitical event took place in Connecticut, and Marilyn’s poem imagines how this community may have responded. Here’s the poem, “Christians.”
Are they those who go to church on Sundays,
who close their eyes and whisper the words of prayers,
whose generosity causes no pain,
but the glow of self-congratulation
on a pedestal of self-righteousness.
Are they those who treat people like themselves –
Upright, educated, with good manners –
As they would like to be treated by them.
Are they those who strive to imitate,
In minute kindnesses, His gentle life.
Are they those who know inner conversion
Into the discipleship of service.
Are they those who are good Samaritans,
Who can see straight through a black prisoner’s face
To the joy filled vastness of a free heart.
Those who know an African mutineer
Is more infinity than rich cargo.
Are they those who accept persecution
As the price of trying to feed His sheep.
Between Christmas Eve, when the Church Council
Voted to stop paying their minister,
And the June day when they bade him farewell,
The church record was carefully erased.
So much of history has been blacked out.
Zipped lips hold back many guilty secrets.
Perhaps Reverend Colton asked them to give
The Amistad prisoners Christmas gifts.
Or perhaps he pointed out that the wealth
Amassed from ships in the Triangle Trade
Was tainted by commodified people.
Did everyone in the congregation
Sigh with relief when Reverend Colton left?
Did anyone ask what a Christian is?
We don’t know, really, why Stephen Colton left Old Lyme. We don’t know why his salary was cancelled. We don’t know how the events playing out 35 miles away in New Haven affected those who lived in Old Lyme. But it seems more than possible that the Amistad trial was a subject of debate in this community, and at the Congregational Church. And it seems entirely likely that conversations occurred then that mirror the conversations occurring around and among us right now. We can imagine comments such as these: “Whatever one thinks about the matter of slavery, it’s divisive to speak of it, and it need not divide us in Old Lyme. Slavery pertains to a different part of the world, and however unfortunate that peculiar institution, it belongs to a different geography. We have local needs to attend to, and need not concern ourselves with far off problems. It’s a political matter, and it has no place in the pulpit or the church. The sphere of the church has to do with matters of the spirit, and so churches should speak of spiritual things, but not public controversies.”
We don’t know what might have been said here in Old Lyme during the Amistad trial. And we don’t know precisely why Stephen Colton’s salary was cut off, an action, I can share, that I fervently hope won’t be repeated! But then as now, conversations surely occurred in Old Lyme about how to respond to the world around us. Then as now, the gospel of Jesus pulls its adherents deeper and deeper into the life of the world. Then as now, the question that concludes the poem crosses into our own place, into our own time, as xenophobia, bigotry, and racism are enacted as a matter of open national policy: Did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
Let me share with you several stories of encounters I’ve had over the past several weeks, encounters that have brought to mind Marilyn’s poem, and the question that hovers around it: did anyone, does anyone, ask what a Christian is?
First story: I’ve been having my class up at Harvard Divinity School read the work of a German Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, who worked to understand the origin of the hate besetting mid-century Europe. After class, a student approached me and introduced herself, telling me she was thinking about becoming ordained. “You have a church, right?” she said. “Yeah, I do,” I responded. “Well then you’ve got to tell me, where the f— are the churches right now? And where were they in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Germany and France? If there’s ever been a time that churches have demonstrated their absolute irrelevance, with a handful of exceptions, it was then.” She went on to suggest that it felt to her that the same was true now. “Where the hell are you guys?” she wanted to know. It was a question born less of anger or accusation, but rather of anguish.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Second encounter: last weekend, I spent an afternoon at the Hamou household up in Lyme. As most of you know, the three churches here in Old Lyme helped to sponsor and assist this family fleeing the war in Syria, and they’ve since become dear friends. I asked how they were getting along in this new, hostile climate, and they reported that they were OK. But after a pause, Darin, the eldest of the children, shared that another student had approached her at the high school, asking in a hostile tone, “Why are you even here?” What she reported next was heartbreaking to me. She said that the encounter made her want to leave, made her want to go back to Syria, where Syrians can be Syrians. She asked me, “Why don’t Americans like Syrians anymore?” Friends, we need to recognize how delicate, how fragile, how tenuous the sense of welcome and hospitality and embrace that we’ve provided so far actually is. For all the love and support that our friends have received since they arrived, all it takes is one, one, hostile encounter to make it all crumble.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
Last set of encounters: I’ve had a number of conversations with those in the gay and lesbian community these past several weeks about the deep sense of unease they’re feeling in this new ideological climate. One person reminded me that it was only one generation ago that homosexuality was removed from the manual of psychological disorders as a form of madness or mental illness. Another confided that it was only two generations ago that gay and lesbian people were being gassed. For all the advances that the LGBTQ community has made over the last several decades, that sense of inclusion and embrace remains fragile, delicate, and all too tenuous. And sadly, churches have harbored and nurtured homophobia for so long that the assumption among many within the LGBTQ community is that no matter how often or forcefully we declare ourselves open and affirming, heteronormativity is so deeply embedded within our discourses that there’s little hope of redeeming the churches. In other words, for many, places like this still feel threatening, and less than hospitable, especially in this new ideological climate.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is, right about now?
For the past month or so, I’ve been recalling practices and themes within the Christian story that can help to guide and orient us within a turbulent moment. I’ve cited the practice of solitude and the practice of discovering wonder and delight as important to our common life. I’ve cited the practice of discernment and I’ve tried to remind us of the agency and power which we all possess, an agency that enables us to enact the values and commitments that are born from our faith. And I’ve circled back to that formative episode between Jesus and Peter, shortly after the disaster of the crucifixion. Jesus offers a simple set of instructions to Peter: feed my sheep. Jesus doesn’t give Peter a theology lesson. He doesn’t quiz him about whether he believes this or that. There’s no catechism, no faith statement, no creed, no orthodoxy to affirm. If you love me, Jesus says, you’ll feed my sheep, which is to say, those most vulnerable to predation from the wolves of the world. These are all gifts of our tradition, stories and practices that can and will anchor us. They’re all clues to the question haunting me, haunting many of us, just about now.
Is anyone asking what a Christian is?
Today, I’d like to introduce the concept of sanctuary to you, an ancient practice that now has a contemporary resonance. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming weeks as well, because I think it’s a particular gift that a number of faith traditions are now providing to the world. You can find references to the practice of sanctuary throughout the Bible. In the Hebrew tradition, for example, the Israelites are instructed in the law to provide welcome to the stranger and the alien dwelling in their midst, a reminder that the Hebrew people were themselves strangers and aliens in Egypt. But that concept was extended to include the establishment of sanctuary cities, spaces in which those under threat could flee. Later, the monastics established that practice within the monasteries, welcoming and protecting those who needed sanctuary from some particular threat. In modernity, it’s a practice that was used by the Underground Railroad. It was used to provide sanctuary to Jews in the Third Reich. And it was used several decades ago in this country as refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador, who had fled their countries because of violence aided and abetted by the United States, were threatened with deportation. Churches organized to offer sanctuary, or protection, to those under threat of deportation.
It’s fast becoming clear that we need a renewed sanctuary movement in this country to address all manner of vulnerabilities that individuals and communities are facing. And it’s fast becoming clear that our community here in Old Lyme will need to play a part. That’s a commitment that our board of deacons has clearly affirmed. And some very concrete plans are now taking shape. I’d like to tell you about one of them today.
Shortly after the election, it was clear to many that the refugee program we had participated in would likely be severely curtailed. The refugee program is one of our country’s proudest traditions and most honorable historic practices. Knowing what was likely to happen, I was quietly approached by a number of donors, who let it be known that they could offer a substantial sum toward the purchase of a house to be used for the resettlement of refugees in perpetuity. The dream was to acquire a house, and then to use that house as a space of refuge for families for a year at a time, give or take some months. It would be a place that they could live as they began the process of seeking work and permanent housing, acquiring language skills and working through the traumas that forced them to leave their homes. It would be, quite literally, a sanctuary. It was a dream, one that did, and still does, require a strong measure of faith and trust, for we don’t fully know what will become of the refugee program. Even so, we began a search. And after several weeks, what seemed to be a perfect house for our purposes came on the market for a thousand dollars less than the amount offered in donations. Time was of the essence – we knew what was coming from the new administration, and we also knew the house would soon be snapped up. It was time to make a move.
I love the symbolism of what followed. On Inauguration Day, as a cold January rain fell on Washington and Connecticut alike, a small group from our refugee resettlement committee gathered to look at the house. We expected the worst, fearing it would need a lot of work. One among that group was a contractor, who reported that it was in fine shape, needing minimal work. By Monday morning, when the barrage of executive orders began to roll out of the White House, we had made an offer. Days went by, and the ban on refugees went into full effect. At the end of the week, we learned that there were other, higher, offers that had been made, and so we countered with a significantly higher bid, refugee ban be damned. We waited again, following the news anxiously, wondering what the fate of that program would be. A week later, the refugee ban had been suspended, at least temporarily. And our offer had been accepted.
Several impediments remained, and remain. Here, you have a part to play. First, our offer was for more than our donors had committed, a sum we planned to make up over time with a modest rent. But another anonymous angel stepped forward, to cover the exact shortfall. We’ll now be able to purchase the house with cash, and without a mortgage. Second, all of you need to have a say in this. Our board of trustees has approved the acquisition of the house, but our bylaws state that any purchase of property by the church requires a special all church meeting in order to vote on that purchase. We’re planning to have that meeting next Sunday, immediately following the 11:00 service. My hope is that the meeting will be brief, because of the urgent and pressing need before us. Third, we’ll need a good many more volunteers to help resettle the next family that arrives. Our current committee is strong, but they’ve worked incredibly hard for the past year. Some members may well be ready for a break. I trust that between the three congregations in town, we’ll find the individuals and skills that we need. But finally, finally, we’re trusting that the refugee program will continue to exist. We know well that there is a significant population from Syria, but also from a good many other countries, that desperately need sanctuary right now. We’re hoping, trusting, and praying that we can help to meet those needs. But that may be beyond our control. What we can do, what we are doing, is to prepare ourselves as an act of faith. During Advent, I told you about the trapeze artist that flew in midair, hoping that he would be caught. His words: the flyer flies, the catcher catches. The flyer, hanging in midair, must trust, trust, trust. So it is with us, and this first gesture toward sanctuary. We prepare ourselves. We leap. And we trust, trust, trust.
Does anyone ask what a Christian is, here, now, in the 21st century? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question, not fully. It’s kept me up at nights, wondering what the poets might say of us a hundred years hence, should we be remembered at all. Let them at least say that in a benighted era, we risked a response, in fear, in trembling, and in faith. Let them say that we let it be known that our sanctuary is your sanctuary.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Matthew 6: 19-21; Hebrews 12: 1-3
February 12, 2017
Angels of Alternate Histories, Clouds of Alternate Witness
I’ll give you fair warning here at the beginning: this will be a sermon about money, ultimately. And so if you’re visiting or you’re trying to get your bearings in this place, I’ll preempt any discomfort you might feel by acknowledging that yes, there are some institutional realities to contend with this morning. But I’ll also try to short circuit any sense of boredom or impatience you might feel by saying that, sure, we’ll talk a little bit about money eventually, we’ll also talk about a lot of other things along the way, because money’s never really about money – it’s about what and who we’re related to. Let’s speak of other things first.
Like this: Hanging on the wall in my office is a reproduction of a 1920 painting from the great Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. It’s entitled Angelus Novus, or “The New Angel.” You have an image of the painting on the cover of your bulletins. It is indeed an angel, though there’s something raw about the way it’s sketched, almost as if it was done by a child. In fact, to my eye, it looks vaguely primitive, as if the artist were attempting to remember the traditional form of an angel, but can only approximate it – wings, a head, eyes, a torso, but little else. Gone are the soft or soothing features that one might notice on a Renaissance canvas. There’s nothing particularly sweet, or cherubic, about Klee’s angel. And yet I love it. It’s an angel fit for modernity, a mythic form recast for a new and turbulent era. But I also love it because of an essay written in 1940 in which Klee’s painting figures prominently. The essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” was written by a Jewish exile named Walter Benjamin, fleeing the Third Reich. Benjamin is a figure I return to again and again, and one of the great pleasures of the past several weeks has been introducing my students at Harvard to his incomparable writings, and getting to immerse myself in his words again. Benjamin witnessed some of the most painful and tragic parts of the 20th century, and so it’s not surprising that he interprets the Angelus Novus from within that space, as a witness to the history of human wreckage. About Klee’s painting, he writes:
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. (The angel’s) face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, (the angel) sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed, but a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.”
For Benjamin, Klee’s angel is a witness to history, storm tossed by the calamities that human beings seem continually to heap up at the angel’s feet. The angel is a tragic figure in Benjamin’s writing. I keep the image on my wall as a reminder of my great love for Walter Benjamin. I keep the image there in order to remind myself of the ethical and spiritual importance of bearing witness to the tragedies piling up at the angel’s feet. And I keep that image on my wall because the angel’s wide eyed gaze somehow helps me recall that there are other possibilities available to us, born not from wreckage, but from grace.
Every Monday morning I catch the train up to Boston, and I’m afforded several precious hours of uninterrupted time, which I try to use for reading. This past week I came across an essay about an angel corresponding to the one found on my wall, but with a very different purpose. This angel is described by Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark. Solnit is, for my money, one of the most creative and freewheeling and consistently surprising writers out there right now. Instead of Walter Benjamin’s mute witness to the catastrophes of the world, Solnit proposes an equal but opposite angel bearing witness to all the terrible things that might have occurred but didn’t because of the activity and presence of this or that person, of this or that group of people. It’s an idea that she borrows from Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. You remember the film, I’m sure. After a financial mishap brings George Bailey to the brink of suicide, a hapless angel named Clarence walks him back from despair by showing George the world as it might have been had he never been present. His brother might have drowned, a grieving pharmacist may have inadvertently filled a prescription with poison, the townspeople might have fallen into bankruptcy had George not intervened, and so on. George can’t see it or notice it without angelic eyes to guide him, but his activities and interventions wind up mattering not so much because of what does take place, but because of what doesn’t take place.
Solnit expands upon that image, making it a metaphor for the work of the engaged and active community in the world. The thought is that, even if we can’t see or notice it, the smallest interventions, the acts of courage and grace that individuals and collectives really do manage every now and then may just wind up staving off disaster, or at any rate, worse disasters. And so instead of an angel bearing witness to the catastrophes that do take place, she proposes an angel bearing witness to the victories that are won because people do step up, show up, stand up, like that iconic image of the Chinese man in Tiananmen Square in 1989, blocking a parade of tanks.
One of Solnit’s animating concerns is ecology, and she notes the many forests that stand today because conscientious groups demonstrated or wrote or exercised boycotts to prevent them from being turned into malls or parking lots or lodges. To the untrained eye, a forest is just a forest and a mountain is just a mountain, but to those with angelic eyes, trained to see the futures that never came to pass, those forests and mountains bear witness to what might have happened but never did, thanks to the dedication and agency of a small group of concerned people. She cites an area on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that would have become a huge Disney owned ski resort had the Sierra Club not opposed it. She cites Mono Lake in California, which is back to its historic water levels after years of being siphoned off by the city of Los Angeles, a result of nearly twenty years of concerted action by environmentalists. She cites Ward Valley, in the Mojave Desert, which was slated to be a nuclear waste dump before five tribes intervened and fought the action for a decade. She cites a town called Sierra Blanca on the Texas-Mexico border, where another nuclear waste dump was planned, and she cites an effort by the Cherokee Tribe in Oklahoma that halted uranium mining that was devastating the landscape. “If we did more,” Solnit writes, “the world would undoubtedly be better; what we have done has sometimes kept it from becoming worse.” In other words, Solnit says, while the angel of history, the one hanging in my office, looks at things and sighs, the angel of alternate history looks at things and says: “Could be worse.”
We need both angels, the one to bear witness to that which really does happen. We need to contend with the tragic dimension of the world if we’re going to be faithful and engaged and alive. But we need the other angel as well, represented by Clarence, to help us understand that our actions, yours and mine, matter, maybe way more than we realize.
As I read Solnit’s essay, I got to thinking about the life of faith, and the cloud of witnesses written about in the book of Hebrews. The writer had in mind all sorts of biblical characters when he was writing, but I started to wonder about a cloud of witnesses in keeping with Paul Klee’s or Rebecca Solnit’s angel. Might we have our own angels, our own cloud alternate witnesses, observing not what happens, but what doesn’t happen because faithful people put their faith into action? Might there be both an angel of alternate history, and a cloud of alternate witnesses?
That question, in turn, got me thinking about this place, and about all of you. I got to wondering if perhaps there might be a cloud of witnesses observing the tragedies or hardships that were actually prevented because of the work that you’ve pursued, that we’ve pursued, for so long now. I got to thinking about the heat that wasn’t turned off in the middle of winter, the family that wasn’t evicted and put out on the street, or the person that didn’t lose their job, all because those individuals received help from our Minister’s Discretionary Fund – which so many of you have contributed to. I got to thinking about the families that weren’t hungry during the week, and that did receive a good breakfast once a week, because so many of you have helped with the Food Pantry over the years. I thought about the Morning Glory Café, and how it wouldn’t be there except for the efforts of this congregation, joining hands with the other faith communities in town to help Laotian refugees during the 1980’s. I thought about our friends the Hamous, and wondered what their alternate future might have been had our community or communities like this one not offered them hospitality.
And then my thoughts drifted farther. I thought about all the things we can barely imagine or fathom, wondering if maybe, just maybe, an angel of alternate history might be able to show us what might have happened had we not chosen to enter a relationship with our friends at Green Grass, had we not chosen to engage in a partnership with various communities in Palestine, had some of you never boarded a plane for South Africa to do a Habitat Build, had we never bothered to travel on a Wheels of Justice journey through the South. It might be that our angel, our alternate witnesses, would report no change. It might be that had we not been a part of those things, some other community would have. It might be that everyone would be better off if we’d just minded our own business, tended our own yards, concerned ourselves with this or that. It might be. I don’t mean this to be an exercise in narcissism. But it might also be that those relationships helped someone survive a depression, or make it through an alcoholic winter. It might be that something we did kept a child in school, or offered someone the gift of literacy. It might be that we helped our friends to believe that someone in the world still remembered them. Without being narcissistic, without being self-congratulatory, without hubris or pride, the angel of alternate history might help us to understand how consequential our work actually is.
I warned earlier that this would ultimately be a sermon about money, and it is. Most of us give some amount of our money away – to the organizations or the people or the places or the causes that we care about most. I think the angel of alternate history might offer us perspective on that as well, bearing witness to all that wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened had we not given something away, or to all that might never have taken place had we chosen to keep that money for ourselves. Only the angel could say. But I believe that what we give is a vital part of how we participate in the world around us, how we enact our agency, how we proclaim what we believe to be true.
One of the initiatives we’ve been working on around here is to establish a preservation fund to help cover our major maintenance needs. We have this iconic building, made famous by artists who have flocked to Old Lyme for a century now, so famous in fact that Oprah Winfrey, of all people, owns the most iconic portrait of our church, painted by Childe Hassam. Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me – a church is not a building. A church is a community of people – it’s you and me and all that we do together. But the architecture, the meetinghouse, the grounds, these are the tools – the hardware, if you will – that allow us to do what we do, and to do it well. Our wider mission would be strengthened by an ongoing set of resources that covered the costs of maintaining and preserving this beautiful structure. Tom Grant is a member of our board of trustees, and he’s worked to help us jump start the preservation fund. And so I’ve asked Tom to offer some of his thoughts this morning on one set of possibilities for enacting, and preserving, our agency.
I leave you with a question: what might the angel of our alternate history show us? What might the cloud of alternative witnesses offer about the ways we’ve contributed to the world? How might you participate in that work? You may or may not be able to help the preservation fund to grow. You may or may not be able to give to our ongoing work here at the church. If you can, know how much it means. If you can’t, know that we need you in other ways. One way or another, I believe that each of us is empowered to act, empowered to give, empowered to participate in building a world of compassion and grace, tolerance and beauty, justice and generosity. I’d like to believe that, in part, because of the ways each of us throw ourselves into the work that needs to be done, an angel of alternate history, and a chorus of alternate witnesses looks upon the world and thinks, for all the damage that can and does occur, thank God for all that didn’t occur. Thank God for all that didn’t occur because of a handful of faithful and committed people. May we be among them.
 As quoted in Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2016), pg. 70.
 All citations from Solnit, pgs. 70-72.
Texts: Matthew 6: 5-13; Hebrews 10: 23-25
February 5, 2017
“Sleeping with Bread”
“Give us this day our daily bread,” is what Jesus instructs his disciples to pray.
It’s what we repeat every week at the opening of our services. And so to begin my
meditations this morning, I’d like to share a story I encountered about what it means to
receive one’s daily bread. I found it in a book whose title, Sleeping with Bread, I’ve
borrowed this morning for my own title. It’s a deceptively simple book, written as if for
children. But the wisdom it contains runs deep and true. The story is this: during the
bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were left starving or orphaned.
The fortunate ones found their way into refugee camps, and they were given food,
shelter, and protection, all of which were reassuring. But most of the children had been
so traumatized that they could not sleep at night. They feared they would wake up once
again and find themselves without food, without shelter, without the help of those who
loved them. Nothing, really, could reassure them. Until someone came up with a strange
but marvelous idea: each of the children would be given a loaf of bread to sleep with.
The bread would be a powerful symbol to each of them that “Today I ate, and tomorrow I
will eat as well.” It seemed to work. Though it by no means eliminated their troubles, it
gave these children enough reassurance that they were able to sleep in peace.
The writers of Sleeping with Bread spent years living and working with
indigenous populations here in the United States and throughout South America. And
they spent years thinking about the spiritual journey that every human being has
embarked upon, simply through the course of being alive. For them, the image of
sleeping with bread is a metaphor for the kind of question that everyone needs to be
discerning throughout the course of their lives, the question of what you or I might hold
onto that will give us a sense of reassurance and purpose as we pass through our days.
They use that metaphor as an opening to an ancient spiritual practice called “The
Examen.” Put simply, the Examen is a set of questions that conscientious, thoughtful,
and prayerful people have asked at the close of each day in order to discern the presence
of God in their lives. They are questions like these: “For what moment today am I most
grateful? For what moment am I least grateful?” Or related questions, like, “When did I
give and receive the most love today? When did I give and receive the least love today?”
Or, “When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, to others, to God,
and to the universe? When today did I have the least sense of belonging?” Asking
questions like that day by day is a way of learning about oneself, and discovering what
we can think of as the voice of God prompting us to move in this way or that.
Discovering the sources of life, and holding onto those sources tenaciously, are what it
means to sleep with bread.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to remind us all of the treasures and
gifts bestowed upon us as people of faith, because I have a notion we may need them in
the coming months. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think we’ve now entered a
period of tumult we haven’t seen in this country since the 1960’s, and maybe a whole lot
longer. That presents enormous opportunities and promises, but it also entails real and
dramatic challenges for everyone, and most especially people of faith. Amidst all the
clamor, I’ve been trying to remind us of the need for disciplines and practices that
transcend the tumult, practices from which our voices can and will emerge. Two weeks
ago I spoke about the need for solitude if we are to achieve maturity, freedom, and peace.
Last week I spoke about the need to preserve our capacity for delight and play even in the
furnace of the world, lest we worship at the altar of injustice. This week, I’d like to direct
us to a correlative practice, which is that of discernment. Discernment has to do with a
capacity for making choices within an array of competing options, listening carefully
amidst a cacophony of voices that might overwhelm us, selecting a particular direction
from a variety of available paths. We need to preserve our solitude and our capacity for
delight. But we also need the power of discernment during these mean times, lest we
forfeit the deepest and truest parts of ourselves, our faith tradition, and indeed, our
democracy. Put simply, we need to learn the capacity for sleeping with bread.
That image has implications for both our individual and our collective lives. I’ll
say a word about both, beginning at the level of individuality. We each of us could do
well to discern what it is that feeds our souls, allowing us to flourish, asking what it is
that renews us, rather than draining us. I suspect that we spend an enormous amount of
time and money on things that wind up making us more lonely and isolated, rather than
more joyful and connected. It can be painful to wean ourselves away from those life
depleting activities. A few years ago, I was talking with an older family member, who
had succeeded far beyond his dreams in business, accruing titles and money and all
manner of other pleasures. It wasn’t a terrible life that he was leading, and he wasn’t
doing anything unethical. But he shared that during board meetings, instead of taking
notes, he would doodle, and then he would begin to write out questions to himself. “Why
do I spend my days talking about these accounts? Would my son or the rest of my family
care that I spent the majority of my adult life doing this? Why am I suffocated by
boredom?” It led him into a long period of discernment, which is to say, of learning to
sleep with bread, holding onto that which offered life, and letting go of what didn’t.
Eventually it led him to quit his job, and to begin working with a community in Rwanda
that was healing from the wounds of genocide. From all I can discern, he’s far more fully
alive now than he was when he was jotting those questions during board meetings. It’s
not always as dramatic as that, but the Examen, learning to sleep with bread, might be a
way of freeing ourselves from that which controls us – our money, our jobs,
dysfunctional relationships – while learning to embrace that which might actually nourish
It’s important to recognize here that appearances can often be deceptive. Not
every pleasure will prove to be life enhancing. Not every instance of pain will prove to
be destructive. I once talked about the Examen to a group of high school kids, who
immediately wondered about how it pertained to something like substance abuse or
studying even. They pointed out that the discipline required for studying didn’t often feel
like it brought life, while pounding shots of vodka did. That objection can be extended to
include things like media saturation, as we lose ourselves in the comfortable pleasure of
our screens. It could be extended to any sort of addictive or impulsive behavior. What
might seem to provide life for a time can wind up sucking us dry if we’re not careful.
Conversely, what seems to drain us at some moments might wind up being the most
beneficial in the end. One has only to watch a child struggling with homework or a
music lesson to understand that short term challenges might actually yield the greatest
rewards. One has only to witness the cycle of addiction to understand that short term
highs might actually yield the most destruction. That’s why the Examen is a process that
unfolds over time, with careful thought and with searching questions. Pursued for weeks
or months at a time, the Examen has a way of sorting the empty and fraudulent from the
sustaining and nourishing. It is, quite literally, the power of discernment unfolding
Sleeping with bread is something we need individually, but it also has to do with
our communal lives. And in a time of tumult, we need to hold onto the loaves of bread
that will sustain us as a community of faith. There are many such loaves that we need,
but I’d like to offer two this morning. The first loaf of bread that we need to hold onto
(and sleep with) right now is our capacity for hope. I confess that I sometimes get tired
of that word, if only because it tends to be overused, often becoming an empty signifier.
Even so, it’s a source of nourishment we need right now. Hope is the capacity to see and
envision something that can’t yet fully be envisioned, what the Apostle Paul would have
called “hoping against hope.” Ordinary hope looks forward to that which can be
envisioned, a promotion at work, say, or a coming vacation. But radical hope, the kind of
hope that hopes against hope, is that which can’t even be envisioned just yet, not fully,
that which seems impossible or foolish to contemplate: a world free of dependence upon
fossil fuels, say, like our friends out at Standing Rock hope for; a world free of racial
discrimination and abuse, like our friends at the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama work
for; the dismantlement of the Apartheid Wall throughout the state of Israel, like our
friends in Palestine hope for; a welcoming and compassionate and politically tolerant
country, like we ourselves hope for. The odds seem long, but we must preserve within
ourselves the capacity for such hope. It’s but one loaf of bread, but we’ll need to sleep
with it, and nightly.
The second loaf I would offer has to do with agency – your agency and my
agency, our collective power to move mountains. Last week I shared with you Martin
Niemoller’s quote from World War II: “First they came for the socialists, but I did not
speak up, for I was not a socialist,” and so on. It’s a saying that we’ll soon have
emblazoned out in front of our meetinghouse, because I think it’s that important. But I
loved an update and variant of that sign that I heard about at the JFK protests last
weekend, after the ban on refugees was enacted. The sign said: “First they came for the
Muslims…and we said Not Today, You Bastards!” Some variations had more colorful
language. I’ll leave it to you to imagine. I love the spirit of agency embodied in that
sign. I love the conviction that individuals and small groups have the power to alter the
course of things. I love the thrilling sense of freedom and determination found in that
declaration, even if it names a terrifying new reality that we’re now forced to confront.
We have the power to say, “Not today” when our friends and allies are subjected to abuse
or threats. We must never forget the agency that is ours, whether it takes the form of
letter writing, phone calls, marching, meeting, or just practicing ordinary virtues like
gratitude, kindness, and compassion. No matter our station in life, we have agency, and it
is ours to use.
I’ll say more in coming weeks about how precisely we might do that together – a
few powerful possibilities are taking shape. But for now, I would simply propose the
Examen, sleeping with bread, as an exercise worthy of emulation in these fraught days. I
wonder if it’s something that you might try in the coming months, either alone, or with a
partner, or maybe even as a family. What would it mean to end each day asking where
you’ve found the most life, and where you’ve sensed life draining away from you? How
do you think that would alter the way you organized your days? I wonder if the groups
that we’re a part of might also try such an exercise, and if that might provide greater
clarity for purposeful activity right about now.
I’ll close with a question: What’s the bread that you most crave right now?
What’s the substance that we all most need to cling to? I leave it to your wisdom to
discern an answer. For now, may you feel reassured, like those children years ago, that
the source of life you need and crave is closer than you imagine, more plentiful than what
you’ve believed. May you learn to hold what gives you life. God help us all to discover
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Matthew 5: 13-16; 2 Corinthians 4: 1-12
January 29, 2017
To Risk Delight
Here’s a poem that I’ve been sharing at our board and committee meetings recently. It’s called “A Brief for the Defense,” by a poet named Jack Gilbert. When I introduce it, I warn that it’s dark in tone, but that it has insights and wisdom that speak to our needs right about now. And I’ll offer the same introduction to all of you. This is a poem for troubled times, but I happen to know from conversations I’ve had that more than a few of you feel troubled down to your bones right about now. Even so, there’s wisdom here, and I think it’s important to reflect on Jack Gilbert’s wisdom, especially on the day of our annual meeting, when we reflect on where we’ve been this past year, and anticipate what might yet be required of us in the coming year. And so without further introduction, here’s “A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that may yet come.
I’ve come back to Jack Gilbert’s words again and again for the wisdom embedded in several lines. Here are a few: we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. We must admit there will be music, despite everything. There is laughter everyday in the terrible streets of Calcutta. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. But above all, I return to the line: We must risk delight. That may sound counterintuitive. It might sound like a middle class justification for fiddling, while Rome burns. It might strike you as irresponsible, or decadent. Even so, what I have to offer you this morning is the admonition to risk delight, even in the furnace of the world.
Before risking delight, however, I’d like to risk an affirmation. I’m aware that we’re a diverse congregation, composed of differing points of view. I’m aware that for some of you, the pronouncements rolling out of Washington aren’t especially alarming, and are simply part of the cycle of change and transition that we all need to adjust to. I’m also aware that for many within our community, executive actions and pronouncements having to do with border walls, immigrants, refugees, religious discrimination, women’s reproductive rights and the environment have been the cause of enormous emotional anguish, to say nothing of fear and vulnerability. I do recognize that as a community, we are diverse in our composition, made up of numerous, and sometimes competing points of view. That’s all true.
But I also believe that as people of faith, we possess core values that unite us, what the Apostle Paul called treasures contained in clay pots. We possess treasures, you and I, that should not be forgotten, diminished, or neglected. One such treasure that unites us is a desire to discover, or perhaps to retain, a moral bearing in the world. We wish to be good, and to do the right thing. Another such treasure that unites us is this faith that, at root, encourages a spirit of generosity and compassion, hospitality and grace, humility and kindness and truth telling. This is what the Apostle Paul described as the fruits of the Spirit, which our children are busy learning about downstairs every week. Those are the sorts of human qualities that we all strive to practice. Here’s another treasure: we’re united by a faith that places value not only on interpersonal exchanges, but a faith that has a lived social dimension. To follow Jesus, to belong to the Reformed Tradition, to be a Congregationalist, means that faith isn’t only about a personal relationship with Jesus, although I’m glad if that’s something you have. It means that we care about social and cultural trends, and participate in shaping, or resisting, those trends as best we’re able. Another treasure: we’re united by a faith that insists on the goodness of the natural world, a world that, in the earliest stories of the Bible, humans are instructed to care for. We’re material creatures, embedded within a material world, and that very materiality is to be embraced and cared for – whether that involves caring for bodies or caring for the planet. Yet another treasure: we’re united by a faith that affirms the sanctity of human life, an affirmation that stretches across religious and national and economic and ethnic and racial and sexual boundaries. You are God’s beloved child, and so is everyone else, even the bigots, even the religious extremists. And then this, the most important treasure of all: we’re united by a sense that we’re all of us pursued, called, lured, drawn and invited by a gentle Presence that, despite the furnace of the world, despite the animosity and fear, wishes us well. We’re united by the affirmation that there is a beating heart within the universe, one that is both broken and playful, somehow upholding and guiding those with eyes to see and ears to hear. We have these treasures.
Those are non-negotiable pieces of what it means to follow in the ways of Jesus. They’re non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be a part of a community of faith. And so yes, we’re composed of differences, but whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Socialist, moderate, anarchist, or apolitical in your orientation, we are all united by a common faith that affirms that we are all stitched together as God’s beloved children in God’s beloved world, tarnished and sick at heart though it is.
Those affirmations, those treasures, have profound implications, which I believe are also non-negotiable for people of faith. It means that we’re called upon to embrace those who are feeling justifiably scared these days. It means that we’re called upon to listen to our brothers and sisters who are expressing profound anxiety, and not to dismiss it or ignore it. Our affirmation of faith must, must, extend so that it can be heard by Muslims and people of color, gay and lesbian and bi-sexual and trans folks, women who have endured sexual humiliation or assault, the disabled, and immigrants and refugees. I believe the values emanating from our faith unite us, and move us to affirm the dignity, worth, sanctity, and belovedness of all those who are feeling a sense of alarm right now. That’s a non-negotiable cornerstone of our faith, and it pains me that it even requires saying. But it does. Even here.
Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the Second World War. He learned the hard way about the importance of affirmation. Niemoller became a leading voice of conscience during the Third Reich, though initially he cheered the rise of National Socialism. But in time, he became disillusioned, leading him to protest, which eventually led to his imprisonment. He survived, and wound up spending the remainder of his days speaking in favor of pacifism, while also warning about the dangers of nationalism. But Niemoller is most famous for the words he wrote shortly after his release from prison. You’ve likely heard them. They bear repeating, and often. Niemoller said, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” Throughout his life, Niemoller substituted various groups and populations within his statement. Sometimes it’s the communists. Sometimes it’s diseased patients, or the disabled, or those in psychiatric facilities, those deemed to be a drain on society. Sometimes it’s dissidents in other countries. You and I, we could substitute our own, couldn’t we: first they detained the refugees on their way to America. Niemoller’s words remind us to guard against complacency. They remind us to continue to do the work that we’ve been given to do, work that this church has engaged throughout its 350 years of ministry. We have these treasures, and we are united by a faith which moves us to affirm our friendship and solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in this ideological climate. We’ll do so boldly.
So much for affirmation. Now for delight. I’m convinced that if we are to retain our moral clarity within the furnace of the world, if we are to retain our humanity and our spirits within a turbulent moment, we’ll need to retain our capacity for delight. We’ll need to retain our capacity for laughter, even if in Calcutta, even if in the cages of Bombay, even in a benighted moment of history. Jesus puts it thus: “You’re the salt of the world; if salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” He says further: “You’re the light of the world; no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel. Let your light shine.” If I were permitted an addendum to those words, a supplement, I would say: “You are a jalapeno pepper in the world. You are the spice of life. You are the hot sauce that brings flavor, zest, punch and kick to the world. You are the adrenaline rush, the fever, the thrill, the hot sweat that comes from a spicy pepper. If I were permitted my own commentary on that famous sermon delivered by Jesus, I would say: No need to be dour. No need to be bland. No need to be flavorless. You’re the habanero, you’re the zest, you’re the jolt, you’re the buzz. Paraphrasing Jesus: without flavor, what good are you? What good are any of us?
Last week I spoke about the need to preserve solitude, but I also think we need to find ways to preserve our delight, and our enjoyment, lest we praise the Devil by worshiping at the altar of injustice. That can mean a lot of things, but it certainly has to do with embracing the arts. It’s not a coincidence that there’s talk of eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. But as Jack Gilbert’s poem reminds us, we need to recall that “there will be music, despite everything.” There will be poems, despite everything. There will be paintings and films and novels, despite everything. There will be theater, despite everything. There will be dancing and culinary feasts, despite everything. One of the most powerful moments of my life was being at a house party with some Palestinian friends not a mile from the Apartheid Wall. They cooked an incredible feast, and we weren’t there ten minutes before the instruments came out and the singing and dancing began, followed soon by a hooka, and by a strong bottle of something or other. In the ruthless furnace of the world, our friends knew the importance of creating moments of delight, and enjoyment. They knew that their own humanity was at stake. And they used art and music and food to bring themselves together, and to renew their spirits.
We could learn a thing or two from our Palestinian friends, though perhaps in our own idiosyncratic ways. We’ll need to continue to gather together, the way some of you did last evening over assorted dinners. We’ll need to affirm professional and amateur artistic expressions around us, like those offered by our choir. We’ll need to share stories that make us laugh, the way everyone laughed yesterday afternoon in this meetinghouse at Janie Davison’s funeral, when stories of her zest for life were shared. We’ll need to cherish moments like the one I heard about yesterday. When Allison Hine took Kamber Hamou, one of our Syrian refugee friends, shopping to get a suit for the school dance, the salesman helping them heard that Kamber was a refugee. He was so upset by the ban on refugees that he wound up helping to pay for the suit, just to feel as though he was contributing. We’ll need random acts of kindness and grace, like that one, even as our friends are struggling to understand what’s happening around them. We’ll need to tap our toes during requiems, whistle during the Dies Irae, grin though the news is grim. We’ll have to defy the leaden spirit of the age, weighing us down. We’ll perform a dance upon the abyss.
One last story before I’m through. On the morning of August 7th, 1974, a man appeared to be hovering in thin air in the space between the Twin Towers. His name was Philippe Petit, an acrobatic artist, and he had launched a clandestine mission in the middle of the night to string up a wire between the towers. It was maybe an inch in diameter. Just after 7 AM, he stepped out upon the abyss and walked across the chasm. Passersby on the street stopped to marvel and stare, and more than a few were relieved when Petit, a quarter of a mile above them, got close to the far tower. Except then he reversed himself, and walked back toward the center. The wind whipped around him, but Petit was supremely balanced. For forty five minutes, he walked on air. At one point, he sat, and then he laid down on the wire. Police made their way to the roof, and Philippe Petit toyed with them, drawing near, and then moving back onto the wire. One cop, who must have had a sense of humor, said, “You get in here right now or I’ll come out there and I’ll get you myself.”
Petit’s performance took place two days before Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. It took place after an unpopular war had divided the country, one that would soon result in a humiliating withdrawal. It took place after the counterculture and all of its promise had been more or less shattered. It took place after the civil rights movement had fragmented. It took place as New York itself was poised at the brink of bankruptcy, and as some of the outer boroughs smoldered. There was reason to feel gloomy, and more than a little hopeless. But there was Philippe Petit, moving his way across the abyss, and then miraculously, there he was, playing upon it. This was a man embracing the spice of life, giving it kick, zest, and heat. When he was asked why he did it, he was rendered inarticulate. One may as well have asked why children play or lovers love. He did it for the delight of it, for the wonder of it. Some who witnessed it knew they would never see anything of that magnitude in their lives again. I’m sure they were right.
I take it that Philippe Petit’s performance is a metaphor for the kind of faith required of us just now. There are reasons to feel gloomy. There’s sorrow all around. That’s the abyss over which we stand. And we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity we can muster in order to confront that sorrow and its sources, in whatever way we can. When we do, we’ll be taking our step onto the wire, defying the spirit of the age, defying gravity, defying that which would weigh us down. That’s when we’ll perform our own movements, even as the empty air attempts to claim us. We won’t fall. We’ve been rehearsing this act for a long time now. We’ll risk delight, even in the furnace of the world. We’ll do so because of the treasures that have been gifted to us in the life of faith, the affirmations of ourselves and our neighbors that we carry within us. Such will balance us, even as we dance across the abyss.
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Mark 1: 35-39; Luke 4: 1-13
January 22, 2017
Hymns to the Silence, or, A Few Words in Praise of Solitude
This won’t be the sermon you imagined this morning. It won’t be the call to arms you might wish for. This isn’t a summons to the barricades. Instead, I’ve borrowed my theme this morning from the incomparable Van Morrison, who released a meditative song by that title back in the early 90’s. But my true inspiration comes from Thomas Merton, a cosmopolitan intellectual who left New York City in the middle of the 20th century to become a Trappist monk, living for the remainder of his days in rural Kentucky. Merton knew something about silence, and about solitude, and I’d like to lead off my reflections this morning with a word of wisdom from Merton. It’s a counterintuitive word in a time such as this, but it’s the word we need.
Here’s Merton: “It is the solitary person who does humankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its capacity for maturity, freedom, and peace.” Solitude is what gave Merton the presence of mind to compose some beautiful pieces of writing that continue to provide solace and counsel to those seeking wisdom. In that, he joins other such solitary figures who retreated from time to time in order to gain clarity and vision, those like Lincoln, those like Emerson or Thoreau, those like King, or Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. Those were all figures of extraordinary vision, but that vision was honed only through long hours of solitude, of contemplation, and for some, like Merton, of prayer and meditation. At the start of a new American era, at the beginning of yet another year, during a time that shall demand much from us, what I have to commend to you, above all else, is the practice of solitude. What I have to commend to you is a hymn to the silence.
More than a few of you will no doubt think that I’ve lost my mind, or my nerve. More than a few of you will think that a hymn to the silence is exactly what we don’t need in this new era of so called American carnage. What we need is to bring the noise, to raise our voices, to stir up a fuss, to raise some hell. What we need is solidarity, not solitude, community, not isolation, networking, not withdrawal. To all of that I say…yes. To all of that, I say…absolutely. It is time to raise hell and it is time to organize. But I also believe strongly that we could use a hymn to the silence, lest we lose the capacities that Merton names, for maturity, freedom, and peace. And so I beg your patience this morning as I compose my little hymn.
Before proceeding any further, allow me a few qualifications about what I mean by solitude and silence, and what I don’t. I’ll start at the most personal level. The first thing to say is that there’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Loneliness is something that can often be felt in the company of others. It’s not an accident that many people report feeling most lonely at parties, or other such gatherings. Loneliness is an affliction of the soul, being unable to connect with others in a meaningful way. Sometimes that comes about because of inner struggles, dealing with insecurities or old wounds. Sometimes it comes about as a result of social policy or spatial arrangements. But loneliness, we must realize, is not to be confused with solitude. Loneliness is the absence of communion with the world. Solitude has to do with the deepening of communion with the world, which includes a deepening communion with other people. In that, it’s a gift offered to extroverts and introverts alike, for while solitude may come more naturally to those who are introverted, it helps lend a quality of substance and care to the interactions of those more sociable by nature. That’s the first thing to say.
The second is this: solitude should never be mistaken for withdrawal. It is, I suppose, a kind of temporary removal of oneself from the noise and chatter of the world, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for disengagement, or retreat, or quiescence. It is, in fact, an intensification of our immersion in the world. I think here of the monastics. When they turn toward a life of contemplation, they do so in order to deepen their engagement with the world. That was certainly true of Thomas Merton, and it’s been true of some of the best practitioners of the monastic form of life throughout the centuries. One of the most vivid conversations I’ve ever had was with a monk who exhibited a contagious exuberance about the world – for food, for literature, for music, for people. His questions, and his replies to mine, were all penetrating and filled with surprises I couldn’t have imagined. His solitude was an act of preparation for engaging with those around him in a spirit of maturity, freedom, and peace. I’m not recommending a monastic life to any of you, not necessarily. But I am arguing that solitude is not about withdrawal. Rather, it’s about enhancing our capacity to pay attention, and to engage meaningfully and fully in the life of the world.
Consider Jesus. It’s no accident that the beginning of his ministry begins in solitude. There were urgent and pressing matters to attend to, matters of life and death, but Jesus begins his work in solitude. In Mark, we find the story about Jesus getting up early in the morning and slipping off by himself for a time, long enough that his disciples begin to wonder where he is. It’s a pause, a caesura, a respite in an otherwise overfull existence. Immediately upon being discovered, Jesus is submerged again in the life of the people, healing the sick, casting out demons, and building his movement. The inclusion of that brief detail in Mark’s story helps us understand the vital necessity for all of us to dwell in solitude for a time, as a way of equipping us for the work we’re given to do. Even Jesus composed a hymn to the silence.
But it’s the story in Luke’s Gospel that I like best. We’re told that after his baptism, Jesus goes to the wilderness, where he spends 40 days in solitude, fasting and praying. The importance of the story isn’t simply the fact of solitude. Rather, it’s what happens to Jesus as he devotes himself to that solitude. You heard the story, of course, and so you know. He’s alone in the desert, though not fully, not quite, for the devil pays him a visit. It’s commonplace in biblical stories to personify the devil as a means of dramatizing the confrontations and conflicts that can occur within the human heart at vulnerable moments. Even as solitude conveys the maturity, freedom, and peace that Thomas Merton wrote about, Luke’s story suggests that those qualities develop in the crucible of conflict with devils and demons arising in the depths of the human spirit.
I’m reminded of an account I once read about ultramarathoners, running distances of 100 miles or more at a time. Many of them do well for 25 or even 50 miles. But in the latter portion of the race, as their physical and mental reserves are depleted, the demons are unleashed from the depths of the unconscious – unresolved childhood traumas, or hidden shame, or guilt, or sadness, or helplessness conspire to make the runner quit. The best ultrarunners know that in order to make it to the finish, they must confront the devils, speak to them, befriend them even, in order to make them less powerful. They’ve learned, in other words, what those like Thomas Merton and other solitary individuals have gone into the woods or into the monastery to learn: that hymns to the silence often serve as occasions for contending with the devils and demons of the human spirit.
It’s no different for Jesus in the wilderness. The devil, his devil, tempts him with bread, with political power, and with religious authority. There’s particular significance behind each of those temptations, but for the time being, I’m more interested in the fact that they happen at all within the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. And I’m fascinated by what might have occurred within Jesus had he not undergone that long period of solitude, had he not communed with devils, had he not sung his hymns to the silence. Without that inner contest in the wilderness, would he have become a third rate purveyor of spectacle, as the devil urges? Would he have become a common tyrant, an autocrat thirsty to control those around him with his pronouncements? Would he have become a religious demagogue, manipulating the symbols and prestige of religion in order to stupefy those around him? The odds are more than fair. Thankfully, none of those possibilities came to pass, precisely because Jesus went to the wilderness, spent his time in solitude, and confronted the devil that he was given to struggle with. For his sake and for ours, we can be grateful that he sang his hymn to the silence prior to beginning his public ministry, a time during which he wrestled with his demons.
Let’s come closer to the present. One of the articles that I most enjoyed reading this past year was about President Obama’s hymns to the silence. It concerned his habit of retreating to his office after dinner, where he spent long hours alone – sometimes reading briefs or working on speeches, sometimes watching sports with the sound turned down, sometimes reading letters written by ordinary Americans, and often, often, reading books. This past week I read another article about the President’s reading habits, and I found myself admiring the way he used those solitary hours to commune with great minds of the past, like Lincoln’s or Gandhi’s, and also those of the present, like Colson Whitehead, and Elizabeth Kolbert, and Marilynne Robinson. What he said was that fiction especially helped him to imagine the lives of other people and what they might be going through. When he wanted to connect with rural Americans in Iowa, for example, he turned to Marilynne Robinson in order to help open up the emotional lives of those like his grandparents. Thank God for the power of fiction.
Now, you may say what you like about his politics. You may quibble about this decision or that. I may even join you. But now is the time to praise our now former President’s habit of mind, born from the discipline of solitude. It was, evidently, in those long evening hours that Barack Obama discovered his voice. It was in those long solitary hours that he listened to the profound wisdom of the past. It was in those stretches of solitude that he found the words he needed in order to respond to painful or traumatic events, like those in Charleston, or in Newtown. And, this needs to be said too, it was in those moments of solitude that he found it within himself to practice the wisdom of that benediction I use every week: returning no one evil for evil. My hunch is that his solitude allowed him to confront his devils in private before he did so in public. I believe that it was solitude that helped our President to discover that deep reserve of grace under tremendous pressure from the left and from the right alike. Say what you may about this or that policy, this or that decision. I believe that much of the American public has diminished itself by failing to recognize the dignity and bearing the President exuded, born, in part at least, from those long hours of solitude.
I wish every person in leadership long periods of solitude, including our new President. I hope he avails himself of that discipline. But I hope each of us does as well. Whether it’s teachers or stay at home parents, whether physicians, home health aids, or lawyers, whether it’s social workers or those bagging groceries, I wish every single one of us would be enabled to maintain a discipline of solitude, for at least a small portion of the day. That’s because each of us possesses capacities for leadership, if only in the disposition we cultivate, and thereafter spread. But so many things compete for our attention that it becomes difficult to hear and absorb that within ourselves, and within the world, that might provide wisdom. One of our now departed members was fond of saying that one ought never to trust a person whose house contained no books. I wonder if the same could be said for those incapable of solitude. I tend to think we would all do well to learn to sing a hymn to the silence.
Yesterday, a good many of us traveled to New York City to take part in a march meant to demonstrate solidarity around things like women’s rights, as well as those of Muslims, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, transgender, and anyone else who finds themselves vulnerable within the new political landscape of America. Despite the occasion, there was joy in the streets. There was exuberant humor, and energy, and I couldn’t have been more proud to have been there with some of you. But I also came away wondering if one of the greatest and most urgent needs of the moment is the necessity of preserving solitude. I wondered if the greatest virtue we might possess at the moment is the capacity to be alone, not in loneliness, but in solitude, in order to truly hear from ourselves. I wonder if the most important act required of us now, in addition to everything else that will call for our attention, is to maintain a discipline of solitude, whether in reading, or writing, or meditating, or praying – in order to enhance our capacities for attention. Amidst the circus spectacle to which we have been subjected, I wonder if one of the most important acts of resistance shall be to compose our own hymns to the silence. If Thomas Merton is to be trusted, and there are few I would trust more fully, it’s only from within that solitude that maturity, freedom, and peace shall be discovered. And so I vowed to myself that amidst all the challenges that confront us, I shall compose my own hymns to the silence here and there – in the early morning hours when I run, in the evening hours when I read, in the stretches of quiet reserved for writing. I shall, as best I can, sing a hymn to the silence, even as I prepare for movement.
I’ll conclude with an image that demonstrates the strength born of solitude better than any I know. It’s an image born from Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. The image I have in mind is a figure in motion, spinning, turning, swirling, but always upon a steady and fixed inner axis. My image is the whirling dervish. Several years ago, travelers on our Tree of Life journey were privileged to witness a dervish ceremony when we visited an active Sufi community on the outskirts of Istanbul. After a short series of meditations, musicians began playing instruments that I didn’t recognize, and the men and women participating in the dervish ceremony arrayed themselves in a large open space. And they began to spin in place, their long shirts flaring beneath them as the air caught the material up around them. They were gorgeous in their motion, instances of incredible beauty, turning and turning and turning and turning. None of them faltered. Not one of them grew dizzy. Not one of them stumbled or fell. Periodically, the music would cease, and the dervishes would cease turning without a trace of vertigo, without a hint of nausea. They would process a little, and as the music started again, they would begin to spin once more, though now in a new position on the floor. It was, I came to realize, a representation of the inner life of the spirit, and of the human relationship to the world. The dancers spun and spun and spun, but they were enabled to do so because they were attuned to a still point deep within, a still point around which they moved. And it was that inner focus that kept them oriented and balanced. As each of them spun, a figure dressed in red, representing a tempter, a kind of devil, circulated among them, whispering in each of their ears, attempting to break their concentration. None were broken. Another figure seemed to preside over it all, and appeared to orchestrate the movements, moving in and out of the dervishes, though never interrupting them. This was the spirit of God, moving among them, yes, but also serving as the axis around which they spun. I found the ceremony stunningly gorgeous, and I’ve thought about those dervishes ever since. They represent the kind of inner calm, and inner focus, that I believe people of faith need to be cultivating right now. Amidst their turning, they cultivated their own hymn to the silence, one that made them impervious to the seductions of the tempter, the seductions of the age.
And so it is with us. The world spins. We spin. God, but are we spinning right now. Will we lose our balance? Shall vertigo claim us? Or shall we be enabled to discover the maturity, freedom, and peace that Thomas Merton wrote about? With Merton, I believe that it is in solitude that we will discover that inner axis upon which we turn, the one that allows us to spin without stumbling, without falling. I believe that it will be within a deep inner solitude that we shall be enabled to endure the whispers of those who would distract us, and emerge again to raise some hell, and to raise our voices as well. It will be a hymn to the silence that shall enable us to discover our voices as we turn, turn, turn.
 As quoted in William Sloane Coffin’s sermon “Tempted of the Devil,” from Feb. 26, 1978. Found in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Vol. 1, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008), pg. 56.
 An insight borrowed from Marilynne Robinson in her article “A Proof, A Test, An Instruction,” published in The Nation, December 5, 2016.