Liturgy for August 8, 2010
“Creating Our Shadows”
RINGING THE BELLS
WELCOME AND ANNOUNCEMENTS
Sophia Lyon Fahs
We gather in reverence before the wonder of life -- The wonder of this moment The wonder of being together, so close yet so apart --
Each hidden in our own secret chambers, each listening, each trying to speak – Yet none fully understanding, none fully understood.
We gather in reverence before all intangible things -- Things that eyes see not, nor ears can detect – That hands can never touch, that space cannot hold That time cannot measure.
Come let us worship together.
In the light of truth, and in the warmth of love We gather to seek, to sustain and to share.
HYMN #128: For All That Is Our Life
A TIME OF MEDITATION
The Book of Life
Spoken meditation--Rev. John Parker Manwell
Let us reflect now, in a spirit of meditation, on these words of Howard Thurman, which he entitled “ The Outer Life and the Inward Sanctuary: ”
Often it is very hard for me to realize that Iam one. The outer life seems utterly outer. Itseems part of a separate order. Itis made up of the things I do, of my relationship of one kind or another with work, play, job, people and things. The standard by which the outer is judged tends to be an artificial standard, made up of that which is convenient, practical, expedient. The outer seems public, it seems ever to be an external net of physical relationships.
The inward sanctuary is my sanctuary. It is the place where Ikeep my trust with all my meanings and my values. Itis the quiet place where all the issues of my life are determined. What Iknow of myself, my meaning; what Iknow of God, God’s meaning. Allthis, and much more, is made clear in my secret place. Itseems strangely incongruous, often, to bring into my secret place the rasping, gritty noises of my outer life. Again, this may be for me merely an alibi. For Iknow that in the searching light of my inward sanctuary all the faults, limitations and evil of my outer life stand clearly revealed for what they are.
I determine to live the outer life in the inward sanctuary. The outer life must find its meaning, the source of its strength in the inward 2 sanctuary. Asthis is done, the gulf between outer and inner will narrow, and my life will be increasingly whole and of one piece. What Ido in the outer will be blessed by the inward sanctuary; for indeed it shall all be one.
I determine to live the outer life in the inward sanctuary.
Let us take now a minute of silence, as we reflect on Dr. Thurman’s words. Then Karen Smith will take us out of the silence as she plays through our song of meditation, #16, “Tis a Gift to Be Simple,” after which Iinvite us to sing it together, meditatively, remaining seated.
Song of meditation: Hymn #16, ‘Tis a Gift to BeSimple
At the end of the day, our shadows grow long. Who has passed through them by then?
Someone we joked with in passing. Anold woman we helped across the street. Agrandchild we fixed breakfast with. Aparent we called. Someone who walked past on the sidewalk and smiled at the flowers we planted this Spring.
But also someone who had an asthma attack because of the pollution from our car. Someone whom we cut in front of in our hurry. Afamily member we criticized before we even got out of the bathroom. Achild we yelled at because she wasn’t ready to leave.
Our shadows can be a blessing or leave a wound. This church reminds us 3 that our shadows follow us wherever we go. Let us give to the work of this church.
READING: The Holy Shadow
As told by Rachel Remen in Kitchen Table Wisdom 1
There is an ancient Sufi story about a man who is so good that the angels ask God to give him the gift of miracles. God wisely tells them to ask him if that is what he would wish.
So the angels visit this good man and offer him first the gift of healing by hands, then the gift of conversion of souls, and lastly the gift of virtue. He refuses them all. They insist that he choose a gift or they will choose one for him. "Very well," he replies. "Iask that Imay do a great deal of good without ever knowing it." The story ends this way:
The angels were perplexed. They took counsel and resolved upon the following plan: Every time the saint's shadow fell behind him it would have the power to cure disease, soothe pain and comfort sorrow. Ashe walked, behind him his shadow made arid paths green, caused withered plants to bloom, gave clear water to dried-up brooks, fresh color to pale children, and joy to unhappy men and women. The saint simply went about his daily life diffusing virtue as the stars diffuse light and the flowers scent, without ever being aware of it. The people respecting his humility followed him silently, never speaking to him about his miracles.
Soon they even forgot his name and called him "the Holy Shadow."
1 New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 245-46. 4
SERMON: “The Holy Shadow”--Rev. Manwell
The story of the Holy Shadow is one of those ancient parables that’s meant to make you think. It brings to mind what Icall the “ladder of giving,” propounded back in the 12 th century by the great Jewish philosopher, rabbi and scholar, Moses Maimonides. Now you might think that giving is giving. But looking at giving in moral terms, Maimonides spoke of eight levels, each progressively higher in moral value. The lowest, as you might expect, is giving begrudgingly, making the recipient feel embarrassed. Next comes the gift that’s cheerful but too small, then the cheerful and adequate gift, then giving before even being asked.
Then it gets especially interesting. Above these levels come giving when you do not know the recipient, though the recipient knows your identity, then the opposite, and then comes completely anonymous giving, where neither of you is aware of each other. I would call it giving for the sake of giving. But highest of all, according to Maimonides, comes the gift (even a loan) which actually enables the recipient to become self- supporting.
Maimonides’ levels of giving invite us to think about our motivation as givers. These are food for thought when we give to those on the street, to our families and friends, even when we take our Sunday morning offering here in this place of worship. Maimonides calls on us to ask ourselves not just what we are giving, but why we are giving. Is it really about helping the recipient, or is it more about us – our self-image, perhaps; feeling good about ourselves; or enhancing our reputation?
So often what we do has a “shadow side,” a side of our actions we don’t want seen, even a side we’re not aware of.
Now, back to that Sufi holy man. When pressed by the gods who insist on giving him a gift, he allows as how he’d like to be able to do a great deal of good in life without knowing it. Without, that is, risking any dark side to his giving, any selfish motivation which he would have to think about. I think it’s that sort of selfless giving that Maimonides was putting such a high moral value on. Because it’s hard.
Years ago a good friend gave us a set of audio tapes. (Who still remembers audio tapes?) They were recordings of a workshop by the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello, one of the great spiritual teachers of our time. Listening to the very first tape, I remember resisting de Mello’s insistence that all of the good deeds that make us feel so virtuous have selfish motivations, like those I just mentioned. All of them. There’s no such thing, said de Mello, as action that’s wholly altruistic. Now de Mello was also a psychotherapist. He had both religious and secular insights.
He was probably right. But at the time, I didn’t like it. Where, after all, did that leave me, seeing myself as doing good as a newly called man of the cloth? I may feel called by God, but am I really serving others to make me feel good or compensate for the privileges I enjoy in life? Or to make me look good? Who knows what other motivation might lurk in the shadows of my psyche?
Maimonides knew it was hard to get past the selfishness. The Sufis knew it, too. And perhaps those Sufi gods knew it, and knew it would take a gift of miracles to make it possible.
That’s my message this morning, too: to escape the dark side of our actions, the shadow side, requires what may at least seem a miracle, so seldom do we achieve it. At the very least it requires a lifetime of spiritual work, to reshape our shadow side.
Now “spiritual” is one of those words we find it hard to define. But we think we know it when we feel it. A spiritual experience can leave us feeling warm, fuzzy and glowing, as we hold a puppy or a baby, gaze at a mountain vista or a sunset, or contemplate the crystals or candles of our private worship. (And I’ll tell you, we have a new puppy in our family this week, and I do feel warm and fuzzy.)
But though it may seem at first a solitary experience, these common spiritual experiences grow from a sense of deep connection with life itself.
“Spirit” is our word for whatever it is that connects us, call it the spirit of life, or the Holy Spirit, as you prefer. A spiritual experience is ultimately a two-way experience of connection – with life, with others, with God, if you will.
And that’s where the idea of spiritual growth comes in, of spirituality pursued as a journey, a growing edge, as we cultivate the arts of connection.
At the end of that journey, inevitably a lifelong journey, lies the goal of living selflessly, living for each other – the way the Sufi holy man longed to live, becoming so genuinely selfless that he didn’t have to think about it any more. He would do good just by being himself.
Like all worthwhile goals, it’s a goal that’s ultimately beyond our reach, yet it’s a powerful and worthy image for our longing, and we can grow a long way toward it.
What this goal looks like will be different for each of us, and will evolve as we go through life. Often our names for it will be different. It may begin, for most of us, with the seemingly simple goal of stopping in the driven, headlong rush of our lives, to be present to the beauty around us, the people, to the life we’re leading – even this initial goal is far from simple, in our wired lives immersed in the sights and sounds of media and entertainment and talk that sticks to the surface of things. Can we even imagine putting aside the demands of work and our “to do” lists, switching off the radio and television, putting aside our iPods and Droids and cellphones, and just opening our eyes and our ears to the beauty of life around us?
A month from now, as we gather for our service of homecoming and water communion, we’ll be inviting you to reflect on the places in your lives which have allowed you to do just this. Perhaps it was beside “still waters” like those envisioned by the Psalmist, or maybe it was just an inward place in the silence of your heart or home, or in the arms of someone you love.
Once we’ve begun to make room in our lives for life itself – for smelling the flowers, listening to the song of the birds, taking time for the sunsets and feeling the breeze and the rain on our skin – once we’ve slowed down enough to be present, then we’ll be more ready to dwell on our relationships with other people. This can be deeply difficult work, yet it can be profoundly satisfying, as we begin to confront our fears of each other and get past our stereotypes. It’s a journey that demands lifelong spiritual practice – the beginning practice of a child learning to play the violin, and in time the disciplined practice of the professional musician (you remember the old joke about the visitor to New York City, asking the cabdriver “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Came back the answer, “Practice, my son. Practice.”)
During this coming year, we’ll be offering some tools for practicing deeper relationships. The first such tool, which we’ll introduce at an all- church workshop on Friday night and Saturday, September 24 and 25, is a recent approach called “appreciative inquiry.” It’s used nowadays in many areas of life, but we’ve invited our colleague in Richmond, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, to introduce us to a model especially adapted for use in congregations. Its basic idea is to search out and appreciate the positive in our church experience, and build on these strengths. It is, of course, equally useful as we learn to focus not on our individual human shortcomings but on each other’s strengths.
Later in the year we’ll hone our skills in listening to each other (and to our own lives) at a deeper level. This goes by various names, such as active listening, or reflective or deep listening. We’ll also learn about what’s called nonviolent communication – an array of insights which can help us to see and avoid the often unconscious ways in which we use language aggressively, to judge, put down or control other people.
We want this year to be a year of growth and learning, as we approach our human relationships as a challenging and deeply rewarding spiritual practice.
Think of how much of our thinking and speaking is more about diminishing others than assuming the best. Listen to ourselves and our thoughts. Then imagine setting aside our negative thinking, our assumption of the worst in others, and replacing it with the positive, in a spirit of trust. Imagine seeing the positive and not the negative when we look at others, even when we think about them and talk about them behind their backs. (If you want a test, listen to yourself thinking about the other drivers you encounter on I-64.)
I’m not going to tell you I’m good at this. I can be as judgmental as anyone. I don’t think kindly of a lot of politicians, nor media types at Fox News. I know what road rage feels like, though these days I try not to act it out. Sometimes, when I’m with someone Ifind really difficult (no one here, of course), it helps me to imagine that person as an infant. I remember the story Rachel Remen tells of listening to a young rabbi, leading Sabbath services. When it came time for his sermon, he took his infant daughter from his wife’s arms and stepped up onto the bemah, the platform. Holding her, he began to speak. Pretty soon she grabbed his nose; he gently deflected her hand and kept on speaking. Soon she began chewing on his necktie; untangling that, he continued. Then she put her tiny arms around his neck. Looking over her head at his listeners, he asked. “Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” People began to think. Finally she reached for his glasses, and there was laughter. When the silence returned, he asked, “And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”2
My friends, this is what the journey is all about, what our spiritual practice is all about: It’s about training, disciplining ourselves to look for the best in others, the spark of the divine, in adulthood as in infancy, until gradually it becomes a part of us to see every person as a child of God – every person – and we don’t even have to think about it. It’s at the heart of what that Sufi holy man longed to be able to do. Only for him, in the ancient story, he longed for it to come as a gift. The gods knew that would mean a miracle. You and I may also long for it to come as a miracle, but we know that in real life it takes lifelong practice.
But what a miracle it is, when we can even begin to do this, with each other. Look to your right, and to your left, beside you in these pews. Think of your our families. Your neighbors. And, God help us, think of those of a different political party, here in our terribly polarized nation. Even Fox News or, if you’re on the other side, Public Television.
Practicing this way of looking at each other, here in this congregation, can bring healing from the wounds of the past. There will still be hurts, now and then, but we’ll learn to talk about them, say I’m sorry, and pick ourselves up and start again, in love. A new sense of community will grow among us, based not on avoiding or fighting over difficult issues but confronting them, working them out together, and in the end discovering that new and deeper sense of trust which the late M. Scott Peck called the journey from “pseudo-community” to “true community.”
I experienced that, twenty years ago, at a Peck-sponsored workshop that brought together fifty-five total strangers, seated for a weekend in a circle. After lots of listening, much strife and many tears, we left two days later, feeling the trust of true community. Peck’s image for this goal is learning to see the messiah in each other. But you know what? It’s even harder in an ongoing group like a church, with people we’re stuck with for the rest of our lives. Some people may think of heaven as a place we go when we die, and live for all eternity with our closest friends. But the truth is that heaven is what it will be like right here in this place where we are now, when we’ve learned to see the messiah in the people who are already here.
It may never be given to us, as it was to the great Sufi holy man, to achieve such perfection as to go through life doing good without having to think about our shadow side. Such perfection could only be a gift of the gods.
To all of us as humans, however, is given a different gift – the ability to become aware of our shadows, and shape them as, with lifelong spiritual practice, we grow in the arts of relationship and community. Howard Thurman spoke of it as learning to live our outer lives from the values and meanings we cherish in the inward sanctuaries of our hearts, making our lives “whole and of one piece,” guided by the spirit of life in which we all are one.
In my first ministry, in Canada, I had the privilege of following the much loved Mark DeWolfe. Mark was one of too many of our early, openly gay ministers, who died too young, cutting short a promising life and ministry. I never met Mark, but I cherish the text he left us, now set in our hymnal to the music of Henry Purcell as Hymn 295. It reminds us that it is in response to our “soul’s deep yearnings . . .” that we “seek out the spirit’s wholeness in the endless human quest.” Let’s close now with Hymn 295, “Sing Out Praises for the Journey.”
2Rachel Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000), pp. 99-100.
CLOSING HYMN: #295, Sing Out Praises for the Journey
May we join hands as one body, in the spirit of these words of colleague Kathleen Mc Tigue:
May the light around us guide our footsteps, and hold us fast to the best and most righteous that we seek.
May the darkness around us nurture our dreams, and give us rest so that we may give ourselves to the work of our world.
Let us seek to remember the wholeness of our lives, the weaving of light and shadow, in this great and astonishing dance in which we move .