Sunday, April 15, 2012

Thurman and Resurrection

The sermon this morning is not really a sermon.  “That is odd,” you may be saying to yourself.  “It says right here in my bulletin: ‘Sermon’!”  And so it does.  Alas, when tasked with considering the careful crafting of the religious and life experience into communicative text undertaken by the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, particularly on the topic of resurrection, it quickly becomes clear that it would be no small feat to attempt a presentation of his thoughts on the subject approaching anything like adequacy.  There are those in our midst who could do so; I am not one of them.  It would, of course, be best, if Dr. Thurman were here in his own pulpit to present his thoughts himself, but even in so hallowed a nave as Marsh Chapel, we do not pretend to be able to fulfill this ideal, even under such an auspicious sermon title as “Thurman and Resurrection.”  Thus, we are left with a less than ideal option, namely that of proffering some meager correlations between the themes of the resurrection Gospel according to John and the thoughts and writings of Dr. Thurman presented in the voice of one untimely born two years after Thurman’s death.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20: 19-21).
“Peace in Our Lives,” a meditation of Howard Thurman from his book, The Growing Edge.
I make of my life an offering to God.
Fierce indeed is the grip by which we hold on to our lives as our private possession.  The struggle to achieve some sense of individuality in the midst of other people and other things is grim.  Always we are surrounded by persons, forces, and objects which lay siege to us and seek to make us means to their ends or at least to their fulfillment.  The demand is ever present to distinguish between the self and the not-self.
There are moments of enthusiasm when with mounting excitement we absorb ourselves in something beyond ourselves.  When this happens we fight at length to get back home, to come again into the familiar place, to be secure in our own boundaries.  Again and again the process repeats itself, wearing down the walls that shut us in.
Of course, a man may by early resolution, by frustration, by bitter experience withdraw more and more from all involvements.  By this process he seeks to immunize himself against hurts and from what seems to be certain disaster.  Behold such a man.  His spirit shrinks, his mind becomes ingrown, his imagination inward turning.  The wall surrounding him becomes so thick that deep within he is threatened with isolation.  This is the threat of death.  Sometimes his spirit breaks out in reverse by giving voices to inward impulses, thus establishing by the sheer will to survival a therapy for the corrosion of his spirit.
For all of this religion has a searching word.  “Deep within are the issues of life.”  “The rule of God is within.”  “If thou hadst known the things which belong unto thy peace.”  There is a surrender of the life that redeems, purifies, and makes whole.  Every surrender to a particular person, event, circumstance, or activity is but a token surrender, the temporary settling of the passing and transitory.  They end in tightening the wall of isolation around the spirit.  They are too narrow, too limited, finally unworthy.
The surrender must be to something big enough to absolve one from the little way, the meager demand.  There can be no tranquility for the spirit unless it has found something about which to be tranquil.  The need for a sense of peace beyond all conflict can only be met by something that gathers up into itself all meaning and all value.  It is the claim of religion that this is only found in God.  The pathways may vary but the goal is one.

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20: 22).
“God is With Me” and “God is Present,” two meditations of Howard Thurman from his book, Meditations of the Heart.
God is with me, in the sense that He is the Creator and the Sustainer of life.  This is a part of my general thought and experience.  There is something so big and vast about God as Creator and Sustainer of all of life that it is hard for me to feel that I am included.
God is with me.  All around me are certain expressions of orderliness, of beauty, of wonder and delight.  The regularity of sunrise and sunset, the fragile loveliness of a wisp of cloud fringed with silver, the wonder of day dawning and the delight of companionship – all these are His handiwork.
God is with me.  Again and again I am stirred by some experience of tenderness, some simple act of gratuitous kindness moving from one man to another, some quiet deed of courage, wisdom or sacrifice or some striking movement of unstudied joy that bursts forth in the contagion of merry laughter.  I know God is with me.
God is with me.  Always there is the persistent need for some deep inner assurance, some whisper in my heart, some stirring of the spirit within me – that renews, re-creates and steadies.  Then whatever betides of light or shadow, I can look out on life with quiet eyes.
God is with me.

God is present with me this day.
God is present with me in the midst of my anxieties.  I affirm in my own heart and mind the reality of His presence.  He makes immediately available to me the strength of His goodness, the reassurance of His wisdom and the heartiness of His courage.  My axieties are real; they are the result of a wide variety of experiences, some of which I understand, some of which I do not understand.  One thing I know concerning my anxieties: they are real to me.  Sometimes they seem more real than the presence of God.  When this happens, they dominate my mood and possess my thoughts.  The presence of God does not always deliver me from anxiety but it always delivers me from anxieties.  Little by little, I am beginning to understand that deliverance from anxiety means fundamental growth in spiritual character and awareness.  It becomes a quality of being, emerging from deep within, giving to all the dimensions of experience a vast immunity against being anxious.  A ground of calm underlies experiences whatever may be the tempestuous character of events.  This calm is the manifestation in life of the active, dynamic Presence of God.
God is present with me this day.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20: 23).
A selection from the chapter “Reconciliation,” from Howard Thurman’s book, Disciplines of the Spirit.
The concern for reconciliation finds expression in the simple human desire to understand others and to be understood by others.  These are the building blocks of the society of man, the precious ingredients without which man’s life is a nightmare and the future of his life on the planet is doomed.  Every man wants to be cared for, to be sustained by the assurance that he shares in the watchful and thoughtful attention of others – not merely or necessarily others in general but others in particular.  He wants to know that – however vast and impersonal all life about him may seem, however hard may be the stretch of road on which he is journeying – his is not alone, in an awareness sufficient to hold him against ultimate fear and panic.  It is precisely at this point of awareness that life becomes personal and the individual a person.  Through it he gets some intimation of what, after all, he finally amounts to, and the way is cleared for him to experience his own spirit.
The need to be cared for is essential to the furtherance and maintenance of life in health.  This is how life is nourished.  The simpler the form of life, the simpler the terms of caring…
It is in human life that the need to be cared for can be most clearly observed, however, because here it can be most clearly felt.  There was a lady in my church in San Francisco who felt very poignantly the need to be needed beyond the limits of her family.  One day she went with a small group to visit the children’s ward in a hospital.  She noticed a baby in a crib against the wall.  Despite the things that were going on in the ward and the excitement created by a group of English bell-ringers and their tunes, this little child remained lying on his side with his face to the wall.  But it was discovered that he was not asleep – his eyes were open in an unseeing stare.  The nurse explained that the entire ward was worried because the child responded to nothing.  Feeding had to be forced.  “Even if he cried all the time, that would be something to work with.  But there is nothing.  And he is not sick as far as anything clinical can be determined.  He will surely die unless something is done.”  Then the lady decided to try to do something.  Every day for several weeks she visited the ward, took the little boy in her arms, talked to him, hummed little melodies and lullabies, and did all the spontaneous things that many years ago she had one with her own son.  For a long time there was absolutely no response.  One day when she lifted the child into her arms there was a slight movement of the body, and the eyes appeared to be somewhat in focus.  This was the beginning.  Finally, on a later day, as her voice was heard greeting the nurse when she came into the ward, the child turned over, faced the ward, and tried to raise himself to a sitting position.  Things happened rapidly thereafter until he was restored to health.
Let us keep clearly in mind the issue here.  The need to be cared for is fundamental to human life and to psychic and spiritual health and well-being.  When this need is not met, the individual is thrown into conflict, an inner conflict that can only be resolved when the need is honored.  The conflict expresses itself in many ways, from profound mental disturbance to the complete projection upon others of the hate and violence the person himself is feeling.  The individual experiences the fulfillment of his need in a diffused way, by living in an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging.  It is here that simple techniques of co-operation and adjustment are developed, which in time become the channels through which the intent to honor this deep need in others is implemented.  Unwillingness to accept ill will, hatred, or violence directed toward oneself from another as the fundamental intent is the role of the reconciler, the function of reconciliation.  “Father, forgive them, for the know not what they do,” says Jesus as he is dying on the cross.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20: 24-29).
An excerpt from the Baccalaureate Address delivered by Dr. Thurman at Spelman College in May of 1980.
There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself... There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one.     
If you can not hear the sound of the genuine within you, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all the existences, and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
So the burden of what I have to say to you is, "What is your name—who are you—and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?" There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing of the rumble and the traffic going on in your minds, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough—not quiet enough—still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don't know if you can. But this is your assignment
The sound of the genuine is flowing through you. Don't be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions that you don't hear the sound of the genuine in you. Because that is the only true guide that you will ever have and if you don't have that you don't have a thing. Cultivate the discipline of listening to the sound of the genuine in yourself.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20: 30-31).
Selections from Howard Thurman’s The Search for Common Ground.
When I was a small boy I went across the meadow to visit with one of my chums.  I was running around the house when I heard a voice, which came from a knock on the windowpane.  I looked up to see my friend’s father standing in the room.  As soon as he caught my attention, he motioned for me to turn around and come into the house through the front door.  When I entered the room he pointed through an open window.  There I saw his baby girl, less than a year old, sitting in the sand playing with a rattlesnake.  It was an amazing and deeply frightening experience to watch.  The child would turn the snake over on its side and do various things with him; the snake would crawl around her, then crawl back.  It was apparent that they were playing together.
I was sent back into the yard to stand guard to keep anyone from coming around the house to frighten them.  For if their harmony were broken by sudden disharmony created by noise or sudden movement, there would have been violence on earth.  After a while the baby grew tired of playing, turned away, and started crawling toward the back steps; the snake crawled towards the woods on the edge of the yard.  It was then that the father drew a bead on the snake’s head with his shotgun, killing him instantly.  It was as if two different expressions of life, normally antagonistic to each, had dropped back into some common ground and there reestablished a sense of harmony through which they were relating to each other at a conscious level…
The paradox of conscious life is the ultimate issue here.  On the one hand is the absolute necessity for the declaration that states unequivocally the uniqueness of the private life, the awful sense of being an isolate, independent and alone, the great urgency to savor one’s personal flavor – to stand over against all the rest of life in contained affirmation.  While on the other hand is the necessity to feel oneself as a primary part of all of life, sharing at every level of awareness a dependence upon the same elements in nature, caught up in the ceaseless rhythm of living and dying, with no final immunity against a common fate that finds and holds all living things.
Men, all men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.  And all the people said Amen.

Friday, April 06, 2012

I Thirst - Good Friday Meditation

Once again, those who followed Jesus missed the point.  Anyone who has awoken the morning after having shared a bottle of wine with friends knows that wine is hardly a thirst quencher.  On the contrary, wine is a thirst inducer, and yet this is what Jesus is given when from the cross he says, “I thirst.”  Oops.  Missed again.  Even attempts at compassion for the dying Christ are fumbled, only exacerbating the problem they are trying to solve.
We live in a thirsty age.  Not only are we thirsty ourselves, but our culture and society seek explicitly and intentionally to modify our thirsts.  Marketing experts are experts precisely in the delicate art of inspiring and intensifying our thirsts.  Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Marsh Chapel Experiment, which was designed precisely to see whether certain chemical substances were effective in intensifying spiritual thirst.  As it turns out, it is indeed possible to intentionally and explicably alter a person’s spiritual appetites with the chemical substances in question. 
Jesus’ thirst is different than our many modern thirsts.  Jesus’ thirst arises after he knows that “all was now finished.”  It is over.  There is nothing left.  Jesus is at the bottom of the trajectory outlined in the kenotic hymn of Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
Here, on the cross, just before he gives up his spirit, Jesus is entirely empty.  No wonder he is thirsty. There is purity to this thirst.  It is not something that can be instilled or inspired or intensified.  Jesus’ thirst at the bottom of the kenotic ellipse is a pure desire for the process of self-emptying to cease, one way or another.  It is a cry of desperation.  Giving voice to the pure desire for an end of emptiness, by whatever means necessary, in the language of thirst, here we see the turning point to the second half of the ellipse of the kenotic hymn:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.
The exaltation of Jesus the Christ must await the resurrection at Easter.  For now, as we shall hear momentarily, it is finished.  The language of thirst points to the fact that the exaltation is not guaranteed.  At the point at which Jesus is hanging on the cross, the cry of thirst is not necessarily for fullness, but either for fullness or for annihilation. One way or another, please God, end it.  In these next days, we too must hang on the cross, wondering whence and whether our glory might come.