In a recent meeting with my spiritual director I spoke about my ever-evolving spiritual practices. For a couple of years now I’ve been trying to catch myself when my critical nature begins to surface – like when I’m walking to work and find myself getting annoyed at people and things that offend my…and this is hard to admit…people and things that offend my sense of personal privilege. I can’t get out of the way of it sometimes. But I’m practicing becoming aware of it.
Over a year ago I began to add to this practice of awareness, the recollection of something I learned from the Dalai Lama, that “everybody just wants the same thing – to feel loved and to feel happy”. This thinking has led me to having a softer heart, sometimes. And the latest addition to the morning walk (and, truth be told, to those times when I’m driving – and some of you know this about me – that I could stand to cultivate a softer heart when behind the wheel…) the latest addition to the mix has been a smile. I really find that people respond subtly but distinctly to a smile, rather than the absence of one. I think I really began to learn this from our pantry guests.
It’s important to smile when I encounter others.
Important for me and for my ever-softening heart anyway. And that may be a really good start.
We have to start somewhere. That message has been resonating right here in this community for a long time now. And the urgency of the message, as so many of you know, has been ramped up over the past several months. We’ve met and had discussion forums about what’s going on in the world, and the major take-away in my observation has been a ringing question, “What can we do about it?”
We have to start somewhere.
Much of our discussion as yet has revolved around what we can do externally, if you will – what we can do to maybe demonstrate to others – to affirm others’ like feelings – as we try to begin changing the cycle of revenge and violence that has come to grip our world so powerfully. We are clearly at odds with such forces, at least outwardly.
And I think it’s very enriching, in our efforts to do something meaningful, to begin by turning inward and reflecting upon the substance that is us – our intimate, internal core being the place from which we begin to imagine, and then manifest, a more compassionate world.
In our reading from Hebrews today, we find some helpful content. We don’t see Hebrews too often, which is probably why it holds some special kind of appeal for me. In our Thursday evening bible study this week, we practiced some lectio divina using today’s passage, and it turned up some wonderful insights.
So, let’s set some context.
The author of Hebrews is unknown. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes it is Paul’s writing, but modern western scholars have found too much of its content too dissimilar from Paul’s writing. Too much of what is typical in Paul’s letters is absent in Hebrews. And even when the subject matter is similar, it’s handled much differently by the author of Hebrews. The vocabulary and literary style are not Paul’s. But western scholars seem to have no difficulty imagining that the author may have been among Paul’s circle of followers. Many find that Martin Luther’s guess as to the authorship of this letter is as plausible as any – namely the Alexandrian, Jewish/Christian named Apollos, who in Acts 18 is described fittingly in terms of the content of Hebrews – he is said to be, “an eloquent man, well-versed in scriptures”. But we can only guess.
Less like guesswork is our examination of Hebrews’ content. What we know certainly about its readers is that they had faced, and were expecting to continue facing, persecution for their faith. Sadly, this resulted in their being tempted to abandon Christianity. The author of Hebrews likens these new Christians to the Israelites in the wilderness. They needed to be reminded about the significance of Christianity, and how the new covenant operated over and above the system of animal sacrifice typical of the old covenant. It’s worth stressing, however, that any disconnect seen by the author between the old and new covenants, clearly dwells within a larger framework of continuity, a framework that sees the new as the proper outgrowth and fulfillment of the old. The new is for the Jews as well as Gentiles, and to take any of the language used by the author of Hebrews as anti-Semitic, is to abuse the texts and depart from the author’s intentions.
And so the community to which Hebrews is addressed, is struggling with a contradiction in terms. God has called them, beginning with Abraham – the supreme exemplar of faith – to inhabit a world prepared for them by God. They were – and it is safe to say this remains the case among so many even in the present age – they were seeking a homeland. And now their homeland was beset – persecutions had begun. Following this new covenant must have felt like the height of unsafety, and it was being asked of them against a backdrop of a homeland under hostile occupation.
Enter the author of Hebrews, intent upon reminding the people of the history of their faith – reminding them that so many of their forbears did not live to see the Promised Land, and yet they were able to express a kind of peace and happiness even in the midst of unsettled un-fulfillment. We, and the first readers of Hebrews, are meant to know that it was faith that made all the difference. It was their faith that led them to, rather than leave the place in which they found themselves struggling – rather than denouncing Christianity and returning to the old and familiar under which they were not persecuted but enjoyed relative safety under a cooperative arrangement between spiritual and secular forms of leadership. The people were reminded of their forbears who did not leave when they’d had every opportunity to do so. And why didn’t they leave? They found themselves desiring an even better country – a heavenly one.
Sounds a little like what we are experiencing in this day and age. Change some of the details around and you can certainly say we are looking for a better country. A heavenly one. I think this says something about Jesus’ constant refrain, “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you!”
It appears that with this particular brand of faith-speak, the author of Hebrews affirms the notion that we access this kingdom of from within. The implication seems clear, faith is so accessible because it’s so internal.
And yet faith remains so intangible – amorphous, even. It puzzles me as to how we can make what we find in scripture become relevant to modern ears and hearts. Naming our faith experience can be helpful – especially when that faith surfaces in the face of unrest.
I spoke the other night with a new friend. A woman who has just come through a painful divorce. As we spoke, she shared with me that her experience over the last year or so was quite painful, and yet she knew it was the best, the most loving thing she could do for herself and for her spouse. It was a long struggle, but it was a struggle in which she distinctly felt God’s presence and support. And there was a deep sense of joy and clarity that seemed to come as she spoke – as she put words together about her experience in a way that made it more real somehow.
As I drove home I found myself reflecting upon the value in putting words together about how we know God’s presence in our lives. I turned on the car radio – now with a very soft heart I’m glad to say – and began listening to the Monday night repeat broadcast of Krista Tippet’s radio program “On Being”. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye was her guest.
Growing up, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye lived in both Ferguson, Missouri and on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her father was a refugee Palestinian journalist, and through her poetry, she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity. And as I listened to her interview, it began to seem that the spiritual fruit offered by the Letter to the Hebrews, had ripened into a glorious offering of the joy and potential in how we use language – how it can develop, affirm and express our ability to imagine and manifest a better country – a heavenly one.
All of us think in poems, in a way whereby we are not separate from the text. It is in the stories we tell ourselves as we walk through our lives looking around. As children we lived in a poem – we had no trouble “being” a poem. We could think. Go to a quiet place. Remember. Imagine. This is what a poem does.
The Japanese have an expression that is helpful. It is “U toh’ ree” and it signifies a kind of spaciousness. Arrive early to your appointment or destination. Give yourself time to not be stressed. Look around. Take things in. This relates to how you can hold a poem even as it holds you. It’s like riding a wave of thought. And in that spaciousness arises a sensibility that allows you to interact with everything around you.
The sense that so many people seem to have that everything has changed these days suggests there is a necessity to deeply interrogate our interior spaces – our feelings. This is best done in that spaciousness we can allow ourselves. And in doing so we remind ourselves what is important – how important it is to try to live in ways that are nourishing for human beings – how important it is to continually nourish our own ability to grow in our perceptions to more than we used to know – to empathize with distant situations and sorrows and joys.
There are so many mysteries about people wanting to presume their pain has more of a reality than someone else’s pain. All holy persons of all backgrounds and faiths have always called upon us to sympathize in a more profound way, to stretch our imaginations toward what the other person might be experiencing.
It seems so basic. But when you listen these days to the loud voices, you can’t help but wonder, “What happened?” What ever happened to the awareness that we don’t have to be emotionally reactionary or vindictive or continue in a cycle of revenge and violence?
Imagining and manifesting a better country, a heavenly one, begins with noticing – paying a different kind of attention to things that may not be apparent to the eye. Noticing, and making what Naomi Shihab Nye calls “petit discoveries”. In her book “Amaze Me: Poems for Girls” she writes about how poetry allows us to cherish what we’ve been given:
“If you have many voices”, she says, “and let the speak to one another in a friendly fashion – if you’re not too proud to talk to yourself out loud – if you’ll ask the questions pressing against your forehead from the inside – you’ll be okay if you write three lines down in a notebook every day. They don’t have to be great or important. They don’t have to relate to each other and you don’t have to show them to anyone. (Do this and) you will find out what you notice. Uncanny connections will be made visible to you.”
It is a rare gift, listening to yourself. And it invariably leads to better listening to others.
It’s very mysterious, this rising to one’s better self. For one thing, if there’s a better self, this signifies we each have more than one self. Writing – practicing articulating what you have not articulated about your own life and the world around you – helps you get to meet your better self, your child self, your older self, your confused self, your self that makes a lot of mistakes. That may be the foundational society that, in making friends with them, even through a morass of confusion, pain and loss, of soaring joys and exultation, you may start finding that kernel of faith that makes all the difference in moving toward a better country – a heavenly one. And in finding that kernel of faith, find ways of turning gracious internal community into gracious community writ large. It’s an act of kindness. Kindness to ourselves begets kindness in the world.
In closing it would be a joy to share with you Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem entitled Kindness:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.