Michael Brown should not have been shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri. His hands were up. He was unarmed. It doesn't make any difference whether or not he had stolen earlier something that day. If he had committed such a crime, he should have been given appropriate justice, not a volley of bullets. At the time he was shot, there was simply no excuse for what happened to him.
Somebody else had his life stolen from him, too: a man named Jesus, killed for no good reason. Jesus also died with his hands up. He had been ethnically profiled by the Roman occupying army in Jerusalem, and was brutally murdered on a cross.
The accretions of belief that have developed since the days when Jesus preached and healed in Palestine tend to obscure the fact that his death was wrong. Many Christians presume that Jesus had to die as a blood sacrifice to cover the sins of humanity. They see the behavior of the people who participated in the drama that led to Jesus' execution as players fulfilling their roles in the drama of salvation. But really they were accomplices to a murder. The cross is a lot more serious than much of Christian theology makes it out to be.
Blood sacrifice was an everyday concept in the first century, when virtually all meat sold in the markets came from animals sacrificed ritually to one god or another as a means of re-establishing harmony between the powers of heaven and the fates of humans on earth. But now that we buy meat in shrink-wrapped packages at supermarkets, what sense does this doctrine really make? It's way past time for Christians to move on and face the real and enduring meaning of the cross.
Jesus should not have died at all. He committed no crime. He broke no laws. The revolution he promoted was non-violent. God did not want him to die. Humanity did not and still does not need him to die. His crucifixion was a crime against humanity and a violation of God's law of love. The cross is a sign of humans' inhumanity to each other, calling us to stop the killing and the abuse and the insensitivity and the fear. It's a sobering reminder to us to follow the way of love and compassion and courage and forgiveness instead. The cross is a turning-point in human history. It's a moment when people confronted the failure of their old ways, and discovered another way to live. It's the crossroads of human history between "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" and the way of mercy and forgiveness.
So in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, let us take a long clear look at the cross once again and see it for what it is. It is a powerful reminder that peace in our neighborhoods isn't something that can be enforced with local police armed with high-powered surplus military equipment. It's a grim visual statement of the consequences of a pre-emptive policy of shoot first, ask questions later. It's a sobering symbol of what happens when a society puts less value on human life than it does on arbitrarily-defined standards of public safety.
We're all implicated in the crime that happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Too few of us show up to vote. That hands public offices over to purveyors of fear and hatred. We didn't push hard enough for the repeal of draconian "three strikes" laws that have filled our jails and prisons with staggering numbers of mostly non-violent criminals. We didn't object when small-town police forces became armed with leftover gear from the Iraq war, tempting cops to treat petty criminals as if they were enemy combatants.
So it's time to turn back to the cross and bow our heads and repent of our indifference. It's time to turn at this crossroads, away from paranoia and toward reconciliation, away from crude tit-for-tat justice and toward a justice tempered with mercy. Michael Brown didn't have to die for our sins, any more than Jesus did. But perhaps their deaths will wake us up to the personal, social, and structural changes we need to make to prevent such deaths from happening ever again.
(I wrote this after taking a hike in the Mojave Desert a few weeks ago.)
Weather Report: Mojave Desert – 8-2-14
Thunder lags behind lightning beyond an outcrop of stone slabs framed by clusters of Joshua trees with spikes shivering in the wind. A dark gauzy curtain descends from a boiling mass of cloud. Scattered spits of rain puff dust out of tiny craters they form on impact in the fine dirt. The cooling air fills with the overwhelming scent of wet creosote. Jackrabbits dance among the cholla cactus in their search for cover. Pale dirt turns dark, then bright with sheets of water shining steel grey in reflection of the storming sky. Dirt puddles into mud forming rivulets flowing into each other and down to wet the drywash. Grey-brown water churns around swirls of sand, rattles rounded rocks, cuts curves, disorganizes and re-organizes stones and twigs, grinds coarse to fine. Flash-Boom!
(Here's one from the vault! from 1984... it ran in CoEvolution/Whole Earth Review, which was a journal of countercultural thought and technology produced by Stewart Brand and the folks at the Whole Earth Catalog. Shortly after my article appeared, I went to worship at a Gnostic church in Palo Alto, and at coffee hour afterwards I found myself chatting with another young bearded guy holding a styrofoam cup. We were shocked when we shared our names with each other: he was Jay Kinney - the Whole Earth editor who had published my article!)
Coffee Hour: America’s True Religion
By Jim Burklo
Published in CoEvolution Quarterly magazine (Whole Earth Review), Spring 1984
Reprinted in News That Stayed News: Ten Years of CoEvolution Quarterly, 1974-1984 (North Point Press, 1986)
Her hands gripping the fingers of a seventy-year-old-man, a child jumps and does a heels-over-head flip back onto the linoleum. Nearer the aluminum coffee percolator, where a line of people wait to fill their styrofoam cups, a young engineer talks about the contracts his firm is seeking while a high-school girl and her stepfather listen over the animated tones of a cluster of people behind them. The church janitor, a middle-aged school administrator, the widow of a college professor, and a phone company executive and her two children speculate on the reasons for the success of the recent rummage sale against the poor showing of last year’s.
Rule of thumb: The folks who stay after worship for “coffee hour” are the ones who run the American church.
If you want to comprehend the politics of American religion, “coffee hour” is a first course. The disparate doctrines, structures, and worship forms of American Christianity distract us from proper respect for this informal time in the social hall after worship. I began to appreciate the importance of this phenomenon when I tried to schedule a seminar immediately after the church service. Ignoring my pleas to come into the classroom, people continued to hang out together by the coffee pot until after several Sundays of futility I concluded that coffee hour was a permanent fixture of Christian orthodoxy. This has proven true in each of the churches I have served since.
The Baptists and the Catholics, the Unitarians and the Pentecostalists all drink from a common styrofoam cup. Coffee hour has a function in America that transcends the divisions of the church. This is a huge and lonely country. New people keep moving in, and the rest keep moving around. The American local church is an extended family, a clan, for people whose natural clans are scattered and lost. It is a family for people who would otherwise be strangers to each other. It is a place for teenagers to know elderly people, for new parents to inherit baby clothes, for newly divorced women to hear about part-time jobs from business people, for single newcomers to town to meet people.
The clan conducts its affairs most intensely during the coffee hour. Stories are swapped, dates are made, plans are laid. It becomes obvious over several coffee hours that certain people know most of the others. These people, regardless of their official titles in the church or lack thereof, are the ones who have the greatest political influence in the church. Denominational officials make it their business to know these people and consult them, as well as the officers of the church, on the state of the church. These are the people who can introduce you to other people during coffee hour; the informal network that is the real foundation of the church is in their hands.
The dominant political system of the Christian churches of the United States is “congregationalism” – local church autonomy. The Baptists (in all their many flavors), the Congregationalists, the Disciples, most Pentecostal churches, and many other denominations totaling the largest number of American churches are structured so that each local church owns its own building, chooses and fires its own pastors, and determines its own doctrines and by-laws. This system has crept into the Presbyterian churches, the Methodist churches, the Episcopal churches and others with a more centralized political system; these denominations are giving in increasingly to local church demands for control over ministerial appointments, budgets, and worship forms. Americans are drawn to churches more because of their local characteristics than their denominational affiliations. This year, for the first time, the delegates to the World Council of Churches meeting joined together in a common celebration of the mass. Why is this possible? Because years ago, their local church constituents concluded that coffee hour was more important than creedal purity. Christian hierarchs have for a long time convinced themselves that they still lead the church, while the people years ago began to ignore them while lining up behind the aluminum urn.
The staggering varieties of American religious forms displayed in the hour before coffee still have, of course, important functions, not the least of which is the primal need of any clan to have a unique, identifying ritual. The ritual may have lost much of its original meaning, but it remains potent as a way for the community to recognize itself. The hymnal of my church consists of the top ten hits of the 1840’s, but while even the strongest defenders of the use of the hymnal would be hard-pressed to explain the meaning of the words, its value is primarily as a means for the church to express its identity. Is the minister or priest or elder really in charge of the worship service? I find the opposite. I am strongly subordinated by the liturgy itself, and thus by the congregation.
Rule of thumb: The more obscure and dated the worship, the more democratically is the church run.
Why do more Americans go to church than Europeans? It is certainly not because our worship is more meaningful. It is because coffee hour is as much a feature of our social landscape as shopping malls, fast food, and baseball. America is set up in such a way that people need coffee hour. You can worship at home, praying before a candle or turning on a T.V. preacher. But what is there to replace the church potluck, the ladies’ bazaar, the rummage sale? How many other places can you mingle with people of such diverse ages and life-situations?
I am in agreement with the political persuasion of my denominational leadership. However, as a parish pastor, I know that it matters very little to my church members whether I lean to the right or the left, as long as I love them. The preacher’s political religion and religious politics can be ignored or affirmed as long as they do not prevent people from enjoying each other’s company in the social hall afterward. It has amazed me how little I have bothered people with what I say from the pulpit. There are folks who completely disapprove of my convictions while getting along warmly with me on a personal level – which is the level they seek when coming to church in the first place. Coffee hour does not force any political point of view on anyone; thus, in a time of radicalization of the pulpit, the social hall has become the sanctuary of the church. Radicals and Reaganites can carry on about anything from Kierkegaard to croquet as they sip coffee after church.
Rule of thumb: Brew two cups of coffee for every three people attending worship. This allows for the abstinence of children and those who had their coffee early in order to make it through worship.
If democracy is the free and equal exercise of power by each citizen, then coffee hour surely qualifies: most churches do not charge for their coffee, and you can help yourself until it runs out. This is certainly the most important form of democracy – economic democracy.
So, to understand the political life of American churches, one must begin by recognizing that their members are primarily attracted by the fellowship life of the church, and are largely immune to the belief systems and lines of authority which form their facades. How many Catholics use birth control? How many Southern Baptists ignore Jerry Falwell? How many members of the liberal Protestant churches that have condemned nuclear weapons production are still working for the defense industry? More than the supposed leaders of Christendom would care to admit. In fact, Christianity in America is completely out of control of anyone except this Sunday’s coffee host.
“Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one," wrote Nikolai Berdyaev, a 19th-20th c. Russian philosopher and theologian. Is there a more important spiritual question than this one? Today may be a particularly good time to ask it in America.
I took a recent USC graduate to lunch last week. I sort of “adopted” her early in her freshman year. She grew up in poverty less than a mile from our campus. That proximity was crucial, as it made her eligible for our USC “Neighborhood Academic Initiative”. Another saving grace was her impatience. When she got to be a teenager, the oldest of four children, she reached a turning point of frustration with the chaotic consequences of living in poverty with a young single mother. She got herself into foster care and then fought to find a stable living situation after a few bad placements. She stayed with the NAI’s academic enrichment program through her high school years and did well in school, earning her a scholarship to USC. “People think I’m strong, but really I’m just afraid,” she once told me. “If I don’t work harder than other people, I’ll end up on the street.”
One day in her freshman year she came to my office, crying. “I went to the dining hall today but I couldn’t eat. All that food. I could eat anything I want. But my little sister called me this morning to say they had nothing to eat at my mom’s house. How could I eat when my brothers and sisters are hungry, just a few blocks away?”
Indeed, how can any of us eat or sleep when our brothers and sisters live in poverty?
Over lunch we celebrated her graduation and her recent hiring in a full-time job at the university. As always, she’s working hard and going beyond the expectations of her bosses. She was boggled by the paycheck and the benefits. “Jim,” she said, leaning over toward me with eyes wide, “they give you sick leave! And paid vacation! Like, they pay you even when you aren’t at work!” It was all I could do to restrain myself from weeping. Middle-class life was an entirely new experience for her. She had no role models in her early years to let her know what it was like.
That’s what happens when you are poor, and are surrounded by other poor people. A recent study describes how poverty is getting more concentrated in certain neighborhoods across the US. It’s another harmful effect of the growing income inequality in the United States.
Poverty isn’t a simple problem with a single answer. But it absolutely demands a response. There was a time when our nation took this spiritual question seriously. Contrary to conservatives' claims, the War on Poverty programs begun in the 1960’s brought down the American poverty rate significantly. “Under the most widely cited poverty measure.... the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.” (Center on Poverty and Budget Priorities)
That's still an unacceptable percentage in a nation as otherwise rich as ours. And the official statistic does not account for the millions who are living on the edge of destitution.
Increasing economic opportunity is fundamental to the solution: people need jobs that pay decent wages and offer decent benefits. The free market doesn’t and won’t solve that problem on its own: government must create jobs in both the public and private sectors. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Social Security need to pay out substantially larger benefits. Housing policy must change to create many more affordable units and expand home ownership for lower-income Americans. America needs a postal banking system similar to ones that exist in Japan and Europe in order to make banking affordable and accessible for low-income people. Public education and job training programs need reform and more funding in order to make low-income people work-ready.
America’s social safety net is tattered, inadequate, and inefficient. We could do a much better job of addressing and preventing poverty by redirecting existing resources, increasing funding for them overall, and rationalizing the tax codes. A short, pithy analysis of our system compared to safety nets in Europe appeared in The Economist magazine, hardly a mouthpiece for frothy leftists, a few years ago: “If America’s tax system represents a missed opportunity to redistribute income while improving efficiency, it is its spending system that makes its overall policy far less progressive than that of other rich countries. Its cash transfers are stingy. For all the conservatives’ insinuations of loafers living on handouts, America spends less than half as much as the average OECD country on cash transfers for people of working age…. the federal government “spends” four times as much on subsidising housing for the richest 20% of Americans (via the mortgage-interest deduction) than it spends on public housing for the poorest fifth.”
Much is known about how to end poverty in America once and for all, but the political will hasn’t been there to follow through. But that could change. Paul Ryan, a leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, just gave a speech outlining the conclusions of an in-depth study he made of America’s social safety net. His speech invites serious bipartisan discussion about reforms and improvements in the system, even though few of his specific proposals have merit. The essence of his plan is a federally-funded block-grant to replace many federal programs such as Food Stamps, TANF welfare for families, child care, and Section 8 housing vouchers, allowing states to come up with their own integrated safety net programs. But his assumption that states are better than the federal government at implementing welfare systems has no basis in current or past reality. If we could trust the states to take poverty seriously, why have dozens of states refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicare under Obamacare? Sadly, poor people in the poorest states need to be protected from the heartlessness of their state governments. That's why the federal government got involved in fighting poverty in the first place. The Center for American Progress offered a vigorous rebuttal to Ryan's speech: “Rather than a repackaged Ryan budget, we need a renewed focus on boosting wages, bringing our work and family policies into the 21st century, and investing in human capital to increase mobility and unlock opportunity for all Americans.”
Many parts of the federal welfare system work very well in reducing poverty: the SNAP/Food Stamp program is remarkably effective, and devolving it to the states would only reduce its efficiency. One federal program that Ryan would enhance is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a sort of reverse-income tax.
Progressive-minded people should celebrate the fact that a Tea Party Republican is at least starting to take the question of poverty seriously. Ryan’s speech is a departure from his previous intimations that churches ought to be in charge of the public’s response to hunger and homelessness. (Have a look at my “musing” on why this assertion by Ryan was absurd.) Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question, but that doesn't mean that the churches and temples and mosques can be expected to provide all the required bread. On the contrary, the Spirit moves religious people to change the political and economic system in order to make sure there is enough bread for everyone.
Ryan's speech should be welcomed as an opening to a political process leading to reform and enhancement of our social safety nets for our most vulnerable citizens. There are some federal safety net programs that require fundamental change of the sort that some Republicans might support. The Section 8 housing subsidy for the poor is so woefully under-funded that in many jurisdictions its vouchers are issued by lottery. The waiting list for vouchers in Los Angeles County is about 10 years long. That makes the program a failure in terms of equity, equality, adequacy, and efficiency. The same is true of the TANF welfare system for families, which replaced AFDC welfare in the 1990’s. The benefits are so low and the requirements to get them so onerous that it only reaches a fraction of the families that are technically eligible. Shifting funds from Section 8 and TANF into a commensurately much bigger EITC benefit might be a more efficient, effective, and dignified way to reduce poverty.
If Paul Ryan is willing to compromise his anti-government, anti-taxation political dogma for the cause, then there’s hope that his speech will be the dawn of bi-partisan cooperation to end poverty in America. Let’s follow the Spirit moving us to find bread for our neighbors, and embrace Ryan’s concern. Let's consider his proposals and engage with him where possible, for the sake of the brothers and sisters my young friend left behind in the poverty of South Los Angeles.
Oh Dear One, may these scraps of paper and bits of metal serve as symbols of our deep desire for your Love to transform our time, effort, and substance into works of creative compassion for each other, for our wider community, and for the world beyond, through this church. So may it be, Amen.
Just over a week ago, my wife Roberta and I visited the Cluny Museum in Paris, where, among many other art treasures from the late Middle Ages, we gazed on the beautiful tapestries celebrating the Six Senses. Taste. Smell. Touch. Sight. Hearing. These tapestries summed up the sensory pleasures of our three weeks in France and Spain. And then we stood spellbound before number six: "Mon Seul Desir" - My Only Desire. A lovely woman with touseled blonde hair is attended by a lovely maid, a lion, and a unicorn. The lady is reaching into a treasure-box held by the maid.
I'm not qualified to participate in the ongoing scholarly debate about the meanings of the imagery in this and the other five tapestries. But regardless of what it was meant to depict, "Mon Seul Desir" reached across the centuries to touch my soul. Even without speculation about its symbolism, the tapestry was a window into the the realm beyond the five senses. Its physical beauty pointed beyond itself. At their most profound, the arts of the five senses stimulate the sixth.
The "sixth sense" in popular culture is a reference to paranormal powers of perception. But I sense it's something deeper than clairvoyance. It's not some kind of superpower. It is our ability and propensity to have a relationship with the underlying essence of all reality. There's a subtle way in which we can know what we cannot know, touch what we cannot touch. The sixth sense is the knowledge that comes through deep humility, through a vivid awareness of what we don't know, through a disciplined abandonment of certitude. It's the deep hunch that there is a living Whole that is more than the sum of the limited number of parts of the universe that I can perceive. My awareness of my ignorance is the sixth sense through which I am able to have a relationship of awe-filled appreciation for that Whole… especially while standing before that old tapestry.
Another holy moment for us in Paris was our visit to the 18th century church of St. Sulpice near Luxembourg Gardens. It's a sanctuary of sanctuaries. Around its inner perimeter are small chapels dedicated to various saints, manifestations of the Holy Mother, or moments in the life of Jesus. Each one sheltered people praying or offering devotion. The design of the church is a celebration of intra-Christian religious pluralism, recognizing that different people find different means of knowing the unknowable. The sixth sense is experienced in at least as many ways as there are people.
Across the floor of St. Sulpice is a "gnomon", a brass meridian line marking the path of the sun over the course of a year. A lens in an upper window in the church focuses the sun on the line. It was placed because of the Catholic Church's quest to compute more accurately the future dates of Easter, which are determined by both solar and lunar calendars. The church's patronage of astronomy resulted in the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe as Catholic doctrine presumed. So to follow the path of that brass meridian line is to see religion pointing beyond itself. The church of the five senses aims at the sixth, which no religious dogma can contain.
Is this awareness the treasure toward which the gorgeous lady aims her hand in the tapestry? If so, I reach for it, too.
(I wrote this after my wife Roberta and I visited Soria, a small city in central Spain. It was the home of Antonio Machado, my favorite poet, and his wife Leonor. Statues of Antonio and Leonor and copies of his poetry are displayed prominently around Soria.)
By the caves of San Satorio
We hold hands and gaze at the quiet rush of the Duero
As once did Leonor Machado and her husband Antonio,
The poet of the two Spains - upstream and down in time -
Through this same place where hermit monks of old
Contemplated the flow that ever is here and now
And drew close to the subtle power moving the silent river
Imperceptibly carving the hill of Soria, steep and stark.
In his poetry, Machado tasted the honey of a land without flowers.
Did the hermits get drunk with the water from this river?
Roberta, let me be the brush with which you stroke
“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour….” (William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”)
To hold a bloom of California buckwheat in the palm of your hand is to admire an infinity of heavens. Each little round flower is a mass of tinier flowers, their delicate pink stamens pointing out in every direction of the universe. The tough stems of the plant, with their little spiky leaves, stay green even now during one of the worst droughts in memory. Hiking on the flanks of Boney Mountain in the Santa Monica range a week ago, in an area ravaged by wildfire, I stopped to gaze at a buckwheat bush and congratulate it on its survival.
Buckwheat is but one of the species of plants that together are called “chaparral”, the brush that covers coastal California’s hillsides in areas lacking forest cover. These natives feed a very wide variety of bees and butterflies and bugs that pollinate not only the chaparral, but also the non-native species planted by humans.
If you’re looking for heaven in California, a walk through chaparral will deliver you to the throne of God at least as swiftly as will worship in a church… especially one that landscapes its property with native plants.
Lisa Novick is on a mission to do just that. She’s the Director of Outreach and K-12 Education for the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, CA. An Episcopal layperson, she sees her work as a spiritual calling. And that led her to help the Throop Unitarian Universalist congregation in Pasadena and St Paul’s Lutheran church in Alhambra to convert their yards to native plantings. Throop wanted to plant fruit trees that could feed people in need. Lisa recommended a mix of California native plants that now host lots of different native pollinating insects that benefit the fruit trees. The native plants need much less water and maintenance than grass or other typical landscaping. They enhance the ecological balance of the neighborhood around the church, as well.
Lisa hopes that if a church converts, its members will catch the spirit and convert their own yards, too. “Native and edible landscaping is a way to care for one's community and the miracle of life. It is a way to counter the food desert that large parts of our urban and suburban areas have become, both for people and wildlife. It is a way to model the mindfulness, respect and right action needed to help heal our beautiful struggling biosphere. It is a way to practice the deeply spiritual understanding that all of life is connected. It's also a way to rebel against the conceit that we can kill life on Earth while preserving our own souls,” she writes. (See more in her recent Huffington Post article)
In the rest of the U.S., there are many congregations making the conversion. The monks of St John’s Abbey in Minnesota have stewarded its big property for many years with native trees and grasses. Trinity Covenant Church in Livonia, Michigan, has turned its yard into a gorgeous native prairie, saving $5,000 a year in lawn mowing and maintenance costs.
If you want buckwheat salvation for your church in Southern California, contact Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org . Join the native plant revival!
Picture a quiet evening in a house in Los Angeles fifty years ago or so.Allan Hunter, who for 37 years was the pastor of Mt Hollywood Congregational Church, was sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper while his wife Elizabeth washed the dinner dishes.The dishcloth fell from her shoulder onto the floor.She saw that he saw that it dropped.But he didn't move to pick it up, much less offer to help with the dishes.Slowly she approached and stood before him until he lowered the paper to pay attention.Mimicking his preacher's voice, she twisted a line from the Psalm 46 in the Bible. "Be still and know that you are not God," she declared.
This self-deprecating story appears in a short pamphlet that Allan Hunter published in 1978 entitled "Preventive Prayer and Meditation".He was 85 years old at the time he wrote it.Even today it would be considered edgy progressive theology.He makes reference to Transcendental Meditation.He offers guided meditations.He describes Christian prayer in terms of mysticism - the prayer of the heart seeking union with God, rather than making supplications to gain the favor of a supernatural divinity.Hunter was the regional chairperson of a group called The Disciplined Order of Christ, a movement devoted to the intensive practice of contemplative, meditative prayer.
Here are some of his guided meditative prayers from the pamphlet:
"I breathe Your blue sky deeply in (inhale)
To blow it gladly back again. (exhale)
I breathe Your healing energy gratefully in
To vibrate through each body cell."
"I breathe the joy of Your forgiveness in
To make my relationships new and glad.
We breathe your reconciling Spirit in
To bring peace to our divided wills and Planet Earth.
We breathe Christ's strong compassion expectantly in
To stir our will to share with those who starve.
We breathe His warmth and strength and humor in
To share joyously with all we met."
Allen Hunter believed that prayer and meditation could have a profound effect on preventing conflict and unhappiness in the world."It is the conscious practice of being so open and responsive to the audacity we see in Jesus that evil in some form or other is nipped in the bud before it has a chance to do any harm.Or to put it more positively, it is a way of being so filled with the Spirit that little room is left for preoccupation with self."
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10.For Allen Hunter, that meant being still and knowing that his ego was not God.It meant getting himself out of the center and putting God in that place.
Jesus started his work of service in the world by spending 40 days in the wilderness, probably on the eastern desert side of the Judean hills, being tempted by Satan.It is a mythical way of describing the practice of meditation or contemplative prayer.He sat in the desert and stared down his own ego until finally he was still enough to know that God was God and that he was a human being,.That God was the center of his life, not his own ego or personality. The gospel story describes this meditation as a drama of Satan urging Jesus to play the role of a supernatural God and jump off the top of the temple, to turn stones into bread, to become the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world.No, no, no – “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”, answered Jesus.
This is how it goes with meditation or contemplative prayer.Be still.Sit and stay quiet.And notice what is happening in your mind/body.What do you feel, physically and emotionally?What thoughts arise and take your attention?Just watch these scenarios unfold.Just see what happens.Don’t judge, don’t try to fix anything.Just be present with gentle compassion and close attention.
Be still and know what’s going on inside yourself, and after a while your relationship to yourself will change.There will be the One who observes with kindness and patience, and the one that is observed- and after a while you’ll identify more with the kind and patient Observer than with the one who is observed.The compassionate Observer is God.Then you’ll know that God is not some supernatural superhero working miracles in the cosmos.You’ll know instead that God is love even for your worst enemy, who, all to often, is your own selfish self.
Consider how often we replay difficult events of the past, and come up with clever resolutions to conflicts, devising brilliant zingers that we wished we had used for one-uppance against those who hurt our feelings or did us wrong.Yes, Hollywood is the capital of the movie business – but in fact everyone, everywhere, is a film producer.We’re all making movies in our minds that have more satisfying outcomes than our real-life stories.In meditative prayer, we take time to watch these movies in our heads and see them for what they are: fictions in which we play the roles of Superman or Wonderwoman, making everything turn out just the way we want it.This inner film-making is what Jesus observed as he sat and meditated in the desert.Each time the movie played in Jesus’ mind, with him playing the role of Superman and King of the World and Master Magician, he came back to consciousness and remembered who he really was.Each time he reoriented toward the divine, compassionate Watcher whose only superpower is love.
Around the world, prayer and meditation begins and ends with this movement away from the selfish self and toward the divine Other who lives within and among us all.
In Islam, prayer is a practice of physically aiming away from one’s selfish self, and prostrating on the ground toward Mecca in submission to Allah.A few months ago, our 7-year-old granddaughter Rumi came to work with me for a day.I showed her around the building in which I work, the University Religious Center.I took her upstairs to the Muslim prayer room.There we met a graduate student from Turkey, who was getting ready to pray.Touba wore the hijab headscarf, which fascinated Rumi.Rumi is named after the Sufi Muslim poet, and her dad’s heritage is Iranian Muslim, but she has had no religious training or practice.So I asked Touba if she’d be willing to show how a Muslim prays, so that Rumi could learn the tradition of her heritage.Touba explained that when she started the prayer in a standing position, she was praying along with the trees that stand upright in the forest, praising God.When she did the part of the prayer when she bent over, she was praying with the animals that walk on all fours, praising God with them.When she prostrated herself on the ground, she was praying with and for the grass and the flowers and the insects that are on the earth.“I praise God with all creation,” she told Rumi, who then watched Touba go through all the motions and words of the prayer.“Allahu akbar!”God is great! Rumi’s mouth was hanging open in slack-jawed awe – another form of Other-oriented meditation - as she watched Touba pray.
Buddhist meditation aims away from the selfish self and toward the Ultimate Reality beyond.Gautama Buddha’s first awakening was to the fact that all life is suffering.It’s the first of his four noble truths.The way out of suffering?To stop grasping so desperately for me-me-me.To let go of cravings and loosen the grip of desire. That's one of the chief aims of Buddhist spiritual practice.
Hindu tradition shifts the center of life from the ego to the Higher Self.The sacred mantra “Tat tvam asi” in Sanskrit means “I am that” in English.I am not my personality, not my bundle of roles and identities in society.I am That – the sacred Other beyond and within my personality and all others.
Becoming Other-oriented leads to personal and global transformation.That’s what Allan Hunter believed.He was an activist for peace and justice in Los Angeles and in the world.For him, that activism depended on meditation practice.“It is when the moment for drastic action arises that we are shown what to do, if we are in tune,” he wrote. Are we in tune with our selfish selves, or with the Divine Universal Self whose love is limitless?Are we aimed at the Holy Wholly Other?If we are, we’ll be oriented toward compassionate service and action for progressive social change.