Monday, May 9, 2011

teach naked 2

in reading my texts for older testament this week, which included both job and ecclesiastes, I remembered I'd used both as texts for separate sermons I'd delivered. I went to search them out and have not found the sermon on job, but did find the one for ecclesiastes. it surprised me. I'd imagined it was one of the sermons I'd written in the past few years on education but it turned out to be a guest sermon I'd done for my wife's congregation about 5 years ago. I'm including it here as part of my "teach naked" series of posts.

A Sermon Delivered to the United
Church of Christ, Menomonie
, July 30, 2006

In 1987, when the violence that was always simmering bubbled over, I badly beat a drinking buddy over what he had done to someone else, and while I was never punished legally for it, it caused me in 1988 to place myself in seclusion among the gentlest people I could find, and attend spring sesshin among the Buddhists at Dhammapada, a monastery in Montreal. I was put to work cleaning the kitchens and weeding the gardens. I shaved my head, although it wasn’t required, and attended daily zazen and weekly koan with the abbot.

He was a little Japanese fellow come to Canada after World War II, sort of a rounder, fuller version of Sogyal Rinpoche. In Big Indian Mountain, near Woodstock, we had a former monk turned restaurateur named Rudi for whom he was almost an exact match. Monasteries are little places, just like everywhere else only more so, and nothing gets beyond the abbot’s notice. One day during our interview he let me know he was aware I had been engaged in less than purely spiritual dalliances with two other attendees. I stammered out a half-explanation, half-apology, and he simply put up a hand. “You have a tendency to,” and here he used a rather graphic term for an activity other than spiritual intercourse, “everyone that you see. I’d like you to really do that with everything you see. Pay very, very close attention to everything going on around you. Open your eyes to everything.”

I suppose that’s one reason I’m drawn to the Evanescence song “Bring Me to Life,” from which my title is taken. When people complain in my hearing that kids today have no sense of the sacred or the transcendent in their arts, I remind them first of our own generation’s great tradition of spiritual reflection as represented by songs like “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” and then I point to this song, among others. Amy Lee, who is the songwriter and powerful voice behind this group, wails the refrain like a chained banshee. “Wake me up inside/Save me/Call my name and save me from the dark/Save me from the nothing I’ve become.” To whom does she make this request? To god? Perhaps. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” In his book, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, Thomas Beaudoin makes clear that, as he puts it, “ambiguity is central to faith.”

This ambiguity Beaudoin focuses on might seem in direct conflict with the Bible, with its constant repetition of “have faith,” “be faithful,” “trust God.” To quote Sam Harris, “Where faith really pays its dividends…is in the conviction that the future will be better than the past, or at least not worse. Consider the celebrated opinion of Julian of Norwich…who distilled the message of the Gospels in the memorable sentence ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ The allure of most religious doctrines is nothing more sublime or inscrutable than this: Things will turn out well in the end.”

If this is the case, and I submit it is for the greater part, then the book of Ecclesiastes is, like Job, the rude flatulence in the face of the pious. To quote Ken Davis, “Anyone who thinks the Bible is a simplistic book offering pat answers to challenging questions hasn’t read…Ecclesiastes [which refutes] those orthodox and fundamentalist Bible believers who condemn anyone who dares to question god or the divine plan. While much of the Hebrew scripture depicts an orderly universe in which the faithful can find hope even in the most desperate moments, Ecclesiastes…is a searching, skeptical book…[that] not only accepts the uncomfortable questions, it honors them.” Ecclesiastes would seem to counsel Amy Lee against asking for salvation from god. “Fear god,” the ecclesiast tells her and us.

The book has come down to us as Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher, from the Greek ekklesiastes, but its original Hebrew title, Qoheleth, which appears nowhere else in the Bible, means “assembler or leader of a congregation” and is more accurately translated as Teacher. I prefer the latter title, not simply because I’m a teacher myself, but also in concert with the traditional concept of the rabbi as the teacher of the ways of god and of Jesus’ role as a rabbi himself. When the rabbis who assembled the canon of what became the Old Testament came to deliberate, they initially rejected its inclusion—its skeptical nature and smart-alecky, sarcastic tone (“vanity of vanities,” “there is nothing new under the sun”) testified against it. However, its attribution to Solomon (since discredited) and the later addition of the phrase “fear god and keep his commandments” ultimately swayed them in its favor. Quoting Lawrence Boadt in Reading the Old Testament, “It was fortunate that they recognized its inspired message, for it teaches the great gulf between the transcendent god and our human striving to understand and so control him. In the end, Ecclesiastes’ message is one with that of Job—trust and surrender yourself to god’s loving care even if you cannot know where it will lead.”

Trust and surrender. In the Koran, the holy book of the religion whose very word means “trusting surrender”—Islam—we read in Sura 33 a paragraph strikingly similar to the opening of today’s Ecclesiastes reading: “Oh you who believe! Be careful of your duty to Allah and speak the right word. He will put your deeds into a right state for you, and forgive you your faults; and whoever obeys Allah and his disciple, he indeed achieves a mighty success.” But Ecclesiastes follows up its recital of what we must do with its two word admonition that sends a chill through my spine: “Fear god.” “Fear god.” Not “love god, trust god, surrender to god, hold god’s hand while you cross the street,” but “fear god.” I have a great deal of trouble with those two words. Not to seem too smug, but what do I have to fear from god? I mean, look at this. I am a white man in contemporary America. I can go anywhere I choose, but my entertainment is usually delivered right into my home, which in this heat is kept at a pretty cool 80 degrees. I have a good-paying job whose wages keep me solidly in the middle class, but even if I lost that I’ve got enough skills and talent that I can find something to keep me afloat. I live in a place where my greatest fear is not bombs or random shootings but the annual sweep of tornadoes, and I can pretty confidently avoid them. I have enough to eat and more than enough that I’m comfortable giving some of it away. When I walk my dogs in the morning or when I head out to work or even when I walk the several blocks to where I park my car at night, I’m in no danger of being hurt and even the people who I meet are either deferential or, at worst, ignore me. What reason do I have to fear god? “Fear god?” Hell, god and I seem pretty tight.

Maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe my obligation is not to fear god but to help to spread this sort of comfort with god to everyone else, to help make the world so that everyone can walk its paths with impunity, so that everyone can feel safe in her home, so that everyone can be cool and warm in his shelter, so everyone’s wage is a livable one. In his biography, God, Jack Miles refers to this as god the puzzle and to the Ecclesiast or the Teacher as “a protophilosopher, a seeker after wisdom who has looked with skepticism on many of the ordinary pursuits of mankind and has begun to look with skepticism on traditional wisdom itself, not excluding the special kind of wisdom that tries to cope with skepticism by a retreat to the would-be subphilosophic business of just living a life. There is a quiet and appealing resignation in some of Eccliastes’ speeches, but his judgment on his own speeches is that they are futile, and one believes he is not feigning his rather frequently expressed loathing of life.” This Teacher points out that, if you can’t take it with you and you must leave it behind, of what use is it to you? Best to give it away, whatever “it” is.

Sounds appealing. But then of course I turn on the TV or open the paper or look on the website and I see what’s going on. Just this week, over 400 people in Lebanon have been killed by Israeli bombing, including two UN observers. In Israel, over 50 people have been killed by suicide bombers and random shootings. Abdallah Deerow Isaq, Somilia’s Constitution and Federalism Minister, was assassinated as he left Friday’s prayers at his favorite mosque. In Bangladesh, a middle-aged man was attacked with acid thrown in his face and chest; his assault brings the number of victims, over 2000 of whom have been women, to 270 this last calendar year, including a one-month old boy forced to drink acid. The Reverend Simon Thomas of Hythe, England, minister at Hythe’s United Reformed Church, was sentenced to life in prison on 35 counts of child abuse, including two counts of raping an 11 year old boy. And closer to home, as I speak Seattle police are ranged among the city’s mosques and temples, protecting worshipers after Naveed Afzal Haq, an American Pakistani Muslim, attacked women at the Jewish Federation Building Friday. How, in the face of all this, do I fear god? I should sooner fear other people. The Koran reinforces this, god telling us in Surrah II, “so surely there will come to you a guidance from me, then whoever follows my guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve,” and tells us in the 23rd Surrah rather “seek refuge” in god from the evils of men.

Miles points out that “Ecclesiastes neither curses not blesses god but only finds him incomprehensible…” Perhaps the fault lies not in the words of the Teacher but in the way I read them. “Fear god,” he tells us. Amy Lee repeats “save me, wake me up.” If, like the Teacher, I am not to praise or condemn god but to accept the choice in the way things are done, perhaps my fear is misplaced if I fear god; perhaps what I am meant to fear is god’s effect on me.

Amy Lee impels whoever she addresses “save me, wake me up, I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems, got to open my eyes to everything.” The Teacher tells us, “to draw near to listen is better than to offer the fools’ sacrifice. Be not rash with your heart…let your words be few…Pay what you vow…Why should god be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?”

This same god, whom I should fear, will not be angry at me, will not destroy what I’ve created, what I’ve worked at? What sort of god is that to fear? Not, perhaps, a god to fear but a god I can see, see everywhere.

“Wake me up,” Amy Lee says. “Pay very, very close attention to everything around you,” my abbot told me. “Guard your steps when you draw near the house of god…don’t be rash with what you say…let not your mouth lead you into sin,” the Teacher tells us. Pay attention to what you are doing and what you are saying. Not because god will smack you into next week for saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. But it’s the effect of seeing god in the world around us, what Buddhists call the godhead in things, that we are meant to fear. This may be the fear we should have. Recognizing the godhood in everything, opening our eyes to everything, following god’s guidance and seeking refuge in it may be the wake up call we should both heed and fear. Why fear? Because this portends a new behavior. If we see the godhood in the mosquito sucking blood out of our arm, if we see the godhood in the food we place in our mouths, if we see the godhood in the woman wearing a parka in the 80 degree day and standing on the corner, barking at the world, how then are we to act? God becomes the ultimate alarm clock. Bring me to life, indeed.

If we avoid living lives of quiet desperation, we remain nonetheless for the greater part living lives of willful dissonance. The other day I heard a commercial on KS95 that starts out, “Scientists tell us 2006 is the hottest summer on record,” and goes on to explain that the best thing to do is stay inside, crank up KS95, and win “our 2007 Edition KS95 Humvee.” Most of us aren’t as clueless as the makers of that commercial would have us believe. But the recognition of the god in us would demand different things of us. It demands not only we question the moral effects of our treatment of men and women and children on the business end of our bullets and bombs and laws and policies, but demands of us as well an accounting of the squirrel we run over as we speed to or from work, the spouse we complain to that no one in authority listens to us, the coffee grounds we toss in the garbage can. It demands a certain way we treat the garbage itself.

How do we behave when we see god all around us? That is what we should fear. The recognition that nothing, nothing is unaffected by us and the effect is not always what we should wish. As Denver warns her ghost-sister Beloved in Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name about their common mother Sethe, “Watch out for her; she can give you dreams.” I would amend this, in light of the Teacher’s words, to “watch out for god; she will give you responsibilities.”

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