Friday, April 22, 2011

Sermon: "Sustained by the Psalms or Something" (Delivered 4-17-11)

“The Door” by Jane Hirshfield:
A note waterfalls steadily
through us,
just below hearing.

Or this early light
streaming through dusty glass:
what enters, enters like that,
unstoppable gift.

And yet there is also the other,
the breath-space held between any call
and its answer––

In the querying
first scuff of footstep,
the wood owls' repeating,
the two-counting heart:

A little sabbath,
minnow whose brightness silvers past time.

The rest-note,
hinged between worlds,
that precedes change and allows it.

Just about every year I get an invitation to guest preach at a Christian congregation here in town as part of a special sermon series during Lent or Holy Week. And, I always look forward to these opportunities. It’s a real treat. Because I get to write a sermon that is substantially different from all the other sermons I write and preach over the course of the rest of the year.
Let me explain what I mean by this. A couple weeks ago I was the guest preacher at Community Christian Church on the Plaza, a Disciples of Christ congregation. I spoke as part of a midweek Lenten sermon series they were offering. The sermon series was entitled, “Sustained by the Psalms.”

Here is how I approached that sermon: I chose a very specific text from the Bible, the forty-sixth psalm. I explained some of the wonderful and intricate features of the text. I explained how the text might be useful or meaningful or supportive or challenging to the lives we lead. I started with something very small, very concise and precise and then I coaxed it and queried it so that it might grow into something large enough to fill and feed those in the congregation in their living.

And, when I preach here, to you, I never start with something very small and very narrow. I start with something big, a big idea, a big question, a large topic. Then I look for and search for examples and stories and texts that will distill that big idea down into something manageable, a container to hold these large thoughts.

More simply and succinctly, when I guest preach at a Christian congregation I can say, “Let me talk to you for the next twenty minutes about Psalm 46.” And then I move from small to large, from text to message. Here, I’d never say, “For the next twenty minutes I plan to talk to you about Psalm 46.” Just like I wouldn’t say, “For the next twenty minutes I’m going to talk about the forty-sixth chapter of the Tao Te Ching.” And just like I wouldn’t say, “For the next twenty minutes I’m going to talk about Shakespeare’s forty-sixth love sonnet.”

Sustained by the Psalms: over there I can say, “Let’s look at this psalm and this is what it says about sustenance, and refuge.” But here I would start large, with a big question like asking what sustains and supports us, and then we’d narrow it down to look at examples. The example might be a psalm… or something else. It might be another piece of poetry or a passage from the sacred scriptures of another tradition, or I might tell a story about the sustaining power of relationships or community or nature. Sustained, by the Psalms, or something else.

Ten years ago I spent a summer working as a hospital chaplain at an inner-city hospital in Dallas, Texas. One day during my shift I received a page informing me that one of the patients had requested a visit. I took the elevator to the patient’s floor and as I made my way down the hallway I saw that the room that I was headed towards had a police officer posted outside. The hospital where I worked was the hospital that provided medical treatment to individuals in police custody. (Jesus instructs us to minister to the sick and to those in prison. This was like a double-mitzvah. Two birds with one stone.)

I entered the hospital room. Another police officer was posted inside the hospital room. (The presence of two police officers meant that this patient was being detained for a significant offense.) The patient/prisoner was handcuffed to the hospital bed. He had requested that I visit him because he wanted someone to read to him from the psalms.

This is a true story. What followed was not exactly my most shining moment. Of course, I started with the twenty-third psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Upon finishing, he requested that I read another one. While flipping through the book of psalms I tried to stall. “Do you have any that you particularly like?” Any requests? He answered me, “It’s your choice.” To my credit, I did not say, “Please pick a number between one and one hundred and fifty.”

So, I stalled. I tried to speed read through the psalms in order to find one that spoke to this situation. How could anything speak to this situation? And, the psalms are not categorized by theme, you know. And, it is not like you can possibly know where a particular psalm is going to go just from reading the first couple of lines.

I landed on a psalm that seemed very promising. This particular psalm begins with the pleas of a person in distress. “Save me, God, for the water has risen to my neck. I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold; I have come into deep water and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow tired with waiting for my God.” It continues in this way with the psalmist calling out to God: “I am afflicted and in pain.” “I am in over my head.” Oh, yeah, this was good stuff. Good choice, Thom. The psalmist writes of feeling alone and abandoned, afflicted and ashamed, weeping bitter tears.

But then the text turns in a direction I wasn’t expecting. A most inappropriate direction. The psalmist turns from crying out in pain to requesting that pain be heaped on his enemies. “Cause my enemies to go blind and let their loins swell up permanently with sickly fever. O Lord, vent your indignation on them and let your burning anger overtake them. Heap punishment after punishment on my captors; grant them no vindication. Let them be blotted out from the book of the living!”

I don’t think the police officer sitting on the other side of the room approved of the text I had chosen. After all, I had read a prayer that asked that he be smote!

It may be tempting to say I just chose a bad text. But, the reality is that my experience of these poems, these texts, is that they do tend to swerve between expressions that are poignant and touching, and expressions that are troubling. (Some of them seem downright schizophrenic, and for good reason: many of the psalms have multiple authors, writing centuries apart. A specific stanza written during a time of war might be inserted into an older psalm, written centuries earlier.)

So, when I went to guest preach at Community Christian, I decided to choose as my text one the most swerving, schizoid texts I could find, Psalm 46, which in the span of a mere eleven verses presents God as a creator of chaos, churning the water and shaking the firmament, and then God as a peaceful force, present in nature’s calm. Next, Psalm 46 conjures up images of political unrest and social upheaval, but then the psalm announces that God brings peace by putting an end to war, by snapping spears and breaking bows. This choice of a text was very intentional. After all, the two biggest news stories from that week had been the massive destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and US military action in Libya.

Let me be perfectly clear on a couple of things here. I believe it is morally repugnant, not to mention theologically ignorant, to claim that God causes natural disasters. At the same time, while I reject the literal Judeo-Christian account of “In the beginning,” I do find the language of creation to be a powerful metaphor for speaking of the sacred dimensions of nature. On the other side of the discussion, I’m not sure what to do with the image of God taking disarmament into God’s own hands. Indeed, blessed are the peacemakers. But, the work of peacemaking seems to me to be a decidedly human endeavor. The image of God reaching down/out/over to break and disassemble weaponry is an awkward image.

So, let me pause right here and ask something. So what? Why does any of this matter? And, alongside this question I might ask another set of questions, questions about our relationship as Unitarian Universalists with the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. What do these scriptures mean to us? What should they mean to us? Should they be privileged in any way? Or disadvantaged?

In the past week I’ve had the chance to sit down with most of the youth in this year’s Coming of Age class. In these minister meetings, we look together at a poster that hangs in my office. The poster is a cheap print of a painting that hangs in a Unitarian Universalist church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The painting is a still life in which each of the objects represent some facet of our UU tradition. In the still life painting, on the corner of the table, rests a small stack of three books. The bottom book is a leather-bound Bible. On it rests a volume of Emerson’s writings. On it rests a thin, empty journal.

These three books represent three different understandings of how we have approached finding truth. The first Unitarians and Universalists believed that truth came solely from the Bible. That is a sentence that may surprise many of us. The first Unitarians and Universalists believed that truth came solely from the Bible. In most seminal works of early Unitarian and Universalist theology the arguments were derived from scripture. Then, along came Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous nineteenth century Unitarian minister turned essayist. Emerson and his Transcendentalist cohorts expanded the sources from which our tradition draws. Emerson argued that truth also comes to us from the scriptures of other religions, and from nature, and from intuition. And then, finally, the book on top of the stack is a blank journal, representing the fact that our faith is not finished, is continually in progress, is composed by us as we build our own theology and search for truth and meaning.

The six sources, a part of our statement of Principles and Purposes, confirm this breadth. The exact wording of our sources can be found at the front of the gray hymnal. (And, depending on whether your hymnal was printed before or after 1996, it might contain either five or six sources.) According to that denominational statement, the sources we draw from include our own experiences, Jewish and Christian teachings, the wisdom of world religions, human understandings drawn from the sciences and the liberal arts, the inspiring examples of heroic women and men, and inspiration from nature.

Whew! That’s a lot of sources! That’s a lot of sources for inspiration. And, with all that breadth, with all that variety and diversity, who has time for a measly little psalm that starts off well and then turns into a prayer for vengeance? Who has time for a measly little psalm that recklessly swerves between two polarities, destructive chaos and peace and security? I would argue that the sheer abundance and volume of spiritual sources on which we can draw may have the unintended consequence of allowing us to be too picky, too pure, too discriminating.

Today, Christians around the world begin their Holy Week, celebrating the street theater procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. The story of this week is glorious and tragic, incredible and heartbreaking. It contains difficult polarities, the contrast between the beautiful fellowship of the last supper and a stomach-turning account of torture and capital punishment. The story vacillates between Jesus’ prophetic challenge to the Roman Empire and the embarrassment of multiple betrayals.

On Monday, Jews around the globe will begin to mark the observance of Passover. The story of the Exodus is one of the world’s great stories, but the text is troubling. In Exodus 3, Moses kills an Egyptian and the text is ambiguous about the extent that one can argue that Moses’ actions were justifiable. The ten plagues are gruesome. And then there is the really troubling part in which it is said that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart time and time again so that God could inflict ever-increasing suffering on the Egyptians.

With the immense breadth of texts and songs and poems from which we have to choose, why not choose sources that have a bit more purity, sources in which the good guys are always good and God is always defensible? Well, because the world is not like that. Our earthly heroes tend to have feet of clay. Our world is full of complexity and nuance. These texts capture a messy and complicated world. Our longing for absolute purity in which we can always separate the wheat from the chaff and the sheep from the goats can become a self-defeating pipe dream.

The poet Jane Hirshfield, in her poem “The Door”, writes not about things and events, but the moments and spaces between things:
“The breath-space held between any call and its answer.”

The silence between the two hoots of the owl.

The moment between atrial and ventricular contraction.

“The rest-note unwritten hinged between two worlds, that precedes change and allows it.”
If you read the Psalms you may not even notice it, but some versions of the Bible preserve a Hebrew word, Selah, within the text. This word doesn’t translate easily. Scholars believe that it is a performance note, like a notation in a piece of music that denotes a key-signature or time-signature or tempo change. To us the text may seem swervy, a prayer of desperation turning into a prayer for vengeance, chaotic and tumultuous waters becoming a still, life-giving river. With that space, that Selah, confusion can be transformed into transition.

All of this information, textual and grammatical, might tell us something about ourselves. Like the texts, our lives do not exist on plateaus, monotonous and monochromatic. Like Whitman said, we contain multitudes. And complexities. And idiosyncrasies. Like Emerson said, our consistencies turn out to be foolish. Be attentive to that transformative moment, between a call and its answer. Realize that the doorway to change exists even between heartbeats.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Book Review: "The Instructions" by Adam Levin

The truth is this: I love experimental fiction. Give me stream-of-conscious paragraphs that go on for pages. Give me non-standard usage and invented vernacular. Give me that feeling of finishing a chapter and feeling like you’ve just exerted yourself. Give me a book that you feel you deserve a medal for finishing. Give me a book that makes you pant as you try to catch your breath. No pain, no gain.

Give me The Instructions by Adam Levin, the 1,030 page debut novel that caused people to stare and gasp when I sat reading it at the coffee shop. “Wow, that’s one big book!”

The Instructions tells the story of 76 hours in the life of on Gurion Maccabee, a ten year-old middle school student and prodigious scholar who may or may not be the messiah. After getting booted from numerous Jewish schools in Chicago, Gurion becomes a student at Aptakisic Junior High School where he is sentenced to participate in a program known as The Cage. (A special program for dangerous students, The Cage resembles Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as described in Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. In fact, I couldn’t help but thinking that The Cage resembles something like plate 8 in D&P, which depicts inmates receiving a lecture in the auditorium of Fresnes Prison.) The charismatic Gurion enlists the help of his classmates from the Cage in carrying out an epic and deadly revolt against the school’s formal and informal power structures.

Joshua Cohen, in an unflattering review he wrote for the New York Times, said something extremely intelligent about Levin’s tome. Cohen pointed out the way in which The Instructions resembles Jewish scripture. Though written in the first person, The Instructions has certain Talmudic qualities. Any event in the plot, whether an action or a moment of dialogue, might generate commentary, explicit references to other moments in the text, and digression into subjects that seem at first to be at far remove from the matters at hand. Cohen writes, “[Gurion is] able to command in a single breath assorted items of Judaic arcana: biblical anecdotes, Talmudic responsa, Hasidic homiletics.” The book contains thrilling interpretations of passages from the Torah, including an exegesis of the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing in which Gurion asks who exactly gets tricked. There is also a troubling exegesis of the biblical account of Abram bargaining with Adonai over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Like the endless list of rules and commandments found in, say, Leviticus, The Instructions includes considerable miscellany, such as a thorough discourse on an orthodox form of the children’s playground game “slapslap.”

And, this description makes the book sound terribly tiresome but I didn’t find it to so. The book is laugh-out-loud funny with much of its humor owing its inspiration to the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, the bizarreness of the Marx brothers, and even the wordplay of Abbot & Costello. In one instance, the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, is confused with pop singer Neil Sedaka. The book even pokes fun at itself. As the third day comes to a close, setting up the epic climax on the fourth day, one of Gurion’s friends remarks that this, “Was the longest day I’ve heard of outside of Irish literature.”

In every review I’ve read of The Instructions, Adam Levin’s work is compared to Philip Roth and to David Foster Wallace. A fictionalized Roth actually makes two appearances in the book; I just do not know Roth’s writing well enough to say much about this comparison. Certainly, there is much in this book that is inspired by, if not derivative of, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (The similarities between The Instructions and Infinite Jest are legion, beginning with the fact that each book clocks in at over 1,000 pages.)

It is a shame that reviewers have spent so much time obsessing over comparisons between Levin, Roth, and Wallace, and so little time addressing what I see as the most important thematic element in Levin’s book.

The Instructions is a long and surprising meditation on righteousness. While the form may, on one level, provide a distraction from this theme, in another way the form complements it. Do zealots allow small things to slide? Can you tell a fanatic not to get hung up on the details?

A book like The Instructions is rare in so many ways. You just don’t encounter many novels like this. There’s Infinite Jest and then there’s not a lot else. But, what makes this book so very singular is not its form, but its treatment of righteousness. Literature is full of righteous figures who are toppled, who face defeat. Hubris meets with a tragic end. However, that is just not the case with this book. Even when Gurion’s revolution leads to tragedy, Gurion comes out blameless, morally unscathed. And, that is probably the most fascinating element of this book.

If you've read The Instructions, I'd love to chat with you about it.

Click here to read about other books I've read in 2011