In the evening
we will be judged
on love alone.
– St. John of the Cross
It’s been a difficult year. (The San Bernardino terrorist attack, police shootings of black men, ambushes of police officers, protests, the mass murder of LGBTQ people in Orlando, a divisive election campaign and post-election turmoil.) Sometimes it seems like we’re in a national melt-down.
There is a recording that has helped me reflect on all of this. I’ve turned regularly during the last year to a lecture by Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. The recording, “Unconditional Confidence: Instructions for Meeting Any Experience with Trust and Change,” has been very helpful to me in trying to get through the chaos. It has helped me examine both my own feelings and actions and also the responses of others. I share below a short excerpt and recommend it to you if you are interested in further exploration along this vein.
Pema Chödrön sets out Buddhist teachings on fear and fearlessness during times of groundlessness:
“[Buddhist teachings on fear and fearlessness are] the best way to develop courage … in a time of challenge. … Generally speaking, when something is really tough, when the challenge is really great, it can go either way. It can easily, and has, historically, … led to aggression and violence, prejudice (fundamentalism of all kinds comes out of this fear). You just want something predictable, something you can hold on to, and it often comes in the form of blaming yourself or or someone else or a whole group of people. …
“One of the big teachings of the Buddha is that everybody wants to be happy and feel security and comfort, and everybody goes about it in the way that just makes a big mess. … You want to be comfortable, and so you scramble for ground. And, often, what that is, is blaming somebody else, striking out at somebody else, gossiping, slandering. And it gets to the point where people, in the attempt to get some ground under their feet, to feel that they have something to hold on to, … people steal. People lie. People kill. People even torture. Generally speaking, no one does any of these things because they want to feel worse. They do it because what they are feeling in the pit of their stomach is such a groundless, insecure, uncomfortable, wide open, nothing-to-hold-on-to, open-ended experience, that they just want to find … something that represents security.
“And one of the biggest ways to do it … is to divide the world up with our views and our opinions about how things should be and how things are supposed to be. And we hold tightly to those views and opinions. … We try to get secure by [interpreting] the world in a way that makes us feel comfortable. And then, it’s great if you can get a whole group of people that will agree with you. And you, all together, start to attack in either more or less polite ways people who don’t agree with you. And it’s a big way that people start to get comfortable.” [This quote starts at 7:55 minutes into the recording. Unconditional Confidence by Pema Chödrön. Copyright © 2009 by Sounds True, Inc. This recording is also available on Audible.]
(Pema Chödrön goes on to teach Buddhist techniques of turning towards your fear in a peaceful way rather than turning toward anger and aggression.)
For Reflection: What practices or tools do you use when you are are in the ungrounded place?
Yesterday in church (Edgehill United Methodist Church) I led A Litany for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But in my mind I was also hearing and seeing and remembering the saints and prophets of our little congregation.
The group of people who started the church in 1966, planted at the edge of an “urban renewal” failed experiment (the projects), black and white together in a time when that wasn’t done, intending to welcome everyone no matter their color, class, or status. Led by a small, diverse group, pastored by Bill Barnes.
This church taught and nurtured me when I came, fresh out of college, to Nashville, TN. Worshiping in the garage of a little house, I sang every other Sunday in Marjorie Campbell’s choir, learning the chords and cadences of the music of the black church. (On the alternate Sundays, I played my guitar in the folk band that led the singing on those weeks.)
I sat at the feet of Laura Buck McCray, raised in Tuskegee, Alabama, daughter to an assistant of Booker T. Washington. Laura, trained in non-violent resistance at the Highlander Center along with a quiet woman named Rosa Parks.
I learned to sing, with gusto, “Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ’till Earth and heaven ring/Ring with the harmony of liberty.”
I learned the stories of those brave prophets and saints who put their bodies on the line for justice in Nashville and other places around the country. Those brave prophets and saints whose stories continue to unfold today during a time when people hesitate to say that #blacklivesmatter.
I am still a part of this church, who, this year, celebrates 50 years of ministry. May it continue to be a participant in God’s justice; teaching, preaching, loving, welcoming, growing, nurturing all God’s people.
May it be so.
Margaret Elizabeth Wilson Richardson
Mom, today is the day you were born.
I celebrate you.
Epiphany child, you were
Born in the middle of the depression,
In the middle of nowhere,
In the dusty, barren red dust
Of southwest Oklahoma.
You were loved and beloved
By family, then and now.
Thank you for giving me life,
For the gifts of music, laughter, love,
For creativity, nurture, compassion.
And though you left this earth too early,
Thank you for still walking with me through my days.
You were, are, and always will be my mom.
I love you.
Last night I performed the marriage of Brian and Sarah. It was a beautiful ritual celebrating the love and commitment of a special couple. In the ceremony we called the name of Brian’s mother, Linda, whose memorial service I assisted in last December.
Many of the same people gathered again … this time to witness, to promise support, to toast a new family being woven together in love. There were times of great joy and times of tender sorrow.
As I prayed a blessing for Sarah and Brian, a single tear rolled down Brian’s cheek. Sarah reached up to wipe it away. How can I doubt the power of love when standing next to such amazing grace, incredible beauty, vibrant life which moves forward even in the midst of the brokenness and death of our world.
God, you are amazing.
You created us to love,
To live, to laugh, to heal.
Open our eyes, our hearts, our spirits
To your Love working
In our lives, in the world.
Brush away our tears
With your gentle spirit
And infuse us with the hope and assurance
That in the end, love is always there.
The saints sing loudly on tune (and off)
Welcoming their newest colleague.
“Phyllis Natalie Alexander Tickle,
You are finally here.
We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
“Sit down with us on the porch —
Here, you take the rocking chair —
And tell us one of those stories from the farm. …
And your laugh — it’s as great as they said it would be!”
“Oh. You have an appointment?
Well, what are you waiting for?!
You’ve got people to see.
Come back here at sit with us anytime.”
“You’ll be back? It reminds you of home?
Well, thank you kindly.
Bring your husband next time …
And anyone else you’d like to bring.
So glad to have you here after all this time.”
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
– The Book of Common Prayer
Quoted by Phyllis Tickle, 1934-2015
in The Divine Hours
Photo: Taken by Beth A. Richardson at The Upper Room’s SOULfeast 2010.
Someone described yesterday as a day of “emotional whiplash.” From the declaration of love, justice, and equality by the U.S. Supreme Court to the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of those murdered in the hate crime committed at a bible study in Charleston, S.C. I believe, I hope, I trust that the presence of the holy was in these places both of ecstatic joy and of deep sorrow.
I sat in my office, weeping,
reading the live blog
from the Supreme Court.
5-4 in favor of same sex marriage.
Who could have known
this day would come?
Protection for families,
equal rights for couples.
Small things, so important …
A spouse’s name on a death certificate.
Two parents’ names on an adoption form.
The right to be by a loved one’s side in the emergency room.
The acknowledgment of covenant,
I sat in my living room, weeping,
watching the President,
family and friends and leaders,
mourn and celebrate the life of Reverend Pinckney.
Deaths too awful to comprehend,
lives torn asunder by racism,
an ugly, malignant tumor in our land.
I watch as this gathering, these witnesses,
I listen, and my spirit
rises out of despair and darkness
towards hope and light.
God, how can you contain
all of this?
All of this joy and sorrow,
all of this love and grief.
Be present with us in these days.
We need you now.
Among the many blessings I received at last week’s 5-day Academy for Spiritual Formation on the Psalms was the presence of a friend who knew my paternal grandparents, Ida Mae and Holt Richardson.
At the end of the first worship service, Sharlyn said to me, “When you began the opening service by singing, I thought of your grandmother.” Grandma taught high school music classes to Sharlyn in the little school in Lenapah, OK. Grandpa was the school superintendent. An invoking of Grandma Ida Mae’s presence — in our week, in my music.
It was such a powerful reminder of the presence of those who shaped me and who passed along their gifts to me. Grandma and Grandpa’s gift of music, Dad’s years of shaping and leading the worship services I attended every Sunday, my parent’s commitment to start me in piano lessons in first grade. These wonderful people, these wonderful gifts. Thanks be to the creator!
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This Easter week is the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of our saints. A Lutheran pastor, he was killed in a Nazi concentration camp two weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied forces.
When I was in seminary, I met one of Bonhoeffer’s friends from his days at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Paul Lehmann spoke about his friend’s struggles with the evil that was happening under the Nazi regime in Germany and his decision to return to Germany despite the personal danger he was in. After his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis for plotting against Hitler.
This week, as we have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, as we have mourned the terrorist attack in Kenya that killed 148 university students, as we have heard about or watched the video of a man killed by a policeman in a traffic stop in South Carolina … I have wondered what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would make of our world today. What wisdom, what courage, what challenge would he bring to us?
I am tempted to turn away from all of this overwhelming evil, unbearable sorrow, senseless violence. I want to take pictures of spring flowers, celebrate National [fill in the blank] Day on Facebook, watch puppy videos. I don’t want to listen to the Spirit for how I might be called to take a stand on injustice, to speak out against racism or homophobia, to reach out to someone who is grieving. I call on the Great Spirit, the Saints, the Holy One, to guide me, to guide us, through the difficult days in which we are living.
Pray for us, Dietrich. Cry for us, Holy One. “Grant us courage, grant us wisdom, for the living of these days” (Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1930). We are yours, Prophetic, Loving God.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”