February 19, 2017
Music by Bell Choir
“Celebration” Fred Gramann
“Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace” Kevin McChesney
As long as there is attachment to things that are
unstable, unreliable, changing and impermanent,
there will be suffering –
when they change, when they cease to be
what we want them to be.
If craving is the cause of suffering, then the cessation
of suffering will surely follow from ‘the complete
fading away and ceasing of that very craving’:
its abandoning, relinquishing, releasing, letting go.
–Rupert Gethin on the Four Noble Truths
Growth is optional.
Not all will choose it.
Growth means becoming more of who we already are,
not what others want us to be.
Growth means evolving and waking up,
not remaining asleep in the illusions of the learned self.
Emptiness Stephen Batchelor
Emptiness is as devoid of intrinsic being as a pot, a banana, or a daffodil. And if there were no pots, bananas, or daffodils, there would be no emptiness either. Emptiness does not deny that such things exist; it merely describes how they are devoid of an intrinsic, separate being. Emptiness is not apart from the world of everyday experience; it only makes sense in the context of making pots, eating bananas, and growing daffodils. A life centered in awareness of emptiness is simply an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality. Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reality but right into its heart. It is the track on which the centered person moves.
The Lord said to Abram:
“Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you. I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.”
Abram was seventy-five years old when the Lord told him to leave the city of Haran. He obeyed and left with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions and slaves they had gotten while in Haran.
When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram went as far as the sacred tree of Moreh in a place called Shechem. The Canaanites were still living in the land at that time, but the Lord appeared to Abram and promised, “I will give this land to your family forever.” Abram then built an altar there for the Lord.
Abram traveled to the hill country east of Bethel and camped between Bethel and Ai, where he built another altar and worshiped the Lord. Later, Abram started out toward the Southern Desert.
For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel, looking, looking, breathlessly.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you….”
And that is how it all begins.
A divine summons to leave home for a new home.
I read that summons to Abram with deeply mixed feelings.
On one hand there is something admirable, courageous, and epic about the summons, the voice with few words commanding Abram to uproot. How do we read this? Is Abram and his god to be admired, feared, emulated, or despised? Is there any sense of reality to this summons? Is Abram truly special and exceptional or is it clever justification for conquest after the fact?
As we know, to this very day, the land the Lord showed Abram was, and is, already inhabited.
The summons to Abram doesn’t end with Abram. Abram is the father, the patriarch of those summoned to leave home and following what they feel is a divine summons to search out a new home.
Aboard the Arabella in 1630, Puritan preacher, John Winthrop quoted Deuteronomy in his sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” To his fellow Puritans as they approached the New World, Winthrop exhorted his people not to be seduced by
“our pleasures, and proffitts, and serue them” but to “loue the Lord our God, and to loue one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements…that wee may liue and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse vs in the land whether wee goe to possesse it….”
“Possess it.” That is the key. Possess the land in the name of our god, in the name of a special, unique, exceptional, divine calling. A calling to be a blessing, to be sure, the story goes. God tells Abram:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Was there a reality to this summons? Is there a reality in this universe that justifies a special people to possess and to be the vehicle for divine blessing?
That is the legacy of monotheism. Possess and bless in the name of the Lord’s voice.
People may wonder if the Bible is relevant.
Native peoples everywhere know that answer. The Bible is terrifyingly relevant. White folks come with their Bible and their divine summons to possess the planet. Enslavement, lynching, and genocide are the blessing.
The mythos of the United States cannot be appreciated without this manifest destiny, a divine exceptionalism, the calling of God to possess and supposedly bless.
It isn’t just the modern nations of Israel and the United States, two peas in a pod, who think of themselves as divinely ordained to bless the world. Empires come and go. Different ages and people have incarnated the message to “leave home and find a new home to bless the world” in different ways.
These two little blips on the cosmic movie screen are merely the current versions of a delusion. In time, the words of Jesus will come true again for Israel and the United States:
“Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be torn down.”
That is the reality of impermanence.
Nothing is more real than change.
That reality is so terrifying that we spend nearly every moment and every ounce of energy denying it. Think of all the ways we deny the reality of impermanence. We even think that thinking about it is depressing.
Those who point it out, the teachers of wisdom who dared to speak some truth about our existence were vilified, crucified, and forced to drink the hemlock. But, had we listened, were we to listen, were we to accept, truly accept the reality of impermanence, we would find moksha, salvation, shalom.
Here is the irony. The Hebrew people never really get to the promised land. The Torah read in the synagogue once per week and completed once per year, begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy. The people are on the edge of the land.
The TaNaKh ends with 1 Chronicles with the wistful words ‘let us go up.’ Let us go up to Jerusalem. It is out of reach. For a while they hang out in the promised land, the golden age of David and Solomon, but they lose it. Even as they have it, it is never peaceful. The possession is never complete and always precarious.
The Bible and monotheism in general is a fiction. It posits a beginning and an ending. Garden to Jerusalem or for Christians Garden to the New Jerusalem that comes from the heavens. Islam is similar, Garden to Paradise.
The first part of the summons to Abram is true. Leave your home and your kindred, but the second part never really happens. YHWH holds out the carrot but never delivers. There is no there, there.
The promised land does not have a latitude or a longitude.
There is no space in space for heaven.
The only thing that is real is the wandering.
Jesus is reported to have said,
“Foxes have dens. Birds have nests. The son of man has no where to lay his head.”
How do we take that? Homelessness is our condition. Foxes don’t know any better, nor birds. But humans have evolved a consciousness that is aware of our own death. And we have not quite learned to live with this terror.
We delude ourselves with promises of permanence.
Some mark, some legacy, some conquest, some blessing.
But as the writer of Ecclesiastes knew, all is vapor. There is no trace. The challenge for the human is this: Can you know that and survive? Can you know that all of it is impermanent, that in the words of philosopher Don Cupitt, our lives burn out like the sun, can we know that and not go insane?
I want to find those people to be my guides.
I want to learn from those who have been able to live with radical impermanence.
Those who live with awareness of radical impermanence, who live without illusions of permanence, are able to deconstruct all of the “illusions of the learned self” to quote Brenda Schaeffer.
Can you imagine constructing a society without an illusion of exceptionalism? What kind of world might we make that knows in the making of it that it is as temporary as a sand castle on the beach?
Awareness of impermanence is liberating. I will take that on faith, because I am far from living it. I have many illusions and delusions. But I have experienced that when I am able to dismantle them, that I grow. That I awaken a little bit. I like that.
I like the teachers from whom I have learned who have torn down the idols of illusion.
Back to Abram.
The Voice tells him to uproot. To be homeless, to be a wandering Aramean.
Where is the land YHWH will show him?
I no longer think the promised land has a longitude or a latitude. I no longer think the promised land is a heavenly castle or a Marxist utopia.
The land, I think, is within. The promised land, the home is living in this present moment with the world as it is. The home is the road. The early Christians called their new philosophy, “The Way.” The destination is the deeper self. It is a self that burns itself out in a loving connection with others. It does not need to define itself as something different from another in order to claim advantage.
What if, we decided to build a world that was not based on illusions of permanence or exceptionalism or fantasies of being great? What if we built a world that needed not to cling to an illusion of permanence but embraced the reality that this is what is? What if we built a world that had no illusions of being completed?
The only way I can read this story of Abram is read it in such a way that the land to which YHWH shows him is no land at all but a way of living in the land we all share as common nomads.
Perhaps then we can all be a blessing to each other.