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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on September 21, 2008

We are What We Do
And other Conundrums of the Spiritual Life


(T)here are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generation, "Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out, "All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

We’ve now had about eight “cuppas,” gatherings with ten or a dozen people over desert and coffee or tea, as get-togethers where I’ve been learning about our congregation and your concerns. And, of course, at the same time people also have had a chance to get a sense of me in a somewhat more intimate setting than my standing here in our grand pulpit holding forth. Most of these gatherings have been mixed groups of newer and more established members and friends of the congregation, drawn together either by geography or the convenience of the date and time. But there’ve been a few exceptions. For instance I met with one theologically specific group, where everyone present identified with earth-centered traditions. And this past Thursday I met over lunch with a group of senior members, most who try to avoid evening driving. Let me tell you it was nice to be at a group where I was thought of as the kid. That happens ever more rarely these days.

At that meeting, as with all of these gatherings, the conversation drifted in directions I would never have planned if I were sitting down and outlining points I considered important. Which, of course, is kind of the point. At this one four or five people mentioned how they’d had unusual experiences in their lifetimes that might be characterized as spiritual. Specifically, several people shared accounts of that widely documented “out-of-body experience.” One person, after describing the circumstances of her own, as they say, “oobe,” said she found the experience evidence of life after death. I felt she also found this comforting, although she didn’t actually say that. So, perhaps I was projecting an opinion upon her. What she did say was a question. She asked my opinion about life after death.

Without hesitation I said I don’t believe in life after death. And, I immediately, immediately wanted to grab the words and stuff them back into my mouth. Now these are all spiritual adults and no one, I’m confident, was simply looking for me to confirm their opinions no matter how important those opinions might be to each person there. That said, I felt, instantly, that I blew it.

I tried to circle around a bit, asserting how I’d had an out-of-body experience myself. But it felt pretty flat to me. And I didn’t go into the context or expand at all, although perhaps that would have been helpful. It was during an extended and very intense period in a Buddhist monastery. The experience was quite vivid and I continue to recall the details rather precisely even now, some forty years later. Instead of those personal details, I was philosophical, and tried to work in how I wasn’t denying anyone’s experience, but that my conclusions about such matters, the meaning I derive is almost always informed by Occam’s razor. That is I’m inclined to believe the simpler explanation of most any event. In this case a naturalistic and psychological explanation makes the most sense to me.

That’s the good spin on my response. But I also spoke from a deeply rationalistic, very reductionist, and, to be brutally honest about myself, too much of the time highly judgmental place. Now this perspective has served me well in many aspects of my life. For one, being a Unitarian Universalist minister, at least when I’ve occupied the more or less academically inclined pulpits to which I’ve been called.

But. I believe we were moving into deep waters. And in that spirit, the deeper response, heart to heart, to that question which I could have said, and should have said, and I wish I had said, was “I don’t know.” The commentary could have come later, where it might have had some use. But, not then. Not there. The heart’s response to such things, the deepest, and may I say, simplest place from which to respond to such queries is “I don’t know.” Which itself is a surrender into mystery. And important place to explore.

Now, here’s the more difficult part for me, and the larger point of today’s reflection. What I actually said matters more than what I felt or wished or wanted to do. That’s a harsh reality, and one I have to face. It is one I feel we all need to face if we wish to grow more deeply in life and to be of more use in the world. So, I hope you won’t mind as I take this little experience of discomfort, of, if you will, maladjustment to the way things are, as an invitation to shifting who we are.

Next week I’ll be addressing the miracle of second chances. Have no doubt about it; second chances are miraculous things, suitable subjects of wonderment, and celebration. As are intentions, something vastly under-rated in a culture that describes them as the paving stones to hell. I’ll cover a bit of that next week, as well. Today, however, I want to go in another direction. I want to address a specific moment in our lives, that moment where we actually manifest who we are. I want to unpack the moment, what it is and what it can mean.

I don’t know if I wounded my new friend, or that she cared one way or another what I thought about such things. But, that almost doesn’t matter. We had waded out into deep waters, and we were talking from a very vulnerable place. And, I didn’t respond from my vulnerability. That was an inescapable truth.

There is a push comes to shove moment where it all happens. In that moment, in this moment, all is revealed. We do something. Or, we say something, you or me. And, in that moment, whatever it is we do or say, that is who we are, you and me. It is the “is” of things, the “thisness” of things. And at that moment I was less than useful. I can’t figure a way out from under it. This seems pretty axiomatic. We are what we do. There is a unity of spirit and action and we are what we do.

For a few of us this realization might seem like heaven. For more of us this might seem like hell. I think of my failure in this encounter, and so many more like it, my falling short of my highest aspirations, of my dreams of who I am and what I can be; and if it isn’t hell, well at the very least it’s a pretty good approximation of purgatory. The question I’m concerned with is if this is the fact on the ground, we are what we do, then what?

Martin Luther King Jr, one of my deepest heroes, had a couple of tropes he revisited constantly in his sermons and speeches. One was that compelling line “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Here is the primary intuition, I believe, of our deepest interconnectedness, of the secret heart of what is. And he constantly returned to the ills of what is and a deep need to feel maladjusted to those ills. We heard a longer version of that call to maladjustment as today’s text. So, what about that? There is a unity of experience; each moment is the way things are. And, within it, there is some dynamic, some possibility. We are not condemned to endlessly be who we are. Change is also part of the deal.

Another of my heroes, Shunryu Suzuki phrased the situation a bit differently, but to the same point. “Each of you is perfect just as you are, “Shunryu taught. “And you can use a little improvement.” Here, with the way both Martin and Shunryu joined mutuality and discontent, a noticing that calls forth action, I find something very important. Because, who we are is never a completely private thing. We are, as Martin reminded us, wrapped up together in that garment of destiny, we are bound together, we are all in this mess together. And while perfect in some ways, it is also a perfection that includes hurt, for many considerable hurt.

John Tarrant, my old Zen teacher had something to say about all this I think relevant to this point, of our deeper interconnectedness, of the fact that brings brokenness into the wholeness, and that we, each of us have a place within that fractured whole, and a call to something out of that reality, a call to a certain motion, to some action.

"We normally have the idea that if we are in hell this is a bad thing,” John writes. “And we'll have to spend a long time with a shovel, digging our way out. But this is not so. Somebody asked Nanao Sakaki, the fine poet who saw Hiroshima, ‘How do we survive nuclear catastrophe?’ He said, ‘No need to survive. No need to survive hell either.’ Wherever you are, that can be the pure land. (That can be heaven) I have always loved Buddhist paintings in the esoteric tradition that show the sufferings of the hell realms, they are rather like medieval Christian paintings, with flames and pitchforks and horns and so on. But there is always a little Buddha sitting in the hell realm, looking exactly like all the other demons, with horns and a big smile . . . So if you are in hell, perhaps you can be one of those demons, a Buddha demon."

This is what I want to draw your attention to. I want to draw your attention to the moment. Right here. Right now. And how we can become agents of transformation. Of course, you know, we are actually rarely consciously here in this moment; we tend to live in the future, planning and scheming, or in the past, regretting or wishing. And when we do consider the moment, it is usually more like the scholar Mark Unno, another wise teacher, observed, where we live “for the moment” rather more than “in the moment.” For, as in it’s time to scrub out the grime behind the refrigerator, but today may be the last warm day of the year and I’m going to the beach. As opposed to in moment, which is rolling up our sleeves and pulling the ‘fridge out, and scrubbing.

Mark, in a lovely talk at Brown this week described the moment I mean, where he told how not long ago taking a walk with his elderly father. It was a lovely walk in the Pacific Northwest woods, misty and beautiful, filled with smells and birds and small animals. In that moment being with his Dad, he also recalled somewhere in his body how much this man had given him, and how much he meant to Mark being the man he had become. And also somewhere in Mark’s body knowing just as deeply, how frail his father had become and how soon, so very soon he would die. This is the moment full. In this moment everything is there, including the fact that as soon as it births into the world, whatever it is, it is dying. Everything births and lives and is dust and memory and even completely forgotten, right here, right now. All here: beautiful, tragic, and full of potentiality.

Our longing to be better people, kinder people, more engaged people is part of who we are. As are our secret thoughts, the parts of us we would rather others not see. You may notice how I talk about this part in the most general way. But, even as hard as it is to do, to really acknowledge it all, I’m trying hard to describe a real me, in all my messiness. Like that small failure with which I began this reflection and many larger ones, as well; each is who I am. And, may I suggest, I’m talking about you and who you are.

When I don’t meet that person fully, whoever the person is, the unbalance of it, the lack of kindness, the lack of genuine depth, becomes who I am. And the way I’m seeing it now, that’s the way I am. It’s complicated. We’re intertwined, so of course it’s complicated. The event is the whole, as well. You inform who I am. I inform who you are. And each moment births a new situation. So, there’s also hope. We are the stuff the cosmos and what we do determines not only you and me; but the fate of nations, and beyond that, the fate of the world itself. So, here’s my thought. How should this realization we are what we do now manifest in our interactions with each other? How could this inform how you and I meet in our next encounter? What would be our new rules of engagement if we thought this all might really be true?

Well, how about if we try hard to meet each other as relatives, as stuff of the same stuff? How about we see each other as family? It has the advantage of being true, so why not? How hard would that be? And what would it look like? Would we cut each other a little more slack? Would we care a little more deeply? Would we take a little more time for each person if we thought that person really was a relative?

This is my practice. Which, of course, I’ve already shown, I fail at, at least as much as I succeed with. But it’s continuing, it’s trying over and over. For me the commitment is to hold on just a breath or two longer than is necessary, to listen just a tiny bit more closely than I have to, to be just a hair’s breadth kinder than the situation calls for. And to hold in the back of my head, in the back of my heart with whomever I’m meeting, the belief this person is some kind of relative. Some, maybe closer, other perhaps a bit more distant: but all relatives.

This is why something else Martin Luther King, Jr said; those words he wrote from that Birmingham Jail are so compelling. It speaks a truth engraved on our hearts, I believe. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly...” This is a call to take this presence, this knowing of our deep relationships, out beyond our walls.

It opens us to a world of action and engagement. In the ancient scriptures of the West blood dripping from his hands, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, the answer is yes. We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. That’s the deal. Do we live up to it or not? Here is the whisper of maladjustment; here is the possibility of change.

So, what specifically is the project? To what do we give our attention? Another of my heroes is Ken Jones. He outlines the project perfectly, I feel, when he tell us there are “three great moral imperatives of our time - to heal the violated planet, and to enable both the underclass at home and the wretched of the earth to win dignity and freedom.” That’s all. Nothing more. And, of course, nothing less. Help the homeless and outcast, the immigrant and prisoner here at home. Help to make our country a little better place, particularly for those dealt a bad hand. And, not to stop there. But to help those of other countries across the globe. And, not to stop there. But to help tend to this planet, our sacred mother.

We remember we are all related and we find ourselves creating a new world. Well, except when we forget. But, that’s why it’s called spiritual practice. But, what a place to stand. From there, from here, just here; when we see the need of the world, we can reach out a hand, and we can help. In small ways and large, giving each action full attention; as if the world might depend upon how it is done. Just this. Only this.

And what might happen out of such a perspective? Well, perhaps hell becomes heaven. And the many beings are saved. And the garden and the wild become one, and the earth is healed. This I believe, from the bottom of my heart, is the life and work to which we were all called from before the creation of the heavens and the earth. Nothing less.

Amen.