Friday, January 21, 2022

I See Your Golden Feathers




In the hardware store, I select a quart of interior paint from the brands on the shelf. Bright white, for household trim.

“My,” the cashier says, as she rings me up, “you’re quite the golden goose!”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Well … you look full of light, ready for whatever the day brings.”

I glance down at my frayed t-shirt and sweatpants, spattered with decades of old paint. This morning, until this moment, I’ve felt more arthritic and weary than “full of light.”

“Thank you,” I tell the cashier, heartened by her cheer. “You’re radiant, too! Why don’t we both lay some golden eggs today?”

“Sure thing!” she grins, with a silly wiggle of her tail feathers.

I walk out of the store with my paint, chuckling when I remember that it has an eggshell finish. Appropriate, don’t you think, for a goose?

* * *

As the story of “The Golden Goose” is traditionally told, the “simpleton”—or, as I’d prefer to call him, the “holy fool”—is cutting wood in the forest when a “little gray man” appears and asks for food. The fool shares with the gnome a portion of his burned biscuit and soured beer. The gnome rewards his generosity by pointing out the tree he should fell next. In that tree’s roots, the fool finds an amazing golden goose.

The fool tucks the goose beneath his arm and heads into town. Everywhere he goes, his fellow villagers see the wondrous creature in his possession, and are filled with envy.

If only I could have one of its feathers, they think, stretching out their hands. But as soon as their skin brushes against the goose (or the fool, or anyone else touching the bird), they stick fast. No matter how hard they try, they can’t get loose.

Soon there’s a whole crowd of people glued together, moving in an unwilling parade through the village: the innkeeper and his daughters, the parson, the sexton, some peasants, a multitude of children ...

The princess in the castle on the hill has never smiled in her life. But, watching this spectacular procession from her window, she breaks into laughter. In true fairy-tale fashion, she eventually weds the holy fool and lives happily ever after.

* * *

The moral of this story is usually interpreted along the lines of “Be generous, not greedy.” But let’s give the tale a different spin, shall we?

Each of us has a golden goose—an infinite source of abundance, generosity, and compassion—hidden deep within us. Sometimes, though, we have trouble recognizing it. The goose might be tired, sore, and wearing old painting clothes. It might have injured a wing. It might have had all its feathers plucked. It might look a lot like a chicken.

No matter its disguise, the fairy tale tells us, the golden goose is alive and waiting “within the roots of our tree.” We just need an axe to set it free.

Where do we get the axe? Why, at the hardware store, of course; that place where we exchange what we have for what we need.

Inside the store we meet the cashier, the maker of change. Her tongue is the blade of truth that frees the goose living within our roots: “You who stand before me,” she declares, “are full of light, ready for whatever life brings.”

We walk away from the change-maker with the goose tucked lightly beneath one arm. Now we’re more aware of our own potential; we’re more prepared to splash our cans of color on the world’s house.

The golden goose beneath our arm can’t help but shine. Do you see its dazzling power? How it attracts the presence of others, not from envy but from gratitude and joy? How it binds us all together? How its radiance grows and grows?

Soon we’re parading through town, united not by force but by choice. Our collective light is so brilliant that even the royals in the castle scurry down the hill to join us “commoners.”

Holy fools carrying the golden goose—that’s what we are. Whatever life brings, we’re ready.

Don’t believe me?

Then what’s that golden plumage I see, sticking out from under your arm?

Deep peace,

Phylis Cole-Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox! 

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Saturday, January 15, 2022

"Laughing In The Dark" (Again)


Sometimes “once” just isn’t enough.
Last fall, during a socially distanced writing retreat in Oakwood Lakes State Park, my friend Ruby and I took a short night hike around a wooded peninsula. Without flashlights. Without even a sliver of moon to see by.

 

This past week, as the leaves began to turn red and gold once again, Ruby and I met up for another writing retreat. This time we camped beside a slough, or big pond, in Lake Herman State Park.
An easy trail around the slough ran right past our campsite. It constantly begged for attention. During our four-day stay, Ruby and I hiked that 1.3-mile trail a half-dozen times—twice at night, without flashlights.
 

(Don’t worry, Mom. No bears. No cliffs. No quicksand. Just a few gopher holes.)


Ruby and I adored our night hikes. Like last year, we found ourselves laughing in the dark, and learning from the dark.
The grassy loop around Herman Slough yielded a pack full of wisdom. Here’s a random list of insights, along with questions for reflection:


1.     How we walk in daylight prepares us to walk in the night. If we try to practice gratitude, wonder, and compassion on our life-path every day, we may be steadier when darkness falls. And every bleak hour we experience, no matter how painful, will become an opportunity to deepen our practice.


Right now, in your life, are you walking through daylight, darkness, or somewhere between?


2.     Once we learn to walk by natural light, such as moonlight, artificial light can feel intrusive. A bobbing flashlight or passing headlight can hurt our eyes, and blind us. The same is true of the different forms of light our spirits encounter in this world.


What provides “natural light” for your spirit? What forms of “artificial light” might you wish to avoid or eliminate?



3.     Trekking poles can help us navigate the darkest dark. Their tips let us know the nature of the ground we walk upon. Their shafts alert us when we’ve wandered into the weeds. Their grips and straps grant a light yet firm handle on our experience.


I christened my poles “Curiosity” and “Trust.” What would you call yours?


4.     A less travelled path isn’t as distinguishable in the dark as a beaten path, but it can be softer on the feet. Let’s not be afraid to      take it.
    How willing are you to walk where few have gone before (or where few might want you to go)? 


5.     The moon and stars are always above us, even when we can’t see them. They will show themselves in their own way, in their own time.

 
How full is your reservoir of patience?


6.     When (not “if”) we get lost in the dark, a way forward will always present itself, so long as we cultivate calm. Anxiety clouds our vision. Equanimity clarifies and illuminates. 



What helps you maintain or restore your sense of calmness?

 

7.     At night, we may sometimes feel more lost in wide open spaces than we do in dense woods. Out in a meadow, the path that clearly connects here to over there can disappear. But, in those empty spaces, we can see the sky best. And maybe the sky sees us?  

Do you tend to feel more comfortable in “wide open spaces” or in “dense woods?” 


8.     Mistakes, missteps, and hard falls may catch us by surprise, but they’re a natural part of the path, especially in the dead of night. As we go, let’s be careful, yes, but let’s not expect perfection. Humility and good humor are essential.


How tolerant are you of “mistakes, missteps, and falls?” How might you be gentler with yourself and others?

 
9.     When hiking in the dark, it’s good to be mindful of the bottoms of our feet and how “grounded” we are. This is especially true if we’re hobbling across an acre of invisible tennis balls—er, walnut husks.


What circumstances throw you off balance? What might help you “keep your feet?”



10.  For some awe-full things in this world, words are inadequate. For instance, what color is a body of water in the glorious dark of night, before Moon has risen? “Silver” is too bright. “Gray” is too dull. The presence of such things stuns us into silence. All we can do is stop and stare.


When was the last time you were awestruck?

 

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai
 

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox! 

https://mailchi.mp/80e47a044893/staying-power-subscribe



 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Living With Intention

 

As I write, the world outside my north facing window is all soft shades of gray and white and ever-green as the first  (and possibly only) snowstorm of the year blankets the island.  The snow feeds the young child yearning in me for the magical gnomes created by the way the snow shapes the new Leyland Cypress trees on the border between the neighbor’s home and ours.  A quiet day that leads to reflection as another calendar year begins.

Sunday’s sermon is taking shape - musings on living with intention.  Somewhat different than creating resolutions for the year or setting goals that draw into an uncertain future.   I reflect on Rabbi Art Green’s explanation of the Hebrew word: kavannah. (in These Are The Words-A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life): Kavannah literally means “direction.”  In Judaism it refers to kavannat ha-lev, “directing the heart to
God: praying, studying, performing mitzvot* in such a way that we are inwardly turning toward God’s presence, offering our words or deeds as gifts upon an inner altar.

Phillip Moffitt, in an article titled “The Heart’s Intention” suggests there is a difference between resolutions and goal setting on the one hand and setting an intention on the other: With goals, the future is always the focus: Am I going to reach the goal?  Will I be happy when I do?”  “What’s next?”   Setting an intention, least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making.  [Setting an intention] is not oriented toward a future outcome.  Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how we are “being” in the present moment.  [When setting an intention] our attention is on the ever-present “now” in the constantly changing flow of life. We set our intention based on what matters most to us and make a commitment to align our world action with our inner values…

We are entering another year that already promises a lot of uncertainty.  As a people, we are nearing exhaustion with concern over COVID, climate change, the state of our democracy, inflation…  On the personal level a health crisis, the death of a loved one, uncertain finances all add to the over arching global concerns.  So many of us experience a sense of fatigue, a strange disconnect from the passage of time, a loss of resilience that  affects how we live together in community.
 
In a conversation after worship last week, I heard a woman observe that the spiritual discipline that will define our times is that of learning how to live graciously and confidently and authentically in the midst of pervasive uncertainty. Being able to cultivate our intention for healthy, creative living in the midst of chaos and uncertainty is a profound spiritual calling.

“What matters most to me at the level of my spirit?  What are my deepest soul values?  From the depths of my heart, what do I want to bring to the world in my own being?”  No less a figure than Taoist LaoTzu,  author of the Tao Te Ching, sends us inward to find the source of our highest intentions.  He wrote “At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.”   The answer to the questions will be different for all of us, but they have the potential to lead us on the journey to more authentic and intentional living.

 An intention has the power to mold my way of being in the world.  What delight might follow if, on waking in the morning, my intention went like this: “May gratitude for all the beauty and order in nature guide me through the day.”

How might a day unfold differently if I started out with a classic heart centered Buddhist intention based in lovingkindness: May I be filled with lovingkindness.  May I be well in body and mind. May I be happy and at ease. May I be free from danger.   It takes only seconds to offer that same intention for those close to me, for those with whom I am in conflict, and then for those whom I will never meet.  An intention sets positive energy in motion in way that resolutions and goals lack.

One of the most challenging and transforming intentions for me is one that I use regularly.  It jumps off the page of my Jewish prayer book.  It is an intention that sets my day in motion in a particular way: May nothing I do mar the holiness of life by causing any other creature to lose the joy of living.

I like to imagine how the mundane encounters in our lives might be transformed by living “intentionally.”  How might we be transformed?   How might a simple thing like shopping at Stop and Shop be transformed by offering the intention on entering the store:  “May all beings be be happy; well in body and mind; be free from danger…”  

What might budget and ministry meetings at church or synagogue look like if they began with the intention:  “May we and all beings be filled with lovingkindness” or, perhaps, May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

When I am anticipating a challenging interaction with a friend or family member,  an intention like “May I be at ease.  May I be filled with patience, May I be peaceful” has the power to affect the outcome of a potentially difficult conversation.   Setting the same intention for the other  parties  may have the power for creating a more harmonious interaction. May he/she be at ease.  May he be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  May she be peaceful. In a sense, when I have created an intention for myself, I am entering each moment more mindfully, more present to what is rather than creating scenarios that might or might not happen. Setting an intention helps to mitigate anxiety as I enter the next moment. I tend to create less drama when I can locate my intention from the deep desire in my heart to create more harmony and less suffering in the world. When I am more present to any situation or interaction with a clear and simple intention, it is more likely to unfold in a more satisfying  way.

We are still on the threshold of a new year.  With all the negative news that continually bombards us, it is tempting to submit to the “brain fog”, the moments of despair or helplessness that inevitably present their seductive pull on our consciousness - - taking us out of the complete perfection of the present moment.   We have the power of intention to shape a different reality from the one that seeks to impose itself upon us.  The intentions that arise out of our deeply held heart values have the power to change us and to change the world wherever we encounter it.

Setting an intention may begin simply with the question: How do I want to enter this day as I try to live out my highest values arising from the my heart center?
 

And so a prayer from Howard Thurman as I begin another year:

 Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.  Despite the dullness and barrenness of the days that pass. If I search with due diligence, I can always find a deposit left by some former radiance.  But I had forgotten.  At the time it was full orbed, glorious, resplendent.  I was sure I would never forget.  I had forgotten how easy it is to forget.  There was no intent to betray what was so sure at the time.  My response was whole, clean, authentic.  But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey.  Details, lower level demands, all kinds of cross-currents - nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant - just wear and tear.  If there had been some direct challenge - a clear-cut issue - I would have fought it to the end, and beyond.  In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of God, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in fair weather or foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the foe are nameless or familiar, may I not forget that to which my life is committed.
 

*Also according to Art Green: A mitzvah (singular) or “commandment” is a deed in which humans are given an opportunity to fulfill the will of God.  That will is inherent in creation itself, as God has created a world that is not yet perfect.  The claim of the mitzvah is that there is work left for us to do, work that will make us partners of God in the world’s creation.

"Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”   L.R. Knost

Vicky Hanjian

 


Friday, December 31, 2021

 What Shape Is Your Nest in?
 

This cute critter got me thinking about nesting. She’s a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Her burrow lay beneath the campsite that my family occupied for several days this past week. The main entrance to the burrow was a small hole, two inches in diameter, right in front of our parked car.
Mornings and nights, we never saw the squirrel. But throughout the sunny afternoons, she skittered around, gathering grass and dried leaves to spruce up her underground digs. Her head would pop up from her hole. After scouting for predators, she’d leap out and dash away. Soon she’d return, her mouth so full of nesting material that, even scratching and pushing with her hind legs, she could barely squeeze back into the burrow.
“How much nesting stuff does one squirrel need?” I wondered. “Does an entire town of squirrels live down there?” (The answer, I learned, was no. This type of ground squirrel is a solitary creature.)
“Maybe she’s preparing for some little ones,” I thought. (Nope. I learned that her mating and birthing season was well past—if, in fact, the squirrel was a "she." You can’t tell a female from a male by their markings.)
“Maybe she’s getting ready to hibernate,” I thought. (Wrong again. She won’t hole up for winter until late September or early October.)
As you can tell, I’m no expert on ground squirrels (or “striped gophers,” as they’re sometimes called). But our half-pint friend seemed intent on all this trouble, several hours every day, scampering around, yanking up grass and collecting husks and leaves, for no other reason than to make herself more comfortable. That’s right: to take care of herself.

 

Guess what else? Though I listened closely, I never once heard this squirrel accounting for why she was cushifying her digs instead of storing up seeds and other necessities. Nor did I ever hear her apologizing for devoting so much attention to her own self-care. She simply knew it needed to be done, and she did it.
This leads me to ask: What’s the state of your nest? Might it benefit from some loving attention? 

* * *
“Nesting” has been on my mind a lot these days. In less than three weeks, son Nathan will be a wet-behind-the-ears freshman moving into a college dorm. Like a family of squirrels, we've been stockpiling the goods he’ll require in his new home away from home.
Nathan doesn’t much care about transforming his dorm room into a welcoming, cozy space. “It just needs to be functional,” he told me, ever the practical soul.
So I asked him if I might help organize and style his room. “It would make me feel better about your leaving home."
He took no persuading. I’m thrilled. It’s a bit like being pregnant again, preparing a safe, cheerful place for my baby.


While I’m helping with Nathan’s college nest, I’m also discussing with husband Jihong certain changes to our nest, a beloved but crotchety 130-year-old house. First, we want to rearrange and redecorate a few of the living spaces. These alterations won’t involve much money; muscles, mostly. Yet they will make these rooms more suitable for us as a couple. One day, we hope to downsize to a different dwelling altogether, one that will be friendlier as we advance in age.
Nathan has said yes to all this nesting, too. Even though he won’t be around much anymore, he still lives here. He’s part of us. We hoped for his blessing and weren’t disappointed.
* * *
No matter what kind of nest you or I might have, when we take care of it, we take care of ourselves at the same time. Nesting isn’t just a way to shelter and protect ourselves and those we love. It’s also an activity that helps us find our balance. It can help keep us sane, especially during challenging times in our lives.
I invite you to look at the place where you live (or work) with fresh eyes. How do you feel in this space? How might you feel more content in it? Would you like to try rearranging the furniture? What about changing the lighting, or the colors? What’s there that doesn’t have to be? What isn’t there that you wish for?
If you’ve gone through a recent transition (or are about to), please consider the possibility of reflecting that reality in your home environment. Maybe your children don’t need you as they used to. Maybe you lost your job or are in financial distress. Maybe someone dear to you has died. Maybe you yourself are exhibiting signs of illness or age. Maybe life is hard right now, for no reason you can pinpoint.
Reimagining your old nest might open and soothe your spirit. And bringing that creative vision for your nest into being might remind you of your own worth and power. You don’t have to settle for what is. You can comfy it up. For your own sake.

 You don’t have to justify your nesting. You don’t have to apologize for it. Just ask yourself what you want to do, and do it—
Whether you’re a "she" or a "he."

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox! 

https://mailchi.mp/80e47a044893/staying-power-subscribe



Friday, December 24, 2021

Yeasting

 He told them another parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.    Luke 13:21


On a whim, earlier this week I decide to attempt making lahmajoun, a really tasty treat that we lovingly call “Armenian Pizza” in our family.  Essentially, it is a flat bread with a seasoned meat and tomato and parsley spread on it - baked in a hot oven.  I had never made it before.  The dough for the flat bread requires working with yeast - - always a mystery to me - - but my husband (the Armenian half of this duo) was encouraging.

I found a fairly straightforward recipe and mixed up the flour and water and yeast and set it to proof.  The recipe said “one hour.”  Meanwhile I went about making the “filling,” chopping onions and garlic and parsley - mixing in green peppers and seasoning into the ground meat.

At the 45 minute mark, I checked the dough.  Whoa!!  It was beginning to leave the bowl, having
expanded to more than double its original volume in far less than the recommended time.  I shaped the dough into balls to be rolled out into 8” discs, covering most of them with a towel per instructions while I rolled out the rest and spread them with the meat mixture.

With a baking sheet of lahmajoun in the oven, I returned to the covered balls of dough to discover they had grown in size again!  Clearly I had to speed up the process or my kitchen would soon be wall to wall dough in something reminiscent of an episode of “I Love Lucy!”  (OK- So I just really dated myself!)

Yeast is amazingly resilient, persistent, insistent and lively.

A little later in the week, we decided to get tested for Covid prior to a family gathering on Christmas.  I had been anxious about doing so because of all the news stories about long lines, slow results, unavailable tests and on and on.  So it took a bit of self persuasion in the service of my loved ones to get us both to a testing site.  And sure enough - there was a bit more anxiety as we pulled up to the 1st screening stop.  “Do you have an appointment?”   Wellll - - no.  We saw the sign that said “free testing” and we got in line.  “Do you have an account with us?”  Again -a hesitant “no.”  Expecting to be turned away, I put the car in gear, but heard the screener say "just pull over there and park and we’ll get this sorted out." 

Ten  minutes later we were given the “go ahead” by a very kind young man who had taken our necessary information and entered us into the data base.  I pulled the car into the testing line.  As we approached the technician, she turned and waved to us excitedly.  From behind her mask and plastic face screen she smiled with her eyes and directed us to the right spot.  She did everything she could to make the experience a pleasant, even enjoyable, one.  The team spends 4 days a week  out in the cold and wind and rain making it possible for people to get tested.  The kindness we experienced throughout the testing process leavened the rest of our day.  

That same evening, we signed in to Krista Tippett’s Solstice Gathering on Zoom.  We had barely put our greetings in the “chat” when it was announced that we were at 7000 participants and counting.  It was a most profound experience, watching the “chats” scroll by too fast to be able to read them as people from all over the planet signed in; from the Philippines, Dubai, Great Britain, Denmark, South Africa, Japan, Hawaii, Sweden, France, and, of
course, Martha’s Vineyard and more.  Human beings from every corner of the planet joined in a vast network for a celebration of the solstice and a time of sharing our humanity in the midst of a global concern for the health and well being of the planet and her human constituency. In the process of naming and attending to the heavy anxiety and stress with which we all live, life, somehow, became more “do-able” and I felt more connected with the goodness of humankind.   I came away from the webinar feeling more hope for us and the planet than I have felt in a while.  

There is “yeasting” afoot on the planet.  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast...the kingdom of  heaven is among you. Luke 17:21

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, December 17, 2021

Into the Stillness - the Gifts & Challenges of Interfaith Engagement




I took a deep breath as I stepped out of the spirit-filled Roxbury church and breathed the still night air. It had been almost too rich, too much to take in, to hold all of the beauty, the pain, the pathos and poignancy. I paused for a few moments, taking stock, an inventory of thoughts and feelings, wanting to be sure I had taken them all with me, that I hadn’t left any behind, even if some I might have preferred to. It has been such a full week of interfaith engagement, with all of the profound challenges and profound gifts that are held and beheld in this work, each part of the blessing in choosing to engage. 

The four hours in the church was a gathering of clergy to learn about and support “The Revival: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values,” coming to know each other before gathering at the State House on September 12th to present to the governor and legislative leaders the “Higher Ground Moral Declaration” (HYPERLINK "http://www.moralrevival.org/moraldeclaration"http://www. moralrevival.org/ moraldeclaration).

Reaching beyond its roots in the Black churches of the south, extending its branches as “a tree standing by the water,” a plea has gone out to help it truly be an interfaith movement. Though I felt squeamish at first with the Christian sound of its name, a name that could suggest very different values than those I would identify with, its tone and message become quickly clear: “We believe our moral traditions have a firm foundation upon which to stand against the divide-and-conquer strategies of extremists. We believe in a moral agenda that stands against systemic racism, classism, poverty, xenophobia, and any attempt to promote hate towards any members of the human family. We claim a higher ground in partisan debate by returning public discourse to our deepest moral and constitutional values. The Higher Ground Moral Declaration provides a moral agenda for our nation.” 

The four hours in the church became a time of deep engagement, of wrestling across and within traditions, challenging, comforting, and embracing each other. Teachings were presented from two traditions, Jewish and Muslim, that in itself, in a predominantly Christian context, its own an affirmation of inclusion. In a framework of learning called, “Recovery of Sacred Text,” I shared a powerful rabbinic teaching that speaks to the timeless essence of conflict resolution. Set in the context of traditional Jewish learning, the text as life, the whole self engaged, the full panoply of personal emotion and experience may come into play. The challenge is not to slam the book shut, not to walk away in anger, to remember that we are the sacred text. 

 Flowing from a creative play on words in Numbers 21:14, Rabbi Chiyya son of Abba said, “even a parent and a child, a teacher and a student who study Torah in one gate become enemies to one another; but they do not move away from there until they come to love each other, as it is written Vahev in Sufa…; do not read b’sufa (in the Reed Sea or whirlwind), but rather b’sofah/in the end – so there shall be ahavah ba’sofah/love in the end…. It is a teaching that is rooted in a people’s emphasis on books, offering a way of peace making that demands the use of words rather than weapons. We are the text to be recovered, for each of us, our best selves waiting to emerge. When engaged in deep conflict, faced with fierce difference of opinion in approach to text and life, even becoming enemies, we are duty bound not to move from that place, not to walk away from each other until in the end there is love. It is a powerful, and, at times, a terrifying challenge in which lies the timeless essence of interfaith work, committing to engage, to stay the course with eyes on the prize, seeking together, even in spite of our selves, to create a better world. 


After my sharing, a Muslim woman offered a Quranic text, a teaching of challenge and empowerment, I thought, that for God to make change in the world and in the conditions around us, we first have to make change within ourselves. I found it to be a powerful thought, not dissimilar to a Kabbalistic teaching that Heaven is stirred to action only through stirrings from below. 
 

As we engaged in discussion at my table, I was taken aback by a Wampanoag woman’s expression of deep distress with the teaching. Her pain was palpable as she spoke among us. “What about when you are too broken down,” she asked, “to find such strength within yourself?” “What if you’ve been made to feel you have nothing of value within yourself or within your own tradition, that you are a sinner and have no savior, that you are not worthy of help?” She then took my breath away, “the Book was the beginning of the end for us….” We quickly realized that it was the Christian Bible she was referring to, the Book that was wielded by the priests who came before the soldiers to destroy the native peoples of the Americas, including her own Wampanoag people. As I had talked about the Book as context for sacred struggle, I thought now of the rabbis’ rueful challenge that where the book is, the sword is not; and where the sword is, the book is not. For native peoples, the Book had become the sword. We listened, we soothed, we took deep breaths, the inner struggles of each one laid bare, Jews, Muslims, Christians, one native woman of the Wampanoag people, herself, ironically perhaps, a Unitarian minister. We were all implicated and all empowered in the way of words that flow from heart to heart on streams of tears.

I got up for a moment to get some water, needing a break. A nun I know came over at that moment and hugged me and another woman, the three of us standing there as Sister Tess cried, telling us she had just seen Sister Paula the week before she was murdered. My head was spinning, needing a moment to figure out what she meant. Sister Paula Merrill, along with Sister Margaret Held, was one of the two nuns murdered in Mississippi, of the same order as Sister Tess, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Standing there while holding each other, words were shared of a friend whose life was marked by selfless goodness, who had chosen the way of blessing and given such blessing to others.

It is the challenge of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, See! I set before you today: blessing and curse/Re’eh anochi notein lifneichem ha’yom b’racha u’k’lalah. It is in our hands to choose the way, whether of blessing or of curse, to see the blessing within our selves and in each other. Every person is born with their own unique task and purpose in this world that no one can take away, and, as

the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, that no one else can do, one’s presence in this world as proof of their unique importance. So we comforted the Wampanoag woman, holding her pain and our own, shining light on the positive in the Quranic verse, pain itself as empowering, if only to cry. So beaten down in Egypt, the rabbis said of the Israelites, that just to groan in pain was enough to move Heaven.

Of interfaith encounters with others, a strand was woven through the week, sharing of pain and hope and urgency to remind that Black Lives Matter. There were deeply meaningful discussions with various ministers about the Platform for Black Lives, expressions of commitment and understanding, empathy for Jewish pain through the misuse of words, even in common struggle. There emerged a beautiful sense of purpose, deeper than before, all of us needing to stand together against racism, but also pausing to acknowledge moments of hurt in the struggle. Such discussion is not possible if we back away, love emerging in the end only if we remain engaged with each other. It was beautiful to see so many of our own Nehar Shalom community at the Black Lives Matter vigil, a Christian minister closing the gathering with the singing of a nigun, a quiet gift meant for us while embracing all.


Strands from house to house continuing to weave, as the vigil ended a man came up to me and said, “I knew I would see you again.” Johnson, from Cameroon, reminded me that we met at a program at which I had spoken, a gathering to honor Pope Francis held at Saint Anthony’s Shrine downtown. He reminded me that he had difficulty with interfaith activities and that he often thought of my mother’s teaching that I shared that night. I had spoken of my Bar Mitzvah Haftorah from the Prophet Micah and the verse so important to me, It has been told to you, O, mortal, what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Johnson utterly amazed me standing there on the street corner recalling my mother’s gentle insistence that in explaining Micah’s words I should add two from her, “to walk humbly with God…, and with people.” 

So we continue to strive, to learn, to wrestle, ever seeking to walk humbly with God and with each other, staying engaged, making as one the vision and the way. Interfaith engagement brings great gifts and great challenges, enriching life immeasurably, at times taking our breath away. Stepping into the stillness of night, we pause and breathe deeply on the way to a higher moral ground.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 10, 2021

Gratitude

 


When I looked this morning, the one blooming flower on the Angel’s Trumpet was bowed over. Surprisingly, it had bloomed for two days. All the others before it had succumbed after just one day. You would see them, and then you wouldn’t. In the morning light you might think they were sleeping, with a lowered head, but alas, they were deceased. It’s a shame their life span is so short as the colors in these flowers are gorgeous; purple and white. I can understand where the name Angel’s Trumpet originated. They look like a trumpet used to signal the entry of nobility and they wear the colors of royalty and angels.

None of the flowers in the yard (and there are many), have attracted my attention quite like the Angel’s Trumpet. When their beauty is so fragile and short lived, I guess you had better soak it up while you can and give thanks for small favors.

I’m in the middle of reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a wonderful storyteller and combines the wisdom of a scientist and a culturally grounded indigenous woman. I’m learning about sweetgrass and wild strawberries and witch hazel and water lillies and black ash. Most of all, I’m learning about gratitude for the amazing complexity and interrelationships of creation that make human life possible.

We are all learning, aren’t we? We’re learning that trees produce the oxygen necessary for our breath and can provide carbon sinks. Burning wildfires and deforestation rob us of breathable air.

We’re learning that bees are necessary for pollination of at least a hundred foods we eat, including  peaches, pears, peppers and pumpkins. Sacrificing destructive chemicals is better than sacrificing our cantaloupe, carrots and cauliflower.

We’re learning that rising seas, because of the way we are changing the climate, threaten our homes, flooding or undermining their stability. Ultimately, the waters of life threaten our lives as towers collapse and rushing rivers take everything in their path.

We’re learning that we are part of the natural world and not separate from it. Remaining trapped in an illusion of separation only digs us deeper into fire and flood, misery and pain. Even more unfortunate, our separation in our man made environments keeps us from participating in the beauty and mystery of the creation.

Why do flowers on an Angel’s Trumpet only bloom for one day while the pansies have been blooming for weeks? Why do the cicadas come only once in 17 years but in South Dakota every 3-5 years? What makes that strange sound and how do the cicada nymphs live underground?

In Braiding Sweetgrass, there is a wonderful chapter called “Allegiance to Gratitude.” We are at a tribal school on the Onondaga Nation. The children are gathering together for the beginning of the school week. The third graders are responsible for leading the pledge that starts and ends the week. It is not the pledge of allegiance to a flag, although there is no disrespect meant to our flag or those who say it. Rather, they pledge allegiance in the “Thanksgiving Address;” in the language of the Onondaga people, the “Words That Come Before All Else.”

“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.”

The Thanksgiving continues with at least a paragraph of gratitude to Mother Earth; to the Waters; the Fish; the Plants; the Berries; the Medicinal Herbs; the Trees; the Animals; the Birds; the Winds; the Thunder Beings; the Sun; the Moon; the Stars; the Teachers and Enlightened Ones; and the Creator. The final paragraph expresses regret if anything has been left out and concludes with the response, “And now our minds are one.”

May our minds be one. May we find ways to live in balance and express our gratitude for the single day beauty of an Angel’s Trumpet; for the cool unexpected breeze on a 90 degree day; for the promise of the developing tomato on the vine; for the bees buzzing from one flower to another; for the flicker on the feeder; for the sound of the cicada in the tree.

Could we start our week, even our day, with a Thanksgiving, with words of gratitude?

 Carl Kline