November 9, 2014
Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost
The Gospel today speaks of the bridesmaids who were ready – who had filled their lamps with oil and of the ones who had not. I find more questions than answers in reading this passage:
What does it mean to be ready?
What am I getting ready for?
To be in the presence of God?
How do I prepare myself to be in the presence of God?
Where do I find this lamp oil?
Emily Dickinson said “The soul should always stand ajar ready to welcome an ecstatic experience.” So maybe it’s not so much about going out and actively looking for God as it is about being open to God. But as passive as this sounds – I find keeping the lamp filled or leaving the soul ajar to be challenging. It seems to call on me to prepare, to open, to expand, to refuel, to pay attention, to be intentional. I believe that God is everywhere, including right here right now, but I forget to do what is needed to experience God’s presence.
How do I find the oil to keep my lamp full? A few weeks ago, David and I hiked in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On our first day out, we hiked Algonquin, the second highest peak in the Adirondack range. I started off strong, but after the first mile and a half began to feel fatigue everywhere in my body. My climbing muscles were out of use and I felt tinges of pain in my knees, hip and back. I was not ready for what I was doing at the pace I was trying to do it. I was breathing out before I had breathed in. I had started with a half-filled lamp. So I took the hike very slowly for the rest of the sometimes strenuous climb to the summit – breathing in the crisp autumn air and splendor of color as I moved along at a regular but slower pace.
At the top of the mountain, while taking in a truly awe-inspiring view well above tree line, we were fully exposed to an incredibly strong wind. There was nowhere to hide from it – not even behind the big boulders scattered around the mountaintop. I couldn’t figure out which direction it was coming from because it seemed like it was coming from everywhere. One hiker was bracing his body so hard against the wind that when it let up for a moment, he fell over. The door was wide open, and God was coming in- the same God who had reminded me to fill my lamp by slowing my pace on the way up the mountain.
Then, even as I felt physically spent on the descent, I noticed that the residual tension that I had brought to the mountain from my daily work was gone. I settled into the quiet stillness around me and the steady meditative rhythm of my feet. My lamp was refilling again. By the third day of climbing, blessed by a day-long rainy interlude of rest, I was fully ready – not just with one flask of oil – but with a practice of refilling the flask as the lamp burned on. I was remembering to open fully as I breathed – to breathe in deeply and to let that breath out just as deeply – to breathe God in and then to breathe God out into the world. With this refreshed practice, I sat quietly at the summit of Mt Jackson taking in the grace and grandeur of the rest of the mountains that formed the Presidential traverse of the Appalachian Trail.
How else do I find the oil to fill my lamp? From a very early age, I found community in music. Singing and playing instrumental music were fundamental to our family’s bond and daily life – my mother, a computer programmer, taught drums and co-organized a Vermont county youth band in her spare time. I started the flute at age 5 and sang at every opportunity, but it was really in high school when I began to grasp that singing and playing music could be a form of worship. I feel especially fortunate to have had a wonderful spiritual guide in our choral director, Albert Raymond. Mr. Raymond led several choirs of varying sizes, and I sang in all of them – the largest being the 1000 students who sang in Sacred Concert in the Spring, and the smallest being the 28 of us who travelled to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as what Nixon termed “a friendship choir”. This was oddly enough a Reader’s Digest-funded effort in 1971 to warm relations between the countries on either side of the “Iron Curtain.” Mr. Raymond taught us much more than simply how to sing. Sherif Nada, who also sang under Mr. Raymond’s direction, had this to say about his experience: “Throughout my life, the person who seems to loom above all others in influence is Mr. Raymond. He taught me to love music and make it a part of my everyday life. He taught me that every human interaction could be more effective when done in an atmosphere of respect. And he showed me how compassion can be a part of any task I tackle. Calmly assured, modest, never judgmental, infinitely patient, he knew when to laugh and when not to; when to engage a student’s attention rather than reprimand; how to transform a shy or less able singer into a confident performer. He enriched the spirits of those he directed and taught them to make singing an act of worship.” Those of us students who were in all of the choirs rehearsed from 3 to 4 hours most week-night evenings throughout high school. I never tired of singing, and the singing fueled everything else that I was immersing myself in at the time – my studies, sports, and theater. I think that the act of readying myself with long hours of practice under the direction of such a gifted musical spiritual guide is why I find that I am most connected to my spirituality through music. I am ready to see God there, and so it is no surprise that I do.
So what is it that happens in these sacred spaces and how do I fill the lamp and keep filling it in other areas of my life? How do I nurture my own readiness? How do I do the inner work? Or as Marjory wrote in my spiritual report recently, “What about the in-breath?”
Here is what I know from these experiences and others:
IT IS ABOUT INTENTION AND NOT WILL: I don’t get to these places by willing them to happen. I also don’t get there by merely floating through life. I do intentionally open the door just as I intentionally fill the lamp with oil. But that is where I yield to something greater than myself.
GOD WORKS ON ME IN THESE PLACES: Nature and music work on me more than I work on them. I would also say that teaching and parenting have had this effect on me as well. They call for paying attention to both the body and the mind and for truly deep breathing of sweet life-giving and life-sustaining oxygen. Letting go of control, letting go of ego, letting go of self, being ready to be shaped by nature, by music, by the larger than life force around me. The wind at the top of the mountain came through the open door indiscriminately and with great force. It worked on me and everything else caught up in its path in much the same way that the crashing Maine waves did as they tossed me around when I went to the ocean for solace on the day my mother died. An hour of singing with others transforms the sound and the experience completely. The voices blend into one harmonious whole. The musical spiritual guide directs in a way that individual voices – even my own – are unrecognizable one from the other as they come together to worship God.
I HAVE TO KEEP LEARNING HOW TO BE READY IN NEW WAYS: David and I recently started doing pottery in a wonderful community of potters at the Langley Park Recreation Center. Much like Maybelle described right here a couple of weeks ago, it is as much about the community as it is about the art, and that is certainly true as I find myself becoming more and more deeply connected to my fellow potters. But I mention this now because in a short time of throwing pots, It seems like I have made just about every mistake possible and, while I am a fervent believer that mistakes are how we learn, more often than not, the mistakes were made because I was not doing what I needed to do to ready myself. Let me give one example – good potters apparently know that wedging the clay – kneading it to get air bubbles and any foreign objects out and to make the clay stronger – is as critical a part of the process as any other. If the clay is not ready to be thrown – for whatever reason, it is very unlikely that things will go well in the throwing. But in my rush to get to the throwing of the clay, one evening, I hastily wedged it. So later on when I was having a problem with throwing, our teacher, who is very direct and abrupt at times exclaimed “there is something in your clay.” I couldn’t see or feel anything so I thought that she was being a bit picky and noticing something so small that I couldn’t see it. Together we started poking at the clay only to find a huge rock of hard clay right there in the middle of the ball I was working with – messing up my throwing. I had somehow missed it in my haste to wedge the clay earlier. The clay and I were not ready. I had not filled the lamp.
FINDING WAYS TO RELATE TO THE WORLD IN A WAY THAT IS FREE FROM DISTRACTION. We are distracted in so many ways these days – by cellphones, email, and all sorts of other things. We multi-task and are proud of it, but in my experience, too much multi-tasking can mean doing nothing particularly well. So it is important for me to find places to breathe free from distraction. The outdoors, music, pottery offer all of this –They all, through intention, reconnect me with my life force, my breath. They insist that I be still, be silent, be focused, listen, pay attention – that I be free from distraction. If I am not ready, they let me know. God lets me know.
I HAVE TO FILL MY OWN LAMP WITH OIL – NO ONE ELSE CAN DO IT FOR ME. When I first read this passage, I thought it was unkind of half the bridesmaids not to share their oil with the others. It didn’t seem to take into account those of us who may not have opportunity or resources to fill our lamps. It also didn’t seem to envision filling our lamps in community. But then it struck me that there is an entirely different way of looking at this passage. If I think of it as being about doing my inner work, I have learned that it’s the process of doing the inner work that opens me so that I am more aware of God’s presence. I have to do my own inner work – fill my own lamp – to experience God. No one else can do it for me, and I cannot do it for them.
APPLYING THIS TO EVERYDAY LIFE – Having said all this, I realize that it is a lot easier for me to do the inner work when I have the time and resources to take a vacation in the mountains, to find time to sing with others, and to take a pottery class. But thankfully I have found small ways to refuel in my sometimes stressful everyday life as well. Right here. Right now. To give an example – let me describe my daily commute to work. For those of you who know downtown DC, I work at the big Federal office building located just across Independence Avenue from the Air and Space Museum. The normal commute by metro would take me to Gallery place on the red line and then two more stops to L’Enfant Plaza on the green or yellow line – the last five stations being underground. A few years ago, as I was tiring of be jostled around in the mass of rushing people bumping up against each other at rush hour at Gallery Place, I discovered that getting off the red line at Judiciary Square and walking across the Washington Mall from there did not substantially lengthen my commute time, but did significantly affect how ready I was to begin my day of work. For those of you unfamiliar with this walk, it is entirely filled with beautiful buildings, trees, statues and fountains along the way. It feels a bit like walking across a beautiful college campus. The highlight of it for me is at the very end of the walk, just before I cross the street to enter my own building. On the mall side of the National Museum of the American Indian, I spend a couple of minutes each morning by the waterfalls. I close my eyes and listen to the falling waters merging and heading in different directions much like a mountain stream. I suppose this walk has become for me a form of worship. It fills my lamp with oil. And not surprisingly, this walk has opened me to experiencing God in the lives of two homeless women, a mother and grown daughter, who have lived in one of the courtyards along the way for the last couple of years. I have quietly sat with them from time to time, not speaking words, as neither speaks English well, and I don’t speak their first language at all. They have turned down my offers of help, but have by their hand motions invited me to sit with them. Each day, they find clean water, somehow clean their bodies and clothes, fold up all of their bedding from the night, and start with their day communing with each other on a bench by a fountain. Sometime during the last month or two, they moved on. I don’t know where they are and feel a great loss – knowing that I will probably not see them again. I really hope they are in a better place but have no way of knowing whether that is the case or not. What it seems to me is that the ritual of the morning walk readied me to really see these two women and to in a small way be in community with them.
SEEKERS – As time goes by, I understand more and more why I am at Seekers. This is a community that encourages us to be ready – to do the inner preparatory work – to fill our lamps –to breathe in. And then, it also nudges us to breathe God out into our everyday lives and work. I do much of the inner work in the Learners and Teachers Mission Group through sharing and the discipline of weekly spiritual reports. I also do it with the Carroll Café staff as we go through the monthly ritual of producing a concert of beautiful music. I find it in working with and just being with the children in different ways. I also find it in sharing in the preparations for and participating in Tuesday night dinners and classes. The taize service always fill me as I let go of control of the words, the pitch, the rhythm, and yield to something greater than my single voice – something greater than myself. It prepares me for the door to open, and I am pretty sure that because it prepares me, the door opens.
CONCLUSION – Before I close, I want to mention something about the music you will hear during the offertory. It is a recording we made at the Spring Sacred Concert in 1971. Please bear with the crackling sound – I listened to this piece several times over the years so it has the familiar scratches of a well-worn LP. I particularly want to call your attention to the female soloist. Her name is Bonita Hyman. She was my roommate and the only black student on our Eastern European tour in 1971. Today, she is based in Berlin and sings opera all over the world. When we made this recording, Bonnie, as she was called then, was only 14 years old. I will never forget how I felt when I heard her sing this solo for the first time. Singing as a form of worship. Amen.