22 January 2012
The 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Most of you know that over the past year I have been working to build a nonprofit membership organization that will provide a network of free and affordable services to help elders in Silver Spring and the surrounding area stay in their own homes as they age rather than go to retirement homes or assisted living facilities…what is known as “aging in place.”
As a member of the planning committee for the Downtown Silver Spring Senior Village, I work primarily with the Outreach Committee, which is responsible for recruiting members. One of the first things I did, as far as outreach was concerned, was, with the others on the planning committee, to design an online needs assessment questionnaire for potential members.
Last fall, at the planning committee meeting where I was scheduled to present the questionnaire for final approval from the group, I had a profound spiritual adventure. Most of the people present at the meeting were, like me, regulars who had been involved with the planning committee for many months and many of them had participated in the design of the questionnaire. In addition, however, there was a group of somewhere around 5-7 people who all lived in the same community in Silver Spring. They had never been to one of our meetings before and it was not clear at the time whether they planned to become a part of our planning committee (in fact, none of them ever did come back to another meeting).
Without any background on what we were trying to accomplish with the questionnaire, members of this group began vigorously criticizing the questionnaire and insisting on changes, some of which I felt were inconsistent with the purpose of the questionnaire. I found myself starting to get defensive. The questionnaire was my baby. My heart started pounding, my body tensed, my jaw clenched… (you know the feeling, I’m sure.) Who were they to bust in like that and be so stubbornly critical of an instrument they had had no hand in designing?
I was in the full throes of this when I suddenly realized that there was no need for me to get all defensive about it. I could just put my ego on a back burner and let go, trusting the group as a whole to make good decisions. So I said (to my own surprise, really), “Well, of course, it’s up to the group to agree on what changes they want to make. I’ll just go along with whatever the majority decides.” I felt my whole body relax, my heartbeat went back to normal, and I no longer felt as if I needed to defend anything. The person next to me dropped his jaw and said “Wow!” I felt incredibly relieved and confident that the group would make good decisions. And, in fact, the group did decide on just a few minor changes that turned out to actually improve the questionnaire quite a bit.
I have no idea how I was able to let go the way I did in a situation that really encouraged the adoption of an entrenched position. The grace of God, I guess. It was a very intense experience for me; what I would call a spiritual adventure. Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute in New York and author of The Seeker’s Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure, has identified some of the characteristics of the spiritual adventure: we move outside our spiritual comfort zone, we become aware of a connection to a higher power, we experience a heightened sense of the mysterious, and life is given a deeper meaning. Our perspective changes markedly. As the title of her book indicates, Lesser recommends making one’s life a spiritual adventure, which, she says, involves “experiencing daily life as an adventure of meaning and mystery.”
I love doing that. I think all of us here are committed to making our daily lives a spiritual adventure. That’s one thing I love about Seekers is that I can talk about my spiritual adventures here. They are hard to talk about in the outside world because they do mostly occur in the context of daily life and, in terms of external events, not much is really happening. Do you every notice that? For example, if a neighbor or a colleague at worked had asked me after the questionnaire meeting, “How is your week going?” I would have said: “Oh, wow, it’s been intense; so much has happened!” But if they asked, “Well-what actually happened?” I would have been stumped. “Well, I went to a meeting where there was some disagreement about a questionnaire and I didn’t freak out or throw a tantrum.” How exciting is that?
It reminds me of books like the Narnia series that I used to love as a child (or the recent 1Q84) where people stumble into a different world and have incredible adventures then return to their normal world or something like it and realize that no time has passed there at all. In the everyday world, nothing has really happened. It’s a different world, the world of spiritual adventure, and one can just fall into it while engaged in the most mundane daily life activities. When one comes back to the “real” world nothing remarkable has happened there at all.
Today’s scriptural readings are all about a different kind of spiritual adventure – ones which occur in the normal world but in fact are very dramatic. A lot of real life events happen in these adventures. They are really something to write home about! Before I talk about them, I would like to introduce a phrase that I really love. I found it years ago in a book of daily meditations that I was using. The phrase is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and it is this: “Wear the world as a loose garment which touches us in a few places and there lightly.” Think about it …wear the world as a loose garment. Wow.
What does it feel like to wear the world as a tight garment? Tight, or close-fitting, clothes suggest chafing, constriction, being uncomfortable, restricted movement, lack of freedom, possibly even wearing a uniform that obscures one’s individual identity.
We wear the world as a tight garment when we become too invested in our own ego needs, our own perceptions of ourselves and our roles in society, and our own material desires, our own need to be in control and be right. When I was a child, and had to wear a hat to attend the Episcopalian church we went to, I would spend the entire service preoccupied with the discomfort caused by the tight rubber band that went under my chin to keep the hat on my head; so preoccupied that I couldn’t really pay attention to anything else. Anyone remember those hats? I guess for the boys it was their ties. Tight garments.
What does the phrase “wear the world as a loose garment suggest?” Loose garments are comfortable , permit lots of movement and flexibility, and are associated with informality and individuality rather than conformity. We wear loose garments to do fun, healthy things like yoga, massage, or tai chi, to go on a picnic, or to settle into a comfy chair and read a good book. Loose garments.
Now, Jonah wore the world as a tight garment, lots of ego, lots of attachment. Like other Israelites at the time, he hated the Assyrians, especially the people of Nineveh. He didn’t want to tell them to repent—he wanted God to destroy them. It took a big, scary spiritual adventure for him to loosen up. Daily life wasn’t enough for him. Even being spoken to directly by God, not once, but twice, wasn’t enough. He had to be swallowed by a whale! And even then he needed to be yelled at some more. And even though he did go warn the people of Nineveh, he remained angry with God afterwards for not destroying them.
The king and the people of Nineveh, however, had a different kind of spiritual adventure. In this capital city of vice and crime, the king and all of his people turned away their evil ways. They clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes and they (and even their animals) fasted. They came to wear the world as a loose garment and God spared them. What must that be like for a whole city to transform in that way? Wouldn’t it be nice if that could happen to Washington DC? Or the whole world?
But it’s hard to change like that. One of my favorite stories is the “Drop the Rock” story. It’s about a man who is out in the middle of a lake and he is drowning. The main reason he is drowning is because he is holding on to a big rock that is dragging him down. People on the shore are shouting at him: “Drop the rock,” “Drop the rock.” “No,” the man shouts back emphatically, “It’s my rock.”
That’s why I like the story about the disciples dropping their nets to follow Jesus, leaving everything else behind. They did wear the world as a loose garment. I have always found that to be a very scary story. I want to hang on to my nets—my livelihood, my family, my home, my place in society. I often wonder what nets I would be willing to drop to follow Jesus.
There is a story about a Buddhist monk who lived on a mountain above a village. One day a group of angry villagers stormed into his hut and accused him of getting a girl from the village pregnant. “Here,” they said, handing him the infant, “we are leaving this baby with you to take care of.”
“Is that so?” the monk said.
The monk cared for the baby with love and concern until some years later the villagers came back. The girl had confessed that the monk was not the father of the baby. “We are taking the baby back to the true mother and father,” they said.
“Is that so?” said the monk.
He wore the world as a loose garment, the goal of Buddhist practice. But we are not monks. How can we learn to wear the world as a loose garment?
The epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians tells something about how to wear the world as a loose garment. It says (to paraphrase):
Mourn as though there were no mourning…
Rejoice as though not rejoicing..
Buy as though one had no possessions
And deal with the world as if one had no dealings with it
I don’t take that to mean we should be indifferent or dead to the world, have no feelings at all. One of the 12-step programs, AlAnon, the program for family members and friends of alcoholics, uses a great phrase. The phrase is “detachment with love..” It denotes a kind of disengaged engagement, or wearing the world as a loose garment. The 12-step programs have lots of sayings to help people detach: live and let live, let go and let God, turn it over, easy does it, one day at a time, and so forth.
Abraham Maslow talks about self-actualizers, or people who have realized their full human potential. Self-actualizers are detached enough that they are able to maintain serenity and peace of mind “in the face of hard knocks, blows, deprivations, frustrations, and the like.” We usually think of detached as meaning cool, or even unloving, but for self-actualizers, this is not the case. Self actualizers are extraordinarily altruistic, both loving and social. They manifest, however, what AlAnon calls “detachment with love.”
Gary Hendricks, in his book about spiritual adventure, The Big Leap, talks about benign vigilance. He observes that when we drive well, we pay “keen but relaxed attention to what our car and the other cars are doing every moment.” Contrast that to our episodes of road rage, in which we are overwhelmed by ego and anger and may not drive as well.
Benign vigilance is an example of wearing the world as a loose garment. What if we lived our lives as if we were doing our best driving: alert, observant, involved, but without ego attachments?
I am definitely far from having realized my full human potential and I have been known to experience road rage, even when I’m not driving. The practice of wearing the world as a loose garment appeals to me however and having that as a goal opens me to a life of spiritual adventure.
I’ll conclude with this quote from Deepak Chopra, that tireless chronicler of New Age thought: