Posts Tagged Nelson Mandela
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/25/18 as part of a service for Black History month. This kid-friendly homily talks about the complexity of the stories of Selma in the US and Apartheid in South Africa.
Today, I’m going to talk about some short personal stories. Some of you might remember parts of them, because I’ve talked about them before in various ways. But I haven’t shared them when our children and youth were present. As part of Black History month, as a nation, we have to do a better job of telling the wholeness of our stories – including the uncomfortable parts. There’s a lot in our history that I didn’t learn till I was an adult, and that didn’t serve me well – that doesn’t serve us all well. I think, in part, it leads us to where we are today – where so much of our nation is divided because we didn’t learn the same histories. It’s one of the reasons why having good schoolteachers, is so important. They nurture good citizens. And these days, our teachers need all the extra love and support we can give them.
Three years ago, I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act. I got to hear the stories from the people that were there. (We have one Selma veteran in our congregation as well.) I’ve heard Selma Veterans speak before and they always open up parts of history that weren’t really taught in schools. History tends to look at the biggest moments and the rest often blur in memory.
One such time I heard a Selma Veteran speak was about 6 or 7 years ago, when I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.
I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Rev. Clark Olsen to travel and represent his congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible.
Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. None of us are too young, or too small, to make a difference. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings. You are part of that, too.
Unitarian Universalism often sees itself as on the right side of history when it comes to social justice, but we’re still human, and we’re far from perfect. When I was in Selma for the anniversary, we heard more stories like this. Some congregations’ Board’s would require their minister to attend. And sadly, some congregations would not approve of their minister going. To paraphrase the thinking of the time – ‘Why would the congregation risk its standing in the community by getting involved in other people’s business, or by challenging the perfection of government or the police force in Selma.’ We think of the issue being so clear cut these days (at least most of u do), but in the midst of tragedy we can often forget right and wrong.
We can all imagine stories alive and happening today where people of good conscious come down on different sides of a crisis for various reasons. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years?
Earlier, we heard a quote from Nelson Mandela. A shorter part of it went, “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” I hold that with me when I get exhausted from all the work we need to continue to do to make the world a more loving, just place. Because there is more to do, does not mean that we are failing – there are many more hills to climb – and there probably always will be on the path to the promised land.
Nelson Mandela lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal South African regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages. We never know where we will go, or what changes we can affect.
I once got to see Nelson Mandela. It was just a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.
People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of President Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward that involved peace and reconciliation.
His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. (When we hear people say it’s too soon to talk about some tragedy in the world, I remember Mandela and how the only way that nation could move forward, was to talk openly and honestly.)
… And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating alongside. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.
Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His life was a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor. Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What a difference. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years?
These stories are important. When we hear folks say that racism is over, or people are playing the race card, or all the bad things are ancient history – they’ve forgotten our history – the good and the bad. Ruby Bridges, who we heard about earlier, is only 63 years old. Now to some of us that sounds young, and to some of us that sounds old. But her story is one that happened in many of our lifetimes – right here. Many of use lived in a world that was segregated. That’s not ancient history. And the story of Nelson Mandela happened in my childhood. I was a kid, when our then President called this future Nobel Peace Prize winner a terrorist. That’s not ancient history. And every one of these stories of hardship is also a story of hope. In everyday people, doing their part, to make the world a better place.
let folks know to stay for the the Equal Exchange short video. #1018 Come and Go with Me
This sermon was preached on MLK Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the difficult social justice lessons of the year past.
The past year has woven a mixed tapestry of social justice progress and heart-breaks. Certainly, this is not a new outcome for any year. To honor one of our nation’s heroes of social progress, I like to take Martin Luther King, Jr’s holiday to reflect on the work of the year gone past. There are ways in which many of the disparate outcomes connect with one another, and it’s important as citizens to understand the interconnectivity of oppressions. Our faith teaches us that all things are interdependent, and this includes all oppressions. Sometimes, when we assess how different issues are connected, we can unravel the solution for them all – or at least better discern the true source of the problem.
June 25th – in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States rules that parts of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Even though Congress periodically reviewed the timeliness of the precautions implemented to reduce racially motivated blocks to voting, the majority opinion would claim that the Voting Rights “Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.” In conflict with this assessment, Congress, which according to the Constitution, has wide powers to legislate the voting process, last reviewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, only 7 years ago. Suggesting racial discrimination is radically diminished, the majority opinion would conclude with the words, “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” Eighteen days later, on July 13th, George Zimmerman would be found not guilty in the murder of the black teen, Trayvon Martin. In a rare turn of events, the court of public opinion would perversely put the dead youth on trial to defend himself posthumously against a White Hispanic man with a restraining order against him for domestic abuse. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose.
Within 6 weeks of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, 6 Southern States would pass or implement new voting restrictions. And we need to remember that “(s)ince 1965, the Justice Department blocked at least 1,150 discriminatory voting changes from going into effect under Section 5 of the VRA.” The Rev. William Barber, NAACP North Carolina president, speaking about the assault on voting rights would say, “In some ways, these tactics are not Jim Crow. They do not feature Night Riders and sheets … This is in fact, James Crow, Esq. Jim Crow used blunt tools. James Crow, Esq. uses surgical tools, consultants, high paid consultants and lawyers to cut out the heart of black political power.”
Two days ago, “a Pennsylvania judge struck down the state’s voter ID law Friday, finding it puts an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote…. (due in part from) the law’s challengers (who) brought evidence during the trial that as many as 750,000 Pennsylvanians—disproportionately black and Hispanic—lack a photo ID.” According to MSNBC, Judge Bernard “McGinley also found that the law was not motivated by an effort to disenfranchise minorities–even though a top Pennsylvania Republican said in 2012 that the law would help deliver the state to Mitt Romney.” … Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
In a recent conversation I and several colleagues had with our national social justice community organizers, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, we reflected on where we are six months after the Summer rulings. The whole conversation will be available on Monday, but I want to quote my colleague, Rev. Michael Tino briefly. “People of color are “made examples of” by overzealous prosecutors while white people are routinely “given breaks.” People convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote–and thus the basic way American society gives anyone access to power. When the Trayvon Martin case has faded into unfortunately distant memory, people of color will still be facing an inherently unequal justice system. I feel like if we focus on specific cases as if they were exceptions to a larger rule, we miss the broad patterns of injustice that are replicated every day. We need to force ourselves to see the patterns.” Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
The horror that was the Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 dead happened on December 14th, 2012. In the year that followed, the US experienced 23 more mass shootings where 4 or more people were killed in a single incident. There were “at least 24 school shootings claim(ing) at least 17 lives” in that same time. This past week we have learned of a movie theatre shooting where a retired cop shot a dad for texting his 3 year old daughter during the previews. And on Tuesday, “a 12-year-old boy opened fire with a shotgun at the middle school he attends in Roswell, N.M., striking two among the dozens of students who were gathered inside a gym waiting for the first bell to ring…”. And on Thursday, a supermarket shooting leaving 3 dead, perpetrated by a man with known mental illness yet still able to get a gun. Dalia Lithwick, a court and law columnist for Slate, would write “We just make a decision to treat armed killers in schools as we previously treated fires and tornadoes: as acts of God instead of failures of legislative and moral courage… And so this is what we have tacitly agreed to do now: We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what ‘freedom’ looks like.”
There’s a question that’s floating around social media that goes, “How did asking white people to pass background checks to buy a gun become more offensive than asking minorities to provide photo ID to vote?” It brings us back to my recurring questions – Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose? Why should we be more restrictive concerning our right to vote than we are restrictive of our right to bear arms? Why is it that minorities’ access to equal power is more threatening to some people than anyone’s access to a deadly weapon? How did citizenship become more terrifying to us than mass murder?
On Thursday, January 9th, “West Virginia schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business Friday after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.” 300,000 people were affected. “According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries, which owns the chemical tank that ruptured, is exempt from Department of Environmental Protection inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals and does not produce them, The Associated Press reported.” 300,000 people, in our country, have lost access to water. They can’t clean their clothes, wash their dishes, or take a bath because we’ve written legislation that allows a corporation to function without regulation because of a technicality. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reports that “three in 10 West Virginia kids under age six live in poverty.” The future of this state’s citizens is mired in poverty and we choose to privilege corporations’ short term ease at the expense of our children’s (and thereby our nation’s) long term welfare. What say do those kids, who can’t take a bath, or drink from the faucet, have in the face of the overwhelming power and wealth of unregulated corporations? Why would we further empower the powerful and risk the lives of the weak? Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
My last example today happened also on Thursday. A leaked UN report on climate change indicates very bleak findings. It reads, “Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, 42% of the world’s Carbon Dioxide emissions come from China and the United States. With both nations’ proclivity for competition, financial gain, and industrial power – there are many eerie flashbacks to the Cold War and threat of Nuclear annihilation, only this time the risk will come from economic warfare’s spillover effects upon our planet. Which nation will slow down the industrial race first? How do we get both our country and China to “disarm” our weapons of mass greed? All throughout this, the enormously wealthy few decide the environmental fate of a planet. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
Those two questions gird the theological question of the morning. The legacy of Rev. Dr. King teaches us that every person is entitled to fair, equitable treatment. Every person is entitled to their voice having a reasonable say. Every person is entitled to safety in our society. Our principles reframe these teachings in our own language around worth, dignity, democratic process and global community. All of these crises can easily be swept aside, and we came blithely blame the lack of public interest, or commitment to civic duty, or proclivity for Reality TV over educational documentaries.
I think in some ways disinterest, misinformation, or denigration of education are to blame. But they’re blimps compared to how systems of oppression dictate allocation of power. We have corporate lobbies, that privilege short term investor gains over long term environmental catastrophes – as if the costs of clean up or the costs of medical treatments were imaginary things. It’s an outbreak of Corporate Affluenza. They’ve never had to deal with the repercussions of their actions before, so they shouldn’t be expected to have the maturity to deal with the fall out of their pollution of our water and air now.
We have a gun lobby that dictates the safety of our children. Although the second amendment is often cited as the main reason for the strength of the gun lobby, I believe it’s more rooted in wealth. In the year following the Sandy Hook shooting, gun makers’ profits went up 52%. There is a financial cost to big business in order for our kids to have safe schools. It’s not profitable – for the select few – to make choices grounded in common sense.
And so long as minorities continue to tend to vote in such ways that support the interests of the working and middle classes, or merely support the interests of common human decency, their votes become dangerous to conflicting special interest groups – groups that are not interested in common human decency. It is horrifying to me, that our nation will lift up the life of Nelson Mandela, a leader who fought to ensure everyone had the right to vote, a leader who strived to help his nation move past a time when voting centers in black communities were dealing with bomb threats and actual bombs – that we would enshrine him and then dismantle our own bill of rights for the very reasons Mr. Mandela dedicated his life against. Freedom does not mean the right to do whatever you may wish, whenever you may wish it, to whomever you wish to do it to. That’s call anarchy. Freedom, in our faith, means recognizing how we are all interdependent and living with compassion in light of that fact. It’s not about removing our inhibitions. It’s not about ignoring our accountability. It’s not about maintaining an ignorance of the ramifications of our actions. Freedom, real freedom, is living and letting others live too. Sometimes freedom means accepting mild, reasonable limitations on our sense of entitlement in order for others to have a fair chance at the same free life. Freedom is another way to say communal maturity.
It can all feel so overwhelming. Ministers hesitate to dwell too long on the difficult news of the day because it can so easily instill a sense of dread, or fatalism, that’s contrary to our religious truths. We must be diligent in remembering the words of the great Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker that were made famous to another generation by Rev. Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Despite all the tragedies of the day, people’s concerted efforts, over time, have meaning and substance. They define our humanity, as much as one’s apathy draws fences around our souls.
Both of our stories this morning teach us that our efforts matter. The kids’ story of the mouse and the bird counting the snowflakes. It may take that millionth snowflake to finally fall, but that branch will then come down. Or our second story where there’s always another building that must be built, but it doesn’t mean we stop building because we’ll never finish. It’s the stories we live and breath that create lives of meaning and substance and integrity.
Our hymns this morning reflect the spirit of global civil rights movements. Our first hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is often called the Black National Anthem. It does not tell a story that expects overnight solutions. It sings of endurance through the long road. And for those of us who may not come from a life situation where this song speaks to our pain, but may come from a heritage that was the source of the strife, it reminds us that we need to be cautious with our power; we need to be mindful of how we choose who keeps their voice and who gets to choose. The choir offertory, Precious Lord Take My Hand, was Rev. Dr. King’s favorite gospel hymn, and we sing it today in honor of him. Siyahamba, was a South African freedom song during the long, painful struggle against Apartheid. We are marching in the light of God, and the song is sung with joy and life! Joy and life in the face of extreme adversity. It teaches us that people can find celebration within themselves even at the worst of times so long as we remain open to the awe at the center of life. It’s another spiritual discipline to foster with care and attention.
Even the act of coming together in community is part of our spiritual work. One of our mid-twentieth century theologians, the Harvard professor James Luther Adams, would often espouse voluntary associations as engines of social progress. Voluntary associations could be congregations or they could be any secular group that further a social good – conservatory groups, educational partnerships, civic groups, etc. The work the groups do is one thing, but there’s something about being in a voluntary group that changes us. When we commit to remaining in relation to the people around us, we continue down a spiritual path. It’s not always easy to work with strangers. The democratic process isn’t always pleasant or even enjoyable. Our neighbors can be frustrating. We might not see eye to eye and still have to come to a consensus. In Unitarian Universalism, that discipline is our religious path. We’re saying that we’re here for the long road ahead. We know it won’t always be easy, but our humanity is rooted in our interdependence and by definition, that is one thing we certainly are not equipped to do alone.
If we live our lives where we only interact with people that look like us, think like us, and talk like us, we are cutting ourselves off from the religious truth of interdependence. If our congregation as a whole does not partner with communities that reflect identities other than our own, then we are cutting ourselves off from that truth. If we act primarily out of self interest and not out of communal health, we are cutting ourselves off from that truth.
We can’t individually tackle each of the major crises I’ve spoken about today, but there are people here who are called to focus on each of these needs. Find each other, and commit your energy to the shared work, even if it’s only 1 thing. On this social justice national holiday, dedicate this coffee hour to this task. Teaching ourselves and our children that our central identity is that of a citizen, or a person of faith, or a human being and not as a consumer, a bystander, or merely self-interest – is the primary task of in our life. It defines our character and the scope and breadth of our dreams.
I mentioned our national community organizing campaign earlier – Standing on the Side of Love. If you check out their website, Facebook page, or twitter account (StandingontheSideofLove.org) you can sign up for their 30 Days of Love campaign. From MLK weekend through Valentines Day, they’ll offer different resources, reflections, family actions and more each day. If you don’t know what to do next, but want to do something, this will be a great place to help discern your call in this work as an individual, as a family, or as a congregation.
We can do this together. Together is the only way anything has ever actually been accomplished. Doing it, or making it alone, is the American lie, not the American Dream. The American Dream is Rev. Dr. King’s dream, and that was no singular vision scripted by privilege or power. And the world needs to see you, so very badly this hour.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on Dec 8th, 2013. It reflects on the intersections of the B-52s, T.S. Eliot and Nelson Mandela.
A few weeks ago Brian and I went to see the B-52’s in concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Twenty-five years after their hey-day, they were still a raucous party on stage. We had a lot of fun. I want to focus in on though what happened before the show. It was an experiment in human psychology and self-awareness. The show was in a massive urban bowling alley, of all places, that had a standing area with a stage that easily fit 1000 people. We got there early for dinner – yes they had a fancy-ish restaurant in the mega-bowling alley. After dinner we bee-lined for the stage to get as close as possible since it wasn’t a designated seating area. We were lucky enough to be be in the second row of people from the stage. There was only one person between us and the band at any point of the show.
As time went on, we began talking with the people around us. It was all innocuous chit-chat – none of which could I recall today. After a bit, the fellow in front of us walked away. After about 10 minutes of the spot being empty, I moved forward to lean my back on the stage. I was getting stiff from the hour plus standing still. After a bit, that same fellow came back – walked up right next to me and began poking me in the side saying “that’s my spot.” “I was standing there.” (poke, poke, poke.) I told him I was just leaning back, and moved (the two feet) back to where Brian was standing.
Some time went by, and the fellow disappeared again for a while. Not wanting to get poked again, I left the space empty. After about 10 minutes, a woman came up and snuck into the empty spot. I began eating my proverbial popcorn and waited for the movie to unfold. In short order, the guy came back and did the same poke, poke, poke – “Move, this was my spot. I was standing here.” In a moment of luck, he found a second New Yorker that was willing to move away and just let it be without any drama.
Some time went by, and the fellow walked away – again. Like a comic routine, the same story unfolded for a third and final time. Three strangers in a row, he sidled up next to and poked them in the side saying, “this is my space.”
I’m pretty forgiving of many things, and I’m rather Zen about the big problems in life. But walking in front of me and stopping, blocking a subway or train door, and randomly poking my side are each ways to really work me up. I let it go, this time, but I wasn’t social with this guy for the rest of the night.
The next day we’re scheduled to meet a friend at Cinema Arts here in Huntington. We were going to see the opening of the LGBT film festival, and our friend was hoping to introduce us to area folks he knew. I turned to Brian and said, wouldn’t it be funny if one of the friends he introduces us to was that space-saver from the concert last night. No way. Well, as it turns out the next night we wind up meeting this same guy from the concert in Brooklyn, here in Huntington, and he’s friends with a friend of ours.
Priceless as this is, it’s not enough for my fiance. At the event he strikes up a conversation with this fellow about how concert-goers can sometimes be really difficult. The guy agrees whole-heartedly and begins to tell us stories of past concerts where some attendees would be really obnoxious about space – about where they were standing and who gets to stand there. (I swear, I’m not making this up.) For bonus points, and a last ditch effort to get me to smile, Brian asks the guy, “Do you think those obnoxious people even realize that they’re being rude or dramatic?” …And the guy says,… “No, I don’t think they even know they’re doing it.” It’s at this point that I have to stop looking at Brian, or I’m going to burst out laughing at the banality of it all.
It all makes you wonder how often we’re guilty of the things we complain about. It’s an absurd story, but a good reminder that whoever we interact with today, we very well may interact with tomorrow. But maybe, most importantly, this concert-driven story tells me how we can carry around for a long time the really small stuff and make it really big. We can flip the story of being bumped two feet into a great wrong that requires us to poke and poke and poke – even if we don’t learn our lesson the first three times.
Moments like this, grievances like this, can overwhelm us. Who here has ever succumbed to vivid moments of annoyance over banal pettiness? Walk with me now through what I see as a primer for moving through the mundane and into the sublime. T.S. Eliot’s poetry does this for me. His body of work seems to address our insecurities and our foibles while pointing toward that which transcends it all. Eliot was actually raised a Unitarian, but left us as an adult to experiment with various religions and ended up with traditional Christianity in his elder years.
There’s a line from his poem “The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that reminds me of the banality we sometimes succumb to. “For I have known them all already, known them all: – Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; I know the voices dying with a dying fall, Beneath the music from a farther room. So how should I presume.” The larger poem is a metaphor for a man unable to interact or flirt with a group of women. It touches upon feelings of inadequacy many of us feel in our lives. But this particular line has never left me. We know each minute that we can count. We’re creatures that in some ways live meaninglessly to a clock; or terrified through conversations we’re too scared to engage genuinely with; or base our lives around the same every day habits. I’ll be at Starbucks every morning, waiting in line with all the rest. Is my life about the next stir of the coffee spoon, or is it about something more? All of this leads to the poet’s question, “So how should I presume.” Presume to break free of the tick tock of whatever clocks we live by? To presume to talk with those we don’t feel worthy to speak with? Presume to not live our lives as though we were in a dying fall, or our music was less than another’s? (A dying fall is a musical reference to the gradual decrease in volume in a piece.) Measuring our lives in this way, through coffee spoons, is to deface what is timeless about us. It subverts what is eternal about the depth of life and gives us the greatest lie ‘that which is mundane is most significant.’
It doesn’t put us at ease, or find meaning in our days. In fact, making the mundane our focus in our lives, actually creates a sense of discord. It creates an emptiness and lack of peace that isn’t natural for humans – even if it is regretfully all to common. When we live for our habits, or live for that exact space in front of the stage at a B-52’s concert, or wallow in our presumptions – we miss out on life. Or as Eliot puts it in his later poem “The Hollow Men”, “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. Shape without form, shade without colour, paralyzed force, gesture without motion; Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom remember us – if at all – not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men.” Eliot has a way with the dramatic turn of phrase, but he often critiques us for not living fully; for not taking steps when it’s time to do so; or for not richly keeping the gifts we were given in this precious life. Succumbing to the trivial, we trade our living birthright with a hollow shell. There’s a way to live life with color and not solely shades of grey, but it requires a directness to it and an attentiveness. The trap of emptiness or meaninglessness only closes when we live our lives in tepid, unreflected ways.
An excerpt here from his poem, The Dry Salvages (rhyming with assuages), (the part we heard earlier as one of our readings)
“To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual past times and drugs, and features of the press: and always will be, some of them especially, when there is distress of nations or perplexity, whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgeware Road. Men’s curiosity searches past and future and clings to that dimension. But to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint – no occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union.”
For me, this T.S. Eliot’s most spiritual poem. If we live hollow lives due to our quiet muttering or our dry cellars – as he puts it – this poem is a response to that malaise. The spiritual practice is in the attended moment. It’s finding the moments of beauty and peace, and delicately placing them upon the altars of our consciousness, and simply bearing witness. Whether they be shafts of sunlight, or winter lightning, or times of celebrated joy or relief, it is in these moments that we apprehend the intersection of the timeless with time. It’s in these actions that we put down our coffee spoons, and stir our lives to another thrum. Nothing neat. Nothing measurable. Intimations… Attention… Hints directing to something more than the measure of minutes and seconds…. It’s in these moments that we incarnate – fully human – fully holy.
These moments though, aren’t always based in the peace of nature. Sometimes they shine through in our messy human interactions – filling our hearts, reminding us that we are part of a greater story that began before us, and will continue on when our part is finished… On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died at home after a three month battle with a lung infection. He lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages.
In my life, one of my moments between the moments involved President Mandela. It was a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.
People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of Mr. Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward, that involved peace and reconciliation.
His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating our moment between the moments. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.
His life was as far from T.S. Eliot’s pastiche of the Hollow Men that I can imagine. No quiet whisperings, no empty mutterings, but a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor. Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
I mention Mr. Mandela today, because he lived a life that was worthy of remembering. I also feel that lives such as his, are the direction this morning’s poet was pointing toward. The poems I’ve read from by T.S. Eliot today spanned in time from World War 1, through World War 2. They were not ignorant of the great tragedies, challenges and hopes of their day. And they ultimately sketch out the impressions of an ethic for an era that continues to hold vibrancy today. And Eliot makes those sketches rooted in a theological mindset.
I’ll close with the other poem we read earlier from – the excerpt from Burnt Norton: “ At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance, I can only say there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”
This is the theology that grounds the poetry that implies the ethic. We find sustenance in the moments between the moments. Not the practice, not the doing, not the striving, but the being present to the world around us. When time unfolds between our breathes and life inhales our patience. Those timeless glimpses can nurture and sustain us. The path of the infinite pressed down upon us and we know we are more than we are not. It validates all the rest; all the effort, all the striving, all the doing. Knowing that we are not merely the sum of our actions – although our actions do matter – but rather we are the witnesses to the eternal scope of life, albeit for but a moment. A moment may be long enough to sustain us.