Benedict and the School for Service of the Lord

A sermon preached by Stacy at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (University of Chicago) on Sunday, July 12, 2015:

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129

The readings:

From the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict

And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord.  In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.   But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from his school, but persevering in the monastery according to his teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in his kingdom.

From the Gospel according to Luke 14:27-33:
Jesus said to the crowd, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

The sermon:

When we decided to use the readings for the commemoration of St. Benedict of Nursia for today’s service—he is often commemorated on July 11th—it seemed like a no-brainer. Everyone seems to like Benedict. Benedictine spirituality has enjoyed a bit of a revival lately. This will be easy, I thought.

But first, a bit about the man himself:

Benedict lived from 480 to around 545 CE. He was the son of a Roman nobleman, probably a Christian. He was sent off to Rome for his studies, but after a time, disillusioned by the dissolute lifestyle of his fellow students, he left, taking his housekeeper, to live with a community of men at a church about 50 miles away. Benedict eventually leaves the town and his housekeeper and, under the mentorship of the monk Romanus, he becomes a monk and a hermit, living in a grotto for three years, with food being lowered down from a rope, fighting temptations and demons—in pretty expected ways.

Eventually he is asked to become the abbot at a nearby monastery. At first he demurs, knowing that, as Pope Gregory I writes in the only history of Benedict that we have, “their manners were diverse from his and therefore that they would never agree together: yet, at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent.” It did not go well, possibly because Benedict was too strict for them. Really. It did not go well. The breaking point was when the monks, having turned against him, serve him a poisoned cup of wine. Before taking the cup to drink from it, Benedict blesses the wine with the sign of the cross, at which point the glass shatters as if a stone had been thrown at it.

He returns to the town where he had been a hermit, only to be threatened again with a loaf of poisoned bread from a jealous local priest. He discerns that it would be wise to leave town (again), and in subsequent years founds twelve monasteries before founding his most famous community in Monte Cassino.

Benedict is most known for his Rule, a small book of instructions for the ordering of a monastic community, from how to pray the Psalms to organizing the kitchen shifts to the character required of the monastery’s cellarer (the one in charge of the provisions of the monastery).

The rule is striking for its practicality, its gentle balance of discipline and tolerance, its understanding that, for a community of people to be able to live and grow in Christian discipleship, room must be made for rules and exceptions. There is a wonderful pattern of sleep, work, prayer, and study that makes the life of the community not only sustainable but also, as we heard from Benedict today, “a school for the service of the Lord.”

A couple of excerpts from the chapter on the cellarer give a good illustration:

As cellarer of the monastery
let there be chosen from the community
one who is wise, of mature character, sober,
not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,
not offensive, not slow, not wasteful,
but a God-fearing man
who may be like a father to the whole community.
Let him have charge of everything.
He shall do nothing without the Abbot’s orders,
but keep to his instructions.
Let him not vex the brethren.
If any brother happens to make some unreasonable demand of him,
instead of vexing the brother with a contemptuous refusal
he should humbly give the reason for denying the improper request.

I love that last line. The person who is probably second only to the abbot in power, when faced with an unreasonable request, one which his responsibilities require him to deny, he is to respond gently and clearly, without contempt or anger. (If only customer service departments would read Benedict’s Rule!)

Then there’s this:

Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery
and its whole property
as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.
Let him not think that he may neglect anything.
He should be neither a miser
nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery’s substance,
but should do all things with measure
and in accordance with the Abbot’s instructions.

The goods of the monastery—the dried meats and grains, the stores of wine and herbs, the cooking pots and carving knives—all of these things are to be treated with the respect and honor given to the chalice and paten, the sacred vessels of the altar. The care of his fellow monks is in the same category as the highest ritual of their shared faith.

So. That’s great. There is much to reflect on, much that is edifying. I had plans to preach on the balance of discipline and flexibility in the life of the spirit, or the balance of a defined community and generous hospitality, or prayer, study, and physical labor.

But then the gospel reading assigned for Benedict pulled me up short. Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In the verse just before what we heard, Jesus says that unless one leaves father, mother, wife, children, siblings, even one’s life, behind, one cannot be his disciple.

There is an all or nothing side to Jesus, something we have struggled since the beginning of this Christian venture to figure out—or evade. We have interpreted the sale of our possessions as optional, or symbolic, or a state of mind. We have elevated “family values” to the level of idolatry, despite Jesus’ call to leave family behind. And as far as Jesus’ command to carry the cross—that is, to live in such a way that the powers that be consider you a threat to their existence—we find all kinds of ways to make that less serious than Jesus meant.

So, for those of us who are not called—or not called yet—to sell all of our possessions, or to leave family, or to take a stand that would be considered a threat to the state, or to become celibate and live in a well-structured community of prayer, study, and labor for the rest of our lives: what of us? Must we, like the rich young man, turn away saddened, because we can’t do these hard things—yet?

First: despite what certain folks say, you don’t have to be a disciple of Jesus to be saved. Nor, in case you were wondering, must you be a monk or nun. If I’ve learned anything from reading the gospels and, yes, the apostle Paul and his letters, it’s that grace is free, salvation (a word with lots of baggage, but we’ll save that for another day) is free, healing is free, forgiveness is free. And, according to the gospels, if you follow Jesus around enough, lunch is sometimes free. It’s all a gift.

We do nothing to earn God’s love and can do nothing to lose it. In fact, one of the threads that winds through the history of Christian prayer is that God wants to love us, longs to share Her delight with us, is constantly inviting us to stop and pay attention to His prodigal gifts in creation and in human community.

The first thing that Jesus invites us to know, to understand, and to wrestle with is just that: we are beloved. We are God’s delight. This does not mean that we do not sin, nor that sin does not bring terrible consequence, nor that we need not do anything about it. But Jesus’ teaching and healing show that the sin cannot be faced until the love is embraced.

So for some of us, our lives will be spent learning and accepting that we are Beloved. For some of us it is a hard lesson and will take a lifetime of discipline to overcome the ways we try to make deals in exchange for God’s love, or act out in anger or self-loathing or passivity because love cannot be assumed. It’s possible that some of you are suspicious of this premise, since it sounds like “I’m OK, you’re OK” self-esteem pablum. It’s not. For some of us this is the hardest thing we will ever do.

Some of us, like Jesus’ disciples and the monks of Benedict’s communities, though, by the grace of God, will get it. We will know ourselves beloved and that joy will make us want to go deeper, to help others to learn it, to get closer to the Jesus who lived and died to demonstrate its truth. It’s then that the bar gets raised. Then we are called to take up crosses, find a new family, let go of our stuff, learn obedience and humility, die to self.

And that’s where Benedict comes in. Benedict’s Rule was for the long haul, for the complex process of learning to do Jesus’ work. The school of service is not just about loving God but learning to love neighbor, particularly the neighbor as found in the brother monk who snores, or is a know-it-all, or doesn’t do his share of work. Even when we know ourselves as beloved, we sometimes waver, we sometimes doubt. Even when we know that God loves our neighbor as much as God loves us, we find it can’t find that loving heart. Benedict managed to set the self-sacrifice that Jesus calls his disciples to in a pattern of life that allowed the monks to be reminded of God’s love: by being bathed in Scripture and prayer, in the give and take of mutual forgiveness and graciousness in community, in being able to use their bodies in work and their minds in study—their whole persons.

So perhaps this is what Benedict can offer us this morning: a promise that is possible to do the impossible work for the long haul. That it does, indeed, require a balance of work and rest and study and prayer. That sometimes we do need to suck it up and do the work and sometimes we get a break. The call to discipleship is meant to fall the call to be loved. Embrace the love first. If you’re ready for the next challenge . . . . well, then, it’s time to get to work.

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Forgiveness

The idea of Forgiveness doesn’t come up in Theravadin Buddhism. It rears its Christian head in Dalai Lama land, and in New Age Buddhism along with other higher vehicle (mayahana) Buddhist sects. However, as far as Gautama Buddha, my man, the Man, the actual guy the religion is named for is concerned, forgiveness is not what we do.

We go Vince Lombardi on the idea and do an end run around the entire concept.

If we are wronged, we do not return the wrong. If a wrong done to us makes us angry, then we address the anger in ourselves and focus on silencing these feelings and the source of those feelings. The jerk-off who did the bad thing, we let him pass on by. Of course, taken to extremes, this live-and-let-others-wrong-and-maybe-kill-us-all-day-long is a recipe for extinction. And in following the Buddhist philosophy to other extremes, there are options one may take to oppose injustices, such as the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest US involvement in Viet Nam.

We do not forgive anything, as we are supposed to be in a state that precludes the ability to take offense. But this sanctified mental attitude takes a long while to achieve. A long while and a lot of meditating. A whole lot of meditating. After all that meditating, you must then follow the Buddha’s teachings about the source of emotions and the path these feelings take through our consciousness. And then more meditating. And then a whole lot more meditating.

When we ourselves do wrong, that’s another thing entirely.

In any case, forgiveness is not the real problem with Mr. Roof and his murderous rampage. Whether or not we forgive him, the problem lies in what made him do what he did. Both the what, and the who. How is it even possible that this guy sat in that church, listening to the Bible study, then stood up and took their lives? Moreover, how did his racist beliefs come to be? The concept of racial superiority has been disproven over and over again, yet many still cling to these poisonous ideas.

What do the Dylann Roof’s of the world get from their beliefs? What comfort is delivered? What peace does their soul garner from these things they cling to: the Swastika, the Confederate Battle Flag, the Klu Klux Klan, Aryan racial theory? What happened to this man, what changed in him? What ideas did he learn to alter the lesson that all the Universe teaches us about love and acceptance with every breath of every creature, the fall of every leaf and the rising of every sun? What words could he have read or heard that would make meaningless all creation’s unity in favor of the idea that Black people deserve to die and suffer by the hand of white people?

Fear, insecurity, jealousy and the feeding of the ego are commodities that our civilization buys and sells, which then pay out in the dividends in Emmanuel Church in Charleston, in Ferguson, in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, in the sweat shops of Asia and every damn night on the streets of Englewood. And these commodities found a place to grow in the heart of Dylann Roof. There were planted by those around him, encouraged either directly or tacitly by the refusal to deny the ridiculous beliefs this person, literally, wore on his sleeves.

Forgiveness? That can wait. There is a fight we need not just to finish, but to start. And anger will not win it. Setting oneself on fire in the middle of a road will also not win it. Neither will be moaning mantras in front of a stick of incense. My faith teaches me not to return a wrong for a wrong, but it also teaches me not to sit quietly by when wrong things happen. So let’s start here. The end result of all theories of racial superiority will be murder and exploitation. To support these ideas actively or passively is wrong.   It is wrong for Christians, it is wrong for Buddhists, it is wrong for Americans, it is wrong for every human being under the sun.   It is not enough that we pull down that Confederate trash hanging from the State capital building. We must change and become intolerant of those who refuse to change.   Basically, we, as white people, need to get the hell over it. We are not superior, we never were, and we are going to continue to lose power and privilege. As we should.

I do not want the Black community’s forgiveness. I want to held accountable for my actions, to be forced to understand and to make reparations for any mistakes I have made. Racism, and all systems of injustice, are viable only by thousands of small actions and thousands of small refusals to act. Policy does not make hatred, only people do.   We can only end this by the supreme act of Grace, what we Buddhists call personal responsibility. It is the foundation of my Buddhist faith, and it will be the only thing that will save us all.

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Forgiveness and Anger

Forgiveness. After the horror of last week’s massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charlotte, many were moved, comforted, and inspired by the expressions of forgiveness offered by the families of the dead toward the shooter. It was a powerful statement indeed, at a time when there seems to be very little grace and very little forgiveness in our culture at large. However, as with so many things involving race in this country, this “forgiveness event” was not unambiguous. An African American colleague of mine, the Rev. Dr. Maurice Charles, wrote, in a post called “Costly Forgiveness vs. Cheap Grace,” that “the readiness to laud forgiveness too early and too often horrifies me.” For people with “their backs against the wall” (according to Howard Thurman, those who live under the constant threat of violence), speedy forgiveness is one way of keeping one’s soul from a state of constant rage. Maurice says it so well: they are “faced with the hellish choice of lashing out in a destructive rage or freeing themselves from the power of hell by reaching into their ravaged souls and finding there a shred of forgiveness.”

Another article, written by Kiese Laymon, talks about hard conversations with his grandmother about the habit of forgiving white folks and the shame that black folks internalize. Roxane Gray, in her article, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” echoes my friend Maurice, “Black people forgive because we need to survive.” Still others have written about the forgiveness offered by black people to white people that they cannot afford to offer to their own. (Please read the articles linked below. They speak much more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could.)

As I wrote in my response to John’s post about Karma, I believe in Grace. I depend on Grace. To coin a line from one of my student’s sermons, grace isn’t a get-out-of-sin-free card. Well, OK, it is, but it’s mostly a fundamental freedom from fear of condemnation in order to be able truly and courageously face down our demons, name our sins, recognize our complicities. Grace enables us to consider that we can be different, that we can, as the Prayer Book says, amend our lives.

As someone who survived two decades in an abusive marriage, the question of forgiveness has haunted me. The horrible phrase, “forgive and forget” (where did that even come from? It’s not in the Bible!) gave—and still gives—me the willies. I cannot forget that my ex-husband is occasionally and unpredictably violent; I make sure never to be alone with him. There is the quote, sometimes attributed to Anne Lamott, that says that not forgiving is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. And yet, I wonder whether we white folks, in our rush to embrace this public act of forgiveness—black people forgiving a white person other than ourselves—are closing off the space for something equally Biblical: righteous anger.

There is an aspect of forgiveness that is about freeing myself from being destructively bound to a person who has offended or hurt me, but anger can do that as well. It was anger—anger taking the place of fear, and self-doubt, and self-recrimination—that helped me take the steps—slow, costly steps—to leave my first marriage. It was anger—anger that sometimes needed to be more for the sake of my children than for myself—that convinced me that it was misplaced compassion that kept me tied to a wounded, traumatised man. I do not hate my first husband, nor do I wish him ill. He is a generous, hard-working, justice-loving man who was damaged by a dysfunctional family and an oppressive government, a man who, most days, tries his best to make the world a little better. But my life is better, healthier, and freer without him. That didn’t happen through forgiveness. It happened through anger and a fierce realization that I had to take a stand for my children and for me.

The African-American folks in my life—my friends and colleagues, my children’s friends—do not, I assume, hate me, nor wish me ill. (And that assumption alone speaks volumes about white privilege.) I’m friendly and hospitable, and our racist history is, as we whites are wont to say, not my fault. But I have never had anyone cross the street when they saw me coming. I have never worried for myself or my children in an encounter with a police officer—or anyone else with a gun. I have never had anyone question my professional credentials for the color of my skin. I have never suffered the other myriad indignities and outright offenses and exclusions that they experience every day, that don’t make headlines, and with which they simply deal. Am I willing to hear their anger? Am I willing to allow (oh, that word makes me uncomfortable, even as I type it) them to take a stand for their own children—or for their own selves? Am I willing to be unforgiven, at least for a while, so that anger can speak its truth?

This is not what I intended to write. I meant to write about my thoughts on forgiveness in general and as a Christian practice, which clearly must wait for another day. I am grateful for my friend Maurice, and Kiese and Roxane, whom I do not know, for giving me a path to understand better, both my own journey toward freedom and the long, hard, not-yet-over journey for African Americans struggling to stay sane, and true, and alive. Forgiveness is, indeed, what Jesus commanded (and I’ll get to that in some other post), and a path to freedom. But anger, and its sister, fierce truth-telling, are another, just as biblical path.

Here are the articles I cited: “Costly Forgiveness vs. Cheap Grace”: http://pressedbutnotcrushed.com/imago/costly-forgiveness-vs-cheap-grace

“Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/23/black-churchesforgive-white-people-shame?CMP=share_btn_fb

“Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-roof.html?_r=0

6/27/15

Here’s another, very clear and straightforward unpacking of these questions:

“Not Off the Hook: The White Myth of Black Forgiveness” http://the-toast.net/2015/06/23/misunderstanding-black-forgiveness/

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A promiscuous assembly

John

Stacy

The book is the only material object that a leftist liberal does not have to consider as an actual object. Diamonds, gold, furs, TV’s, bric-a-brac, lamps, furniture, houses, cars: all these are material possessions, and as such are loathed and rejected by the enlightened and overly educated. But books, well…. To cut through the artifice, books are an intellectual’s genitalia.

Wait a minute, . . .

And yes, ladies, I believe that metaphor applies to both genders.

Are we talking about size, or quantity? I’m confused.

11081293_10100592273121740_3157732303638231290_nWe want shelves and shelves of books. Old books. New books! Books by classic authors upon whom civilizations are founded. Books by current popular authors upon whom actual enjoyment is expounded. Large books full of images of far off lands and fabulous art. Large books full of endless words and scenes which we point at and say, like a quarterback points to a recently deflowered cheerleader, “I read that. I read the shit out of that, and I made that book call me daddy!”

So maybe you mean that, for leftist liberals, books are like sexual conquests?                    (Oh, dear. What will the Bishop say?)

We casually host parties in the rooms our books are stored and hope passionately, yet silently, that attention will be paid to them. The couch is worn and torn, the curtains are grey and moth-eaten, the silverware is thrift store and the fork does not match the spoon. But my Mark Twain is flawless, and I have a first edition of the complete letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell as edited by Thomas Carlyle. Please, do not trip on my intellectual penis.

In this instance, I’ll grant you the analogy.

But I got divorced once. And I had to cull my books. I had to leaf through my ego and decide what was important enough to keep and what I would offer to the Osiris of values: the used bookstore. Buddha smiled as I took $14 for two boxes of self worth. He grinned as I took $17 for one box of pride. Then I smiled as I refused $10 for two boxes of memories. I remember the moment still, at the resale window, “I can offer you ten dollars.” And realizing, no, and Hell no! These were worth more than that, much more! That amount was an insult to my life, my passion, my good taste! No sir, and good bye! But I would have taken thirty dollars.

My heart breaks.

Now the question of books as objects, as objects of value rises again. Now I am a Buddhist, and now I am mixing my books into the books of my wife. We’ve been married a year (two years if you count the civil ceremony) and been together for three years and only now are we mixing our books. We have done things to each other that defy description and will remain undescribed, you jealous bastards, but until now, the covers of our books have never touched each other with any intimate intent.

(You know how insufferable newlyweds are. Particularly we mid-aged ones. Bear with us.)

And now they must mingle, in full literary and literal congress. Now the most intimate things she owns will touch the most intimate things I own. Although we have been man and wife for a while now, I discovered a new form of intimacy staring down from our bookshelves. It’s not just that her things will touch my things, her ideas will be touching my ideas. It’s that the things touching will be the only truly intimate things we own—and I will repeat that, as I think italics are cheap—intimate things that we own. I have been intimate with these things, these books. I have held them, observed them, been faithful to them for them sum total of their existence. As their Dharma is to be read, I have fulfilled their dharma.

It’s true. This man has the most passionate relationship with his books. Some are one-night stands. Others are long-term, comfortable affairs, appearing on a regular basis on the back of the toilet. Still others are like the high school sweetheart, or the chivalrous knight’s far-off lady: read and pondered at key moments because they changed his life.

I have left coffee and tikka masala stains on some pages and have underlined and highlighted sentences of others; intense caring and happy carelessness have marked them.

(You should see how he has devoured Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization: as my prayerbook says, he has “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” them. And typed up his margin notes and favorite quotes.)

They have not betrayed me as others have, or as I have betrayed others. They are precious to me, free of sin, free of wordly corruption. But they are still things, objects, lifeless chunks of stuff. And Buddha says I should not be attached to such things. But here is my rationalization . . . no, I will be brave. Here is my reason that books—the unculled books, the surviving tomes—are not a violation of the Dharma of the Buddha. They are my rosary. Each book a bead. Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain is the first book in which I underlined passages. It was the start of me as a thinking, judging person. Then, P.G. Wodehouse as a primer for humour. Hunter S. Thompson for passion, The Durants for discipline, Shakespeare for poetry, Brautigan for beauty, Batman for perseverance, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City for subimity, Will Eisner for heroism among the grime of life. Each book is a bead in the rosary, and as it stands on my shelf, I pray through each tome I’ve read by simply looking at the spine. I refresh and remind my soul of the giants who have come before me and bathe in those silent past hours of exultation, quiet communion with people I have never met who wrote words my soul will never forget. So. If I can have a Buddha statue to aid my meditation, then I can have Lizard Music by Daniel M. Pinkwater as an aid to my mental struggle. These are objects. But so am I. If they pass from this earth, as I know they will, as I will, I will not be lessened Attachment? Am I attached? To Mark Twain? To P.G. Wodehouse. To Shakespeare. To Willian and Ariel Durant, to Richard Brautigan, to Hunter S. Thompson? To Alan More? To Kurt Busiek? You bet your ass I am. And Buddha’s okay with that. Because they’re not things, they’re me. And I am more than the sum of my library.

11214028_10100592273156670_944910788126848526_nI love this man.

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Karma and Dharma—Is there room for grace?

This is a direct response to John’s post on Karma and Dharma.

Karma, as John notes, is one of those “easy” Buddhist concepts—and, outside of Buddhism, often misused. There are analogous references to it in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.* Things like “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2) and “But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the bad things, until he has destroyed you from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.” (Joshua 23:15) But there are also challenges to that idea of “what goes around, comes around.” The book of Ecclesiastes is an existential meditation on the world not making the sense we think it should, and the book of Job is the classic, pretty much unresolved/unresolvable, meditation on the inherent unfairness of life. (The Jews and the Christians don’t have a concept of reincarnation, so any analogy to karma is kind of stuck either in this lifetime, or is passed through generations, which, it occurs to me points to what is for me a surprising individualism in Buddhism.)

Dharma could find its analogue in the Jewish law or, more essentially, in the covenant that God makes with the Hebrew people. It is that covenant that defines their being in the world and the expectations laid on them and on their God. I’ll admit, however, that this comparison is a bit of a stretch.

The thing, however, that sticks out for me in the reflections on Karma and Dharma is that I keep longing for Grace. Grace is a term that Christians throw around far too lightly, and it is far more scandalous than we allow it to be. Our instincts say that justice means balancing the scales (and the command “an eye for an eye” is meant to be just that kind of balancing retribution) and that evildoers must get their comeuppance. Grace, however, means that love is always waiting for us, that forgiveness is always possible, that nothing cannot be redeemed. To proclaim this in a world of senseless suffering is scandalous and those who are paying attention should always hear the word with some skepticism. For Christians, this grace proclaimed by a God who knows suffering, by a God who chose suffering, who chose to experience a finite, physical human life, and who paid the consequences of attempting to enact love in a specific time and place. Grace does not mean that we are not accountable; grace does not mean that we do not have to face our sin or denounce injustice; grace does not mean that we don’t have to do any work. Grace simply means that the door is always open, the light is always on, our supper is always ready and, as a profound theological treatise* says, it’s still warm.Maurice Sendak - Where The Wild Things Are-22

**Where the Wile Things Are, Maurice Sendak.

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Revenge of the Dharma

Being a Protestant Buddhist is not easy, but this is par for the course for me. I have chosen the difficult path so many times that, when the going gets easy, I get nervous. Often I have taken the road less travelled out of self-loathing. You see, that path is often less travelled for some damn good reasons. At the time, I did not see it as such. I thought I was being brave, noble, adventurous. I was being an idiot.

A few of those turns were positive choices, made from an honest desire to make me and the world better.

But not enough of them, and my Karma has been tainted by it.

Karma, succinctly defined, is the “sum total of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fates in future existences.” It’s probably the easiest term in Buddhist/Hindu philosophy to understand. It’s commonly used and surprisingly infrequently abused, unlike many other Buddhist concepts such as non-attachment and suffering.

Dharma, though it rhymes wonderfully with karma, is harder to understand. Firstly, the term is often spelled as Dhamma ( the Pali version, as opposed the Sanskrit Dharma). Beyondly, it has several meanings: the state of nature and the world as it is—not people’s own personal feelings about the world but the actual laws of nature that we learned and then forgot in Science class. Also Dharma can refer to the actual teachings of the Buddha to end suffering, which the Buddha said were gleaned from the state of the world and its nature (the first definition of Dharma).

Karma is the shit or shiny of your personal life you have made for yourself. Dharma is the background and stage for where you made the shit or the shiny.

The Buddhist must be true to Dharma, in both of its definitions. We have a duty to be true to the Dharma of the Buddha as well as the Dharma of the world. To not do so, to flout the laws of nature and the teachings of the Buddha, will assuredly lead to unhappiness for yourself and cause you to make others unhappy which creates bad Karma.

I have stored up a pile of bad Karma, and all my present goodness will not vanish it. It will take the same effort to change it as it did to create it. How do I know this? Dharma. Energy is never created or destroyed. This is a law of science. I can change this energy, but the work to do so must equal the work spent to turn the potential energy of good karma into the kinetic energy of bad karma .

Dharma defines the quality of Karma, for either bad or good.

Once again that fat, dead Bastard Buddha was completely and totally right.

There are people, two of them, in my life whom I love and want to love more. There are also two people, who don’t want me to love and who seek to make all things around me, in the most basic and uncolorful term, unpleasant. To confront those who oppose my love is feckless, as they seek confrontation and are adept at manipulating conflict to further hurt those I love. So I am doomed to be patient, and forced to not react as my passion would have me do.

It is the perfect revenge of Dharma.

It is the hardest thing for me to do.

And it is what I deserve.

Acting from passion, from the will of the moment caused me to hurt others, hurt myself and to become blind to my personal Dharma. And now, the only thing I can do to restore good karma in my life is the one thing that I consistently failed at, which earned me bad karma.

There’s a reason the symbol of Buddhism is a wheel.

Karma is a bitch, and so was I. But Dharma is a switch, and I will accept its lashes for it is but pain, and that is far preferable to suffering.

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Why I’m Not a Buddhist

It’s been interesting to discuss the differences between Christianity and Buddhism with John. As much respect as I have for the Buddhist path and for those who walk it, it’s not for me. While the conquering of ego is part of the Christian tradition (and, in my mind, of pretty much any religion tradition worth its salt), I need to begin with the reality of the individual and of a personal God. For me it is by going down deep into God’s very being as Love (one of the reasons the relational nature of the Trinity is so compelling to me) and into God’s love for me that I find the strength and courage to look at the ways that my ego gets in the way, tempts me to sin*, and separates me both from God and my neighbor (and even, paradoxically perhaps, my best self).

It has been essential for me to spend time in God’s love: God’s delight in my existence, the fact that God not only loves me, but LIKES me. This was a crucial part of doing the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises this past year. My students hear me preach about this all the time: we are beloved, unstintingly, irrevocably, joyfully. Only by trusting that love do I then feel strong enough to face down my demons: the ones that tell me I’m lazy or prideful or worthless or too awkward or unwelcome. Only by hearing God’s voice chuckle at my foibles—that laugh that is full of forgiveness and patience—can I know that it is possible face down my sin, that I can look into my own abysses and not die of shame or fear.

My individual self and God’s unfathomable personal nature** are essential to my ability to live and thrive in this marvelous and horrifying world. And yet, there are echos of John’s path in my own, particularly in Jesus’ call to die to self and in the strange, circular language Jesus uses in the Gospel of John (“[B]ecause I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:19b-20). I love that the paths are so close that they call out to each other, yet will never be the same path.

*Sin is one of those baggage-laden words and a concept I think is crucial. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that one before long.

(**I mean, really, the idea that the force behind this infinite cosmos—and the multiverses we now suspect exist—interacts with me individually and uniquely is kind of ridiculous, if you really, REALLY think about it.)

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