Monday, November 9, 2015
“God in the Saving Moment”
Jesus is often portrayed as turning things upside down, a complete spiritual revolutionary. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus criticizes the religious officials of his day for dressing in flowing robes and generally being pretentious. I love it, and look at our flowing robes today—some might say we’re doing the same thing, here in St. Joseph’s. Jesus condemns the religious hypocrisy of his day. Then he contrasts this with the widow who gives everything that she has to the temple treasury. This is the real example of God’s servant, one who gives everything right back to God.
Jesus isn’t actually turning things upside down. But rather, things are turning, round, right side up. In the way God imagines we can be. The widow is right on. What would it look like to turn things the correct way? In your life. How would you know when you got things just right?
The first question I have is about where we’re going. You know, this whole prep school thing, where does it really start and when does it end? Why are you in such a hurry to be out of high school? Or college? When exactly is this golden time that we all seem to be expecting, just around the next corner? At our formal dinners, we often hear how many days there are left for seniors. If we lived our lives correctly, I think the seniors would be sad, and the third form would be overjoyed to hear about the plentiful days until their graduation. Why is it so hard to live in the moment? Oh wait, there’s it’s gone, the moment. Did you live it fully? I didn’t.
There is a wonderful book about the power and potential that is in the moment called The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. This short passage is about the mystery of our being that can be found when we stop rushing past our lives.
“Being is the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death. However, Being is not only beyond but also deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. This means that it is accessible to you now as your own deepest self, your true nature. But don’t seek to grasp it with your mind. Don’t try to understand it. You can only know it when your mind is still. When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally. To regain awareness of Being and to abide in the state of ‘feeling-realization’ is enlightenment.”
Six years ago, I was giving the opening prayer, the benediction, at a dinner for my high school class in Turlock, California. The Turlock Bulldogs, a big old fashioned public school in a small town with football as the crowning glory (and excellent water polo); it was a lifetime ago. The occasion for the dinner was our twenty-fifth year since our graduation. Looking around the room, I reflected on how we were all in a hurry to grow up. Why were we like that? Just like you. Most of us would give quite a lot, maybe everything, to go backward in time; to simply be in the moment, a couple weeks before Thanksgiving break, in the splendor of our youth. Like you are—just now. Maybe, just maybe, I said, we could slow down tonight—and be completely present in the moment. If we did that, if we could find a way, we would be more than young again. We would find it, the source of everything. Somehow I think that’s what God is all about, though I don’t think that’s the word we would use: to describe the wonder of just being.
What does it mean to just be? With no agenda. Do we even know?
In 2010, a documentary about education came out called The Race to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles. She came up with the idea for the documentary as she watched her high achieving daughter actually become physically sick from academic pressure. It’s that real. This movie is about highly motivated kids who are deeply unhappy, even when they get the results, like the right college admission, that they’re looking for. These are not the slackers. The documentary explores the lives and values of teenagers who want to be the very best, but the psychological cost of their striving is presented in this thoughtful and compassionate movie. Whether you are a high honors student or not, you are all responding to pressure, be it academic, athletic, social, or extracurricular. And the toxic cocktail of all of these things is the idea that your college admissions, or rejections, are your measurement of worth as a human being. Why are we racing off to nowhere? Human beings are crazy, totally insane. Animals actually don’t have neuroses. Unless they live with people. Then they start to get a little crazy. Just look at Richie.
I have compassion for all of you racing off to nowhere: because I was once an insane little hamster on the crazy wheel myself. I wasn’t always the Zen master of meditative basketball and sacred hoops, and now vision quest soccer with the lads from thirds. Thirty-one years ago, I was the valedictorian in my class, out of some five hundred plus students. Being the valedictorian was something I decided to be; it didn’t just happen. I didn’t have the same problem with pressure in athletics because I never played, or rarely played, when the game was already decided. Those coaches are all going to hell, by the way. I’d be sent in with eighteen seconds left to play, so I tried to shoot as many times as possible before the horn sounded. Run the offense? I don’t think so. Sometimes I tried to collect random fouls. But, every night, I studied like a demon, with an agenda. I had two objectives: one was to be the very best, to be #1, first in my class. The second was my holy grail, my golden dream: to go to West Point.
Then a terrible thing happened: I got everything I ever wanted. Watch out when this happens to you. I won the race to nowhere. Yay.
Now: West Point is a wonderful place if you like military perfection, people screaming at you, marching all the time, firing automatic weapons with hints of much larger ones to come, and the possibility of live combat some day (whether or not you agree with American foreign policy). You on a conveyor belt to violence, and you don’t even know it. Aside from being unable to take orders, smirking when people yelled at me, and hating regimentation, I loved it at West Point. The uniforms were fantastic, and great with the ladies. But I also had a very important and terrible realization. I wasn’t there for me; I was there for my father. I was living his dream, not mine, and I wasn’t going to get any closer to him by doing it. I was living in an upside down world, and I wasn’t going to get the love I wanted by following his dream. So I did something that was very painful—is painful to this very day, though it’s a deep and good pain because it came with self discovery. My great decision: I dropped out of West Point, and the race to nowhere. I went in search of my authentic self. I quit something really big, and it hurt. It hurt others; it hurt my father. Oh, and by the way, nobody at the twenty-five year reunion seemed to remember, or care, that I was the valedictorian, or that I dropped out of West Point. I felt exactly the same way.
When my dream of being a West Point graduate and an army officer died, a new dream was born—almost instantaneously. It is often when you fail that you find the true terms of your success. That new dream, a new story, would lead me to divinity school and the priesthood; and eventually to you, my home at Kent on the other side of the country from California, and not very far from old West Point, the proud citadel of my lost childhood.
In my first year of divinity school, the dean of my seminary told us something strange and mysterious. He said we should make all of our study into a form of prayer. To make all of our study into a prayer. This idea was the exact opposite of my pre-West Point self. Everything then was an insane competition where a bad grade (like an A-) was an indication of my worth as a human being.
Make your study into a form of prayer.
How can you do this?
Well, here’s a place to start in your thinking. During my first year at Kent, a young man named Jon Geller was diagnosed with bone cancer. He played center for Coach Marble on a team that eventually won the New England Championship. But football was over for Jon in preseason; when his cancer was discovered after he broke his shoulder during practice. Jon had to leave Kent to take a medical leave for chemotherapy treatments at home in Montreal. Jon wasn’t facing college admissions stress anymore, or the nose guard across the line. He was facing the ultimate test that we will all face. And the gritty, determined young man fought his cancer, with every fiber of his being. This is a happy story because Jon went into remission. He returned to Kent; not to be a football player, but to be a student. To be a human being. To just be. In the spring of his senior year, before graduation, Jon spoke in chapel about his journey, back to life as we know it. You could have heard a pin drop in this chapel. At the end of his chapel talk, he gave two Thanksgivings to God. The first will surprise you. Jon said he was grateful for being able to do homework again. To read, to write, to think, to do math problems, to draw, to understand the world around him. Jon had learned how to make studying into a form of prayer. His second Thanksgiving was for friendship. You never know how important your friends are until your life is on the line. Being a friend is one of the most important human vocations. Be kind to each other.
Make your life into a prayer of gratitude, completely in the moment. People will notice something different about you, almost instantly, a change in the air, a wonderful disturbance in the force. This is called peace of mind, the change that comes over you when your authentic self is born. It is God incarnate, but you probably won’t even need to use that word. Being will be enough.
Beyond even approaching your studies with a new heart, make your entire life into a form of prayer. We were made for so much more than the life we’re living.
Let’s give the new a chance to live. To just be, in each of us.