Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Spiral Dance

Dear Friends,

Last week I did not post, because I was away having an extraordinary experience. I have woven that experience into today's sermon, preached at Good Shepherd, Berkeley. Here it is.


Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.

I rarely begin a sermon with a disclaimer. This week I begin with two:

1) Welcome to the week that rocked my world. I’ve had a vision of God and a terrible case of the flu. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

  1. I’m going to say some things very critical of service learning in schools. Please, do not for a minute think that my critique extends to the beautiful mutual ministries of service that happen here at Good Shepherd.

You see, in the world of education, a world based upon achievement and success, few things are as misunderstood as service learning. As as priest, school chaplain and service learning coordinator, I should know. Others expect me to be an expert in goodness. It’s a terrible job. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) 

Educational theory, however, doesn’t like that kind of pause. It likes measurable results. It is far less interested in process than in outcome, and to be a teacher today is to be meddled with in ways you cannot imagine. We’re always having to live up to someone else’s theory.

The theory with which I must deal is that service learning makes us good people. As a Christian, I should rejoice. Does not Jesus in today’s Gospel tell us to serve? That whoever wants to be first must be last and be servant of all?

I wish it could be so simple. In today’s schools, service, like everything else, has become a benchmark of individual achievement. If it takes being last to be first, then, very well, I’ll be last. But the emphasis remains upon being first. In today’s busy schedules, service must be scheduled according to the school day, not offered as needed. And finally, Studies show that students who do regular community service get into better colleges. Indeed, several years ago, a representative from the California State Legislature called me to see whether the state should make Service a graduation requirement for high school. As if we could institutionalize goodness.

In the course of an academic year, I spend a great deal of time reading manuals on how to make children more caring. The amount of ideology I contend with is enough to make anyone’s head spin. The sad part about it is that studies have shown that children are born caring. It is our system that educates it out of them as they are formed for a culture of busyness, competition and achievement, the very things that James and Jesus both warn us against in today’s readings. And this, my friends, is betrayal of all that is best in us.

The life well led, says James in his epistle, is not a matter of achievement, but of “gentleness born of wisdom.” Like a Buddhist, he warns us that craving, that wanting what is outside of us,  will do nothing but get us into trouble. But pick up and recent edition of the New York Times and you will see that if we are not in a state of constant craving, our economy will completely tank, because capitalism depends for its life upon the constant need to have. Again listen to James. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” This would seem just a bit hyperbolic, until I reflect that my country with its economy based on craving, its educational system based, not on awakening children’s innate gifts, but reminding them of their inadequacies, has been at war all over the world for most of my life. 

I remember a children’s moment many years ago in church, when a newly minted priest gathered the children and put them in a line. Everyone wanted to be line leader, so he decided to line them up according to height, with the tallest being first. This engendered all sorts of grumbles and snide remarks. But the moment the line was done, he said, “Turn around.” They did. Then he said, “Jesus says, ‘The first shall be last.’” And, with the littlest child leading the line with a great sense of having been vindicated, he asked the Sunday school teacher to take them away. I was the Sunday School teacher that day, and let me tell you, I had an hour’s worth of resentful and cynical children who felt they had been manipulated by a simple reversal of the status quo. It led to a rather fruitless conversation about feelings, about being “appropriate,” until finally, we could just have snack. Jesus wasn’t seen by these children as in any way a reflection of reality; there was no chance here amid whining kids to do the hard work of compassion; the line was a clever trick to get them out of the sanctuary and make a point to their parents. These were the children of very rich parents. They knew that real success happened not when you are last, but when you misbehave and break all the rules.  

This incident caused me to question a great many things.

Which brings me to what rocked my world. Last weekend I actually met “gentleness born of wisdom.” 

Julia Parker is a California Miwok elder. I believe she is a world changer of the order of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. She has certainly experienced things at the hands of the so called dominant culture. Orphaned at a young age, she and her brothers and sisters were raised by a white family. They went to church. Julia loved church, for, as she said, it was a place of very good stories. Later, she was sent to an Indian boarding school where she was trained to be a domestic servant and told that she could have no aspirations beyond servanthood. No one was ever cruel to her, but neither did anyone know exactly where she fit in. Her stories about learning how to arrange wash on the line so that it would look impressive, the knives and forks that white people seemed to need to simply get through a meal, were very, very funny. But they also filled me with a sense of beauty and awe, of taking the time to make my laundry beautiful, of setting a table for a meal with friends. Where had daily life gone in these oh so anxious times? 

I don’t know what happened to Julia’s career as a servant, for while in boarding school, she met her husband, and the two went off to live in Yosemite. You may have even met her at Yosemite’s Miwok village, where she has made acorn mush and woven beautiful baskets for many, many years.

I found her at Pt. Reyes. I had signed up for the basket making class she taught with her daughter Lucy as part of a program in California Native studies. Although I am not a crafter and indeed, am quite klutzy, I knew that I would never understand anything of California Native Spirituality without baskets, for baskets lie at the heart of California Native Culture. So I went.

“You’ll learn more about yourselves this weekend than you will learn about making baskets,” Julia said at the very beginning. “Be patient. Listen. Wait for us to show you.”

It is not an easy thing to weave a tule basket. No matter how carefully I watched, I just couldn’t get it. I must have started my base ten times. Finally, with at least some kind of start, with the corners put in for me by Lucy, I took myself off to a corner and said, “I’m going to figure this out on my own.” As my little attempt got worse and worse, as I was told, “You don’t have the stitch,” I wandered dejectedly about. I could neither do it right nor take the time to wait to be taught. I wasn’t feeling very good. It turned out I was not the only one.

“This is just not up to my standard,” said one of the other participants, looking at her mess.

“This is not at all the kind of work I usually do,” said another, holding up hers.

“I wonder if that’s the point,” said I, in my usual theoretical way, knowing nothing at all except that we were twenty high achievers out there, and that few of us were achieving much at all.

“You’ll learn more about yourselves this weekend than you will learn about making baskets.”

I returned home exhausted with a clumsy cluster of tules that was supposed to be the base of a basket.

“Good try,” said my mother when I talked to her that evening. “You’ve never been a crafter like your sister. You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to. Think about it.”

I wasn’t sure that not going back was really an option. Could I just throw away all those tules that had been cut just for me? Could I treat the natural world and myself like so much trash? So I went back Sunday morning. The one who did not return was missed. We began our day with prayers and stories in the round house. At one point, looking around at the space which was mostly underground, Julia said, “This place is built real good. It has twelve posts for the twelve storytellers.”

“And who might they be?” someone asked.

“Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, Matthias, Bartholomew, James, Thaddeus, Simon,” she smiled, rattling off the names of the twelve apostles better than most of us. “Good storytellers each and every one.”

Some, I could tell, were a little taken aback by this evocation of Christian tradition in a Miwok round house, just as they were perplexed that one of the reasons baskets were so important was that it was a tule basket that carried the baby Moses down the river, but my heart was full. Julia was weaving. She was weaving not only tule baskets, but the stories of many different people. She was showing us that our little tasks were not just separate tasks, but part of a sacred circle that holds all life, that all that is sacred is one.

When I went back to my basket, my hands knew what to do. I finished. I’ll need to weave many, many more if I am ever to get one that is beautiful, but I have given my little basket to be the holder of my meditation chimes and candle when I sit with the children at school. But that was not the most important thing that happened that weekend. The most important thing that happened was that on the second day, all of us who were there turned away from accomplishing a task, and began to discover one another. What a wonderful, fascinating, heart felt group of people we were! What wonderful stories, loves and works we brought to our shared circle. We began, without thinking, to serve. We were all servants. Wanting to serve the world was what brought us here to learn from wise elders. 

And then I realized something just as important. In a healthy world, work is what brings people together. Work is not just something we do to get money so that we can do what we want. Work is the very fabric of life. We come to give our best. Giving ones best is very hard to do when one is forced to always look over ones shoulder and perform to another’s standard. Giving ones best is hard to do when we are pitted one against the other and live in fear of evaluation. Success, say the basket weavers, will eventually come with practice. But success is not what makes you meaningful.

To engage in conflict, as both Jesus and James teach us this morning, is to reveal that we are out of harmony with the universe. It’s not a bad thing to be angry or envious. Both these things are important teachers. Both tell us we have much to learn, and for me they are a good check in with reality. For the universe is not clashing opposites. The universe is a spiral. Physicists have found that it is only in a spiral galaxy that new stars may be born, that things may evolve. In a spiral there is no place that is the greatest. In a spiral, there is no boss and no slave, no rogue entrepreneur or rule breaking hero. In a spiral is only the dance. 

So dance, my friends. Even as things crumble, dance. And in so doing, make all who are with you your partners. AMEN.


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