The whole morning we were full of joy,
my God, how full of joy.
– George Seferis (1900-1971)
George Seferis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963, the first Greek to be so honored. Born in Smyrna in 1900, he studied in Paris, joined the Greek foreign service and retired as ambassador to England. I found him a few weeks ago when my year of reading multi-national literature turned to Greece. In retrospect, my own morning of intense joy and satisfaction was a gift just before a few weeks of intense grief. Those of you reading this blog know I have conducted three funerals in the last few weeks, have listened to church members attending countless others, been to the hospital to visit parishioners in crisis, and have counseled others making end-of-life decisions. I learned last night of another death that has left me reeling.
Grief is simply part of Greece. In “The City” Constantine Cavafy, one of the most important Greek poets in the 20th century, writes of his own culture’s decline as well as it’s restlessness search for fulfillment elsewhere. But,
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
you will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere.
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.
George Seferis, riffing on the Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know Thyself,” inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (above), is well known for writing,
And a soul
if it is to know itself
into its own soul.
But less rarely quoted is the next line of the poem,
the stranger and enemy, we’ve seen him in the mirror.
In “The Meaning of Simplicity,” Yannis Ritson offers of most beautiful description of what I think of as divine sacramental presence, which I will someday bring to our table for the Eucharist:
I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,
you’ll touch what my hand has touched,
our hand-prints will merge.
What a promise!
But my gold standard for reading and studying Greek literature is Anne Carson, who has translated numerous Ancient plays, written one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time (Eros the Bittersweet, according to the Modern Library), and has produced some of the headiest, challenging, poetry on my shelf. For this she has received a truly ridiculous number of prestigious awards.
In the midst of funerals, my entire sabbath one week involved two hours set aside to read her introduction to, and translation of, Euripides Heraklas from the collection Grief Lessons. Small moments snatched for poetry, two hours to read a play, these were sabbath sustenance for a time of grief.
Notes for a sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 31, 2016.
You know the expression, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Do you have, like I do, entire days when you think the world would have been better off silent because it seems you hadn’t heard a kind or generous word from anyone anywhere?
With the exception of the John Kasich trying to address systemic racism in this country, I pretty much had this thought about the last Republican Debate.
I have also had this thought at home a lot this week. You see, I have a fourth grader.
Children and teens of a certain age (I spent years working with adolescents) put a premium on truth rather than kindness. Even if the truth hurts. Especially if a truth hurts. In my last church the youth group developed the habit of saying “ouch” during our weekly discussions when one of the kids voiced an opinion in an unnecessarily harsh way or said something that might better have been left unsaid. we certainly did not shy away from saying important and difficult things, but we became mindful about how we said them.
Our scripture says that truth is something that should set us free – not wound us. The founding documents of the Presbyterian Church say that “truth is in order to goodness.” In other words, the truths we speak should aid and advance our moral and social betterment.
My favorite contemporary writer, who also happens to be President Barak Obama’s favorite writer, is Marylinne Robinson. Many of you have read her novels -the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, Home, and Lila, or her award winning Homecoming. I first discovered her as an essay writer and amateur theologian. I picked up a copy of her The Death of Adam at the little book store in Penn Station when it came out, and still think her essay on Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) and Marguerite of Navarre is the best short, historical introduction to our Reformed Tradition. In her most recent collection, The Giveness of Things, Robinson offers a penetrating look at our contemporary society and analyzes how we got here.
Last Fall, in a series of conversations with President Obama, Marylinne Robinson said the following about our current culture: We seem to believe that the harshest thing we can say must be the most truthful thing we can say; that the most hurtful things we hear are the truth.
What does this mean? It seems we trust the hurtful words more than we do expressions of kindness, forgiveness, grace, or generosity.
I will let you read Robinson for yourself to discover how she thinks we got to this place, but I know in my gut she is right. All week my son has been super sensitive to criticism, hearing criticism even when it is not there. He anticipates hearing that he is somehow wrong, or confirmation of his worst fears about himself. “I can’t do anything right!” he has said all week. “I ruin everything I do, and the lives of everyone around me!”
I know this feeling myself. I can lie in my bed and remember very specific things people have said that have hurt me – things said years ago can still be fresh. But I can lie there for hours trying to remember a particular words of kindness or appreciation that I cannot doubt or dismiss.
Harsh words have a long shelf life. We collect them, store them up, nurse them. We take them out when we are feeling bad because they confirm our bad feelings.
Why do we do this? I know for me it is because harsh words can touch my own doubts and fears and sense of failure.
But why do we think this is the truth, or the most important truth about ourselves?
When I was ordained, the minister who delivered the charge to me gave me a shoe box. He told me that throughout my ministry people would from time to time write me a note say kind things, describe how God had transformed them through my ministry, or recall thank me for my presence at a difficult time. He instructed me to take those cards and put them in the shoe box, because the day would come when I would need to pull them out and read them. A dark day, a down day, a doubt-filled day.
And it’s true.
I want to ask you today, “What do you keep in your box? Have you looked at it lately? How does it make you feel, and what are you capable of doing, when you remember these truths about yourself?”
We just come through a week of grief together as a congregation. Three funerals and seven days, each filled with beautiful truths about Anthony V—, Doris F-G—, and Ligaya G—. I brought my son to the last service, and afterward he said, wouldn’t it be great if, when we came to church, we could all hear people speak about us the way we spoke about Ligaya? Wouldn’t it? [I heard audible affirmations from the congregation]
So let’s do it. During the next five minutes or so, let’s turn to our neighbors and speak words of affirmation, kindness, appreciation to one another, giving thanks to God that we are here together.
Or something like that. I didn’t actually write the sermon. I had had Marylinne’s comment in my back pocket for a while, and had mentioned it to my son a few times during the week. Knowing that I had limited time after a week of funerals, he actually suggested the idea for the sermon and after the last funeral he suggested the idea of gathering in small groups. (I guess he really does listen when I speak, even if he pretends he’s not.) This was well received and appreciated.
Those of you who watch my sabbath practice closely will have noticed that I missed my practice two weeks in a row because I was conducting funeral services. And though I posted a reading update yesterday, I did not actually say I had kept a sabbath day. I did. Though the day included laundry, reading, a bit of worship planning and running errands, my son’s S.T.E.M. Science Fair was the big item of the day.
He worked so hard on this project. For over a month he has been studying the health of the goats that he takes care of as a staff-volunteer at Greenburgh Nature Center. He would read, watch videos, and conduct interviews with goat experts to learn how to assess a goat’s health, and then add this to his regular weekly care regimen. He dictated and then edited a sixteen page report on his process, complete with his choice of photos and put it all together on a display board. He was very proud of his work – as were his mom and I.
He had to present his project to judges, teachers, students and parents during the school day, and again during the evening. Several other kids from the church participated as well. There were a number of very impressive projects across the spectrum of S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) including both experimental and research projects. Though he did not carry home a prize, he has contributed substantially to the care of animals at the Nature Center, and made his boss there proud. Way to go, August. And congratulations to every child who participated and learned through this process.
Our family ended the evening (and my Sabbath) by playing 20 questions over gourmet burgers at the the Westchester Burger Company, around the corner from our apartment.
Chilean poetry is my newest discovery as I continue my year of reading multi-national literature. I had, of course, read Pablo Neruda before, but I have just discovered his teacher, Gabriela Mistral. Mistral was the first Latin American, and the only Latin American woman, to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She should be much better known than she is. Mistral received the award in 1945 “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” I discovered her in my anthology of international poetry and immediately ordered a volume through inter-library loan. It has been a week a brief for the congregation I serve, with three funerals in seven days. In the midst of this grief I read “the footprint”about the fleetingness of life.Mistral has been translated by Ursula Le Guin and published in a dual language collection of Selected Poems. Mistral’s first collection of poetry, Desolation, which is about her grief and desire for a lover who betrayed her for another woman and subsequently committed suicide, was emotionally devastating.
Introducing the collection, Le Guin wrote:
This translation was a labor of love for many years. There is no other voice in poetry like Mistral’s, from the miraculous clarity of her rounds and lullabyes, to the fiery rage of her love poems, to the dark complexity and visionary power of her late work. I hope this book may begin to restore this amazing poet to the recognition she deserves. Most of all I hope it comes to the hands of readers who will love her.
My son loved her onomatopoeia “fluttering butterfly.” Speaking of which, I also found at the library My Name/Me Llamo Gabriela, a children’s book about the poet which I read to my son as a bedtime story two days ago. Gabriela was a teacher, travelled the world, was committed to the rights of children, helped found UNICEF, and shaped education in Latin America. There are several other bi-lingual children’s books listed on amazon, if you would like to introduce this woman to your own children.
Grief was a theme of the Chilean poems I have collected. There is of course Neruda,
Tonight I can write the saddest lines,
a poem about loss wandering lost. I read many of these poems during a snow day last weekend when the whole city was shut inside. As the snow created an unexpected sense of Sabbath, I read Neruda’s “Keeping Still”:
A moment like that would smell sweet,
no hurry, no engines,
all of us at the same time
in need of rest.
I also read Enrique Lihn, whose poem “Torture Chamber” evoked the resentment of a poor person appealing to a rich person: “your alms are my salary” and so on for 60 lines – each describing the interconnectedness, distance, despair and rage that exist within systems of economic apartheid.
Jorge Teillier writes of “The End of the World” as a non-event, which reminded of nothing more than our failing democracy and the current election cycle.
Because of the deaths in my congregation, this week of reading grief everywhere came as a particular gift. And the collection of Mistral poems will have a treasured place on my shelf (when I eventually own it and can mark it up). Hint. Hint. It’s only eight months until my birthday and eleven until Christmas.
OK. So I didn’t really take a sabbath day this week. Worked, actually, all day through my day of rest. However, the blizzard descended today and gave me a day at home after all. Not exactly a day of rest, but a change of rhythm, which is a good substitute.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
Over the past week I did manage to continue reading multi-national literature: this week, Japan. I have been wanting for some time to read something by Haruki Murakami, but could not imagine having the time to read one of his very long novels. By chance, on my way home from a hospital visit on Friday, I stopped at the library and picked up The Strange Library, perhaps the creepiest thing I have read in a long time. It’s really an artfully packaged short story which only took me two cups of coffee to finish, but the surrealist imagery lasted much longer. An award winning, best-selling author both in Japan and internationally, he is often criticized as “not Japanese enough,” whatever that may mean.
I also read a short story by Nagai Tatsuo called “Brief Encounter.” I first read this piece in college and still carry around the anthology in which I found it. In contrast to Murakami, Tatsuo is a traditional Japanese writer, recipient of many national prizes, including the Order of Culture from the Japanese government in 1981. “Brief Encounter” is a story within a story within a circular, framing narrative set in post-war Japan. An ideal text for teaching all manner of literary device.
By another odd chance this week I found myself locked out of my apartment for an hour and a half – I had accidentally left my keys with my wife when she went to a meeting midweek. With nowhere in particular to go, I stepped into Barnes an Nobles, bought a cup of coffee, and read a volume of Japanese Death Poems: Writings by Zen Masters and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Apparently, this is a thing. And has been for at least seven centuries. My favorite was by Dairin Soto, who died in 1568 at the age of eighty-nine:
My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo –
The blade is broken –
A profoundly moving poem as I set about preparing a funeral eulogy for saint who had finally succumbed to prolonged illness. Rounding out, or undergirding, my week was the anthology of international poetry I keep at my bedside, which included work by Mitsuharu Kaneku, Tatsuji Miyoshi, Shunter Tanikawa, and Kazuko Shiraishi.
Stay safe and warm in this winter weather.
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday After Epiphany, January 17, 2016. This was the weekend of MLK Remembrance. Our new children’s choir had their debut singing, “Go Where I Send Thee!”
“Go where I send thee.” That’s the message, isn’t it? The invitation at the heart of scripture. Not just any scripture but all of scripture. To go where God sends us. To figure out what God is doing in the world and get with it.
God said, “Go where I send thee.” And Abram and Sarai went, to a land they had never seen nor even heard of, but to which God led them with the promise of descendants as plentiful as the stars in the night sky.
Sometimes God sends people out into the unknown like that, and other times God sends people back into the well-known.
God said, “Go where I send thee.” And Jacob went, first into exile with his Uncle Laban’s family, but ultimately back home to his own family – to be reconciled with the brother he betrayed, the father he deceived, and the mother with whom he conspired to do both. He was afraid, but God promised, “I will be with you.”
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus is reluctant. He’s at this wedding with his mother. And based on what sounds like a rather churlish reply to his mother’s hint that the wine had run out, he may well have wanted to be somewhere else. Who knows, was the young man getting married to somebody Jesus had eyes for? He’s human remember. Did he have his mind on a grander debut for himself as called-by-God than at some backwater wedding? Certainly this isn’t the spectacular debut he makes in Mark – healing a man with an unclean spirit — or Matthew or Luke – with a galactic birth story!
Jesus’ mother pushes him where he doesn’t want to go. Serving in John’s story as a proxy for God, she instigates the miracle.
Even Jesus, apparently didn’t always want to go where he was being sent.
And isn’t that the human condition? Out of fear, laziness, insecurity, uncertainty, bitterness, pride – we often run headlong away from where God is sending us. Whether it’s Jonah running from Ninevah or the Hebrew people moaning that they want to go back to Egypt rather than forward into the promised land, when things get hard, when times get tough, when we know that following God may not only cost something of us but also of those we love, we’d rather run and lay low than “go.”
This weekend we’re marking the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This past Friday I joined other clergy at an interfaith service and tomorrow Noelle and I will be at the Slater Center’s annual breakfast. Some of you were at the interfaith concert last Sunday afternoon and all of us will have tomorrow to reflect on the significance of Dr. King’s life.
But that job first fell to Professor Benjamin Mays, who gave the eulogy at Dr. King’s funeral just three days after his assassination in Memphis. Mays was President of Morehouse College where Dr. King., received his bachelor’s degree and was the man who introduced King to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Mays and King had an agreement that whichever of them died first, the other would preach the funeral.
Many people, Mays said, believed Martin was ahead of his time. And that is still said today. But Mays insisted,
No! He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time.
And Martin himself had to respond, in a difficult and uncertain time, to that call of God.
It was the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks had just been hauled to the police precinct for her audacity on the bus. And amid the electricity in the air, Dr. King emerged — the man of the hour, a confident new leader who would take on racism and injustice and violence, and surprisingly, in a spirit of confident, public nonviolence.
At least by the outward look of things. Privately, however, he started out as a reluctant prophet. By all means, he would help advance nonviolent change. But to be thrust in the spotlight of national leadership — that was another matter indeed.
On the other hand, an assumption mitigated the pressure. The boycott, assumed everyone — including King — would last but a few days. Symbolic victory achieved, and in short order things put back to normal. The days, however, lengthened out and passed over into weeks and months, and white Montgomery rightly discerned a bona fide economic threat. That’s when the death threats began. Chilling and cutting to the chase: “Call off the boycott or die.” Towards the end, as many as forty such phone calls came in every day. And on one occasion, when the police had hauled him into jail for speeding, in the clutches of the police at last, he imagined himself on the threshold of being lynched. Fear descended like a fog.
It reached an apex late Friday night, January 27, 1956. King slumped home, another long strategy session under his belt, and found Coretta asleep. He paced and knocked about, his nerves still on edge. And presently the phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table.
Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience. He describes it in his book “Stride Toward Freedom.”
“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”
“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.'”
“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
News of the bombing drew a crowd. A mob formed within the hour, all clenched jaws and closed fists. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel nonviolence.
Some eleven years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
This morning I want to know: where’s your kitchen table? Where have you heard God calling you to “go,” to “stand up for justice and for truth,” and promising to be with you? If you say, oh no, not me, I’m not… stop it right there. If there’s one thing we learn both from God and from Martin Luther King, Jr. it is that each one of us is a person of dignity, endowed with gifts and the capacity for love greater than we can possibly imagine; that every one of us is of value to God and also to the good of humankind. So if you are saying right now, oh no, not me pastor, stop. Stop and listen. Let this ordinary sanctuary on a Sunday morning be a place to open yourself, to listen for God’s call.
During King’s funeral, Dr. Mays reflected, “Too bad, you say, that Martin Luther King Jr., died so young.” I feel that way too. But, as I have said many times before, it isn’t how long one lives, but how well. It’s what one accomplishes for [humankind] that matters.” [repeat]
This morning, are we ready to live well? Are we ready to live so that humankind is bettered by our having walked this earth? Are we ready to stand up, like Dr. King, for justice and for truth? Are we ready to stand with the strength of love and walk together, trusting our God who makes a way where there is no way? Children, God encourages, go where I send thee.
 For a brief commentary, see Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Gospel of John” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary edited by Brian Blount, et al. (Fortress, 2007).
 Benjamin Elijah Mays, “Eulogy for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 9, 1968).” In Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 – Present, edited by Martha Simmons and Frank Thomas. (Norton, 2010). p. 562-569.
 The God at Dr. King’s Kitchen Table, John Dear, Jan. 16, 2007, http://www.fatherjohndear.org/NCR_Articles/Jan16_07.html
For five years I have left a record of my weekly sabbath practice: reflections on life, literature, long walks in the woods. It is my way of staying accountable for using a day of rest to restore and re-create myself. These posts wander from the mundane (doing laundry and taking naps) to profound and inspiring (wild nature observed or words that inspired me).
My day today was spent reading, writing, walking, thinking. I had coffee, conversation, listened to music, and visited the library. It was not a perfect day – but full nevertheless. The afternoon involved a trip to the nature center with Noelle and August to visit the goats, and to watch August work on his science fair project.
The first thing I did this morning was finish reading American Hunger by Richard Wright. I had read the first part of this novel, published as Black Boy, more than thirty years ago when I was in high school. Page by page, as I read the novel this week, I remembered my first reading. From the opening scene of setting the house on fire, to selling papers for the klan, to the great migration and struggle to find work in Chicago – the book left deep impressions on me.
If the first part was memorable, the second was profound. It details Wright’s involvement in and disillusionment with the American Communist Party. Written in 1946, his trenchant examination of White America remains a challenge and an open question.
It was in the psychological distance that separated the races that the deepest meaning of the problem of the Negro lay for me. For these poor, ignorant whites to have understood my life would have meant nothing short of a vast revolution in theirs. And I was convinced that what they needed to make them complete and grown-up in their living was the inclusion in their personalities of a knowledge of lives such as I lived and suffered continuedly.
As I, in memory, think back now upon those girls and their lives I feel that for white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher America than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shallow, her national character to superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally the Negro represents a paradox: though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. If the nation ever finds itself examining its real relation to the Negro, it will find itself doing infinitely more than that; for the anti-Negro attitude of whites represents but a tiny part – though a symbolically significant one – of the moral attitude of the nation. Our too–young and too–new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self–draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character! And I really do not think that America, adolescent and cocksure, a stranger to suffering and travail, an enemy of passion and sacrifice, is ready to probe into its most fundamental beliefs.
Are we ready now?
The passage can be found on page 249 of the Library of America edition, Richard Wright: Later Works. I share it for its prophetic power and because I found much to reflect on. Perhaps you will too.