THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS AND ANOTHER THING Spiritual Responses to Hard Things May 29, 2022





Spiritual Responses to Hard Things

James Ishmael Ford

Delivered on the 29th of May, 2022

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach

Stop the war raging across the river.”

“Miscellaneous Koans,” Empty Moon Zen

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. It’s meant to be a time to pause and reflect and give thanks for those who have died in defense of our republic. That died part is often lost among the barbecues, in our corner of the world perhaps going to the beach, and shopping. Lots of businesses traditionally have sales for the “holiday.” A few people recalling that dying part, will be visiting graves.

Nowhere is this supposed to be a memorial for kids being murdered in their classroom.

And, yet. Here we are.

I will spare you the litany of mass shootings and how they keep piling, one horror upon another. Only noting it was barely two weeks ago in Buffalo when there was a racist mass murder. For the moment let me hold up two things. First. We are awash in guns. I believe we’ve crossed the line where there are now more guns in private hands in this country than people. And second, and perhaps more critically, we are a culture awash in violence. This second thing is a deep problem. As H Rap Brown famously reminded us, “violence is as American as cherry pie.”

Here’s a terrible truth. We’re not going to address these two things collectively any time soon. Actually, I watch all this play out and fear we may well be in a transition moment. Perhaps this is a third thing, a profound problem, where the convulsions of a culture are running up to some kind of reset. Of course, what reset will we get? It’s a game of roulette. Actually, it’s a game of Russian roulette. My fervent prayer is that we are not in a replay of the Weimar Republic, our own little rhyme within the cycles of modern history.

In the moment the best we can get from the collective of our national government is “thoughts and prayers.” From those of us watching helplessly as this goes on, “thoughts and prayers” have become bitter things. However. I don’t disdain these things. The catch is what are thoughts and prayers, really? We see that they can be noises, a small bit of public performance, a pause before turning away. That’s what’s repulsive.

But there is something else that happens, or can, with what we speak of thoughts and prayers. Thoughts can be stopping to think, a good thing. And prayer is a pause where we see the longing of our hearts. Another good thing. Thoughts and prayers at their best become a pregnant moment where things might change.

Let me tell you a story. It happened some years ago on a weekday when I was serving our congregation in Providence. I almost always kept my office door open. So, no surprise when I looked up from my computer where I’d been pounding away at my newsletter column to see the church’s bookkeeper, Walter, leaning in through the door waving his hand at me.

“James,” he said. “There’s a call for you.”

I asked, “Who is it, Walter?”

He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. Walter is a numbers guy, something he excels at, a critical member of the team. Phone answering, however, was not his strong suit. “He asked for Pastor Ford.”

Well, that told me something. If they ask for the pastor or the father, I know I’m about to be asked for money. Pastor is rarely used within UU churches. Well, a few, mostly in New England. But when titles are involved, its mostly “Reverend.” When asked for by name, well, it still can be about money, times really are hard. And churches are right there on the last resort list. Those conversations can be difficult, particularly as we have so little money to give. Still, having some version of that conversation once every week or so comes with the territory. And it certainly keeps me in touch with reality.

But this was a bit different. With my name involved a call from an unknown party can also be about other things. Or, at least, so I hoped. I thanked Walter, turned back to the phone, picked it up, and said, “James here.”

The person on the other end of the line introduced himself. Let’s say his name was Donald. He said he read my blog. So, I immediately assumed he was a discerning sort. He then said he was hoping to swing by and talk a little. Nothing unusual here, people hear about us, and want to know a bit more. I said, sure, I have some time tomorrow. Would that work? He apologized and said he’s shipping out to Iraq and will be on a plane that morning.

Iraq. We were still fighting there. I replied that if he could get here in the next forty-five minutes or so, I could give him an hour. After that I had appointments stacked pretty much into the evening, when I would be attending a committee meeting. Donald said he was staying with his girlfriend at Brown University, and how he could easily be there in a fifteen-minute walk.

I explained where to look for the complex of offices in our Parish House, hung up and signed off my computer. When Donald arrived, I figured he was eighteen or nineteen. He was thin and didn’t look military, or rather, wouldn’t have except for the close-cropped horseshoe of hair on an otherwise shaved head, telegraphing to me he was probably a Marine. Although I don’t think we ever actually discussed which branch of the service he was in. There was something vaguely distracted in his manner, haunted.

The pleasantries included his explaining he was on leave before returning for a second tour in country. I had to revise my estimation of his age up by a year or two. He then said how he really needed some guidance.

I thought perhaps we were going to be talking about conscientious objection. If he really followed my blog, he’d know that while I’m mostly concerned with spirituality, I also touch on cultural issues. And so, the blog includes more than a little about politics. It doesn’t take reading many posts to know what my opinions are around a number of issues, including my profound concerns with our various military engagements.

Instead, he said, “I have nightmares.” I reset my assumptions and decided to let him lead us where we were going to go. Although first I asked if he was seeing a counselor. He said he was not. And he would not, as it could keep him from returning to Iraq with his company. He was not going to abandon his brothers and sisters. “They’re family.” He said, “But. I’m tired. I want some peace.” He paused. And then added, “I think meditation might help.”

Peace. Two and a half millennia ago the Buddha spoke of our broken hearts, our persisting dis-ease, that sense of anguish which seems to follow human life no matter what we do, no matter who we are. And the Buddha spoke of peace, of a way across to another shore. Since that time, people have been investigating what that shore might look like, what the geography of peace might be, and how we might get there.

There has been a soul sickness marking every human heart since we first began to distinguish ourselves from other creatures. The sickness is one of separation, of loss, and of longing. And there have been many who have responded to this sense, this wound, with a quest for healing.

Young Donald was just the latest pilgrim launched on that quest.

“Meditation might help,” I responded. “I’m sure it will. But, talking with someone can help, as well. Particularly if you’re having nightmares. Maybe a therapist. Want to start there?” I waited. Turned out not really. I shrugged. I hope only mentally. We start where we are. As a spiritual director, I’ve learned much of the art, is the art of waiting.

And, of course, this story is old. Much older than the great physician who diagnosed the problem of our broken hearts and prescribed a cure in the eight-fold path. Whatever the circumstances of our lives, somewhere along the way we notice things are not as rosy as perhaps we’d been led to believe they were going to be. We have a bad relationship. Health issues. Hating one’s job. Boredom.

Or worse things, there are worse things. Our middle classes, at least the white middle class, have a degree of insulation from those worst things. So, witnessing hunger, grinding poverty or the ravages of war, when they happen, can be devastating. These shootings, these horrific murders, dead children: they break through the most carefully constructed insulation in a very big way. Watching the madness of a culture descending into hell realms is another.

For Donald, it was war. He saw some of the worst of the ugly and the hurt, up front and without any option to ignore it. What precisely, I never knew. What I could be sure of was that the world’s sadness seeped into his dreams. That sadness he called nightmares. For us, fresh from the murder of nineteen nine-and-ten year-olds, perhaps we can touch his hurt.

His response was a longing for peace. And he chose to come to a Unitarian Universalist minister who is also a teacher of Zen meditation. Whatever the reasons, whatever the ideas he brought with him, the currents of his mysterious karma led him into my office, and to have a brief conversation about meditation and peace.

Our English word “peace” derives through Anglo Norman and then wanders back to Latin. It has to do with a pact or a covenant, and means to end hostility, to put an end to war. Works for me. In the Bible the Greek word eirene which means completeness, and the Hebrew shalom, which, among other things means safety or welfare, or even prosperity, are easily translated into peace. These also work for me. In Buddhism the term santi is what we usually find translated into English as peace. Its distant roots appear to mean ceasing to labor, to rest. And, that works for me, as well.

I suspect the constellation of our heart’s longing is somehow putting down our burden, stopping the war, finding that moment when and where all is right. That which completes our hearts. Not a pause in the war, that’s a truce. Peace is its end. When we say peace, we usually are seeking, to use that felicitous line from the King James Bible, a “peace that passes all understanding.” And sometimes, as with Donald at that moment in his life, or for us confronting despair for a nation falling apart, and these endless eruptions of meaningless violence, we’re seeking it urgently. Urgently, like for that man whose hair is on fire, trying to put an end to the pain.

I explained to him as best and briefly as I could what Zen meditation looks like, at least as we begin it. I suggested a couple of books he might read. I gave him one that was on my shelves in the moment. As he left, I gave him my email address and I reminded him it could be a very good idea to talk with someone about those nightmares.

I never heard from him again. But I think about him, and that war, the one in the past, and the ones in our moment’s litany, Ukraine and Palestine-Israel and Afghanistan and Ethiopia to start the list. And that war which rages in our intimate hearts, always. Wars. War. I think about Donald now.

I think about the war raging through our culture, the divisions, and the bad endings for so many. I follow the currents of my heart, and my rage at so many injustices. My despair at watching women’s basic rights begin to be stripped away. At the sword hanging over LGBTQ people at all times. At black and brown people being marginalized and too often killed. I watch the poor just get poorer, while the rich… Well, that list just goes on and on. At the bottom of it, a planet poisoned by our collective actions.

I am bitterly aware that half this country thinks the problem is that “other people” are trying to take what they have away from them. We are very good at creating others to blame. And at this moment those who’ve been put in the “other” position are not taking it. With that, our patchwork republic, our grand experiment in being something other than about blood and soil, is fracturing.

So what to do?

There’s a Zen spiritual exercises where we’re invited into the intimate. It plays with words as an invitation into the deepest corners of our lives. These exercises are called koan, which means public document. They’re about where the rubber hits the road. They’re usually brief. This among the briefest.

Stop the war raging across the river.” Stop the war.

There are three answers that we need to walk through, that we need to find as our own personal truths. I’m going to give them an order. But please understand each is the complete answer from one angle.

The first answer is something terrible. It’s found as we face the war within us. You and me. We need to own the war, the violence. I need to notice the blood racing hot through my heart in response to that terrible thing that happened, each of those terrible things as they’ve happened. Critically, I need to know how I can be the killer. Terence, one time slave and later one of the great playwrights of second century Rome famously told us “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” That. We need to find how we are the war. In truth, we are war. I am war.

The second answer is how all separate things collapse. War and peace are just words, ideas, constructs of how our brains order information. In this universe of swirling things, of endless rising and endless falling, there are no essences or things in themselves There is no good, there is no ill. Not as self-abiding things. There is just a constant play of things rising and falling in constant reconfigurations. We need to see there is no separation. We are in fact one. Actually “one” doesn’t quite capture it. In truth, we are as vast as all the galaxies.

The third answer is discovering how each of us, all those beings arising and falling in the play of the universe are relatives. In a truest of true ways we are family. We are born of each other, sustained by each other, and comforted by each other as we die. In fact, the beings of this world need us. Need you. Need me. If you’ve ever felt love, you know what I mean. This is a true as true can be thing.

Jack Kornfield in his lovely book A Path With Heart, tells us, “To stop the war and come into the present is to discover a greatness of our own heart that can include the happiness of all beings as inseparable from our own. When we let ourselves feel the fear, the discontent, the difficulties we have always avoided, our heart softens. Just as it is a courageous act to face all the difficulties from which we have always run, it is also an act of compassion.”

That. Intimate. Intimate.

Is there more to it? Of course, there is. So much work, both within ourselves and within the larger structures of community. But nothing good will happen without this start.

With that here’s some good news. We see all three of those things: we are the war, we and the wars have no inherent substance but in fact are just the constant reconfigurations of the universe in motion from beginningless time. And. And. For our sakes, and for the sake of everyone we love: We are intimates, each of us with the other, and all of us with the planet.

We need each other. Within the play of life and death, what we do counts. But how? Well, start by seeing into those three truths that only seem unconnected until we pay attention. That’s the path. That’s the quest. That’s the secret that can save us, if we really want it. To deeply, truly, with all our hearts, and minds, and souls, to see how intimate it all is.

Intimate, intimate.

We do this, and we can heal our own hearts. And with that, join in the work of healing the many hurting beings, as well as the planet itself.

Our choice.

Your choice. Mine.

And so, my prayer. May we be wise. May we bring our thoughts and our prayers and that other thing, those other things, directly into the great hurt in service of the great healing.


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