Dr. Rachel Remen tells a story in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom.
“My backyard on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais in Northern California is actually a very small meadow. In the summer and fall of very year a stag visits at dawn and at twilight. This is quite a thing for someone who grew up in Manhattan. This year he has six points on his antlers. Last year five or perhaps four. He is heart-stopping.”
“Actually, I did not plan to have a stag, I planned to have a garden. The year after I moved here, I planted fifteen rosebushes, gifts from my friends. It was a lot of hard work, but I could see it in my mind’s eye. Just like in Sunset magazine. The roses bloomed in the late spring and for a month the garden was glorious. Then the roses started disappearing.”
“Puzzled, I eventually realized that something larger than aphids was eating them and I became determined to catch it in the act. Getting up one dawn and glancing out the window, I was transfixed by seeing the stag for the first time. He looked like an illustration from one of my childhood books. As I watched in awe he unhurriedly crossed the yard, browsed for a while among the roses, and then delicately ate one of my Queen Elizabeths. Every year since then I have had to make a difficult choice. Am I going to put up higher fences and have roses, or am I going to have a stag ten feet from my back door? Ever year so far, I have chose the stag.”
Recently I’ve experienced a similar event here at San Quentin - in this very room. Just about the time the shelter in place began, a bird began to sit on the sill outside my window, not far from where I sit to write, read and watch television. The bird sang loudly when the window was open, so loudly in fact it was as though the bird was actually in the house.
One morning I noticed that the bird was doing more than just singing on the ledge. She was helping herself to my screen, pecking along and gathering pieces in her mouth till she couldn’t gather anymore and then flying away; I assume to drop off what she had collected to her nest, because when she came back, she began all over again. At some point I had to make a choice. was I going to shoo it away and save my screen or was I going to enjoy being only three feet form the bird as she sang on my window filling the house with sound. I chose the bird. And it wasn’t soon before she got what I assume was her husband to help her; and before I knew it- the screen went from a repairable hole to a quarter of the screen. After about a month, they stopped coming around, so I planned on repairing the screen. But then just this week, it started again. This time there were four of them. Eric made me laugh when he imagined that the first bird called his out of town friends and said, you guys should move here, they’re just giving things away for free.
But I’m not giving away the screen for free. I’m making a trade. I’m trading them some of my screen for their beauty and the sounds they make, both of which lift me up, as I imagine the nest they’ve built for their babies, wanting what we all want, which is a home that’s safe and secure.
Rachel Remen continues:
“I had thought I was planting rosebushes in order to have roses. It now seems I was actually planting rosebushes in order to have half an hour of silence with this magical animal every morning and every evening.”
Life is unpredictable.
One day your spouse is healthy, the next the doctor calls to discuss the results of a biopsy.
One day you were going to retire until the market crashed and you now have insufficient funds to keep you afloat.
One day you make it to 85, 90, 97, and then a virus hits that keeps you away from the people you love and you’re left wondering whether your last few years of life will be spent in isolation.
One day you think racism is something that other people have, and the next thing you know your pastor is asking you to educate yourself, and understand how much bigger and deeper it is, and what we can all do to own our part of a bigger system of injustice.
Every time life takes a turn, we are left with a choice. And these past few months, life has certainly taken a turn, multiple turns. And we’re left with a choice. We can cling to our ideas of how it was all supposed to be, or we can open ourselves up to how it can be now, with this new thing that God is unfolding before us. Just like the birds voice that fills the house or the majesty of a buck from a foot away, this period of history has a voice and majesty of its own.
That’s not to say that the the virus that has taken lives or the black men that have been killed are not both horrific events. They are. But what’s being uncovered in the middle of the pandemic and the protests are moments of truth and beauty that gives me hope as it reveals the goodness of our nature as God’s created people - a humanity - which binds us together and creates a unifying voice of truth.
There is plenty that’s wrong around us, like reaching the 100,000 mark of deaths from the virus without a comforting word from our leaders. Or within the Black Lives Matters movement, we can point to the violence and the looting as what’s wrong.
But despite the imperfections of these moments, there’s something bigger happening. God is happening in the middle of these moments in history and we must open ourselves up to the beauty of this new thing God is doing.
Young people are standing up with a unifying voice against policies of racism. Americans, white and black, young and old, across party lines, are coming together and standing up to expose racism that has been with us for centuries. Police officers are taking knees and I’ve even seen videos of officers dancing choreographed dance steps together with protesters. None of which we could have ever imagined, if we only focus on the looting. People are having conversations on social media and Zoom, podcasts and preachers across regions are speaking up to say: we can do better, and we should, together stand up and speak against racism. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Brous, I know us, we’re not racist, we’re good people, were on the right side of history.
But all of us live in a social reality where hatred and fear of black bodies is pervasive. And it’s simply not enough to be not racist when we are beneficiaries of that culture in so many ways. The problem with being not racist is that signifies neutrality. There’s no neutrality in this racism struggle: the opposite of racist isn’t not racist, it’s anti-rascist.
There’s a beauty in the work of discovering our own part in this history and uncovering new ways of seeing and understanding things we weren’t even aware of before the conversation took center stage.
When we can see the truth that is the beauty in this unprecedented time, a time that isn’t at all the way any of us planned, we can also begin to imagine what the world will look like on the other side of this. This is Trinity Sunday. It’s a day that we celebrate the Holy Trinity - God, Christ and spirit - that is to say creator, redeemer and sustainer. That’s a holy imagining. God is still creating, Christ is still redeeming and the spirit is sustaining us through these days and into new creation that we, as co-creators with God, can help to bring to fruition.
The way we create together, the new normal we imagine together, begins, like the Holy Trinity itself, in relationship. God creates within God’s self a relationship of holiness with Christ and with spirit, a community of three in one, for us, so that we might have multiple ways of growing deeper in relationship with God, and with one another.
So where can we begin? Wherever we begin, God has given us a formula. With each step of creating, God steps back to access God’s own creation and sees that it’s good. And God saw that it was good - creation in goodness.
Can we imagine together what is good and right in the mess and choose of what’s happening? Can we imagine, what it will it look like to have more love in the world? This is the question Jesus answered by showing us what love looks like on earth.
Can we imagine spending more time restoring together what’s been broken, instead of shaming one another for what's’ been broken? Can we imagine what it looks like to heal what’s been sick? Can we imagine together what it can look for the generations to come?
This week in my weekly email, I sent out videos and links of things you can learn, and things you can do. But there’s one I missed. That is, to read scripture.
This morning's scripture from the apostle paul gives us a way to practice being in the world the way we want the world to be, saying:
Greet one another with a holy embrace.
Can you imagine with me what that looks like to greet one another with a holy embrace? Can you imagine it from a place of the moral and societal responsibility as co-creators with God?
Theologians love to use the term radical kindness, which is kindness taken to levels that we don’t normally think of.
It means letting go of all the annoyances and assuming that most people are doing just about the best they can in any given moment. It means responding to others with compassion and increasing our awareness of how we see, how we think and how we classify whole groups of people into us and them. It means dismantling our own assumptions and understanding neighbor as more than the nice lady down the street and understanding neighbor as those who are radically different from you.
Practicing radical kindness reminds us that everyone we come across is an embodiment of God’s love whether they realize it or not. And while some might spew hatred, we are to embrace all people with a holy embrace. And while the world may not look as we planned when we imagined our lives today, there is something of truth and beauty before us, waiting to be embraced, as we co-create together the world we imagine for the future.
May it be so.