All of us have moments when life is wonderful and inviting, magnetic with promise. But, of course, there is also the other foot, life of trouble and pain. How do we move from one to the other? What drives us onward, even in the worst of times, to get up and keep going or perhaps if life is really bad, to even just live. This New Year’s I want you to promise to keep living and striving onward.
Life itself keeps us going. When we were born we had little choice in the matter. We were pushed into existence. Life lives us. Something drives us. Call it spirit, will, or fate, we are moving forward because we must move forward, as if some unseen hand - perhaps God? – wants us to go on. Sometimes it is even an obsession. I am reminded of the farm family who had to climb on top of their home to escape the coming flood. “Where’s grandpa?” asked one of the children. There was a straw hat floating around the water in front of the house. Grandma replied “Grandpa said he was going to cut the grass today, come hell or high water!”
Baring high water, hell is a very real problem for most of us who want to get on with our lives but we don’t know how. Not the hell of the afterlife but the hell of the present. Just recently someone outside of our congregation told me that her mother had died, her husband left her and she had been diagnosed with cancer! What do we say to that? Gee, I’m sorry? Some days it really does rain frogs; borrowing a wonderful metaphor from the plagues of Egypt in the Hebrew Bible. And then what? What do you do? Come on, you all know the answer. You get up and start again. Driven still by the promise that today is a new beginning.
Twenty five years ago when my religious life began in earnest, I thought I would change the world. As I finished my graduate training I thought “well, at least I can change the congregation I serve.” After putting a few churches behind me, I thought, “O.K. at least I can change a few lives.” Now I say, perhaps with a bit too much cynicism “At least I will change myself.”
I met Tan, my Buddhist teacher almost 25 years ago during a retreat. My life was more of a mess than it is now. I learned to “sit” from Tan. Not sitting in the sense of putting my posterior down on a chair. But cross-legged, on a cushion, quieting the mind, save for my breath. It wasn’t easy. The Buddhists say that the mind is like a drunken monkey on a hot tin roof. Always filling up with new ideas. After the second day, my legs were cramped, my behind sore and I was really wondering what in the world I was doing there. And I was getting really tired of Tan barking at me to sit up straight. Finally, I snapped. “Stop yelling at me.” Tan dismissed the group and then sat down across from me not saying a word. My temper had once again made me a fool. I was regretting the moment immensely. Finally, in a whisper he said “Your life is a mess. All life is a mess. Sitting for half an hour a day may be the best it gets; like a new beginning in the midst of a continual journey. You think I don’t know how to sit? When I was in Vietnam, the Vietcong came to our village. They raped the women, and shot the old men. My mother and father disappeared. Only my grandmother survived holding me in her lap inside of a large basket. We survived because she had taught me to be very still – to sit. We sat for our lives. My grandmother brought me to a monastery and they took me. I was scared and angry. It took me 30 years to learn to let go of the images of that day in the village. Each day I reminded myself, today is a new beginning. Sit and be with this day. Keep that promise.” He stopped, he closed his eyes. I closed mine. And a new beginning was before me.
My 2012 be the year of keeping the promises which truly matter.
With Grace and Grit, John