Sacred Doing

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us three famous parables about what the end of time is going to be like—The Ten Virgins, The Talents, The Sheep and Goats—and I was asked to preach on the third of these on December 31st, the last Sunday of 2017, under the title “Sacred Doing.”  Our church often wants me to speak on topics having to do with social change and social action—partly, I suppose, because of me teaching social change and my ties to Emmanuel House—but here I took an approach different from the change-the-world message that’s usually associated with social action.

Matt25_40The VIDEO below presents the whole sermon, which, after the usual opening jokes and other remarks, begins looking at Matthew 25, starting with verse 31, and especially in verse 37, where “the righteous” ask when it was they ever saw God hungry, thirsty, a stranger, without clothing, sick, or in prison and reached out to satisfy the need for food, water, welcoming, and visiting. God replies with some of the most famous words in the Bible: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Christians often make a point of saying that what they do, they do “in God’s name,” “in Jesus’ name,” but what struck me most about the exchange above is that “the righteous” had no idea they were doing what they did in anybody’s name, least of all—it seems—that they were doing this to God or for God.  Thus, my main point:  In “sacred doing” there’s a lot of unconsciousness, a lot of unawareness of what you’re doing.  You just do.  You flow.

I wanted to explore, briefly, three aspects of “sacred doing:” practicing to do, relaxing when you do, and detaching when you do.  I turned to Dallas Willard’s list of 15 practices he writes about in The Spirit of the Disciplines to suggest what Christians—or anyone, really—might practice to get ready for “sacred doing.”  But after practice, when you’re in the game itself, so to speak, it’s most important, then, to relax.  The worst thing an athlete, a musical performer, a performer—a doer—of any kind can do is to think too much.  You’ve practiced and practiced.  Now you just need to flow.  That non-thinking flow characterizes sacred doing, it seems to me, as does the third thing I wanted to explore: detaching.  Detaching from what?  Winning, for one thing, or making that shot, getting that hit, playing that piece perfectly.  In the Chuang Tzu there’s this famous poem: “When an archer is shooting for nothing / He has all his skill. / If he shoots for a brass buckle / He is already nervous. / If he shoots for a prize of gold / He goes blind / Or sees two targets— / He is out of his mind! / His skill has not changed. But the prize / Divides him. He cares. / He thinks more of winning / Than of shooting— / And the need to win / Drains him of power.”

SacredDoingBut there’s an even deeper reason to relax and just flow, and I approached this through the concept of detaching from time.  We’re creatures of time.  Things happen to us in time.  But the very notion of God suggests there’s also a realm out of time, an eternal realm where there isn’t any time.  If we’ve ever been so absorbed in something that time seems to stand still, or we’ve simply lost track of time altogether, then we’ve touched timelessness in very real ways.  From the point of view of time, we’re weak, struggling, imperfect creatures—sinful, if you will—but if we accept God, then from the point of view of eternity we’re already perfect, we’ve already arrived. That’s why, ultimately, you can detach from winning: you’ve already won.  And, ultimately, you didn’t have do anything to win. God did this for you.  In a very real sense, “sacred doing” means realizing that something outside us is doing for us.

The sermon fleshes all this out. I hope you enjoy it.

Posted in Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Rhythm of Rage

Stephon Clark was the father of two. Only the top part of this picture has been shown in most news stories, prompting some to question, again, how we choose to represent black people.

Stephon Clark was the father of two. Only the top part of this picture has been shown in most news stories, prompting some to question, again, how we choose to represent black people.

I honestly don’t know what’s prompted me to write this comment on the shooting death of Stephon Clark.  I have mentioned Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, etc. etc. in other writing, but only Martin was the subject of a full piece.  Perhaps it’s because I was getting ready to travel to California when on March 18, 2018, two police officers fired 20 rounds at Clark as he stood in his grandmother’s back yard in Sacramento, California, his cell phone in one hand.  A week later hundreds of protestors, led by Stephon’s brother Stevonte, disrupted a Sacramento City Council meeting, holding up their cell phones and shouting, “Does this look like a gun?”

In a March 28th phone interview with the Washington Post, Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg said, “There is deep pain and anguish.  It’s our job to bear some of that pain, and to help translate the anguish and grieving and the historic pain [of black communities] into tangible and real change.”  Fine sentiments, I suppose, though at the council meeting Stephon’s brother chided the mayor for, among other things, sitting there with an impassive face, as if nothing had happened.











Stevonte was anything but impassive.  Yet one of the things that has struck me about his demeanor is an almost robotic, staccato rhythm to his motions, especially pronounced as he stood beside Rev. Al Sharpton—jabbing his hands at himself, then at the crowd—as Sharpton spoke at his brother’s funeral.  I know where those rhythms come from.  They come from explosions of rage and overwhelming frustration.  Observe a parent, for example, who’s had to tell a child for the umpteenth time to do, or not to do, this or that, or someone who’s in an argument he’s had with someone a hundred times before and is having again, always back at square one, no progress in sight. “What’s your problem?!  How many times do I have to tell you?!”  You jab the air, you flap your arms, become almost clownish, trying to fight the feeling that no hears you or ever has, no one actually cares that you’re human. There’s terror in that and in that robotic rhythm.

Stevonte-MayorSometimes you’re met with sentiments like “translate the anguish and grieving and historic pain”—blah, blah, blah.  I’m not suggesting that Mayor Steinberg was insincere, just that he doesn’t get it, as shown when, in the Post interview, he cites as one of the serious flaws in the situation the fact that the police officers apparently didn’t identify themselves as police officers!  As if that would have made things so much better!  In my favorite Toni Morrison book, Song of Solomon, there’s a scene where several black men are sitting around discussing the possible motives of Winnie Ruth Judd’s famous, mad crimes.  They’re sometimes joking about what they might be:

“Amid the jokes, however, was a streak of unspoken terror. The police said there had been a witness who thought he saw a ‘bushy-haired Negro’ running from the schoolyard where the body was found…Each man in that room knew he was subject to being picked up as he walked the street and whatever proof of who he was and where he was at the time of the murder, he’d have a very uncomfortable time being questioned.”  In Stephon Clark’s case there were reports of someone breaking into cars.  There have already been statements—most prominently by California gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen—saying that the whole thing was Clark’s fault because it was clearly him doing damage and the shooting had nothing to do with the color of his skin.  Being riddled by bullets for breaking into cars is in any case still wrong, monumentally, unconstitutionally so.  Nor do I hold the police solely to blame.  The police are most often, I believe, doing the job a particular community wants them to do, and they take on and act out the same fears that community has.  We need to dig deeper and investigate not just the police, but the underlying fears and falsehoods our society still holds about black people.  Allen’s accusation isn’t proven, but his assertion about color being no factor has been proven false over and over and over and over and over again.  That over and over and over rhythm.  Even if it went on, robotically, forever, it feels like it would never be enough and never cause anything to change anyway.

Read about James Baldwin on “The rage of the disesteemed.”

Posted in Reviews & Commentary | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mandala Making on the Web

In the 2014 excerpt from my journal “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain,” I commented on the Buddhist ritual of sand mandalas as a symbol of the beauty and impermanence of life.  After days of patiently using colored sand to build the mandala’s elaborate shapes, the whole thing is brushed away almost as soon as it’s completed, the sand ceremonially given away, or dumped into a nearby river.  In late February this year, an email from the East-West Center at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, reminded me of mandalas again.


For a week, starting February 25, 2018, Bhutanese monks constructed a mandala at Manoa, and Honolulu Civil Beat did a live “mandala cam,” which you can view HERE.  After a short explanation, you’ll be presented with a series of videos.  I think the shortest one is just under two hours.  Most of them are well over two hours, some over four.  Sometimes monks use small, conical funnels filled with different colored sands, patiently tapping the funnels with small sticks to sift the sand out onto the template they have carefully drawn.  The Bhutanese monks at Manoa just used their hands, dropping pinch-fulls of sand precisely.  Hour by hour by hour color and beauty emerge.

Mandala3The Bhutanese Buddhist ritual at Manoa seems a fairly quiet affair, while at other mandala builds there’s more music, chanting, and general hubbub—especially when onlookers flood the scene, peering over the monks’ shoulders while cameras click and flash and roll, capturing the mandala’s emergence.  It’s a gradualism, like a flower opening—only more slowly—and most onlookers don’t stay very long.  Or look at real-time videos very long either.  So in addition to the two and four hour videos on the Honolulu Civil Beat site, there’s also what seems to have become the obligatory time lapse video, a wondrous sight, amazing in its own way, but also, it seems to me, fundamentally opposed to the long patience of building the mandala and then brushing it away.

But who has the patience, or time, these days.  So here are some recommended short videos—most are time lapses—on the sand mandala ritual.


  The image above comes from the Asheville, North Carolina, Urban Dharma mandala event. Watch a time lapse of it HERE.  The video includes an important note about the mandala’s meaning.  Though these notes dismiss the idea of impermanence—a mistake, I think—they add that the mandala is also meant as a container of blessing.  Not only during construction, but for days—even weeks—before its construction, chants and prayers are read in preparation.  These imbue each grain of sand with messages and hopes which, when the mandala is brushed away and ceremonially dumped into a river, find their way to the ocean and onto shores all over the world.

  As for that dismantling and brushing away, here’s a video of that, which comes from the Blanton Museum event in Austin, Texas.  Photographer Brian Birzer writes about the event and posts great photos of it HERE.

  And finally, for now, two more time lapses, the first showing the creation of the Kalachakra Mandala at the University of Arts, Philadelphia, PA.   The second video from the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, Texas, features—besides some of the finest details of mandala making—some of the music that sometimes accompanies the art.

Until we find the patience and depth very partially conveyed by the long videos provided by Honolulu Civil Beat, these time lapses aren’t a bad place to start.

Posted in Diversity & Multiculturalism, Faith | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment