For most of my 20’s, I tried to deny where I was from. Or rather, I tried to deny that I was like everyone else in the town where I grew up. That I was different; and if truth be told, better.
I was raised in a suburb of Minneapolis called Edina. By and large, I had a lovely childhood. When I was young, we lived on the rural edge of the developing part of town. By the time I graduated, Edina had developed into a rising, wealthy suburb. But, what set it apart wasn’t its wealth. It did enjoy what wealth provided – be it the homes, the school, or the high school sports teams. What distinguished it, however, was attitude. For several years, the cheer for the state champion high school hockey team was, “Edina, the team you love to hate.” Another year, fans displayed buttons at the state tournament that read, “Cake for breakfast, cake for lunch, cake for dinner, cake for brunch.” This wasn’t a sarcastic slogan from another school – that was the rich taking on a jeering cheer as their own. With confidence and arrogance.
Into my young adulthood, if someone asked me where I was from and I told them “Edina,” – there would be a subtle or not so subtle eye roll. Every time. Without fail. The town they loved to hate.
And so, as I moved to the inner city to join an urban ministry in a racially diverse church, I simply didn’t tell people where I was from. I tried to distance myself from those roots. I wanted to be from south Minneapolis, or Vermont, or somewhere else simpler that felt more ‘authentic’ to me. I associated being ‘from’ a place as being the stereotype of the place. I wanted to control the direction of an introductory conversation and the way I figured out how to do that was to deny a big part of myself.
Even when we moved from California to Madison when I was forty, I got some of the same eye rolls. By that time – having lived in many places since my youth, and hopefully matured a bit – I finally said to myself, ‘what someone else thinks of where I’m from is not for me to control, or frankly, care too much about.’ Maturity, for me, meant coming to accept these roots as part of who I am. Part of the soil of my faith, my commitments, and my awareness in the world. Part of my gift, part of my challenge, part of the imperfect lens through which I experienced the world. I came to understand that my roots were influencing me in large and small ways. I was trying to own my background and engage in some honest reflection about it in order to understand myself better.
In this spring series of considering voices on the margins of our Christian tradition and even outside it, we turn to words from Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh today. Many of you know I had the opportunity to attend a retreat with Thay, as he is known, in the fall of 2011. It was a week long, mostly silent, and powerful experience. I sought out the retreat for a couple of reasons. First, I thought time in extended silence would be good for my soul. But, secondly, I was more and more aware how many in this congregation and in our progressive tradition in general were exploring Buddhism, mindfulness or sitting meditation practices of some sort.
I loved the dedication of the participants. I enjoyed the hours of silence every day. I looked forward to Thay’s dharma teachings. I grew more comfortable with the long periods of meditation. (I did not enjoy the food or the dust). Thay’s simple but deep words were clearly geared towards an audience of people steeped in western spirituality. He spoke of the Buddha within and the Christ within interchangeably; he spoke of the kingdom of God and joked about the Pope. A week after our experience, he led a similar retreat for Vietnamese people. I wondered how he would frame his words with them.
As the week went on, I experienced an interesting tension. It had to do with the role of one’s religious background in this new spiritual path. Most of the group had roots in the Judeo-Christian traditions – Jewish, Catholic and Protestant. From some of them, I learned about the idea of ‘double belonging.’ A Catholic priest spoke of how he integrated Buddhist practice into his Catholic ministry. A small group of Jews offered a Buddhist shaped Shabbat service on the Friday night of the retreat. These folks spoke of the power of having their spiritual ‘feet’ in both religious streams. More than ‘learning from’ another tradition, they were increasingly identifying themselves and their spiritual practices as both Buddhist and Christian or Buddhist and Jewish.
Thay has written, “How can (our spiritual) practice generate the true energy of love, of compassion, of understanding?…Buddha and Jesus are two brothers who have to help each other. Buddhism does need help. Christianity does need help, not for the sake of Buddhism, not for the sake of Christianity, for the sake of humankind and for the sake of other species on Earth…We live in a time when destruction is everywhere and many are on the verge of despair. That is why Buddha should be helped. That is why Jesus should be helped…Their meeting is the hope for the world. (p.200, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers)
It reminds of something poet Naomi Shihab Nye said in light of her immigrant father. “My father felt like a wanderer, like he was always wandering around. And I’ve always felt like a wanderer, that we have so many places we could explore and learn about… But as you participate and develop relationships in all these places, you begin to ‘claim it,’ as a kind of global passport. Recently, she said, I met a young woman in Kuwait on Skype. She was saying that she was Palestinian; but had never been to Palestine. She was born in Jordan; but had never seen Jordan. She was taken to Kuwait as a baby and raised in Kuwait, and now she was a college senior. And she said, “And I don’t belong to any of these places, and I feel so adrift. And I’m not accepted in any of these places.” And Shihab Nye said, “My hope for you would be that you could find a way to live, a way to be, a voice to use, where you feel at home in all of them.” (OnBeing)
Spiritually speaking – many of us are like this young woman – looking for a place to call home. Looking for a place to belong. Feeling disenchanted or disconnected. Therefore, tapping into new traditions and new practices is a way to explore new belonging. For the sake of love, compassion and the future of the world. This is as it should be and it is a strong trait in our progressive tradition.
But the other side of the tension at that 2011 retreat consisted of people who spoke very painfully and negatively and even angrily of their spiritual roots. They sought to distance themselves from all that they had learned as children. As they embraced this new Buddhist practice and tradition, they also offered a clear critique of their ancestral tradition.
Thay was just as forceful about on this side of the tension as well. He continually cautioned disenchanted American Christians from running too quickly from their roots. He challenged us to explore the deep roots of our native faith; suggesting without this depth, we would be of little use to either tradition.
“If you were born in the West there is a big chance you are a child of Jesus and that you have Jesus as your ancestor. You may not consider yourself a Christian, but that does not prevent Jesus from being one of your spiritual ancestors…your (ancestors) transmitted to you the seed, the energy, the love and the insight of Jesus.
If you are rooted (and only if you are rooted) in your own culture, (only then will you ) have a chance to touch deeply and come rooted in another culture as well. This is very important. (Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, p. 189)
“Is it possible to forget all your roots to become something completely different? The answer is no.”(p.182) (There are many) Americans who bear … wounds and desires…they want nothing to do with their family, their church, their society, and their culture. They want to become something else…Have they succeeded in leaving everything behind in order to become something completely new? The answer is no.”
When these people come (to retreats, they) are wandering or hungry souls… They are hungry for something beautiful to believe in, for something good to believe in…They want to leave behind everything that belongs to their (past faith)…My tendency is to tell them that a person without roots cannot be a happy person. You have to go back to your family. You have to go back to your culture. You have to go back to your church…A tree without roots cannot survive. A person without roots cannot survive either. (p. 183).
Appreciating our own roots can be complicated. Padraig Ó Tuama, Irish author and peaceworker, notes that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus also reveals dubious connections and stories hidden within wild stories. There is Abraham, who thought of killing his first born; Judah the the father of Perez, the younger of twins, whose mother had once been Judah’s daughter in law. There is Ruth from Moab, people long despised. And of course David the shepherd lad, ill considered as a potential king; who later demanded Bathsheba’s body and the life of her husband.
“Bruised generations,” Ó Tuama says. “To honor the lives lived – especially those lives that, while lived, were hated, is a testimony to truth and an understanding of the capacity of shame and scapegoating. It is convenient to tell stories of the past that create a strong distinction between good and evil…but to be born is to be born into a story of possibility, a story of failure, a story of imagination and the failure of imagination. To be born is to be born with the possibility of courage.” Courage and strength from the depth of our bruises and our beauty. (Padraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter, p.49-50)
“Honoring” or “Going Back.” How we understand these ideas is the key. In family systems work, it means to stay connected; to stay in touch with that part of me that has emerged from my past. Sometimes, we can be in conversation and relationship while maintaining our own differentiation. We can stay in touch with the stories and meanings and truths that emerged – both positive and painful – because without a consciousness about how they have both shaped us and continue to live in us – we are prone to feeling lost and uncertain in any new place. Sometimes we can only revisit our feelings of homelessness or cut off – due to estrangement or adoption or other mysteries in our biological and emotional family tree. Honoring, in these cases, may be more focused on staying connected with how that sense of loss lives in us, even today. How it shapes and guides our desire to be people of compassion and grace – for others and the whole world.
Wherever our pilgrimage of faith leads us, this work of engaging our spiritual ancestry is a life’s work. And it is work only we can do.
From my wealthy background, I inherited a sense that anything was possible, that I was worthy of any task I wanted to take on. I also inherited a presumption of privilege that has taken most of my adult life to understand. With this information, I can choose how to use them in my life.
From my evangelical background, I inherited a deep sense of a personal connection to the Sacred. I also inherited an arrogance that God’s interests centered on my interests. Again, the knowledge of both serves me well.
My wealth and my evangelical background are, in the words of Ó Tuama, my bruised generations.
I love the presence of you who are more liturgical in your background. I love that even in your rebellion, you are seeking authentic religious expression; not just something said by rote. I think that together we learn what makes liturgy and ritual come alive is not the precise words or how often we repeat the ritual – but the mindfulness we bring to the ritual.
I love the presence of you who have no religious or spiritual background. I love your curiosity, your questions, and the way your very presence challenges our complacency and invites reflection on practices and attitudes.
I love the presence of you who have a long history in our UCC tradition – because you bring ‘founder’ energy that reminds us we can always create something new.
I love the presence of you who are young, because your lack of knowledge or experience requires that we continue to reinterpret the saints and the songs we’ve used for a new day.
If it is true that our ancestral line is a spiritually bruised one, then of course we as people and as a community are also bruised. But it is into a bruised, often confused, circle of influence that we move. Might our prayer be that through our lives we offer a story of possibility, a story of imagination and a story of courage. Amen.