"Come On Up for The Rising"

"I left my house this morning. Bells ringing filled the air." (from "The Rising," by Bruce Springsteen)

This lyric hits me deep, son. 

Bruce Springsteen’s record The Rising and the song of the same name came out in 2002, less than a year after 9/11. The record was one of those rare records that offered catharsis to the culture from which it sprung. The whole record was a venture in pastoral care, really, what dad does for a living. In the record, Bruce plays minister to a people, the American people, giving us music that lays out all the emotions Americans were experiencing in the wake of 9/11. Bruce sat with us, mirrored out words and thoughts, felt the pain and horror, anger and fear with us. Yet at the same time he rose above it and reached passed the emptiness into the fullness of love, compassion, and its healing.

We were new to New York City in September 2001, your mom and dad were. I actually began seminary on September Eleventh . Mom happened to be in Florida with family and flew to New York just a week later, 9/18.

The sky was an "unbelievable blue" that Tuesday morning. It was a beautiful day in New York with crystalline skies reaching high into heaven.

Then the world changed.

My first class at Union Theological Seminary as to start on 9/11. Before that class, I was at work for a couple hours. A call into work gave us the news, news we could not possibly fathom.

Union Seminary is fortunately some 4 miles uptown from where the Twin Towers were. However, Manhattan is a small island of interconnections. Uptown we heard the sirens, saw the smoke, saw the dazed and panicked faces walking along Broadway. Columbia’s Presbyterian hospital soon filled with people looking to give blood or to help in some way.

I, new to the City and uncertain of what was happening, was beyond scared. Once it became clear that it was a terrorist attack, my mind went to the Jewish Theological Seminary, open and unprotected just across the street from Union. It was an easy target and too close, and maybe politically significant for a terrorist. Then there was Riverside Church whose steeple is nothing compared to the Twin Towers but on the Upper Westside stands rather high and symbolic as well. 

The sounds of military planes that soon filled the sky also became worrisome. How do you tell the difference between a military plane flying overhead and a terrorist-hijacked plane flying as a bullet toward you?

Then, the Missing person flyers started going up. A photo of a person with the word “missing” above it: a ubiquitous symbol of a tragedy and hope, a hope beyond hope, a heartbroken hope, a hope deferred. 

One flyer I saw is burned in my memory. One of the most beautiful photos I ever saw. A face Michelangelo could not turn away from.  Missing.

I also remember watching the Today show a few days later. A young wife was talking about her husband lost in the Twin Towers attack. They had just celebrated their 7th anniversary the day before. September 10, 1994. The day your mom and I were married. 

September 10, 2001, a happy 7th celebration. The lucky 7th. Celebration, laughter, contentment.

September 11, 2001. 9-11. Their marriage broken in two without reason. Grief, cries, desperation.

There, by the grace of God, went we.

The Rising was Springsteen's first record in many years with the E-Street Band, his musical family, his community. Just their reuniting helped some of my healing.

“The Rising” is the title track and it is an Easter song, Corey. Look at the lyrics and this becomes clear. 

A carrying of a cross – sixty pounds feeling like a stone. Shoulders carrying the weight of the world, a line of suffering, ignorance, and injustice, a hard line to work through and clear.

There's no turning back other than in remembering. No way to escape the darkness here and now. No way to go back to the easier past with all its successes and hope. No way to escape to an easier future when the grief is gone. Just hardship and grueling days.

Good Friday is inescapable. It is a long day of seemingly no way out.

Still, somehow, somewhere "there's a way out of no way." Somehow the stone is rolled away. Somehow Friday turns into Sunday. Somehow weeping lasts for a night but joy comes in the morning. This faith kept Jesus going. 

Come on up for the rising.

And Jesus carrying his cross, well, it is real and salvation-giving. His carrying his cross is also a metaphor of us carrying our own crosses.

The cross of loneliness and grief is the cross we carry these days as we consider the last few weeks in this community. It is more personal for you, I know. You lost a friend, son, and you can't understand it. Who can?

Jesus in the march toward the Cross is likewise making his "way through the darkness." The chain of sorrow and pain binds him. He's lost to his past and his future. He is like us, he is us. He too endures the grief of loss and loneliness, the sadness and pain of the cross we cannot avoid carrying either.

But there is a rising coming, son. We have to rise with it.

Come on up for the rising.

This rising is a bell ringing. A pealing clamor across the neighborhood. 

Back in 2001, in the wake of 9/11 on the Upper Westside, Riverside Church’s carillon bells which on Sunday mornings would serenade the neighborhood sat silent. They were in repair that year and into 2002. All through that fall and into winter the church bells did not sing. I had not heard them once. Didn’t even know they existed. Sunday after Sunday came and went that Winter, and the music of bells did not resonate.

Easter of 2002, March 31, 3-31, those bells were reborn. Fixed, resurrected, the bells rang that Sunday morning. They rang with an ecstatic flurry in an extra-long Easter bell peal. Certainly, the ringing bells filled the air that beautiful morning. It was the first time since 9/11 I was able to purposefully listen to music and not turn away. Neither the searing sadness nor the jaunting memory disappeared. Hopes for this are futile. But music returned to soften it all.
Even amid the cross that we must wear and bear, even amid the cross we cannot avoid, the cross we are called to carry, the bells will find a way to ring, the Easter bell will find a way to sound and resound, making clear the rising is ringing. 

Come on up for the rising.

Easter’s seed was there on Good Friday, son. As Good Friday progressed into Saturday, the seed of Easter was planted. That seed contained within it the miracle of new life to come, of the rising to come.

Faces may go away, Corey. Our bodies will die. But God’s eyes that see in us, our spiritual eyes will burn bright and enlighten the truth of eternity. And the same blood that gave those bodies life before, the same blood that gave Jesus life, flows in us and gives us life. That blood, that sacred lineage, binds us together.

And that blood is the life of God, the light of God, a fiery light that is as beautiful as it is powerful. We stand before it and realize the reality of Easter.

Come on up for the rising.

Before we get to the climax of our story, son, I want to talk about Mary whom Springsteen mentions in the song.

“I see you Mary in the garden, in the garden of a thousand sighs. There’s holy pictures of our children dancing in a sky filled with light. “

It is not clear which Mary. It seems to me maybe it is Mary Magdalene. Maybe we have Jesus remembering Mary Magdalene.  

But we don’t have to go there. I know you aren't crazy about churchy stuff right now. What is for certain, someone is remembering a love, a wife, a partner, a person with whom they shared children, with whom they raised children. There is loss. There is a prayer, a hope, a longing for togetherness and a sharing of life once again. "May I feel your arms around me. May I feel your blood – [your life, your continuing life] - mix with mine."

There is sorrow. There are tears. There is sadness and fear. There are shadows and emptiness.

But yet, but yet... there is a dream of life. It comes to us. It comes to you and it comes to me. There is an inner knowledge, unconscious even. There is an insight as real as our breath -- the life of love cannot remain dead. The dream of life cannot go unrealized.

Come on up for the rising.

An endless Love joins our tears. A godly and glorious Grace sings through the sadness. A divine Mercy sits next to fear and to those who are fearful. Sacred Memory gives light as it gives us shadow. Fullness and blessed light crescendo above the longing and emptiness. You may not understand it now, but you will, that I am certain of.

This is the Resurrection. This is the Rising. This is Easter. That amid the darkness of life’s finiteness, an infinite light shines forth and keeps giving us life.

Come on up for the Rising, put your hands in mine.

Let us as a family and as a community, in the wake of loss and loneliness, heal together. Feel the burning wind, the warmth of the spirit, fill our arms, our hearts, our souls. Come on up – it is Easter. The healing is now possible. Amen.

In the Offense of Liberation

* Based on sermon but with different title

John 13: 5, 12-17

He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Master and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

If you read the story of the Passion of Christ with new eyes, as if for the first time, I think it becomes pretty obvious that this figure called Jesus of Nazareth is a figure not to be ignored. He is pushing buttons. He is getting under the skin of just about everyone. He is stirring trouble.

Why? Why is this un-ordained, unofficial religious teacher from the back woods of Nazareth such a thorn in the side of the powers that be? What is it about him that disturbs the establishment and garners so much support from the common people?

Have you ever noticed that extremes disturb some yet also attract some folks? We see this in our political season, that is for sure.

Barry Goldwater in 1968 offered us some rather infamous words. He said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Folks cheered then. Folks cheer now.

Was Jesus extreme in defense of liberty? There are a few questions packed in that one question, actually. Was Jesus extreme? If so, what was the nature of his extremism? And was he defending liberty? If not, what was his point?

First of all, we must be honest, Jesus was extreme. He was an extremist. Only an extremist could garner so much angst, so much hatred, so much resistance. The religious and political powers agreed that Jesus was too extreme to ignore, even too extreme to keep around.

But we must ask the next question, what was the nature of Jesus’ extremism? What was he extreme about? Jesus was an extremist for Love. He was extreme in his definition of God, especially in his day. He was extreme in his defining God as a father who embraces all, those who are excluded, even those who’ve excluded themselves. He was extreme in defining God as a son who humbles himself and takes in all who are cast out. Extreme defining God as a spirit whose holiness rests in the pursuit to make all things holy. Extreme defining God as a shepherd who finds all those left behind.

Not only this, Jesus himself was extreme in his humility. This makes sense. There is a connection between love and humility. We know this in our relationships. If love is to last, if love is to live, if love is to win, it takes humility on those who love. Pride and selfishness is the enemy of love. Humility and selflessness is love’s nourishment.

Jesus’ love for people was based on his selflessness and his humility. Jesus’ work – from his healing and teaching ministry to his passion story - was based on his selflessness and humility.

In the Palm Sunday story, we see Jesus’ humility clearly. Here he is, a King, riding into Jerusalem not in a limousine of the best horses and a coach of gold, not with a banner or a hat about greatness and victory, not with speeches embodying strength and winning. No, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, silently.

There are shouts of hosanna all around him. But Jesus knows he goes to Jerusalem to be condemned. And this is the point of his going. He is going into Jerusalem not to win in the eyes of the world. He is going into Jerusalem to lose in the eyes of the win-at-all-cost world. He is going into Jerusalem to accept defeat, a deadly defeat. But he will be losing in the world in order to change that world’s heart.

Later, after that donkey ride into Jerusalem, we have Jesus with his disciples again pointing directly at extreme humility. We read in John 13 Jesus' act of servanthood, an act that foreshadows a greater, more brutal act to come, that of dying on the cross.

Jesus in this act of washing his disciples’ feet defines godly leadership for us. Embodied humility, embodied service as a servant, not just verbalized humility or service or servant-hood.

How do our leaders or potential leaders measure up to Jesus’ definition, his embodied definition of leadership?

So Jesus was an extremist for love and selflessness. 

Was he defending liberty with his extremism? If we change that word defend to offend, and if we change the word liberty to liberation, we come up with a more apt description. Jesus’ extremism was in the offense of liberation.

Jesus was not defending anything. What he was offering didn’t exist. He was offering spiritual liberation that led to complete liberation. He was going on the offense. Jesus had the ball and he was aiming for the spiritual liberation of all.

He was marching down the field to win all peoples’ spiritual liberation. But beginning with the least, the lost, the losers in the world’s eyes, beginning with those imprisoned and oppressed. Jesus makes this clear as he starts his ministry. Luke 4 quotes Jesus as defining the gospel. Jesus said,

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim liberation to the captives, 
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to set free those who are downtrodden.”

And at the foundation of this gospel of liberation is love and compassion born of God. At the heart of this liberation is a love so extreme that it gives self away and embodies the true self of God at the same time.

In English, the word offense has a double meaning. In can mean the opposite of defense. Or it can be related to offending or being offended.

Jesus uses ultimate love as his offense to win us liberation. But this offense of radical love, in our world, is offensive to some, isn’t it? The love and humility Jesus radically offered still offends some. The gospel of Mark tells us how Jesus was scandalous to the self-righteous and self-important. Mark 6:3 says, “They were deeply offended about Jesus and they refused to believe in Him.” The word deeply offended here is ‘scandalon’ from which we scandalous.

As our culture and times show, anyone can be scandalous. Anyone can be offensive with their words or deeds. The question is what is the point? What is the goal? What is purpose of our actions? For Jesus, his offense to win liberation and his offense, his scandal, were one and the same. Jesus’ means and ends matched. The aim, the goal, the end, was a liberating love, and the means he used to get there was liberating love. The offense he used to get us down the field and what offended so many in the process was one and the same - he loved the most excluded, the marginalized, the oppressed equally and walked with them, talked with them, served them, died in their place. And love, and the liberation love naturally brings – this was the aim of his so freely loving us.

I close with a Christian paraphrase of Goldwater – Extreme Love in the offense of liberation is Christian. In other words, as it was in Jesus, let God’s radical love be the benchmark in all you do, including in who discern to lead us and vote for.

Breaking Dawn: The Wonhyo Effect

Part 1

I must begin with a cute story. As you may know, Holly and I taught conversational English in Korea some 16 years ago. We taught both children and adults. One middle school class I had gave me a nickname. The Korean word for money is DON, spelled in English usually as D-O-N. One of the boys when he saw my name made the connection and started calling me “money.” At the end of the class, a couple of the  boys gave me this very hat. They said the D is for D-o-n.

There is a kind of related story that applies to the D word we are going to talk about today, dawn – D-A-W-N. There was a woman in the church I grew up in. She had a really thick Boston accent. When she would say my name, it sounded more like dawn than Don. Actually, when I was young, she called me “dawny.” When I got older, she started calling me “dawn.” I am not sure why I remember that. But I do.

Well, here is the connection – the cameras here today are being used to film a documentary on the Korean saint Wonhyo whom I’ve studied, been inspired by, and incorporate into my role as minister all the time. Well, Wonhyo literally means “First Dawn” or “Breaking dawn.”

Wonhyo is the founder of a uniquely Korean style and form of Buddhism. Before Wonhyo, the Buddhism in Korea was more Chinese in style and form. Wonhyo “koreanized” Buddhism, giving to the world a beautiful and important understanding of Buddhism.

But Wonhyo’s influence doesn’t’ stop at Buddhism. All of Korean religion has been influenced by Wonhyo.

There is something else Wonhyo gave to Korea – a unique, indelible character, a renegade, an iconoclast.

To understand what his religious significance is I am going to use a metaphor. 

Imagine 10-11 musicians. These musicians represent different religious factions in Korea when Wonhyo was around. The musicians all play different instruments – guitar, drums, keyboards - or sing different parts – soprano, alto, tenor. And they all play different styles of music. Styles born somewhere else. What’s more, they are in competition for who is best and what style of music is best.

As I said, these various musicians represent the various denominations of Buddhism in Korea and even the non-Buddhist religions of Taoism and Confucianism when Wonhyo was around. These 9 Buddhist denominations and Taoism and Confucianism were all competing for the title of best and truest religion in Korea, if you will. This was despite the fact they were religions based in China, not Korea.

Wonhyo was living amid all of this conflict and competition. He didn’t like it.

So he sought to bring all the various religions together. He sought to make a single band out of all these competing musicians and show how their different instruments and different styles did not contradict each other, did not rule each other out, but in fact could be brought together and harmonized to sing the same song. A song called Truth. He showed just because the rhythm guitar is playing a different sound and differently than the solo guitarist, they did not contradict but could play together and make a great sound. The same with the drums, and keyboards and different singers.

The song should be the focus, not the different instruments and styles.

So Wonhyo wrote the song they would sing. It was a Korean song, not Chinese. And he would be the lead singer on this song.

This act of creating of a single band made up of the different instrumentalists and singers to sing one Korean song, this amounts to Wonhyo creating a unique form of Korean Buddhism. A Buddhism of various religious denominations together pointing to the Truth of Wisdom and Compassion.

This bringing conflicting things together to harmonize around the truth of wisdom and compassion, this ecumenical approach, this was Wonhyo’s greatness.

Now, it took a unique person to do this. Wonhyo was certainly a unique individual.

First of all, he was a non-conformist. Yes, he was in his early life a Buddhist monk. He had to shave his head and wear the same clothes as all the other monks. But still, he stood out. Think James Dean or Marlon Brando or Bruce Springsteen. He followed his own muse. Saw the world through his own lens. Sang his own song. We might say his was ADHD before ADHD was a thing.

But it was exactly this non-conformist spirit that helped him to avoid being too attached to the various denominations or religions. In fact, in the age where Buddhists aligned themselves with denominations, Wonhyo did not. He was intentionally non-denominational. Not attached to one denomination, he was able to stand above and see the denominations as they were and find a harmony, a way for them to play together and sing together the song of truth.

Wonhyo’s non-conformity to any single denomination or philosophy also allowed him to see the various ways of seeing things and match them to people who needed that approach. To explain what I mean, let’s go back to the example of music.

Imagine there is a young man struggling to find his way. He is a musician but lost, with no direction. Wonhyo would initiate a relationship with the young man, find out where he was at, what his propensities and needs were. Then Wonhyo would adapt his teaching in a way that met the young man where he was.  He might point to the rhythm guitar as the path for the young musician. Or the soprano singer in the band.  In other words, Wonhyo would see where a person was, and meet him there, then show a path that best helped him. He would offer up whatever denomination’s teaching and philosophy that was most helpful to the seeker.  This required a lot of knowledge of the various denominations and their teaching. And he had that knowledge. He was a bit of a geek that way, in fact. A true genius.

Wonhyo’s use of what is known in Buddhism as Upaya, or using the best means to help someone learn the way, is perfectly exampled in his latter years. We will look at this in the next segment.

Part 2

When Wonhyo was in his 40’s, he decided he wanted to leave the monastic life. He met a princess, as the story goes, named Yoseok, and married.  They conceived a child named Seol-chang who would become an important Confucian philosopher and linguist.

But as a simple lay person, Wonhyo did not stop preaching the Truth. In fact, he kicked it into high gear. He took his drum and his songs to the street. He was a touring street and roadside performer who used his performances to preach the way of wisdom and compassion to those in the streets, backstreets, and byways.

He’d enter a town as a dancing monk beating on a drum and singing folk songs. He’d garner a crowd, and then spread the simple message of a simple faith that could transform souls.

That simple message was what? Wonhyo preached Pure Land Buddhism. 

Pure Land Buddhism claims that our day and age has lost its way so much that recovering our Buddha-nature, the goodness and enlightenment within us, returning to the Garden of Eden, if you will, is no longer possible. Self-power cannot do it. So there is a need for some kind of salvation given to us from Other-Power, given to us by the power of Grace.

And in Pure Land there is told the story of a Buddha, Amita Buddha, who though perfect and fully enlightened and due the paradise of Nirvana, humbles herself out of compassion, returns to this world of suffering and sin to save all beings.  A sincere and faithful recitation of the name of Amita Buddha gives way to being saved.

I should acknowledge that this sounds a lot like Christianity. Scholars ponder if Pure Land Buddhism was in fact influenced by Christianity. Christianity, an Eastern form of it called Nestorian Christianity, did exist in China and possibly in Korea during the time of Wonhyo and other early proponents of Pure Land Buddhism. There is a terrific book called The Jesus Sutras that describes this form of Chinese Christianity that became heavily influenced by Buddhism and Taoism. I taught a class on the Jesus Sutras a couple years ago here.

Amita’s name is what Wonhyo goes to city streets and byways preaching, and singing, and dancing to. He actually becomes quite popular in this role as street performer and preacher. He is described as a kind of rock star of his day.

To the common person daily experiencing the ravages of a world filled with suffering and struggle, Wonhyo preaches this simple path of praying Amita’s name and following her way of compassion. To those more fortunate, to those living an easier life, either it be members of the literati or monks like himself, he expounded Buddhist philosophy and pointed to the rigorous path of cultivating wisdom through study and meditation and almsgiving.

The common denominator was wisdom and compassion.

Wonhyo met people where they were and taught the Truth of Wisdom and Compassion based on where they were.

As a minister, it is this approach I incorporate more than anything in my work. Meeting people where they are and ministering accordingly. 

Part 3

I close with the story of Wonhyo’s enlightenment to make my final point. The story is a really interesting one and is known by virtually every Korean under the age of 45, I’d say. A young Wonhyo and his best friend, another monastic named Uisang decided they wanted to find the greatest Buddhist teacher they could find. The perception was that China was the place that offered the best teachers. So they headed to China. En route, they encountered a huge storm that forced them to stop their journey and seek shelter. By the time they found a place, it was dark. They came across a cave along their path and took advantage of the shelter. They settled in for the night. 

Wonhyo before turning in for the night needed a drink of water. He heard in the near distance water dripping into water. He crawled in the dark to where the sound was, groping for the destination of the water’s dripping. His hands touched a bowl. He grabbed that bowl and drank the rain water straight down, refreshed by the wonderful water that tasted so sweet as it quenched his great thirst. He then went to sleep. 

In the morning, he awoke. He soon became aghast at what the daylight shone. They were sleeping not in a cave but a tomb and the bowl he drank from was actually the crown of a skull filled with old leaves and maggots. He grew sick to his stomach and began vomiting. He then began running from the cave as fast as he could. It was at this point he experienced enlightenment.

During the night, the same bowl that disgusted him and made him nauseous had tasted good and quenched his thirst just the night before. He realized then that our perception of things rules the mind. Change the perception, change the mind and how we encounter reality within our minds. This was Wonhyo’s enlightenment experience. With that transformative experience now a part of him, he realized he didn’t need to go to China to find a master. He could stay right where he was and cultivate himself right where he was. He never stepped foot in China

It is Wonhyo’s staying put that taught me something absolutely vital some 12 years ago coming out of seminary. While Buddhism and Buddhist teachers taught me so much, changed my life really, Wonhyo’s staying put helped me to see that I didn’t need to become a Buddhist or become a monastic to cultivate wisdom and compassion in myself and help cultivate it in others. I didn’t need to leave behind the faith of my family and culture, even. I did not need to dismiss my first and most important teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. I just needed to change my mind’s perceptions, see the wisdom and compassion in the tradition closest to me, cultivate it in myself, and preach it and teach it to others. That is what I do here every Sunday and everyday as a minister.

Yes, I know I am a bit odd to many folks, but the work doesn’t feel odd. It is not lofty work. It is nothing too exciting or extraordinary. At the same time, it is the greatest, most exciting, most extraordinary and oddest gig in the world. And I love it.

So thank you Dawning Dawn, aka Wonhyo! You’ve helped me to stay put yet at the same time have a crazy and creative blast doing it!