These aren’t words spoken in jest, they are a cry for help. They were the last words of George Floyd, but weren’t lost when his life was taken. I CAN’T BREATHE speaks to more than loss of oxygen: it is just as true when someone’s intrinsic worth is denied because of the shade of their skin, their gender, sexuality, abilities, or any number of other reasons. I can’t breathe too often is a communal truth, still true a hundred plus years beyond emancipation, sixty some-odd years after Civil Rights legislation. Potential is smothered, talents choked, and the whole world is the lesser for it. This isn’t a problem for a specific group of people, it’s an infection that destroys the humanity of those who are held down and the ones hate-filled enough to do the holding.
There’s nothing in these words that is new, but perhaps there’s something new in the air we all breathe. It cost a man his life, it cost the world his gifts and his love. But just maybe such a loss opened up the space for real change. I hope so. After all, the Spirit is the Breath of God. When we asphyxiate those we consider outsiders, we close our lungs and souls to the Spirit.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-22, NRSV
Kyrie, Mr Mister; RCA; December 21, 1985; Richard Page, Steve George, John Lang (writers)
I met one of my favorite professors several years after he retired. He’d agreed to come back and teach beginnning Greek and Hebrew grammar for a year. He’d been on the faculty with Bruce Metzger, the famous Biblical studies professor who had helped shape the Revised Standard Version of the Bible as well as the New Revised Standard Version. If asked, he would say that Metzger was the better scholar, and that he had learned a great deal from him. Even in his retirement, Metzger was quite aware of his reputation, and of his achievements. He had better things to do with his time and talent than teach grammar; someone else with lesser abilities could do that.
Metzger had a point. He continued giving lectures and working at the highest level of academia in his retirement. His list of accomplishments continued to grow almost until his death.
I am grateful for the life and work of Bruce Metzger. Every time I open my NRSV Bible, I encounter his work in its translation choices and notes. But I didn’t know him as a person, and I have no idea how his relationship to God in Christ affected his life.
The other professor, I knew. He taught Greek and Hebrew because the words of the prophets and the gospels were written in them. He didn’t think teaching grammar was beneath him: how could offering others the ability to read sacred texts be beneath him? He had humility in spades, and joy to share.
Love God, self, and neighbor in whatever you do, and joy is sure to come.
Humility is the recognition that our gifts are from God, and this lets you sit relatively loosely to those gifts. Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, but it does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, p. 211
The Dalai Lama was reminding us throughout the week not to get caught up in roles, and indeed arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity. The Book of Joy, p. 209
Humility: living with our feet planted on solid ground. Not trying to stand above anyone else, we live humbly.
Humiliation: being made to feel worthless by the thoughts, words, expressions, or actions of another or our own.
Knowing the difference between these two is critical. The first is being down to earth – a wonderful expression and an invaluable trait. The second is feeling like dirt: losing sight of our true identities (God’s beloved).
Aim for the first. Leave the second alone, either its giving (arrogance toward others) or receiving (losing sight of our own fundamental worth).
Not one of us is perfect, but all of us are beloved and precious.
[Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams; The Book of Joy: lasting happiness in a changing world, New York: Avery, 2016]
It’s the chapter title for Desmond Tutu’s, the Dalai Lama’s, and Douglas Abram’s first chapter on the Eight Pillars of Joy [Book of Joy, New York: Avery, 2016, p. 193]. In a nutshell, the main point is that how we experience something is a matter of how we look at it as well as a matter of what we are looking at:
A healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world. Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself. Or, as the Buddha says in Dhammapada, “With our mind we create our own world.” (p.194)
Taking a broader perspective, thinking long-term rather than immediate, and including the wants and needs of others in our deliberations can get us out of our small box reality and into something larger and more life-giving. That’s true, but there’s more…
Sometimes a narrower focus brings to light beauty and joy that often goes unnoticed. This is especially true when life isn’t difficult. The value of a single tree can get lost in the forest.
Zooming in or stepping back, a change of perspective can open hearts and minds to the joy that each day holds, and sustain the soul in all circumstances.
I’ve been reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World these past couple of months – it’s the written version of a week-long visit at Dharamsala. Bishop Desmond Tutu, his holiness the Dalai Lama, and writer Douglas Abrams spend days discussing what true joy is, obstacles that prevent us from experiencing lasting joy, and the eight pillars that foster a joyful life. There are some wonderful stories, a few pictures, and a lot of play and laughter – something found on the many video clips of the encounter, and somehow found in the book’s very pages. In a time of uncertainty, this is a wonderful book to discuss with others.
It’s the pillars of joy that I’m reading at the moment. Why not read and write? If you have the time and inclination, pick up The Book of Joy and read along with me. I’d love to hear your thoughts…
[Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams; The Book of Joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world; New York: Avery, 2016]
in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
One of my favorite quotes abouthope is from Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, who defined it as …believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. This prayer of Brooks’, while full of requests, is full of hope. How I pray may be more important than the words. If I pray with little expectation, that will be granted; with little hope, I probably won’t be disappointed in the results. If I pray, hopeful of its coming into the reality of my life, I won’t be disappointed, either. Let me pray it and watch the evidence change, believing what the strong Deliverer said several times in several ways in the Gospels – ask for it in my name and it will be given.
Offered by Bill Albritton, teacher, writer, speaker, and seeker.
and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls
Caring about and for others is exhausting. If we don’t have a way to replenish it, our well of strength and compassion can run dry. When this happens, we are unable to support our own life’s burden (much less help anyone else). Sadly and often, this truth is ignored until the fatigue has already set in.
The wonderful and terrible truth is that none of us can offer much from our own resources, so a reframing is in order. If we are wise, or just blessed with common sense, we’ll forget about being a well and ask God to make us a cup of strength – and trust that God will fill and refill us again and again when we run dry.
It can come from anywhere, or it can be absent everywhere. It’s not a train that I can see in the distance coming down the track. It seems to show up or not; as far as I can tell, it’s beyond my control. The spirit of joy and gladness isn’t mine to command.
But I think that’s the point: joy and gladness aren’t possessions I can obtain with hard work and good taste. Joy and gladness are spiritual gifts – given, not taken.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this. Most of the truly meaningful things are the same: virtues in the true sense are goods of the spirit, not goods that can be kept in boxes on the shelves of my ego’s home. The best I can do is keep my eyes and heart open so that when they arrive on my doorstep I’ll open the door wide.
Monotony. It’s waking up at the same time every day to do the same tasks in the same places in the company of the same people. Same old, same old; familiarity breeds contempt; blah, blah, blah. Even the Bible gives a nod to this truth – there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9b)
All of those things are true, but true in a very specific way. It isn’t the world that offers nothing new: it’s my perspective. If I look upon the world with jaundiced eye and paltry imagination, wonders and signs will be invisible. Phillips Brooks knew this. He didn’t ask God to produce new wonders: he asked God for corrective lenses for his myopia.
May I be as wise in my prayer requests.
O God: Give me strength to live another day; Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties; Let me not lose faith in other people; Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery, or meanness; Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them; Help me keep my heart clean, and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity; Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things; Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth; Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness; and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls; in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
For Today, found on the back inside cover of Forward Day by Day (Forward Movement, Cincinnati, OH; www.forwardmovement.org)
Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things
I keep a card that my friend Penny sent me in 1992. I doubt she thought much of it at the time – we exchanged cards and letters often; I’m sure she didn’t think that I’d still have that card almost 30 years later.
I keep that card as a bookmark. It reminds me of the joy and laughter Penny brought to our friendship, and it reminds me of the transient nature of all things (Penny died in 2001). Penny wasn’t without her flaws – no one is – but she made the world better for her being in it. She made my world better for being in it. If I looked only for the small imperfections, I might have missed that great, good truth.
I keep that card for the saying on the front: What you see has more to do with the eyes through which you look that what you look upon.
I keep that card for the parting words inside as well: Love, Penny
I pray that the eyes of my soul are open enough for me to love the world I see, even when I have to look for good among the not-so-good. I pray that I hold to that good, so that when I leave this life, my last offering for everyone and everything is Love, Johnna
[For the complete prayer, click For Today: Phillips Brooks Prayer above.]