Beginner’s Mind

This past week, it was my honor to offer the blessing at the Utica Observer-Dispatch’s Teen All-Stars Breakfast.  Distinguished high school seniors from our area were awarded for their good deeds, accomplishments, and acts of service to the community.  I was invited to participate in this event by Dave Dudajek, who I know through his daughter, Jaime Burgdoff (one of our congregants here in Boonville).

It was amazing to hear about these local teenagers and everything they’ve managed to do in high school.  My memories of high school mostly involve staying up late, watching B movies, and driving around town with friends when we had nothing better to do.  But these folks are already making an impact on their world in the name of what they believe is right.

At this event, Donna Donovan (president and publisher of the OD) gave an address where she talked about these students’ upcoming freshman year at college.  They would be challenged and inspired to grow in new directions and their horizons would be expanded far beyond what they could possibly imagine at this point.  She also told them that this would only be first of several “freshman years” they would experience throughout the rest of their lives.  Each new experience, journey, accomplishment, and challenge will lead them into yet another experience of being a wide-eyed and wet-behind-the-ears “freshman” who is just now figuring out who they are and what life is all about.

In Zen Buddhism, this is called “Beginner’s Mind”.  A person has Beginner’s Mind when she or he is absolutely open to each new moment, each new experience in life.  All of life, the whole universe even, becomes a teacher to a person who has Beginner’s Mind.  Each and every moment is the moment when Enlightenment might happen.

I think this is what Jesus meant when he used the word “repent”.  We associate that term with guilt and sorrow for one’s sins, but in the original Greek the word “repent” is metanoia (“change the way you think”).  When he says “Repent”, Jesus is inviting us to think differently and look at the world through a different set of eyes, open to what the Spirit of God might be saying and doing in any particular moment.  The kind of awareness and openness that metanoia entails corresponds quite closely with the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we can see Jesus issuing just such a call to repentance (metanoia, Beginner’s Mind) even though he never actually uses that particular term.

The story opens with a rare and unlikely character: a Roman Centurion.  He was a soldier in a hostile, occupying army.  Imagine that, instead of first century Judea, this story was taking place in Paris, France in 1941.  In that setting, this Roman Centurion would have been a Nazi Commander talking to a local priest.  The hostilities between nations would have created a barrier between these people that was almost impossible to overcome.  After that, there are also the barriers of race and religion.  These invading European pagans would have been offensive in the extreme to Jewish inhabitants of Judea.  The people of Judea, in turn, would have seemed backward and barbaric to the Roman Centurion, who was trained to think of himself as a great hero of the Empire: making the world safe for Roman order and peace.  There is no reason on earth why this Roman Centurion and these religious Jews should have any amicable contact whatsoever.

However, something seems to have already happened before Jesus ever set foot on the scene.  We learn that there is a private relationship between this Centurion and the Jews.  Seemingly insurmountable obstacles and prejudices had already been conquered.  The Centurion had become a benefactor of the Jewish people, even laying down the money to sponsor the building of their synagogue.  The Jewish leaders, in turn, had come to respect this one Centurion in spite of his being a Roman soldier.

The Jewish leaders probably thought of themselves as quite liberal and progressive for having made such a stretch in their worldview to include him.  When Jesus was passing through and the Centurion sent a request to him through the leaders, they took advantage of the opportunity to highlight what a good relationship had developed.  As Jesus was hearing the request, the leaders interjected, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

What a lovely moment of intercultural understanding and the power of respect to overcome differences in even the most hostile circumstances!  Too bad Jesus came along and felt the need to ruin it.

Jesus, you see, has this strange knack for cutting to the heart of a matter, turning things around, and getting you to see the world from an upside-down, inside-out perspective.  In this case, he does just that by answering the religious leaders’ inclusive magnanimity with a snide remark: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Did you get that?  Jesus said, “not even in Israel”.  Who are the Israelites?  They are!  Jesus is saying that this pagan foreigner actually has more faith than the religious leaders of his own people!  What would that be like in today’s terms?  Imagine if the President of the United States pinned the Congressional Medal of Honor on an Al Qaeda terrorist, saying that this soldier represented the very best in America.  People would be outraged!  They would take to the streets in protest!  They would call for the President to be impeached and tried for treason!  Well, that’s the same level of outrage that the Jewish elders would have felt when Jesus said that a Roman Centurion had more faith than any of them.  How dare he?!  Just who does this Jesus guy think he is, anyway?!

Well, here’s what Jesus is doing in this situation: he’s creating an opportunity for his compatriots to adopt a Beginner’s Mind.  He’s dropping a truth bomb on them so huge that it will hopefully shock them out of their preconceived notions about reality.  If they can stay with him in this moment and be open to what he is saying, they’ll find themselves looking at the world in a whole new way.

Up until now, they’ve had a very ego-centric view of themselves and their role as “God’s chosen people.”  To them, being “chosen” meant that they were endowed with a certain kind of special status that made them inherently superior to every other race, culture, and religion on the planet.  So, from their perspective, they really were being quite kind and generous in their endorsement of this Centurion as “worthy” to receive the benefits of Jesus’ healing ministry.

But Jesus saw right through their generosity and exposed it for what it really was: Arrogance.  Implicit in their charitable endorsement of the Centurion was the presumption that they themselves occupied the center stage in God’s unfolding drama in the world.  Sure, they were presenting a kinder, gentler form of religion in that moment, but it was still a very self-centered vision (no matter how open or welcoming it might appear to be). 

In reality, it’s not up to them to decide who is worthy or unworthy.  In reality, being “God’s chosen people” has less to do with status and more to do with being part of what God is doing in the world.  In reality, God’s work in the world extends far beyond the borders of any one nation, religion, race, or culture.

By highlighting the superior faith of the Roman Centurion, Jesus is drawing our attention to that reality.  Jesus is inviting us to repent in that metanoia sense of the term, to think outside the box, to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind, an open heart, and an expanded consciousness.  Like Donna Donovan said to the youth at the Teen All Stars Breakfast, it’s about engaging in a lifelong series of “freshman years” that challenge us and invite us to an ever greater sense of openness to life’s opportunities.

Here in the church, even when we’re being quite open, accepting, and progressive, it’s still quite easy to fall back into that ego-centric sense of superiority about being “God’s chosen people”.  It’s easy to think that it’s all about us and our church.  What Jesus wants to remind us of today is that it isn’t.  We are part of what God is doing in the world.  God’s mission includes us, but it’s also bigger than us, and it’s certainly not about us.

In order to participate in God’s larger mission, we have to move beyond the seductive idea of being a welcoming or even a growing church.  We have to look for a faith that’s greater than our own and ask ourselves, “What is God doing in the world at large and how can we be a part of it?”  And then our next task is to commit all of our resources to pursuing those ends, even if it costs us our very lives.

Where do you see God at work in the world at large?  Who are the “Roman Centurions” in your life, outsiders whose faith and participation in God’s mission might go unrecognized by established religious authorities?  How is God calling you to partner with these religious outsiders and participate in God’s larger mission?

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves as a church and as individual Christians.  This is the mentality, the Beginner’s Mind, that we need to cultivate day by day so that we can be more open to what God is doing and more faithful followers of Jesus, whose great big love honors and embraces the faith of all people: Israelites, Centurions, and even Presbyterians.

The Art of Letting Go

Over in Africa, they have a very interesting way of catching monkeys.  First, they secure a hollowed-out coconut to the end of a line and make a small hole in one end.  Next, they put something small and tasty (e.g. some nuts) inside the coconut.  Eventually, a monkey comes along and realizes that there’s a treat inside the coconut.  It reaches inside to get the treat.  Here’s the catch: the hole in the coconut is only big enough for the monkey’s hand to get through if it is empty.  As long as the monkey is holding onto the treat, it can’t get out.  If the monkey wanted to, it could let go and get away any time.  However, they almost never do that.  Instead, they hang on for dear life, even though it means their death.

Letting go is a hard thing to do.  Just ask parents who have ever dropped a sons or daughters off at college.  You hope that everything you’ve said and done over the past 18 years will be enough to guide them on their way, you draw out the goodbyes for as long as you can, but there’s no stopping that inevitable moment when you just let go, get back into the car, and drive away without them.

Our Buddhist neighbors have a lot to teach us Christians about the art of letting go.  Their entire spiritual path is built around that idea.  They start with the observation that life is full of suffering.  We never suffer, so they say, for the reasons we think we do.  We think we suffer because we lack something we want.  We say things like this: I wish I had a better job.  Why?  So I can make more money.  Why?  So I can buy more expensive things.  Why?  So I can impress this other person.  Why?  So she or he will like me.  And so on and so forth.  Happiness, we think, is always just one step outside of our reach.  We think it lies in some other job, object, or person.  If I could just have that, then I would be happy.

“No,” the Buddha says, “you won’t be.”  Real suffering doesn’t come from your lack of something, but from your desire for it.  If you can learn to let go of that inner urge to always be reaching and grabbing for the next big thing, you’ll find real happiness.  Along the way, you’ll also begin to find out who you really are inside.  We tend to lose sight of that in our endless pursuit of the next big thing.  We get lost in the rat race.  As we learn to let go, we find ourselves again.  The end result of this process is what Buddhists have always called Enlightenment.  All of their rituals and meditation exercises are oriented toward this one goal.  It’s all about letting go.

The art of letting go factors rather highly in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Mark.  Our story is part of a series of stories that we started talking about two weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday.  It began with the story of a blind man who Jesus had to heal twice.  After the first time Jesus touched him, he was beginning to see, but everything was still blurry.  After the second time, he could see clearly.  We took this as a kind of metaphor for Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, who was in the process of learning how to see (in a spiritual sense), but wasn’t quite seeing things clearly yet.

In the section just before today’s passage, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter boldly replies, “You are the Messiah.”

Then Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah.  He tells his disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

At this point, Peter steps in and pulls Jesus aside with some friendly advice.  One might say that Peter saw Jesus as the hot new presidential candidate and himself as Jesus’ campaign manager.  Peter’s idea of Jesus as the Messiah (or “Christ”) was very different from Jesus’ idea of himself.  Peter thought the Messiah was supposed to be part political leader, part military revolutionary, and part spiritual guru: Che Guevara meets Barack Obama meets Dr. Phil.  With God on their side, they were supposed to have a meteoric rise to fame and power.

But Jesus, it seemed, had a very different idea of what his life is supposed to be all about.  Instead of fame and fortune, he talked about suffering and rejection.  This really got under Peter’s skin, so he got up in Jesus’ face about it, but Jesus let him have it right back.

“Get behind me, Satan!”  He said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  In other words, there’s a bigger story going on than the one you see right in front of your face.  Jesus knew how he fit into that bigger story because he knew who he was as God’s beloved Son.  He would conquer the world, not through violence, but through the power of self-giving love.  This was not an insight he could have had if he had been busy selling out to his culture’s idea of what a Messiah should be.  But Peter, as it turns out, was having a hard time letting go of that idea.  He was holding onto it so tight because he was absolutely convinced that the future security and prosperity of his country depended on it.

Don’t people still do that all the time?  If you flip through the various noise news channels on any given day, you’ll find no shortage of people angrily shouting at each other because everyone is convinced that their idea holds the key to peace and plenty in the future.  Whenever they stop to take a breather, the audience is instantly swamped with commercials for products that also claim to hold the secret to happiness.

We human beings have this crazy tendency to get so caught up in our own egos, ideas, products, and relationships that we forget who we really are inside.  We are God’s beloved children.  Our lives are part of a bigger story that has been going on since the beginning of time and will continue until its end.  Jesus never forgot that truth.  His faith in his identity as God’s beloved Son gave him the strength to resist the temptation to sell out to the popular ideology of his day.  Suffering and rejection didn’t scare him one bit because he knew the great Love at the center of the universe that transcends fear and death.

Today, God is inviting you to enter into a greater awareness of that Love by letting go of your attachment to those things, people, or ideas that compete for your trust.  Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

You are invited to participate in the art of letting go and trust in the Love that is stronger than death.  Maybe the thing for you to let go of is an idea, thing, or person.  Maybe it’s an old grudge or crush.  Maybe it’s an unhealthy attachment to work or a cause you believe in.  It can be good things too:  like your attachment to your family, church, or system of beliefs.  Many of these are wonderful things, but they can’t tell you who you are or give you lasting happiness.  Whatever your attachment is, Jesus is inviting you to let it go and rediscover your true identity as God’s beloved child.

It’s not an easy path.  Christians call it “the Way of the Cross” for a reason.  You will have to face your own fear of mortality.  You will have to sacrifice your sense of security.  But the promise, as Jesus gives it, is that you can ultimately save your life by letting go of it.  That’s what faith in the Resurrection is all about.

None of us does this perfectly.  We’re all refusing to let go of something inside that keeps us from embracing who we really are and living the kind of full life that God intends for us.  The good news is that our refusal to let go doesn’t change who we are as God’s beloved children; it only keeps us from recognizing the truth about ourselves.

As I was writing this sermon, I got a message about an old college buddy who passed away quite suddenly this weekend.  Like all such announcements, it reminded me of the fragility of our biological existence.  It also reminded me that the call to let go extends even to letting go of life itself.  God asks a lot from us (everything, in fact).  I compare it to doing a trust fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon, believing that we are held, as the apostle Paul says, by a reality that is higher, deeper, longer, and broader than we can possible imagine.  It is the Love that passes knowledge and the peace surpassing understanding.  When we are called upon to trust and let go, whether it’s letting go of some person, thing, or idea that we’re clinging to for happiness and security or letting go of life itself in our final moments, we journey forward in faith, trusting that we are not wandering into the darkness, but are being welcomed into the light.  We are not enveloped by oblivion; we are embraced by eternity.