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 Question is the Answer

Krishna revealing his universal form to Prince Arjuna.
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Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory.
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Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday: the holiday in our church calendar when we’re supposed to talk about the Trinity.  Trinity is our name for the traditional Christian idea that we worship one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is three.  God is one.  That’s the textbook Sunday school answer.  Are you confused yet?  Is your head hurting?  Good.

I had lunch this week with my friend, Mother Linda Logan, the priest at Trinity Episcopal Church, and she joked that Trinity Sunday is typically the Sunday when most clergy try to schedule their vacations.  Who can blame them?  The idea of the Trinity is so bizarre and abstract, it’s hard to preach about in a way that feels relevant to everyday life.  Alas, I seem to have miscalculated this year because my vacation doesn’t start until next week.  Don’t worry though, I’ve given it some serious thought this week and I think I’ve found a way to spice it up.

You see, people didn’t always think of the Trinity as an academic theological concept.  There was a time when people would literally start riots in the streets about it.  They said that, during the early 4th century, you couldn’t even ask a baker about the price of bread without getting into an argument about theology.

The debate got so heated that the Roman emperor, Constantine (himself only a recent convert to Christianity), convened a conference of bishops at his lake house in a town called Nicaea.  They argued back and forth ad nauseum until the emperor decided that enough was enough and promptly put his foot down in favor of the position that we now refer to as the Trinity.  Shortly thereafter, the Nicene Creed was adopted as a trophy for those who had won the debate.  Needless to say, it’s not a very noble beginning for this idea that most orthodox theologians now regard as central to the Christian religion.

Obviously, you won’t find the Trinity mentioned anywhere in our scripture readings for today (because it hadn’t been invented yet).  The idea of the Trinity, as such, does not appear anywhere in the Bible.  Nevertheless, most Christians for the last 1,700 years have kept the Trinity as their main idea about who God is and how God works.  Something about the mystery in this incomprehensible puzzle has compelled Christians to hold onto the Trinity for almost two millennia.

Mystery is a troubling word for folks in the modern era.  We’re not so good at mystery.  Modern people much prefer concrete facts and figures.  We like being able to find the answers and solve the problems.  To the modern mind, then, the Trinity is infuriating.  By its very definition, it can’t be figured out.

Ever since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, our species has learned how look farther and deeper into the nature of the universe than our ancestors ever dreamed of.  We have accomplished feats of strength and intelligence that boggle the imagination.  Looking through his telescope at the moons of Jupiter, could Galileo ever have imagined that we would one day send spacecraft to see them up close?  Yet, in spite of all our achievements, human beings have also managed to discover new ways to systematically inflict death and destruction on each other with ruthless efficiency.  Hitler’s holocaust, two world wars, and the nuclear arms race have opened our eyes to that reality. Reason has not purged the animal from our collective being as we had hoped.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the baffling presence of mystery, our species would have given up hope long ago.

Thankfully, there remains something within our subconscious minds that spurs us on toward an encounter with that which is unknown and unknowable.  We get the sense that, in the darkness of ignorance and uncertainty, we are not alone.  Our scripture readings from this morning, while they mention nothing of the Trinity, have quite a bit to tell us about mystery.  In each passage, someone comes face-to-face with the infinite mystery of the divine and is permanently transformed by it.

In the first reading, the Jewish prophet Isaiah has an ecstatic vision of God’s glory.  The prophet tells his readers how his senses were overwhelmed,

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

I love the dramatic imagery in this story.  It reminds me of a similar passage in a classic Indian poem called the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord”.  In this poem, a prince named Arjuna is having a philosophical chat with his chariot driver named Krishna.  Slowly, it dawns on the prince that there is more to this chariot driver than meets the eye.  Krishna, it turns out, is actually a divine messenger who was sent to teach the prince eternal wisdom.  At one point in the story, Krishna allows Prince Arjuna to see his true form:

with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons.  Wearing divine garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides.  If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being.  Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.  Then Arjuna, filled with wonder and his hairs standing on end, bowed his head to the Lord and prayed with folded hands.  (Bhagavad Gita 11.10-14)

I love how similar these visionary experiences are, even though they come from very different cultures and religions.  In both stories, human beings are left standing in awe before the eternal mystery.  In Isaiah’s story, the one that Christians are more familiar with, even the angels cover their eyes and sing, “Holy, holy, holy”.  That word, holy, is one that we use in church a lot.  People use it outside of church too, sometimes combined with an expletive, in order to express amazement.  No one is more famous for doing this than Burt Ward, who played Batman’s sidekick Robin in the 1960s TV series.  Robin had all kinds of unique exclamations: “Holy Hallelujah, Batman!  Holy Fruit Salad, Batman!  Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes!”  Holy was Robin’s catchphrase.  Given the startling nature of what Isaiah and Arjuna were experiencing in their respective visions, I can just imagine Robin standing beside them, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy, Batman!”  But, in Isaiah’s case, it was the angels who were saying it.

The word holy, as we tend to use it, typically means sacred or blessed.  However, on a more general level, it literally means special or different.  Something is holy when it is other than what one would expect.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Robin to use it as an exclamation when he is caught off guard (which seems to happen a lot).  In the Isaiah passage, it seems that even the angels are amazed at the appearance of God’s glory in the temple.  They repeat “holy” three times as a way of communicating ultimate emphasis: it’s not just holy, it’s not just holy holy, it’s holy holy holy!  Special, special, special!  Different, different, different!  Amazing, amazing, amazing!  If we’re not caught off-guard by God’s presence like Isaiah, if we aren’t filled with wonder with our hairs standing on end like Arjuna’s, then we’re not really paying attention.

In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus intentionally confuses a religious scholar named Nicodemus.  The latter comes to Jesus in private with an honest question: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  And what does Jesus do?  Does he take this opportunity to clarify himself and maybe even start a theology class?  No, he alienates Nicodemus and leaves him with even more questions than he started with.  Beginning with a cryptic statement, “You must be born from above” (or “born again” as some translations say), Jesus finishes with an outright insult: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  The philosopher in me feels indignant on Nicodemus’ behalf!  Can’t Jesus see that this is an honest and intelligent person who is simply trying to make sense of things in his own mind?  But rational understanding is not what Jesus is after in his conversation with Nicodemus.

Instead, Jesus seems to be giving Nicodemus a koan.  For those who are unfamiliar with that term, a koan is a Zen Buddhist riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking.  Zen masters will often give their students a koan to fuel the students’ meditation and spur them toward enlightenment.  The most famous Zen koan is one we’ve probably all heard before: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  If you immediately started thinking about your hand just now, then you don’t get it.  When it comes to the koan, if you can answer the question, then you haven’t answered the question.  Why?  Because the question is the answer.  The question itself is the point of the exercise.  Let it take you beyond the realm of what you think of as normal reason.  Sit with it a while.  Let it free your mind and expand your consciousness.  Only then will you be able to appreciate the mystery.

Neither Isaiah nor Nicodemus knew anything of the Trinity.  That wasn’t yet part of their culture or religion.  The Trinity is a human idea that tries to express the mystery of God as we have experienced it.  Like a Zen koan, the Trinity is a riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking.  But if we sit with it and meditate on the mystery, we might just find ourselves in the state of holy confusion that some might call enlightened.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna, “You are not able to see Me with your physical eye; therefore, I give you the divine eye to see My majestic power and glory.”  With that “divine eye”, it says that the prince “saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.”  This is not all that far off from Isaiah’s vision, wherein the prophet realized that “the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.”

If you’re confused about the Trinity, that’s a good thing.  It means that you’re paying attention.  Confusion is the first step on the path toward a free and enlightened mind.

I see confusion as a virtue at this point in the modern age where absolute certainty has become an idol.  We find ourselves these days surrounded by the cacophonous voices of politicians and advertisers, all of whom claim to possess the secret that will bring peace, security, and a successful end to our “pursuit of happiness”.  Vote for this candidate!  Buy that product!  That’s the key to lasting joy!

In this environment, even religion and spirituality themselves become products for consumption.  Fundamentalist preachers and cult leaders assure us that, if you simply sign on their dotted line and accept their dogmas without question, you too can secure your place in heaven for eternity.  In spite of their claims to possess “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as revealed in ancient times, the fundamentalist commitments to absolute certainty and biblical literalism are very recent and modern ideas.  They only came about during the last one hundred years or so as a reaction to developments in science and philosophy that led some to question and/or reinterpret parts of their faith.  Their fear is understandable, but we don’t have to look hard to find the dark side of that kind of religion.  The September 11th attacks and the Jonestown massacre, where almost a thousand people died after willingly drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at their pastor’s insistence, demonstrate what can happen when religious fanaticism goes unquestioned.

Under circumstances such as these, confusion is a virtue that provides us with humility and reverence for the mystery of it all.  The spiritually enlightened mind is one that can comfortably say, “I don’t know!”  Zen masters call this “beginner’s mind”.  Taoist sages call it “the uncarved block”.  Jesus called it “faith like a child”.

When it comes to the koan of the Trinity, there is no answer because the question is the answer.  The question leads us to confusion, confusion leads us to humility, humility leads us to reverence, and reverence leads us into a deeper experience of that great eternal mystery wherein we begin to see “the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One” and “the whole earth… full of [God’s] glory.”  Only then can we truly join with prophets, angels, and saints from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation under heaven who forever sing: Holy, holy, holy!  Amazing, amazing, amazing!