[You can watch a video recording of this Call to Worship at the end of this text. To see the entire service, click here.]
One of our thoughtful, wise elders posed a question to me this week in a letter, writing, “I’ve been giving some thought to your inquiry about how we, as a congregation might express our concerns and sorrows over recent national events. It was obvious from our last Joys and Concerns, that we feel the urge and perhaps guilt that we are not doing enough individually. Does that mean, however, that we should move forward as a group? For some that may be the correct response – some joint effort that will engage us personally with one another and perhaps be helpful for our larger community. But maybe there is another issue here.”
The letter referred to an extraordinary seven-hour conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in 1970 where they talked about racism and our response to it. Here is an excerpt:
BALDWIN: The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it.… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility…. I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.
MEAD: Yes, that’s different…. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed. But to take the responsibility for something that was done by others —
BALDWIN: Well, you can’t do that.
The letter this week pondered whether we are falling into a trap, “our inability to say to ourselves, what we are doing is, for the moment, all we can. That we need to sort out our feelings of despair and guilt over our need to accept more responsibility.” It goes on to list the many things we are already doing or addressing as a congregation and then says,
“Maybe we need to pause and to address the issues of responsibility and forgiveness for ourselves, so that we do not carry, along with our positive efforts, the burden of unsustainable and debilitating guilt that our commitments are not enough.”
This is an important consideration. Thomas Merton wrote, “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist… most easily succumbs: activism and overwork…. To allow oneself to be carried away by the multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence… It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. (from My Argument with the Gestapo)
You will hear me talk about the urgency of responding to this moment in history elsewhere in this service in the video entitled “A Call to Communion.” We need to weigh that urgency with this cautionary wisdom.
The 17th Century poet John Milton was a leading political activist and commentator, but then he became blind. He wrote his most famous sonnet to lament the limits blindness imposed on his fervent desire to serve God and country.
The poem ends with the poet coming to a place of patient acceptance, saying,
Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I know that many of us feel as Milton did, frustrated and grieved by our inability to do all we wish we could, and as our wise elders caution us, we need to be careful not to add guilt and frantic overwork to that grief.
Milton is right in his insight that, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” but notice that as he stood waiting, he wrote that sonnet, and then Paradise Lost!
My answer to the letter is yes, we need to be wise and accepting of the limits of our abilities and our responsibilities, and we need to stand and wait, we need to be still and listen for the Spirit’s whisper, because it is our true self speaking, our self that is free of guilt or ego, a self that accepts who it truly is in this moment which is always limited in what it can do. And we need to trust that our patient attentiveness and readiness to serve will be rewarded with something we can do with the gifts and time and relationships we have, however small it may be compared to our desire to serve.
If nothing else, we each can learn and grow, we can practice self-emptying kenosis and open ourselves to consciousness-expanding metanoia, so that whatever we do will be done by the heart and mind of Christ living in us.
We do not have to be heroes on a big stage or on every stage, but we do need to be on a hero’s journey through the life we are given, asking what the Spirit needs of us now. If we do that, then even our waiting in uncertainty will serve, and our tears will water the garden of the realm of God that we long to create on earth.
Mel Goertz’s haiku for this week says it perfectly:
Each raindrop brings up
a blade of grass
until the meadow is full.
Let us worship together continuing on with this service.