(Photo credit: Soe Zeya Tu/REUTERS. A statue of Buddha wears a face mask at a monastery following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Pathum Thani, Thailand May 8, 2020.)
This weekend my social media feed was filled with memes on karma. In the wake of the news that President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, the internet seemingly went wild with schadenfreude. And, it was not only Twitter and Instagram. Political pundits and journalists alike invoked the Dharmic notion of karma as a form of cosmic justice, wondering if perhaps the President was now simply paying the consequences of his actions (or inactions).
Perhaps for some, it felt like a little levity in a year that desperately needs comic relief. Yet, I confess, the multitude of memes made me feel uneasy. As an educator who seeks to foster religious literacy, I felt uncomfortable by the easy acquisition and appropriation of this tenet of faith for political commentary and as someone attuned to matters of the heart, I wondered what casual cruelty might do to ours.
Karma is a complex concept arising from Dharmic traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In Sanskrit, karma simply means action. Taken within religious frames, it refers to the cause and effect between people’s actions and consequences, usually in cycles of death and rebirth.
Despite social media’s speculation that RBG may have won her first heavenly court case, karma is not divine punishment for wrongdoing. The idea that karma is a...well, you know the phrase...may be a Western imposition of Christian notions of sin and retributive justice. (Though, I would argue that those notions need a bit of troubling, too.)
The problem with ascribing why bad things happen to individual action is that we end up blaming the victim for their own suffering.
Imagine how it feels for those struggling with COVID-19 to scroll through meme after meme suggesting their illness may in fact be due to something they did. It is true we know how viruses spread and there are scientifically proven means to prevent contagion. Yet, for the 209,000 people in the United States and the million worldwide who perished, do we really want to blame them for their own suffering and death? It’s not just those with COVID, but imagine all you know who battle cancer, bear a debilitating genetic disorder, struggle with mental health diagnoses, or have lost a pregnancy. Do we really think it is their fault? I don’t. But, our language and theology suggests it is.
Blaming those who are ill has a long religious history. In Christianity, the Bible is filled with texts connecting sickness and sin. "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" With this idea lingers the notion that the afflicted one can, if they try hard enough, reverse course and heal themselves whether through homeopathic remedies, lifestyle changes, or prayer. Yet, anyone who has faced traumatic or chronic illness, understands how powerful and damning these tropes are as the burden for their suffering weighs heavy on their shoulders.
It is lazy theology to simply ascribe suffering to one’s actions. For while it might feel good or just in one case, it most certainly will be painful or even sinful in another.
In Dharmic traditions, whether in one lifetime or many, karma is fundamentally about cause and effect. It is not a form of punishment, but rather the idea that our actions, our concrete, moral and ethical decisions make a difference.
Buddhist scholar and teacher, Pema Chodron, reframes karma as a form of heart teaching.
“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
This weekend I was reminded of a quote by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” I have to wonder if the karmic lesson for us all lies in that. While it may feel like a temporary high to take joy in someone’s folly, in the end, it is our own hearts that pay the consequence.
For all the cheap laughs we might get, how have our hearts been opened? Or closed?
Dean T.L. Steinwert
Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life
Today, I gave up. There was nothing more I could do. With more leaves dropping and drooping than remaining, it became clear my mantle garden had to go.
At the beginning of the pandemic, inspired by the office plants I had taken home (and the racks of houseplants beckoning to me as I waited in grocery store lines), I purchased an odd assortment of house plants. Ferns and succulents alike filled my home, reminding me in a time of uncertainty that life is abundant, no matter how cramped or closed in it may feel.
I tended to them with care, making sure the soil was not too dry, not too moist. I actually read the plastic stakes and placed the plants accordingly throughout my house. And, for a while they grew and blossomed with vigor.
But, as the pandemic wore on and more crises arose, my care for them became a bit erratic. Perhaps, it was the start of homeschool on top of work or the mobilizing for fall quarter or maybe simply a case of COVID fog rolling in. I simply couldn’t care for them like I once had. I would discover they were dry and drench them in water to make up for my mistake or I would find them soggy (who would have guessed?!?) and try to dry them out in the sun. The plants would shrivel and perk up on a seemingly endless cycle.
Except today, I learned the cycle is not endless.
The constant stress of too much/not enough has finally gotten the best of these poor plants.
They, too, fell victim to surge fatigue.
As we reach the six month marker of the pandemic in the United States, much has been written about this concept of surge capacity, the set of adaptive strategies that allow humans to adjust to living under short term stressful situations.
In March, after our initial shock, we found ourselves able to rally with the idea that this would be a few weeks, a few months at the most. We reframed and dug in. We sprinted long and hard with a faint light at the end of the tunnel calling us forward. Yet, throughout these months the tunnel has not only grown longer, it has changed direction multiple times. One pandemic multiplied into many as our nation confronted the impact of white supremacy and systemic injustice, as fires and hurricanes left devastation in their wake, and as democracy hung in the balance of a contentious and fraught election season. Chronic stress itself is riddled with inequities. The toll it takes on marginalized and underserved communities is exponentially more difficult.
Trying to grapple with a prolonged state of emergency, we are all learning what it means and how it feels to live in a state of constant stress.
My poor plants remind us all that the cycle is not endless. We cannot run forever on Energizer Bunny mode. Our surge capacity has limits.
When we recognize this, we can begin to make changes in our lives to refill our depleted capacity. Gritting our teeth and pretending we are okay when we are not, is not going to see us through. It is okay to admit you have reached your limits. We all do. Accepting this is the first step.
Renewing surge capacity looks different for everyone. It might mean returning to the schedules that saw us through the first few weeks...daily walks, honest lunch breaks, or family game nights. It might be picking up a new hobby or interest beyond the breadmaking or canning of the summer. Your surge capacity might be refilled by taking time away to recharge or perhaps be replenished by connecting and re-connecting with those you love most. Resilience might be found in taking to the streets in protest or quietly sending get-out-the-vote postcards from home. It might be nurtured in novels or poetry or prayers abandoned along the way.
When my plants are stressed beyond the care of the hospital wing of my kitchen sink, I take them outside and allow nature to do what I cannot.
Last spring this plant (in the second picture) was at the end of days. Only a single yellowed leaf remained. Beyond my ability to nurture it back to health, I put it on the patio, to rest from the stressful cycles of too much/not enough. With time and the right kind of care from Mother Nature, the plant has rebounded, renewed and resurrected.
Life still remains abundant, no matter how cramped or closed in we feel, no matter how depleted and tired we are. We simply have to take time to cultivate it once again.
Dean T.L. Steinwert
Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life
Isolation, uncertainty, and a lack of control have made this time challenging. I won’t tell you that everything will be okay because I honestly don’t know if it will. What I can share are three difficulties that I’ve experienced and some approaches for dealing with them.
A technique for dealing with anxiety-inducing information My experience has been that our scope of control in life is always limited and never guaranteed. At any moment, we may lose our material possessions, opportunities, family, friends, physical health, or even our sanity. We become accustomed to our expectations of how things will be in the future. Right now, it seems that many people, including myself, have had to change their future expectations because of losses they have experienced.
In these circumstances, I’ve found it helpful to focus my attention as much as possible only on what I have immediate control over. When confronted with a new anxiety-inducing piece of information, I try to remember to ask myself the following series of questions:
(1) Could I do something about this, even indirectly, if I really tried? My answer is usually yes. (2) Do I have free time and energy to devote to this? For me, the answer is usually no. (3) Is doing something about this more important than what I am doing already? I consider mycurrent obligations and priorities. Again, my answer is often no. (4) If my answer to (2) or (3) is yes, then I ask what am I going to about it and how am I going to do it? At this point, I break my response into goals and tasks, and I plan how to do them. Otherwise, if my answer to (2) and (3) is no, I accept that whatever the information that I am responding to is beyond the scope of my control, and I direct my attention elsewhere.
Creating and maintaining flexible stability Even though the technique that I shared above can help with diffusing the anxiety of unsettling information, I’ve found that it is also important to stay aware of current events to some extent. They give important context for our individual lives. For me, this awareness has been associated with dread, grief, frustration, hoplessness and tiredness. There have been positive emotions too, but my overall reaction has been negative.
In this experience, I’ve been challenged by the need to take care of myself by maintaining a healthy routine while also feeling a need for catharsis. If unchecked, catharsis often turns into a downward spiral of disregulated and unhealthy behavior (e.g. sleeping at odd hours, eating unhealthy foods, not exercising, etc). I am trying to figure out how to regulate these cathartic experiences, so that they fit into my routine and my routine is flexible enough to accommodate them.
Thus far, I have had some success with scheduling regular time to go for walks, talking to friends and family, listen to music, and take twenty-minute naps. While I don’t know exactly what might work for you, if you feel that you struggle with a similar tension and haven’t found a solution, perhaps scheduling some time to do an activity you find cathartic on a regular basis may be helpful.
Ways to experience the pleasure of novelty while living in The Truman Show
It feels like covid has made my life a version of The Truman Show, where the dome that I live in can become a sensory-deprivation chamber. Much of life has literally become two-dimensional. My encounters with new and random people have become far less frequent. The variations between different times of the day have diminished. My world is smaller. I don’t eat as many new foods.
Prior to covid, I took these experiences of novelty for granted to some extent. I didn’t realize how important they are for forging new connections, learning new things, and keeping life lively. To counteract the grey dreariness that can set in from a lack of novelty, I’ve found that, now more than before, it’s important for me to seek out new experiences. This might be food from a restaurant, a new scenic hike or drive, or a photography book. However, even though I look for new things, most of life is more or less the same.
The most powerful source of novelty that I’ve found in these times is to look at the familiar more carefully or in a new way. I frequently take walks along the same route in my neighborhood, but I never get bored with the scenery because it is always slightly different or there is something I haven’t noticed before. Cooking new foods, finding new ways to decorate your space, or thinking carefully about how elements of your environment were constructed can also provide this kind of novelty. Whatever helps you see the world anew, I hope that you will turn to it when dreariness threatens.
While I have ups and downs, and remote life is different than in-person life, by employing these approaches I have mitigated some of the anxiety that I would have otherwise experienced. I have also found more joy in the routine. I am hopeful that I may be able to find stable wellness in the current circumstances.
Isaac Bevers, Class of 2021
All That You Need Lies Within
You Consider this an invitation to you.
with all your happiness
and your burdens,
your hopes and regrets.
An invitation if you feel good today,
and an invitation if you do not,
if you are aching—
and there are so many ways to ache… .
Whoever you are, however you are,
wherever you are in your journey,
this is an invitation into peace.
Peace in your heart,
and peace in your heart,
and -- with every breath --
Peace in your heart.
Maybe your heart is heavy
Maybe it’s troubled
and peace can take up residence
only in a small corner,
only on the edge,
with all that is going on in the world,
and in your life.
It doesn’t matter.
All that you need
for a deep and comforting peace to grow
lies within you.
Once it is in your heart
let it spread into your life,
let it pour from your life into the world—
and once it is in the world,
let it shine upon all beings.
—Angela Herrera, Reaching for the Sun
While it is often said that college is the best time of your life, we forget that it is also filled with a great deal of uncertainty. Perhaps we forget because we don’t like to sit with uncertainty or perhaps because since childhood we have lived under an idea of college as the final fulfillment of a career trajectory begun that first time you were asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
As a first gen student from a working class family, I knew early on that my destiny was to become a doctor. For families like ours being a doctor not only signaled the highest academic one could achieve, but also the way out of generations of financial fragility.
For four years, I worked with a single goal in mind….entrance into medical school. I took all the usual pre-med classes, bio, orgo and an advanced knot theory class (that was a mistake). Although I knew college was supposed to be difficult, I didn’t think it was supposed to feel so bad. I certainly did not feel any peace…let alone the deep and comforting peace to which the reading above alludes.
I am keenly aware that calls to find peace in this moment ring hollow. In a world turned upside down in which we struggle with one disaster after another, some natural and others of our own making, the world feels anything but peaceful. The words of the prophet Jeremiah, in Abrahamic traditions, echo in my mind. “Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
Yet, what if peace could be found in the midst of injustice, unrest, and uncertainty?
Angela Herrera’s poem, All That You Need Lies Within, invites us to imagine a way to find a peace amidst uncertainty…..in small corners and edges.
In college, I tried desperately to find those small corners and edges as I shoehorned myself into being a doctor. I majored in the sciences, but instead of sticking with hum bio, I was drawn to psychology, studying the acquisition of stereotypes and prejudice. I volunteered at a local hospital, but instead of treating patients, I ended up doing case management in the social services office. I crafted an independent study while in Nicaragua, but instead of studying medical care in rural communities, I wrote a paper on the impact of liberation theology in Central America.
While I was not particularly interested in medicine, I came alive when I explored the roots of systemic inequity or accompanied those in crisis or pondered our human condition. There my heart quickened and my spirit soared. But with the prospect of med school still ahead of me, I was desperately unhappy.
People noticed. One day, a mentor offered what seemed like a small observation, “I know you are headed to medical school, but you seem to be more interested in spiritual and social dis-ease than actual physical illness.”
I suppose it was obvious to everyone else (it often is), but,I had never allowed myself to imagine anything beyond medical school.
When the day came for me to take the MCATS, I was beyond nauseous. I awoke, got ready, grabbed my backpack, and then stepping out the door decided not to go. Not because I didn’t want to take a test, but because I knew that I did not want to be a doctor.
Throughout my time in college this realization had been growing, but not until that moment could I allow myself to fully accept it. Suddenly, my heart was flooded with an overwhelming sense of peace. I still didn’t know what I would do, but I was confident knowing what I wouldn’t do.
We know we have touched something sacred and holy when we discover that heart warming feeling. When we allow it to move out from those small corners and edges and fully into our consciousness, we find ourselves awash in hope and joy.
In my United Methodist tradition, we talk about it as your heart being strangely warmed. It is part of the journey to Christian perfection, the fullness of opening yourself to God. In Buddhist teaching, there is something similar. Bodhicitta, is the longing and commitment to awaken oneself for the sake of others. It is sometimes said to manifest as a strong feeling that the heart is beating out into the world. I like to think about it as your heart singing.
Whether it is Christian perfection or Buddhist bodhicitta or secular heart singing, the process is the same. We first notice the glimmer of love and compassion within. Nurture it, allowing it to grow within. And, then open ourselves to allow the peace we discovered to spill out of our heart and into the world.
Peace can be found in the midst of uncertainty. We just have to recognize and tend it.
I invite you as you read this to sit quietly for a moment, allow your heart to still, and think about that which you love most. It might be a person or place. It might be an idea or hope. It could be your pet or your favorite food, after all as Trungpa Rinpoche says, “Everyone loves something, even if it is tortillas.”
Allow yourself to sit with the feeling of love that begins to emerge in the small corners and edges of your heart. Focus on it. Draw up its warmth and allow yourself to bask in its glow. Can you feel it? Can you find that glimmer, that glimpse growing from within? This is your peace. This is your gift to the world.
Michelle Obama has said, asking a child what they want to be when they grow up, “is one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child…As if growing up is finite.” Maybe you want to be a doctor and maybe you don’t, but together we will take the journey, accompanying one another as we seek our own peace, our own heart song, sung for the sake of the world.
So, consider this an invitation….
Consider this an invitation into peace.
Peace in your heart.
And peace in your heart
and with every breath
peace in your heart.
Dean T.L. Steinwert
Dean for Religious Life
Mathematics weds and distinguishes the necessary from the sufficient. Leavening agent is necessary for leavened bread but leavening (e.g., yeast) alone is insufficient for making bread.
To paraphrase Alistair Begg, the true disciple of Christ seeks an existence without sin, without self, and without secrecy. Each of these three qualities alone is necessary for discipleship; but, only when applied together are all three sufficient.
My brothers and sisters in Christ will sometimes explain to me that, rather than openly sharing God’s word, they instead lead by example. Certainly, leading by example is necessary and an outward, active thanksgiving to God; yet, leading by example without explanation for what is inspiring our actions is necessarily insufficient.
Of concern especially is if any fear motivates secrecy—fear of being misunderstood or socially ostracized or offending or persecution. To be sure, sharing the Christian ethos and God’s word should never intentionally offend but should always be an act of brave gentle respectfulness, even when firm. As to the matter of being misunderstood or socially ostracized or persecuted, we already acknowledge that we, as children of God, are aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:11). Nor should we cringe from any suffering when compared to the far greater sufferings experienced by others who have explicitly served God (e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Hebrews 11:36-38). Finally, and most importantly, to withhold our faith in secrecy betrays our creed at its core for secrecy about our faith is selfish. We want as many as possible to have the glorious opportunity for salvation (Matthew 28:18-20). Q.E.F.
Tyson Holmes, the author of this reflection, is a Senior Research Engineer who serves as a statistician for the Human Immune Monitoring Center in the School of Medicine. He specializes in development of statistical methods for immunological assays and immunoassays. He was reborn into the Christian faith in late 2019 / early 2020. His rebirth has completely transformed his life, including transforming his professional life from science as career to science performed purely in loving service to the glory of God, practiced with empathy. He was inspired to write this short essay at the present time because he strongly believes that those in Christ can be leaders during today’s tumult of many and varied crises; but, in so doing, as the Heavenly Father’s children, we need to give credit, and clearly, to God who inspires us.
If we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal.
These words, portrayed in art by Kate Deciccio in mid-March, 2020, and shared by (and commonly misattributed to) disability activist Mia Mingus, have been playing in my brain since I first saw them.
In March, as people in the United States began to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders were made, as life as we knew it shifted and changed, none of us knew what to expect. I, like many others, thought it might be a month of two of staying home, of only seeing people through my computer or phone screen, of wiping down my groceries and wearing a mask everywhere I went. It sounded hard, and I was ready to do it. I saw this art from Kate Deciccio and I thought, yes, this will be a good opportunity for us to change some of the status quo. We’ll all be a little disrupted, and it will be easier to make some shifts away from what we’ve been considering to be “normal.”
Ah yes, back when I thought things would be “a little disrupted.”
As time passed, it continued to get clearer that we were in this for the long haul, and I no longer pretend to have any idea at all when this will end, when I’ll stop wearing a mask everywhere I go, when it will feel normal to spend time in someone else’s home, when I will get to regularly hug my friends. It seems very clear now, almost 6 months after this piece of art was created, that we will never go back to normal, that we can never go back to normal. The world has changed over these months, and we know that it will continue to change in ways we might not even be able to imagine over the next months.
But the longer the pandemic continues, the more it seems many of us want nothing more than to go back to “normal.” We yearn for the before times, when life worked the way we were used to, when we knew what to expect and how to be in the world. The further we get from the normal we used to live in, the more we forget exactly what it was like, all the difficulties and snags and problems in our society. The further we get from how things were, the easier it is to gloss over all the issues, to nostalgically reminisce about how things were. We just want to go back, because going back means there’s no pandemic, no fear and grief surrounding us like a cloud, no deep uncertainty about everything around us.
Except there were fear, and grief, and uncertainty. The normal in which we lived before the world was disrupted by a pandemic was hard, too - it was just hard in different ways for different people. We didn’t have a unifying trauma that we could pinpoint as the cause of our fear, and grief, and uncertainty. It was easier to pretend things were fine, and even easy to think back to that time and really believe that it was.
If we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal. What does it mean to get it right?
It means not letting ourselves get swept up in nostalgia and wishful thinking about the world pre-pandemic. It means taking a chance to acknowledge the problems in our society and world and the ways in which they deeply affected so many people, even if those people weren’t us, or like us.
We have the push we need to change the ways things have been, to create a new normal that isn’t just a rebuilding of the old normal. It will be hard. It would be much easier to let everything go back to the way it was. But we have this chance, and we need to take it.
So I invite you to breathe, deeply. We are in the long haul, of the pandemic and also of changing the world, bringing it closer to the just world and beloved community we can imagine together. How can you care for yourself, and for others, as we do the work that needs to be done? What practices help ground you, center you, fortify you? For me, it is taking sabbath time, being outside, nourishing the people around me with delicious food, laughing a lot. Breathe in, breathe out.
I am so excited to help bring about the new normal with you.
Rev. Aisha Ansano (she/her) is a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Malden, MA. She is a co-founder of Nourish, a dinner church consultancy helping congregations create meaningful embodied worship services, even when everything is online. Aisha graduated from Stanford in 2012 with a BA in Religious Studies, and went on to complete a Master of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. At Stanford, Aisha spent a lot of time at the Office of Religious Life, serving as a Rathbun Fellow for Religious Encounter as well as an inaugural SAR Interfaith Fellow. You can connect with Rev. Aisha at email@example.com
Do not be confirmed to the patterns of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds Romans 12:2
In this season of pandemic, our family has begun the practice of (attempting) to grow plants from the food we eat. We’ve tried: leeks, onions, avocado, lemon, orange, and lime. Some have flourished, many have not. Of particular interest has been the progression of our avocado seeds; first they cracked and sent down a tap root, then the sprout stretched toward the sun. After a few weeks, we noticed some strange growth on the taproot only to realize later that the growths were eating away at the root. We removed the rot, expecting the fledgling tree to die from the damage. We were surprised to discover some weeks later new roots were forming at the base of the seed; although the taproot is likely beyond healing the plant has found a new way to grow and live.
Our avocado plant isn’t the only thing showing signs of rot and decay this pandemic season; the outward and visible signs of systems of oppression, violence, and moral decay are all around us. Yet again this week we’ve mourned the systemic violence of anti-black racism that rages through the institutions and culture of this country. We’ve added another name, Jacob Blake, to the endless list of names of black women and men, both known and unknown, who have experienced violence and death at the hands of racist systems and the people who accept the invitation to uphold them.
This summer I participated in a workshop offered through our office called “Sitting With Trouble: Spiritual Tools for Ending Racial Terror”. In this space of conversation and learning, Rev. Lynice Pinkard and Nichola Torbet, invited participants into a place of honesty and wrestling with the legacy and reality of racial terror in this country. At the beginning of each session, Rev. Lynice and Nichola offered a centering moment by inviting us to be radically present to each other as people who inhabit bodies. They would say something like, “white supremacy disconnects us from our bodies - we invite you to close your eyes, focus on your breath, acknowledge and inhabit your body” Each week, I could feel my body resisting the invitation to be fully present. I was surprised by these feelings of resistance, and the immediate internal excuses that arose to my defense, “Monday is a hard day”, “I am so busy this week, I can’t possibly be expected to be fully present in every meeting”. When I was able to accept the invitation to interrogate my feelings and responses, I was able to acknowledge, again and anew, the “razor wire tentacles” of white supremacy living inside my own body; they invited me into the opportunity to choose the work of rooting out the rot of white supremacy again, and anew.
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he calls for the Christian community to disentangle themselves from the razor sharp tentacles of harmful systems of a particular time and place. Paul implores the fledgling Christian community to choose to accept the invitation to accept and embody the work of love that God offers by allowing the love and legacy of Jesus to transform their minds. He writes, “Do not be confirmed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is - what is good and pleasing and mature”. In other words, in order to do the work of love and God offers, Christ followers must free their minds and hearts from the harmful systems of violence and power in the time and place (and body) in which we find ourselves. It is an invitation that we must choose to accept, again and again, if we are to do the work of liberation, healing, and wholeness to and toward which God calls. As a white American clergy person, I am keenly aware that my ancestors in the faith too often did (and do) not to accept this invitation - and the grave consequences of spiritual, emotional, and physical violence that result.
I am grateful for the invitation Rev. Lynice and Nichola offered in our workshops this summer, and the many ways God is inviting us to choose the work of love and liberation in this time and place. Accepting this invitation requires much of us; it requires acknowledging the razor sharp tentacles of supremacist ideologies that live in our bodies, our families, communities, institutions, and society - and choosing to call it out and root it out. It is an invitation to transformation and collective liberation. It is an invitation to show up and do the work, again and again and again.
It is an invitation to you. And to me. And to us collectively.
Will you accept?
Rev. Colleen Hallagan Preuninger
Associate Minister for Memorial Church and Director of Student Engagement
The Elul moon is nearly full. Elul, the month before the Jewish New Year, is a time for self-examination and reflection. Every morning of Elul, in preparation for the Days of Awe—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—traditional Jews blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, to wake ourselves up to the world around us and to engage in the process of cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul.
I began the month of Elul studying in an international master class taught by my rabbi, liturgist Rabbi Edward Feld. We explored the relationship between fixed prayer and the personal stirrings of our heart. And just as each morning of Elul, I blow shofar, so too do I offer the special prayer added to the liturgy during the holiday season, Psalm 27.
The psalm begins,
“God is my light and my refuge secure
Whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life,
Of whom should I be afraid…”
It is by exploring these words handed down from generation to generation, together with the daily concerns stirring our souls, where fixed prayer and personal prayers intertwine. On first glance, the psalmist seems to speak words of absolute faith, but that confidence also includes questions—questions about fear and protection. They suggest that the poet, the pray-er cannot be oblivious to our surroundings, to the uncertainties and challenges, the disappointments and even despair that can taunt and trouble faith. In our current moment, in our private and public lives, we have been caught in what seems like a never-ending maelstrom. Fear abounds.
Rabbi Feld writes, “I live in a world which can be treacherous, many of the people I know lack integrity, are corrupt, are unafraid to pervert the truth. Even my mother and father are imperfect, they live their own lives, and they, too, may desert me in my hour of need.” i
In our world, trust and truth are challenged at every turn. The pandemic prevents all of us from leading our normal lives, even keeping us from the strength we reap when we pray in community. Too many of us can’t afford today’s rent or tomorrow’s dinner. Democracy is being challenged as never before. The bill for reckoning with our country’s racial injustice has come due with interest. People are taking to the streets, some armed with a belief in that the arc of the universe bends toward justice; others armed with weapons to resist that overdue change. Even our very planet is endangered. There is much to fear.
The psalmist recognizes that even those blessed with strong faith, in the face of the multiple crises we are absorbing, are beset with questions. And those questions lead to yearning, a yearning expressed in words and mirrored in a much-loved melody for lines in Psalm 27, a melody that breaks open my heart every morning as I sing it.
Just one thing I have asked of God
Only this do I seek;
To dwell in God’s house
All the days of my life,
To behold divine sweetness and beauty
And to gaze in delight at God’s temple.
The temple was once a physical structure in Jerusalem, with strict limitations on who was allowed to enter it. But after it was destroyed, worship became democratized. Worship at the temple—avodah—became avodah she’balev—worship of the heart. Abiding together in our heart is an acknowledgement of the fear that brings with it doubt and uncertainty, along with the hope that God’s presence will assuage it; a yearning to discern, to be reassured of God’s sweetness and beauty around and within us.
If I can dwell in God’s house, I would have a modicum of protection—not hermetically sealed off from all that swirls around me, but able to encounter those challenges centered, from a place of calm, a place of stillness, with an appreciation of sweetness and beauty even as I recognize its absence in a world not yet perfected.
Such different imagery I encounter each morning—in this psalm I sing of the quiet yearning to dwell in God’s house, with the recognition of the vulnerability and humility that characterizes such a desire. In the loud blasts of the shofar, my breath creates a call to awaken to the significant tasks which lay before us: to examine ourselves, our relationships and to repair them, and our world.
We need both. We need humility and steadiness and yearning to keep us faithful. And we need the clarion call of shofar blasts to arouse us to tackle injustice and despair, an obligation to do what we can to cultivate sweetness, beauty and wholeness within ourselves, in our relationships and in our broken world.
As the Elul moon fills with light, so may our convictions be illuminated and visible in the world.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann
Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life
“It feels a bit, well, um, I don’t know, apocalyptic?”
Cloaked in dry, dark humor, the question arises with a sheepish giggle that belies an underlying anxiety. I can’t tell you how many people have said some version of this to me in the past week. As a pastor, I’m supposed to have the answer.
Over the past few weeks as tensions rise and tragedy befalls tragedy, it can feel overwhelming and indeed apocalyptic. Against the backdrop of an unending pandemic, racial terror persists, cities burn, fires rage and hurricanes blow. Democracy teeters on the brink. This year bears all the marks of an epic end times and it is hard to know what to do in the midst of it all.
Is this the apocalypse? Is this the end?
When faced with these questions, I hear the words of Lucille Clifton, 1
not the end of the world
of a world
Since the pandemic began, this last line of her poem has become a mantra for me. When I notice my anxiety rising, feeling as though the world is falling apart all around me, I use this poem as prayer, centering myself in the understanding that all is not lost.
not the end of the world
of a world
The truth is the word apocalypse does not mean the end, at least not in the way we often think about it. The Greek word, apokalypsis, means a revelation or an unveiling. Apocalyptic literature, perhaps most well known in western Euro-centric cultures through the Christian Book of Revelation, is actually found in many religious and spiritual traditions. Examples are found in Judaism, in the Book of Daniel, in Hindu tantric and Sikh traditions in the concept of Kali Yuga, and in Buddhist teachings as the Dark Ages. While all of these traditions are distinct and the concepts different, there is a common theme of an unveiling of truth in light of our human limitations. Lama Rod Owens talks about it this way in a recent podcast:
“This is the truth... this is how we have been living together, this is how we’ve covered up so many issues, and now we can’t cover them up anymore. And that everything we’ve not done in the past is actually calling us to task now...It’s about the end of a way of thinking, a way of believing, and that’s painful to let go of. That’s where the fire and brimstone and the end of the world metaphor comes from. It’s from that basic tension and fear of letting go of ways that we used to be, in order to make space for what’s happening next.”2
not the end of the world
of a world
Our task in the midst of all of this is to pay attention to what is being revealed, what is crumbling and what is emerging. For many in our nation, racial terror is not a revelation, it is a lived reality. Yet for others it feels like a painful, shameful awakening. For some the impact of climate change has been long awaited as prophets for environmental justice (and scientists alike) foretold the coming of catastrophic weather. Yet, for others the connection between the impact humans wreak on the environment and the fires, hurricanes, and derechos destroying our landscape is just now being made.
This unveiling of the truth is painful. It is hard to live into these revelations as the old world order grasps for control. The shooting of Jacob Blake in the wake of protests across the nation should tell us that this emergence of a new way of be-ing has yet to come.
not the end of the world
of a world
We can move through this if we walk together. Leaning into the discomfort instead of bypassing it, allows the revelation to do more than simply stun us. It allows the revelation to transform us. We find through examining our pain empathy, compassion and love can arise, for ourselves and for each other.
It is not the end of the world. But it is and ought to be the end of a world.
We will get through this, but only together.
Dean T.L. Steinwert
Dean for Religious Life
1 Clifton, Lucille, “what has been made.” The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965 - 2010, edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser, BOA Editions, LTD., 2012, pp. 632.
2 “Apocalypse Right Now.” Love and Rage: the Path of Liberation through Anger, by Lama Rod Owens, North Atlantic Books, 2020, pp. 215–223.
I am coming to realize the power that healthy structure can lend to my life. As a high school student, I loathed any kind of structure; I saw myself as trapped within seemingly monotonous and never-ending school days. I felt like I never had free time and that my adventurousness and spontaneity were inhibited by my unwilling bond to my school and town. I saw any structure or routine as boring or bad, and longed for the freedom to do whatever I wanted all day long. With the flexibility that being a college student brought, this dream came true in many ways. I found I was able to eschew routine and predictability to an even greater degree than I had managed in high school. At first, this change delighted me. I could make my schedule as chaotic and spontaneous as I liked and then, when I got tired I could slump like a couch potato and catch up on the past week's missed sleep.
However, the surge-slump cycle started to wear on me after a while as my poor lifestyle habits ran rampant and unchecked. I got tired of being all over the place and confused and overwhelmed by the lack of consistency in my life. I realized that an alternative lifestyle was possible when I observed a classmate in my dorm who always appeared calm and peaceful. He never seemed to be rushed, dressed sloppily, or awake at 3am. I was very curious about how these feats were possible in the college environment and, as I got to know him, I learned about the power that a structure of healthy habits and routines provided in his life. He lived by practices like a regular bedtime, exercise routine, and daily meditation, and he shared with me how he often said no to things that would add excessive busyness to his schedule. Instead of being confining, these structures stabilized him and contributed peacefulness to his life. I took the lesson and began to implement some structures and habits in my own life, and although they've been difficult to establish, maintain, and prioritize, they have given back to me in the forms of strength, security, and stability.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed nature reinforcing this lesson that healthy structure matters. I had planted some yellow summer squashes, and all spring, they grew very well and the first squashes they yielded were beautiful. However, as the growing season picked up speed and each plant was producing multiple squashes at once, I noticed that the squashes began to slump and rot. An internet search revealed that when the plants lack access to calcium, an essential nutrient for the development of cellular structure, their fruits are unable to form and grow consistently and healthily. As a result, a whole crop is lost to rot. I appreciated seeing how plants and I both have a need for access to sources of healthy structure, and that when this need goes unmet, we slump, rot, and are unable to grow and produce optimally.
The COVID pandemic has erased an enormous amount of structure in each of our personal lives. Things are less stable, less certain, less regimented. Many of us may miss the purpose and rhythm that externally imposed schedules and commitments provided, even if we resented some of those routines in the past. It can be a helpful time to recognize that, like plants, we thrive with access to sources of stability and structure in our lives. We can offer to ourselves the gift of structure and routines that help us by establishing rituals like calling a friend at a set time every week, walking daily, having a bedtime, a morning cup of tea, or journaling. It may be difficult to establish these for ourselves if we have mostly relied on externally enforced routines for our structure in the past. Consciously deciding what structure we want for ourselves is an opportunity to expand our choices and to find habits of living that can actually support productivity and diminish the prevalence of mental slumps.
All of that said, in an extreme moment of irony, I have stayed up an hour and a half past my regular bedtime writing this blog post. So I guess healthy habit implementation is still quite the work in progress in my own life. But the steps that I have managed to take have certainly served me well and I plan to keep evolving.
Sterling is a Stanford undergraduate student currently growing vegetables and driving tractors in her hometown in Rhode Island. She will graduate with the class of twenty twenty-something, depending on how many more quarters she spends working on a farm between now and graduation.