Embodied Happiness: Church (?), Community, and Creative Spirituality

Ancient Testimony - Matthew 13:44 and 31-33

July 18, 2010

by Kelly Forbush

Last summer I was working in Arizona with a church group called the Good Samaritans.  We left bottles of water in the Arizona desert for migrants attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico. 

On a Friday afternoon, under the hot midday sun, four of us were finishing a morning of dropping water along the migrant trails.  Just over a hill, a white t-shirt affixed to a stick desperately waved surrender.  Two specks of human beings were stumbling down the hill.  My roommate and I ran back to the car to gather food and juice for the travelers.  We met them underneath a short, straggly tree.  Sheltered by its shade, we all sat down in the dusty dirt—the four water-droppers and the two migrants.

The migrants were exhausted and utterly famished.  They collapsed onto the ground, relieved to rest.  It was as if you could see the exhaustion just diffuse out through their well-worn clothes.  The food we brought was, to them, nothing short of treasure.  They slowly ate and eagerly drank the water.  We ate with them, savoring every bite in a whole new way.  There was some talk, a word or two of greeting, but mostly we were all just being present and soaking in the situation.

Cautiously, they looked at us—who were we, and what were we going to do to them?  Were we some secret border patrol?  Would we try to sell them into modern-day slavery? 

The leader among us, a powerful woman of faith by the name of Kathy, told the migrants where they were—about a day’s walk from the border.  They thought they were just a day’s walk from Maine.  Turns out they had been wandering in circles, literally, for days.

As we, the Good Samaritans, always do, we asked whether they wanted to keep walking on their journey.

No, they were done.  They wanted to go home.

We continued to sit there, underneath the small shade of the tree.

They would move on from here, they would go back across the border where there would be little for them—no hope for making a living in the U.S., even their shoelaces would be taken from them as a security measure against suicide.

But for a moment, we just sat with one another.  In an odd way, a sense of peace enveloped us.  Not the blissful, ecstatic, jumping off the walls with joy happiness; but a sort of still, full-body experience of happy peace permeated the group as we savored the simple bread and fresh water.  The wandering had paused, and the circles, at least for now, had stopped.  Much pain had come before, and, in all likelihood, much was on its way; but for now there was a peaceful pause.

In Hebrew, the word shalom is often translated as “peace.”  At its root, though, the word means “wholeness.”  Indeed, there is an inherent connection between peace and wholeness; they are the basis of embodied happiness.  By embodied happiness, I’m not talking about moments of ecstasy.  I’m talking about a state of being that has the potential to infuse everything we do; embodied happiness as the state of being whole and utterly at peace.  That afternoon, under the tree, was a taste of a sort of peace that brings wholeness and this sort of happiness: being together, vulnerable and completely as we were, resting in peace with one another, we became whole; realizing, not just intellectually, but experientially, in our very bodies, our interconnectedness.  For a brief moment we sat in peace and wholeness.  It was a happiness that filled every ounce of our being—an embodied happiness.  We talked about our families and of people we love.  We looked at each other and held each other’s hands.  We ate.  It was communion in the most real way I have ever experienced—communion as a meal together, being present with one another in a very honest way.  Communion that could look something like the picture on your bulletin: monkeys open with one another, happy and real and oddly peaceful, sharing a meal.

In Christian theology, some say the Eucharist or communion is a taste of the heavenly banquet that is to come when the Kingdom of God is established at the end of times.  Now there is not an ounce of me that believes in some fire and brimstone ushering in of the kingdom of heaven.  I do not envision an apocalypse akin to blockbuster movies such as Armageddon.  However, like many of you, I do believe a better world is possible and that, in a unique way, the experience of communion in the desert was a taste of that better world, a world of deep peace, complete wholeness, and embodied happiness.

The short parables from the ancient testimony this morning attempt to describe what this better world could be like: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy goes and sells all she has and buys that field.”  Indeed, this better world is a treasure worth everything we own; in the desert, that moment of communion, the space we shared was worth absolutely everything.  Each of us, for different reasons, was fully present in the sharing of bread and water.  The materials of bread and water were, very realistically, a treasure worth everything.

 “The Reign of Justice is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  Something incredibly great growing from the most common of things.  In communion we take such simple common materials and allow them to grow into something amazing: simple food to eat and clean socks for the migrants’ dirty feet.  The smallest of things can give immense peace and full-on happiness, giving birth to a greater love and a more just world.  That afternoon in the desert, sharing shade, resting and eating with wanderers across borders, it was a piece of the more just world—the Reign of Justice, as it were.  Not necessarily because a hungry person had been fed, but because resting together, sharing our treasure, soaking each other in, fully there with one another, sharing the smallest bit of good things, we had a brief taste of the Reign of Love.

But this better world is not yet fully here.

Eventually the migrants got in our car and we travelled with them to the border.  We said goodbye, believing that someday borders would not exist.  Until then, we can savor those moments in which we get a small taste of a better world to come.  We can also seek out moments of embodied happiness and wholeness.

Unfortunately, it often feels like other people just aren’t into loving and are hell-bent on making genuine Love absolutely invisible here on Earth.  Judson folk are well aware of the forces and people who are fighting to punish loving and thwart justice, from legislation battles to protesters outside the church.  We know the difficulty of dealing with people who seem rather dense and, well, stupid.  How could they really believe splitting up a family is the right thing to do? 

I was in high school when gay marriage was becoming legal in Massachusetts, and found myself at a rally in front of the state house.  We stood on our side with rainbows and signs and songs.  On the other side stood our opponents waving their “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” signs.  Safely surrounded by gay positive friends and church members, I watched as three nuns joined the other side.  I stared at them curiously.  You see, I grew up in the United Church of Christ and, unlike many folks, lived in a congregation where homosexuality was, by and large, accepted as a gift from God.  So I was curious about these nuns and pointed them out to my friend.  He said, “Let’s go talk to them” 

Bewildered and somewhat excited, I followed my friend across the street.  It was pouring rain and I had a huge rainbow umbrella.  So my gay male friend and I stood underneath the rainbow with these three nuns.  They looked rather surprised and startled that we were talking to them.  We shared our faith journeys.  They talked about what made them decide to be nuns, and I talked about my emerging call to ministry.  There was no bread, and it did not seem like communion—in the way eating with the migrants in the desert felt like communion—but in another way, talking with those nuns was communion, at least for those very brief moments when we were sharing our faith, when we really heard one another and connected, when the street and ideologies and lifestyles that divided us were lifted for a second, when I saw their effort to love and they, hopefully, saw mine.  It was a delightful treasure, a priceless pearl of a moment.  It was invigorating and centering all at the same time—both parties brought our whole selves, and in doing so our conversation created a sense of peace, wholeness, and yes, happiness.  It was really only a minute, only the shortest of time; a somewhat common conversation, albeit with a rather contentious and divisive backdrop; but I wonder what would have happened if that minute had grown into something more.

 “The Reign of Justice is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in her field; it is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

While immensely more difficult, communion with Conservatives, with our enemies across the street, is necessary for embodied happiness, for us to taste that better world to come, to grow into wholeness as individuals.  Talking with the other doesn’t make a whole lot of strategic political sense—it’s easier to paint a black and white picture and sell it to the masses.  What’s the point of sharing moments with enemies if we don’t change their minds?  Odd as it sounds, maybe the point is not to change their minds in that first communion, maybe that is not necessarily the goal this time around.  Why, then, commune with the enemy?  You can say that Jesus told us to love the enemy.  While that is true, I, personally, would like a bit more of an explanation.

The moments with the nuns and in the desert gave me a glimpse into why I would want to practice communion, in the widest and truest sense of the word.  Communion with the enemy is a way to taste the Kingdom of Heaven.  Communion is wholeness and a state of peace that creates embodied happiness.  While communion is small and often simple, it will grow into a tree so big all creation can rest within.  Communion with the enemy is not to hear about their hate—that is not communion; that is just divisive.

I am not advocating life-threatening coming out conversations; I am suggesting that we trust that the treasure that is the Kingdom of God, embodied happiness, is present in communion—communion across borders with those both easy and hard to eat with.  It’s resting with them in their sorrows and in their joys.  It’s listening to their story and experiencing our interconnectedness.  Communion, as I’m describing it, is nothing short of embodied happiness—resting in peace with one another, being whole.

As Bud Scott alludes to in the meditation quote this morning, church can be a place of communion; community can be a place of communion; creative spirituality can be a place of communion.  I’m not always able to commune with enemies—I struggle with those conversations and need practice to make it more possible.  Creative spirituality can prepare us for communion with our enemies—it may be the key to getting to communion.  Creative spirituality: those practices that ground us, center us, and connect us to the wider world, whether it’s playing the cello, painting in a living room studio, or tea with a friend.  These grounding practices are moments of happiness, but these actions also give us the insight and practice in cultivating a peaceful presence.  Such a peaceful state of being sure does come in handy when attempting to commune with the enemy, which I believe is another form of lasting happiness, peace, and wholeness.

Communion itself is overcoming the fear that keeps us from searching in the desert, the fear that keeps us from crossing the street, the fear that we won’t be loved or will be left alone—because, ultimately, we know that we will get through the desert.  We know that our church community is right behind us.  We know that there is some loving power here with us.  So we, as a church, as a community, as individual people, we sit with bread and listen to stories and hold each other’s hands as we walk with one another on this journey toward embodied happiness—here, in the moment—and greater wholeness, peace, and happiness in the time to come.





Meditation Quote

Judson Church is not a church intent on breeding saints, that is true.  Judson's people never mention the ideal of sanctity, holiness and even the word ‘love’ is used with apologies—all this is true.  But something else must be said.  Judson has learned the mystery of Christian community.  There is a kind of ‘togetherness,’ a ‘fellowship’ which bespeaks a wordless clarity and betrays a secret sanctity.  It is a community hard to enter but infinitely harder to leave.  I have never found a true Christian community such as I have been privileged to know here.

~ from The Role of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, 1960, by Bernard (Bud) Scott, seminary intern under Bob Spike, associate minister under Howard Moody, 1957-1960



Modern Testimony               

According to my experience, the principal characteristic of genuine happiness is peace: inner peace.  By this I do not mean some kind of feeling of being “spaced out.”  Nor am I speaking of an absence of feeling.  On the contrary, the peace I am describing is rooted in concern for others and involves a high degree of sensitivity and feeling, although I cannot claim personally to have succeeded very far in this.  Rather, I attribute my sense of peace to the effort to develop concern for others.

~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Ethics for the New Millennium


55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844