The Modernity of Tradition

April 07, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

If you heard today’s scriptures telling you to do two different things, then you heard them right. You are to stand at the crossroads and look for the ancient paths. Message: stay on the path. In the second scripture, you are warned about hidden things not known to you, which you could not know before you were there. Message: blaze a trail. Stay on the ancient paths and blaze a trail. You are to be a traditionalist and a modernist, a respecter of ancient times and people and also ready to be a pioneer at a moment’s notice. You are to be both/and – not either/or. I love to preach the paradox of scripture. So here goes.



I am married, as many of you know, for thirty-one years to an American historian. At the drop of a hat, he will be talking about 1972 or 1838. It drives me crazy. I like to think of myself as someone only interested in the present and the future. I want to talk about what’s next and who’s next and how we get out of the grip of religious institutions that are in hospice or economic institutions that persecute working people. No, we can’t live on 7.25, the great slogan from this week’s groundbreaking trail breaking walkouts of fast food workers. I fashion myself as somebody already at work to stop the next war. If Warren is an historian, I am a futurist. Things have become much worse now that we have discovered that his ex girlfriend argued a brief for marriage equality before the Supreme Court last week. I had no idea Warren was that interested in the issue of marriage equality. And so it goes, even in my fairly simple domestic life. The conflict between the past and the future often shows up romantically.

Most of us hear the great if overused Robert Frost poem as a chance to go into the what ifs of our own lives. What if I had stayed with him or her instead of jumping ship and trailblazing? When roads diverge in any wood or any subway, things happen. We go this way rather than that. Our lives are changed. Most of you don’t know that I was fired by Yale University. The reason is that I raised a lot of money from one of their regular donors for a community project. I did not know that it firmly said in the personnel manual that a chaplain couldn’t do that. I was reinstated after the normal obeisances and then went on to have a really cool fling with the gentleman with all that money. He and I parted ways, he went on to marry my best friend, but only after he bought a house on the Rhode Island shore for me, with a third story room overlooking the ocean. There, my orders from my rich friend were to leave the ministry and to be a writer. I neither stayed on an ancient path nor blazed a trail with this gentleman. Instead I did both things. I stayed with my call to be a minister and blazed a trail for him – because no one had ever said no to him before. He sold the house for a tidy profit.

Why go in to the men in my life as a way to appreciate the paradox of this scripture? Why not, I suppose is one answer. Another is I am just getting back at Warren for his sudden page turning interest in marriage equality. But the better one is this. Whenever we say no to one path, we are also saying yes to another. When roads diverge, the path we take becomes the blazed trail of our own life. Romantic liaisons are often the closest example of these truths form the wisdom literature we attend today. (More the wisdom literature embedded in the prophetic literature.) If you don’t believe me, stay up late with just about anybody and they will tell you the story of the one they left behind or who left them behind or how their life changed in the twinkle of an unreturned twinkle in the eye. What if, we say, when we really attend our own life experience. These conversations are often wisdom conversations.

The wisdom literature tells us to stay on the ancient paths. It also tells us to blaze new trails. It is confusing at best, paradoxical at the center, and finally tells us what wisdom is all about. Wisdom lets us know that the future has great tendrils in the past. It also tells us that there is a place off the beaten path, where we can drag the ancient along to good effect. It tells us that there is always tradition in modernity and always modernity in post modernity and always parents and ex-lovers chasing us around, trying to infiltrate their story with our story. Maturity is dialogue with what our parents told us to be and do or not be and do and then going from their path to our own. Wisdom is widening the path so that the ancient ways are respected and treasured just enough to make their own dreams come alive in a new way. What a parent wants most is for the child to widen the path of the parent.

My own three children, all in their late twenties, keep wanting to talk about what they should do with their lives. The vocational questions among twenty and thirty year olds today are powerful and laden with a sense of consequence. I name the unpaid internship as just one example. That decision is so fraught for so many! It is way to fraught in an economy that has convinced us that scarcity is real.

I love the way the Isaiah scripture, the more enigmatic of the two, tells us about what we can’t know. That is another costume that wisdom wears. It just shakes its head and says you can’t know till you know or “from now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you, they are created now and not long ago, you have not heard of them before today.” Meaning that some things are so new that you couldn’t possibly predict them. You can’t know if it would be better to have been a writer staring at the Atlantic or a pastor staring at a parish, until you know. You can’t know if you should have stayed with so and so or such and such. There are things that are created now and not long ago, you have not heard of them before today. What the wise person who knows she can’t know does know is this: relax. Big history and personal history can be tamed, but only day-by-day, not decade-by-decade. And wisdom grins: Big history and personal history can only be tamed, decade by decade not day by day. Both/and. Not either or.

Before you leave here thinking that wisdom is about your personal trails blazed on your own ancient path, just imagine one minute how wisdom works for someone like Bradley Manning. He has spent 1043 days in jail. Did his mother ever tell him he was going to be a whistle blower? I don’t think she did nor could she. Or consider the 166 people left at Guantanamo, 130 now on hunger strike, surely feeling that they have no impact on the world at all, particularly now that the press has been banned from Guantanamo. Imagine the press being banned anywhere and you will see one of those roads diverging in a yellow wood that could not have been predicted. These people and their hunger strike will have impact. They and we just can’t know when yet.

Or who could have guessed that the week after Easter our sacred space would open every night to a different crowd, and I do mean crowd. Tuesday night the Street Vendors party, totally packed, rock and roll blaring. Did these people know long ago that they would be at a party celebrating their work as street vendors? I don’t think so. But I think the Rock and Roll helped them appreciate their vocation. Wednesday night, Magic Time? Did these old windows and door ever know that the balcony would be a bailout theater? Or that in the first decade of the twenty first century the banks would get a bailout and the people would need one? What would Adoniram Judson say about that? Or think of him looking down on Thursday night’s packed house of the Moslem Consultative Network, celebrating their work in this great city? Or Thursday afternoon our enjoyment of the Space at Tompkins, which uses the garden room, already so storied, to bring social services to kids who live on the street, with their dogs and their tattoos and their points of view? And then Friday night on that platform, there was a live streaming of the Bradley Manning support team, which brought in some of the smartest journalists I have seen in a long time, showing how banishing the press at Gitmo and whistle blowing connect and how we need to keep the ancient paths open and wide and ready for forks in the road. I got the video from my friend in Australia. Who could have imagined that either?

So what does wisdom do after it understands that the past has snuck into the future and that you can’t get to the future without walking along the ancient paths? That decisions that were made that were so consequential that you couldn’t end up being anywhere but here, now, looking from here at now? Again wisdom relaxes. And it also becomes alert. Wisdom has a relaxed alertness, that pays attention to decisions that are made, personally and politically. Or perhaps wisdom is an alert relaxation.

Wisdom sees the old folk tale in the new story. Yesterday, listening to Selected Shorts on the radio, there was an Italo Calvino story read that was almost exactly the same plot as the play we had here last year, “The Old Man and the Moon.” I figured those kids had stolen the idea until I realized that Calvino had also stolen the idea. Wisdom sees the old folk tale in the new story, the trail blazed as an ancient path weeded and wed.

Finally wisdom does what Oscar Wilde did. You may have heard that yesterday was the anniversary of his arrest for sodomy. He was arrested in room 118 of the Cadoga Hotel in London in 1895. For this so-called crime of sodomy, which some like to think of as a trail blazed but is also an ancient path, he did two years of hard labor. He made a ritual while in jail; walking six hours a day in 29 minute increments so as to walk a 6000-foot incline over time. Why he did this we will never know. But the point is he made a ritual to get himself through a hard time. Ritual is another thing wisdom does to walk an ancient path while blazing a trail. Rituals allow the ancients to hold hands with the next. If you have ever wondered what you would do if someone imprisoned you, wisdom tells you to make a ritual. Remember what is next and coming while holding tight to the place from which you came. Better said, walk the ancient path in such a way as to widen and open them. Make sure the press can always go everywhere they need to be.

I close with a story about an 80 year old man who went back to college after he retired, brooding on the possibility of having lived differently. He had to leave college to take care of his family. He describes himself this way: “the person getting that education now is that boy, I’ve waited sixty years for him. I remember saying to him when I left, ‘You stay here, and I’ll come back for you.’ And I did.”

Wisdom knows you can always go back and you can always go forward. Wisdom also knows that every step matters, and that’s why wisdom is so non-chalant and so alert. Amen

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