Gathering up the Fragments

March 02, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and we begin Lent, the prelude to Easter.

People love to spend mud season in forms of spiritual practice – and many make sure they stuff themselves with pancakes or doughnuts or sweeps on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before the Wednesday when you go into anti-sugar and fat mode. Lent gets a bad reputation this way – as though Sunday were the day for spirituality and Sabbath and Monday the day for the un spiritual or anti spiritual. If you want a spiritual practice, look outside Lent, not just on Sundays and please don’t light a candle.

A spiritual practice is not something you do in Lent but instead something you recognize that you are already doing or wish you had been doing. Usually we become spiritual way too late, even though the opportunity to be spiritual is an ever-ready battery. Spiritual practices are more like solar energy than anything else. They shine. They are an energy that creates more energy. And like solar, many people think they can’t afford the long-term investment. Thus we stick to electricity or Lent or Sundays or candles. And of course, these spiritual surrogates are terribly, dangerously wrong. Those who can’t thank or relax or see will find somehow that they wish they had thanked or relaxed or seen. It’s just a question of how the play is going to end, after the surprises of the second act.

Spiritual practices are usually something you should have done before you did it. Like the play that some of us will enjoy seeing this afternoon in the Loft, at 2, a spiritual practice resembles parents’ waking up in the middle of the night, realizing that their sons are not asleep in their bed as they have imagined but instead engaging in juvenile delinquencies. There is a danger in imagining that everything is normal instead of imagining that everything is special.

A spiritual practice has three characteristics. First it is a deepening of the always and the everyday. It is washing the dishes as though you liked to or flossing your teeth as though you loved your teeth, rather than just keeping the dentist from guilt tripping you. Secondly, a spiritual practice is pretty much anything that tussles with the pragmatic and takes pragmatism into something deeper than its obvious and worthy utility. Practice is not the opposite of pragmatic so much as its underwear, what you wear close to your skin.

You can wash the dishes spiritually if you also remember you are glad to have dishes. You can floss your teeth spiritually if you are grateful to have teeth. Spiritual practices don’t war with pragmatism or pit the spirit against the flesh so much as they take the flesh and salt it with spirit.

A spiritual practice deepens the already and everyday, it joins spirit to the flesh, and it also makes you aware of what you thought you knew but forget. Or forgot. And forgot again.

Like the only Oscar nominated movie I have seen, Captain Philips, a spiritual practice develops when you identify with your oppressor, whose name is often yours. I know. I am not the pirate movie type. In fact, when I realized I was watching a pirate movie, I decided not to tell anybody. It was an accident of tuning on Jet Blue. Then when the First World Captain’s eyes met the eyes of his Somali pirates, and I realized that he saw himself in them, saw his downward mobility as theirs, I realized I was watching a movie spiritually. I was watching a man move beyond the pragmatism of saving his ship and himself into something more nearly representing salvation. Lots of people turn spiritual practices into confections. They are not confections. They are defections, when we disrupt the normal absurdities on behalf of the deeper absurdities. In those deeper absurdities, like pirating, truth is lurking, with a patch on its eye.

Everyone sees the writing on the wall. Most of us assume it is addressed to someone else. Everyone knows that we should be grateful for the food on our plates or the teeth in our mouths. Very few of us experience gratitude. Spiritual practices train and trick and prod our unconscious into Consciousness. The word “Duh” comes to mind.

Last week at a Metropolitan Community Church in Florida I took communion for probably the umpteenth time in my life. I have even received it from Roman Catholic nuns before. But I never heard the words of institution said like this. “Jesus sat at table with his disciples and after the meal was over, he gathered the crumbs of bread, left at the table, blessed the crumbs and gave them to his disciples, saying “Remember me.” A spiritual practice picks up the fragments and blesses them. A spiritual practice stops complaining about the administration it takes to manage every day life and starts being blessed by it, infusing trust into it, imagining that community comes from good administration and isolation comes from its absence. There are days when I think I can’t read one more email, forgetting that response is the opening song in the opera of trust. Administration and building infrastructure is the fabric of political life. Ask Obama. Ask Cuomo. Ask de Blasio. Ask the Pope. How much of their time is spent rebuilding people’s capacity to believe them?

Listen to those city workers from Detroit. They are being asked to give up 35% of their pensions. They are angry. “What,” said one of them, “is going on here? Why were these promises made to me broken? Was it something we should have done when we had a chance, was some mistake made? Or are we really out of money?” A spiritual practice does what you can when you should have done it. Not after you should have done it. Lent may cause you to give up doughnuts but it also drives you to a deeper relinquishment, early enough for it to be just and to matter. Todd Gitlin says we are in a slow motion apocalypse regarding climate change. He is right. A spiritual practice knows that it knows that. It comprehends. It goes solar, knowing it can’t afford not to.

This morning I woke up again realizing I hadn’t made my dish for the Oscars potluck I am going to tonight. The invitation came with orders: we are to bring a dish that comes out of one of the movies. I am to be clever, erudite and also a good cook. It will be a fancy party and I won’t have the right clothes or the right dish or know how to make the right conversation. I was having some social anxiety about my dish. Actually I was having existential anxiety about my place in the universe. I just let the dish carry it. I don’t even know what all the movies are, much less what to make. So I started throwing something at a pot and all of a sudden I stared having fun with it. I did have some red pepper flakes that were a favor left over from another high-end party, where I was also out of my place. I did have some vegetable broth. There were those dappled beans that had been in that jar for way too long. And yes, we have venison in our freezer. All of a sudden a chili developed that will have to find a reason, in the conversation, for existing. A fragment dish, I’ll call it. From a chore, making the chili turned out to be fun. That is a spiritual practice: a deepening of supper through dinner to dining. I won’t be the only person at the party, wondering if her offering is worthy, existentially and practically. I think I will call it what Captain Philips wished he had to eat, while starving.

I will be obeying Wendell Berry’s great rule: Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts. I will be obeying the spiritual orders to throw an anchor into the future you want to build and pulling yourself along by its chain.

I will also be following the Harry Koutoukas rule for a spiritual practice. Remember his rhinestone crucifix song? I will be remembering my own enjoyment of a glow in the dark plastic cross that I had as a kid. I always thought it was so spiritual and it turns out that it was just a night-light. The spiritual is a candle and it is also likes to trick you.

Spirituality is also like an old farmhouse. You don’t need an architect to built one. In A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York and New England. by William Morgan we learn that they were not built by architects but by stonemasons, carpenters and other craftsmen and often by the farmers themselves. “Beauty is not ignored nor is it accentual but arrives through necessity.” Ah, this is how you build beauty, by necessity.

Someone just said, with a tremor in her voice, “We are out of nutmeg. How could that have happened?” Good question, right. How could those kids have set fire to a hill when we thought they were home in bed? How could my ship have been captured or my pension disappear? These questions come to those who practice being spiritual. They are pragmatic questions first and spiritual questions finally. Welcome to the practice of Lent, which is not just a season. Pick up whatever fragment is following you around. It will lead you where you need to go. Or as Pete Seeger said, “if we could but heed those early warnings.” Amen

Quite Early Morning by Pete Seeger

Don't you know it's darkest before the dawn
And it's this thought keeps me moving on
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
If we could heed these early warnings
The time is now quite early morning
And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give…..and when these fingers can strum no longer…..


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