Under Howard Thurman’s Tree

Howard Thurman entered my consciousness sometime in the 1960s, as I was taking up my graduate studies at Yale. As Dean of the Chapel at Boston University (1953-65), he was already being quoted in sermons, and his poems and prayers were appearing on bulletins and newsletters. I was immediately struck by his eloquent voice as an almost mystical thinker who was also engaged in the ferment of the Civil Rights movement. I felt a strong resonance with this message, since I was aware that my temperament and gifts led me to work on the deep cultural symbols that must legitimate lasting social change. But it was only later, when Luther Smith, a leading interpreter of Thurman’s life and work as well as my good friend and colleague at Candler School of Theology, spoke about Thurman’s singularity and depth on a regular basis, that I began to appreciate the profound message he had brought into religious life and its public engagements.

Last year, as we hunkered down into our individual inward journeys during the first phase of the pandemic, we were also being taken on an inward journey as a people into the often repressed memory of slavery and racism in the heart of American life. The explosion in the streets was also a deep earthquake in the self-understanding of people in all walks of life. I was drawn back to Thurman and began to read his autobiography, With Head and Heart, and when I finished that I took up, with renewed interest, Luther’s deeply insightful exploration of his thought and work in Howard Thurman: Mystic as Prophet. In it, Luther points out how Thurman’s mystical sense of deep unity with all of creation and with all of humanity lay at the core of the vision of reconciled community that motivated and oriented him to the work of overcoming the deep injustice and alienation at the core of our racial divisions. It is this unity of mystical depth and public engagement that has also energized the work of Richard Rohr, OFM, who turns frequently to Thurman’s writings for inspiration

As I was digging deeper into Thurman’s remarkable life and vision, I got a call from a team at Boston University School of Theology asking if I might consider constructing some furniture they could use in BU’s Marsh Chapel, Thurman’s home during my graduate school years. I had already made a table and lectern for the School in 2012. It had found so much use, including in preaching classes, that the lectern had mysteriously (!) broken. We agreed that I would repair it (a life-time warranty…) in time for the hoped-for resumption of classes.

Marsh Chapel, built in 1949, is a stately gothic edifice that embodies what the general public thinks “church” should be: a rectangular space, stained glass windows, timbered ceiling, the audience (yes, audience) seated in pews facing forward to hear and observe the sacred words and actions at the front of the space. But there was a problem, the team  pointed out, both spiritual and physical. How could a person in a wheelchair possibly get to the elevated pulpit to preach with the same authority as a standing person? And how could they find a way to “gather at table” in a fellowship of equality on the same level? How could the space created by a table and lectern be portable to other locations? How could the temple once again be a tabernacle among the people? (That last one is my question!)

As I thought about the demands of a worship space accommodating persons in wheelchairs, I recalled Thurman’s most famous work, Jesus and the Disinherited. How fitting that we would be talking about constructing worship furniture that would accommodate this group of “disinherited” bearers of God’s witness! Moreover, that these demands would lead us to emphasize how the worshiping community gathers around a common table that receives them all equally is yet another powerful version of Thurman’s vision.

All of this worship should be open to the many expressions of faith that actually exist in their community—something dear to Thurman’s heart. And there was one more question: what symbolism might shape any inlay in these pieces that would evoke attention to the diversity of faith expressions in the community  as well as the unity of the God of all creation?

Regardless of the various degrees of conscious remembrance of Thurman that still exist among the folks at BU, my own crafting of these pieces is imbued with what I know of his spirit. As I thought about symbols embedded in his own vision, I called Luther for a long conversation about Thurman. In it, he suggested that I look at the symbolism of the oak tree as embodying something central to his life. It is to the oak tree near his boyhood home in Daytona Beach, Florida, that the young Howard would retreat in order to claim his fundamental rootedness in the divine creativity and love. It is an image that recurred in his meditations throughout his life. And so, I have put an inlay of an oak tree on the lectern tablet from which future seminarians will preach in Howard Thurman’s school and chapel.

We live in a time when we are trying to resurrect the image of God in trees, birds, soil, and even human beings. The image of Howard Thurman’s patient teaching and praying in the shade of his beloved oak can help us stay centered in our task. I’ll report back to you as these pieces emerge. Here’s the lectern.

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Falling On Our Knees

Our knee is on creation’s neck.

Her breath is halting, weak,

Strangled by our disregard, our cold contempt.

Our mother, she is crying out beneath our weight,

Beseeching that we love her.

Let her arms envelop us

So that we all can breathe,

Can feel the pulse of common blood

Within one heart,

So that engorged with pain

We fall upon our knees beside her,

Pray to her

Lie prostrate by her body

Her tears baptizing us within the flood

Preparing us for resurrection.

 

Like many of you in the past year, I have been struggling with the haunting image of the brutally indifferent murder of George Floyd. At the same time, like you, I am living in the shadow of the Great Extinction we are causing by our radical changes to the atmosphere and our climate. The images came together for me in this poem, which I share simply as a means of meditation on the moment of judgment and possible renewal in which we live.

 

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Under the Oaks at Ketoctin

Last Sunday I was the guest preacher at the annual Homecoming of the Ketoctin Baptist Church, near Round Hill, Virginia. This was my third invitation in thirty years to offer reflections that might speak to the heart of the values, stories, and struggles that have taken place on this “ancient wooded hill” in the past 270 years. It adjoins land that was once my family’s farm but which is now dotted with expensive homes spawned by the explosive growth of Washington, DC, 45 miles away. My great-grandfather was wounded fighting for the Union at Antietam, a few miles away. A pastor of this church was a Confederate chaplain. In the cemetery are both Black and white, slave and free. It is a complex history. Around the church stand aged oaks and maples. As the raucous cry of 17-year cicadas echoed through the trees in the 92-degree heat, I turned to the story of Abraham’s meeting with God, appearing as three men, on another ancient wooded hill, as told in Genesis 18:1-15. This was, in fact, the starting place for my reflections on “home” some 12 years earlier. Here are my remarks:

We gather here for a time of recall, remembrance, and return, not only to a place, but to some core beliefs and memories.

We gather and celebrate our own return to this place after a year of isolation and loss, with a new appreciation for the benefits of silence, solitude, and close friends.

We gather to recall memories of this place, many of them only barely surviving the neglect and loss of physical records, going back to 1751, 270 years ago.

We also gather to remember this as a sacred place, a door to the sacred, a place where we remember ancient memories of God’s encounter with us. And in these memories we renew our commitments to some fundamental values reflected in the lives of people who have gone before us. We rediscover anew the importance of memory and confession as well as of the promise of God’s reconciliation and peace.

The original tribes here called this Ketoctin, “ancient wooded hill.” And so it has remained to this day, even though Christian garb surrounds the clothing of the native customs and beliefs that first embraced this wood.

Nurtured in the stories of the Bible, we also can see in this sacred place another, more ancient sacred grove of oaks—another sacred place called Mamre in the Scriptures—a place where ancient religious belief found new life in the emerging faith in the mysterious Yahweh of the Hebrew people.

This ancient place of sacred rites was called the “oaks of Mamre.”  It was where Abraham went after separating from Lot in their division of the land. It was near present day West Bank city of Hebron, near the burial place of Abraham and Sarah at nearby Machpelah. In 2008 my wife Sylvia and I were able to visit the temple that marks their tomb. To do so, we had to win our way past several checkpoints staffed by armed soldiers seeking to ensure the safety of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims to this holy site. Although it was a place of relative peace in the Genesis story, it has been a place of terrible strife today, just as this place here, a sacred place of peace, was torn apart in Civil War and controversies over the meaning of liberty for all. How cruel it is that sacred places of the divine-human encounter become testimonies to our fear, aggression, and brutality. And yet it is in these very places that we are called to lift up a light of peace and reconciliation.

It was at Mamre that Abraham built an altar for ceremonies of sacrifice to the mysterious God they could only name with the breath-word “YHWH.” The place of the oaks revered by the ancient inhabitants of the land became a place of worship for the people of Abraham. The breathing of the wind among the leaves became a mirror of the breath of God.

And so, first of all, we remember that under the oaks we find a place of worship. It is a place where we are drawn from the ordinary into the extraordinary, from anxiety and restlessness to awe and peace. It is a place that renews our souls as they entertain the strength and patience of the mighty oaks.

And it was here that Abraham received Yahweh, appearing as three men, three strangers. And here he and his servants prepared a feast, just as has often occurred here on these grounds beneath these oaks (though to be sure with much more planning!). For many Christians, this story has been pregnant with meaning, for they have seen it as a premonition of the understanding of God as Three-in-One, as Trinity. In this Christian interpretation God is not only the breath and spirit of life but the relationship of love. Indeed, Sylvia and I were privileged to gaze upon a depiction of this very scene as it appears in the sixth century Cathedral of San Vitale in Ravenna on Italy’s east coast, where it is done in lavish mosaic on one side of the central altar, explicitly interpreting the meal under the oaks as a Holy Communion, a Eucharist. Under the oaks, God comes to be in fellowship with human beings.

For Jewish readers this story is first of all a simple assertion of the centrality of hospitality to strangers, a hospitality that is at the heart of recognizing God as Creator of All. In our own time the work of hospitality and its grounding in the belief in the unity of humanity is more important than ever. For we are schooled daily to see the stranger as an enemy, a threat, as in some way sub-human. Living in fear of the stranger, we are quickened to violence rather than conviviality, to self-protection rather than self-giving. But here, in this story, we remember that under the oaks is not only worship, but hospitality, its truest expression.

But neither Jewish nor Christian readers stop there, for the passage goes on to the famous prediction of the strangers that Sarah, despite her years, will give birth to one who will open the way of promise to a living heritage of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to this very day. Sarah, as we remember, laughed in disbelief, anticipating the very name “laughter” that they gave to Isaac when she did indeed give birth. In the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah is the beginning of a tradition of faith that has suffered grievously to this day, with a horrific shedding of blood among the children of Abraham and Sarah, an enmity that is still crying out for God’s reconciliation. In the work of reconciliation of these estranged descendants of Abraham and Sarah we can find a promise of a greater humanity united in God’s spirit. And even today we see the ongoing challenge of reconciliation among the children of the generations that have worshipped here on this ancient wooded hill.

Under the oaks of Mamre, like the oaks of Ketoctin, we see both hospitality and awesome mystery, an unbelievable promise and mocking laughter.

Belief and disbelief.

Awe and feasting.

Worship and rest.

Pulpit and oak.

Bible and nature.

We remember death and we seek to live into resurrection.

So here we remember that under the oaks is God’s promise of reconciliation.

This work of reconciliation is a work of confession as well as conversation. Here we have the quiet peace under the shaded oaks, and the solemn graves of generations who have gone before us. Here we have memories of terrible destruction as our ancestors fought over slavery and freedom. And so we bend our hearts in confession. Here we have a memory of those who sought the freedom to preach, worship, and live according to the dictates of their conscience rather than the dictates of the state or an established church. And so we lift our voices in thankful praise. Under the gracious oaks we have an invitation to show forth our hearts in confession of sin as well as gratitude for God’s grace.

Another way of putting this is that under the oaks we have the mystery of a holy conversation. Under these oaks we have a tradition of listening for the presence of God and also of table hospitality and conversation. Here we have a conversation between pulpit and tree, pew and field, ancestral memory and prophetic promise. In the pew and pulpit we have a conversation among a people and also a conversation with the writings of the founders of our faith many centuries ago. In this holy conversation, we seek to enter into the spirit of Christ, so that it is a conversation of love as well as insight, of self-restraint as well as self-expression, of conscience as well as of reasonable persuasion, of hope as well as judgment. Baptists in particular sought here recognition of the right of a people of faith to have a free conversation in the midst of a free republic. It was a dream that began as a limited conversation among propertied white males, but then they began to broaden the economic circle, for they were not propertied people. And there were decades of bloody turmoil to extend it beyond the bounds of race and ancestry.

According to one source, they endorsed the gradual emancipation of the enslaved in 1797, only to be engulfed in the fracturing growth of slavery in the subsequent years. And today this same spirit of holy conversation strains to take us beyond the limits of sex and gender. In the midst of many arguments, fights, and separations they sought to stay in the circle of Christ’s conversation with all of us. And now, though the conversation in this place is often but a silent memory, this faith has become an expanding circle of conversations around the world. We can no more see its end than did the ancient ones remembered among these stones.

It has been a conversation of confession of sin as well as exultation of hope, thanks, and assurance. For they were fallible as we are fallible. Just as they suffered over slavery, we are now experiencing a suffering over the life of all creation. These murmuring oaks may be testifying that we are not living in harmony with our natural environment, a way that is bringing suffering to us all, human and non-human alike. They invite us to a better path of care and conservation.

For many years Sylvia has been engaged in a special kind of art that the Japanese call kintsugi—the repair of broken pots, vases, and pitchers. In that repair the cracks are lined with gold, silver, and other beautiful elements that bring the pot back together so you can see even more vividly where it has been broken. The motto among those who do kintsugi is “more beautiful for having been broken.” It is an image of our fragility and the beautiful work of God’s grace.

When Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, spoke about the pages of a printed language, he called them “talking leaves.” Here, we have not only the talking leaves of the Bible but those of the oaks themselves, whose leaves speak of patient hope, of self-giving, of breathing as one with the whole creation. Here, we listen to talking leaves of many kinds as we struggle for God’s harmony and purpose. It is what Jews call “tikkun olam,” the healing of the earth.

And so we are turned to a new conversation—under these oaks, with this Bible, with the faithful of all ages. Among these oaks I hear their leaves talking, carrying on the conversation.

And so we gather. We gather to listen to ancestors whose voices linger only in some faint words in books. We gather at a table of hospitality and struggle for a greater hospitality for all. We listen to voices of the past and we listen to leaves that speak a patience we can scarcely imagine. It is a place of holiness, of breathing the breath of life. Having gathered here to remember, we seek to live into the promise of the life before us. And the question comes: Will we be faithful to that promise of life abundant, of life shared, of life forgiven, of life in harmony among the oaks of many generations?   It is the question that calls us forth today from Ketoctin, the “ancient wooded hill” of reconciliation with God, with each other, and with God’s world.

Under these oaks is worship.

Under these oaks is hospitality.

Under these oaks is a holy conversation without end. Amen.

Benediction

And now may the One who brings all life into being

Give you the strength of ancient oaks,

The Wisdom of the Word made flesh,

And the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit,

Now and forever. Amen.

 

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Weeping for the Peace of Jerusalem

In the stunned faces and writhing bodies of little children besieged by bombs and missiles we hear the ancient cry of the God whose own body is constantly torn apart by us all—God’s very own children. Whether we are Americans, Israelis, or Palestinians, our own tortured histories have produced this terror. We have all claimed lands and houses that our not our own, all in the name of God or history, or ancestry. The higher our reasons, the more vicious our justifications, the more violent our actions. The Bible may be a testimony to God’s grace but it is just as visibly a witness to our violence and aggression.

And so we weep.

And in this weeping, we continue to seek to crawl, to inch, toward a table where we might all eat together, where we might exercise hospitality to strangers, where we might reconcile our differences for the sake of the One who created us all. It’s a practice that stretches from Abraham’s welcome to the divine strangers at Mamre (Genesis 18) to Jesus’s table fellowship with his followers in Jerusalem. It is one we seek to live into every month here in our own little town with our Roundtable Gathering. And so I share again with you the Call and the Remembrance from our last gathering, as we pray for the Peace—the deep just Shalom— of Jerusalem. That God’s body—and ours—might be healed.

Call to the Table

Out of your desperate search to claim your land

I lead you to the land of my abundance.

Away from poisoned wells of greed

I draw you to the water of my love.

From ancient olive trees uprooted

I bring green branches of my peace.

Out of a dying Jordan River

I create anew the ocean of my faithfulness.

In a Jerusalem of national idolatries

I raise a table for humanity to gather for a feast.

We come to your table.

Your table of peace.

ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

 

Remembrance

In the garden of our innocence you gave us your companionship.

In our anxious drive for domination we cut up your land to house our fear.

Farmers and herdsmen fell upon each other’s throats.

Our ceremonies of devotion became the bloody pretense for a holocaust,

Your word of justice sank in silence underneath the stones of retribution.

Out of the suffering body of your precious world you birthed a new creation.

Out of the hanging tree, now full with blossom, you brought forth a fruit to feed the world.

Out of a dying branch you built a table open to us all.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

 

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