My Dear One,
Last week’s WayPost was simply a poem and I appreciate everyone who reached out to me saying it spoke to them in some way. It was encouraging to hear from you. I used to write a lot of poetry as a younger man. It was my major in college but life became busy, as it does, and I wrote fewer and fewer poems. The same thing goes for songwriting, it’s more something I used to do than something I do now. But over the last few years I have begun writing both poetry and songs again and I will occasionally begin to offer some of those here on following The Way, not because I think all that much of my poetry or songwriting but because I believe Jesus had the heart of a poet/songwriter and I think it does us all good to develop that same heart. We each need to develop our inner poet, our inner songwriter.
Some of you may be balking already. “I am no poet or songwriter!,” you may say. And perhaps that is true in one sense. If what makes you a poet or songwriter is that you write poems or songs, then it is true only some of us have this gift or the desire to develop it. But I believe you are both, a poet and a songwriter, in much the same way Jesus was both - though, as far as any of us know, he never wrote a poem or a song either.
In my way of thinking, a poet or songwriter is someone who searches for a way to express something of the inner meaning, beauty and pain of life as they have encountered it. All of us search for meaning. All of us encounter beauty. All of us feel pain. And all of us need some way of sharing that experience with others. It is in the mutual sharing of meaning, beauty and pain that we become fully who we are as individuals and as a community.
I know Jesus was a poet/songwriter because he spoke in parables, that great literary device that allows us to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson puts it in her beautiful poem of the same name,
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Once, when his disciples asked him why he spoke so much in parables, Jesus replied,
The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
Much of what we think we know about the world, about life, about other people, about ourselves and perhaps even about God isn’t accurate but rather an illusion we buy into because it gives us a sense of knowing, even if it is a false knowing. As Jesus put it, we listen but do not understand, we look but do not perceive.
What we take for reality, “just the way things are” or the way they have to be, is not actually real, it is just familiar. Our fiction becomes our fact and we treat our fact as fiction.
This message is central to the teachings of Jesus and every significant wisdom teacher of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Sadly, it too often goes unrealized and unheeded in the lives of their believers.
The alternative to living within the bounds of our illusions is equally and freely available to all. Buddha called it Awakening. Moses called it Faithfulness. Muhammad called it Submission. Jesus called it living in the Kingdom of God. Like Lao-tzu, I like to call it The Way. Whatever we choose to call it, the central message remains the same. There is a sacred truth to the world that leads to life. But humanity instead chooses our own self-made, deeply flawed “truths” to allow us to continue with our illusions of control.
We are not in control, of hardly anything in this world. We can control some things with-in ourselves (though shockingly little). We can control even less of the things with-out us. The path to true freedom comes not in seeking control but in letting go of the desire or need to control, especially our desire to control others.
Jesus’ teachings are all about this. But perhaps his most concise teaching on the subject is what we now call The Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel) or The Sermon on the Plain (in Luke’s gospel). In this, his first sermon, Jesus immediately begins to paint the picture of a completely different, upended way of viewing reality. It begins,
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Throughout the rest of the Sermon, Jesus continue to illustrate the reality of the world as opposed to our control-centered preferences:
Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. Mt. 5:37
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Mt. 5:44
God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Mt. 5:45
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Mt. 6:21
You cannot serve God and mammon. Mt. 6:24
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Mt. 6:34
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. Mt. 7:1
First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Mt. 7:5
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Mt. 7:7
For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Mt. 7:14
Much of the Sermon can be summed up in one verse, which you might also recognize as a lyrics from a favorite hymn:
Seek ye first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Mt. 6:33
The Sermon on the Mount is composed of wisdom sayings, not parables, poems or songs, but at its heart it shares a vision of the world we often only find in parables, poems and songs. These sayings share a vision of a world in which we treat others as they deserve to be treated, we find a world of justice and peace, we love others as they deserve to be loved.
A life lived in continual contemplation upon the Sermon on the Mount has the power to change the world. In fact it already has by another follower of The Way.
There once was a man who spent two hours a day in silent meditation, one in the morning and another in the evening. And in addition to this, he read the Sermon on the Mount every day. This was his spiritual practice. It is hard to imagine such a person. I’ve certainly never met someone with this much Christian devotion to meditation on Jesus’ Kingdom worldview. But this man did it. And, though he wasn’t a Christian, the movement that developed around the inspiration of this one person living life as a follower of The Way upended the entire power structure of the the world at that time.
This man was Mohandas Gandhi. Known as more a Hindu than a Christian, Gandhi once said, “I have not been able to see any difference between the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gita [a sacred Hindu sacred text].” He turned daily to Jesus’ words for his inspiration to continue living a life “as if,” as if what Jesus said is true and our default way of seeing the world is an illusion. As if the meek shall inherit the earth. As if the hungry shall be filled. As if the persecuted shall inherit the kingdom.
But Gandhi went one step much further than even this. He once lamented that, “Much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.” At another time he said to some missionaries, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ … There is no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example.”
On this point, I differ with Gandhi. Though I too have met many Christians who seem so unlike Christ, I have met many who are very much like Christ. Though I too believe Jesus’ Way is open to all regardless of creed, I find it beneficial to my own faith to also be a Christian and subject myself to the Church, though at times it too buys into the illusion rather than the Kingdom.
But I was not in Gandhi’s shoes (or lack thereof). I am not a part of a people oppressed by the “Christian British Empire.” If I was, perhaps my feelings toward the Christian enterprise would be as complicated as his was.
Or perhaps it is. Perhaps it is complicated. Perhaps I do struggle. Perhaps I do need the Sermon on the Mount to help show me The Way through all of the other worldviews we continue to layer upon it.
Perhaps I need poetry to use familiar words in unfamiliar ways to help me see around the illusion of my own reality. Perhaps I need a song as a suitable way to express the pain upon my heart. Perhaps I need a parable to teach me what the world looks like lived as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a follower of The Way.
Whatever beauty you encounter this week, whatever pain you must bear, whatever truth you cannot find a way to express, know there is a place within your heart where you are a poet, you are a songwriter. There is a knowing within you that even you may not know is there.
Put pen to paper, finger to keyboard, pick to guitar string, voice to song, tear to cheek, smile to lip, heart to hurt, and join in the great throng of humanity that marches onward because of and in spite of it all. Be counted among the poets, the songwriters, the human ones, yearning to love and be loved, to be counted among the children of God, to believe with hope in a future that seems too distant to be grasped, to know that we too are invited to dance in The Field of Belonging.
following The Way,
Our Practice This Week
Read the Sermon on The Mount every day this week. Matthew 5-7 or the Cliff’s Notes version, Luke 6:20-49. How does this practice cultivate within your life the ability to see and know the truth?