Did You Take Out the Garbage?

“May the Baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind.”

― Don Van Vliet

Scripture readings:

1 John 3:1-6 (NIV)

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.  Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.  But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

1 John 3:19-21(NIV)

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.  Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.

Meditation:  As we celebrate the First Sunday of Christmas, we bask in the glory of the Godhead revealed to us, Emmanuel, God with us, Christ the Lord.  For me no other Christmas hymn stanza resonates more than “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”  And why would we not wonder and adore him who has come to abolish both sin and death?  In this spirit of adoration we can reflect on this passage from: Nehemiah 9:1-3 (KJV) Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.  And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.  And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the Lord their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped [the Vulgate translation reads “and adored”] the Lord their God.

Did you take out the garbage?  It is a common question.  It is a necessary question.  It may be asked by another (my wife) or spoken (mentally) to myself.  For me it happens each Tuesday evening (or a day later during the holiday schedule).  It is an essential part of urban life.  The processing of trash, greenwaste, and recycling must simply not back up—the outward flow of this stream must continue for an orderly existence.

What does this have to do with us?  We all deal with the effects of accumulated stress, which is a more general term including negative things which we have experienced, pain, and things which we have done to others or errors we have committed, guilt.  Over time, like the waste of a household or business, its weight and its effect are incredible.  Psychologically it can injure us.  It can destroy us.  It must be faced and we must have a strategy to face it.

The traditional liturgy has its own approach.  Early in the order of worship comes the Confession of Sin.  Is it any wonder that this is an essential element of every service?  This supply of garbage, not only over the course of the past week but over the duration of one’s life, must be dealt before proceeding any further. It achieves in the context of worship what the meditative process does.  Sin is brought to mind, recognized, and grappled with to attempt a resolution.  Now we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are so modern, liberated, self-sufficient, post-theological, so beyond all of it, that we can dispense with this.  But we cannot.  It is there.  We know it is there, following us like a dog, haunting us like a ghost in the night. It cannot be avoided, and however we interpret the act of  repentance, these impressions must be dealt with.  How can it be otherwise?  Just look at what is in our heads, pain and guilt along with our neuroses, our obsessions, our fruitless searches for whatever we think will bring us happiness, our inability to simply fall into a restful sleep because that monkey keeps running around inside our head.

Here is the Confession of Sin used in the order of worship of the United Church of Christ:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We  have sinned against you in thought, word, and dead, by what we have done and by what we  have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart.  We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  For the sake of Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.  Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and follow in your ways, to the glory of your  name.  Amen.”

Once the Confession of Sin has been made, we receive the refreshing assurance of grace.  This is affirmed by our scripture readings today.  To repeat: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure….you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him….This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.”  Truly, this is grace.

Think of the term iniquity, in-equity, unequal, what is out of balance with the eternal vibration, the name of God, AUM or Amen.  We are confronted with both, not only guilt for our mistakes along the path but that pain which we have experienced as well.  Daily meditation, by itself or combined with confession of sin, causes us to be open, to deal with these negative impulses as they arise, to effect a resolution.  In this moment of submission and humility we allow them to appear.  Pain and guilt, pain and guilt, like a ship on a restless sea, we are tossed between the twin poles of pain and guilt.  And yet our Savior has given us the key in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses (or debts) as we forgive those who have trespassed against us (or debtors).”  In the reality of grace we are released, for grace given is grace received.

Back to the garbage.  Here is an interesting take on the subject, and the key to the title of this message.  Buddhist monk and teacher Chogyam Trungpa takes this analogy to an amazing new turn: the garbage is not just thrown away but put to use.  This makes sense because the principle of the conservation of energy tells us that nothing is truly destroyed, only converted.  He writes: “Virtue…is inherent richness, rich soil fertilized by the rotting manure of neurosis.  You have tremendous potential, you are ripe, you smell like one-hundred-percent ripe blue cheese, which can be smelled miles away.”  He goes on to say that this garbage has a use—it is gathered up and applied to fertilize our garden, increasing the richness of the soil and making it better—all from something which was so painful and disagreeable.

Lewis Hyde makes the point in his book, A Primer for Forgetting that it is not as if this burden, this garbage, magically goes away.  One confession of sin or one meditation session does not necessarily do the trick.  Its diminuation and eventual disappearance (like the decomposition of compost) is like waves which gradually reduce themselves to calmness as their turbulence decreases.

Here is an example of how the process of forgetting may work in the social context to enact healing of past but ever-present pain and sin.  This example comes from the shameful legacy of lynching in the American south.  A consistent effort over time can have a healing effect, both on the individual and on society.  Again, from Hyde’s book:

“On the Natchez high bluff, on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, will stand a pavilion  dedicated to the memory of African Americans murdered during the centuries of American  apartheid.  The pavilion will contain the names and stories of all whose deaths have been  documented, including the four thousand victims of racial terror lynching recorded by the  Equal Justice Initiative and the 350 racially motivated killings investigated by the Civil Rights  and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University.  Visitors to this pavilion will be  assigned a victim’s name at random and taught the details of the case.  From the center of the pavilion, a spiral staircase will descend to a level below the river.  The names of the many thousands dead will be inscribed on the walls of the descending shaft, and visitors will drag their hands across these names as they go such that the inscriptions will be fully erased in three or four centuries.  At the bottom of the stair, in the center of the spiral, will lie a pool fed by a spring of Mississippi River water.  Skull cups cast in bronze will lie on the surrounding    shelves and visitors will take a cup, say aloud the name that they carried in mind as they  descended, dip the cup, and drink.  After returning the cups to their shelves, visitors will enter a tunnel that lets them travel beneath the Mississippi, out to the western shore[1].”

In our contemporary history we are also reminded of healing events: the 2003 truce signed by the legendary feuding families the McCoys and the Hatfields put an official end to their bloody strife; also recent battlefield reunions of the survivors of Iwo Jima and other battlefields including those of Vietnam, where former combatants embraced years after being enemies.

We cannot avoid being moved emotionally by the unification which takes place in this process, for a force deep within us makes the transformation. Psychologist Jack Huber was among the first westerners to investigate eastern meditation practices in the countries from which they came.  For him all things came together after an extensive period of time in a Japanese Zen school.  Here is his description:

“And then—it was late in the morning—a white, clear screen came before my eyes.  In front of the screen passed, or rather, floated, simple images—faces, objects.  I have no clear recollection of the images.  A rush of feeling came over me.  I burst into tears; the tears became quiet sobbing….My feeling was that I was seeing something of great importance, as if everything fitted together for the first time.  What had all my life struggles been about?  Things were very clear and very simple[2].”

Finally, all of this is inevitably tied up with our perception of time, what Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly called “the eternal now”.  Lewis Hyde describes the Buddhist process known as “double forgetting”, which deals with the view of past and future elements of time.  How things arise, exist, and die are, in reality, not separate events but the same.  He quotes the thirteenth century teacher Dogen.  To get an appreciation of what is involved I would like for you to hear it:

“Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again.  Yet, do not suppose that  the ash is future and the firewood past.  You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future.  Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past.  Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death….Birth is an expression complete this moment.  Death is an expression complete this moment.  They are like winter and spring.  You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring[3].”

It is worthwhile to note that both St. Augustine and St. Paul concerned themselves with the phenomenon of time as well.  Augustine compares this to the reading of a psalm:

“Before I begin, my expectation is directed towards the whole.  But when I have begun, the verses from it which I take into the past become the object of my memory.  The life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory, because of the words I have already said, and into my expectation, because of those which I am about to say.  But my attention is on what is present: by that the future is transferred to the past[4].”

We can do nothing, absolutely nothing, to change the past.  As for the future, it has not yet occurred.  So in the reality of ever-present time the healing has begun.  We see its evidence in the natural world, the re-growth of a branch after it has been cut or broken, the sprouting of grass when the rains come after a fire, the scarring which in the body’s wisdom closes a wound.  And time does heal.  The negative events of the past fade in their significance and power, and, we would hope, those impressions of beauty and joy which have all been given to us take their place.  But the true healing is in this: time does not consist of segments but only in its totality.  It is indivisible.  All we truly have is now, and like the firewood and ash there is no division.  As our awareness of this reality increases, healing occurs.  In this we live and breathe and have our being.

The burning of incense is a part of my meditation practice.  I think of the chant “let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands to the evening (or morning) sacrifice.”  Burning, encompassing past, present, and future, like the fertilizing benefit of compost, is a transformation: the beautiful savor of incense carried through the air is much greater than that which could be contained in the stick of incense itself, and so burn it must.  We too must burn with spiritual fire, for the full utilization of our being, for spiritual resolution, for healing, all to the glory of God.  Amen.

[1] Lewis Hyde, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, Pp 3-372, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019, p 282

[2] Jack Huber, Through an Eastern Window, Pp 1-121, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967, Pp 52-53

[3] Quoted in Lewis Hyde, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, Pp 3-372, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019, p 292

[4] Ibid, p 290

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