The Way of Strength

Think about the strongest person you know. Really get that person in your mind. Is it someone with lots of muscles? Someone who can do thirty pull-ups? Maybe someone who has done an Iron Man? Maybe it is Iron Man. Or did you think about someone else? Someone maybe who’s seen some stuff in their day…and lived? Maybe someone who has overcome obstacles or come through tragedies in a way you admire? Or maybe it’s someone who simply knows how to speak up and to ask for what they want.

Whoever it is, whether living or not, many of us hold images of what we think of as strength. And they are potent images. I have one myself.

I had a friend in my teens and twenties. He lived across the street from me. We actually went to different high schools. He went to the all-boys Catholic school and I was at the public high school. He was a strong, strong dude—muscled all over and much more interested in bodybuilding than just about anything else. There weren’t that many people in my group spending a lot of time thinking about their diets and how what they ate would increase or decrease muscle mass. But he was.

Ours was kind of a funny relationship. I met him through other friends when we were out once and only realized when we were out that we lived across the street from each other. And because we lived so close, I had a chance a few times to give him a ride home from friends’ houses, and into our college years we ended up having some more friends in common, so I got to know him better and better, especially when I’d give him a ride back to our neighborhood after a night on the town.

At that age and in my awkward high school frame of mind I would never have dreamed of asking someone what compels them toward the development of the kind of musculature he clearly prized. I was afraid then that people might have looked at me funny for asking. And even later on in our friendship, I never asked him. But I’ve never forgotten him. That’s for sure. When I think of someone who is strong, I think of him.

Real shows of strength are like that, right? And maybe we remember them more when we see them from people we know. Not on a line of scrimmage in the Super Bowl, not on some of the shows people like these days like American Ninja Warrior, but in our passenger seats, in our kitchens, in our midst, those are the ones that stand out.

We enter this new month and so we are looking together at the theme of spirit. Themes are something many faith communities use to help go a little deeper on a principle or a theme over some time. Many communities invite this kind of reflection as a way to guide discussions in meetings during check-ins. Others take the chance to reflect on the meaning of the theme. You might hear me refer in later months to the “spiritual theme” for the month, so what better theme to start with than spirit?

In the Hawaiian language, the word mana might be the closest word to the way the English word spirit is used and understood. But scholars tell us that mana is more accurately translated as “spiritual power.” And even so, mana has a lot of meanings, really. It can mean spiritual power, or super natural power. It can mean the power of a nation, a stage in a fish’s development, and there are others.[1] I lack the education presently to do any more that scratch at the surface of the depth of meaning of this word, but what I did discover is that mana’s many meanings are determined very much by the context where the word is used. If I’m commenting on the development of a fish, I’m pretty sure people are not going to mistake my meaning to talk about a nation’s power.

The context matters.

And this is actually not that different from the English word, spirit either. Just think of all the things spirit means. You can have school spirit. You can be a free spirit. You can launch an entire decade of grunge rock with a song about teen spirit. You can be spirited away, or you can see a spirit coming toward you. You can engage in respiration, when you breathe, or re-spirit yourself. You can experience perspiration, when you exert yourself and let your spirit come through (that’s what that perspire really means). There are so many ways to think about spirit, that it’s impossible to capture all of the ways it’s used. And so much of the meaning of spirit also depends on the context where it’s used.

Which is part of why we are working with spiritual themes. When we use the word “spiritual,” we are not talking about any one way of understanding that word. To some, spirit or spirituality might say something about a deep inner resource or energy. For others, it might mean something outside of themselves entirely, some other consciousness or being. And still for others, it could mean something as simple as breathing, which is where the word comes from in the first place. And some Spirits, just like to make music together. The oldest root of spirit simply means breath or to breathe.

So however it is we look at the themes together in the coming months, we are not telling anyone that this community has a settled opinion on what spirit means. In fact, we’re hoping to discover new ways of feeling about these themes, all as part of our search for truth and meaning together. I’m not going to tell anyone what spirit should mean to them…except that it did launch an entire decade of flannel, dirty hair, and grunge rock. I think we can get together on that, right? And of course, let’s not forget you can drink spirits, too.

And I know I won’t forget when some friends and I were home from college doing a little bit of that. I was the agreed designated driver for some of my friends, including my neighbor across the street. He tended to take the spirits with a little more gusto than I did then, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the driver. Getting my neighbor into my car with his powerful size usually meant he was sitting alone in the passenger seat with my more averagely proportioned friends in the back. I dropped the backseat riders off one-by-one, and headed to the cul-de-sac my neighbor and his family shared with mine. And the conversation turned to strength and power.

I don’t remember how we got on to that subject really, but with my car idling in my driveway, he in my passenger seat only steps from his lawn, as he sat in the front seat and told a story I wasn’t ready for, one I didn’t see coming.

He told me the story of him being a young boy, and having been kidnapped and held powerlessly against his will until he was recovered and returned to his parents. But not before an experience of fear and powerlessness I cannot even begin to imagine. It was the kind of story no one expects to hear. It was the kind of story no one maybe wants to hear or imagine it could even take place.

As he spoke, he took long pauses, looking out the window, breathing deeply, maybe holding back tears. And when he was done, and after I said I was so glad he was OK today, he reached across the seat for the customary pat on the back “bro hug” we were used to. But as he put his great arm around me, he just sort of held on. And he kept holding on. I could feel the shuttering of his breaths, catching one on to the next, as they left his body. He might have been crying. I couldn’t tell. And it didn’t matter. It felt more like he was letting something go. And I held on too, to the powerful structure he’d built to guard himself, his body, his spirit maybe.

Context matters.

For many of us, the tender moments in our lives come when we look with a trusted confidant at the ways we might have experienced harm or pain, how our spirit might have been impacted by that pain. It is always good to remember from time to time that people who walk through a church doorway don’t always arrive because they so wish to share how perfectly honed and balanced their spiritual lives. After all, that’s my job.

But seriously, many of us are here, many of us return week after week, because we get a sense of healing of our spirits here. Or maybe we get an uplift from the experience of being together for a service or for fellowship or just for coffee. That’s fine. The chance to renew our spirit in this way is a gift. However we arrive here, something in each of us comes hoping to find something more or something new. We come to deepen our understanding about ourselves and our world. And that is one of the reasons that in this month of Spirit, we will also look more closely at Black history.

As we discussed last week we are now in what many call Black History month. Local schools, local libraries, even the Google animations on the Google search page are all exploring this month and its meaning in different ways. And as in all things, different groups will have different degrees of success in goals for deepening understanding in this month. Here, as a community of faith or belief or unbelief or disbelief, as we are, above all, we remain a community where people come to restore their spirit in ways they cannot at a library, a school, or through Google searches. And in this time, many of us hear comments ranging from calls to stop celebrating Black history month to making suggestions about how to celebrate it better. And many of the well-meaning voices that don’t like the way black history month is currently celebrated, or even those who object to its celebration at all, are, in a way talking about the same thing.

In the book White Frigility by Robin DiAngelo[2], a book many in the congregation have been reading and discussing, even Dr. DiAngelo notes that the kinds of celebrations or remembrances that hold up special, different, or extraordinary persons of color, yet also fail to place the lives of those persons into the wider, the bigger, version of history that is most commonly taught, that fail to place the lives of persons of color in their full context, are missing the point of the month.

Context matters.

Others, like famously, Morgan Freeman, are on record as not liking Black History Month. In an interview fifteen years ago on 60 Minutes freeman called Black History month “ridiculous.” But many critics of the day take this out of context. He goes on in the interview to explain that there should not be a separate month. He says famously that Black history is American history.[3]

Others suggest that celebrating the month is a good reminder that history today remains incomplete in the way it fails to recognize fully the contributions and place in history of people of color. It takes one month, the shortest month, and celebrates it then. But more hurtful in these celebrations is the failure to recognize in February, in March, in April, in every month of every year, the contributions white people made to the suffering of Black people for centuries…and are still making.

Howard Thurman, a poet, a theologian, and a mystic, asks us How Good it Is to Center Down! There in those deep center down places, where we know what might be broken, where we know what might need repair.

It is there, deep in the center down places, where something in us seeks out comfort, where something in us seeks out care.

It is here, deep in the center down places, where we touch our wounded spirit, where others bear their own to us.

And is it ever a heavy task, to hold, to carry, to sit alongside the pain others have known. Yes. It takes immense strength to know when someone has suffered, that their families have suffered, that generations holding them up have suffered, and to hold up that suffering. To hold it up: that is one way of real strength, that is one way of spiritual power, of mana.

To watch a coconut palm yield 90 degrees to hurricane force winds, and to stay rooted in the earth,

To witness the pain of a person, of their ancestors, of their generations who has fought the tide of racism and lived, and to stay rooted in the relationship,

To hold the powerful shoulder of one whose known terror, and to stay there in the driver’s seat twenty steps from home, yet so far away, literally feeling another’s spirit catch and falter.

How good it is to center down. Not how lovely, not how nice, not how comfortable. How good it is to center down.

In this month of exploration, of looking at, looking for spirit, searching for mana, and also holding close to mind the brilliant and vibrant spirit of so many who have been so forgotten to so much of history, may we venture together toward a time when we truly welcome and gather all spirits who seek to do good, and breathe in respiration.

May we work together to learn more about a time when we envision the unseen, gathering all spirits lost to a time and a history that should be their own, and breathe with maybe some perspiration.

May we feel together in this time and in this place the real strength that comes when we gather all spirits, and breathe and know inspiration.

The work may press close to our hearts, tire us out, and maybe make us catch our breath. But in the work we may yet know How Good it Is to Center Down. And how much in walking the way of strength…

Context matters.

And may it always be so. Amen.

[1] See more at http://wehewehe.org/gsdl2.85/cgi-bin/hdict?a=d&d=D12710.

[2] Robin J. DiAngelo, White Frigility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

[3] The video of the interview is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeixtYS-P3s. Mr. Freeman goes on later to suggest that to cease talking about race is a way forward.

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