Saturday, May 7, 2016

Sermon from 5/6/16: Words Words Words

I want to begin by asking a question: if tomorrow, you were bereft of the power of speech, save only one phrase, or even only one word--what would that phrase or word be?

I’m not talking about being struck dumb or having a stroke. You would have a choice--if the world was reoriented such that you could only say one thing, if you were to undergo a modified, enforceable vow of silence, what would you choose to say?

It’s a hard question to ask, and even harder to answer. Would it be a word of wisdom? Some aphorism to inspire those around you? Would it be a purely utilitarian phrase, a practical sentence? Would it be a favorite line from literature, or film, or a primal yalp? Would you declare your own name, as Groot does in Guardians of The Galaxy, or a nonsense word, as Hodor declares in Game of Thrones? Or, bereft of choices, would you choose to sit in silence?

So now let me ask a follow up question: whatever word or phrase you chose--how often do you say it now? How often do you say that specific phrase? If these are the most important words, the ones you cannot live without, the ones you MUST KEEP, how often do you say them?

Like any commodity, when we have a great deal of something, we tend to forget that thing’s real value, it’s real worth. We take for granted our ability to speak, to write, to share our thoughts through language. Of course there are other ways to express ourselves: body language, movement, art, music, mathematics. But for the most part, we say words. We say a lot of words. The best words, to quote a presidential candidate who likes to use his words in their most weaponized form. We use our words carelessly, thoughtlessly, not thinking about the impact they might have on others. Or, sometimes even worse, we overthink our words, trying to craft our speech so carefully so the other person can read between the lines. But perhaps, in our talking, we don’t really pay enough attention to what we’re saying, or how we’re speaking. Or how we’re listening.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Hasidic master, was very focused on one idea, that of hitbodedut, of clinging to God. For him, the best way to achieve this was talking to God, and he would encourage his followers to practice this every day.

He said: even when one cannot speak at all, or says only a single thing--it is also very good!!

He also said: even if a person can only say one thing, he should be resolute and say that thing over and over again, endlessly. And even if he spends many, many days saying nothing but this thing--that too is good! He should be strong and courageous, and continue to say that thing countless times until God takes pity on him and opens his mouth, enabling him to elaborate on his words.

The Rebbe also said: The spoken word is very powerful. Why, with a whisper it is possible to prevent a gun from firing. Understand this. (from Likutei Morhoran II #96)

So: how are we doing with our words? Are we treating our words as powerfully as they are? Do we understand their importance? Are we whispering to stop the weaponry around us? Are we repeating what must be said to elevate the world? Are we speaking strongly and courageously? Might we speak more appropriately if we knew we only had a handful of words to say, or perhaps only one?

For me the answer is yes. It is unquestionably yes. And because of that we need to remind ourselves of the power of our words. We have a presidential candidate who uses words as he uses people--as if they’re disposable. We have a child killed in our community whose family--already reeling from the tragedy of her death--is dealing with people speaking around and about them--even setting up fake charity accounts using their names. And we all know too many people and too many circumstances where words spoken have done far, far more harm than good. There’s a reason the 1980s band Depeche Mode wrote that words can only do harm.

But they can do so much more than that when we let them. The word of appreciation, the word of apology, the word of gratitude or praise or affection can change a person’s whole experience, even reorient their world. And, if we believe Reb Nachman, perhaps those words can even bring us closer to God. May it be so: May we learn to open our mouths that we may only speak the words most important to us, the words that bring us to holiness.

And in case you were wondering: if I were reduced to only a handful of words, I would choose nothing more dramatic or inspiring except the words I try to speak to those around me in different ways as much as possible. I would choose I love you. May this be our blessing. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 14: Praise

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

By Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Link replaced with text due to brokenness.

Thanks for following my poetic exploration of the Exodus! A happy holiday to all who celebrate.

Blog Exodus Day 13: Accept

Brief Eden

Related Poem Content Details

For part of one strange year we lived 
in a small house at the edge of a wood. 
No neighbors, which suited us. Nobody 
to ask questions. Except 
for the one big question we went on 
asking ourselves.
                         That spring 
myriads of birds stopped over
briefly. Birds we’d never seen before, drawn 
to our leafy quiet and our brook and because, 
as we later learned, the place lay beneath 
a flyway. Flocks appeared overnight—birds 
brilliant or dull, with sharp beaks
or crossed bills, birds small 
and enormous, all of them pausing 
to gorge at the feeder, to rest their wings, 
and disappear. Each flock seemed surer than we 
of a destination. By the time we’d watched them 
wing north in spring, then make 
an anxious autumn return, 
we too had pulled it together and we too moved 
into what seemed to be our lives.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 12: Discover

Discovery Of The World

Your name has been entered in all the books.
The ticker-tape leaps, the orators
Flip coins for their first try at you.
The gamblers eye you as they would an ace.

They have heard of the hollow of your back
And of your recent discovery of the world,
How you have ten fingers, perfect if small,
And ten toes as agile as ten fingers.

And they are already standing on your doorstep.
They are dressed up to look like candy,
Their eyes can open and shut like dolls,
Their hands are cold, cold as cold cash.

What great plans they have for you,
For your questions and your spindling legs!
Your mind clack-clack and muscles clack-clack
Going and gone under the auctioneer's hammer!

So that your eyes, in which the sky could be lost,
Must at last narrow to scan the face of evil:
For early, so early, too early
The bargainers have seized upon your name.
--Naomi Replansky

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 11: Rejoice

Wet-weather Talk

By James Whitcomb Riley

It hain't no use to grumble and complane;

It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.— 

When God sorts out the weather and sends rain, 

W'y rain's my choice. 

Men ginerly, to all intents— 

Although they're apt to grumble some— 

Puts most theyr trust in Providence, 

And takes things as they come— 

That is, the commonality 

Of men that's lived as long as me 

Has watched the world enugh to learn 

They're not the boss of this concern. 

With some, of course, it's different— 

I've saw young men that knowed it all, 

And didn't like the way things went 

On this terrestchul ball;— 

But all the same, the rain, some way, 

Rained jest as hard on picnic day; 

Er, when they railly wanted it, 

It mayby wouldn't rain a bit! 

In this existunce, dry and wet 

Will overtake the best of men— 

Some little skift o' clouds'll shet 

The sun off now and then.— 

And mayby, whilse you're wundern who 

You've fool-like lent your umbrell' to, 

And want it—out'll pop the sun, 

And you'll be glad you hain't got none! 

It aggervates the farmers, too— 

They's too much wet, er too much sun, 

Er work, er waitin' round to do 

Before the plowin' 's done: 

And mayby, like as not, the wheat, 

Jest as it's lookin' hard to beat, 

Will ketch the storm—and jest about 

The time the corn's a-jintin' out. 

These-here cy-clones a-foolin' round— 

And back'ard crops!—and wind and rain!— 

And yit the corn that's wallerd down 

May elbow up again!— 

They hain't no sense, as I can see, 

Fer mortuls, sech as us, to be 

A-faultin' Natchur's wise intents, 

And lockin' horns with Providence! 

It hain't no use to grumble and complane;

It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.— 

When God sorts out the weather and sends rain, 

W'y, rain's my choice

Blog Exodus Day 10 (late): Unite

Lo, I will send to you
The prophet Elijah 
The coming of The Eternal's Day
Awesome and Terrible!
Who shall reconcile parents with children 
And the hearts of children with their parents, 
So that, when I come, 
I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.
Lo, I will send to you

The prophet Elijah 
The coming of God's Day

Awesome and Terrible!
-From Malachi 3:23ff

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 9: Perplex

to the sea


You who cannot hear or cannot know

the terrible intricacies of our species, our minds,

the extent to which we have done

what we have done, & yet the depth to which

we have loved

what we have

loved — 

the hillside

at dawn, dark eyes

outlined with the dark

sentences of kohl,

the fūl we shared

beneath the lime tree at the general’s house

after visiting Goitom in prison for trying to leave

the country (the first time),

the apricot color of camels racing

on the floor of the world

as the fires blazed in celebration of Independence.

How dare I move into the dark space of your body

carrying my dreams, without an invitation, my dreams

wandering in ellipses, pet goats or chickens

devouring your yard & shirts.

Sea, my oblivious afterworld,

grant us entry, please, when we knock,

but do not keep us there, deliver

our flowers & himbasha bread.

Though we can’t imagine, now, what

our dead might need,

& above all can’t imagine it is over

& that they are, in fact, askless, are

needless, in fact, still hold somewhere

the smell of coffee smoking

in the house, please,

the memory of joy

fluttering like a curtain in an open window

somewhere inside the brain’s secret luster

where a woman, hands red with henna,

beats the carpet clean with the stick of a broom

& the children, in the distance, choose stones

for the competition of stones, & the summer

wears a crown of beles in her green hair & the tigadelti’s

white teeth & the beautiful bones of Massawa,

the gaping eyes & mouths of its arches

worn clean by the sea, your breath & your salt.

Please, you,

being water too,

find a way into the air & then

the river & the spring

so that your waters can wash the elders,

with the medicine of the dreaming of their children,

cold & clean.

Source: Poetry (April 2016)