- The Sound of the Genuine.
What sounds are genuine to you this morning, sounds that ring true, sounds that feel like who you freely are?
And what puts you in touch with these sounds? Is it spending time with your grandchildren, gardening, is it laughter at a family meal, playing music with friends, writing, speaking up in a town hall?
Can you hear this sound and feel this sound, feel this sound as it vibrates around you and in you even when the chips are down and your back is against the wall?
On May 4th, in 1980, some 41 years ago, at Spelman College, Howard Thurman gave the commencement address and invited the graduating class into a query.
Thurman, you remember, was raised by his grandmother, a former slave; he was an architect and minister for the civil rights moment; he was a college professor and chaplain and dean, and a cofounder of The Church for the Fellowship of All People in San Francisco, one of the first major interracial, interfaith churches in the United States. It has been said that on marches, Dr. King carried Thurman’s most influential book, Jesus and the Disinherited, in his coat pocket.
Thurman’s query to the class of 1980 was—and remains—a powerful query. It still has the power to become a healing sound within us, a healing conductor for our inner and outer communities.
The query, though, is not one that can be answered in a moment or on a Sunday; it is a query for a lifetime, a query to be engaged as a mysterious adventure with answers coming and going like the sunrise and sunset.
This query is something fundamentally human, something that rings true across our real differences. But it is also more-than-human, I think. It is a query for all of creation.
It is also, if Thurman might allow me to say so, a query of freedom and power: it can become a freeing power against the world’s violence, the violence of mental and emotional and physical weaponry, the violence of acquiescence to mindless groupthink, the violence of naming and possessing what isn’t ours to name or possess.
Here is Thurman’s query.
There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself …
There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself.
Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one.
And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be crippled the rest of your life. Because you will never be able to get a scent on who you are.[…]
So, the burden of what I have to say to you is, “What is your name—who are you—and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?”
There are so many noises going on inside of you that I wonder if you can get still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential person the sound of the genuine in you.
I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment.’
With a tender gentleness, I invite you to take up Thurman’s assignment right now.
For the next two or so minutes, let’s share a contemplative silence together. If it is free and fruitful for you, let your inbreath be your loving guide into the sounds of the genuine within your soul. With your outbreath, I invite you to release a maybe tight grip on everything that is not yours to hold, on everything you may be holding on to too tightly, on anything that might lead you away from the sounds of the genuine within you.
- Sounds of the Genuine in Scripture.
It is genuine for me to tell you that Scripture is not always easy for me to read, or listen to.
It sometimes sounds quite awful and completely out of tune to the eternal song within me, the song I believe the Beloved plays in my soul and created me to play in the world, in my own way.
I grew up in an almost cult-like religious community that used Scripture to beat us into believing and behaving in a particular kind of Christianity before the rapture and the end of all things.
My senior year project in Bible class was to write out the book of revelation, address it to an “unsaved friend,” and leave it somewhere he might find it—so that he might use it as a kind of soul survival manual when the sky fell and the nations went to war and the waters turned to blood and people began slipping into an eternal lake of fire for their sins.
That my very spirit was weaponized over and against others for ideological religious warfare grieves me very much, much as I vividly remember how the wildness of God’s love fell even in that space.
It has taken me some time to learn how to read the Scripture with fresh eyes and an open heart. To learn how to forgive certain words and the people who wrote them, attend to the context in which people wrote certain words and brought them together, forgive my misunderstandings and misinterpretations, taken me some time to experience the truth and goodness and beauty that the heart of Scripture witnesses to.
Christ, the Beloved.
It has taken me sometime, in other words, to hear certain sounds of the genuine within Scripture.
What do you hear in Scripture this morning?
I am choosing to hear a story about a good God who is and was and will always be with us.
A divine Beloved who plants and nurtures so that all of creation—winged creatures of every kind—may live and flourish and bear fruit for one another. Find a protective shade. A Beloved who is full of surprises, whose skillful wisdom woos us into skillful, wise love. A Beloved who labors in the world, and invites us to labor in the world by faith—to make all things new; a Beloved who is making all things new, even here, even now, second by slow second.
A Beloved whose healing work in our world calls us to carefully attend to the commonplace and the small and the seemingly insignificant things of this world—like a tiny mustard seed—and be amazed at what happens when the small and the common place and the seemingly insignificant becomes a ravishing beauty.
A ravishing beauty. This is what I hear today when I hear the word of the Lord. It is ravishingly beautiful that you will hear other things. It is a ravishing beauty of our Beloved that we can gather our sounds together, tune them into harmony, and step back and listen to the genuine sounds of the Beloved community.
What a joy that we—little mustard seeds—are now and get to become like loving, beautiful sounds from the heart of, the mouth of, God.
The sound of the genuine is not just within us; it is all around us. Spirituality, it seems to me, is a learning how to listen to these genuine sounds of the kin-dom of God: sounds that, though faint at times, though seemingly and despairingly absent at times, will become the unmistakable song of the day. The ravishingly beautiful song that unites, that heals, that loves lovingly.
Some years ago, as a younger and profoundly more naïve PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I was putting together a committee of scholars that would guide my mind and work on the streets of Seattle as I sought to do anthropological research to understand something about what everyday life is like for people who live on the streets, what their spiritualties are like, and what difference spirituality makes in their lives. The point of doing this work was not only to understand something new but to help, in a small way, faith-based organizations grow in their already loving love for the unhoused. I put together a good and diverse team of scholars from Berkeley and Stanford. Around the time I was about to finalize my team and start my fieldwork on the streets, a new theologian came to the GTU. Since I had read this theologian’s work with great interest, and she is considered a leading theologian of our time, I inquired with her about whether she’d be a part of my team. I felt like pretty hot stuff when she agreed. I remember one of the first times I took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to see her: I was both nervous to be exposed as a phony imposter who doesn’t really know a lick of theology and ready to receive some knowledge that would blow my mind, change my life, and instantly make me a successful professor.
When I got to her office, she asked if I wanted tea.
She made me a cup. Made herself a cup.
When the tea was ready, she didn’t ask me who I knew or what I know or who I am working with. She just sat beside me, looked me in the eyes, and asked me how I am. And what I hope to learn.
It sort of embarrasses me to think of how I probably rambled on to make myself seem cool and smart and with it. We must thank God each and every dang day that our teachers and mentors and pastors are patient with our sometimes silly and ever-developing selves.
When she was finished listening, and I stood ready to receive a powerful truth bomb that would blow my mind and others’ minds, she simply said:
You know, I wonder if you’d be interested in taking a class on listening.
It seems to me, she said, as I remember it, that good listening is one of the best thing Christians can offer the world today. That good listening carries something of the good news we might embody for the world.
I was, I admit, deflated and somewhat offended. A word about listening was not the truth bomb I anticipated. And was she, I wondered, saying I sort of sucked at doing something as seemingly natural and easy as listening?
I am still discovering how profoundly true her words about listening are, and how much practice it takes to become a skillful listener. What good news it indeed is to experience good listening.
Near the end of my research on the streets, which lasted more than three years, and goes on, actually, this sentence became one of the most common: ‘thank you, Paul, for just listening. It almost makes me feel human again because being out here makes me feel inhuman. People are always trying to fix me or put me in a box, kick me out of a space or sweep me away. God, what I really need sometimes, I mean, in addition to a house, of course, is someone to just be there and listen.’
- The sounds on the street
Some of you know that, for the past month, I have been working at St. Luke’s. The purpose of my work, as I understand it, is to listen to the sounds of the genuine in and around our community in the hopes of developing a ministry that might become a place of spiritual nourishment for people who may not be inclined to attend a regular Sunday service. The purpose is to help grow the good work St. Luke’s is already doing. We hope to create the infrastructure and team for an orchestra of people tapping into and releasing and playing the sounds of genuine within them. Sounds that might lead them to the fountain of Christ’s peaceful waters, Christ’s joyful heart. It is and will be one of the great joys and honors of my life to be a small part of the amazing work that God is doing through the good people at St. Luke’s. This really is such a special, vibrant place. A beloved community. And the more of us doing this work of listening, of having conversation about how to grow in love, the better. If this work plays something genuine in you, please reach out and be in touch.
And will you please allow me to conclude by sharing a genuine sound I heard recently? It is the sound of the need for recognition, for love.
Two Fridays ago, I got to the park across the street. I see a woman lying on the ground in a sleeping bag.
She calls out to me. ‘Hello. Will you play a song for me on your phone?’
I am surprised.
‘Sure,’ I say—’what song?’
‘Ordinary Man’ by Ozzy Osborn, she says.
As I pull up the song on my phone, she asks me to look at her neck.
‘Do you see this,’ she says. Her neck is black and blue and bruised. ‘Someone strangled me last week,’ she says.
I play the song and watch her dance with her arms under a tree as Ozzy sings.
I admire her struggle for happiness in this moment, her experience of happiness, in the midst of great sadness.
“Don’t know why I am still alive,’ Ozzy sings.
‘Yes, the truth is that I don’t want to die an ordinary man.”
It is hard for me to maintain eye contact with this person.
There is something almost too intimate and vulnerable about the way she is looking at me.
Still, the voice of love, of God, I believe, says: look.
As I look at her, and listen to her sing Ozzy’s words in her own raspy voice, I watch her eyes fill with tears and hear her, from the most genuine place I can imagine, say: ‘I love you.’
Without hesitation and from my heart I say: I love you, too.
Friends. We are invited into the beauty of the Beloved’s love for the world. Let’s create healing sounds. Healing sights. Healing smells. To continue Christ’s healing movement.