Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, January 5, 2014

The Wisdom of “Namaste”—
The God in Me Greets the God in You
[Isaiah 60:1-6; John 1:1-18]

            Let us pray.  Light of the World, shine upon us, shine through us, shine in us in 2014!  Dispel the darkness in the hidden places of our lives. Dispel the darkness in our human relationships. Dispel the darkness in the hidden places of St. Pauls. Dispel the darkness in the hidden places of North Carolina and the United States, so that we will be equipped to bring light to the world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

            A new year is a new start, but we have to look forward, not backward.  We learn from the past, but we don’t have to carry its baggage forward with us.  We don’t have to make the same mistakes over and over again, if we hunker down, learn from them and choose to respond in different ways. When bad things happen to good people, assuming that we all are basically “good people” at heart, how do we respond?  Do we curse the darkness, or do we open our hearts to the light of Christ and reflect it into the darkness, as God has so graciously done for us?

            The word “Namaste” is an Indian greeting, like “hello – how ya doing?  What’s up?” in English.  It is a Hindi word which means “The God in Me Greets the God in You.”  An Indian person puts their hands together as we might do to pray and bows her head slightly at the same time, to show respect for the person she is greeting.  A whole book of theology could be written from that simple expression:  “Namaste.”  May the God in the Me greet the God in You.
            Our American culture, despite all the Christian influences we may boast about, has lost civility between human beings, partly because of instant communications which allow us to be very reactive to one another and very involved in one anothers’ lives and business.  We judge and editorialize about other people almost automatically, without breathing and taking the necessary time to HEAR what the other person is saying, WHY they might be saying what they are saying, and without INTUITING the unspoken meanings which emerge between the lines if we take time to hear another person’s voice as it is, knowing that person is also a child of God, just as I am.

            For me navigating Christmas as both a pastor and a parent is challenging… kind of like white water rafting, which I love, because all of us have HUGE EXPECTATIONS of what Christmas is supposed to be. I feel the pressure of a pastor to “INSPIRE OTHERS, MEET THEIR SPIRITUAL NEEDS, MINE THE WISDOM OF GOD’S WORDS IN SCRIPTURE,” year after year. But yes, I love the challenge and God shows up for me when I am in the Christmas crunch, sometimes in ways that surprise me or unsettle me, but that’s part of the excitement of riding white water rapids!  The water is always churning in new ways and offers unique challenges that rarely repeat themselves the following year.

            God meets me in that raft as I paddle hard to the right to miss a huge boulder in the middle of the river, or paddle hard to the left to avoid a low hanging branch on the other side of the river.  None of us can control the weather, the water level or the speed of the current in the river. We are in it, like it or not, and God promises to be with us, even if we get knocked out of the raft altogether. God stands like a guide on the rock downstream and throws us a line, pulls us into a quiet eddy and helps us get back in the raft of our own life with God.

            Sometimes God meets us through a stranger. The beauty of Epiphany Sunday is that wise persons from the East, not Jews, not Christians, people some folks might label “pagans” see God’s star and follow it.  They follow the proper channels, as wise persons, checking in with the “boss” first – King Herod, to seek his wisdom about the star.  We learned last week that Herod’s heart was full of darkness, so the wise men listened to a dream from God and departed another way to their homes.  They brought gifts to Jesus, our Messiah, gold, frankincense and myrrh, which have a special meaning. 

            Gold is a gift for Kings, frankincense is a gift for priests or religious leaders, and myrrh is used in burial.  Those “foreign” wise persons… brought gifts with prophetic significance. They recognized the “holiness” of the new child that was born. The star was visible not just to Jews, but to wise persons of every race… and every generation.  The star of wisdom leads all of us to a place of humility and respect for all people, for all of creation and for the creator.  That is the wisdom of Namaste: “the God in me greets the God in you.”

            That wisdom NEVER insists on its own “rightness” and other peoples’ “wrongness.”  That wisdom looks for the good in others, even if it is hard to find.  That wisdom invites others to see their own beauty and giftedness and to mature and grow in their beauty and giftedness.  Isn’t that how Jesus related to people that he encountered on the road of his life?  Jesus gave the hardest time to those who were “full of themselves” not to those who were empty and broken.  Jesus “imagined” and “visualized” the wholeness of those who were hurting.  That is what it means in practical terms to bring light to the darkness.

            As I was scurrying around like everyone else, picking up Christmas gifts and planning worship services, a book jumped off the shelf at the Country Book Store in Southern Pines that seemed to be “calling my name.”  I thought of who I could give it to for Christmas, and finally realized it was my gift for Sue this year. I usually put David’s name on the tag, so he officially gave it to me, but I picked it ou.

            The book is called A Quaker Book of Wisdom:  Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense, by Robert Lawrence Smith. These 190 pages fed me spiritually this week, giving me guidance from God about where God is leading me in 2014.  Most of you realize I live a pretty fast-paced life and stay on the run a lot of the time. I guess I’ve had to keep up with my triple-A battery bird-hunting husband who can multi-task and with whom I have circled the globe.  It’s all been a joy and a challenge and an exciting white water raft trip of a life; however, God is telling me to BREATHE, Sue.  BREATHE. Slow down… seek simplicity, service and common sense, exactly what this book is all about.  God has been speaking these words not just through the book, but through circumstances, my friends and my family.

            Fortunately Robert Lawrence Smith decided in his retirement, after his busy life as a head master of a famous Quaker school, called Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. to put in writing the “nuggets” of his own life journey, so that his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren would be able to glean the wisdom of the Quaker heritage which had shaped him to be the person he was.
            He begins the first chapter, entitled:  “Let Your Life Speak” with these humble words:  “There were no Nobel laureates in my mother’s family.  Although generation after generation of the Stokes family produced doctors, there were no secretaries of state, five-star generals, literary luminaries, glamorous movie stars, bank robbers, long-distance swimmers, or counterespionage agents. No one the media would consider newsworthy. Grandfather, who represented the 4th generation of Quaker physicians practicing in our small town of Moorestown, New Jersey, addressed this fact head-on.” In Grandfather’s monograph tracing three centuries of his Quaker family’s life in America, he wrote:  “The roll call of ancestors includes no figures of outstanding importance in history. Rather his book was a record of men and women who lived active, useful lives, and who gave to their nation and their communities the best that was in them.”

            Quakerism was founded in the 17th century by George Fox, whose motto was simple:  “Let your life speak.”  I learned so much by reading this book which resonates with my own life experience, even though I am a life-long Presbyterian.  There are some stark differences between Quakerism and Presbyterianism, but I was refreshed… inspired… and revived from those differences.  I almost attended a Quaker College, Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, but made that crucial decision to attend Wake Forest College, because they had a swimming pool and a synchronized swimming.

            Quakerism’s fundamental belief is that there is a “divine spark” in each of us, which would be the image of God that Presbyterians also affirm.  There are no clergy and every person is considered equal in God’s presence, with equal authority to speak God’s wisdom in their Meetings, which are begun in silence and contain no liturgy and no sacraments.  Sometimes the meetings are entirely silent; at other times people share a story, a Scripture, an experience, an insight as God leads them to do.  The service concludes with one of the Friends declaring the way clear, shaking the hand of the person next to him until everyone receives and passes on the hand shake.   Smith explains that “heart and hand are the two inseparable agents of faith and work that reflect the two sides of Quakerism: its mysticism (reaching within for truth) and its activism (reaching out to others). (p. 20)

            Smith describes Quaker worship like this:  “At each Meeting, a group of individuals gathers and, open to the word of God, waits in attentive, expectant silence for a spark of the divine in their midst. Sometimes it comes in words; sometimes in silence. The language of truth can often be heard in silence, if only we know how to listen.” (p. 29)

            The Quaker blessing at the table is complete silence also.  Smith describes his childhood experience:  “When I was growing up, the restorative value of silence was affirmed at home as well as in Meeting. We always, for example, ‘said’ a Quaker grace before meals.  My sister Molly and I would be noisily needling each other while our little sister Nancy played underfoot. Mother would be rattling pots and pans or moving in and out of the dining room setting the table. And then we would sit down, talking or laughing until Mother said, ‘Let’s say grace.’ We would still our voices, bow our heads, and remain totally silent for perhaps half a minute. What happened in that moment?  I can only say that an extraordinary calm descended on the family.  It was a moment I waited for, that I anticipated each evening with pleasure—a span of silence that invariable yielded an intense feeling of refreshment. I have found ever since that if I’m at a meal where a moment of silence before eating is not observed, I feel cheated of that small island of peace.”

            Sisters and brothers in Christ, I fell in love with the Quaker lifestyle while reading this book, because Quakers have valued racial and gender equality, promoted social justice, nonviolence—and yes, sometimes civil disobedience—since the 17th century, even if it got them into trouble.  They consistently opposed slavery long before other religious people and suffered the consequences of discrimination in Great Britain, where they refused to embrace the Church of England.  They moved to America for religious freedom and William Penn, the founder and namesake of my home state of Pennsylvania was a Quaker.  In the early days Quakers studied medicine because they were excluded from other courses of study at Oxford and Cambridge. They were demonized for their religious positions, but continued to seek the “best” that was in them to contribute to the world around them.
            Smith did say he fought in World War II despite his family’s consistent opposition to war, because he felt the alternative of NOT opposing Hitler was worse.  He had to fight Nazism and his family respected his decision. However, when he returned from the war and enrolled at Harvard College, he felt the issues other students were concerned about were trivial. He dropped out and returned to Europe to help with the rebuilding of areas devastated by the war he was a part of.
            In the final chapter of the book, Smith gives a list of 10 nuggets of wisdom he has gleaned from the wisdom of his Quaker tradition and wants to pass on to his family and readers.  1)  Seize the present moment. 2) Love yourself, whatever faults you have, and love the world; however bad it is.  3) Stop talking and listen to what you really know. In other words, learn to trust your own mind and listen to your gut.  4) Play soccer! (or whatever team sport you love… it teaches you a lot about working with other people successfully.)  Smith gives a lot of sub-points to that, which I will save for another day.  5) Accept the fact that our lives are only partly in our hands. For this point he brings in the metaphor of riding in a canoe down a strongly flowing river, just try to stay upright and get to the end.  6) Believe in the perfectibility of yourself and society.  Look for the “ocean of light” not the “ocean of darkness.”  (This may be tough for Presbyterians who tend to see the depravity of humanity, so this is a point we may to work on more intensely.)  7)  Make your love visible in the world through your work.  8)  Seek justice in the world, but not in your own life.  WOW… that’s a good one!  9)  Look for the light of God in every person.  That’s a good paraphrase for the title of my sermon:  Namaste… The God in me greets the God in you. 10)  Let your life speak.
            On that note, let us pray.  Heavenly Father, Down-to-Earth Son, Life-Giving Spirit, let our lives speak… this day, this week and this year, illuminated by the gracious light of Jesus Christ, in whose name, we pray, Amen.