Abigail Hastings

Resilience Mojo for the Bonobo Year

A bleak midwinter sermon

by Abigail Hastings
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34

I bring greetings from my home church, Judson Memorial in New York City, a sister Alliance and UCC church with deep Baptist roots as it’s a memorial to Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma in the early 1800s. One thing I love about Judson is that it’s always full of surprises—always swimming upstream with the unexpected. I was at a church last month that had a humongous cross up front that reminded me of the 18-footer we had at Judson over 50 years ago. Then we decided it was more authentic to desacralize the space, to recognize the deep marriage of sacred and secular when you see it embodied, literally for example, in our space with the dancers and artists of the time (Judson is generally regarded as the birthplace of postmodern dance). So in that tradition of “guess what we’re doing now?” — Judson’s been having Bible study, ya’ll!

And not the easy parts—we’ve been muckin’ around with major and minor prophets, and recently studied today’s passage, Jeremiah 31. It’s a familiar prophetic playbook: basically, clean up your act, O Israel, or Yahweh will go elsewhere. What the Lord required was pretty basic: treat others fairly, don’t exploit the stranger, the orphan and widow, don’t shed innocent blood, and knock off following other gods.[1]

Theologian Walter Brueggemann sums up the message of the prophets: that the Ten Commandments were broken with economic policies that abused the poor, with foreign policy that depended on arms, with theological malpractice and illusions of privilege before God...”[2] Sound familiar? And yet, this Jeremiah passage conveys a deep resolve—instead of solving a problem with force, as happened in a big way with Noah and the flood, there was a new reckoning, one that gave the Israelites another chance, this time with forgiveness—for I will forgive their iniquity—and astonishingly, letting it go—and their sin I will remember no more.”

Sometimes thought of as the new covenant, or a presage of a new covenant of Jesus, some 600 years later—if nothing else, it is a reboot, a Yahweh Covenant 2.0. Maybe this new oracle came to Jeremiah in early January when God was making up new resolutions for the year. It’s a great pastime—take an arbitrary date and assign meaning to it with a do-over list or chance to do something different. You don’t realize how important that is until you’ve lived as long as I have. I recently learned that the word burden can also mean refrain—the part of the song that repeats, and repeats, and repeats. At a certain point in life, it gets difficult, a burden, to keep doing the same things over and over, like brush your teeth, keep chewing your food, or pull up your pants—happily I managed to do all those things today!

Life needs reboots  and when better than in the bleak midwinter when things go dark and dormant. If the trees are not renewing—except in these spells of freakishly warm weather—maybe we can renew ourselves. Some suggestions:

Mind the gap. We’re referring to the mind-body gap here and you might think it’s the losing weight thing, but it’s not. It’s a recognition that more than ever, researchers are finding that our bodies are more intricately connected to our minds than we ever realized. We weren’t asked if we wanted to grow up and be a "neurogastroenterologist" — but now you can be one. Turns out “the gut has a mind of its own,” researchers say, “[one that] records experiences and responds to emotions.”[3] That gut feeling you have is real.

This complexity illustrates the beauty of the body, the elegant system of a beating heart, the way the lungs fill and recede. Maybe you don’t look up lung transplants on youtube but I do—I think they’re miraculous, the moment the lungs expand into a diaphanous life-giving orb, makes me want to weep for how exquisite it is. So don’t think of the usual resolutions about the body this time around—don’t think “I want to be beautiful” but instead: “I am beautiful. Fearfully and wonderfully made.” Celebrate that.

Mind the Mind. I hate repetitive thoughts, those I don’t want or need—and I know meditation would help. Skeptics take note that the science confirms that regular meditation is healing, empowering and makes you more creative. There’s a group meeting at my church each week for meditation. I couldn’t get there for it, but decided to co-meditate at the same time they were. I flat out fell asleep, a deep and beautiful sleep—so a slow start but I’m hopeful that this is the year for a more meditative me.

Forgive. The word needs a makeover. It is not acquiescence. It is not to ignore. It is about power, in the same way that “turning the other cheek,” properly understood, is also about power and equality, not subservience. “I will forgive their iniquity,” says the Lord. There is reconciliation afoot there, not always with the offending party, but within your heart and mind. If you’ve received the mercy of forgiveness, you have a taste of what that means; if you have forgiven, you know that you’ve gained valuable real estate in your everyday thoughts, especially the repetitive ones.[4]

Laugh. I found a handwritten note in longtime Judson minister Howard Moody’s papers, he’d written down a quote that said: “It is a cliché, and it is also true, that humor springs from existential pain—from a need to blunt the awareness that life is essentially a fatal disease of unpredictable symptoms and unknown duration.” (Gene Weingarten) Oh how I miss that man. He was a great combination of uplift and dread. More to the point, Howard Thurman talks about how in those times when “life is taking out all of its grievances upon us …then there is no antidote quite like a central chuckle of the spirit. Humor may not be laughter,” he writes, “it may not even be a smile; it is primarily a point of view, an attitude toward experience… a certain quality of objectivity — the inspired ability to step aside and see one’s self go by.”

And one more widget for your consideration….

A radical defense of tenderness. This is what George Saunders said was the reason he wrote a book for his daughters (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip). “I thought what they need to hear,” he said, “is a radical defense of tenderness—the fact that the world does sometimes go bad but when it does, we have resources. Our world has become more materialist, more analytical, more fact-based, more shareholder-honoring . . . a gradual shift to the rational side of things and I think what we need to understand is our gifts, our real powerful gifts are love, tenderness, [and] patience.”[5]

Just four things here, all proven to build resilience—you’re thinking of others, that’s good. You might keep in mind the Sufi proverb: "There are two rules on the spiritual path: Begin. Continue.”[6] Let me know how that works out for you.

Did you notice that these little “makeovers” are essentially internal adjustments? There’s a reason for that. Notice that Yahweh did not deliver a message of deliverance, like “I’m sending plagues and armies to smote your enemies.” Instead it was a change of heart and mind—Yahweh forgives, Yahweh forgets. A new page is turned and offered so that a new story can be written.

In his seminal book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman describes the world Jesus was born into. The decline and desecration of Israel would have been as viscerally remembered as WWII stories are to us today. King Herod, though an Israelite, had come to represent all that had gone wrong with the once mighty nation (in much the same way things had tanked during Jeremiah’s time). When Jesus was just a boy, Judea was annexed to Syria, and over time the religious leaders—Pharisees and Sadducees—made the bargain religious leaders sometimes do: as Thurman put it, “they loved Israel, but they seem to have loved security more.”[7]

It was this broken House of Israel, a fractured minority within the Greco-Roman world, that Jesus spoke to, ones “smarting under the loss of status, freedom and autonomy…,” Thurman writes. “Jesus’ message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people… that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force [can] destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them… Again and again, [Jesus] came back to the inner life of the individual placing his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.”[8] This is what Nancy was talking about last week in her sermon, touching on the mainstays of her inner life while working at the prison, finding companions for repairing her inner life in the Bible, Etty Hillesum, and this book by Thurman.

Not for nothing, the resilience of your inner life is an equation that factors into our collective ability to write a new page. Never is that more obvious than with the things the media is trying to scare us with… when I was young, they said Cubans were in our backyard; so I stared out our back window in Texas and kept looking for them. Now it’s ISIS or a lone wolf or a natural disaster. But these terrible things, terrible though they be, are not so likely to happen to most of us. What could be happening, and could easily get sidetracked by that fear-mongering, is a very real opportunity for a change of hearts and minds, a turning the page, that needs to happen around race.

Listen to Howard Thurman writing in this same section on the inner life—and this over 65 years ago: “For the most part, [for Negroes], their status as citizens has never been clearly defined. … The Negro has felt, with some justification, that the peace officer of the community provides no defense against the offending or offensive white man; and for an entirely different set of reasons the peace officer gives no protection against the offending Negro. Thus the Negro feels that he must be prepared, at a moment’s notice, to protect his own life and take the consequences therefor.”[9]

My eyes burned when I read that—how disheartening to think that the same feeling prevails among many in the black community today. But Thurman quickly points us to what Jesus prescribed as “the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all,” he writes, “and no man would be a threat to his brother [for] the kingdom of God is within…. By inference [Jesus] is saying, ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. … Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”[10]

So the promise of a reboot—within us, perhaps within our nation, even during this very, very challenging election year. So what’s the Bonobo Year? In two weeks, the Chinese new year will begin the Year of the Monkey, with these excellent characteristics: smart, quick-witted, frank, optimistic, ambitious and adventurous. Great things to aspire to in 2016.

But I’m voting that it be specifically the Year of the Bonobo Monkey. Let me not dwell on the fact that the bonobos are a female-dominant society—let’s reflect more on the fact that “unlike chimps and humans, which are often violent and aggressive with each other, bonobos would rather make love than war.”[11] In other words, they have a lot of sex—and more to the point, they don’t kill each other. So 2016—make love, not war.

We’ll need to be brave, brave enough to break our own hearts.[12] We may be afraid at times, that’s ok—I love the description of a young choirboy, scared before his audition: “My legs were almost between liquid and solid.”[13]

Though the idea of “resilience” has gotten a lot of play of late, I’ve been interested in it for over 20 years, ever since James Garbarino talked about Cambodian orphans who survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge because they were accompanied in recovery by loving and attentive adults. More recently, Dr. Dennis Charney of Mount Sinai studied resilience in prisoners of war. “We have found that social support, particularly close meaningful relationships, can be important to a person’s resilience to stress,” he said. “The POWs used a tap code as a way of communicating non-verbally through cell walls using an algorithm. The tap code kept many of the POWs’ spirits up, even when they were in solitary confinement. Everyone needs a tap code. Everybody needs people in their lives to help them get through the tough times.”[14]

I hope you find a tap code in this community, on this sacred ground. We’ll be brave enough together to break our own hearts. Happy Bonobo Year, ya’ll—live it in the peace that passes all understanding and in the assurance of Jeremiah 29: For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the LORD.  They are plans for peace and not disaster, plans to give you a future filled with hope.

#  #  #

[1] Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews, pp 223-224
[2] Walter  Bruggemann, “Jeremiah 31:31-34: The Oracle of Newness,” HuffPost Religion, 10.26.11.
[3] “The Enteric Nervous System: The Brain in the Gut” from Themes of the Times: General Psychology, Prentice-Hall Publishing Company.
[4] There’s a wonderful interview on NPR Weekend Edition Sunday (1.24.16) with Bruce Lisker who at 17 was framed for his mother’s murder and who was exonerated in 2009 after 26 years in prison. When asked about how he negotiates anger, he said: “Yeah, that's going to come up, isn't it?  I don't do recrimination, I don't do bitterness, I don't do carrying that around because that would damage me. And I came up with something that I repeat as often as I have a voice: It's impossible to travel the road to peace unless you first cross the bridge of forgiveness. And the only hope of peace and happiness that I have is to, the minute something like that comes up, and it does, forgiveness is not a light switch, it's a dimmer, and somebody keeps sneaking over and turning it up—but you have to be mindful, you have to not go to the fear, not go to the anger, not go to that side but go to the love of yourself, of your family.” http://www.npr.org/2016/01/24/464180253/after-26-years-in-prison-innocent-man-negotiates-new-life
[5] George Saunders on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" (12.8.15).
[6] retrieved from Ken Sehested, www.prayerandpolitiks.org/
[7] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (first pub. 1949), Boston: Beacon Press, p. 13.
[8] ibid, p. 11.
[9] ibid. p. 24.
[10] ibid. p. 25.
[11] “Bonobos: What we can learn from our primate cousin,” on "60Minutes" (12.6.15).
[12] “Sugar” aka Cheryl Strayed: Be brave enough to break your own heart.
[13] Oscar, quoted in “Angels Hitting the High Notes,” on "CBS Sunday Morning" (12.13.15).
[14] Dennis S. Charney, MD, interviewed by Norman Sussman, MD in Primary Psychiatry. 2006; 13(8):39-41.

Circle of Mercy Congregation
Asheville, NC
27 January 2016
©Abigail Hastings @ prayerandpolitiks.org