There is a story about a monk who came to Joshu (The Chinese Zen Master) at breakfast time and said, "I have just entered this monastery to learn about God. Please teach me."
"Have you eaten your porridge yet?" asked Joshu.
"Yes, I have," replied the monk.
"Then you had better wash your bowl," said Joshu.
Bowl washing… not the inspiring advice he was expecting. We live in a self-help show-and-tell culture. We want our lives to be meaningful, to make a difference… our faith to make a difference.
We have all the appropriate descriptions for what we want, we know the jargon: we want to practice mindful-living. We want to be fully present. We want intentionality, to be alive in our own skins. We want to live in the NOW. Well NOW for that monk was time to wash his bowl. But because that act had no special significance, wasn’t meaningful, it wasn’t even on his radar.
Of course there are always going to be times when we’re tired or unfocused, times when we’re too caught up and ignore the details.
But in our culture it’s more insidious than that. We quite literally don’t see or notice, or don’t pay attention… to the life that is right in front of us. We’re looking ahead to after the bowl is washed— that’s when we’ll get the payoff. As if there were a payoff.
We don't want to "just" wash the bowl — or whatever small, insignificant, trivial task we may be engaged in. We want to comprehend it. Or turn it into some sort of competition. I washed twenty-five bowls today. How many did you wash?
I am so guilty of this. For me it’s taking out the garbage. We keep our garbage cans in one of the closets. It’s a temporary situation because we haven’t finished landscaping the outside of the building. We need to buy a couple of those garbage can “houses” that you lock up so nobody can steal your garbage, go through the bags and make a big mess all over the sidewalk. (This is New York, even the garbage is under lock and key.)
So for now, the cans are inside the house, in a closet. Garbage days are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and Saturday is also recycle day. That means in addition to the big black plastic garbage bags there are also clear bags with bottles and cans and paper.
I seem to be the only one who can remember when it’s garbage day. We once had a maintenance man to do this work but now we don’t. It’s not a hard job: you pull the bag out of the can, tie it up and put it out by the curb. It just has to be done before 7:00 am. If you do it the night before, the bags get ripped open and the contents strewn on the sidewalk. So sometime between 6:30 and 7:00 am the garbage goes out.
If we forget the closet starts to smell. If Tuesday’s garbage waits til Thursday, some of the contents have been four days in the tomb and they stinketh. The bag is also heavier now; it won’t come out of the can as easily.
I used to do it every garbage day. But there was a worry that if that continued I’d go through garbage burn-out and get resentful. We’ve had some history with that in our convent… one sister will want to play the hero and take on more work than she can handle. The other sisters let it happen. She gets tired, bummed out that no one else is stepping up to the plate to help, then the resentment starts to simmer… it’s not pretty.
So we agreed that since one sister is breakfast cook on Tuesday and another on Thursday, that they would take over those days and I would do Saturday. Saturday. Saturday is our “sleep in” day. Saturday is recycle day… more bags to put out. See how that sense of competition creeps in? It’s insidious.
Each year I come out here and stand up in front of you and talk about something. Some of you say: “Oh, what you said— I needed to hear that.” Or “I’ve been struggling with such and such and your comments put it in a different perspective.” When that synchronicity happens it’s the Holy Spirit. It’s Grace.
Because the truth of the matter is this: with you, I’m preaching to the choir. You are already holy, faithful members of Christ’s amazing Body. I’m really preaching to myself.
Greg Levoy said this:
Wherever our most primal fears reside, our fears of the dark, of death, of being devoured, of meaninglessness, of lovelessness, or of loss changes— wherever those fears reside is good, because beneath them lie gems of wisdom— and maybe a vision or a calling. Wherever you stumble: on a tree root, on a rock, on fear, on shame, on vulnerability, on someone else’s words, on the truth— dig there.
Dig there and be ready to be surprised.
Friday I spoke about Jesus being busy, but never in a hurry. In the middle of his busy schedule (teaching, healing, caring) lots of people clamoring for his attention, the whole town gathered at the door— what did he do? He withdrew to a solitary place to pray.
His disciples couldn’t understand it. They were put out, hunted him down… Jesus! What are you doing here?!? Nothing!?! Don’t you want to be a good Messiah? Get back down there. People are counting on you. What will people think? Jesus, you need a time-management seminar—you could accomplish more.
Okay, so that’s a pretty loose interpretation of Mark’s Gospel. But even the literal translation sounds spot on: “Jesus, everyone is looking for you.”
It’s just another variation on “You have some nerve saying no.” We’ve all been subjected to that kind of thinking. We’ve also more than likely projected it onto others who said no to us. But there are problems inherent with this way of thinking.
- There’s an assumption that worth comes from what we do or produce. If we believe that then we’re motivated to be indispensible.
- We assume that withdrawal (whether it’s Sabbath time or R&R) is wasteful. And we should be guilty about it. The inner voice chirping in our ear — shouldn’t you be doing something worthwhile with your time?
What did Jesus say when the disciples said “everyone is looking for you”?
Today we would say Jesus needed a “spin doctor.” But the bottom line is this: For Jesus, withdrawing is not optional. It is intentional and essential.
We may enjoy the adrenaline rush of being needed, but when we give in to the should of being all things to all people— when we give up the need to withdraw or rest or renew— we lose the rhythm of life that feeds our souls.
Jesus is saying to his disciples: Do you see that clump of people? Do you have any idea why I have any power in that clump? It’s because I regularly say NO. I regularly withdraw to a place where I listen to a different voice, my Father’s voice— about my identity.
What happens is… if we don’t say no when we need to, the no will come by default. And then we will end up saying no to the ones we love the most.