Sacred Irreverence

Jerry G.

Jerry is sophisticated and bright.  He is a scholar, author, activist, and entrepreneur with a long list of accomplishments.  He knows President Obama and was friends with Princess Diana.  Jerry lost his leg and almost his life when he stepped on a landmine in Israel.   Since then he has worked to protect the dignity and equality of hundreds of millions of people with disabilities.  He has spearheaded efforts to promote a mine-free Middle-East and was a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

All that is impressive; but when I met Jerry in India, I didn’t know any of this.

One day, I flopped down beside him on a tour bus and said, “Dude, we need to talk.  I’m desperate.”

He looked at me inquisitively.

“Everyone here is so holy.  I need some irreverence.  I think you can help.”

I was right about Jerry.  We became friends, instantly bonded in the art of sacred irreverence.

Our irreverence is sacred because it’s 99% self-directed.   We laugh at our own imperfections.  Jerry is particularly gifted at finding humor in his alleged disability.

He speaks openly about what it’s like to be a one-legged man in a two-legged culture.  He speaks to groups all over the world and shakes his head at some of the questions people ask him, such as:

“Does your wife know about your one leg?”  Seriously.

In India, we delighted in comparing ourselves to others and failing to measure up.

One night everyone in our group went to a restaurant and received flower leis.  Shortly afterwards, Jerry found me.

“Guess what,” he muttered.  “Kishan gave his flowers away to a street vendor.”

“We suck.” I replied.

Jerry nodded.  We liked our flowers.  And we felt like crap because we weren’t as generous as Kishan.

Friends with Flower Leis

My favorite Jerry moment happened the night I sang at the Seva Café.  I wrote about this in an earlier post.  Nipun asked me to sing.  I was grossly underprepared, but willing.  Part of my lack of preparedness was complete amnesia around remembering the names of our local Indian colleagues.  This included the name of someone I needed to introduce that night.  I asked Jerry and others at my table to help me.  “What’s that volunteer’s name?” I begged.

Jerry said, “Don’t ask me.  You see that guy Josephji?” (Josephji was the renunciate who taught me the meaning of detachment).

I nodded, “Yeah, I know Josephji.”

“Well I called him David to his face, for a whole day.”

And then it was time to sing, and I laughed my way onto the stage, where I called up Boom-chicka Boomerang, whose real name was Bhumika.

Late that night, Jerry and I reconnected back at the ashram.  We spoke about the joy of the evening and continued poking fun at ourselves.

“I have to tell you something,” he said.

“Okay.”

“I couldn’t tell you before you sang.  I thought you might lose your shit.”

“Tell me now.”

“So you know when I said I called Jospephji ‘David’ for a whole day?”

“Yeah,” I smiled again.

“Well it got worse.  We were in the kitchen chopping vegetables.  I called him ‘David’.  And then a volunteer told me. ‘His name isn’t David.  It’s Josephji.’   And then I put my foot in my mouth.”

“Really?” I said.

Jerry nodded, “yeah, so I found out his name is Josephji; and then I asked Joseph…. (He paused to collect himself)…. ‘What does the G. stand for?”

We both laughed so hard we fell to our knees on the cement walkway.

Josephji and Mandy

I don’t know why it was funny.  Maybe because there were about sixty people talking about Gandhi-ji every day.  Maybe it was because the volunteers often referred to us as Jerry-ji or Bonnie-ji.  It was clear that ji wasn’t the letter “G.”  It was not an initial for a middle name, but a term of respect.

Really, our laughter was delight in human frailty.  Both of us trying to fit in, trying to avoid the stigma of American ego-centricity, trying to be respectful and as good as people like Kishan who gave away all their flowers.  Trying to be like all the really holy people around us.

Jerry’s “What does the G. stand for” was simply dear.  It revealed how easy it is for even the most sophisticated and accomplished among us to be well-intended but clueless.  Jerry’s faux pas reminded me that we’re all partially blind, lame, disabled, and bliss-abled.   Human disability becomes bliss-ability when we trade shame for laughter; laughter connects us to the achingly divine human comedy called existence. 

Later that week, we got deeper into the teachings of Gandhi 3.0.  All of us sat in a circle, skilled and noble colleagues together.  We pondered unanswerable questions about things that matter.  The conversations were deep and infinite.

Later we processed what we discovered over chai and exquisite vegetarian food.  We talked about everything – life, service, and meaning.  We answered questions then questioned answers.  And every now and then, something led me to say, “Jerry I have one more really important question.”

“What?” he’d ask, eager to help.

“What does the G. stand for?”

And we’d laugh again, like old friends with shared history and inside jokes.

When I speak to Jerry or email him now, I often call him Jerry G.   I think know what the G. stands for.  It could be Grace, it could be Goodwill.  I think it’s Greatness of Heart.  Jerry has a Great Heart.  A heart great enough to hold the impossible paradoxes of dark and light, irreverence and reverence, woundedness and triumph, human and divine.   Namaste Jerry G.!

What paradoxes do you hold?  Can you find a way to laugh at the divine comedy of existence?

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Prayer is Renunciation?

 

Meditation Hut

I’ve been a minister for 17 years and I still wonder about prayer.  What is it and does it work?

Even though I wonder about prayer, I’m always glad to offer it and receive it.

The Sunday before I left for India, I asked the congregation to pray for me.

“Please pray for safe travels; pray that my beloved humans and animals will be okay while I’m gone; and pray that I stay open to what this journey has to teach me so I can return and serve our Spiritual Center.”

I told the congregation, “If you have prayer requests for me, write them down and I’ll bring them with me.  I’ll pray for you while I’m in India.”

About 100 people gave me prayer requests written on small pieces of purple paper.

These prayers, offered up with trust and caring, were like a rosary.  I carried them everywhere.  We walked together through mosques, shrines to Shiva, the Gandhi Ashram, and a Coffee shop built on a Sufi Cemetery where coffins inhabited the dining room.   The prayers danced on the roof with me.  They breathed in the small meditation huts where we sang Interfaith chants together.

Coffee Shop with Coffin

One early morning, shortly after my conversation with Josephji the Renunciate, I meditated with a group.  It was dark; I was sleepy; but the air was charged with grace.  I felt the power of Something Greater moving me.

Suddenly this phrase sprang into my heart:  Prayer is renunciation.

Seriously?

I thought about my prayer requests for safety, inspiration, and leadership.  I thought about the dreams of our congregation tethered in purple papers.  With all this sincere hope, was I supposed to renounce, give up, abandon…?

I sit with the phrase Prayer is renunciation and allow it to teach me, even now.

I tenderly hold the crazy quilt of India – the instant best friends, the unanswerable mysteries, the cows, the rogue traffic, coffins in a coffee shop, and an expansive feeling of well-being both here and there despite poverty and other problems.  I marry India with my life as a SoCal irreverent reverend.  I carry timeless time and sometimes glimpse behind the illusion of separation.

I still wonder, but I have moments of Reality in Prayer.

Prayer is renunciation.

All prayer requests are noble. 

We pray the best we can.

We become the prayer when we renounce the limitations of the separate self.

Our renunciation, our letting go, allows a higher order of Grace to emerge. 

The higher order of Grace is often so much better, deeper, and sweeter than we could have imagined before the letting go. 

 

What does renunciation mean to you?  Is there a prayer within you calling for your renunciation? 

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Renunciate

Josephji in White

Josephji was one of my colleagues at Gandhi 3.0.  His name is Joseph.  In India, people add “ji” to a name to convey respect.

If anyone deserved the respectful “ji,” it was Josephji.

From his bio:  For over 16 years, Josephji has lived as a renunciate.  Engaging his life as a pilgrim, he has traveled across India, from the Himalayas to Kerala, cultivating from moment-to-moment, with an intent to offer himself in service and stillness to the people and environment around him. 

In service and stillness.  I aspire to such grace. 

One day I asked Josephji, “So what’s it like being a renunciate?”

We were eating breakfast at an outdoor table, in monastery serenity.  In the distance, dishes clattered, friendly sounds and laughter, as the volunteers prepared “Prasad.”  Closer, green parrots squawked to each other.  The sun was quiet and the air sweet.  Flowers and green foliage spilled into our dining space.

Josephji stopped eating, thought for a moment, and said, “Right now, I am completely enjoying my breakfast.”

I nodded, “Me too.”

He continued, “If I turn my back and the dog eats it, it won’t matter to me.”

“That’s the story of my life,” I laughed.

I was referring to pieces of pizza and noodle salads, devoured by my dogs in my absent-minded moments.  I knew that Josephji was talking about something else.

How we cling to external conditions in the name of enjoyment.  How we struggle to maintain the status quo so we can feel safe and happy.  How we can’t forgive the past or how we fret about the future.  How all these self-created thoughts about the way things should be seem so real and so necessary.

And yet, these invented inner perceptions impair our peace of mind.  They interfere with our ability to be in service and stillness, to ourselves, to others, and to life. 

I am grateful for Jospehji’s teaching offered in the warm sun of India, for in conscious moments, I embody it.  I catch myself in a mental frenzy and simply say renounce.  Let it go.  Be still.  Serve something greater than your fear.

Then I relax and remember.  I think of the day in India when we attended a huge Arts Festival Concert.  Our group sat in designated seats as guests of honor.  The performers sang their hearts out and waved tiny versions of India’s flag in time with the music.   The loud music consumed us.  Jerry, an American activist, businessman and co-recipient of a Nobel Peace Price, sat on my left.  Josephji was to my right.  During the height of singing and flag-waving I leaned over and bellowed to Josephji,“Can we take a selfie?”

He said yes.

It doesn’t get any better.  Singing, Surrender, Service, Stillness, Selfies there for the taking, there for our delight, there for our renunciation, always.

 

What would you like to renounce?  What inner worry, clinging, dire predictions, regrets, or other stand in the way of your service and stillness? 

 

 

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