Beginner’s Mind

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany:

To give them… the oil of gladness. (Isaiah 61:1-6)
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives… (Luke 4:14-21)

In 1968 a group called “The Rascals” released one of the songs we’ll do today. “People Got to Be Free” spent five weeks at number one on the Billboard Top 100 charts. Though the song was written after Martin Luther King Jr. died, the Rascals really wrote the song after an ugly encounter with some people who objected to the long-haired group after their tour bus broke down in Fort Pierce, Florida. The song is a plea for tolerance and freedom, and sold four million copies.

All the world over, so easy to see
People everywhere just wanna be free
Listen, please listen, that’s the way it should be
Peace in the valley, people got to be free

You should see, what a lovely, lovely world this would be
If everyone learned to live together
It seems to me such an easy, easy thing this would be
Why can’t you and me learn to love one another

Susan Magdalane Boyle was born on April Fool’s Day back in 1961. It’s an apt birth date for a woman who would pull a great prank on people around the world when she appeared on the reality show “Britain’s Got Talent” back in April of 2009. I don’t know if you saw the video, but when Boyle walks out on stage, the reaction of the crowd is priceless. Here is this frumpy, middle-aged Scottish woman in her plain clothing – daring to proclaim that she has talent.

Judging by the expressions on the faces in the audience, they were waiting for this ugly duckling woman to open her mouth and squeal out some horrid song so Simon Cowell could rip her to shreds and send her packing. The song she had chosen, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, is challenging for even the most accomplished vocalist.

When she opened her mouth and began to sing – the crowd’s faces went from smug certainty, to shock – then to delight. Susan Boyle had the voice of an angel and gave one of the best renditions of that song that anyone has ever heard. In the end, the crowd that had been ready to jeer Boyle off the stage, instead leapt to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.

Boyle’s voice had given the crowd freedom. They had been freed of their misconceptions, of their prejudices – of their notions of what a “good singer” looks like. We’ve all seen the beautiful women on stage – you have to be beautiful, especially if you’re a woman, to make it in the music business. You can be butt-ass ugly as a man and still make it in music – just look at any of the metal hair bands or Charlie Daniels, or Mick Jagger – the list of ugly male musicians is endless! So, Boyle had the deck stacked high against her when she stepped out on that stage. No one expected a woman, called “ugly” by society’s standards of beauty, to be the bearer of such a beautiful voice.

The crowd, much to their credit, rejoiced in their newfound freedom. They had been released from their ideas about beauty, and found the experience to be exhilarating.

All the world over, so easy to see
People everywhere just wanna be free
I can’t understand it, so simple to me
People everywhere just wanna be free

In the practice of Zen Buddhism, the ability to put aside our preconceived notions and judgments about things is achieved through what is known as “Beginner’s Mind.” Shunryu Suzuki writes in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, that: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” When we think we have it all figured out – when we’re certain about things – we can’t learn anything new. We already know it all, what else can we learn?

We find many people stuck in the expert’s mind. Religious fundamentalists pop to my mind first and foremost. They’ve got the world – and more importantly – the mind of God, all figured out. They don’t need to be taught anything by anyone else, because they know it all.

Fortunately for them, the god they worship hates all the same people they do, so it’s easy to follow their god’s commands to hate those different from themselves, to oppress and perhaps kill others. They know this is the will of the god they follow – there’s no question in their minds. They are experts on God’s will and nothing will change their beliefs.

I recently had an exchange online with one of these “expert’s mind” fundamentalists. They kept insisting that I show them, from the Bible, where God said gay and lesbian relationships were okay. I tried to tell her that the passages that they said condemned gays and lesbians only condemned abusive sexual practices between members of the same-sex but not one passage in the Bible condemns loving, committed relationships, but they wanted some verse that said, “I, God, love and approve of same-sex relationships.” Of course there is no passage like that. But there’s no passage where the Bible clearly says, “I, God, hate slavery and order humans to end this abhorrent practice.” Instead, everything the Bible says about slavery supports it and tells people how to treat their slaves. We, as a society, have chosen to disregard what “God says” about slavery.

The problem with the “expert’s mind” here is that they’ll only allow God to speak in one way, through a book that they’ve already decided what it says. They believe the Bible is their little book of answers for every situation. In seminary, my New Testament professor said, “If you read the Bible and come away with more answers than questions, you’ve completely misunderstood it.” The Bible isn’t a book of answers, it’s a book of mysteries. You can’t read the Bible with an “expert’s mind.” You have to read it with a “beginner’s mind” so it can surprise you – so God can reveal new insights to you through its mysterious words and meanings.

It’s easy though to point out where others are stuck in “expert’s mind.” But, where do we have our own “expert’s mind”? What parts of our lives do we believe we know so thoroughly that no one can teach us anything more about it? I had a clash of “expert minds” recently at the Sam Ash music store in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve heard a bit of this story.

After Christmas, Wanda and I went to Sam Ash as part of my Christmas present. Now, I really just went there to buy songbooks to cull for Jubilee songs. But, we wandered into the acoustic guitar room – where it’s perfectly humidified for tender guitars, mind you – and I happened to spot a Martin acoustic/electric that wasn’t too far out of the realm of possible purchase. The guy behind the counter handed it to me and I fell in love. It played great and sounded wonderful. Wanda did some wheeling and dealing with the store manager, and this beautiful instrument was mine. This was a Saturday. By Tuesday, the guitar was unplayable. The neck had pulled back so far that the strings were touching the frets. It needed to be set up again to play properly.

I took the guitar back to Sam Ash and the young guy who had been in the guitar room originally was there. I took him the guitar and explained what had happened. He took the guitar and said, “Oh, the neck relaxed when you changed the strings.”

“No,” I told him. “The neck went out with the strings it came with. The string change had nothing to do with it.”

No, he insisted, the trouble started when I changed the strings – even though I knew it hadn’t. It went downhill from there. After I wouldn’t take responsibility for the damage from a string change he said, “Well you have to keep guitars in a humidified environment. Do you?” I said, “I have three other guitars in the same room where this one was and they’ve been fine for years. The necks haven’t moved!”

“Well, you need a humidified room.”

“Great! I can buy the guitar, but I have to come here to play it,” I, well, yelled.

Wanda had found the manager at this point and the young guy left the room. I told the manager I didn’t appreciate someone talking to me like I didn’t know jack about guitars. I’ve had guitars for more than 30 years – longer than the guitar room kid has been alive – and he talks to me like I’m an idiot because I’m not a long haired 20-something male garage band member. What do middle aged women know about playing guitar? Never mind the Indigo Girls or Bonnie Riatt – I obviously have no right to play guitar.

The manager refunded my money and we went on our way – but here were two expert minds – ready to do battle.

I probably could have learned a few things about proper guitar care from this guy – and he might have learned from me about how to handle customers better – but we were two expert minds, clashing – unable to step back and learn from one another.

When we get stuck in our expert mind we can’t empathize with anyone else, we can’t see the needs of other people, we can’t see our way clear to step outside our own narrow beliefs and look through another person’s eyes and understand their suffering and their pain. We can’t help one another when we’re stuck in expert mind. We need to be liberated from our expert mind – and cultivate a beginner’s mind.

If there’s a someone who is down and needs a helping hand
All it takes is you to understand and to pull them through
Seems to me, we got to solve it individually
And I’ll do unto you what you do to me

There’ll be shoutin’ from the mountains on out to sea
No two ways about it, people have to be free
Ask me my opinion, my opinion will be
It’s a natural situation for us all to be free

Oh, what a feelin’s just come over me
Enough to move a mountain, make a blind man see
Everybody sing it now, come on, let’s go see
Peace in the valley, now we ought to be free

In our reading from the Jesus story today, we find Jesus in his hometown of Galilee. He’s doing what all good Jewish boys do on the Sabbath – he went to temple. There, he read from the Hebrew scriptures – from the book of Isaiah.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

At our last Jubilee! Circle celebration we read from the book of John where Jesus was hanging out turning water into wine at a wedding service. That’s where John puts the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. For Luke, though, Jesus’ ministry begins here, in his hometown temple where “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” This was the hometown boy done good. Jesus, the son of local carpenter was out to make a name for himself – finally Galilee would be put on the map.

It went downhill from there. As any preacher or politician can tell you, crowds can be fickle and can turn on a dime when you say something they don’t agree with. Alas, Jesus couldn’t just stop at reading the scripture in the temple – he had to sit down and start teaching. He goes on to talk about the prophets Elijah and Elisha and their encounters with people Jesus’ listeners would consider “outsiders” or “sinners.” Jesus uses Elijah’s encounter with the gentile widow at Zarephath in Sidon and the Elisha’s healing of the leper Naaman the Syrian, to show that God’s grace and love are not exclusively for the Jews. Instead, God’s favor and healing comes to Gentiles like the widow and the leper.

This is where the crowd turns on Jesus. They like hearing that they, as the chosen people, will be released from captivity, their blindness healed, their oppression lifted. But, how dare Jesus suggest that God would bless anyone outside of their idea of who should be blessed. After all, they were the chosen one’s, not those filthy, sinful, Gentiles. When Jesus preaches the radical inclusion of all of God’s children, regardless of race, gender, or nationality, the people got angry and tried to drive Jesus out of town.

Is our modern day any different? When we try to preach God’s radically inclusive love for everyone, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or heaven forbid, sexual orientation, what kind of welcome do we get? It’s no different than how that hometown crowd treated Jesus – we get threatened, we get shouted down, we get told that we don’t know our Bible – because the Bible is clear that God hates some people and couldn’t possibly love everyone. I wonder if they’ve ever read this story?

Breathe deeply.

The Beatles are well known for their love songs celebrating the simple side of romance like holding hands. But, in 1965, on their album Rubber Soul, one song heralded their turn toward writing about love in the abstract. The song we’re doing this morning is from that album, it’s called “The Word” and it celebrates what Jesus is talking about here – the one word that can set us all free.

Say the word and you’ll be free,
Say the word and be like me.
Say the word I’m thinking of,
Have you heard the word is love?
It’s so fine, It’s sunshine,
It’s the word…love.

In the beginning I misunderstood,
But now I’ve got it, the word is good.
Spread the word and you’ll be free,
Spread the word and be like me.
Spread the word I’m thinking of,
Have you heard the word is love?
It’s so fine, It’s sunshine, It’s the word…love.

Did you know that Jesus talks about us, here at Jubilee, in this passage? Indeed, he does. He says his mission is to “declare the year of the Lord’s favor.” Many scholars believe Jesus is referring here to Jubilee – the idea in the Hebrew scriptures that every fifty years – “liberty” is declared throughout the land. Debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and land is returned to their original owners. It is a time of liberation.

It is a time of “beginner’s mind” when all the old ways and traditions are upended and everything starts over again. Jubilee is a time to be renewed, a time to re-establish our relationship with the mystery of the holy, a time to reconnect with creation and rekindle relationships and begin new ones.

Jesus’ ministry was a Jubilee – a time for the poor and oppressed to be liberated, a time for those in bondage to be set free. Jubilants, we too are called to that ministry – to help the poor and liberate those who are oppressed because of economic conditions or society’s prejudices and hatred. Before we can do that, however, we have to get out of our own bondage of the expert’s mind. We are held hostage by our old thinking patterns, held in captivity by the things we “know” to be true – the opinions and beliefs that we will fight to the death to defend. Those beliefs don’t keep us safe – they keep us in prison. When we say “I know” – we lock the door to new possibilities and throw away the key.

As Jubilants, we seek to move from certainty to mystery – we do that by practicing “beginner’s mind” and opening ourselves to the many possibilities of life instead of closing our minds because things may not fit our preconceived views of the world. When we allow ourselves to get into the “beginner’s mind” we learn to say, “I don’t know,” and we say it a lot. Those are three words we don’t like to say – because we think if we say we don’t know something, we’ll look stupid or be thought of as stupid.

But, far from being stupid, living in the “I don’t know” is the wisest place we can be. When we stop living in the “I know” we can be open to the present moment. When we say “I know” we live in the past – where we made decisions and judgments on the information we had then. When we say “I know” we block out anything new. Saying “I know” leaves us in a place where we can’t experience surprises, new insights, revelations or new discoveries. When we say “I know” we block ourselves off from a relationship with the mystery. When we insist on our certainty – based on past judgments – we say no to the mysteries of this present moment.

It’s hard to put our opinions aside, especially when we’re confronted with people with whom we disagree. It’s hard to say, “I don’t know,” when, with every fiber of our being, we know that we do know, and the other person doesn’t.

But, if we are ever to create the Beloved Community – a place where all can feel welcome, and a place where we can finally believe that God’s grace is for everyone, not just those we like, we must be willing to put aside our judgments and our prejudices, and instead, say the word – the word is love.

Everywhere I go I hear it said,
In the good and bad books that I have read.

Say the word and you’ll be free,
Say the word and be like me.
Say the word I’m thinking of,
Have you heard the word is love?
It’s so fine, It’s sunshine, It’s the word…love.

Now that I know, what I feel must be right,
I’m here to show everybody the light.
Give the world a chance to say,
That the word is just the way.
It’s the word I’m thinking of.
And the only word is love.
It’s so fine, It’s sunshine, It’s the word…love.

Take a close look at yourselves, Jubilants. Are you practicing the beginner’s mind of “I don’t know,” or are you in the expert mind of “I know”? Who are you judging? Who are you excluding? Who do you think is outside of God’s love?

R. Alan Culpepper is a professor at Mercer University. He writes: “God’s grace is never subject to the limitations and boundaries of any nation, church, group or race. Those who would exclude others thereby exclude themselves … we are never free to set limits on who may receive that grace. The paradox of the gospel is that the unlimited grace that it offers so scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it. […] How much more might God be able to do with us if we were ready to transcend the boundaries of community and limits of love that we ourselves have erected?”

What does the world look like when we think in new ways, when we approach the world with beginner’s mind, with all preconceived notions set aside? Practice beginner’s mind this week – put aside your judgments, your prejudices, your beliefs about people and the world around you and let the mystery of the Holy enter your life in new ways – let people surprise you. Let people delight you. This week, I invite you to say the word – love.

Give the world a chance to say,
That the word is just the way.
It’s the word I’m thinking of.
And the only word is love.
It’s so fine, It’s sunshine, It’s the word…love.

Oh, Yeah!