The last time I preached from this pulpit was February 26th, five days after I learned that my organization, the Religious Institute, had been betrayed by the organization that had been its fiscal agent. It had closed without warning, and had used more than $424,000 of our funds illegally, leaving us with $3800 in a local bank. The president of that organization claimed that he had made bad fiscal decisions and that he was sorry for his mismanagement.
In subsequent weeks, although the outcome was the same, we discovered that the betrayal went far beyond a Ponzi scheme or mismanagement. We quickly found out that he had made up the audits going back at least until 2005. We learned that no social security or unemployment taxes had been filed for any employees, and now believe that although withholdings were taken each pay period from employees, that federal taxes, social security, and Medicaid were never filed. We discovered that our parent organization hadn’t filed annual 990’s forms since 20xx, and therefore had lost its IRS exemption in May 2012, although we had never been informed.
But, that was only the beginning. We found out shortly after that this man had a prior criminal history, including serving time in the late 1980’s and 1990’s for stealing nearly $2 million from churches and banks, that he had skipped town for his arraignment and went on the lam for a year, that he had been defrocked at that time as a Methodist minister, that he had never been ordained by any other denomination so was misrepresenting himself as a member of the clergy, that he hadn’t gone to the business school that was on his resume, and that he was on probation when a major foundation introduced him to me. We found out that one person listed on his board of directors had been dead for seven years and one person who we’d been told had been recently recruited from the Board doesn’t seem to have existed at all.
We immediately turned to the authorities for help. The Religious Institute had an FBI agent, an IRS agent, a banking commission agent, and deputy attorney general’s assigned to its care. There were days that I felt like I was living in a John Grisham novel. Each week seemed to bring more horrific information – it would be a fascinating story except that I had to live it. And then we learned that he had killed himself on May 15th – a tragic ending to the betrayal.
I don’t think I have words to share with you my lived experience of what it’s been like to go through the last four months or what it’s been like to deal with a betrayal of this depth by someone I deeply trusted. I don’t believe I am exaggerating to say that the first two months were the most difficult months of my professional and personal life. I had no idea how or if the Religious Institute would survive, but as I said to you on February 26th, I did know that the ministry was too essential, too unique not to try. I also knew deep in my bones that I would have to work harder, be stronger, be more resilient, be braver and be more faithful than perhaps I had ever been before. I just knew that God’s yes was louder than any internal desire on my part to just give in or give up.
And so here we are, a few weeks short of five months later, with 100% of the money for 2012 raised or committed. More than 550 individual donors – including many of you—and eight foundations have become part of our re-birth. As I announced during candle lighting last week, we are now a newly incorporated organization recognized by the IRS as a 501 c 3 organization. I am so thankful that Frank and the Board of Trustees stepped forward to become our interim fiscal agent so we could solicit and receive donations, and that our IRS status happened much more quickly than expected so that TUCW could let go of that responsibility.
People have told me that we are like the phoenix rising from the ashes or like Lazarus rising from the dead. The Phoenix story is an ancient story, present in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology. The ancient Greek Herodotus described it this way:
Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous gums. When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree. In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odors. From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent’s sepulcher), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun.
In one poem, the arisen Phoenix is described as a new bird, “ever more himself, changed and yet at the same time eternal”. It is a fitting description for the new Religious Institute. It may be a fitting description of YOU, having survived your own crisis – whether it was medical, psychological, interpersonal, or employment related.
Every religion includes in its sacred texts stories of descent and rebirth: Abram and Moses wandering the desert with no idea of where they are going except that God had told them to start on a journey, Jonah submerged in the whale, Jesus on the cross, Siddhartha losing all to become the Buddha…these stories are the truth stories of religious texts precisely because they are OUR stories. We know suffering, we know betrayal, we know the sense of not knowing what to do next, we know what it is to take the first steps after someone tells us they want a divorce or no longer love us, or a job loss, or a medical diagnosis, or retiring—a time when we cannot see where we are going next or how we are going to get there.
At these times, we can remember that in poet Rilke word’s “In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” Or as feminist theologian Carter Heywood has written, “We are strongest in the broken places.” Or as pop singer Kelly Clarkson sings in a song on the radio now, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We can look back on the difficult times in our lives and think “yes, I learned from that”, “yes, I grew from that”, “yes, life turned out better – or at least different – because of that awful time” even though I couldn’t see it at the time. Elizabeth Lesser, in her book XXXXXXXXX, writes, When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth. When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self- the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey.” There is very little that can rattle me now in my workplace – having survived the last five months when I truly knew crisis, everything else work related is only an inconvenience.
But, someone telling us some version of “You’ll grow from this” or the even worse, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” is hardly consolation in the midst of those tragic moments or days or weeks or months. It’s hard not to think, “No thank you. I’m grown enough.”
But about three months into the crisis, I listened to a wonderful 75 year old woman at Rancho La Puerta, Phyllis Pilgrim, tell a version of the following story at the end of a meditation class. Phyllis has been a yoga and fitness teacher for more than thirty years at Rancho La Puerta. No stranger to suffering herself, she spent her childhood in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia.
She told us this story, which has versions in Sufi and Jewish folklore. I’m going to share the Jewish one here:
“One day Solomon decided to humble his most trusted wise man. He said to him, “There is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkoth which gives you six months to find it.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied the man, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.
Spring passed and then summer and still the wise man had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkoth, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?”
He watched the merchant take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engraves something on it. When he read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. He knew this was it.
That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkoth with great festivity. “Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the assembled laughed and Solomon himself smiled.
To everyone’s surprise, the wise man held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written “This too shall pass” on the band.
At that moment Solomon realized that the challenge had been met: someone struggling in the throes of misfortune would feel better remembering that “this too shall pass.” And that the reverse was true, a happy person reading the words would be reminded that such time are fleeting. Solomon knew, happy as he was at this festival, and happy as he was with his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power, that he too would face days of struggles in the future, and one day, he too would pass away.
This too shall pass.
This sentence by the way is NOT from the Bible, despite people’s certainty that it is. Later the evening when Phyllis and I were at a shared dinner table, everyone else at the table was absolutely certain the passage or at least the verse was Biblical. I was pretty sure it was not—but then again I learned in seminary that there are many such passages that people are SURE are from the Bible, like “God helps those who help themselves” (that’s Benjamin Franklin), Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child (that’s Samuel Butler in 1662), and “to thyne own self be true” (that’s Shakespeare.)
But I strongly resonated with the phrase regardless: “this too shall pass” and decided then actually that it would be the title of my sermon this summer. Like all of us, I have had excruciating heartbreaking experiences before, although nothing in a work context like the past five months. But, I could think about having survived a broken heart when I was younger…or grieving after a death of someone close to me…or leaving a difficult work situation, and I can realize that although I can look back and remember how difficult those experiences were, I can no longer touch those raw emotions in the way I did initially. I began to believe that I could get through this period, that the Religious Institute could survive this crisis. I hung this quote by Dorothea Brandt above my desk, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams; act as though it were impossible to fail.”
But there’s something about the flip side to this parable that often gets lost, as we most often think about it as wisdom for surviving bad times. But I think it is also a reminder to pay attention during the good times, the joyful times, the exquisite moments of grace, and the everyday miracles of waking up, a good cup of coffee, an easily found parking space, the smile of a baby, the friend’s hug, the miracle we create together as a community each week with our music and shared fellowship. As Sister Corita Kent wrote, “And there will be wonderful surprises”
Because, the wonderful times too will pass. As the parable teaches, and as Buddhism teaches us, and as our own lives teach us, everything is impermanent, everything changes, and everyone, everyone, experiences suffering in this life.
And that reminds us that we need to be grateful, down to our bones grateful, for every happy moment, every happy day, every day we are healthy or loved or doing work we enjoy. The late writer Nora Ephron had a lot to say about life. I love this passage, “I try to say to myself, if this is one of the last days of my life, am I doing exactly what I want to be doing? I aim low. My idea of a perfect day is a frozen custard at Shake Shack and a walk in the park. (Followed by a lactaid) My idea of a perfect night is a good play and dinner at Orso. (But no garlic, or I won’t be able to sleep.) ”
It’s funny, but we also know what she means. It is unrealistic to think that we will wake each day living life as if it is our last, although as Steve Jobs said in his well known Stanford commencement address, “someday you will most certainly be right.” But it’s important to keep that perspective, especially if the major circumstances in your life – whether that is your job, or your marriage, or where you are living or who you are spending time with, continually make you unhappy. Jobs counseled, (and I know I’ve shared this before but it seems particularly relevant to me today), “Your time is limited…most important have the courage to follow your heart and intuition….everything else is secondary.”
It is perhaps too early for me to know what all of the lessons are of the last five months. I know that I will never enter into an agreement with another person or organization without serious background checks. We have instituted much stronger vetting procedures at the Religious Institute. “Trust but verify” is a slogan that I’ve adopted. I relearned again how important good self care is to my well being, that there is an intense mind-body-spirit connection that I must honor, that prayer and meditation and exercise and healthy eating are even more essential during stressful times, and that some days the best we can do is get out of bed and get through the day. I have learned about surviving trauma, and I have been humbled to reflect anew about how people survive crisis even more horrific. I know that there are lessons that I still have to learn, and perhaps one day I will be able to preach to you about how to make real the words “as we forgive those who trespass against us” ……I’m not there yet.
But more than anything I’ve learned – not for the first time – that we get through the difficult times because of the people who stand with us. In the words of the cover of the order of service by Reinhold Niebuhr, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” I don’t begin to have time to share with you the many ways that the Religious Institute was saved by love: by the donors surely, but also by the phone answerers, the people who sent flowers and notes and emails, by the 7 year old who sent in $1.45, by the Rabbi in New Jersey who sent us lunch from the restaurant across the street because he wanted to do more than send a check, to those of you who donated time or your talents or your funds to hold us up.
And I know that I personally have been saved by love – by Ralph’s constancy and love, most especially during the days I came home so exhausted I could do nothing but weep or the 2 am awakenings with the worst nightmares I can remember, by the love and support of my colleagues at the Religious Institute, by the love and support of this community, by my family, by my friends, ….there has been so much love surrounding us, including I believe God’s love, that we could do nothing but survive from the ashes. If I ever questioned or doubted that my ministry makes a difference, I do no more. I have been saved by love. You too can surely think about times when you have been saved by love. Love is the spirit of this church; may we continue to build and create this holy place.
Closing words, Jack Kornfield
May I and all beings
Be free from pain and sorrow
May I and all beings
Be held in compassion
May I and all beings be reconciled
May I and all beings be at peace