Friday, December 30, 2011

The Benefit of a Buddhist Brother

The meditation hall at the first Buddhist community
where my brother lived.
It is fascinating to me how often during my teaching or preaching as a pastor I am able to speak relevantly about my brother's experiences as a Theravada Buddhist monk. It may be because he provides a great example of a life totally dedicated to spiritual practice. Or maybe it is because of the popular interest in Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness. Maybe it is just because he is my brother, and I like to talk about him.

A video chat on the topic of begging with our high school youth group has been one of my favorite moments so far. I broached the subject last winter when there was an increase in panhandlers on the streets of South Bend.

Below is another example of the connections I am able to make between my brother's Buddhist practices and community life and those of a Christian congregation - a charge I gave to another Presbyterian Church as they installed their new pastor. Instead of considering our interfaith family as something that we have to try to get past together, I find that it continues to teach me new things and helps me understand my own Christian faith and practices in refreshing ways.

Reflecting on my experience of congregational life, the teachings of Christ and my brother’s own commitment through the monastic life, I want to charge you today with three ways of being a community that loves and cares for one another.

First I charge you to be gentle with one another. To be mindful as my brother might say. To think before you speak, and to wait before you react. To keep the other person in mind, to view the world and the church from their perspective before you assume that you know how to respond. Jesus models this for us in the 8th chapter of John, when he is asked to bring a hasty judgment on the woman accused of adultery. Jesus reacts by not reacting, but by bending down and writing in the dust. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written of the importance of this pause – writing in the dust because it tries to hold that moment for a little longer, long enough for some of our demons to walk away.

We show our love for one another when we value the other person’s experience and perspective just as much or even more than our own, when we don’t let ourselves get caught up, but rather take the long view of what might be the most important thing in that moment – remembering that for Christ it was almost always a message of grace.

Second I charge you to travel lightly as a congregation, and to value one another more than the trappings that we place around us that often become more important than the relationships that we should value. I’ll tell you that if you ever get the chance make good friends with someone who is about to become a Buddhist monk you should do so, because the inheritance you will receive is staggering, especially when he had such good taste in cookware! My brother now lives on only what is offered to him, and no more.

When Jesus sends out his disciples in the Gospel of Luke he tells them to take no money, no bag, no change of clothing, no extra pair of sandals, and to be dependent on those who take them in. The only thing they take is one another as they are commissioned to go out in pairs to heal the sick and to preach the coming of the kingdom of God.

We show our love for one another when we make relationships more important than things, when we make the business of the church about the sharing of the Gospel rather than the maintenance of a building, when we remember that things are easier to replace than friends and that - though this is surely a loose paraphrase of the teachings of Christ – you most surely cannot take it with you when you leave this life.

Finally I charge you to love one another by agreeing to live by a common ethic, a common understanding of how you are accountable to one another. In the monastic community in which my brother was ordained they list 26 separate rules or guidelines for visitors to the community – though one bullet point does include: abstain from killing, stealing, committing any sexual activity, lying, gossiping, slandering, and using harsh language. Monks themselves live by 227 main rules and thousands of minor ones. It is through these very clearly stated rules that they can be assured that everyone understands just what to do, that offenses will not be committed, and there is no anxiety about how people will behave.

In Christ's teachings on the law he helped his followers and us to come to understand that the Torah was not about controlling one another, or having power over one another, but about showing respect and care for one another. Biblical scholars are quick to point out that the first three commandments of the ten are about human beings showing love and respect for God, and the other seven are all about showing love and respect for one another.

The sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church
where my brother and I were raised.
We show our love for one another when we agree to behave in helpful ways with each other – to respect appropriate boundaries with each other and with your new pastor, to listen to and follow our elected leadership rather than trying to work the system outside of the appropriate means. We show our love for one another when we each agree to carry our part of the load of ministry, when we expect good things from one another, and when we are sure that the whole community is invited to be a part of the life and ministry of the congregation.

In the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." John 15:7-12

Today is a day full of joy, but also one ripe and fertile with love: the love of God, your love for God, and the true manifestation of Christian community – your love for one another.


  1. I love that you used the word 'trappings' in your call to value one another over things. Truly, it first reminded me of The Grinch with his hatred of 'the trimmings, the trappings' of the Whos, but it also is the symbol of what these things become. If we were to rely on what was given to us now, would we not find more richness in relationship, wonder, and prayerfulness? Beautiful thoughts for this new and glorious year.

    As always, thanks for this perspective of love, interfaith, and our Creator.

  2. Thanks Amy. For me especially growing up in a church where the building and the things we had were highly prioritized, I have come to value the simplicity that church could be. It was something that we went through at Sunnyside during our renovation, because all of the old storage rooms were turned into classrooms or meeting rooms. It was a wonderfuli moment to be able to ask as a community - what is it that is most important to hold on to.

  3. I have just found your blog. Thanks for the depth of your words- yours is writing worth reading (which is not always found on the 'net).
    In thinking about this post, I'm wondering if you've posted on your thoughts on Buddism and the irreducible truth of Jesus? We might not all have a brother who has turned to Buddism, but we likely all know someone we care for who believes differently than we do.
    Thanks for your sharing. Blessings!