There were many pleasant aspects to the day, but most pleasant was certainly the chance to attend a university and community event with a variety of parishioners from my congregation. I carpooled to the stadium with Tom Perry, a member of my call committee. We rode the bus with other pilgrims and students for the opening plenary session. It's a strange phenomenon, to ride to an event centered around an eastern spiritual leader of such stature together with western folk enamored of or intrigued by the east. Not surprisingly, one couple I rode the bus with was from Eureka Springs.
The opening plenary was spectacular. They had invited two other noted advocates of non-violence--Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account Of The Death Penalty In The United States; and Dr. Vincent Harding, author of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous sermon "Beyond Vietnam" and Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement. Sidney Burris moderated the discussion.
Sister Prejean and Dr. Harding both took narrative approaches to answering questions. Prejean's committment to nonviolence arose out of her first-hand witnessing of the process of executing the death penalty in many states. Harding's came while he was in basic training for the military. He enjoyed firing rifles, and was good at it, but in his spare time he was voraciously reading and re-reading the New Testament, and he became committed to the way of non-violence when he observed that the training he was receiving in the military was at odds with his read of the New Testament and the way of Jesus.
One statement of Harding in particular I latched onto, indicating, as I often think, that eschatology and its connection to life today, in this moment, is an important aspect of Christian theology, "Our hearts were too full of the dream of what would be--racial and religious reconciliation--to let hatred or frustration distract us." Harding, answering a question on how they dealt with "the enemy" during civil rights.
The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, spoke more anecdotally and whimsically. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the Dalai Lama was his earthy humor and humility. He has a kind of snickering laugh that can win over an individual, or 10,000 people in stadium seating. It wasn't so much individual things as much as his actual presence, that was a powerful aspect of the day.
I had the honor of attending a "private" lunch with the Dalai Lama, a smaller group of university leaders and community leaders, in the press room of the stadium. One thing the Dalai Lama said really stood out for me. He loves that the U.S. is committed to democracy and freedom worldwide, and he told us, "Do not be afraid [in the midst of this global economic crisis]. Work hard and united and lead the free world." Inspiring coming from someone like the Dalai Lama. I had the pleasure of spending this part of the day with Cynthia Nance, dean of the law school and a member of our congregation. Many thanks to her for inviting me!
Then, back out to the stadium for the afternoon plenary lecture. The Dalai Lama took a circular approach to his presentation, touching on many topics, pausing to tell stories, and along the way, offered some choice pearls, including,
If you have a problem and you see the solution there is no need to be overwhelmed. If you have a problem and there is no solution there is no POINT in being overwhelmed.
Wise selfish is much better than foolish selfish.
the death sentence eliminates the person not the action.
A Tibetan saying, "The Lamas blessings are better at a distance." This in reference to his exile in India and perhaps permanently delayed return.
The enemy is your best teacher.
To be honest, I didn't follow everything he was saying. It's difficult in that setting to understand his English (my problem, not his; the fact that he has learned English in order to communicate with us shows his respect and concern to speak to the world on nonviolence, ecology, and human rights). Nevertheless, it was grand to be in the midst of this crowd reflecting together on interfaith harmony, nonviolence, etc.
As I mentioned, Sidney Burris and the planning committee for the event did a spectacular job with lead up educational events and communication. The Dalai Lama's visit was the "buzz" of Fayetteville these last few weeks, and I imagine for weeks to come. I had the chance to bum a ride home from another member of our congregation who was actually on the planning committee, Kathryn Sampson, a professor of writing in the law school. I commend her and everyone who helped put together such a spectacular event.
You might be wondering what a Lutheran pastor makes out of the visit of the Dalai Lama to Fayetteville. I am too. He is, obviously, not holy in the tradition in which I recognize holy people, so I do not pray or bow around him in quite the way others might. Nevertheless, I definitely recognize in him wisdom, piety, holiness, stature, gravity. He's really a remarkable person. He's earthy, an advocate for our connection to nature and the world in which we live, and he continually says we are, all of us, humans together. That's an important message, from any faith tradition.
That being said, I wonder what kind of impact his visit will have. Vincent Harding warned us that often we approach everything as a spectator society, even a conference on non-violence. Harding said, "If your applause means you plan to take action on what you have heard today, the clap away." So I wonder what the continuing impact will be of the non-violence message, in our community and in my personal life and ministry.
I have written a column for the Northwest Arkansas Gazette that will appear on Saturday, in which I discuss more of the interfaith aspect, so more of that anon.
In the meantime, blessings to the Dalai Lama as he travels home, and blessings on our community as we try to live into some of the wisdom offered today. For starters, I'm going to learn more about the terrible death penalty statutes in my new home state, and see what kind of holy trouble we're called to cause around that.