“Can’t Hide Beautiful”
Rev. Tony Larsen
Nov. 15, 2020
Introduction to Diwali and Hinduism:
The Hindu festival we're celebrating today is called Diwali, which is short for Deepa-wali. Deepa, meaning lamp or light (like this one); and Wali, meaning row. So, a row of lights, or festival of lights.
Now, as it happens, a lot of religions and cultures have festivals of light either now, in the middle of fall, or in December, near the beginning of winter. You see, when it begins to get dark out earlier in the day, and to last longer through the night, that's when people in many cultures begin to light lamps or candles. For example, Halloween and the Day of the Dead, which just passed, is one of those times. But so is Buddha's Enlightenment Day (about 3 weeks from now), Hanukkah (in 3 1/2 weeks), Solstice (in 5 weeks), Christmas (in 5 1/2 weeks), and Kwanzaa (between Christmas and New Year). All festivals of light.
So, a whole lot of lightin' goin' on right now.
Anyway, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, began yesterday, and it's celebrated not just by Hindus actually, but by Sikhs and Jains (though with somewhat different meanings).
Diwali is a little like Halloween, because people give out candy to kids and adults. It's also a little like Thanksgiving, because people gather with friends and family to eat a meal together and give thanks. It's a lot like Christmas, because everyone puts lights in their windows and they exchange gifts and send holiday cards. It's also a time for what we might call spring cleaning, because people generally clean their homes for Diwali, in the hope that when the goddess Lakshmi comes she will bring you good luck and prosperity for the next year. (So, for many Hindus it's New Year, and when you give out sweets or candy you say, "May you have a sweet new year.") And it's also like our Fourth of July, because people set off a lot of fireworks at this time.
So Diwali is like a lot of holidays thrown into one.
One other thing that I'd like to mention about Hinduism in general, is its concept (or concepts) of God. In most western religions (like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), God is usually thought of as creating the Universe out of nothing, so there's some separation between God and creation. But in Hinduism, creation is more of an unfolding of God--no real separation. We are all God at our core; the difference between us and God with a capital G, is merely that we don't usually recognize our divine nature, whereas God does. (We're sort of the ignorant side of God.) And the goal of life, says Hinduism, is to recognize your divinity. And once you do, you will not want to hurt any of your fellow divine beings.
That's why, when Hindus greet each other, they usually bow and say "Namaste." "Nama" means "I bow to" and "ste" means the god or divinity in you. Namaste: I bow to the place in you of love, of light, of peace. I honor the place in you where, if you're in that place in you, and I'm in that place in me, there's only one of us.
So if you ever meet a Hindu, feel free to bow and say "Namaste." And if you can't remember, you can say what my guide in India told me when I was there on my sabbatical. He said, "If you can't remember 'Namaste,' just say 'No mistake,' and everyone will know what you mean."
Now, for our chalice lighting this morning, we will use this Diwali lamp as our chalice and perform a Hindu ritual called aarti, which is making a circle three times before the representation of the god or goddess you are worshiping. And since all of you are the divine beings I’m worshiping, I will do the aarti before you, as represented on my screen. (At this point I lit my Diwali lamp.) And I pray these words from the Rig Veda (one of the earliest Hindu scriptures):
Let us be united. Let us speak in harmony. Common be our prayer. Common be our purpose... May our hearts be one, and our minds be one.
~ For the light that draws us here, within and around us, we have kindled this chalice flame.
Message for All Ages: “An Afternoon in the Park” by Julie Manhan (a pre-COVID story)
There was once a little boy who wanted to meet God. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived, so he packed his suitcase with Twinkies and a six-pack of root beer and he started his journey.
When he had gone about three blocks, he met an older woman. She was sitting in the park just staring at some pigeons. The boy sat down next to her and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed that the older lady looked hungry, so he offered her a Twinkie. She gratefully accepted it and smiled at him. Her smile was so pretty that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered her a root beer. Once again she smiled at him. The boy was delighted!
They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling, but they never said a word.
As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave, but before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the old woman and gave her a hug. She gave him her biggest smile ever.
When the boy opened the door to his own house a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked him, “What did you do today that made you so happy?”
He replied, “I had lunch with God.” But before his mother could respond, he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen!”
Meanwhile, the older woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on her face and he asked, “Mother, what did you do today that made you so happy?”
She replied, “I ate Twinkies in the park with God.” But before her son responded, she added, “You know, he’s much younger than I expected.” (from A Third Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, pp 67-68)
~ May you find God, divinity, light, love, inherent worth and dignity--whatever you want to call it--wherever you go.
Joys, Concerns, and Sorrows
I pray in the words of the Upanishads:
Formless are you, divine supreme, and yet you bring forth the many forms. You are fire, you are sun and air, you are moon, you are all the starry sky. You are water, you are woman, you are man, boy, girl, old people--your face is everywhere. Om, hari, om.
~ Knowing that the divine is in fire and sun and air and moon and starry sky, and in the faces of all people, young and old, we share our joys, concerns, and sorrows, and we hear them as if they come from divine beings--which maybe they do.
I don't know about the rest of you, but the past couple weeks have been a kind of roller-coaster ride for me. I was happy that the Biden-Harris team won the presidential election; but I was disappointed by the margin--I guess I was really hoping for something like a landslide. And to be honest, what I found especially disturbing is that I now feel somewhat estranged from family and friends I have loved for over 50 years--people who were part of the 70 million or so who voted for Mr. Trump. And I know that I need to find a way to see the divinity in them, too. The Quakers have a saying: When dealing with another person, go for the God in them, not the devil. Go for the God.
Easier said than done. You know: “Everyone has a light inside; everyone has inherent worth and dignity”; and "when I am in that place in me, and you are in that place in you, there's only one of us"--can I really see that right now? It's not easy.
But I found Jackee Orozco's recent article in the Heart and Soul Gazette pretty helpful. That's the article where she said you could look at our time as a time of turmoil or as a time of healing. It's both, of course, but we have some choice about which one we will focus on.
So this morning I decided to tell a story about seeing the divinity in other people. But it's a story from about 40 years ago, so it's not calibrated to help us through our present troubles-- health-wise or political. In fact, it may not seem germaine at all. Yet I can't help but think that if we look at something far away--something that has nothing to do with us today--maybe we'll get a few clues to what we might do now.
So I want to tell you about a program that gave some young criminal offenders a chance—a chance to be needed and to help others. It’s from a book called, “How Can I Help?” What I’m going to read to you is in three parts – the first is by the person who put together the program, which consists basically of getting young offenders together with older people at a senior citizen’s center – and having the young offenders help the senior citizens play bingo.
Come along on a tour of this place, led by the person who created the program. These are his actual words, as he leads an interviewer on a little tour of the center.
Take a look around: We’re the only building left on the block. All the rest is rubble from urban renewal. We got some renewal going on here, though. We call it Project Return. I helped set it up, but now it has a life of its own.
What’s going on at this moment, as you can see, is what you might call Bilingual Bingo, what with the different languages and accents some of these elderly people speak. Look at it. Sometimes it’ll take five minutes for a single number to get around the room. Different languages; some folks are a little deaf or distracted or confused; three people yelling “Bingo!” when we haven’t even pulled enough numbers for it. It’s insane; it’s just great. And don’t tell me this isn’t how the whole world is running, by the way. I see this as an average situation. “Excuse me, Richard, Mrs. Schwartz is looking for her coat.”
So…these boys moving around like waiters at a fancy restaurant, flirting up these old ladies, putting on their sweaters, reminding them of their numbers…these guys were heavy. I mean heavy. Years of crime, dope, doing time. They’re in a program called Prodigal. Last shot for rehabilitation. Miss this one, you’re done; no more programs. And I bring them over here to this Senior Citizens Center to give them a chance to make that last step home by looking out for someone beside themselves. Because maybe this center’s a last shot for some of the old folks too. Last shot for companionship, last shot before dying, alone. Both groups on the edge—why not bring them together?
Of course, people were a little skeptical at first. “Ex-junkies, ex-cons, helping old ladies? You gotta be crazy. They’re out there mugging them, man”--[that’s] what they said initially. Then I’d say, “I see that, but think about it a little more. How are we going to stop this madness? I see something in this idea for everybody. Chance to break out of the old patterns. We’ll pull everybody just a little more out of their thing.” Well, it was different enough for them to give it a chance…as simple as the idea really is.
So look around. There’s so much life here I think it’s going to explode sometimes. And strange moments too. Some guy comes up to me and says, “That lady over there, she looks like someone I done one time.” I say, “Go ask her if there’s anything she needs.” And he does. And I’m amazed. I can’t believe it myself, and I set up this scene, this crazy little world here…
And now, here’s from one of the women who comes to the center:
I come to this center for company, I suppose, older women like myself. But I meet these boys here. Very interesting, very different than I expected. This young man who walks me home, he’s a very nice boy. His mother, she should be proud of how he acts with me. I know he’s done wrong. Look, they did it to me. One kid once put a gun to my head and went for my diamond ring and wedding band. He bit my finger to try to get it off. But you know what? I wasn’t angry. Maybe he never had any parents—who knows what happened when he was very young, who knows?
I had some terrible experiences when I was young. Poverty and war. World War One. I was ten years old. The Germans dropped bombs. A woman jumped on me to protect me. Her body was ripped in half. She saved my life; I was very frightened after that. I’m frightened now. But I’m grateful for life, although it’s a little lonely. But this boy…he walks me home. He helps with my groceries. He says, “Wear lipstick; a nice dress. You’re very pretty. You should get married again, a nice lady like you. That man in the center, he wants to get married again.” “He’s not good enough for me,” I say. “You’re right,” he says, “Marry me.” “You’re good enough,” I say, “But an old Jewish lady and a young black criminal? What would they think?”
I don’t know what he sees in me, to be so nice. All I know, he walks me home. We talk and joke. I learn things about how things are in the world now, which I don’t know much anymore. And I don’t get the feeling that I’m just a little old Jewish lady. You think that’s nothing? You know how many other people I don’t feel like a little old lady with? None. Nobody. That’s the truth. How’s that?
And now from the young man himself:
Try to shake having been a junkie and done time, man. Everywhere you go, you get that. That’s who you are. But this woman, it’s like she doesn’t care. She says she had a hard life too, maybe that’s it. I told her how I robbed things. I told her about jail. She says, “Your mother must have been very upset. Let’s get groceries. You have time to do that?” Nobody ever treated me like I had anything to give. Just to take. So that’s all I ever did. Take.
Never knew my folks, started in when I was nine, four juvenile institutions, two escapes, on the street at twelve, dealt heroin, burglary; by fourteen I had my own car and apartment. Got caught. Did a three-year bid in prison. Had to stay in the hole because people try to sodomize me. One guy stopped some other heavy guy trying to sodomize me and got cut bad doing it, cut real bad. Only time anybody risked anything for me.
This woman, she shows me something. I seen jive courage, but she’s brave, living all alone, being old. She doesn’t recognize just how much she understands about life. Ain’t nobody ask her questions anymore now. So she forgets how much she knows. I ask her questions. I’m curious. She’s interesting. We learn things together just looking around on the street. We have a good time. And I done a lot of time.
Old or young, no difference. I’m twenty-file and I feel old. My voice sound old on the phone, they say. So old people, I understand their situation a little. They’re scared, I been scared. They live alone, like in a cell. I lived alone, in a cell. So this place, this attitude toward life they got going in this center, it’s showing me some things. And this woman too. I’m not who I always thought I was, being with her, just walking her home. Her too, probably. It’s like you’re free for that period. I’ve done enough time. I’ve done enough taking. Time to be free.
[from How Can I Help? By Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, 1988, pp. 231-5]
I read you these three perspectives not because I think every criminal offender could be helped if we just gave them the opportunity to help someone else. There probably are some people who are so far gone, that maybe no one can help them—or at least, there aren’t the institutions available that could create the right environment for it.
But this I do believe: that many people who are wasting away in prisons – or wasting away in the prison cells of their own lives – could be helped…if only they could be given the chance to see that they have something to offer, that they have a light inside, that they are part of something beautiful.
There was a song on the radio once that went: “You can’t hide beautiful. You can’t hide wonderful.” And I guess I believe that maybe you can hide it for a while – and maybe people can cover it up – but given the right opportunity it peeks out – it says, “Here I am.”
And if we could really see, and if not see, then at least believe, or if not believe, then pretend – that there is something beautiful in other people, something holy – it just happens to be extremely well hidden sometimes and can be a challenge to find (but aren’t challenges exciting?)--well, then, we could really say: I bow to that place inside you, where, if you’re in that place in you and I’m in that place in me – there’s only one of us.
Namaste, my friends. Namaste.