These remarks were shared at the first Upper School Chapel event of the school year.
When was the last time you put your hands on an elephant? That poem we just heard is by Rumi, a 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic. The poem, Elephant in the Dark, is an invitation to cooperation. The people in the dark make assumptions based on the part of the elephant they feel. Their individual experience is incomplete. Rumi says, “Each of them touches one place and understands the whole that way.” How often do we do that? Make assumptions about the whole based on our own little perspective. We hold our own light and think that it illuminates the entirety of truth. That privileged view does not allow for cooperation and certainly doesn’t leave much room for humility. Cleverly, the poem validates each person’s perspective, but also says that no one holds a monopoly on the truth. I need help to see the fullness of the elephant. I need more light to avoid judging another based on the limitations of my narrow perspective. I need more light. We need more light to see the complexity of the challenges we face in the world.
When I was in high school, my worldview was limited and I saw things dimly. I was holding tightly to one candle thinking that it was the only perspective that mattered. Thankfully, there were other people who brought me more light. Rabbi Glassman, my next door neighbor who would become a mentor for me, drove me to his year-long college religion course when I was in high school, we had long talks in the car about life and our different faiths, and what we shared together. This created my deep love and respect for Judaism. It was Rabbi Glassman whose garden I cared for over many years. When my family couldn’t afford it, he paid for all of my books when I was in college. A Sikh family welcomed me into their Gurdwara and fed me for a week when I was travelling in Spain. Buddhist monks taught me meditation when I was in a place of despair. And when I was a little too single-minded in my own belief, my atheist humanist friends helped me to embrace doubt so that I could be more constructively critical. We all need each other to see more clearly, to see that there is a universal gospel reflected in the wisdom traditions of the world. I am a pluralist. I believe there are many paths up the mountain, many candles to illuminate Truth. Rumi’s poem speaks to me now. It speaks to me of what it means to be a twenty-first century Episcopal school: affirming the dignity of every human being, the importance of embracing inquiry and civil discourse, and the place of chapel gathering to affirm community values and a connection to something greater than ourselves. We enter this space with different perspectives, we hold different candles, we illuminate different parts of the Truth we seek.
How wonderful to be in a place where we can benefit from the light that others bring. Light that is different. Light that helps us grapple with Truth in a way that is not narrow-minded. This is the strength of our diversity in making up what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called Beloved Community. Schools in general can be, and this remarkable Oregon Episcopal School especially should be, a place that creates beloved community. That is not always easy, because we live in a world that is fractured. We live in a world that seems to thrive on polarization and partisan bickering. A world that works against communion. A world where the challenges of the climate crisis compel us to work together, and yet we seem globally to do the opposite. And, while we may feel like candles are being blown out, I know that candles are being lit. And I know that in this School, when we commit ourselves to shining the light, on an issue such as the climate challenges we face, we will illuminate the challenge in a way that allows us to do our part, in the garden of this school, to address it. Then we will realize the promise of the prophet Isaiah: “to be repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in.” In the Jewish tradition this is the work of Tikkun olam….repair of the world. We are all called to that work. Here we call it realizing our power of good. The bold challenge for this generation is to stand up, to shine the light, to keep the candles lit, and to walk into the rooms together to confront the elephants of our fear. Only then will we build the beloved community, that as Dr. King described “can transform opposers into friends and transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age [though] love that brings about miracles in the hearts of all.” (from “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956)
I believe in my children’ generation, your generation. I believe in you. I believe in what we can do together. For I believe that we are moving out of the dark deep gloom of an old age into the light of a new one. As the Jewish community around the world prepares to celebrate the High Holy Days at the end of this week, the beginning of a new year, we all are reminded of our need to acknowledge the places where we have made mistakes and the commitment to move forward with hope into a new year. Our hope is our light, and that light is our love. Love that helps us to see not dimly but clearly, not darkly but brightly. Love that is the light that shines and that is not overcome. That I believe is the promise of our school, to confront the dark, to illuminate the elephant, to embrace those who are in pain, to extend our compassion and our power for good, shining the light in all the ways we can. Tikkun olam…as stewards of this garden of this school, we can do our part to help repair the world with action and with love. Amen.