Among the Americans we all ought to know better is Howard Thurman. Though he died over forty years ago, the insights he shared are timeless. He was a Christian and a Black man, and like other remarkable believers like Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Han, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dorothy Day, he managed to translate his deep personal faith in the God posited by his religion and nourished in the community of his identity into teachings that were meaningful to all.
I have the privilege to spend an hour every couple of weeks with people whose names you would recognize as important and responsible public figures. We talk about the rich landscape within that too often goes unexplored in the commotion of their calling to service. And lately we have used, to great effect, some of Thurman’s words. (The question I am asked more than any other about this group is if they are all Jewish. I am not sure why it matters, but the answer is no. But I still am.)
Here is the quotation we used recently. It comes from an address he delivered near the end of his life at Spelman College entitled “The Sound of the Genuine.”
There is something in you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in other people. And if you can’t hear it, then you are reduced by that much. If I were to ask you what is the thing that you desire most in life this afternoon, you would say a lot of things off the top of your head, most of which you wouldn’t believe but you would think that you were saying the things that I thought you ought to think that you should say.
But I think that if you were stripped to whatever there is in you that is literal and irreducible, and you tried to answer that question, the answer may be something like this: I want to feel that I am thoroughly and completely understood so that now and then I can take my guard down and look out around me and not feel that I will be destroyed with my defenses down. I want to feel completely vulnerable, completely naked, completely exposed and absolutely secure.
I no longer carry the responsibility of writing and delivering sermons, even during the sacred times of the High Holy Day season. When I did, I usually asked myself what the message was that I needed to hear. Too often, especially in my younger years, that message had to do with matters of politics. Somewhat less often, I felt compelled to defend the particularity of Jewish life, likely a reflection of my own insecurities.
These days, my message to myself would be different. It would be much more akin to what this grandson of a slave sought to convey to the promising generation of proud and educated younger versions of himself.
Were I facing a congregation of Jews during this time of repentance who had committed some part of three full days articulating their contrition and their intention to live a better life, I think I would urge them to be less concerned about ticking off a list of shortcomings and aspirations. I would not do away with them; in fact, the common liturgy recited in the company of others is the best way I can imagine to open the channels of introspection without being swept away by the fear of self-humiliation.
But the real goal of these Days of Awe must be what Howard Thurman was brave enough to say: I want to feel that I am thoroughly and completely understood so that now and then I can take my guard down and look out around me and not feel that I will be destroyed with my defenses down. I want to feel completely vulnerable, completely naked, completely exposed and absolutely secure.
The assurance that any good faith tradition brings (and, I am sorry, but if your faith tradition doesn’t bring it then it is not so good) is that if you will have the courage to be completely exposed you will nonetheless be absolutely secure. You will be loved, not in the sense of admired or adored, but in the sense of affirmed for who you really are.
And if you do not profess a faith in some locus of wisdom or power outside yourself, then what you must expect from your most cherished relationships is no different. It places a burden on the people in your life as they struggle with their own courage, but that’s the price of love.
If you will be in synagogue, actually or virtually, in these weeks ahead, I wish success for you in this endeavor. If not, I wish success for you wherever you find it.
As I said, I no longer carry the responsibility of writing and delivering sermons. But if I did…
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession