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Guarding the Volcano – February 6, 2011

Purpose – a sense of meaning and mission, a reason for being and living and doing – it is something that all of us need. In small amounts, we depend on a sense of purpose to give shape to our lives. We each must have our reasons for getting out of bed in the morning, or else this sanctuary would stand empty, and I would be at home right now, delivering my sermon with the covers pulled over my head. There are things that drive us: wants and needs, hopes and fears, obligations and expectations. We have reasons for being here now, and there later, doing this tomorrow and that next week, and in this way we manage through from day to day. The small purposes and practical reasons for how we live our lives are familiar, even the many that are a pain in the neck. Why do I shovel the snow from my driveway? Because, as Mallory said of Mt. Everest, it’s there. However, unlike the mountain climber and his famous summit, I do not want it to be there anymore. Even the simple reasons for chores and errands and the most boring, repetitive tasks have a certain comforting familiarity to them. In our jaded age, we tend to be trusting and accepting of the small reasons that guide our individual decisions from moment to moment, and far more skeptical of the larger, grander purposes that would shape all our decisions at once.

I’ll give you an example from the 80s sit-com, Night Court. In one episode, one of the main characters is on the roof of the courthouse, helping to set some electrical cable, when he is struck by lightning. This being the world of television, he is left comically singed but otherwise unharmed. The character, Bull, is knocked unconscious and has a near-death experience, in which he hears a voice telling him, “Give to the poor, and thou shalt have riches in Heaven.” (A quote from the Christian gospels.[i]) Bull believes that he his life has been spared and that God has given him a mission to spend the rest of his days fulfilling. He empties his bank account and manages to give all of it away, just before his friends figure out that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. The voice he heard was not God’s – it was the voice of the person on the other end of the cable he was holding, coming through a walkie-talkie. And it didn’t say “Give to the poor, and thou shalt have riches in heaven.” It was a simple request for some slack in the line: “Give me some more; I’ll shout when it reaches eleven.” Voluntary poverty is preached by Jesus in three of the four canonical gospels, but the message of the joke is that the only way a normal person would follow that commandment is if there was some sort of comical misunderstanding.

A sense of grand purpose that defines and shapes a life is not considered ‘normal’ in the popular culture, and our ability, as a society, to talk about the deep meanings that inform our existence is limited by this. Religious leaders, such as myself, talk about feeling ‘called’ to our particular vocation, but even we can struggle with the details of how this works, and what this means. Once, when I was still in seminary I found myself, mostly by accident, at a party to which I had not been invited. The people who had been invited were all ministers, most of them long out of seminary with ten, twenty, thirty years of service in our association. They were names that I knew by reputation, and in one or two cases, from having read books that they had written. It was an intimidating crowd.

It was an accident that I was there with them at all, so I was completely unprepared for the party, right down to being under-dressed for it. For some time, I stood off by myself, in sneakers and no blazer, trying to look unassuming by the chips. Eventually, someone took pity on me. He came over and introduced himself – I already knew who he was, but didn’t stop him. I introduced myself and explained that I’d just finished my first year of seminary. “Ah,” said that wise elder minister, “how’re you doing with your call?”

I blinked. What kind of question is that, I thought. What do I think about this crazed, insistent need in my heart to serve as a caretaker for other people’s souls? How do I feel about the anger and the gratitude and the hope and the joy all balled up inside me around the idea of ministry. What’s my take on being called to serve the world when I do not believe that there’s an omnipotent and omniscient being out there to do the calling? How am I supposed to answer this question?

“I’m doing pretty well with it, I think,” I said back to him, awkwardly. Then I ate a tortilla chip, and hoped for a change in subject.

Although in that moment I struggled to articulate it, and daily I struggle to live it out, I do feel a calling in my soul. And having that sense of a

deeper mission that guides the way I live gives me a feeling of connection with other people on their own particular paths, even ones very different from mine. A few months ago, I was washing the dishes. As I sometimes do, when I’m washing, I had the radio on, and because of that I heard a short news segment about an 83 year-old man in Indonesia.

Mas Penewu Surakso Hargo was his birth name, but he was better known by his title, Mbah Maridjan. He lived on the island of Java in a tiny province on the southern coast called Yogyakarta. Everywhere else in Indonesia, the local leaders are elected, but this one small district still has a hereditary monarch; a special allowance made for local tradition by the central government. Yogyakarta is the home of Mt. Merapi, the most active of the 130-odd volcanoes in the Indonesian archipelago and the home, according to indigenous belief, to many important spirits. Mbah Maridjan grew up on this mountain; in fact, he lived his entire life there. For centuries, Mt. Merapi has had a spiritual guardian, a person appointed by the Sultan of Yogyakarta to guard the volcano and the spirits that reside there. Mbah Maridjan’s grandfather was a guardian of the mountain, and his father was also. When he was younger, Mbah Maridjan assisted his father in his role as spiritual caretaker to Mt. Merapi, and when his father died, Mbah Maridjan was selected by the sultan to be the next such gatekeeper. He spent the next thirty years in that role, serving the sultan, the people of Yogyakarta, and the mountain itself.[ii]

You have heard, perhaps, the words attributed to the teacher Jesus, that many are called, but few are chosen.[iii] What our tradition as Unitarian Universalists has to say about that, is that we admit no spiritual hierarchy; no life is better than another, and all of us share in the power to help and to harm, to create and to destroy. We would say that all are called: to share love, to make justice, to work for peace. For each of us, the details of our calling in life are different, shaped by our gifts and our passions, our contexts and our choices. The most important choice before every human being is whether or not we will choose to answer that calling.

But that call, for most of us, is not something as direct and clear-cut as an appointment from the sultan. Instead, we must pay careful attention, and listen with our hearts for the signs of what we need to give to the world. When the message comes, it may be neither loud, nor clear, but we must be ready to distinguish it from the background of spiritual silence, as author Chet Raymo describes:

I listen, ears alert, like an animal that sniffs a meal or a threat on the wind. I am not sure what it is I want to hear out of all this silence, out of the palpable absence of sound. A scrawny cry, perhaps, to use a phrase of the poet Wallace Stevens: “A scrawny cry from outside… a chorister who’s c preceded the choir… still far away.” Is that too much to hope for? I don’t ask for the full ringing of the bell. I don’t ask for a clap of thunder that would rend the veil in the temple. A scrawny cry will do, from far off there among the willows and the cattails, from far off there among the galaxies.[iv]

In his role as guardian of Mt. Merapi, Mbah Maridjan had to cultivate a similar spiritual awareness. He listened and watched for signs from the spirits of the mountain, particularly for indications of any sort of seismic activity, or eruption. It was also his role to make offerings of rice and flowers to these same spirits, some of which he carried down into the crater of the volcano himself. For each of thirty years, he led the Labuhan sacrifice, leading a caravan from the sultan’s palace to the crater of Mt. Merapi, the fiery mouth of the earth. From the edge, he would throw in incense and fine cloth, perfume, money, and every eight years, a saddle for a horse. In this way, the spirits were to be kept fed and satisfied, and the mountain was to be kept silent.

The Rev. Victoria Safford tells the story of a grave she once encountered in an old New England burying ground. The name had been worn off by time and the elements, but the epitaph could still be read. “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” Reflecting on that simple, humble memorial, she expressed the worry that her equivalent might read, “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many unimportant, meaningless details.” Rev. Safford then goes on to offer several more such phrases that could apply to anyone or no one in particular. The most sobering of these is, I believe: “She could not, or would not, hear the calling of her own heart.”[v] We face so many demands in the course of a day, so many cans, and shoulds, and oughts, and needs. Without an awareness of some underlying ‘why’ for our living, it is very hard to attend well or faithfully to anything at all.

In memoriam: Mbah Maridjan, who lived, and died, on Mt. Merapi. This past October, the volcano began to erupt. An evacuation was ordered, but the mountain’s guardian refused to leave his home. He had been through dangerous moments like this before; only four years earlier he had stayed behind during another eruption and another evacuation. He had been badly burned that time, and had to spend months in the hospital, but he survived. This most recent time did not go the same way. Mbah Maridjan died when a blast of superheated gas and ash from Mt. Merapi struck his home. When the rescue team reached his home, they found the body of the guardian of the volcano posed in a position of prayer.

I am not from Yogyakarta. I do not believe as Mbah Maridjan believed. But I find that I cannot simply dismiss what he lived for. I might like to think that if I had been in his position, I would have followed the evacuation order, balancing my spiritual responsibilities with the grave warnings of science, but I cannot be sure. And even if I were, the man’s dedication and his clarity about the purpose of his life remain. He once attempted to explain in an interview, “Everybody has their duty. Reporter, soldier, police, they have their duty. I also have a duty to stand here”.[vi]

Still I want to be clear: it is sometimes considered romantic, to be ready to die for some cause or goal; far more important, I believe, is what we are willing to live for. The recent uprising in Tunisia, of thousands and thousands of people demanding a freedom too long denied and hungry for some hope of change, was set in motion by death – the suicide of a young man who felt trapped within a system of repression and indignity. Despair is not a source of meaning; it is the absence of it, and to end a life diminishes the world’s reservoirs of inspiration and possibility. But strangely and wondrously, hope still may follow, in the wake of despair. Successful protests in Tunisia have led to similar actions in several other countries, including Egypt, where recently a woman named Marwa Rakha explained to a reporter why she had come to a street protest while seven months pregnant. “If I wasn’t pregnant, I would’ve just stayed home,” she said. “I went out because of my baby. I owe this to him.”[vii]

All are called. Each of us has a purpose that shapes and gives meaning to our lives and it is up to us to seek that purpose out. But remember, friends, that no call can be rightly all-consuming. I am called to be a minister, as sure as you’re born, but my calling is bigger than that; larger than any one title or label can hold. I am called to be a husband and a father, a brother and a son, a citizen and a poet, and a friend. Even the gatekeeper of Mt. Merapi, was not only the guardian of the volcano. He had a family and friends; a few years ago he consented to have his name and face used to sell energy drinks, so that his children could use the money to buy a car. To live with purpose, does not mean that we are only ever focused on one thing, always playing out the same role. It means that each day more and more, we bend our actions and our decisions towards what grounds us: whatever being, force, or idea – named or unnamed, known or unknown – that gives meaning to the lives we dare to lead. All of us are called. The first step, then, is to hear it, and second is to choose to follow.

[i] Mark 10:21, Matthew 19:21, and Luke 18:22.

[ii] You can listen to the same segment here:

[iii] Matthew 22:14.

[iv] From his essay, “Silence,” in his book The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage.

[v] From her meditation, “Set In Stone,” as collected in Walking Toward Morning.




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