Beginner’s mind

Text: John 1:1-18 (“In the beginning”) * Video of complete service * Order of service

How are we supposed to feel after Christmas? During the season, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and rejoice in the rebirth of love within our hearts.

But what if Christmas didn’t really pan out for us this year? On the Sundays in Advent, I ended three of my reflections by saying, “Friends, watch out! Christmas is coming and I fear it is going to be awesome.” But what if, in the end, it didn’t feel that awesome to you?

Birth is always an awesome experience. But sometimes no matter how hard we prepare in Advent, we don’t experience a rebirth of love at Christmas. And that’s OK. The church celebrates Christmas and Easter every year but with an understanding that spiritual enlightenment doesn’t follow the calendar. New life can elude us for years or decades, just as it can surprise us at any moment. It all depends on the mysterious alchemy of Love and Grace and the ups and downs of lives lived within strictures that both wound and bless us.

I appreciated Advent and Christmas at Mill Woods United this year even as I was stressed by the pandemic restrictions. I enjoyed all the connections with family that Zoom allowed even as I look forward to future holidays that will happen in-person. I am happy with Christmas 2020/2021, but I wouldn’t say it was awesome for me.

That being said, I hope it was awesome for you. But if it was, what next? What if you were one of the lucky ones who did become Mary’s child this Christmas? What is it like to start the new year with a sense you have been reborn as a child of God?

The Gospel of Mark has nothing to say about Christmas since it includes no birth story. Luke’s Christmas story, which is the one on which we focus in Advent, is filled with shepherds, angels, birth in a stable, and endless charm, but it doesn’t give us much guidance about being a child of God. Matthew’s story, which is utterly different from Luke’s, and which we won’t hear until next Sunday when we celebrate Epiphany with his story of the Star, Magi, and a fearful flight to Egypt, is also mute on what it might mean to be a child of God at Christmas.

Today we heard the final Christmas story — the one from the Gospel of John. This is the one that does talk about us as children of God even as it makes no mention of Mary, a stable, or a Star. John begins his Gospel not with the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago, but with the beginning of the cosmos.

Stripped of its poetry, John’s first chapter seems to have little to say to me. Like the creation stories from Genesis, there seems little to learn from it about the natural history of the cosmos, of the earth, or of life. To understand the latter, I rely on astrophysics, biology, and anthropology. But in its poetry, I believe John can provide a gracious space in which to confront the mysteries of the cosmos.

Today, I chose a new translation of the first chapter of John. It was published by American psychotherapist and spiritual leader Thomas Moore in 2018. I found it helpful, and I hope you do too.

One of the most striking things about Moore’s translation of these first verses is his decision not to translate the Greek word “Logos” into English. Most English versions translate it as “Word,” with a capital “W.” Moore does not do so because he says Logos has too many other plausible translations, including “story,” “myth,” “mystery,” “plan,” “teaching,” or “logic.” By leaving “Logos” untranslated, Moore forces us to look at this passage with fresh eyes and to leave some of our preconceptions behind.

He helps us to approach the Gospel of John with what Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind.” This phrase is associated with Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Just before his death in 1971, a collection of Suzuki’s talks was published with the title “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” and it is one of the most popular English books on Buddhism.

Beginner’s mind helps us to remember that the present is always fresh and new. It helps us stay awake to the possibilities that surround us.

Not having a beginner’s mind — whether in reading Scripture, or walking the dog, or spending time with one’s children — is a sign we are asleep. It is a sign that we may be caught up in our own judgements, thoughts, and delusions.

Unfortunately, we do spend most of our lives asleep, which can close us off to Christmas or Easter moments of rebirth. But when we accept the Grace to stumble into rebirth -– when we become Mary’s child at Christmas, for instance – a million possibilities appear.

I remembered the Zen concept beginner’s mind last week when Kim and I watched a new Netflix documentary. “My Octopus Teacher” documents a year in the life of a South African filmmaker Craig Foster during which he forges a relationship with a small octopus in a kelp forest near the Cape of Good Hope in the south Atlantic.

Foster is suffering from burnout, so he retreats to a cabin near a forbidding ocean cove. He decides to spend time there every day for a year snorkeling amid the marine life to observe it as though with a beginner’s mind. Although he already knew a lot about marine biology, what he experiences astonishes him.

I don’t know if his film increases the world’s knowledge of octopi. I do know it transformed Foster and stirred within me wonder and joy at the intricacies of the natural world.

Foster’s patient and open observation of his octopus reminded me of the founder of modern biology, Charles Darwin. Darwin, who first described how species evolve by natural selection in the 19th Century, spent his entire life making painstaking observations of wildlife. These observations, in concert with the economic theories of Malthus, helped him to discover the mechanism by which life has evolved over long eons from a single root into astonishing diversity and intricacy.

I read a lot about Darwin and Darwinism in 2009 when I was in seminary. 2009 was called the Year of Darwin since it was both the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his main work, “On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection.” The latter is a rare foundational text of a science that is still relevant, readable, and accessible to most laypeople today.

I took two courses on Darwinism and its challenge to theology. Then in November 2009, when I was a student minister in Didsbury, I led an evening discussion on Darwin at Knox United Church on the precise date of the 150th anniversary of the publication of “Origins.”

When studying Darwin or watching Foster in “My Octopus Teacher” I am astounded by their ability to wait, watch, and grow in understanding, all with an attitude that a Buddhist might call beginner’s mind.

The cosmos and its animating principle, which John calls Logos, can astonish us and remind us that we are children of God. Darwin’s insights, which lay bare the mechanism behind evolution, do not, in my opinion, do away with the awe and mystery we feel when we approach the present moment with a beginner’s mind. Instead, I think they can enhance it.

So, I now end with the final paragraph of Darwin’s 1859 masterpiece “Origins.” In my mind, it resides besides traditional creation stories like Genesis or the first chapter of John even as it provides both scientific and spiritual insight.

Darwin writes, “it is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense are Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted objects which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the higher animals, directly follow. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

My prayer is that we will approach this amazing new year with a beginner’s mind. May this lead us all deeper into mystery, delight, and joy.

Amen.

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