The ordinary things in Japan were extraordinary for us. Our neighbors were surprised by what surprised us. Having left religion on the other side of the ocean, or so we thought, we were fascinated by the traditions of Buddhism and Shintoism. During our ten years in the city of Kanazawa, we lived in neighborhoods full of Buddhist temples. Many of these, like churches here, had nursery schools. We loved the lineup of tricycles in front of an ancient wooden temple gate.
At this time of year, when the snow was the deepest, the only sounds on a Sunday morning were the rare car, the snow shovel of our neighbor who spent his spare time packing the snow creatively on the walls of his garden. Into this scene, as we were relaxing over our morning coffee, we heard drums beating.
Looking out the second floor window, we noticed a line of priests walking through the neighborhood, in single file down the middle of the narrow street. When a priest reached a house, he stood in front of the entry way and beat his drum. Our neighbors opened their front doors, bowed deeply and then handed the priest something that looked like money. The priest then bowed again and continued to the next house. We were three houses away from a visit.
Do you have any money, I asked Lou. I don’t think so, she said. I don’t have any.
The day before we had gone to the open market and bought vegetable and fish, after which we had stopped at our favorite coffee shop Capek for café au lait. We only had a little change left.
Oh no! Our first thought was “Let’s close the window and play not at home.” The wooden windows open on brass rails and make a sound. We had opened the window—we couldn’t take the sound back.
We descended the ladder-like stair case quietly to the first floor and looked for our purses. Just as we had thought. No money. The drum started up. This time in front of our door. That first winter, we didn’t have enough language to tell him that we only had a little change.
We were in a bind. I thought it was rude not to answer the door—besides what if the priest just wouldn’t go away. What if he stayed there beating on his drum until the evening?
My grandfather Brown had told me that it was wrong not to give to someone who asked me for something. It takes a lot of courage to ask for money, he said. Born in 1900, he had experienced the depression. He was born and brought up in Evanston near the railway station. The first five years of his life, his father had been off on a mission in Scotland, leaving his family to live on very meager resources. He was known for taking a homeless person out for a meal when they asked him for money for food.
What if those priests didn’t have enough money for dinner? It seemed so rude to give them the equivalent of $2.
Every February when the priests made the rounds of our neighborhood, we were unprepared and we rushed around and sometimes after several minutes that felt like around an hour, he went away. I’m sure it wasn’t the same person each year—but whoever came was persistent. The walls were so thin that I’m sure that he heard us running around looking for money. Sometimes, we opened the door and gave whatever we had to him. He bowed but didn’t look at us and we bowed and and then he walked to the next house and started up his drum again.
And now at this church you happened into or have been attending for years, you are or will be hearing the drums beating of stewardship. You are being asked to give of your time, talents and treasure to support this community. For some of you this is a surprise—as it was to Lou and me when we began to attend Unitarian Universalist services in Arizona—that the present and future of this community are interwoven with the gifts of the people who attend. The drumming priest has arrived at this door.
Some years after that priest arrived at our door, when we spoke enough Japanese to explain, we talked of our experience with a Buddhist priest who had become our friend. How much should we give him, we asked? The priest just smiled. Finally, he told us in a roundabout way that the priest didn’t need our money—he was giving us a chance to give. His gratitude would bless us. No matter what we gave, we were the ones receiving.
That is the shift in perspective that can change our lives completely…That changes everything.
Today, we were blessed by having a baby dedicated among us. And those of you who have had a baby come into your lives—know all about this shift. It is midnight and you are in the middle of a good sleep…the best sleep you have had since the birth of your child. Before that baby arrived, whatever the call, you could push the snooze button—give yourself 5 or 10 more minutes. You drag yourself out of bed and comfort the child, feed the child, change the child’s diaper. And in the process you get it! Or maybe you only get it a few years into this parenting process: Answering these calls has expanded your heart—expanded who you are as a person…In giving you have received something immeasurable. You are becoming a family.
A year ago, I answered the call to be with my sister-in-law as she was dying. And that was such a time. I received much more than I gave. I received the gift of heart—of transformation—of seeing the world in a new way and of growing our family.
This shift in perspective is a process—that can happen in some people like the enlightenment that happens with the crack of the head priest—a mallet on wood—or that moment when you are holding your child and you are still tired but so full of love. Mostly, this shift happens gradually. You give and find that you don’t miss expenditure of time, because in return you feel less alone in this valley and in this world. Your talents grow in the giving and you find membership, formalized or not, in a community that has many of the same ideals—a shared vision of a kinder, more accepting world.
That first year we became Unitarian Universalists was a difficult year for us financially. We had moved our lives back to the United States, funding for the work that I had done as a translator and editor had stopped and I was applying to seminary. When Lou and I first gave, we did it as an experiment. And, little by little our perspective changed. We became a part of a community, imperfect and lovable. We began to look for opportunities to give—and that began to feel like that was what we had to offer as human beings. We connected our creative work with giving—performances raised money for micro-loans in Central America and Mexico –now up to $130,000 and the Japanese red cross after the tsunami and a Shoshone language program, and here in this sanctuary, a motorcycle for my Rwandan pastor friend who is doing reconciliation work in his home country, to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. We give to this community.
Giving has become a way of life for us and has changed our lives. The ordinary happenings, even the disasters, the broken places of this world, have become opportunities to give.
The drum at the door turned into a welcome invitation to become an integral part of the world we live in.
This season of asking and receiving holds an invitation to become more than a social or political club. We are weaving the web of Beloved Community.
This morning, when I woke up in a warm house, I thought of those priests waking up into a room that was the same temperature as the outside, washing their faces with cold water. Sitting in a cold room to meditate and then to the dining hall for hot tea, rice and pickles and then slipping their bare feet into rough straw sandals that they could have made in the preceding weeks, weaving the straw tightly into soles and then the long ropes that were wrapped around their feet and legs. The road lay before them, snowy and icy. They picked up their drums and began the walk. How long did it take them to warm up? Did their feet ever warm? Did blisters form on their skin where the straw would be rubbing? After about two hours of walking they arrived at our neighborhood and stood at our door. The drum poised and waiting. And then the sound cracks through the cold air.
Do you hear those drums—that call you to be a weaver of community?