Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gratitude for the Hands That Touch Our Lives

“When you touch minds, people are willing to walk a dozen miles for you; and when you touch hearts, people are willing to walk a thousand miles for you; but when you touch souls, people are willing to walk a million miles for you.”

Matshona Dhliwayo (Zimbabwe born Canadian philosopher)


An Eye-Opening Exercise


A few years ago I was part of a project sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council that featured a quilt project by the Apopka Farmworkers Association. The quilt had been made by African-American farmworkers who had created it much in the fashion of the famed AIDS Quilt. Its handstitched squares told the stories of the lives of the farmworkers who once lived, loved and worked in the mucklands on the north shore of Lake Apopka and who had since died, many of them from rare cancers that were epidemic in a community long exposed unknowingly to carcinogenic chemicals used in the fields they worked.

The quilt came with its own story tellers, elderly women who remembered those whose squares bore their life stories in cross-stitch and regaled their audiences with stories which made these workers fully present and fully human, if just for a moment. 

The sessions always began with a little exercise. Jeannie Economos, the project organizer from the Farmworker Association of Florida, would begin by holding up an orange and then tossing it to a person in the front row of her audience. She would invite the recipient to hold the orange, feeling its texture, smelling its sweet aroma, looking at the brilliant orange surface, before passing it to the person sitting next to them. This would continue until everyone in the audience had held the orange at which point it was tossed back to Jeannie.

Then she would ask, “So how many hands touched that orange before you did?” Inevitably there would be a long silence before the first person would volunteer. “The worker at the Publix,” would often be the first response. But Jeannie would push her audience. “OK. But before them.” 

This would continue until a long chain of custody would be created that would stretch back to the worker who planted the seed that grew the tree that produced this orange among many others. Along the way there would be the workers who watered the seedling, transplanted it into a grove, fertilized the sapling, sprayed it with chemicals to keep away insects and diseases, shaped the trees by pruning, fired the groves on the occasional cold nights, hoed around the trees to keep the weeds from taking over, and then waited….waited for the burst of aromatic blossoms that would fill the air with perfume and draw the bees that would pollinate the blossoms…waited for six months as the tiny fruit grew, fleshed out and ripened.


Only then would the harvest come by workers wearing long sleeve shirts in the Florida heat to protect them from the thorns on the trees, loading their crates awaiting the tractor to come pick them up, headed to packing houses where the fruit would be sorted and loaded into new crates and loaded onto trucks driven to distribution warehouses and only then to the grocery stores where they would be unloaded and placed on the displays in the produce section.


Finally, Jeannie would say, “OK, so how many hands touched this piece of fruit before you did?”


Our Feast From Their Hands….


That project was one of the many gifts to my life that the Florida Humanities Council has provided me over many years for which I am grateful on this Eve of Thanksgiving. But besides giving me a chance to participate in a project that enriched our community, it also served to wake me up. What began to occur to me as I considered the chain of custody and care that had produced the piece of fruit I held that day was that this was true of every aspect of my life and everyone else’s as well.

Tomorrow, most of us will sit down at tables loaded with wonderful foods from turkeys to pies. There will be our favorite casseroles that came from fields bearing green beans, mushrooms and onions and stuffings that were produced in part in vast expanses of wheat fields in the heart of our country. If we began to count the hands that had touched the foods that we would enjoy tomorrow, we would not eat for hours. And yet, without them, this feast which we take for granted, often seen as a prelude to a season of often mindless consumption, would never have been possible.

Might that not be reason to give thanks?


Hands That Have Shaped Us


Perhaps the most important application of this consciousness raising project is how it relates to our individual lives. Consider all the hands that have touched your life over its long span. Begin with the doctor, nurse or midwife who received your tiny body as it emerged from your mother’s. Then, perhaps your Mother, weeping with joy, relieved that her long, laborious pregnancy had ended and you were the result.

And that was just the beginning….

Now consider all the other hands that have touched your life since. Think of the medical people who have provided care for your body if your family was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. Think of the members of your family who protected you, ensuring that you would survive to adulthood. 

Think of the teachers who offered you the opportunity to learn, the mentors who offered you their example and wisdom. Think of the cafeteria ladies who insured you had a healthy lunch to eat, the tired, poorly paid workers at the

fast-food joints who met your demands for instant gratification, the preparers of the Thanksgiving feast you are about to eat and everyone along that food chain who produced those raw materials. 

Consider those who loved you even when you were not terribly loveable. Consider those who built the home in which you live. Consider those whose hands will dispose of  your remains when you have died.


And consider those along the way whose harsh treatment bruised your body and scarred your soul. Even those hands you learned from and the scars they left behind define the person you have come to be.

And that is just the beginning of the list….

There Are No Self-Made Human Beings


[Image: Okan Yilmaz. “Alone on the road” (2012)]

One of the many ideologies under which we labor in America is the notion of the rugged individual aka the self-made man. The problem is, that ideology is ultimately a caricature of actual human beings, a lie we tell ourselves to boost our egos and perhaps to rationalize our self-focus, our indifference to the needy and our lack of gratitude. The truth is no adult human being is ever self-made. All of us are the products of countless people and communities who have unknowingly conspired to create the individual who is reading these words right now - a composite of all their contributions rolled up into one human being.

Hardly self-made. And hardly rugged. 

Tomorrow, on the day officially designated for giving thanks, might not all of these hands which have touched you and shaped your life be worthy of your remembrance?

Have a  wonderful Thanksgiving.


[Image: Tómas Freyr Kristjánsson,  “Embracing the sunset: Sunset at Kirkjufell” (2014)]



Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022








Monday, November 14, 2022

Trusting G-d in a World in Transition

“For by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In all honesty, when I read the lessons for today, I almost decided to punt and just preach on the Psalm.  The Prophet Malachi warns of a day that is coming that will burn like an oven, reducing the arrogant and the evildoers to stubble. The author of Second Thessalonians writing in the name of Paul is focused on busybodies and spongers in the community, an epistle of resentment which sounds a lot like our culture wars today. And then there’s Luke who depicts Jesus as laying out a frightening scene of wars, natural disasters and false teachers ready to mislead the faithful. And when his disciples ask him how they will survive all this, he is evasive – By your endurance you will gain your souls. Now, what the heck does that mean? 

So you can see why it was tempting to blow off these visions of doom and gloom this morning and focus on the Psalm with its exhortation to “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  But, unlike some in our state government, I believe that we do not get to avoid those things that make us uncomfortable. Indeed, it is often the things that are uncomfortable that we most need to consider. 

A Gospel Emerging From the Ruins


The first thing we need to know about the words from Luke’s Gospel today is that they aren’t mere speculation. Luke’s writings appear in two parts – his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Both were completed about 85 CE. That’s a good 15 years after the Temple has actually been destroyed. Thus, the words Luke places in Jesus’ mouth in this passage are not predictions, which we sometimes confuse with prophecies, they are actual historical accounts.

Those who have visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have seen the enormous blocks of granite that once supported the Second Temple which the Romans managed to topple from the Temple Mount hurtling hundreds of feet to the ground below. Before the Romans were through, not one stone would be left standing on another, just as Luke has Jesus saying. 


Concurrent with the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans would force any Judean who survived their assault on the Temple to permanently depart from Jerusalem. Eventually all Judeans would be expelled from the land of Israel altogether becoming what we have historically called wandering Jews in the hands of often hostile Christian majorities.

With the loss of the Temple, the center of Israel’s religious life had been taken away. Now Israel’s faithful must find a way to continue their religion. It would have to change or die. And the response to that challenge would be seen in the rise of the synagogues under the direction of the rabbis. It would be there that the Torah would become central in determining how one lived one’s life as a good Jew. 


In the tumultuous time in the wake of the Temple’s destruction when Luke is writing, Judaism had begun a long period of redefining itself. Feeling threatened by the worldview of the Greco-Roman culture, Judaism began to define itself in opposition to any ideas it found to be contrary to life defined by the Torah as interpreted by the rabbis. The first step meant deciding which writings constituted Torah and which did not, a process that would take place over the next few decades.

With the rise of a distinct population among the Jews who followed Jesus, contention arose in the synagogues. Before it was over, the Jesus followers would be expelled and the writings they held sacred with names like Gospels and Epistles would be banned. Within a century of the Fall of the Temple in 70 CE, both rabbinical Judaism and a new religion called Christianity were well on their way to permanently separating from one another. To say it was not an amicable divorce is an understatement as the many negative references to “the Jews” in the New Testament evidence. 

Now, that’s the context in which Luke’s writings occurs. When he speaks of the destruction of the Temple, it is a fait accompli, the result of Roman impatience with the constant insurrections of Jewish zealots. When he speaks of famines and plagues, such are common in places where societies have been destabilized by war and insurrection. Everything from food supply to health systems are thrown into jeopardy. And when Luke speaks of betrayals, even within one’s own families, and persecutions it is because this is what is actually happening in the shredded social fabric of the Jewish population of Palestine at the end of the 1st CE. It was a grim time, indeed.


Sounds Painfully Familiar

So, why do we need to hear this? Haven’t we got enough problems of our own? Do we not have wars that have disrupted our world’s economy including its food supplies and the abilities of people to heat their homes? Do we not have insurrections that threaten to topple our very way of governing ourselves? Was not our Temple of Democracy sacked and desecrated by rioters? Do we not have vulnerable people who worry every day that they may be betrayed by those they thought they could trust when it comes to their gender identity and decisions regarding their reproduction?  And do we not have desperate refugees coming to our shores every day praying for compassion and a new beginning only to be persecuted by those with power over their lives?


In truth, I think we understand the world that produced Luke’s Gospel only too well. And it is precisely because we do understand it that hearing this Gospel reading today is essential. So what good news can we take away from these dire readings this morning?         

First, like the people of 1st CE Judea, we must acknowledge that we live in a time of transition. All things change. And for change to occur, old, established ways of being and understanding, some of them deeply cherished, must die before the new can be born. That is happening now and for many of us it is painful. Rather than deny our pain and rage at the agents of change, a healthy people will allow themselves to mourn as we let go of that which is dying even as we learn to adapt to that which is being born.     


That last part is important. Something new is being born and that should give us hope and a sense of expectation. Had we used the alternative lections appointed for this day, we would have heard the prophet Isaiah saying “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…” Change is perhaps the only constant in human existence. But G-d is with us in all things. And that alone can empower us to embrace the transitions we face with humility, candor and courage.


Community: Essential to Endurance

Second, it is essential to note that the Gospel of Luke comes to us from a community which preserved it first as an oral tradition and later reduced it to writing. The key word in that statement is community. With all the loss that occurs in times of major change, human beings need safe places to honestly and openly acknowledge their suffering. And the role of community support in surviving times that try men’s souls, to quote Thomas Paine, is absolutely vital to survival and healing.


But that community does not just happen. It requires all of its members constantly agreeing to be fully present, working through disagreement and bearing one another’s burdens. We are fortunate to be members of a healthy community. Every day I give thanks for this community we call St. Richard’s. It is a gift from G-d.

Finally, let us take very seriously these words that Luke places in the mouth of Jesus in this Gospel reading. At the very end of this lesson, Jesus tells his listeners “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” And here’s the thing. They did endure. How do we know? Because 2000 years later we are reading the gospel their community produced this morning. Luke’s community of Jesus followers endured. And we will, too.



So in this sometimes frightening time of major change in our world and in our lives, may we be courageous enough to face our fears and voice our suffering. May we work to be a community where it is safe to do so and supportive of each other in our struggles. And may we resolve to endure these trying times, trusting the G-d who is always with us through all that may come.    

There are many beautiful collects in our prayer book. I close with this one designed to be prayer in times of conflict:


O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



Harry Scott Coverston 

   Orlando, Florida

  If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

  Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

  For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

  Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022