Howard Thurman

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I want to share with you some words of an African-American mystic and minister named Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981). Born and raised in Daytona, Florida, Howard Thurman began his religious studies in his early twenties, after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. He attended the Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, NY, married, and had a daughter. He spent the rest of his life teaching in educational institutions (including Howard University, my alma mater) and churches (including Fellowship Church in San Francisco) throughout the United States and in other countries.

The lines I’ll share tonight come from The Way of the Mystics: Walking with God (The Sermon Series of Howard Thurman, Orbis Books, 2021, pp. 20-21). In this series of sermons, Rev. Thurman touches on the writings of such spiritual lights as William Blake, Lao Tse, Meister Eckhart, Buddha, Plotinus, and many others with whom we are familiar. The editors of the series say that Rev. Thurman didn’t want to be labeled a mystic; he was simply a sharer of his own experience, as most of us here are. But the tone of mysticism is unmistakable in his speech and his written prose. This excerpt, the first in the book, is from a sermon delivered at Fellowship Church in 1953. In it, Rev. Thurman describes so clearly what most of us experience in our daily lives. Listen:

In many-sided activities, there is so much that engages the mind, and ensnares the emotions, that again and again, we are wanderers, lost in the midst of our own private and collective wildernesses, with no sense of being at home anywhere, in anything, at any time. Our enthusiasms wax hot and cold. One day life is full, and the wave is high and the sun bright, and the hours pass quickly, and we seem no longer frayed, and then the next day, the day is long, dreary, and we wonder how it felt to rise with freedom and abandon on the crest of the wave.

Don’t we all recognize this waxing and waning of our engagement with life? Don’t we sense the flow of the hours – fast and full when we are at peace with ourselves, yet long and dry when we are troubled or just bored? Next, he describes the medicine that we, as meditation practitioners, take to get us through our topsy-turvy days and times. Of practice, Rev. Thurman says this:

It is wonderful therefore to sit together, to be enveloped by a single moment, and feel the presence, and sense the lights and shadows of those who sit near us. It is good to be caught in the creative silence, surrounded by the brooding presence of God. And perchance, as we wait together in the quietness, some new light may be thrown upon old problems, some fresh hope may give wings to spirit to which despair is the familiar. Perhaps a sense of forgiveness for sins committed, for errors done, for blundering stupidities that have wrought havoc in other people’s lives. All this may be the miracle for us, as we wait together in the quietness.

What a wonderful description of our sitting in community, whether online or in person. We feel that community – that communion, actually – as we share the sacred silence while practicing together. In this silence, there is no denomination, no professed religious affiliation; there is just us, sitting together.

Rev. Thurman ends this first section of his sermon with what we may take as a prayer.

O love of God, without which life has no meaning, and no harbor, leave us not alone with our little lives, our broken dreams, our insistent problems, but invade our spirit with thy vitality, that we may be renewed in all the ways of our lives, that we may turn from this place, this day, with all that is within us, washed and purified and refreshed. We seek this with simplicity of heart, and with quiet faith and confidence that thou would not deny thy love to thy children. O God our Father, Amen.

And there he says the magic word: Love. Being a Christian minister, teacher, and mystic, Rev. Thurman uses Judeo-Christian language to express his experience. But as we know, language is just a tool; it is a cultural medium that humans have developed in order to communicate with one another, to express their truths. History – and current events – show us how divisive language can be. But aren’t we – as manifestations of True Nature, Essential Nature, Buddha Nature, Christian Love – aren’t we learning to transcend words and language to reach out to fellow humans of all stripes? With the Love that we know underlies and pervades all being? Isn’t this what we are about? What our practice helps us do and be?

At the end of the introduction to this first sermon, the Editors paraphrase Rev. Thurman as saying that the mystics “wanted to make their lives ‘a point of focus through which [the awesome energy of Love] hits its mark in the world; then the redemptive process can work.’” What a clear statement of being!

My thanks to Howard Thurman for his work in this world, and to you for listening.