Microsoft word - 02-7-10 bartender, another shot of soma.doc
George Harris“Bartender, Another Shot of Soma”South ChurchNew Britain, Connecticut
Something exciting happened at Bible study this week. Before I tell you about this
exciting thing, I should give you a little background about our Bible study. Rick Coffey and Imeet every Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. with a devoted group of ten to twelve churchmembers. Rick leads the first half of our time together, introducing us to the hymns we will besinging in worship on the coming Sunday. Rick not only leads us in singing, but educates usabout the music. We learn about the composer, the lyrics, what was happening in the world atthe time the hymn was written, and the relationship between the hymn and our Bible readings.
During the second half of our time together, I lead the group in a reflection on the Bible lessonsfor the coming Sunday. We read the scripture lesson and discuss its meaning to us and our livestoday. Now, I should tell you, that in my humble opinion, many interesting things happen atBible study. Florence or Myrna will make some observation and I will comment, “Hmm, that’svery interesting.” Sometimes some word or phrase will jump out at us from a hymn or Biblepassage causing us to exclaim, “Isn’t that interesting.” Not a Wednesday goes by without someinteresting tidbit being shared. That said, what was revealed this past Wednesday was more thaninteresting, it was exciting, extraordinary, and very cool.
Rick introduced us to the hymn that we will be singing before communion, “Dear Lord,
and Father of Mankind.” He had us read the words to the second verse, “In simple trust liketheirs who heard, beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us, like them,without a word, rise up and follow thee,” and pointed out that these words refer to this morning’sGospel lesson where the disciples leave their boats and nets behind and follow Jesus. Thesewords, Rick noted, were written by John Greenleaf Whittier, in 1872. Then… then… Rickdropped this bombshell. The five verses of “Dear Lord, and Father of Mankind” are in fact partof a long poem that Whittier wrote called, “The Brewing of Soma.” What is Soma, Rick asked.
I thrust my had up in the air, “I know, I know. Soma is the drug that people use in AldousHuxely’s novel, Brave New World. Soma puts people in a blissful, compliant state so they canbe easily manipulated by an authoritarian government. Here is the way one of the characters inBrave New World describes Soma:
"And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen,
why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calmyour anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the pastyou could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moraltraining. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can bevirtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity withouttears-that's what soma is.
Well, I was wrong. Brave New World was published in 1932, and Whittier wrote “The
Brewing of Soma” in 1872 so he couldn’t have been writing about the Soma in Huxley’s novel.
But Whittier’s poem is just as disturbing as Huxley’s frightening vision of the future. The Somaof which Whittier writes was a ritual drink brewed by Hindu priests and drunk by worshippers,bringing "sacred madness" and "a storm of drunken joy."
Listen to the first six stanza’s of Whittier’s poem describing the religious fervor and
ecstatic state of the Hindu priests and their followers (they are printed on the back of the AshWednesday insert to your bulletin if you would like to follow along).
The fagots blazed, the caldron's smokeUp through the green wood curled;"Bring honey from the hollow oak,Brink milky sap," the brewers spoke,In the childhood of the world.
And brewed they well or brewed they ill,The priests thrust in their rods,First tasted, and then drank their fill,And shouted, with one voice and will,"Behold, the drink of the gods!"
They drank, and lo! in heart and brainA new, glad life began;They grew of hair grew young again,The sick man laughed away his pain,The cripple leaped and ran.
"Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,Forget you long annoy."So sang the priests, From tent to tentThe Soma's sacred madness went,A storm of drunken joy.
Then knew each rapt inebriateA winged and glorious birth,Soared upward, with strange joy elate,Beat, with dazed head, Varuna's gate,And sobered, sank to earth.
The land with Soma's praises rang;On Gihon's banks of shadeIts hymns the dusky maidens sang;In joy of life or mortal pangAll men to Soma prayed
Then, the middle of Whittier’s poem shifts the focus from soma-swilling Hindu’s of long ago, tothe Christian’s of his day. Listen…
The morning twilight of the raceSends down these matin psalms;And still with wondering eyes we traceThe simple prayers to Soma's grace,That verdic verse embalms.
As in the child-world's early year,Each after age has strivenBy music, incense, vigils drear,And trance, to bring the skies more near,Or lift men up to heaven!
Some fever of the blood and brain,Some self-exalting spell,The scourger's keen delight of pain,the Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,The wild-haired Bacchant's yell, -
The desert's hair-grown hermit sunkThe saner brute below;The naked Santon, haschish-drunk,The cloister madness of the monk,The fakir's torture show!
And yet the past comes round again,And new doth old fulfill;In sensual transports wild as vainWe brew in many a Christian faneThe heathen Soma still!
Whittier’s point is clear. He is criticizing those Christian’s who were trying to satisfy
their need for God by chasing a feeling. Music, incense, dreary vigils, Dervish dancing,retreating into a desert or monastery would not, in themselves, bring one close to God.
I quote here the prophet, Paul Zotola (South Church member), who recently proclaimed
this truth on one South Church pastor’s blog. Paul writes:
Whittier is criticizing the temporary illusions we use to comfort ourselves by employing
things from us, not from God. . .and this is why it fails. Pick from any of a number of tangiblediversions: addiction, celebrity, wealth, possession, . . . all filling the wants we create in theabsence of what we truly need. But all of these are phantoms, mirages. These are all our owncreations; our own substitutions for what we lack, what we need. Friendship, a feeling that weare loved and valued, proof that we matter, that we belong.
Another fine prophet, this one named Isaiah, receives this same message from God in this
morning’s scripture lesson. God tells Isaiah:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand.” Make the
mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look withtheir eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
These things, intoxicants, celebrity, wealth, possessions, are our Soma. They dull our
minds, stop our ears and shut our eyes so we cannot comprehend or understand God, so wecannot receive what we need most, God’s unconditional love and healing. And, as Whittier sopowerfully expresses, even the practice of religion can get in the way of God’s love andacceptance. “We brew in many a Christian fane the heathen Soma still!”
Our music at South Church is a good example. Each Sunday, our South Church Chancel
Choir makes us feel great. You have watched me as they sing one of their powerful anthems. Ihave a big silly grin on my face and I am practically lifting up right out of my seat. It’s a rush, ahigh, adrenalin courses through our bodies and brains. Religious practices, music, prayer,worship, are like a finger pointing to God, and that’s a great thing. But we shouldn’t confuseGod with the finger. If the whole practice of our faith revolves around experiencing amomentary rush, then we are missing the point, and likely missing God. We cannot know Godby chasing a feeling whether from soma, alcohol, shopping, or religion.
Both Isaiah and Luke show the way to an authentic encounter with God. Isaiah humbles
himself before God. Confessing his Soma swilling ways, he wails, “Woe is me! I am lost, for Iam a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” One of the seraphs takes acoal from the altar with a pair of tongs and touches Isaiah’s mouth, saying “Now that this hastouched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” God asks, “Whom shall Isend?” and Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me!
An authentic encounter with God comes, not from chasing a feeling, but by turning to
God and confessing our limitations, by receiving God’s forgiveness, love and acceptance, and byanswering God’s call with, “Here I am, send me!”
Peter responds the same way in Luke’s gospel. Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees, saying
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; from nowon you will be catching people.” Peter then leaves everything behind to follow Jesus.
An authentic encounter with God comes, not from chasing a feeling, but by turning to
God and confessing our limitations, by receiving God’s forgiveness, love and acceptance, and byanswering God’s call, by leaving our Soma behind, by leaving behind everything that get’sbetween us and God, and following Jesus.
So, first Whittier describes Hindu priests who confuse their soma high with an experience
of the divine. Next, he brings it right home to us, inviting us to identify the soma in our lives,what do we use as a substitute for an authentic encounter with God’s love and acceptance?Then, finally, Whittier closes with the words that become our communion hymn. If you wouldlike to look at the insert and find the stanza that begins, Dear Lord and Father of mankind, youmay read with me.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,Forgive our foolish ways!Reclothe us in our rightful mind,In purer lives Thy service find,In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heardBeside the Syrian seaThe gracious calling of the Lord,Let us, like them, without a wordRise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!O calm of hills above,Where Jesus knelt to share with TheeThe silence of eternityInterpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing allOur words and works that drownThe tender whisper of Thy call,And noiseless let Thy blessing fallAs fell Thy manna down.
Drop thy still dews of quietness,Till all our strivings cease;Take from our souls the strain and stress,And let our ordered lives confessThy beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the hearts of our desireThy coolness and Thy balm;Let sense be numb, let flesh retire;Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,O still, small voice of calm!
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