The Commons: Our Blog

Timely, sometimes tough, questions and insights from NAES and Episcopal school leaders on leadership, governance, Episcopal identity, community life, and other issues.

Becoming a Nobody: an Ash Wednesday Reflection

One of the many reasons I have enjoyed being Chaplain in Episcopal Schools is that I probably spend more time than the average parish priest reading, thinking about, and teaching from wisdom traditions other than Christianity. I’m a Jesus guy at heart—and I know where my allegiances are—but my experience teaching the great wisdom traditions of the world has opened my mind to new ways of thinking and approaching problems that arise in life. Occasionally, I learn something from another tradition that feels entirely compatible with my Christian faith, so much so that I have to remind myself it doesn’t appear anywhere in the gospels. Today I’m referencing the Buddhist idea of nirvana. 

The word means something like “extinguished” and references the spiritual awakening that results when we dissolve the performative, egoic, false self. My favorite summary of this idea comes from late spiritual teacher Ram Dass who said “The game is not about becoming somebody, it’s about becoming nobody.” While I can’t fully appreciate all this means for a Buddhist, for me it means that the restless and rigid striving after inflated ideas of my public self reliably yields suffering and sin. Being somebody we aren’t is exhausting and demoralizing; we should start by trying to be a nobody. 

Becoming nobody is an ironic admonition to be made by a man who enjoyed a fair degree of international celebrity! And the person to whom the idea is ultimately credited—the Buddha himself—was also a renowned popular teacher. It does not seem then that extinguishing the ego means recusing oneself from the burden of being interesting or influential. Rather, it is to strip away the veneer of inauthenticity and to uncover what is actually interesting and influential about us—God. 

Perhaps another way of understanding nirvana—a Christian way—is to say that we find authentic and abundant life precisely when we fully reject the false gods we have been serving. Consider the zen master from Nazareth: He who finds his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:39); Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mt 23:12); What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul (Mt 16: 26); Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. (Mt 20:26) 

Indeed, it is this very logic of counter-intuition and paradox that we are invited to comprehend and remember on Ash Wednesday, whether or not we receive the imposition of Ashes. Even if the pandemic means we feast on the Word alone or on zoom, may we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. 

Last year was a good reminder that death is always a present reality, and for me that has meant getting more serious about living. I ran a marathon. I finally did lesson planning (shhh). I have taken to heart that I will someday be a dead nobody and that some days I already am a dead nobody. I have been reminded that if I repent of my sins, if I seek to extinguish the power of my performative, egoic, false self, God might actually unleash a living somebody. And “what the world needs,” according to civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “is people who have come alive.” Amen?

Lots of smart people have told me that Irenaeus of Lyons said, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” I’m not completely sure what Irenaeus meant, but surely it reflects the renunciations and commitments of baptism wherein we die with Christ so that we might rise to new life with him also. Dying and being born to eternal life begins now for all who would truly pray: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 

May it be so for all of us who are called to by God to be interesting and influential for a generation of children that is desperate for authenticity and genuine love. Amen. 

The Rev. Joshua A. Hill is Chaplain and Chair of Theology & Religious Studies at the Holderness School, Holderness, NH.

More Patriots, Less Patriarchy

On Monday and Wednesday of this week, we observe two monumental national celebrations, both of which have significant implications for the moral life of the nation—the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday and the Inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. The juxtaposition of these two celebrations invites us to think deeply about two major themes, patriotism and patriarchy. Read More »

Another Way

Last January, I preached a sermon on the Sunday nearest Epiphany, focusing on the theme of “another way.” Matthew’s gospel tells us about how the Magi, having paid homage to Jesus, were warned in a dream to return to their homes “by another way.” What other ways, I asked that Sunday, would God be asking us to ponder, indeed travel this year? Little did I know just what dramatic “other ways” would befall us in 2020. Read More »

Morning Meditation from Biennial Conference 2020

When I first began teaching, I thought academics were all that really mattered. But the more I worked with young people, the more I came to see that great intellect did not always come with a warm heart or a clear moral compass. I saw students crippled by sadness in their lives, or worry, or anxiety or anger and hurt that made learning a shadowy process. Slowly, I came to see not merely their minds but the totality of who they were, and who they were becoming. Read More »

Foundation and Community

In my twenty five years in education, I never thought I would see the day when our country was at such unrest. In every corner of the world, there seems to be chaos. The health and well-being of our neighbors, along with the major shutdown of our country is a stark contrast to what it was this time last year. Read More »

What goes on when we pray?

I find myself thinking about this seemingly simple question once again. This time it was prompted not by a student but an adult. Last month, Church Publishing released Common Prayer for Children and Families, a collection of daily liturgies and prayers for all sorts of occasions that Jenifer Gamber and I wrote together. A parent who saw the book congratulated me and then asked if there was an accompanying companion piece or a guide. She suggested that parents and teachers often need both prayers themselves and an additional resource to assist them in theologically explaining to children (and perhaps themselves) what is going on when we pray. Read More »

Schools are Real Places of Faith

As I write, I’ve just returned home from a candlelit prayer vigil at our school chapel. Two weeks ago, a student only in our Class of 2014 died, under as yet unknown though clearly tragic circumstances. I was contacted out of the blue by a former student who wished to organize a service for their friend in the chapel where they used to worship together. He sounded shy about asking, but when the school and I quickly embraced him and offered all we could to help, he was profoundly grateful that we were taking the time to respond to him with such enthusiasm. It was a small, simple, yet intimate opportunity to gather in the presence of God, in a place which was so much a center of spiritual, emotional and also collegial gravity for those friends. In a way, as one student remarked, it felt like “a home away from home.” Like a parish church, I suppose. Read More »

Explaining Jesus

“Hey! Who’s that?” shouts an excited three-year-old as he enters the church for the first time. He points again at the large Christus Rex (Christ the King) statute over the Altar and demands, “Who’s that?” Read More »

Third Grade Lessons for an Election Year

Welcome to 2020 – a leap year, a summer Olympics year, and a presidential election year. Are you nervous about the elections? Friends and colleagues with divergent political perspectives have expressed anxiety about the polarization in our shared civic life, especially for 2020. I have read blogs describing exhaustion from feeling like we are swimming in a sea of political and cultural hatred, and watched public figures give advice about how to talk to your intolerant relatives about politics. The funny thing is, folks from all parts of the political spectrum are making these same observations about feeling silenced, marginalized, and being branded as the other. My advice is to try to be more like a third grader. Read More »