Sermon: October 14, 2018 – “Letting Life Drain Away”

 

Letting Life Drain Away

Text: James 1: 2-4

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Oh, Boy! I just can’t wait for something bad to happen so I can count it as all joy!  My life is just a little too good right now, I wish some trials would come along…I’m just not yet complete.  I sure miss the good old days when everything was so much more of a struggle……

Is this scripture nuts?  What are we to think about this kind of advice?  How can this be helpful?  When someone’s life has just been turned upside down – this isn’t going to bring any comfort, this isn’t going to help; this isn’t what they want to hear.  I know if it were me that was in the middle of some catastrophe it isn’t what I would want to hear. As I write these words, hurricane Michael is taking aim at the coasts of Florida and Alabama and I’m pretty certain those who suffer as a result of this latest storm would not want to hear about counting it all as joy.

So what are we to make of this?  I’ve heard many interpretations on scriptures like this one – and this isn’t the only one for sure – and I think the most tragic result of these interpretations is the belief that God actually sends calamity for testing and to make us complete.  Maybe in some weird way, people take comfort in the idea that God has caused the trouble, and it is not the result of the randomness of the universe, poor choices or just plain old bad luck.  Having God send the calamity absolves us from any responsibility. I have also heard it stated that God will not give us any more than we can handle. I remember after hurricane Katrina devastated parts of New Orleans that Pat Robertson stated that God had done this because New Orleans was such a sinful city.

What nonsense!

I don’t believe God sends calamity.

I don’t believe God ever gives us something to handle.

But I do believe this scripture.

Now that may surprise some of you….particularly because I’ve just ranted about it for a few minutes, so let me explain.  I said I believe the scripture…in other words I believe there is truth to be found in what is written there.  It can easily be misinterpreted and it can easily be abused and it can be over-emphasized.  But there is still truth to be found.

A number of years ago we spent about 10 days in New England, taking in the fall color and enjoying the spectacular scenery in that part of the country.  We spent most of our time in New Hampshire, but we did manage a brief side trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, near Bar Harbor – or Bah Habah – whichever you prefer.  Acadia is a special place – one of my favorites – I love the diversity that is found there.

If you visit Acadia, one of the places you will see is a spot along the coast that they call “Thunder Hole”.  The pictures don’t really do it justice, and it is hard to capture the entire scene in a photograph, so I will need to tell you about it.  The Maine coast in this area is very rocky and there is a break in the rock right at this spot.  Think of it like a miniature canyon; the sides of the canyon are probably 15 or 20 feet high and it runs a length of 75 to 100 feet.  At the end of the canyon is rock that has been rounded and carved out by the breaking surf.  When a wave comes in, the water moves along this canyon and then smashes into the rounded out hole at the end.  When that collision takes place, there is quite a satisfying “thwump” and thus the name Thunder Hole.

We visited Thunder Hole two times while we were in Acadia – we didn’t really plan it that way, but that is how it worked out.  The first time we were there the sea was fairly calm and it was low tide.  Thunder Hole performed pretty well, but we thought that high tide might be more spectacular.  When we returned the second time, the tide was much higher – but Thunder Hole was not as good.  I found that to be an interesting thing.

As I thought about it, I realized that in order to get a really great sound and a good splash, the canyon that I described needs to be almost empty.  If you can get the timing to be just right, so the space in between the swells allows time for the canyon to drain, then the next swell comes in unimpeded.  Therefore it comes in a little faster and hits the hole with some energy still left in the wave.  During the high tide, the canyon was always full of water and the incoming swell had to work its way through all that water before crashing into the hole, and it wasn’t as spectacular.  Low tide was much better.

I think we experience tides in life as well.  We have times of high tide and we have times of low tide.  The scripture I read a few minutes ago was talking about those times of low tide, those times of trial.  But life is a little like Thunder Hole; there are ways in which life is better at low tide.

Calamity has a way of focusing our energies into the few things in our lives that are most important.  If you talk to someone who has had a scare with a loved one, maybe a heart attack or a stroke or a car accident, for example, they will tell you that the rest of the world just stopped, nothing else mattered at that moment.  They may have had a very busy day planned, but all those appointments and all those busy tasks that had to be accomplished, just drained away.  They drained away, just like the canyon at Thunder Hole had to drain – allowing the wave to come in unimpeded – sometimes our lives need to drain away, so we can see what is truly important.  Calamity and trials do that for us.  They help us drain away all the clutter, so we can see what really matters and in that experience we become richer and more complete.

Last week I spent some time talking about meditation and how the practice of meditation can help our minds begin to let go of some of the debris that is stuck in there. I talked about how meditation can at times allow us to move to a new level of spirituality and a new level of focus and a new level of relationship with God. In many ways, calamity can perform the same function. It can move us to a new level and a greater understanding of the things we should be focused on.

I’m not sure that I would go so far as to claim that all calamity should be counted as joy, but from a certain perspective, there is always something to be thankful for. As the old saying goes, there is a silver lining in every dark cloud. This is the truth that I believe lies in this scripture; that in spite of our times of trial, in spite of our times of low tide, we can still be thankful and we can still learn new ideas and new perspectives.

Low tide comes for all of us at one time or the other.  But knowing that in some ways, life is better at low tide may help us through those struggles.  Remember Thunder Hole when the low tide comes.

And that is food for thought. Go in peace and go with God.

Amen.

 

 

Sermon: October 7, 2018 – Getting to a New Level

Getting to a New Level

Text: Romans 8: 26-27

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I remember as a kid vacationing with my family – I’m not even sure where we were – but there were some locks on a river that helped the barge traffic move from one level of the river to the other level of the river.  We gathered at a look out point high above the locks where we could see the ships come in and then be raised to the new level of water behind the dam.  It was a fascinating process and I loved watching the water pour into the compartment that held the ship and remembering being amazed at the power of the water to lift the ship up to the new level.  We also got to see at least one ship move downstream, where it came into the locks at the high level and was lowered easily to the lower, downstream level of the river.  For some reason, this made quite an impression on me – I must have been all of five or six years old – but I still remember the scene.

Last week during the church council meeting we had a brief discussion about spiritual disciplines and how sometimes we need to help each other to remember to pray. Some accountability to one another is often a good thing. I did make a comment however about the idea that you cannot not pray.  In other words, we are communicating at all times with the Divine – everything we say and do and think is all prayer.  If the Divine Spirit resides within us, and is a part of us, then all that we do, all the time, is a form of communication, or prayer, with that Divine Spirit. So the question really becomes one of intentional communication.

This idea of intentional communication brings me to the point where I want to now take a look at meditation.  Meditation in my mind is different from prayer because it is a little like the locks on a river.  Think about this; locks are designed to take you to a different level.  Consider that for a moment….what does it mean to be taken to a different level spiritually?  Have you ever been there?  Can you describe it?  What made you aware that you had arrived at a different level?

I want us to take another look at this idea of the locks on a river.  For the sake of this metaphor, let us consider the external world to be the full side of the river – this is the reservoir behind a dam.  We are full of all the things the world throws at us-all the stress, all the stuff that floats down the river of life collects behind the dam – the dam in our metaphor is our minds, our anxieties, our fears and our thoughts.  Consider all of the financial news or political news or any news for that matter we have received in the past few weeks and visualize all of that information piling up behind a dam in our heads.

The mind is a bit of a dam.  It stops a thought as the thought passes through and tends to analyze the thought.  We hang on to it; we store it away for future reference.  We stop thoughts all the time and we receive information constantly.  Soon, there is a virtual reservoir of stuff built up in our minds.

The spirit level operates outside of the mind.  It is internal to be sure, but it is a completely different level – spirit represents a completely different part of our humanity.  And it is difficult to access – mostly because of our minds – we want to try to reach the spirit level intellectually – and that cannot be done.  In our locks metaphor, the spirit level represents the river of life that flows downstream after the dam; a new level, with new life and energy.

We are the boat.  How does the boat move from high up in the reservoir to down in the downstream river?  The answer is that a boat must move through the locks.  The boat enters the locks that are filled to the same level as the reservoir.  But then as the gates close behind the boat, the water begins to drain from the lock and the boat floats on top of the lowering level of water until it matches the downstream river level.  The gates re-open and the boat is free to move down the river at the new level.  Meditation works like the locks.  We need a process by which we can empty ourselves of all the things our mind has dammed up; there is a great reservoir of thoughts and fears and anxieties and “should haves” that are locked into our heads.  Meditation is the process that allows the emptying of all those things and then brings us to a new level of spirituality.

Let’s take another look at the scripture I read a few minutes ago.  This is the apostle Paul writing to the church in Rome.  Keep in mind that most of the Romans were Greeks and they had Greek Gods.  Greek Gods are powerful and mighty and as a rule not very quiet; Greek Gods are boisterous and rowdy and tend to call a lot of attention to them.  If this is the kind of God you are accustomed to, imagine how hard it was for the Romans to identify with something like the Holy Spirit.  That still, small voice deep within you that helps you connect with the Divine.  I can understand how they could be confused – how is something this quiet, this small actually a God?  Can you hear the questions?

It is important for us to remember that when Paul wrote a letter to a church, like the church in Rome, normally we believe he had been contacted first by the church and had been asked a series of questions.  The letters that we have in our New Testament are the answers to the questions that people asked.

So as we look again at the scripture, we can only imagine what the questions were, but the answer is clear; we don’t even have to pray with words, all we need do is to focus on the Divine and with sighs that are too deep for words, we begin to empty all that has piled up behind the dams of our minds.  That, for me, is meditation.  And when we have found the space to empty a few things, then the Spirit of God fills that space with new ideas, new found excitement and joy, new connectivity to the Spirit and a new understanding of our relationship with God.

All of this is much easier said than done, however.  I will tell you that meditation takes practice and discipline.  To simply be quiet before God can be a difficult task, to shut our minds down and allow the locks to empty and move us to a new level can be difficult, but it can be done.  One way to get started is to simply find a phrase that you can repeat; this helps to keep the mind occupied as you become quiet.  One of the phrases I like to use comes from the prayer of St. Francis; “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”  I can repeat that in my mind, or out loud, perhaps whispering it to myself and I can begin to empty everything else that needs to be cleaned out and allow the Spirit to enter.

When you first begin, you may want to try for only 2 or 3 minutes.  Then move up to 5 minutes and then 10 and then 15 and so on.  It won’t take too long and you will be able to comfortably meditate for 30 minutes or more without any trouble.  Remember, meditation is not talking to God; meditation is making space in your mind so that God can talk to you.

Go in peace, go with God, and go meditate.  Amen.

Sermon: September 30, 2018 – A Form of Attachment

A Form of Attachment

Text: Matthew 10: 34-36

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

 

I don’t know how many dog lovers’ we have here today; I know there are several present, and I certainly would fall into that category as well.  A few years ago there was a program on TV, I think it was on the National Geographic channel, called The Dog Whisperer.  It is about a man named Cesar Milan who really understands dogs; if you have a problem with your dog that seems unsolvable, you can call Cesar and he often can fix the trouble.  What is interesting, however, is that usually the problem isn’t so much with the dog as with the owner.  Cesar claims that he rehabilitates the dogs and he trains the humans.  When we watched some of those episodes of the Dog Whisperer we would try to implement some of what he teaches on the program with our own dog.  Much of what he said actually works very well!

 

One of the things that The Dog Whisperer stresses very often in his show when he is trying to train humans is how important it is to be consistent.  If the human is not consistent, then the dog has no idea what the human really wants or when certain behavior is acceptable or not.  Before you can even begin to think about successfully training your dog, you must first recognize that whatever you do, you must be consistent.  Consistency is the key to a great relationship with your dog.  Consistency is foundational; it is what everything else builds upon.

 

Now I want to ask a very important question; if consistency is so important between a human and a dog, how much more important is consistency between a human and God?  If inconsistency confuses a dog, how much more confused are we as humans when God appears inconsistent?  If consistency is foundational for a dog, is not consistency also foundational for a human?  Is not our entire faith built upon some things that we consider to be consistent about God?

 

So what happens when we find inconsistencies?  What happens when we encounter a text like the one I read a few minutes ago? What are we to think about things like this?  My guess is that we never actually engage the tough texts, we sort of just look the other way, and we remain confused and delusional as a result.  Until we understand a little bit about some of these tougher texts, it will be impossible for you to develop a true relationship with the Divine.  I don’t believe it is possible to have true faith and trust in a God that demonstrates inconsistencies; for one thing, you are never certain of which God will show up when you ask for help!

 

I believe there are certain texts in both the Old and New Testaments that severely undermine our ability to have a true and trusting relationship with God.  So if a relationship is what we seek, then we must find a way to work past a few of these texts.

 

For example, compare the text that I read a few minutes ago with another one found in the same Gospel of Matthew; just a few pages away in Chapter 5, beginning with verse 43, we can find these words:

 

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

 

So how can we be told to love our enemies and also be told that some of our foes will be from our own family?  Loving your enemies brings peace, and yet the other scripture begins with the words; “Do not think I have come to bring peace, ….I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…”  Let me get this straight; the Prince of Peace has not come to bring peace?  Say what?

Just in case you think I’m overreacting, allow me to share just one other scripture with you.  This one comes from Deuteronomy…chapter 21, beginning with verse 18.

 

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

 

I’m hoping it is not necessary for me to point out all the ways this scripture is inconsistent with the image of God most of us hold.

 

My purpose today is not to convince you that there are gross inconsistencies within the Bible; most of us already know that in one way or the other.  We are just afraid to admit it or to think about it in that way.  My purpose today is to help you let go of that attachment. Remember when I said that a strong relationship with the Divine makes it necessary to work through some of those tougher texts? Well, if you can’t interpret them in a new way, then we have to learn how to let go of them. But that part is hard; that is why I call it an attachment.

 

For some of you, that may be a new way of using the word ‘attachment’ – you have never thought about yourself as being attached to something like an idea or a concept or a belief.  But attachment to those things happens to all of us, and learning to let go of our attachments is the greatest single thing we can learn that will move us toward a place of personal peace.  It is the greatest thing we can learn that will move us closer to God.  It is also about the only thing we can learn to do that will create a consistent image of God for us; and that is fundamental. Learning to let go of our attachments makes room for new possibilities and new experiences to enter our lives.

 

There is something else we need to know about attachments; almost every conflict that has ever existed, either in your own life or the lives of others, is because of attachment.  The conflict results when we encounter our own inability to let go of that attachment.  Some attachments are more important to us than others, some we can let go of easily, others are more difficult.

 

For example, in the 19th century in this country, most of the Southern states had an attachment to slavery.  This was an attachment that was difficult to let go of; the resulting conflict was what we call the Civil War. Brother was willing to kill brother rather than let go of that attachment.

 

Not every attachment we have is as huge or as volatile as slavery.  We can be attached to some things that are much more mundane, but still have the potential to create great pain in our lives.  If you examine the things that you think are creating pain in your life, chances are good that the pain can be traced back to an attachment you are having trouble letting go of.

 

There are many, many attachments that we could talk about.  Today, however, I wanted to talk about just one attachment; most of us, because we have grown up in the church and have been raised in a predominantly Christian nation, have an attachment to the Bible being right.  You might not have ever thought about it that way, but it is true; we are attached to the idea of the Bible being right – and when the Bible is wrong; it creates conflict, because we cannot let go of that attachment.

 

I ask you to just think about that for one minute.  All of the preposterous things that come out of religious circles in the Christian faith tradition can be traced back to that one attachment.  People would rather deny science than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  People would rather oppress women than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  People would rather fight wars than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  People would rather continue oppressive attitudes toward the LGBTQ community than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.  In some cases, people would rather die, than let go of their attachment to the Bible being right.

 

If you find the inconsistencies in the Bible troubling, it is because you are attached to the idea that the Bible must be right.  If you have found this sermon challenging, it is because you are attached to the idea that the Bible must be right.  If when you read something in the Bible that didn’t make sense, and you said to yourself; “that must not be what it means, I just don’t understand it”…then you have an attachment to the Bible being right.

 

Recognizing the attachment is step one, and then moving to a place where you can allow yourself to let go of that attachment is step two.  Can you let go?  True peace awaits if you can.

 

Go in peace, and go with God.  Amen.