Monday, September 18, 2006

09/17/06, Sermon

Here’s how it works: We cooperate. We harmonize. We align. We adjust. We negotiate. We take the raw materials of our lives, such as they are, and make what we can make of them. We take the givens and do what we can with them. We wake up, see into the heart of things, and live toward what is truly important in every moment, no matter how little difference that seems to make, no matter what.

We don’t quit because it’s hopeless. Hope is not optimistic. Hope doesn’t care what it’s chances are. Hope does what it has to do “anyway, nevertheless, even so.” Hope believes in the value of what it’s doing no matter what. Hope does what is good, and goes on doing what is good, whether it does any good or not. Hope lives as life is supposed to be lived, even though life may never be lived that way on a broad scale. Hope burns brightly because hope burns brightly, and not because it hopes to get rid of the darkness. Hope doesn’t hope for anything. Hope just is. Like life itself.

Hope is life refusing to succumb to “the facts of life.” Hope is life living on, in spite of the odds, regardless of the consequences, whatever the circumstances. Hope is life doing what it does. Where there is hope, there is life; not just 98.6 and breathing life, but life in the fullest, deepest, most vibrant and vital sense of the term. Where there is life, like that, there is hope. The two cannot be separated. The two are one. We live to be alive, in the fullest, deepest, most vibrant, and vital, sense of the term. We live, faithfully, hopefully, lovingly, no matter what.

Here’s how it works: Love loves knowing exactly what it is doing, exactly what the deal is. Love loves with its eyes wide open, taking in everything, missing nothing, and loving “anyway, nevertheless, even so.” Love is beautiful that way. It’s the best thing about us. The next best things about us are faith and hope. Hope lives hopefully, lovingly, faithfully, no matter what. Hope does what it does whether it stands a chance or not, because that’s the way hope is. Same for faith. We do the faithful thing, even when we don’t stand a chance. We are true to ourselves, true to the best we can imagine, true to that which is deepest, truest and best about us, no matter what. All three of these babies are reflected in the life and death of Jesus, who went straight to the cross exhibiting the best of faith, hope, and love. Not hesitating. Not missing a beat. And, knowing exactly what the deal was. Not fooling himself a minute about the possibility of “roses, rainbows and white picket fences.”

The life we have is the life we have. The spiritual task is to live the life we have to live and not some other, bigger, finer, more fun life which we wish we had. “Here’s your life,” says the Life Giver, “See what you can do with it.” We can waste a lot of time trying to do more than can be done with it, trying to do what we wish we could do with it.

We have our aspirations and our desires. We have our dreams and our ambitions. We have our ideas of how our life ought to be. We want to be a writer, for instance, but we don’t spend any time actually writing. We’ve never written anything. We don’t even like to write. Or read, for that matter. But, we have the idea that being a writer would be quite the thing, and maybe, if we could just move to New York, where all the real writers live, we could be a writer like them. At least, we could hang out with them, and that would be almost as good as being one of them. And, we hate all the things about our lives that keep us from moving to New York, and having it made.

We miss the point. The point is the difference between a tool and a prop. The difference between striking a pose and living a life. The difference between a snappy fa├žade and depth of soul. The point is who we show ourselves to be through the process of living our lives.
We want to be thought well of. Writers are thought well of. We want to be a writer. People in the National Honor Society are thought well of. We want to be in the National Honor Society. And we will cheat on exams to make the grades necessary to be invited to join. We hate these old lives, because these old lives cannot possibly bring us the respect and honor we so desperately seek. We live looking for props and do not understand the importance of tools.

Here’s how it works: What do we think enlightenment does for us? Do we think it will line up the stars and planets in our behalf and deliver unto us the everlasting favor of God? Or, to use the language of the church of our experience, what do we think doing God’s will does for us? Do we think it will position us for prosperity and success in this life and eternal rewards in the world to come? Rick Warren, of The Purpose Driven Life fame, thinks the purpose of our lives here and now is to prepare us for eternity by stocking up points and getting us to heaven when we die. Here’s what I think: It isn’t about getting anything. Not even heaven. Enlightenment doesn’t get us anything. Doing God’s will doesn’t get us anything. We aren’t in it for what we can get out of it. For what we have to show for it.

Here’s how it works: Laurie O’Neal loves digging in the ground, planting things, growing gardens. Clara Kelly loves weaving garments and shawls and things to wear. Melanie Bassett loves painting and drawing and teaching children and adults to paint and draw. Jim Ritchey loves writing songs and teaching others to write songs. I love to walk through scenes taking photographs. What do any of us have to show for it? Next to nothing, the culture would say. Why are you wasting your time, the culture would ask. Why don’t you move to New York, the culture would wonder, and become a writer.

You see the problem. We live in a land that strips us of ourselves, that robs us of our soul, that takes our heart away from us, and gives us an image to polish and maintain. We live in a land that makes it clear from the start that we are not good enough as we are—that tells us from the beginning who, and how, we ought to be, and what we ought to do, in order to have it made. We live in a land that hands us its idea of success and shames us for not measuring up, for coming up short, for not trying hard enough, for not making something of ourselves.

Here’s how it works: Each of us has to find for herself, for himself, the balance point between making a living and having a life. We cannot be seduced by the cultural proposition that success and happiness are only the next major purchase, only the next acquisition, only the next achievement, only the next accomplishment, away. We have to understand what enlightenment does for us—it gives us ourselves. It reconnects us with ourselves. It introduces us to ourselves. It invites, and enables, us to be who we are—to be true to ourselves—within the context and circumstances and conditions of our lives.

Claude AnShin Thomas said, when he was with us a week or so ago, “Nothing is more important that participation in a community of like-minded open-minded people without a need to indoctrinate, or inculcate, or convert the world to their way of thinking.” That kind of community grants us the freedom to find our own way. What is enlightenment but finding our own way—finding the way that is truly our way? What is enlightenment but waking up to who we are? What is enlightenment but living as who we are, where we are, when we are, how we are, why we are, what we are? What does enlightenment do for us beyond connecting us with our own hearts, and selves, and souls, and psyches? What does enlightenment do for us beyond enabling us to live lives aligned with who we are? What is there beyond living as fully integrated selves in the world?

Here’s how it works: In the Star Wars epic, Yoda is a high advanced spiritual being who lives in a hole in the ground. What do you need to be who you are? What is the difference between a prop and a tool? Or, to come at it another way, writing makes a writer, not living in New York, not even being published. What keeps you from writing? What do you need in order to write?
Here’s how it works: “What I do is me,” says Gerard Manly Hopkins, “for that I came.” What is the context, what are the circumstances and conditions of our lives that prevent us from being who we are? That are toxic to ourselves, poisonous to our souls, destructive to our spirits, lethal to our hearts, death to our lives?

To integrate our lives, we have to slow down and be mindfully aware of the moment, of the pulls and conflicts, the inclinations and resistances at work upon us and within us in the moment. We have to bear the pain of the moment, seeing, hearing, and understanding what is going on in the moment. And decide what we will do in light of our best guess regarding what is truly important.

What will we do? How shall we live? What do we hope to achieve with our actions? Who, and how, are we? What do we need to be who, and how, we are? What assists us? Inhibits us? What keeps us from living a life aligned with our best guess regarding what is truly important?
If we are trying to see, hear, and understand, we will live differently than if we are trying to get something, or keep something from happening. Seeing and hearing and understanding is different from having, possessing, acquiring, owning, keeping, maintaining and amassing. What are the tools of perception? What do we need, to know? How must we live in order to see, hear, and understand? We change the nature of the game when what we want from playing is to see, hear, and understand—and to live as those who do.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

09/10/06, Sermon

What are we about? Where do we start? I think we are about the creation of a fully integrated life. I think we start here, now. What’s the first step? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. What do we practice? Awareness, awareness, awareness. We practice being aware of how things are, and how things also are—of what is true about us and what is also true about us. We practice being aware of our dichotomies and contradictions. Our fears, hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and how those things conflict with each other to keep us frustrated and stymied. We practice being aware of our star side and our shadow. And we do that in the company of the right kind of people. We practice being the right kind of people. And we change the world.

Where are we going to go—what are we going to do—to have a greater impact than the one we make on this moment, right now? Today is the day of salvation, and this is the moment of redemption and transformation. The time is at hand. How we live here, now, is the pivotal event that shifts the future toward the good, or away from it. The present moment is where we act to influence everything that follows. We cannot think that nothing we do matters. Everything we do matters. The world—and our world—is what it is because of everything that has been done up to this point. “This” is the culmination of “that.” Change any of “that” and something of “this” changes. There are no throw-away moments. There is no time to waste—no time that can be wasted. We must use every moment.

The time required to change the world is the time required to change the world. How do you shorten the time it takes to see, to hear, to understand? How do you hurry the river? Hit it with a stick? Yell at it? Threaten it? How do you speed things up? How do you get it done by nightfall, or by the end of the week? What’s the deal with a time limit? Time is our most important ally. We cannot throw time away. We must use all the time it takes.

We think we are saving time when we figure a way to reduce the amount of time it takes to accomplish a task. If we can multitask and do more in the same amount of time, we are proud of ourselves. How to get more done in less time is the great American mission. Another view is that we waste time when we hurry things along. We lose the luxury of the moment. And, we never have any time, or know what time it is.

Wasting time, in this sense, means misusing time, failing to appreciate time, not knowing the time of our visitation, the time of our living, the moment in which we “live and move and have our being.” We think knowing what time it is means knowing where we are on the clock. Is it 2 pm or 4 pm? Knowing what time it is has nothing to do with the clock or the calendar. It has everything to do with the moment in which we are alive and what the moment is calling for—what it is time for right now. We waste time when we don’t know what time it is, when we don’t know what this moment is ripe for, when we don’t enjoy the luxury of the moment.

What is time for? Getting things done, right? What do we get done? Whatever the Plan calls for, right? Who does the Plan serve? Us, right? Whatever we want, desire, need for ourselves and/or others, right? The Plan reflects our purposes, our goals, our dreams, our wishes, our hopes, our sense of the good. And whose good is served by the good we serve? Whose ends are realized by the Plan we effect? What is time for? US, right?

What are WE for? Pretend that we are here to serve a good beyond our good. Pretend that we are here for time’s good pleasure. Pretend that time is not something we use to get our things done, but something that uses us to get its things done. Pretend that time has something in mind. Or, that something beyond time has something in mind and that time and we are the tools, the raw material, for effecting its good in the world. From this standpoint, time becomes something to explore, investigate, apprehend, listen to, wait for, see, hear, and understand.

What is struggling to come to life in the time that is upon us? What is being asked of us in the moment at hand? What is it time for now? How do we apportion a day? Divide up a day? How does that best serve the interest of the day? In what ways does that make us available to the day? Do we serve the day, or does the day serve us? How often during a day do we use the time that is ours to see, hear, and understand what is before us, what is being asked of us? Where, during the day, do we assess the day—not in terms of the extent to which it is “going our way,” but the extent to which we are in touch with the day, bringing to life in the day, birthing in the day, the day’s own desires for itself? What is being blocked, resisted? What is opening up before us? What are we being invited to do, to be aware of? What is permitted, allowed? Where is the flow of the day, of our life, taking us? How can we assist that flow and cooperate with it? We waste time when we fail to ask these kinds of questions, when we do not take the time to see, and hear, and understand.

There is more to life than meets the eye. There is more to life than living would lead us to believe. The time is at hand in which to wake up and be alive—to be awake and alive to the moment of our living—to see, and hear, and understand, and live aligned with what is being asked of us by the times in which we live. Even if it’s messy.

It’s going to be messy. You know how the church of our experience was anything but messy? In the Presbyterian system things are done “decently and in order.” Things are done in a similar fashion in every other denomination. Nothing can happen without passing in review before committees, and boards, and the pillars of the church. Everybody has to approve of everything or nothing is done, and the only things that are ever done are the things that have always been done. Well, this is not going to be anything like that.

We don’t have time, for one thing. If we are going to transform ourselves in our life time, we have to get to work. We can’t wait for a committee to meet in two weeks, if everyone is in town, and talk about what to do for three months before recommending something to the Session who will talk about it for two more months before referring it back to the committee for further review. Starving ourselves would be a faster way to die. If we are going to practice being aware of what is true and what is also true—if we are going to practice being the right kind of company—we have to get cracking. Some of us are into the end game. We can’t wait around on everybody else.

So, here’s the deal. We take Sundays and use them to do the work of fully integrating our lives, of being aware, of being the right kind of company. At 10:30, we break for fifteen or twenty minutes, and settle out into different groups, with no group needing to be large, and each group meeting as long as it needed to meet in order to do what it has to do. Julie Lapham might teach Meditation 101 in the parlor; Jean Daily might teach Organic Cooking 101 in the kitchen; Cacky Barefoot might lead a Yoga class in the library; Jane Walter or Joyce Mckenzie might lead a Circle of Trust in a classroom on the second floor; Bill Hamilton might lead a group in Lectio Divina using the Tao Te Ching in another classroom; Jim Ritchey might teach songwriting in another classroom… You get the idea. Maybe that happens one Sunday a month, maybe two. And, we let the 11:00 o’clock service become one of the alternatives. An “open-minded liturgical service.” No one knows how this “should” work. We feel our way into it.

And, maybe once a month, we take the show on the road. To, say, east Greensboro. Marilyn Brooks says people in east Greensboro always have to come into west Greensboro to do any work on race relations. Well, we can change that trend. Rent space. Use the Y. Or a room at A & T, or Bennett College. Advertise our presence. See who comes. Why not?

Well, of course, there are a million reasons why not. We would be disrupting the power structure, for one thing. Infringing on the territory of established religious groups. Of course, the established religious groups are only reaching who they are reaching, and we would be appealing to a different crowd, but we would likely be perceived as intruding, and that might be a problem.
And, then, there is that business about all of you getting lost trying to find A & T, or the Y, or Bennett College, and not knowing where to park, or how to get into the building, and your anxiety level would skyrocket, and you would choose to stay in bed that day, because if there is anything we can’t stand it’s getting out of our routine, it’s change, it’s a mess. Oh, please won’t you give us the church of our experience? With all that wonderful order? And structure? And nothing ever happening?

So. Do you want to be the church? Or strike a pose? Things are the way they are for a reason, you know. Actually, you know I think nothing happens for a reason. But, then some things actually DO happen for a reason. It is no accident that some things are the way they are. And, the reason they are the way they are is that it is easier and cheaper for them to be that way! The church of our experience is the way it is because things are safer that way. We may complain about the wearisome structure and the “Blah, blah, blah,” but, you have to admit, it doesn’t ask anything of us. We can worship in the church of our experience and never once have to worry about integrating our lives, or encountering discrepancies and dichotomies, or being the right kind of company. Perhaps, we should reconsider our relationship with it, let bygones be bygones, and stand and sit until we die. If we follow out the path of opposition, there could be trouble. You know what happened to Jesus.

Maybe we could just have our picture taken standing next to the cross. That would be better than actually bearing it, than actually paying the price to be who we say we are, than actually doing the work of living fully integrated lives, and being aware, and being the right kind of company. Maybe it would be smart to wait until we know what we are doing before we challenge the systems that structure our lives and keep us safe and protect us from all of the things that might happen if we do something that has never been done. Maybe we could form a committee. Have them conduct a study, and make a recommendation for someone else to consider, after those of us who have entered the End Game have been laid to rest and won’t have to worry about it.