Monday, November 27, 2006

11/26/06, Sermon

There is one thing about you that is true, no matter who you are or what your name is. You don’t get enough cooperation. They aren’t lining up out there, asking what they can do to be of help, and how they can make life easier for you. We come here out of lives that seem to be intent on doing us in. And, it’s up to us to deal with it. If we didn’t have a spiritual side, it would be all over. If it were just about physical reserves and resources, we wouldn’t have a chance.

There is no immunity against the unwanted. We cannot be smart enough to outwit disappointment, and heartache, and betrayal, and failure. The skill of life has nothing to do with dodging the wrecking ball. It has everything to do with accommodating ourselves to the unacceptable. The people who seem to be Teflon-coated have a knack for telling themselves the kind of thing that enables them to live on in the aftermath of the unraveling of their lives, the destruction of their dreams.

Nothing can happen to us that we can’t make better or worse by the way we respond to it. We have the power of life over our lives, over what life can do to us. The choice of life is the fundamental choice. We are not necessarily alive just because we are 98.6 and breathing. Being alive is a spiritual experience. Life is the spiritual quest. The spiritual journey is the distance from where we are to where we have to be to be fully alive, fully awake, fully aware, fully ourselves, fully human. What do we need to be alive, is the question. It isn’t what we generally think.

We generally think we can’t be alive, happy, content, at peace until we get things lined up and in place. And, since something is always coming along to upset our scheme, we are always upset. The people who are alive, take the next upsetting event in stride, accommodate themselves to the unacceptable, “let be what is,” and live on “anyway, nevertheless, even so.” The work is adjusting ourselves to what must be done “now,” in light of what is happening in our lives and in the world. The spiritual task is the work of adjustment and accommodation.

It is the work of working with what we have to work with to make what can be made there. The spiritual task is the work of bringing life to life in the world. Life is not what we find in the world. Life is our gift to the world. Well. That’s easy to say. Hard to do. Practically impossible to do. Because we keep losing the way and thinking that having our way, getting our way, IS the way. Our lives, too often, come down to a battle of wills, with us trying to will what cannot be willed within circumstances that don’t seem at all interested in what is good for us or what we want. How do we go on living when living takes the life right out of us? That is the question at the heart of life. Answering the question is the essence of spiritual discipline, of spiritual practice.

The only thing between us and the world is our spiritual practice. Spiritual practice provides us with the perspective required to do the work of bringing life to life in the world. We do not live easily, lightly, in the world. The world is a mine field, a store house of booby traps and time bombs waiting to explode. Something precious is always going up in smoke. It is not a place for the tender and the timid. Even the toughest are traumatized by life in this world. And, being vigilant and on guard only makes us anxious before we have anything to worry about. We cannot avoid the experience of grief, loss and sorrow. But we can live in the world as it is as those who are alive, as those who bring life to life again and again, because this is the only world there is, and if we aren’t going to live here, we aren’t going to live at all. We do it through the agency of spiritual discipline, of spiritual practice.

Life is a spiritual discipline when lived with intention and integrity (Integrity has nothing to do with morality. Integrity is being true to yourself within the context and circumstances of your life—being who you are, where you are, when you are, how you are, without cutting yourself off from others or the rest of your life. Just try that, if you dare, and see how long you last! It is the essential spiritual practice.). Being fully, truly, alive is a spiritual practice. So is silence, and meditation, and patience, and acceptance, and awareness, and mindfulness, and attention, and breathing, and walking, and washing the dishes… Everything is a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice when done in the right spirit, with the right attitude—when done in the spirit, with the attitude, of complete openness to the all-ness of the moment of our living.

The only thing standing between us and this kind of openness to the moment of our living is us. Our ideas for the moment—about the moment—interfere with our being open to the moment. We keep looking for the door that will open to our dream life or allow us to escape from life. We want the answer, or the exit, the way to glory or the way out. We look for the door that will permit us to leave this world for some other, better world. But we are the door we seek. We open the door of consciousness, of awareness, of mindfulness—we open ourselves—to the full experience of life as it is.

The experience of the experience of life is the primary spiritual practice. It all begins with the awareness of what is, with the openness to the moment of our living. And, if that awareness, that openness, is blocked by fear, or anger, or emotional or physical pain, then the focus becomes being aware of that, being open to that. The goal, then, is to experience fully our inability to experience life as it is. We open the door of our consciousness to the full experience of whatever is most pressing in the moment. And, if we don’t know what that is, we simply sit, silently waiting, looking past the routine mind clutter, watching for the major angst to appear.

Or, we listen to our bodies. The body always knows. Nothing is hidden from our body. We can fill our minds with the 10,000 things and keep our attention forever away from what it is that needs to be attended, but our bodies are not distracted. Our bodies bear the truth. When mind begins to listen to body, things begin to stir. Sometimes, awful things. And, it can be good to have a therapist within reach, or, a therapeutic presence. It is asking too much to think we should be able to face the awful things alone. Opening the door of consciousness is not a solitary undertaking. It takes a community awaken us and bring us to life.

“Nothing is to be unconsciously done.” How’s that for a “Rule of St. Benedict”? For a way of agreeing how to proceed together? “Everything is gleaned for its gift, for its ability to disclose, reveal, unveil, enlighten.” We process everything. We think about everything. We sit before everything, waiting to see, waiting to be shown, waiting for the depths to be made visible. We mine everything for the gold. Consciousness, awareness, is the Philosopher’s Stone, turning base metal, turning raw experience, into precious stone, into the stuff of life, and light, and peace. We are Alchemists of the soul, of the spirit, wandering along the way in search of truth. The essential truth is the truth of who we are, the truth of what we are about and how we bring that to bear on the circumstances of our lives. Finding that, embracing that, expressing that is the sum total of the spiritual quest.

And it takes us all to do it. Spiritual practice is essential, but not enough. It takes participation in a spiritual community to bring life to life in the world. Participation in the right kind of community IS spiritual practice! The right kind of community is a nursery of sorts, nurturing us to life, helping us to find, to form, the perspective necessary for dealing with the realities of life in the world, helping us to process the impact of those realities, waking us up, enabling us to be aware and alive, keeping us company, and reminding us of what is, and is not, essential to our being, and to being human in the world.

The right kind of community listens us to life in the world, opening us to the experience of our experience and helping us toward the perspective that is the foundation of life, and light, and peace. The community brings us to life by insulating us against the hard realities of life in the world. By listening to us as we process our experience with those realities, and by reminding us of the larger reality of life beyond the realities of life in the world. There is more to life than living would lead us to believe. It is the work of the right kind of community to connect us with the more, and to bring us to life in the midst of the worst that life can do.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

11/19/06, Sermon

Charlie Hawes says that when he was the Episcopal Campus Minister at UNCG, he would occasionally go for lunch at the cafeteria, and in that huge dining hall, there would be in one area, tables with athletes eating together, in another area, there would be people from the Psychology Department eating together, in another area, black students would be gathered, eating, in another area, art majors would be gathered, eating. All over the dinning hall, groups of people would be collecting around common interests. All of the people there would have a connection with the university. All of the people there would share a common experience of being hungry. Yet, within their larger identity, they would be eating with, and talking to, people with whom they shared a more intimate bonding.

None of the groups gathered for lunch ever tried to, or probably even thought of, expelling any of the other groups because the other groups weren’t their kind. Because they were sinners and shouldn’t be allowed to eat in a dining room with the chosen ones of God. The Psychology Department never rose up against the Music Department. The Athletic Department never challenged the English Department about its right to be in the lunch room, or a part of the University. All the people in the room, and all the departments within the university, recognized the right of the other people to be in the room, and the right of the other departments to be a part of the school. And, no one ever tried to get them all “together,” to eat around the same table, to take the same classes, to agree about the same principles, and be of one mind about everything pertaining to life on campus.

This past week North Carolina Baptists said you can’t be Baptist and gay. Said you can’t be a Baptist church in the North Carolina system and have a gay member in your church. Said, in a manner of speaking, if you have long hair, or a tattoo, or a nose ring, you can’t eat in the dining room. Said, in a manner of speaking, if you don’t take the oath and swear to be like the rest of us, and look like the rest of us, and talk like the rest of us, and act like the rest of us, you don’t belong in the lunch line.

This morning, we have baptized a gay woman, and welcomed her and her partner into the membership of the congregation. The timing is one of those coincidents of life that make you think, “This couldn’t possibly be coincidental. Some Higher Power, with nothing better to do, like ending the war in Iraq, or waking the Bush administration up to what is decent, and loving, and just, and good, must have arranged the baptism for this particular Sunday as an expression of Christian irony and to give Jim something to say.” It is the nature of coincidence that it couldn’t possibly be coincidental. That is what coincidence means. Very low likelihood.

But, back to the point. You couldn’t ask for a better arrangement of the extremes in one week than here, with what the Baptists have done and we are doing. The question the arrangement brings up for me doesn’t have as much to do with gay rights as it does with how we are going to eat together in the same room. We all claim to be Christian, but the Baptists say to the homosexuals, “You can’t be Christian and act like that!”, and we are tempted to say to the Baptists, “You can’t be Christian and act like THAT!”

The question is how can the church be more like a college dining hall and less like an exclusive club for members like us only. How can we create the church as it ought to be without implying that it is restricted to people who think, and believe, and act as we do? How can we bring ourselves into focus, clearly defining who we are and what we are about, knowing what we stand for and what we stand against, without cutting ourselves off from, or thinking that we are superior to or better than, those who are different from us? How can we believe what we believe and make room in the dining room for opposite beliefs? How can we be truly inclusive, open-minded and home for all souls?

Through-out the history of the religion, proponents have declared that, in order to be a member of the religion, in order to be Christian, people have to behave and believe in certain ways. There are Presbyterians this very moment in this very town who can be overheard saying (like their Baptist counterparts), “You can’t belong to the church of Jesus Christ and be gay, or ordain those who are gay to office in the church.”

And, at the same time, through-out the history of the religion, there have been those who have followed Paul’s lead in saying, in effect, that at the Communion Table, and in the church, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Or that, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…Indeed, the body does not consist of one member, but of many. If the food would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And, if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be. If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? …If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:12-31, portions). The work of the church is working out what it means to be different and together.

Being “one in the Lord” is a lot like being a student at UNCG. Students at UNCG are all over the place in their beliefs and behavior, but they are all students at UNCG. They eat together in the same dining hall but they don’t think alike. How much uniformity does the church require? How much diversity can it tolerate? How different can we be and still be the church? We have to see to it that we can be very different!

When Claude Ashin Thomas was here, he talked about the importance of belonging to a community of like-minded people. It takes a community of like-minded people to ground us in our own sense of value, and form our identity, and develop our perspective, and bring to consciousness, into awareness, who we are and what we are about—as long as that community listens with compassion and acceptance and understanding to us, and grants us the room, and the permission, to say who we are and what we are about, even if that is contrary to ideals and ways of the community. Like-minded-ness is not agreement, is not mindlessness, is not thoughtlessness, is not blindly following the leader, is not walking in step, is not reading from the same script, is not wearing the same clothes (And so, Vance Arnold’s warning about those red shoes!), is not becoming invisible and indistinguishable from everybody else in the room.

Like-minded-ness is about what holds us together as a community. It is, simply put, our granting one another the right to see what we see, and say what we see, and live in light of what we see without imposing our views on anyone else. We are like-minded about our freedom to see whatever we see, however we see. The right kind of community guards the right of individuals making up the community to be true to themselves, to their perspective, to their sense of the good. Yet, at the same time, the perspectives of the individuals making up the community shape the community, define the community, and create the community identity. And, the more narrowly the community is defined by the perspectives of its members, the fewer members it will have. Narrow perspectives are self-limiting and communities, even the right kind of communities, are forever limited by the perspectives of their members. How to be inclusive, open-minded, and home for a wide variety of souls is always the essential question with which the right kind of community constantly wrestles.

How do we define ourselves without becoming so narrow that we become radical extremists who are no more inclusive than the North Carolina Baptists? What are the safeguards against exclusive-ism? The new bumper sticker on the rear table reads: “Coexist,” written in the symbols of various religions and positions on various issues. How do we do that? How do we respect one another in our different-ness? How do we all eat together in the same dining room?

I think two things are required: consciousness and confession. We have to be mindfully aware of the times and places and ways we cut ourselves off from others in defining ourselves. We have to be clear about who we are without dishonoring other people for being who they are. We have to catch ourselves in the act of presuming that we are the way, the truth and the life, and that no one can come into the kingdom without doing it the way we do it, believing the way we believe, thinking the way we think, and calling good what we call good, and calling evil what we call evil. And we have to confess our failure to respect and honor all people, and live humbly, with compassion and justice toward all living things, while remaining true to our selves and our own values. It is the hardest thing there is. And so, the cross exists before us as a reminder of the price we pay to be inclusive, open-minded, and home for all souls.