Sunday, March 30, 2008

03/30/08, Sermon

I don’t have anything to say to you IF you are listening to yourselves! My hunch is that you are not listening to yourselves. It’s too hard. It’s too much work. You have other things on your mind. It takes too much time. It gets in your way. Besides. You tried it once, with your first marriage. Once burned, twice shy. Never again. You all are quite happy having someone else tell you what to do.

That’s the very orientation that got the church of our experience into such bad shape. The church (the broader church, the people who are the church) has always known, in some sense, on some level, what was right, what needed to be done. And that church has always been overpowered by the Strong Voice of Conviction and Certitude announcing what was correct.

What is going on here? What makes it easy for us to be led by leaders, like the Emperor who wore no clothes, who don’t know what they are doing or where they are going, but don’t know that they don’t know? We cannot blame them. They all have a constituency that makes it possible for them to be who they are. A constituency that is quite happy to be told what to do. A constituency that doesn’t want the responsibility of making their own choices and solving their own problems. Say what you want to about George Bush, but he was elected twice, by close enough to half of those who voted to enable him to steal the election once, and, both times, by people who wanted someone to save them from their fears.

Our fears are our limitations. Not that fear is a limitation. Our limitations are what we fear. The monsters that terrorize us are our limitations, our inadequacies, our deficiencies. The things we want to be saved from are our limitations. We don’t want to listen to ourselves because we are afraid of our own limitations. We want someone to tell us that we have nothing to be afraid of (with him, or, perhaps, her, in charge of your life). “Elect me as your president, your king, your god, and you will have nothing to fear. I will remove all limitations, and you can be anything you want to be!”

Doing what we want is another way to not listen to our own voices, because we can want what we have no business having. We do what we want until we don’t want to do that any more and then we do something else we want. And call that living. It isn’t living. It’s wanting. All of the modern gurus begin with the question, “What do you want?” “What do you want, Little Girl? What do you want, Little Boy?” It could be the witch’s crooning to Hansel and Gretel. “Come in, come in, buy this book, and this CD, and I will tell you how to have everything your heart desires.” We want to live without limits and have everything our heart desires.

If I’m reading the reaction to the flying pig story correctly, we refuse to accept the idea that we have any limitations! No limitations! No boundaries! Pigs CAN fly, and we can do anything we want! We can have the world of our dreams! We can manifest the destiny we have in mind for ourselves (What kind of destiny is that?)! We only have to dream it into being! And, of course, there are plenty of people who tell us exactly what we want to hear.

There are guides and gurus everywhere. We are surrounded by those who tell us we can have what we want by doing it their way. They know the way to our dreams for ourselves (Don’t you think that’s interesting? Our dreams, their way? Who’s kidding whom, here?) The self-help section of any bookstore is brimming with advise on how to have what we want, and realize our dreams, and make our wishes real—if we do what we are told. Same old, same old. We’ve been here before. Really now. What is the value of jettisoning the church of our experience if we are just going to exchange one set of doctrines for another, embrace someone else’s Gospel Truth, memorize someone else’s creed?

Are we going to think for ourselves, or not? Are we going to face our own fears, or not? Are we going to confront the monsters that leap out at us from our own limitations, or not? Well, Not! We do not go easily into that darkness alone. We gather about us ideas, concepts, beliefs, doctrines, creeds, formulas, clichés, platitudes, and opinions to save ourselves from dreadful encounters with the unknown. We clutch tightly the hand of those who are glad to tell us what to think and how to live, and are happy to “walk in borrowed light,” so as to save ourselves the pain of self-discovery.

The pain of self-discovery is the realization that the life our self has in mind for us is not the life we have in mind for ourselves. We cannot live any old way and live the life that is ours to live. The essential realization is “I Am Therefore, I Must.” Doing is a function of Being. Being expresses itself, realizes itself, exhibits itself, affirms itself, incarnates itself, brings itself forth, in Doing. You have heard the phrase, “I am a human being, not a human doing,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. A human being IS a human doing—a human being doing what must be done.

We are back to Gerard Manly Hopkin’s line, “What I do is me, for that I came.” Our being is made manifest in our doing. We live as much to do as to be. We live to be and do. The closer we come to the I AM, the more fully our actions are in accord with our being, the more aligned our lives are with our heart-soul-self, the more transparent we become, the more apparent, revealed, disclosed we are in the things we do, the more at-one we are with that which is deepest, best and truest about us, the more at-one we are with God, so that “I am who I am,” can be said of all of us, and we can say, along with Jesus, “The Father and I are one.”

We are not defined by our wants, but by our musts. What are the things we MUST do, the things we have to do, the things we cannot leave undone and be who we are? It doesn’t have to be much. It probably won’t be much. It is not likely that it will pay the bills or put food on the table. It may be digging in the dirt. Or watching birds. Or writing poetry (Just try selling poems on the street corners!). Or working with the homeless, the hungry, the poor… What are the things we must tend to, the things we cannot leave undone? When we know these things, we are close to the things of soul, the things of heart, the things that are most truly US. The problem is, of course, that our wants and our shoulds easily over-ride our musts.

Nothing is easier than talking ourselves out of the things we must do. “Don’t be silly. It’s a waste of time. You can’t make any money that way. You can’t do that and pay the bills. You’re throwing your life away. You won’t have any friends. What would your Father (Mother) say? Scandal! Outrage! Shame! Forget it!” But, we pay a price when we turn aside from what we must do, and walk away from the work of soul, no matter how trivial it might seem. Then, soul shrivels, and we die. And, we become nothing more than ferocious appetites living in the service of I Want—or, lifeless drones living as dutiful servants of I Should!

Where is Ego in all of this? Sound asleep at the wheel! Ego has to wake up, be aware, pay attention, come to our rescue, understand what is at stake, make better choices, start listening to our heart-soul-self, to the part of ourselves that knows what we must do to be who we are, and say to I Want and I Should “I Will do what I Must so as to be who I Am.”

Here is a psychic map for you: There is the “I Want”—Freud’s Id. The “I Should”—Freud’s Super Ego. The “I Will”—Freud’s Ego. And, I’m going to add another element that Freud wouldn’t like (which led to his split with Jung). The “I Am Therefore I Must”—my idea of the Soul, Heart, Self. I think these are the four elements that constitute psychic reality, and that we live out of the swirl of these elements, combining and clashing to influence the Ego’s choices about what we will do in the world with our lives.

Here is an aside for you, which takes us back to something I’ve said before. Ego is not the enemy. There is a lot of stuff sitting on shelves in those afore-mentioned self-help sections of bookstores that dis Ego these days. It is written under the influence of an eastern understanding of Ego, which is Freud’s idea of the Id, not Ego. The eastern spiritual traditions don’t know Id as Id, they know Id as Ego. So, when they advise getting rid of Ego, who are they talking to? What aspect of the individual personality rises up to rid itself of Ego? And, who speaks for me when Ego leaves the room? You get rid of Ego, and someone is going to have to check you into an institution where someone else will bathe you and feed you and take care of your needs, because the part of you whose job it is to do that will be somewhere else.

Do not confuse egocentricity and self-centeredness and Narcissism and me-only-ism with Ego. These babies are nothing more than Id gone wild, I Want at the helm. Ego is the deciding, choosing, deliberating, evaluating, judging, directing aspect of our personality. When it comes to a conflict of belief and values, Ego clears its throat and says, “Jim, let the fruitcake go.” And, if it is weak, undeveloped, immature, it surrenders to Id, and says, “Whatever you want, Jimmy boy.”

The trick is not to get rid of Ego, but to grow up into Ego, to give way to the I Will that has our true best interest at heart. If we get rid of Ego, then who is going to tell us what to think, believe and do? Those who tell us to get rid of Ego, no doubt.

Of course, we all hate to decide, particularly against ourselves, so we DO try to get rid of (or ignore) Ego and do what we want (what Id desires). But that path leaves us awash in conflict, because everything we want interferes with something else we want, and we wring our hands a lot and look befuddled, because we will not decide. Because we will not look our conflicts in the face and find the contrary beliefs at work in them and consciously choose what we believe and how we will live. Because we will not listen to ourselves. And that’s where we came in.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

03/23/08, Easter Sermon

Our work is the work of resurrection—bringing ourselves to life in our lives. Jesus did the work of resurrection for 30 odd years before his death. His work, bringing himself to life in his life, consisted, as does ours, of living in ways that were integral to, aligned with, that which was deepest, truest, and best about him. His life was a life of complete integrity of being. He was who he was. Yahweh said to Moses, “Tell, them ‘I am who I am’ sent you. Get it? That which is godlike about us is being who we are, so that outer and inner are one.

Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” I am one with “I am who I am.” Integrity of being is the essence of godlikeness, and it is the work that we are about. When we do that work, when we live aligned with who we are, when we are alive in the fullest sense of the term, we do not die. The truth of the resurrection is that Jesus did not die. He was so fully alive that he could not die, did not die. In the experience of his disciples and closest friends, he lived on. It is the work of being human to live on. That is the essence of the Spiritual Journey. “What I do is me,” says Gerard Manly Hopkins, “for that I came.”

But. There is a problem. We have to be who we are within the context and circumstances of our life. We have to adjust ourselves to, accommodate ourselves to the facts of our lives. And, we have to do the same with the fact of who we wish we were—with our ideas for ourselves and our lives. And, we have to do the same with our life’s idea for us. That’s a lot to balance. Particularly, when we are paid a lot of money to live like someone else wants us to live! So, we have to do the work of bringing ourselves to life within a context, and within circumstances, that work against us from the start.

All the tricks of the trade come into play doing that work. We are here to learn, and apply, the tricks of the trade in order to be who we are within the context and circumstances of our lives. One of the tricks is learning to associate with the right kind of people.

We find what we need in the right kind of company. The quality of our lives flows from, and is a function of, the quality of our relationships. The craziest, most dysfunctional, people you know are the products of the craziest and most dysfunctional relationships you could ever hope to experience. Pick a wack-o, and ride back through time with him, with her, and you will begin to wonder why he, why she, isn’t wackier than he, than she, is. Where we are is set up by where we have been. Where we will be is conditioned by where we are. You can improve then quality of our lives, even now, by improving the quality of our relationships, right now.

Well, okay. There is a caveat here. It does depend upon what we bring to the table. Fritjof Capra says that life is not predictable. No simple equations or easy formulas here. You throw a tennis ball against a wall and you can predict what will happen. You throw a human being against a wall, and who knows what will happen? A tennis ball’s response can be determined by the angle and force of the throw. A human being’s response cannot be known. A human being—and life in general—can be disturbed, but not determined. And a human being, and life in general, will decide what it will respond to and what it will ignore—and how it will respond. So, the right kind of company is not, by itself, the determining factor. It all depends upon what we bring to the table.

With that said, we can also say that what saves us is not prevenient grace, or irresistible grace (How gracious can something be that you can’t say “No!” to?), or the atoning sacrifice God’s only Son Jesus Christ our Lord, but the right kind of relationship with the right kind of people. Relationship is the saving grace. You only have to think about it to know that it is so. The people who have meant the most to us in our lives have not been the people who passed along the secrets of life, or some other valuable information, but the people who offered the right kind of relationship to us in the right kind of way.

The teachers we remember, the coaches, and instructors, and ministers, and group leaders who have been influential have been influential because of the quality of their relationship with us. The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives. The thing that makes the most difference for the good in our lives are the people who care about us in the right kind of way. That being the case, you would think we would put more effort into improving and enhancing the quality of our relationships. You would think we would put relationship development at the top of our list. You would think we would learn what it means to be a caring presence in the lives of others, and practice it regularly and routinely as we go through our days.

But, don’t think that the right kind relationship with the right kind of people is a technique for achieving something beyond itself, that it has anything in mind. Don’t think it has an agenda. Don’t think it’s where you go to get the answer for your life. If we are going to consciously mold ourselves into the right kind of community offering the right kind of relationship to those who come our way, the first thing we are going to have to do is empty ourselves of the idea, conception, notion, desire of offering anything to those who come our way.

The right kind of community doesn’t force anything on anybody, particularly advice. It’s the association that does it, whatever “it” is, and it does it without intention, or direction, or suggestion, or intrusion, or intervention, or intercession. We aren’t here to straighten anyone out, or tell anyone what to do, he said, in a whole-hearted attempt to straighten them out and tell them what to do. Isn’t that how it is though? “We do by not-doing,” and all of those other contradictory paradoxes of The Way. Ah, but, back to the point!

The point is that association with the right kind of people calls life forth, without anyone doing anything intentional and direct to bring that about. We spark each other, influence each other, support and encourage each other, and provide the impetus that becomes the other’s life. It takes companionship, conversation, community to provide us with life, with our life. We are continually being born again in the presence of the right kind of company. No one can tell us what to do with our lives, or even, the next minute, but out of the context of conversation completely unrelated to us and our interests, something sparks something within us, and we are off and running with a life that is beautifully meaningful to us, and brings life forth in the world. We find what we need without knowing what we are looking for.

The Way emerges out of the right kind of relationships. We find ourselves opening to that which is open to us. We naturally do what needs to be done, effortlessly, thoughtlessly, and life unfolds as if according to some master plan, but it is nothing more than us following our heart’s path to its own deep joy. It takes the right kind of company for us to hear the beating of our heart, and to begin to explore what it might mean to listen to the still small voice whispering with the accent of our soul. In the presence of the right kind of people, we become ourselves, and make the changes required by the spiritual journey—and we aren’t even thinking about being spiritual.

Two things flow from this. The first is that we do not think our way to the spiritual journey, or along the spiritual path. We live our way there. Spirituality is living, not thinking. The second thing is that we take up the spiritual journey, not by changing the way we think, but by changing the way we live. The spiritual journey is essentially a change in life style. We have to change our living. We cannot continue to live like we are living and be more spiritual than we are. But, and this is the interesting part, the change cannot be imposed from the top down, from the outside in. We can’t do it by keeping our New Year’s Resolutions, or the Ten Commandments, or by living the kind of life our mother’s would tell us to live. We can’t just hand ourselves over to Those Who Know Best.

Those Who Know Best are glad to tell us what to do. I don’t know where they think we would be without them minding our business, and plying us with instruction, but it must be terrible, because they do everything they can to save us from ourselves, and our highly questionable sense of direction. I’ve noticed that Those Who Know Best have lives no one would trade for. Makes you wonder what they think they know, and what makes them think they know best. I lost the point again. Where was I?

Ah, changing the way we are living. From the bottom up, and inside out. The right kind of company provides us with an atmosphere that enables us to listen to ourselves, and to know what needs to be done, the kinds of changes that need to be made. Joseph Campbell says, “We know when we are on the beam, and when we are off of it.” That’s really all we need to know. Where are you most “on the beam”? Where are you “off of it”? Where do you spend the most time? We know what brings us to life, and what kills our souls. Where are you most alive? Where are you most dead? Where do you spend the most time? We know the people who are good for us, and the people who are not good for us. With whom do you spend the most time? We know what we like, and what we dislike—what we love and what we detest—what we enjoy and what we do well to avoid. Where do you spend the most time? How do you need to change your life?

It isn’t easy, you know. We talk of death and resurrection. Death is emptying ourselves of our idea of what our life should be. Under the Bo Tree and in the Temptations in the Wilderness, Gautama and Jesus died to one way of life and were raised to another way of life. What will we die to? What will we live for? In the Wilderness, under the Bo Tree, we have to allow our life to pass before us, and we have to decide what to keep, and what to let go—what to begin and what to end.

It is not a decision to rush. We live our way to what has true value, with our eyes open, over time. But, we cannot avoid the work of being aware of what is important and what is not. The work is the work of Identity, and Vision, and Clarity, and Focus, and Direction. The work is the work of Realization, the work of knowing who we are and what we can do to enhance that, and what we can do to diminish that. The work is the work of knowing what we need to be who we are, of what assists us and what inhibits us. The work is the work of knowing the difference between a tool and a prop. A tool helps us be who we are. A prop helps us pretend to be who we are not.

Incarnating who we are within the context and circumstances of our lives, serving our heart’s true desire amid the upheavals of life in the real world, is our life’s work. It doesn’t matter what belief system we operate within, the work is the same: Being who we are within the limitations of this particular time and this particular space. Who would Michael Jordan have been before basketball was invented? He would have had to work that out in his own time and place. And, he would not have been able to do that work alone.

It doesn’t matter how we think or what we believe. We can believe anything we want to, anything that strikes our fancy. What matters is working out who we are in our own time and place. We should believe what helps us do that work, and disbelieve what keeps us from doing that work. If you are going to believe anything, believe what helps you be who you are in the time and place of your living.

The spiritual journey, task, quest, path is the work of integration, the work of integrity, the work of living in ways that are integral to that which is deepest, best, and truest about you. It is the work of finding your way back to you, to “the face that was yours before you were born,” to the life that is yours to live, to who you are.

There is reality and there is your heart’s true desire (who you are). You have to accommodate yourself to the one and serve the other. And, it’s easier to eat popcorn and watch old movies until you die. It’s easier to deny both, dismiss both. Embrace diversion and distraction and don’t worry about reality or your heart’s true desire. Besides, your heart has so many desires, how would you ever know which one the true one is? Pass the popcorn! Load up Jimmie Stewart! The right kind of company won’t let us get by with that!

Monday, March 17, 2008

03/16/08, Sermon

Shelton Kopp says “The unlived life is not worth examining.” But, we don’t know what to do with the idea of being alive. We think being 98.6 and breathing counts, and we forget about the living dead. Then there is that other idea about being alive. We think that in order to live life we have to win the lottery. Life begins, we think, when we have money to burn.

We can’t wait to win the lottery before beginning to live. Life is passing us by. Frederick Frank says, “The religious attitude to existence is rooted in wonder at the mystery of sheer being, at being at all.” And, “Authentic spirituality is…the finding of one’s path without being ‘bamboozled, confused, sidetracked,’ at every step.” Authentic spirituality is the way to being most genuinely, authentically, fully, completely, wholly, really, truly, alive. And, it has nothing to do with winning the lottery.

The spiritual journey is the trip to life, and living, and being alive. It is the distance from where you are right now to the heart of your own life. The spiritual path is the way to your own life. The spiritual quest is the search for your own life. The Holy Grail is the life that is yours to live. That’s as much doctrine as you need.

This company exists to help each other find the way to the life that is our life to live. We are here to help one another to find and do the things that bring life forth and bring us to life and enable us to be alive in the fullest sense of the word. Each of us has to find ways of accommodating ourselves to the reality of the context and circumstances of our lives, and, within that context and those circumstances, find ways of living aligned with that which is deepest, best, and truest about us. That is the two-fold work of soul that this company can help us with.

We cannot continue to live the way we are living and be closer to who we are than we are right now. Our integrity is not contingent upon our thinking differently, or believing differently. It is entirely dependent upon our living differently. We have to do more of the things that bring us to life and less of the things that kill our soul.

Now, this company cannot do the work for us, but we can make it easier for each other to do the work. We do that, primarily, by telling the truth, and by listening one another to the truth of our lives. The truth is that we can only hear the truth after we already know that it’s true. No one can tell anyone anything that matters until it’s too late to do any good. By then, all we can do is nod our heads and say, “Ain’t that so, though!”

But, we still need to say what is true, and not say stuff that isn’t true. We can speed our way to the heart of the matter—which is another term for the spiritual journey, task, path, quest (We are all seeking the heart of the matter)—by not cluttering the path with road markers leading to cliff edges and dead ends. So, we say the truth and refuse to lie. It’s hard enough to figure it out with people who are sincerely trying to figure it out with us. Throw us in with people who can only repeat the formulas, clichés, catch phrases and platitudes, and we become one of the living dead.

Here, we cannot save one another the trouble and work of being awake, aware, and alive, but we can refrain from making it harder than it already is. We can keep one another from being more lost than we have to be. It comes down to this: Living a meaningful life—a life that is worth living—is your responsibility, but we can create an environment in which you can take up the work of seeing, and hearing, and understanding in order to know what needs to be done and do it.

You have to understand that it is your life and you have to live it. You have to know what has meaning for you, what is worth doing for you. You have to know what you need to do in order to enjoy your life, and be glad to be alive—and you have to do it. It isn’t easy. There are forces aligned against you. There are conditions, and circumstances, and people who seem to form a giant conspiracy to keep you in your place and prevent you from doing what is yours to do, what you truly need to do to be healed, and whole, and restored and well.

The spiritual task is to live a life aligned with our heart, so that inner is integrated with outer, and we are “at one” with that which is deepest, truest, and best about us, and nothing of US is wasted or unused. That is the hero’s task, and we have to find what it takes to do that, and do it.
If there are forces arrayed against us, and there are, there must also be spirits, and guardian angels, and fairy god mothers, and mysterious guides, and helping agents all along the way. And, there are. Part of the spiritual journey—the search for and service of the heart of the matter—is being open to the “ever-present help in time of trouble.” And, part of being open, is getting out of our heads our idea of what kind of help we need.

We think we know what we need. What we need is to empty ourselves of what we think we need. The right kind of company helps by not being the kind of help we think we need. The right kind of company, the right kind of community, is essential to health, emotional and physical, and part of our work here is learning how to be the right kind of community. The primary ingredient of which is not trying to serve our own personal interests/ends at someone else’s expense. Power in groups these days is about furthering one’s own advantage at the expense of someone else—the rank opposite of the way it is done in the right kind of community.

So, I’m interested in the characteristics of the right kind of community. It’s really in our best interest to not serve out best interest, if that makes sense, but to be concerned about the true need of others. I think fundamental to the right kind of community is the grail question, “What’s the problem?” or “What do you need, and how can I help you with it?” Helping people name what they need is an important step in knowing what is important. What we think we need may not be what we need, so we need to think about it. The right kind of community helps us do the work of knowing what we need, of knowing what is truly important—which is different from what the culture tells us is important.

My wish for us all is to know what is important, to know what truly needs to be done, and to have what it takes to do it. For me, this kind of knowing is part of my idea of “the dynamic core” around which we coalesce and out of which we live. The other part of that dynamic core is being aligned, inner and outer, so that what is “deepest, best and truest” about us is reflected, expressed, in how we live our lives, in living the life that is ours to live (and not the life society, or the church, or our parents tells us to live). The right kind of community helps us find and live out of this dynamic core (dynamic because it is not static, but changing, fluid, evolving).

I think the right kind of community does this by engaging us in conversation about the things that matter. It listens us to the truth of our being. By helping us say what is important, it helps us see what is important, and helps us live toward what is important. If it is important, we will have to live toward it, around obstacles and through resistance. Knowing what is important puts us on a path to what is important. The right kind of community, then, gives us ourselves.

On the way to ourselves, I would say to you: be alert to happenstance. That’s my best advice. When you happen upon something special, know it. Be alert to it, aware of it. Sit with it for a while. Take the time to relish the experience, to cherish the moment, because it is passing.
Your life is passing. What are you noticing? What are you remembering? What are you doing to open yourself to the goodness of your life, to embrace that goodness, and participate in it with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength?

Where are you most aware of your life? Work to expand that awareness. Practice seeing your life. Become accomplished in the art of noticing your life. Walk through the day seeing, noticing, observing.

Recognize your advantages without trying to turn everything to your advantage, to your personal gain. Begin with what you have, with where you are, with your life exactly as it is. Begin there with the practice of receiving with thanksgiving, appreciation, and gratitude what is in each day. Receive the gifts the day has to offer. Stop thinking that you have to wait until you win the lottery to begin “really living,” and begin living simply by being alive in each moment, open in each moment to the good that is there.

Take up the practice of spending more time doing what you like to do, and less time doing what you don’t like to do. You don’t have to win the lottery to begin living like that. Pay attention to what interests you, and follow that into your life. See where your interests take you. You don’t have to win the lottery to do that.

Your life opens before you each day. Do not walk through it with blinders on, grumbling and moaning because it isn’t some other, better, life. Be present with your life as it is. Open yourself to the life that is yours to live today, and see what opens itself to you. Notice the good that is there. Embrace the wonder of being alive in the moment of your living. What do you have to lose?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

03/09/08, Sermon

What do we need a Messiah for? What does it mean to be Christian? How is being Christian different from being alive? Can we be alive without being Christian? Why would we be baptized or pray in Jesus’ name? These are the questions that beg to be answered as we think about our future here. We gather in this sanctuary, in this building, that houses a congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA), as Christian a denomination as it gets. What does that mean for us?

It doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. Thelma Foster says, “Each generation must find its own way to God.” K. Misenheimer says, “God doesn’t have grandchildren.” You can’t take one generation’s (or one person’s) meaning and apply it to another generation (or to another person). We find our own meaning. What something means is what it means to us at a particular time and place in our lives. This means we are always remaking meaning. We are always saying again what something means at this time and place of our lives. Meaning changes over time.

We cannot think about God the way they thought about God 2,000 years ago. We cannot think about God the way Abraham thought about God. We cannot think about God the way Moses thought about God. We cannot think about God, get ready for this one, the way Jesus thought about God. Can’t do it. The world is a different world. God is a different God.

Now, that’s an idea that will flat take some sitting with. We have the idea that the world is one thing and God is another. God is, as it was told to us, “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his (sic) being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4). God can’t be different. Well, think about it. God used to be strongly in favor of animal sacrifice. God is no longer in favor of animal sacrifice. God used to be in favor of slavery. God is no longer in favor of slavery. God used to be quite in favor of warfare and genocide. God is no longer in favor of warfare and genocide. Need I say more? God changes as the world changes. It only takes thinking about this to see that it is so.

Of course, recognizing that it is so changes everything, and has significant implications for us all. For example, The Presbyterian Church is proud of its Reformed Theology. Presbyterians stand tall and puff out their chests and say, “Our theology is Reformed Theology.” But, we haven’t reformed our theology in nearly 500 years, and that was with Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion—and there were no fresh ideas about God there. The Westminster Confession of Faith was written about 360 years ago, but there were no fresh ideas of God formulated then. We haven’t recognized a fresh idea about God since Jesus.

How reformed can your theology be if you never actually reform it? And, when the world changes as radically as it has in the last 2,000 years, and you insist on thinking about God the way they thought about God 2,000 years ago, how can you think that anyone else will think that the way you think about God is the way to think about God? And, if they say you are “irrelevant,” how can you be surprised, or offended?

All of which is to say that it is well past time for the church to reform its theology and change it’s thinking about God. Here come a couple of suggestions for doing that: The word “Christian” means “Little Christ.” To call ourselves “Christians” is to recognize that Jesus had the idea first, and that we are all cut from the same cloth. We have the same spirit within us that Jesus had within him. If Jesus could say, “The Father and I are one,” we can, too. But, what does it mean to say, “The Father and I are one”? It means that what we might call “God’s will,” or “God’s way,” and what we might call “the life that is our life to live” are the same thing. “God’s will” is “my real life.” When we find and live the life that is ours to live, we and God “are one.”

This is also called being true to our best self—to the self that might be characterized by those wonderful old values, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, goodness, faithfulness, and self-discipline”—within the context and circumstances of our lives. To live like this is to take up our cross every day, and follow Jesus, who also lived like this.

To say that we are Christian, then, is to say that we have taken up a particular path to being awake, aware, and alive. It is the path of recognizing and bringing forth the best that we are capable of and employing that in the service of what is truly important, of what truly needs to be done, no matter what. How is that different from what other religions espouse? I don’t have to know or care. I believe that is what Jesus did. I believe that is what we are called to do in order to be fully alive. And, I believe it is quite legitimate to do that “in Jesus’ name,” because he sat the standard, showed the way.

To call Jesus “the Mediator,” is to understand his mediation as being between us and true life, abundant life, the life that is ours to live. Life lived in the service of what it takes to sustain life on a physical, biological, level is necessary, but if that’s all there is to it, it is “a waste of life.” Life that is true life, that is found at “the wellspring of living water,” is lived in the service of what enables us to be most fully, completely, joyfully, wholly, alive. Jesus, as Mediator, stands between us and the life that is ours to live, and invites us to follow him into the fullness of life, of our own life, of that which brings us most fully to life. Jesus offers us the gift of life. The catch is that the gift comes at the expense of life. Death and Resurrection, you know. New birth. “We once were lost, but now are found, were blind, but now we see.” We pay a price to live like that, and we pay a price to not live like that.

Baptism remains a beautiful metaphor, or sacrament, of this transition from life that is death to life that is life. The waters of baptism are the waters of birth. It is a new birth into a new life that we experience as we begin the journey of living the life that is ours to live. The table remains as another central metaphor, or sacrament, of our life together, in all of the ways we have talked about before. And, it’s all about seeing and hearing and understanding. Eyes that see, you know, ears that hear, and a heart that understands.

What we see when we see, what we hear when we hear, what we understand when we understand is what is truly important, what truly needs to be done, what we must do in order to be who we are, in order to bring forth the best we are capable of within the context and circumstances of our life. Wherever life is most fully lived, most fully experienced—wherever life is most raw, most real, most imminent and undeniable—wherever we are most alive, most awake to, aware of, immersed in, the moment of our living, there is God. God is most real when we are most alive. If you want to know God, go where the life is. If you want to find God, find life.
There is a numinous quality about life when we are most alive. These are the “thin places” Parker Palmer speaks of, where we sense, and feel as though we can almost see through to, the “other side.” There is no rule governing where these places are to be found.

Ray Martin says that his sense of the numinous, of the ineffable, of the wonder and grandeur that which cannot be spoken is as real for him in his grandfather’s corn crib, with the sunlight coming through the cracks in the wall to light the floor and highlight the dust particles floating in the air, as it is in Chartres Cathedral. “Thin places” can be any place, but they are not every place, and we have to be alert to them, available to them, or we are likely to pass through them unseeing and unknowing, unaware of the mystery that is within our reach, yet exceeds our grasp. In the times and places when and where we are most alive in this world, we sense the presence of another world, and life takes on a spiritual dimension it did not have a few minutes before, a few feet away.

The physical world is the world we can see, and count, and weigh, and measure. It is a world of quantities. The spiritual world is the world where qualities like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, goodness, gentleness, grace, mercy, and beauty predominate. When we encounter the spiritual world, we experience a wonderful, peaceful, okay-ness which seems to flow from, and lead to, a profound sense of oneness with all things. A unity of being and being-with is perceived as the foundation of reality. When we experience the wonder of life, it is not just “my” life, but OUR LIFE, it is Life Is One, that we experience.

And then, the vision fades or disappears in an instant, and we find ourselves back in this world of space and time. But the memory lingers, and we strive to make sense of things, to explain it to ourselves and others. And, we may come up with “God.” And the further removed from the experience we are, as we talk about it, the more words begin to substitute for the experience, and the more “lost in abstraction” we become, until we find ourselves saying words about words, and arguing about words, and fighting about words, about whose words are the right words, and the unifying experience of oneness of being and being-with becomes a source of hostility and division, hatred and war.

God is a word we use for what we don’t know, for more than we can say. We experience the numinous, the ephemeral, and say, “God.” And, believe we have said something. And, act as though we have said something. We would be better served if, instead of “God,” we said, “Wow!”

Once we say, “God,” we add insult to injury by saying what “God” is, and isn’t. We conjure up a theology—we actually talk about “the nature of God.” We create doctrines and creeds and catechisms. We no sooner say, “God,” than we find ourselves awash in a sea of abstractions. And we go to war over whose abstractions are the True Abstractions, over whose way of thinking about God is The Way To Think About God. All because, in the beginning, we said, “God,” instead of “Wow!”

And so, we might make a rule about words: No words! Just seeing, just knowing, just being. No talking! Guidance into God might be as simple as: Present yourself to a scene, a place of beauty and wonder, and empty yourself of all thoughts, desires, concepts, ideas, beliefs, and opinions. Open yourself to the wonder of being, to the beauty of the moment, and silently wait to see what opens itself to you.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

03/02/08, Sermon

You all know by now that the first Grail question is, “What ails thee?” What’s the problem? What’s the trouble? Being clear about the problem is the path to life. And, that leads me to posit that The Problem these days, The Problem with us all is emptiness. There is no joy. There is no life. There is no gladness at being alive. There is only the frantic search for something worth having. There is no compelling vision. Nothing we have to have or else. We cast about asking, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know,” comes the reply. “What do you want to do?”

We live in The Wasteland. It is empty. And we are empty. Joseph Campbell says the wasteland is the place where everyone is doing what they are supposed to do, and no one knows what truly needs to be done. In the Wasteland, we take our cue for living from someone else. Advertisers tell us what to want. We follow their directions and do what is supposed to make us happy. But, we don’t know what really matters. Our lack of attachment to what has true value results in empty, superficial, lives. We have no life. We have no heart. We are empty as it gets.

What do we do about the emptiness? How do we fill it? The rule is simple, and without exception: When empty, become empty! You think that’s nonsense, don’t you? Double talk? The dumbest thing you ever heard? That’s truth for you. We walk right past it, shaking our heads, and don’t give it a second glance, a second thought. We know what we need, what we are looking for, and that isn’t it. And, so, the rule: When empty, become empty!

Become empty of your ideas of what it will take to be filled! Become empty of your ideas of the truth! Become empty of your images, your notions, of what you are looking for! Become empty! We receive what is valuable, we do not generate it! We prepare ourselves for its arrival by emptying ourselves of expectation and desire.

How do we empty ourselves of what isn’t working, of what it isn’t about, in order to fill ourselves with what it takes? What does it take? “Thy will, not mine be done!” How do we become empty of emptiness that we might be filled with a will not our own? With a meaning, and a purpose, and a direction not our own? What is our part in this process? Standing aside? Stepping back? Acquiescing to a way that is not our way? Which way would that be? How would we know it when we see it? Of all the voices clamoring for our attention, how do we identify the voice that knows? How do we disappear ourselves, get ourselves out of the way, so that we might wait, and watch, for that which knows? While, in the meantime, doing what it takes to pay the bills and keep the home fires burning?

This is not too different from the experience of the traumatic impact of life. Then, there are two levels, the level that makes no sense, where all the normal rules governing life in the world are suspended, and we don’t know who, or where, or when we are for a time. But, we still go through the motions, and show up for work, and mow the lawn, and shop for groceries, and do what it takes to live on one level while we have no life at all on another level, and everything is discontinuous and scattered and out of harmony and we are disconnected with everything that was life for us before.

Emptying ourselves of all that is empty, and waiting, is a lot like that. We still go through the motions of life, but we can’t call that living. We call that waiting. Waiting to see, and hear, and understand. Waiting to know what we know, what something knows. Waiting to see what is truly important, to hear what must be done, and to understand how to bring forth from within the gift that is essential for the life of the world.

Ah, but, how do we empty ourselves of everything? There you are. That’s the work. Emptying ourselves of the desire to be empty. Emptying ourselves of the need to know how to empty ourselves. Emptying ourselves of wondering if we are empty yet. In order to empty ourselves, we have to be empty.

Become empty! Let the questions go! Let the answers you think you have to have go! Stop thinking, struggling, searching, seeking! Let the panic go! Let the fear go! Let the anguish go! Become empty! You have heard it said, “Let go and let God,” but I say unto you, “Let God go, too!” We have to empty ourselves of everything and hold onto nothing. We have to learn to live with nothing at the center.

But, it is a special kind of nothing. It is different from “not anything.” It is the kind of nothing that is the origin of everything. This does not make it something. It is quite nothing. Quite empty. And, it is filled with potential. It sounds strange, because until you know what I’m talking about, you can’t begin to understand what I’m saying. It all comes clear, however, once you empty yourself of everything. Once empty, we are then open to everything. All the possibilities that we once excluded because they didn’t fit in with what else was there become possible.
We wait for a door to open, for a light to come on, for the way to become apparent, for the next step to be revealed, for the dawning of awareness that leads to life. In the emptiness of our lives, we empty ourselves of all that is empty—we stop looking to be fulfilled by any of the things that cannot satisfy—and we wait. Watching for the way to open, for the White Rabbit to call our appear and flash across our field of vision.

How long will it take? Longer than you hope it will, but not as long as you are afraid it might. We cannot hurry the arrival of the Grail Vision, the appearance of the White Rabbit. We have to wait, trusting that the way will open to those who are open to the way. And, while we wait, we have to do the next thing. We have to do the thing that needs to be done here and now. We have to function in the world while we wait for the vision from the other world.

So, we go to work, or find a job, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, the kids to school, feed the birds, take care of business… We do the things that sustain life while we wait for the things that bring us to life. That fill us with life and provide us with purpose, and meaning, and direction.

Who knows what those things will be? Not us. But someone, something, knows, and it will be revealed to us over time. Perhaps not as a preview of things to come, but as a realization of what has always been. Maybe we know what has meaning and purpose and direction by remembering what has always had meaning and purpose and direction. Or what once did. Maybe we find our way back to where we are going. And, maybe not. Maybe it’s a new thing that invites us to life. Who knows? So, we wait, and watch. Taking care of business while we look for life.