Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Left to God

1 Corinthians 13: The Gift of Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Some 18 years ago, Katy, you were a babe in your parents’ arms and ... I was a young pastor, still quite new at Shell Ridge. We hadn’t met yet, but we would before long. And now jump into that marvelous and terrifying time machine and zoom forward nearly two decades and ... shazaaam, kaboom ... here we are. You’re a beautiful young woman—an adult ... and tomorrow you’ll complete this first enormous stage of your journey of becoming.

Graduation from High School is something we pay a lot of attention to, but it isn’t only because you’ve completed a baker’s dozen years of schooling—which in itself is an accomplishment worth celebrating. High school graduation symbolizes your transition into early adulthood. Up until this point we could get away with calling you a child or a youth. Now that way of thinking is reserved for only your mom ... and maybe your dad. And your grandma, of course. For everyone else, you have served notice that your childhood is in your rear-view mirror ... though don’t forget that “objects in your rear-view mirror are closer than they appear.” You’ve reached a time in your life when you can begin to make the Apostle Paul’s words your own: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

This is not to say, and I hope Paul would agree, that you bid farewell to the child within. I’ve joked with Corinne Mason as long as I’ve known her that she is a 16 year old dwelling in a gracefully aging body. (A recent tumble has Corinne wondering about the “gracefully” part.) Keep the child within alive ... your sense of wonder and hope and possibility. Even as you consider what it means to put an end to childish ways, don’t become too cynical, don’t give up too easily on the world or those around you, don’t forget what was like to ride your first bike or kick your first soccer ball. Don’t forget what it felt like to be safe and secure in mom’s or dad’s arms or what it feels like to lie on your back in the grass and watch the clouds drift by. Don’t forget what it felt like when in your young heart you really believed that love could conquer all ... that God’s love and human love really could create a world where peace and justice and harmony could be achieved and all of earth’s people could live “happily ever after”. Don’t forget these “childish” things ... keep that child and its hope and dreams and ideals alive ... somewhere.

But putting an end to childish ways.

First thing: There’s two things you need to do as you enter adulthood: learn to drink coffee if you don’t already—Peets coffee, preferably ... and learn to read the New York Times as you drink your coffee. That pretty much sums up my advice to you, Katy.

If you’re already reading the Times, you’ll have noticed a column by David Brooks, one of the New York Times’ regular columnists and a pretty wise guy. Now admittedly, David Brooks’ column was about college graduates getting ready to enter the world—which is to say, getting ready to move back in with mom and dad and spend the next several years looking for a job. But I think Brooks has some important things to say that may be even better heard as you prepare to enter college.

Brooks says that the lives of young folk of your age and generation have been “perversely structured.” He says: “This year's graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.” Katy, can I hear an “Amen.” But, he goes on to say—and better to hear and understand these words before you enter St. Mary’s than as you leave: Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured.

Even as you learn to replace your loving parents and supervise yourself, it is, I think, good to become early aware that your best laid plans will only be partly adequate for the future you will enter some four or five years from now. Being well-grounded as a human being and flexible as you enter the future will serve you well in the midst of this rapidly changing world to which we must all continue to creatively adapt.

Brooks also says that as much as we have been nurtured to think that we are at the center of the universe—that it’s all about YOU ... and all about ME ... as we emerge from childhood, we do well to early learn the simple truth that in most of the ways that matter, it’s NOT all about you or me. In the midst of all of the mantras of “expressive individualism” that tell us to “follow our bliss” and “march to our own drummer”, there are “sacred commitments” that are demanded of us: relationships to which we are called to commit, communities that call us to become responsible members, needs of a world that are well beyond our own inner cloistered worlds of self and self-fulfillment.

Brooks says that real truth that is nearly hidden by the gospel of self-fulfillment is that our real, deepest, truest selves are most often called out and expressed in the response to some demand from beyond us that has been placed upon us ... he says: Most people don't form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by a calling.

Think of Moses wandering aimlessly in the desert herding sheep until God calls from a burning bush. God calls Moses to leave the leave the sheep behind and lead God’s people out of slavery—which had not been on Moses’ “I just want to find myself” agenda. And is that call that defines Moses for the remainder of his days ... it makes Moses MOSES.

David Brooks, closes his column saying: Today's grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they'll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can't be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it's nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some [greater] task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It's to lose yourself.

Who does David Brooks think he is ... Jesus? Remember Jesus saying: “... those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

OK, Katy ... it’s fair for you to say to me: “Hey, enough already ... I haven’t even flunked my first class in college, yet. Preach that sermon to me in four years ... or maybe five!” Fair enough. But let me say that a part of your emergence into adulthood and putting away the ways of childhood is for you to let us go and for us to let you go. And this is no easy task for there have been nearly two decades of creating ties that bind, being directed where you should go, told what you should think and value and how you should view the world. And to be sure, these are not bad things ... these are the loving lessons and relationships of childhood. And now it is time to take the training wheels off of your bicycle of your self and your soul, and peddle off into the world. It is time to begin to snip away at the many, many gossamer threads that bind you to this time and place and the many people you love—and who love you. It’s time for us all to begin to practice a little “benign neglect”.

You should know by now, Katy, that my favorite poet is Robert Frost. Robert Frost takes a lot of the imagery for his poems from the natural world of field and farm—but he applies what he observes to the human being and the challenges of being human. This is a poem entitled: “Goodbye and Keep Cold”. It’s about an orchard of fruit saplings that fare best with a little “benign neglect”. That too much care and concern, and too protective of instincts might actually be harmful to the orchard and their latent fruitfulness. And as I read the poem, I not only think of you and your need to separate in whole and healthy ways from your family of upbringing and your faith family, but I also think of my relationship to this church and it to me as I prepare to depart for several months.

This saying good-bye on the edge of the dark

And cold to an orchard so young in the bark

Reminds me of all that can happen to harm

An orchard away at the end of the farm

All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.

I don't want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,

I don't want it dreamily nibbled for browse

By deer, and I don't want it budded by grouse.

(If certain it wouldn't be idle to call

I'd summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall

And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)

I don't want it stirred by the heat of the sun.

(We made it secure against being, I hope,

By setting it out on a northerly slope.)

No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm;

But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm.

"How often already you've had to be told,

Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.

Dread fifty above more than fifty below."

I have to be gone for a season or so.

My business awhile is with different trees,

Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,

And such as is done to their wood with an axe--

Maples and birches and tamaracks.

I wish I could promise to lie in the night

And think of an orchard's arboreal plight

When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)

Its heart sinks lower under the sod.

But something has to be left to God.

Katy, did you ever raise butterflies in school? ... you know, where your teacher brings in the chrysalis where the monarch caterpillar has seemingly created a tomb for itself ... and then, wonder of wonders, it breaks forth from the tomb and is released as a beautiful butterfly? It’s a real Easter moment, in some ways, and it’s the kind of transformation we hope for every child that we have been privileged to love and nurture and watch as she and he has grown wings and prepares to fly ... away ... but not far away we naturally hope.

If you observed the emergence of the butterfly from its cocoon carefully, you’ll remember that there’s a time when the butterfly seems to get stuck and you fear that is has gotten trapped and needs your help to emerge from its cocoon—that it can’t do it on its own. One person, observing the struggles of the emerging butterfly, did reach in and helped the butterfly from its cocoon and then noticed that the butterfly’s wings remained shrunken and misshapen and it was unable to fly. What the kindly person didn’t know ... couldn’t know ... was that it is precisely the struggle to free itself from its cocoon that pumps the fluids into the butterfly’s wings to help make them full and strong and capable of flight. It was assisting when assistance wasn’t needed or helpful that doomed the butterfly to flightlessness.

The author, Alan Paton, was wiser than the kindly soul who would help butterflies. He writes:

I see my son wearing long trousers; I tremble at this. I see he goes forward confidently, he does not know so fully his own gentleness. Go forward, eager and reverent child. See here, I begin to take my hands away from you. I shall see you walk carelessly on the edge of the precipice, but if you wish, you shall hear no word come out of me. My whole soul will be sick with apprehension, but I shall not disobey you. Life sees you coming, she sees you come with assurance toward her. She lies in wait for you. She cannot but hurt you. Yet go forward. Go forward. I hold the bandages and the ointment ready. And if you would go elsewhere and lie alone with your wounds, I shall not intrude upon you. If you would seek the help of some other person, I will not come forcing myself upon you. If you should fall into sin, innocent one, that is the way of this pilgrimage. Struggle against it, not for one fraction of a moment concede its dominion. It will occasion you grief and sorrow, it will torment you. But hate not God, nor turn from Him in shame or self-reproach. He has seen many such, and His compassion is as great as His creation. Be tempted and fall and return. Return and be tempted and fall, a thousand times a thousand, even to a thousand thousand. For out of this tribulation there comes a peace, deep in the soul and surer than any dream.

This, is, I think is clear, not just a graduation sermon to Katy, but a graduation sermon of life to us all. The need to let go in so many ways, at so many stages of our lives. Letting go of childhood so adulthood can come. Letting go of our children so they may emerge into adulthood as whole, capable beings ... and themselves. Letting go of certain of life’s illusions that we can seen life and ourselves more clearly, more helpfully. Letting of the need to “not struggle”, but it is often the struggles that most clearly define us and, in the end, the bring us the peace and the joy and the happiness that are so elusive when we pursue them.

So ... Katie ... so Shell Ridge ... “goodbye and keep cold” ... a little benign neglect might be just what we all need. Something has to be left to God. And out of any tribulations that might be ahead, as surely as those we’ve already known, I pray that there will come to you and to us all, a peace, deep in the soul and surer than any dream.

Let us pray:

God it is so hard to let our children go,

To life ... to suffering ... to you.

It’s hard to leave our friends alone

To work out their own problems.

Help us to trust more, and interfere less.

And so we give them and each other over to you, God.

Bend down to them, take care of them, give good things to them.

And in your time and in the uniqueness of their being, bring to them meaning and joy, wholeness and peace.


--Adapted from a prayer by Robert Raines in “Creative Brooding”

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