Sunday, August 28, 2011

Putting yourself in the presence of God

By Karen DeWeese

The chicken or the egg?

The chicken or the egg?

The chicken or the egg?

There is an often heard old question that goes: Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The question is posed when we are confronted with a situation which calls for the determination of the causality or order of occurrence of two events or situations. So our question for today is: Which comes first? Being in God’s presence which prompts us to pray or praying and then feeling we are in God’s presence.

And what sorts of things will elicit the feelings of God’s presence? One would hope glorious music or stained glass or a lofty sermon. However equally moving can be an awesome sunrise, or a mountain’s grandeur, or even more mundane things that cross our paths in our everyday life : the smell of a fresh baked loaf of bread, a tiny, furry kitten, a pile of colorful fall leaves. In a novel by Jennifer Chiaverini, titled THE ALOHA QUILT, the main character, Bonnie, is having her first taste of taro. Her hostess says“ they’re delicious, a bit like sweet potatoes. “. Bonnie takes a small serving and samples a small bite. She wondered if she would be able to find taro in a grocery store back in Pennsylvania. She had never noticed them before but she had not been looking for them. A lot about life had escaped her notice because she had not been looking. In AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, Barbara Brown Taylor says , “Prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening and it is not necessarily something that I am doing, God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in THE MIDST.” At those moments it is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if ourselves were being perceived. Prayer is more than my idea of prayer and some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer.

Whether intentional, or simply by being in THE MOMENT, there are different prayers that are appropriate for the different times and stages in our lives. There is a prayer which I am certain we have all heard or perhaps even prayed as a child or taught to our children or grandchildren. I learned this, literally, at the knees of my grandmother. When we would stay with her in the summertime, at night before going to bed, we would kneel beside the bed and pray,: Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This was followed by bless mommy and daddy and grandma and grandpa and the list went on and on as long as we could think of people that we wanted God to bless, though I suspect it was the more people we could name for God to bless, the longer we would avoid the inevitability of having to go to bed: especially difficult during the summer when it was still light out.

There is a newer version of this children’s prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

May God guard me through the night

And wake me with the morning light.

I suspect this newer version is in wider usage because it is considered less scary though I don’t think it has adversely affected the many of us who grew up on the older version.

As we grew a little older, prayers were learned in Sunday school, or a prayer thanking God for our daily food was prayed at the dinner table. Here at Shell Ridge, prayer and learning about the presence of God is an integral part of the Logos program for our children on Wednesday evenings.

Likewise, prayers and reverence to God are an important part of the scouting program. In Boy Scouts, one of the favorite prayers at mealtimes is called the Philmont Grace: named after the scouting ranch in New Mexico by that name.

For food, for raiment

For life, for opportunity

For friendship and fellowship

We thank thee, O Lord.

And lest we think that in a preteen’s mind prayers are only for meals, there is a very popular book by Judy Blume, published in 1970 titled ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET. Margaret, an 11 year old, has grown up in a non-religious home claiming to be non religious herself. She does not doubt nor question God’s presence but is innately aware of his existence and presence. She calls on God on a regular basis with the typical worries and concerns of a pre-teen girl. She is in the 6th grade and her family has recently relocated to New Jersey. She wants to fit in with her new contemporaries and talks to God about her new community and school. Throughout is a theme of asking God to let her be and develop normally for her age. Another theme that runs throughout is the conflict and choice of a religion. Raised with no religious training as her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish, they have left it up to her to decide when she is “older”. With family conflicts that erupt, she prays and wishes that she’d been born one or the other. Even amidst her struggles, she is constantly aware of God’s presence and grateful for all she has been given.

As we grow into adulthood, we become more aware of God’s presence as we explore the outdoor world of nature and all its wonders. Close your eyes for a minute and imagine you are sitting in the most beautiful or your most favorite out of doors spot. Now, listen to these words and envision the presence of God:

God of grave nights,

God of brave mornings,

God of silent noon,

Hear my salutation!

For where the rapids rage white and scornful,

I have passed safely, filled with wonder,

Where the sweet ponds dream under willows,

I have been swimming, filled with life.

God of round hills,

God of green valleys,

God of clean springs,

Hear my salutation!

Where the moose feeds, I have eaten berries,

Where the moose drinks, I have drunk deep,

When the storm crashed through broken heavens-

And under clear skies- I have known joy.

God of great trees,

God of wild grasses,

God of little flowers,

Hear my salutation!

For where the deer crops and the beaver plunges,

Near the river I have pitched my tent,

Where the pines cast aromatic needles

On a still floor, I have known peace.

God of grave nights,

God of brave mornings,

God of silent moon,

Hear my salutation! Marguerite Wilkinson

We must envision the finished whole from this small segment before us. Isn’t that how we all try to understand the glory of God? We glimpse only the material world, one small facet of His creation and from this alone we attempt to comprehend the eternal world of the spirit.

In the scripture readings today, we are urged to seek his presence continually (Psalm 105: 4) and be constant in prayer. Joy and perseverance grow out of the wresting and being rooted in and growing from prayer. Prayer is of crucial significance in a relationship with God from the transformed life. In prayer we must be persistent. We must ask for a response and expect that God will respond in a way above and beyond our human experience with one another. Our worship life centers, on this notion of prayer. Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find. If this is our way, we had better be confident that we believe this. The answers to life’s difficult questions come in the context of a community that is willing to stake its life on the belief that prayers are answered and that God does respond to human need and suffering. It means to let God have access to our own hands and feet when they’re needed.

Our worship life centers on this notion of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is said in almost every house of Christian worship, every Sunday, all across our land. In each of these places worshippers believe that God will bring a kingdom that is peaceful, God will provide for our daily food, God will forgive our unbelief and God will shield us from trials that we can’t handle. Despite the diversity in our traditions and practices, this simple little prayer may be our most basic common denominator. Prayer isn’t for dummies. It’s for the faithful, who given power by the Spirit, and supported by their faith community, are willing to stake our lives on the belief that God will open the door when we knock.

Faithful prayer is habitual prayer, prayer that does not only occur during a crisis and does not end when a crisis is resolved. Faithful prayer is part and parcel of an ongoing relationship, a lifelong conversation, a prolonged attempt not to control God but to discern God’s presence and activity in all that befalls us- the good and the bad, the desired and the undesirable. Faithful prayer is first of all about finding and placing ourselves in God’s story, and God’s story is about the redemption of the world. My prayers are too small if they focus on me, though it is important that our prayers are about our personal, individual needs and desires. Faithful prayer certainly may ask for healing, but it does not ask only for healing. It seeks wisdom to see how Christ is reflected in circumstances- and not just a triumphal Christ but a suffering Christ, a Christ who underwent pain and want before he attained glory. Faithful prayer asks not merely for healing but for patience and discernment and continuing faithfulness. Faithful prayer is work and not always immediately satisfying. God give me- God give us- the strength continue in the work of true prayer, the very work for which we were made.

Intercessory prayer is intertwined with and the heartbeat of the Christian community. It is the way Christians consciously bring others into God’s presence along with themselves. In prayer we see others as creatures loved by God and in need of God’s grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, in intercessory prayer one sees other people “in all their need, hardship and distress” and grants them the “same right we have received, namely, the right to stand before Christ and to share in Christ’s mercy.” In prayer, we put others in God’s hands. He continues,” I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died.” Prayer does work- on the individuals and communities who pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor poses the question, “ Is it right for me to ask God for particular outcomes, when God alone knows what is right? Isn’t the point of prayers to sharpen my hearing, not God’s? Are words necessary at all? Is emptying the mind of all thought a surer path to God than trying to turn my thoughts to God? ““Most of the people I know hunger for some evidence that God hears their prayers. Plenty of them would settle for a divine “no” as long as it were a clear one. I once had a pastor who said that God answers prayer sin four ways: Yes, NO, Wait and “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Often we imagine and would like to think of a particular happening as an answer to prayer. When I was discerning my call to ministry, I had college prerequisites to be met before I could finish my bachelor’s program. One was passing the Junior English Placement Examination. As I drove home from the seminary one evening after a get acquainted meeting of the Conference on Ministry, I prayed that if I was meant to enter seminary and study for the ministry, that I would receive a passing grade on the exam as an indication that I was on the right path. When I arrived home, I found in the days mail, the card from San Francisco State that indicated I had received a passing grade. In a passage in Taylor’s book, she relates the following. I tell God what want. I’m not smart enough or strong enough to do anything else, and besides, there’s no time. So I tell God what I want and I trust God to sort it out. “The next day I returned to the seminary to continue the conference. During the lunch hour I was sitting and talking with the student body president. Suddenly I literally felt someone rap me on the head and I heard the words spoken in my ear, “You’ve come home, this is where you belong.” Talk about God’s presence and an answer to prayer!

In some of Taylor’s closing words she says,“ There are real things I can do, both in my body and in my mind, to put myself in the presence of God. God is not obliged to show up, but if God does, then I will be ready. At the same time, I am aware that prayer is more than something I do. The longer I practice prayer, the more I think it is something that is always happening, like a radio wave that carries music through the air whether I tune in to it or not. “

By opening ourselves to be willing to pray, we are giving ourselves the freedom to experience the presence of God. To be in the presence of God encourages and empowers us to pray. Prayer and presence go hand in hand and are very closely inseparable. Amen

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Words Fail: The Practice of Feeling Pain

A sermon by Jennifer W. Davidson, Ph.D. | August 21, 2011

Throughout the summer, Shell Ridge has been moving its way through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith—each Sunday devoted to a chapter in this book in which Barbara Brown Taylor introduces us to various everyday experiences and suggests how we might engage them as spiritual practices that draw us closer to an experience of the Holy in the midst of the Everyday.

This week’s theme is an odd one, in some ways. Barbara Brown Taylor calls it “The Practice ofFeeling Pain.” She shares with us some of her own experiences of physical pain—and reflects on the Book of Job.

But the idea of feeling pain as spiritual practice is a strange one for many of us. Many of the practices Taylor writes about have some element of choice to them—we can choose to encounter others in a way that helps to cultivate community; we can choose to incorporate more Sabbath moments into our lives. But pain is something that happens to us. And, whenever possible, most of us would rather choose not to experience pain. Pain is, for the most part, an unwelcome experience. More, pain can be tremendously isolating, disorienting, and frightening. Pain can be something over which we have no control. Worse, pain can be something inflicted upon us by someone else—by someone we don’t know, or by someone we love. Sometimes intentionally. Sometimes ruthlessly. Nonetheless, pain is something everyoneexperiences in one way or another.

Pain is one of those topics where in order to say anything about it, it seems we have to say many things about it—and to say them all at once; because to say any one thing about pain atone time is to seem like you are lying about the other aspects of pain. In other words, it’s hard to say one thing about pain without saying it wrong. And a lot of what feels like the truth about pain depends on one thing: are you currently in pain? Pain in retrospect is something entirely different from the experience of pain in the moment.

So because this is summer, and we can do things just a little differently. And because pain is such a multilayered, multifaceted topic—I want to do something just a little differently in this morning’s sermon. I’m offering this sermon in three movements. Each movement says something about pain, but none says all that could be said. I’m also not going to try to resolve the movements, or to tidy them up in a way that gives us all one solid thing to hold onto at the end.

My hope is, in offering a sermon in this form, that we end up saying some true things about pain. And, more, some true things that carry us ever into a more intimate, more sustaining relationship with the Eternal, Loving One.

Movement I: Anguish

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, eleven years ago, my friend’s daughter was driving to a church potluck, her brother sitting beside her, when a drunk driver plowed into their car and killed her instantly. Heather was an honors student in her senior year in college. She’d just come home two days earlier for winter break. She was engaged to be married, the date set for shortly after graduation that May.

That same morning, Heather had stood with the rest of her family at the front of the church, lighting the Advent candle. My friend, her father, was the choir director there. He had been my piano teacher, but also a mentor, and a confidante.

At Heather’s funeral, three days before Christmas, I watched as the family recessed after the service. Heather’s brother, just out of the hospital himself, with long months of surgeries and recovery stretched before him, walked slowly beside his mother. My friend Tom walked alone behind them. Anguish.

The book of Lamentations from which we read this morning’s scripture is a slim volume, only five chapters long. It is a book of poetry—passionate, evocative, powerful.

As laments do, the poems hold God by the collar and call God to account for the reality of death, destruction, violence, sickness, hunger, torture, and abuse. The overall tone is one of communal mourning—the City Jerusalem speaking for the whole of its people.

But the third chapter marks a significant break as it moves from the communal lament to the personal. It’s opening line—“I am the man who has seen affliction”—alerts us immediately to this shift. It is no longer Jerusalem speaking, but one man speaking for himself, recounting what he has seen with his own eyes. We are in a new vein, the intimate realm of the heart.

Several months after the funeral, I sat across from Tom in a diner. He told me that for days, he kept trying to physically shake the words of the police officer out of his head. He felt like he was going insane with it, just trying to get away from the words that had informed him of his daughter’s death. Then he looked me in the eye and said, in a voice held barely in check, “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore, but if God exists, I hope we never meet face-to-face.”

“God has made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from God” (3:16-18).

That day, Tom told me he’d been reading Shakespeare lately. “I find a lot more in Shakespeare than I do in scripture.” He said. This is what happens when scripture is sanitized and expurgated of anything visceral as it is in so many congregations—when we do not read together the texts of Lamentations and Job. In Tom’s experience, he was the first one to levy accusations against the divine. So he carried the even greater weight of particularity on his shoulders: the first and only one to rage at God.

Yet Tom wasn’t the first and only one to do this at all. The book of Lamentations, and Job, and many of the Psalms, provide us with models of just such behavior. What kind of God would allow such accusations to remain a part of that God’s Holy Scriptures?

For me, the answer is clear: a God who remains with us unflinchingly when we rage in despair; a God who absorbs in love all the blows we can muster; a God who desires and longs for us when we no longer know what we are capable of doing; a God whose ‘steadfast love never ceases, whose mercies never end, but are renewed every morning” (3:22-23).

All of this is true. But equally true was the rage and despair expressed by Tom and the poet of Lamentations 3. God’s love does not solve our anguish. Nor does our anguish unravel that love. Hope begins in the juxtaposition of the two, in the very collision of human anguish and God’s love. The swirling confusion, indeed the grace, is that neither one is diminished in the presence of the other.

A couple weeks ago I saw Tom again for the first time in ten years. As we sat together, talking about all that has happened over the years, it became quickly evident that Heather’s death—and his experience of grief—has been woven into the warp and woof of his everyday life. It isnot that the pain is diminished so much as it is always a part of everything he does.

The chord remains unresolved in Tom’s life, and always will be. Tom pointed out to me the photograph that hangs over the sofa in their living room. It’s a brilliant, vivid photograph of a tall tree, its branches sweeping down, a weeping willow. Tom tells me that their son John gave it to them at his wedding only a few months before. “I didn’t know what it was,” Tom said, “Until he told me. It is the tree they planted in Heather’s memory at her high school.” We gazed at the photograph for a while in silence. What is striking about it is not only how beautiful it is, but how tall the tree is.

Loss and grief—and anguish—and the passing of time. [1]

Movement 2: Isolation

When words fail. And they do fail. Harvard professor Elaine Scarry wrote a remarkable book called The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, in which she highlights for us the utter inexpressibility and incommunicability of pain. Pain defies description and therefore defies language; and in some cases erases language—reducing the sufferer to moans, groans, screams or whimpers. We don’t know how to tell others about our pain—words come up short. Even the doctor who asks us to measure our pain from 1 to 10 knows that everyone’s 1 and everyone’s 10 is different. And a number says next to nothing about how it actually feels.

It is in this sense that pain is unshareable. Virginia Woolf writes, “The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor, and language at once runs dry.” Elaine Scarry goes on to add, “True of the headache, Woolf’s account is of course more radically true of the severe and prolonged pain that may accompany cancer or burns or phantom limb or stroke…Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it." [2]

One of the (many) unfortunate consequences of the inexpressibility of pain is that the one who is feeling pain, knows it is there. But the one who is not feeling the pain, can’t quite be sure.

Many, many times as a mother, I have wished that my son and I each came with dataports where I could plug a usb cord into his dataport and then plug it into my own and then feel exactly what he is feeling. I thought of it a lot when he was only an infant, and couldn’t tell me why he was crying or where he hurt. But it is really no less true today if he comes home with a sore shoulder after pitching—just how does it hurt? I want to know. Is it a dull ache? or a sharp one? Is it sustained? In the front of the shoulder? Inside the shoulder? He will try to tell me, but the truth is, I can never know.

“To have pain is to have certainty,” writes Elaine Scarry. “To hear about pain is to have doubt.

Pain isolates because words fail. This is such an important thing to remember for those in our midst who are in the long, lonely wilderness of pain—whether it is the pain of a diagnosis, the pain of sustained illness, the chronic pain that some of us live with, or the pain of mental illness or addiction.

But there are also those who exploit the extent to which pain isolates—on the personal level—by those who abuse others. And on a communal/political level, by those who perpetrate torture. Pain in these contexts is deployed in order to separate people from one another. In order to break down relationship and connection. To isolate.

This is the pain experienced by Jesus who faced the torture perpetrated by the Empire of Rome. On the night before he was tortured to death, Jesus knew very well that the community that had formed around him was about to be torn apart. He was aware already that one of his disciples had been so gripped by anxiety that he had betrayed Jesus to those who would soon torture him. But more than that, Jesus knew that the dis-integration of his whole community was about to take place: his followers were about to abandon him and one another.

The effects of torture in the first century were the same as they are in the twenty-first century. The Center for Victims of Torture puts it succinctly: “Torture is the deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity. Torture’s purpose is to destroy a sense of community, eliminate leaders, and create a climate of fear.” [3]

It was precisely these forces that Jesus was confronting as he entered the week of his suffering. Jesus warned his disciples that they would all desert him because of what he was about to go through. He urged them to recognize that when the leader, the shepherd is eliminated, then the community, the flock, will be destroyed. Jesus knew that the torture he would face was intended to dismantle his identity and his humanity.

So he did the most remarkable thing. Before his humanity and his identity could be stripped away from him at the hands of the Empire, he gave himself away.

“This is my body,” he told his disciples—and they ate. “This is my blood,” he declared to them. And they drank. And in eating and drinking, they became—and we continue to become—the body of Christ. No longer an isolated individual, Jesus gave his identity away to his community of followers in such a way that—though they may disperse for a time—the Empire could not ultimately break that community apart.

As followers of Christ, we participate in the pain of one another—even in the midst of the isolation it perpetuates. Whether illness, abuse, or torture, to be the Body of Christ is to be present to one another, to refuse to give in to allowing another to be cast off and isolated. To be truth-tellers even when it is unpopular or even unsafe to do so. To provide places of safety, and places for story-telling, even unspeakable stories.

Movement 3: Power and Presence

It was in the experience of giving birth that I came to know, vividly and unforgettably, the power that resides in pain. In the weeks leading up to my due date, the midwife coached my birthing class, to understand that everything in Western culture teaches us to resist pain. We are taught to fight pain, to defeat pain, to defy pain. But labor pains are different, she said.

You should not resist labor pains, but enter into them. To fight pain, we tense up our muscles. But to work with pain, we must relax into it. One way to know if you are fighting pain, she advised us, is to notice if you are clenching your teeth or not. If your teeth are clenched, you are fighting the pain. You must instead relax your jaws, keep your teeth apart. Though your lips may be closed, your jaw should be slack.

You can also tell by the way you are vocalizing during labor. There is possibly no more resonant a sound than that of a woman groaning in labor pains. These groans arise from deep inside the laboring woman’s body, and accompany each wave of every contraction. As the contraction’s power rises and falls, so also do the groans—rising and falling in volume, but not, when most productively sounded, in pitch.

Groaning in labor pains, as my midwife coached, is part of what powers forth the birthing moment. Unlike the high pitched screams often heard in popularized, Hollywood depictions of labor, the groaning of labor pains are at their most powerful when the woman’s jaw is relaxed, and her pitch is low, deep, and rich. If the pitch rises, this a cue to the midwife that the laboring woman is tensing up, resisting the pain, and fighting the contraction rather than working with it.

The pain of labor, in my experience, creates its own space and its own time. But it is a space and time that is also utterly aware of this space and time. The contractions, as they grow in force and power, become absolute. They are all. Everything. There is nothing else but the contraction, the sound of the labor groans, the entering, the heart, the easing, and the absence.

The pain of labor is different from other pain because it is meaningful from the start—the woman in labor knows why she is in pain. It is a hopeful pain, though by no means danger-free—the hoped-for outcome is life, though many of us have known deeply painful other endings of labor.

But the force embodied in that pain is nothing less than the force of life. The pain of all of life is distilled in those contractions. The birthing woman must find a way to work with that power, not resist it, indeed become pain and power itself to bring forth life.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22).

The early Christian mystic Paul wrote this to the Christian believers in Rome. All of creation groans with the resonant groans of labor. We are all caught up in those labor pains those contractions of a cosmos longing to birth forth loving relationship and reconciliation.

The groans ride on the power of the birthing cosmos. It is a pain that is absolute. It is everything. And like every pain, it defies language. In fact, at times, our prayers themselves come to a place of utter wordlessness, and it is at these times that the Spirit prays on our behalf. Paul goes on to say, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Creation groaning, the absolute power and pain of labor, the failure of words, the threat of annihilation, and the Spirit who prays on our behalf, with sighs, not words.

“Ah,” says Pat as she lays on her deathbed, holding the polished stone with a hole through its center: “Now I see. This is the way through.” [See Barbara Brown Taylor’s “The Practice of Feeling Pain” in Altars in the World, pages 107-108 for this story.]

The Spirit, praying with sighs too deep for words, carries us through (not away from, notaround) but through the pain, with hands that press down on both our shoulders so we can feel how heavy love can be. [Taylor, pages 107-108].

When we midwife one another through the painful moments we know something more of God’s faithful presence and promise. When we rage, when we feel alone, when we ride into the heart of pain, when words fail, the Spirit sighs—and in all of these: God.


[1] Much of the above story comes from an article I have published previously under a pseudonym.

[2] See Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, introduction. In this astounding book, Scarry investigates the intersections between the inexpressibility of pain and the political implications of this inexpressibility. William T. Cavanaugh drew powerfully on Scarry's work in his own remarkable book Torture and Eucharist.

[3] “Effects of Psychological Torture,” The Center for Victims of Torture,, accessed August 21, 2011. For more information about psychological effects of torture, see the 135-page report Break Them Down: Systematic Use ofPsychological Torture by U.S. Forces from Physicians for Human Rights, available in pdf from, accessed August 21, 2011.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Digging in the Ground of Being

by Sandy Mitchell

How about that for timing? During the week that we are reading the chapter of "An Altar in the World" that deals with physical labor, a new poet laureate of the US was named--Philip Levine. One of his most popular books of poetry is titled "What Work Is." Another of his books of poetry is #110 on Amazon's best seller list---a rare occurrence for a book of poetry. To be honest, I had never heard of him before, but I am fascinated by his background. He was born and educated in Detroit and worked in auto factories. At the time he hated physical labor, but then he realized that his work in the factories enabled him to read and write poetry, which is what he did during his off hours. The quote on the back of the bulletin lets us know how he feels about physical labor. I have always been in awe of people who have physical skills that are a mystery to me.

So as I looked at this week's chapter of Barbara Brown Taylor's book, I particularly loved the section about digging potatoes that Doug read for us. Chapter by chapter she shares with us how she learned to encounter God far beyond the walls of the church. In a nutshell (reading from the book flap) "she is teaching us to discover the sacred in the small things we do and see from simple practices such as walking, working, and prayer. Something as simple as hanging clothes on a clothesline becomes an act of meditation if we pay attention to what we are doing and take time to notice the sights, smells, and sounds around us. Making eye contact with the cashier at the grocer store becomes a moment of true human connection. Allowing yourself to get lost leads to new discoveries (I really liked that chapter----that's what our family loves to do). As we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, we begin to discover altars everywhere we go, in nearly everything we do. Through Taylor's expert guidance and delicate, thought-provoking prose, we learn to live with purpose, pay attention, slowdown, and practice reverence." I love book flaps---they tell so much that sometimes you don't have to read the book!

Now back to today's chapter---I don't dig potatoes, but I love digging and caring for our garden surrrounding our house. My love of gardening came from my grandmother and my dad. When my parents came to visit us each summer, my dad was soon in our backyard seeing what he could pick. Those of you who have lemon trees know that the lemons can stay on the tree for months, thereby allowing a gardener to pick the fruit as needed. Coming from East Texas, my dad was not familiar with that concept. There when the fruit was ripe, you better pick it quickly.

Well, one summer I came home from work to find my dad very proud of the fact that he had harvested every single lemon on the tree! As the old saying goes, when you are given a lemon, make lemonade. By golly, we made lots of lemonade! We ended up squeezing lemons and freezing the juice---that worked too! Instead of going to the lemon tree to pick a lemon, I went to the freezer and got out a cube of lemon juice.

When our grandchildren come to visit, one of the first questions they often ask is, "What can we pick?" As Eliza came in the door on my birthday, she asked, "Can we pick some cherries or some blackberries, Grandmom?"

I will often say to Rick, "I'm going outside for a few minutes." Those minutes usually end up being an extended period of time. It is there that I feel grounded, close to Mother Earth, surrounded by creation.

Recently a praying mantis landed on my forearm. He/she, such a good critter for the garden, just rested there and looked at me---must have been wondering what kind of big plant I was. When I encouraged it to get to work on my plants, it hopped over to my other arm. That praying mantis and I experienced a small "altar in the backyard."

In my stream of consciousness about God and groundedness I thought back to the Dark Ages when I was a college student. A person whose writings were meaningful to me was Paul Tillich, the German-born theologian, who called God the "Ground of Being." The "Ground of Being"----that has stuck with me through all these years and is still helpful to me.

While we were still in college in Texas, Rick and I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Paul Tillich. Trying to understand him with his heavy German accent was a challenge, but it was an honor to be in his presence.

As I was preparing for today, I decided to learn more about Tlllich's life. I was fascinated to learn that his interest in theology began as a 12 year old when he was sent to boarding school. He was very lonely, and one way he tried to overcome his homesickness was to read the Bible. He eventually earned a doctor of philosophy degree and was ordained as a Lutheran minister. He lectured all over Germany but in 1933 came under fire from Hitler. Soon he was invited to Union Seminary in New York City and moved there with his family.

At age 47 he learned English (this knowledge made me much more tolerant of his strong German accent), and later wrote some of his most important works in English. He taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1962 when he took a position at the University of Chicago. Paul Tillich is considered by many to be one of the few great theologians.

For me personally I am grateful to him for the term "Ground of Being" and for his phrase describing faith as "Ultimate Concern."

The people of Shell Ridge---you---have demonstrated "ultimate concern" to me over the almost 45 years that we have been associated with this congregation. Most recently when I was briefly hospitalized and 3 years ago when I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. At that time I felt that my world as I had known it was falling apart. Day after day the tears would not stop. I remember sitting in the choir with tears streaming down my cheeks. Later I learned that crying is part of the disease. After all, 80% of the dopamine in my body was gone by the time I was diagnosed. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. It also helps regulate movement and emotional responses. So I was a basket case because of the diagnosis and the lack of dopamine.

But you were there for me with hugs of support, with prayers, with cards, with words of encouragement, with food, and with information about where to turn for a support group---thank you, Carol, Kay, and Dorothy. Most recently you have been there with transportation help.

During the fall after I was diagnosed, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with our Ashland and Berkeley kids here to celebrate helped me get me on track. I could not do much in the kitchen except direct Melissa, Sharon, and Jodie. The flood of tears finally slowed down after taking a trip with Kent, Sharon, Devin, and Eliza. It was amazing how a week with 2 precious grandchildren could distract me from my own heartache.

Now I am trying to help others who are facing that devastating diagnosis----I have been there and know how it feels, as many of you know what it is like to receive unwelcome medical news. I am trying to lemonade with the lemons I have been given. Thanks for the "ultimate concern" that you have shown to me and others within this faith community.

Some of you know my last story, but others do not. This chapter of "ultimate concern" began at the pre-school that both Kent and Melissa attended. It was a coop pre-school, and I was one of the moms doing my last scheduled day of being a teacher's helper. The assignment that I was given was a craft project for the kids that involved cutting pieces of yarn for each child. I was sitting in the teacher's spot at a kidney-shaped table like we have in our nursery. For some reason, I was given a serrated knife to cut the pieces of yarn. The children had to wait a few seconds as I cut their pieces.

But there was a little hyperactive boy named Bart, who could not wait, so he quickly moved behind me, picked up the knife, and proceeded to cut his own piece. Unfortunately the tip of the knife blade ended up in my left eye.

I was rushed to the hospital where a specialist examined my eye for one solid hour. At the end of that time, he had me hospitalized in the area closest to the operating room because he wanted as little movement as possible. To that end, he bandaged both of my eyes and instructed me to be as still as possible. Surgery would probably be scheduled for the next day, he said.

Well, it was the worst of timing and the best of timing: the worst of timing because it was the Friday that we were to leave for our all-church retreat, an event that our family loved to attend. Another friend and I were leading the Bible study session, and the text was about Bartimaeus, the blind man healed by Jesus. Now it turns out that I am the blind one.

It was the best of timing because our congregation was together that weekend and upheld me in their prayers and concern. Our pastor, Dale Edmondson, came to the hospital to see me and pray with me on his way to the retreat.

To make a long story short, the next morning the same doctor came back to see me. When he removed the bandages, he was amazed at what he saw. He told me that if he had not performed the initial exam himself, he would not have believed the amount of healing that had occurred.

I was not completely out of the woods----still had to endure 6 weeks of bedrest (not too easy with a 4 year old and a 7 year old), and I was told that I would never be able to wear contact lens again. The bottom line is that I did completely recover, and I can wear a contact.

I know that a modern day miracle occurred that weekend, and the "ultimate concern" of my faith community made a difference.

As we sang in the hymn "Bring Many Names," there are many ways to think of God. A few decades ago I opened a prayer with "Dear Father and Mother of us all.." After the service an elderly friend (hummm...he must have been about my age) stopped me and commented that he had never heard of such a thing----God as Mother. Now I can think of God in so many different ways, but I still hark back to the "Ground of Being" and to the idea of "Ultimate Concern."

For me that is the foundation of my faith, my "digging in the Ground of Being."

Go knowing that God, the "Ground of Being," is always with you----in the work that you do and in your deepest valleys.
Go recognizing the little miracles around you----the praying mantis, the laughter of a child, the touch of another human being.
Go in peace with renewed energy for the week ahead.

Monday, August 01, 2011

No title Sermon

The title of my meditation today is “No.” This is a No title sermon. No is one of the first words we learn as children. Why? Well the world is a dangerous place and the people around us are trying to protect us. No, don’t touch that hot stove. No, don’t run out into the street. No you can’t eat candy for dinner. And children learn to say No back. Working in a toy store I hear No a lot, especially when it is time to leave. There are many different kinds of No. There is the casual, No. You hear the parent say, “C’mon its time to go.” “No,” the kid replies as if the say is equal. Sometimes you get the curt, “No.” Strong. Defiant. Like a rock. And once in a while if you are really lucky and it is close to nap time or mealtime you get the long pronounced whiny, “Noooooooo,” which is usually followed by a full blown melt down.

Yes, kids in a toy store have no trouble saying no. But as we age, yes becomes much more popular. People love hearing yes. Just imagine the toy store parents asking their kids, “Are you ready to leave?” and receiving a resounding “Yes.” I guarantee you will have happy parents there. Yes makes for happy bosses, friends, co-workers, pastors, people asking for money, people asking for time. Yes is polite, whereas No is such a rude word.

But can we reclaim the No? As many of us read in Altar in the World this week, one way of reclaiming the No is by observing the Sabbath. Now observing the Sabbath means so much more than coming to church on Sunday. Though it is good to worship and partake in community, taking Sabbath is so much more. For starters it is a whole day. A day of saying No to the obligations of the world and taking the time for yourself and for God.
There are three points of Sabbath. The first is rest. You have to rest. God wants you to rest. In fact there is Biblical precedent for it. Genesis 2 begins,
And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had done, and rested on the seventh day from all the work that had been done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that was done in creation. God does two things here. God rests and blesses the day and hallows it. This is the first thing in the Bible that is hallowed. Before this everything was good, but the day of rest was hallowed. I find it interesting that these two things, the resting and the blessing are inseparable. So if it helps, you can think of resting as a holy practice. It was so holy in fact that it was made into one of the 10 Commandments.

Another way of looking at this story is from a historical perspective. The creation story was written by a culture centuries ago that clearly valued rest. For whatever reason rest from the week’s work was important. In fact rest was so valuable that when they told the creation story to one another, they depict God resting. Their God was not at war with other gods, murdering his siblings, but resting peacefully. Rest achieves the value of being a Godly act.

Does rest retain that same value today? Do we honor the commandment? In modern society where stores are open 24/7, where a thousand channels of television bombards us without end, where people working 2 and 3 jobs to feed their families are common, where is Sabbath? Where is rest? One might think that it is gone, that the concept of Sabbath is an ancient idea whose time has past. But I disagree. I think that because it has lost so much value by the world’s (or at least American) standards, it is even more important that we try to reclaim its value. Take back the importance of rest. Make it more important than constant work. And one of the only ways that we can do that is through practice. By practicing Sabbath, we give it the value that it deserves. We honor its holiness.

After rest comes rejuvenation. This is the 2nd aspect of Sabbath, rejuvenation. When I lived in New York, I worked out with my neighbor, Johnny, who as it happens was a former bodybuilder. Anyone who trains professionally will tell you that you cannot work out every muscle every day. It will never get stronger that way. You need to give it time to rest and recuperate. It is during that time that the muscle rebuilds. You know you get that good soreness. Just like physical muscles in a workout, our spiritual muscles need time to rest and rejuvenate as well. This is a function of Sabbath.

At first this can be quite tough. One thing that can happen is what I call activity withdrawal. People who thrive on speed and work find it hard to take time for themselves. They cannot sit without feeling guilty, feeling like they don’t deserve this time of rest, feeling like they have to take care of that one last thing. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you have suffered from activity withdrawal. In these times it is helpful to remember that this time is mandated by God. It is a gift that we are not only invited to use, but ordered to use. And the benefits of rejuvenation more than make up for the time that is “lost.”

But sitting by ourselves and with God can have other difficulties as well. Have you ever been in a car with a pile of stuff precariously balanced in the back seat? As long as you are maintaining a constant speed everything is fine. However, if something happens and you have to slam on the brakes, everything comes crashing down on you. Stopping everything in our lives can be a very similar experience. Busyness and constant motion has a way of keeping things at bay. But when we stop, when we take that Sabbath time to reflect, years of baggage can come crashing down. And it can be painful. It can leave us with sore spiritual muscles.

This process can be like a relationship. Oftentimes in some of my relationships, there have been problems or things that I have been neglecting, but they go unnoticed because there is just so much to do. Then when there is a break, or a time of rest, those issues come to the forefront. Like the junk from the backseat. Sometimes they caused an end to that relationship. But other times they provided an opportunity. Those issues gave me pause. They gave me something to think about, a way of reflecting on the relationship. And after sitting with the issues, and dealing with them, the relationship became stronger. Rejuvenated.

The same process can work with our relationship with God and our spiritual selves. When we first take a break, there might be some stuff that cascades from the back seat. It might be hard to address. But it also might give us that opportunity for reflection and growth and rejuvenation. Scripture can be very helpful during this time. There is wisdom there that has been gathered over ages by people reflecting on these notions. They can bring us comfort by assuring us that God is with us. We can flip to a proverb and meditate on the wisdom within. Or read a psalm and see the trust in God that it promotes. We can look to the life of Jesus and as a way of being mindful about out own lives. Birds of air/Lillies of the field. Filled with the wisdom and assurance of the scriptures, we can come out of Sabbath not just rested, but rejuvenated as well.

One of the reasons that I loved working out with Johnny was that he had been there before. At the front of his small gym were three pictures of him from his days of bodybuilding competition. He knew the process of building muscle. He knew that it required times of rest. And he respected those days. Respect. This is our third aspect of Sabbath. One of the results of our taking Sabbath is that we will come to respect that day, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

In the second scripture that Kay read for us Isaiah is blasting some of the leaders for their abuse of the Sabbath. His claim is that they are pious and believe that they are following the Sabbath because they pray to God and then they wonder why God does not see them. Isaiah has no problem spelling it out. He tells them that they have lost respect for what the Sabbath truly means. He speaks for God saying, you think that this is the kind of Sabbath I care about? No way. You fill your own needs and oppress your workers. No, I want the kind where you clothe the naked, feed the poor, and let the oppressed go free. In short, he is saying that Sabbath is about respect. Respect for the Sabbath means respect for one another. This kind of respect is what the Sabbath is all about.

Laws that were written around the Sabbath idea were intended to promote respect and equality for one another. First among people. No one was permitted to work on the Sabbath. This rule was not meant to limit people from working when they wanted to, but to limit masters from making their servants work. It was intended as a protection against the powerful. And it did not stop at just work. The forgiveness of debts was also a part of Sabbath law. Again the intent was to prevent the powerful from taking too much advantage of the meager. In modern times when the ideal is to get ahead by any means necessary, valuing respect and equality is a revolutionary alternative.

Similar laws were written for the land. Every 7 years the land was to lay fallow so that it too could rest and recuperate. Any farmers out there? You know about crop rotation? As you might know, crops steal nutrients from the soil. Every few years it is good to plant nothing so that the land can revive itself and regain those nutrients. Again this is a law meant to limit the powerful landowners from abusing their land. Today as we bombard the planet with factories, pollution, over-farming, over-fishing, over-logging, and just plain overuse, we would be wise to look at the philosophy of the Sabbath and give the land some respect. This does not mean that we have to stop everything altogether, but at least let’s give the planet a bit of a Sabbath. Let it just be for a while.

Rest Rejuvenation Respect. 3 R’s that I invite you to think about in choosing time for your own Sabbath.

Though in this modern world, we may not all take our Sabbath at the same time, we can all respect each other’s need for Sabbath. We can learn to see the word “No” in a positive light. We should not longer be afraid to stand up a say no. Because No means that we will not work ourselves to the point of nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. No means that we will not put unnecessary demands on those around us. No means that we will not allow consumerism to run our lives. No means that we do not have to destroy more trees for catalogs. No means that we will not farm the land until it is unfit to grow anything. No means that we will not patronize places that treat their workers unfairly. And finally No means that we will not let our spiritual needs go unfulfilled. No means rest. No means rejuvenation. And No means respect. Amen