Sunday, June 8, 2008

Don't Worry, We're Having a Hanami Party, Part 3

Matthew 6:25-34; 1 Kings 19:9-13 WPC, June 8, 2008

Prayer: Breath in God’s mercies…Breath out God’s mercies on others (3x)1

Week three, our final week (not counting church family camp) of examining our often worried filled lives, while contemplating Jesus’ words: Don’t worry, set your heart on God’s kingdom, and all these things will be given you as well.

And finally I get a chance to tell the joke I’d been waiting to tell since we started: What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches? A nervous wreck.

Often our lives are so full of worry because we’ve got so much going on inside our minds and all around us that we begin to sink; we get overwhelmed with all the many things to do, and because we wonder if any of it really matters.

When we look at Jesus’ life we see that he was busy: Mark 1:32-39:

The whole city was gathered around the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons….In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

His companions hunted for him. And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in synagogues and casting out demons. Jesus was busy…we’re busy..but some of you may have noticed last week that I kind of skipped over a verse that really sticks out about Jesus daily life:
In the morning, before dawn,

he slipped out of bed, went off by himself, and there he prayed.

Which leads us to this morning’s topic: How do we get from our worry filled life to the life of the Spirit? Do we just wait for the Spirit to blow away our worries?

Is there anything we can do, right now that will help us have less worry in our lives? Just what we need, another thing to add to our to do list. If we look at Jesus life, we see that he was always listening for God’s voice; seeking to do the will of the Father. And we read in 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah did not encounter God in the mighty wind or in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the small voice (see 1 Kings 19:9-13). But how do we find space in our lives where it is quiet enough to listen for this small still voice?

Frankly, Our lives are absurd. We’re bombarded by outer noises and distractions: tv. radio, phones, computers. As well as the inner noises: our worries, fears, voices from our past, concerns about the future. Absurd! In the word absurd we find the Latin word surdus, (sordo) which means “deaf.” We’ve become deaf, even if God called to us with a mega phone we’d probably miss it: “What’d you say God? Hang on the phone’s ringing.”
Father Henry Nouwen,
2 who’s been our guide these past weeks, suggests that we need discipline… [obedience last week, discipline this week—wpc boot camp] …spiritual discipline, so that we can learn to listen to God. God constantly speaks, we rarely hear. When we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives. nother Latin lesson: the word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” With spiritual discipline we may move slowly from absurdity to obedience, from a life filled with noise to a life with some quiet inner space ready to listen to our God.
Jesus was obedient because he was always listening, always attentive to God’s voice. Jesus was “all ears.” That is true prayer: being all ears for God. Makes me think differently about prayer…instead of me filling empty space with bubbling words, prayer becomes quiet listening, obediently before the presence of God who prays in us.
But, I’ve got a problem, obedience and discipline are hard for me, have been since I was a kid: Always on my progress report in elementary school… you’d see decent grades…you’d see Satisfactory marks in most areas, but when it came to “Follows directions/ Listens well” there was always an N, non-satsifactory!
But if there is something I can do to have less worry in my life…I’ll consider it.
If there is something I can do to grow closer to my God…I want to do it!
Nouwen, proposes two disciplines that may help us to “set our hearts on the kingdom.” Disciplines of prayer. Solitude and Community. Today we’re just going to focus on solitude, and at church-family camp we’ll pick up on the other.
It was pretty cool. At Thursday’s bible study, we were talking about things that we could do that would draw us closer to God, that would help us to become better listeners for God’s voice, and everyone agreed that a time of quiet solitude was the key! Can we live a spiritual life without solitude? Everyone pretty much said it would be really hard. Just as it is pretty hard to practice solitude! But everyone considered it essential in our walk with God. We explored what solitude looks like. A time and place for God alone. Jesus said, “Go to your private room and, when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place.”
How we spend this time in solitude can be as different for each of us as we are different from each other. It could be the corner of a room in our home—even a large closet—a comfortable chair outside; a quiet walk. Postures will vary: kneeling, sitting, downward dog. You may place objects in this space: a cross, a candle, a plant, flowers, or bible verses. Nouwen says, The simpler we keep it the better; simple posture that is comfortable. An uncluttered place is better; and the more consistent we are the better. A daily practice of ten minutes of solitude is probably better than a whole hour once in a while. But we have to decide how this discipline best fits us, so we can remain faithful.
Easier said than done. Alone, No one to talk with; just there, nothing to do no books to read, no TV to watch, no phone calls to make or receive. This makes me nervous, and in silence an inner chaos opens up. All that noise inside us that we don’t hear because of all the noise going on outside us…comes to the surface. A chaos so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again.
This is what happens when I lie down to take a nap. I close my eyes and my mind gets flooded by all the things I should be doing…SO I get up. This inner chaos is what Trasie’s cousin Drew experienced when he came over to our house to spend the night. He was 16 at the time, and while he thought we were pretty cool, he thought it was really weird that we didn’t have a tv. When it came time to go to bed, he and I were sitting in his room talking, and when I started to leave he got really nervous…Um Chester, you think I could watch a movie on the computer or something, I don’t want to be left in here by myself, without out something, with just my thoughts…I get freaked out by my thoughts.

Entering a quiet space with no tv or music doesn’t mean that we shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. Wonderful suggestions about how to treat these distractions were given by the Thursday noon bible study group:

Sherl said that she puts distractions on a moving picture screen and eventually they just move along out of her mind.

Joseph said that when he first moves into that quiet place, he envisions a storm that is all the distractions that would fill his mind…and in his mind he calms the storm and the distractions go away. Focusing on breath is something else that was mentioned. Breath in God’s mercies, Breath out God’s mercies on others. Maybe we recite a psalm Christel suggested Psalm 23; we can think of a parable or a favorite bible story; maybe we memorize a saying of Jesus, or a word of Paul, Peter, or Mary, (I couldn’t resist this distraction!)

One of the early Christian writers describes the first state of solitary prayer as the experience of a man who, after years of living with open doors, suddenly decides to shut them. The visitors who used to come and enter his home start pounding on his doors, wondering why they are not allowed to enter. Only when they realized that they are not welcome do they gradually stop coming. This is the experience of anyone who decides to enter into solitude after a life without much spiritual discipline. At first, the many distractions keep presenting themselves. Later, as they receive less and less attention, they slowly withdraw.”4

We just have to stick to it and trust that these inner distractions will go away. All this to help us to focus our attention on God’s presence. At the end of this time of quiet dwelling with God we may, prayer for people who are part of our lives, friends as well as enemies. And why not conclude with the words that Jesus himself taught us: the Our Father?

Easier said than done? Yoga master Rodney Yee, who is on the DVD Trasie and I have says of his yoga exercises: “In the beginning the benefits of these exercises may seem small, but as you continue I believe you will find the rewards are truly great.”5 It’s the same way with this discipline. During the first days, weeks, or even months, it may feel like a waste of time. I’ve been attempting to practice solitude for the past several weeks, (trying to practice what I preach). It’s tough.

There are too many reasons not to be alone, so many things to do. But Nouwen assures us that when we stick to our discipline, in the conviction that God is with us even when we do not yet hear, we slowly discover that we do not want to miss our time alone with God. Although we do not experience much satisfaction in our solitude, we realize that a day without solitude is less “spiritual” than a day with it. “And eventually, our hearts become like quiet cells where God can dwell, wherever we go and whatever we do.” We can recognize God even in the midst of a busy and active life. Our hearts become set on God, our distractions and worries are transformed into something new.

Can we handle five or ten minutes a day? Maybe some are ready or already spend an hour a day, an afternoon a week, a day every month, or a week every year. Make it part of your schedule, if anyone tries to schedule something during that time…you can say, “Sorry I’ve got another appointment at that time…and then under your breath…with God.”

Solitude is one discipline Nouwen proposes. ‘Through the discipline of solitude we discover space for God in our innermost being.” I’ve also put in the insert other practices which may help to bring quiet to our lives, and give us rest.

What we’re hoping for in our lives, what we’re trying to accomplish is to allow the presence of God to become real for us in all we do, say, or think. It is then that our hearts become focused on God’s kingdom and our worries slowly are transformed into something new.

I want to conclude by saying that I’m really blown away by this idea of not worrying and setting our hearts on God’s kingdom. I do worry a lot. I worry about my actions. I worry about hurting someone by doing or saying the wrong thing. I worry about what others think of me. I worry about what God may think of me. I have a fear of failure and deep desire to be successful (whatever that means). And at times I become a nervous wreck. But as I have begun these practices and really given thought to this concept of not worrying; of looking at birds and flowers and how God cares for these things. I realize that God cares for me too. And that as I seek to set my heart on God’s kingdom, I discover that the intentions of my heart what really matter. DO I have a pure heart with pure intentions? Is it my intention to hurt someone or offend someone by what I say or do? Am I genuinely trying to seek God’s will in my life and in other’s lives? If so, do I have to fear failure or worry so much about what others may think of me.
So I think that has been the biggest thing I’ve learned during this time….and I think I am worrying less because of it, especially when I see birds in the air, and lilies in the field.
I pray that you too have come away from this time with less worry and more focus on God’s kingdom!
If you’d like, write down a commitment you’d like to make to spending time in solitude. And you can put it in the offering plate, show it to a friend or family member, or take it home with you. But give it a shot if you’re not already doing so..and my god find a dwelling place in your heart.

1 Prayer offered by Rodger Nishioka before classes began at Columbia Theological Seminary.
For this three unit series based on Matthew 6:25-34, I have used Henry Nouwen’s book, Making All Things New as a guide.
(Matthew 6:6).
4 Nouwen, Making All Things New, p.
Rodney Yee, Beginner’s YOGA,” DVD edition by GAIAM.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Don’t Worry, we’re having an Hanami Party! Part 2

Matthew 6:25-34 and Romans 12 (selected verses) and Job 38 (selected verses)

Today we continue our look at this radical concept of Jesus. DON”T WORRY!1

Don’t worry about food, what you wear…

Try telling that to a two year old. My nephew Henry is entering the terrible two phase according to his grandparents. They went out to eat last night at one of those restaurants that’s in-between fast food and sit down—where you order at the counter and your food comes about 15 to 20 minutes later. Well, the food didn’t come. The food of other people who had come in after the party with nephew Henry had come, but not theirs. As Henry begins to express a little discomfort and dissatisfaction with his predicament: his concerned father goes to try figure out what’s going on. People who came in after nephew Henry and his party have finished their meals and are leaving. Henry is starting to throw things and really pitch a fit, so he has to go outside, too. His father goes to check on the situation again. Finally the food comes as does the manager to apologize and offer a meal on the house. But Henry didn’t care about the free meal, he just wanted food.

Sure would be nice to live a life without worry. But do you ever feel like it just doesn’t seem possible? Other than food and clothes, our busy lives are filled with activity: Work, school, relationships, church, television, hospitals, other people’s demands on our lives.

And even during the down time our lives are filled with worry: Bills, Health, relationships, wars, natural disasters, global warming, politics, things we’ve said, things we’ve done, yesterday’s struggles, tomorrow’s trouble.

Filled lives yet, we so often feel unfulfilled! We get bored even though we’ve got so much going on: Does what we do make a difference? Does anyone even care? This can lead to resentment, and even to depression and loneliness: Does anything really matter?

We know this road and the problems that may come with worry: but we still worry.

We can imagine singing all the time “Don’t worry, be happy,” but is it realistic?

Jesus tells those who would listen: Do not worry, set your heart on God’s Kingdom first, and all these things well be given you as well. How dare he say something like that!? No te preocupes! What does it mean? Does it mean we should cut back on all the events, activities, and people that make up our lives? Is he saying that the things we do that cause us worry are unimportant, a waste of time, even useless? Don’t worry: does this mean we’re supposed to pack up our things and move to a secluded commune in Alaska…it’s cold there.

No te preocupes: Set your heart on God’s kingdom. This is Jesus’ challenge to us today.

Can we experience newness in all the things we’ve got going in our lives? Shift our center of gravity? Shift our focus from the many things to the one necessary thing. It seems like Jesus doesn’t preach a message in which we change our activities, our contacts in our address book, or even a change of pace; but there is a change that he preaches: a change of heart! Set your hearts on God’s kingdom. And with such a change in heart we may be wonderfully surprised, or perhaps surprisingly shocked at how things change, how things become new even if from the outside things look kind of the same; you still get out of bed, eat, go about your daily tasks, interact with people, lay your head down at night and sleep.

Jesus seems to be saying: When we worry, we have our hearts all over the place and in the wrong places. Don’t worry, move your hearts to the center where all other things fall into place. So let’s see if Jesus practiced what he preached. Passage from Mark 1:32-39:

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. His companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

A day in the life. So was Jesus busy? A filled life? He’s teaching, preaching, healing, exorcising demons, confronting opposition, going from one place to another. He’s like a fanatic, so driven to engage and move and preach the good news of God anywhere and everywhere. But if we look deeper at what motivated him, at where his focus was we see things are different. He did many things but was concerned about one thing: to do the will of God.

In the gospel of Luke his first words were in the Temple: “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?” (Luke 2:49), and his last words before the resurrection were on the cross: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Luke 23:46). Other places in the new testament we read: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing” (Jn 5:19). Now how was Jesus able to live this way?

What was his motivation when he got up out of bed in the morning? What drove him day in and day out?

From what I can tell, there are two words that answer these questions: obedience and love. Jesus was obedient about do the will of the Father. Obedience can be a troubling word for many of us. Obedience suggests an asymmetrical power dynamic. I’m more powerful than you so you better do what I say. Obedience can imply potential threats of punishment. How many parents have answered protesting children with “you better do what I say or else? “But, Why?” Because I’m your mother, and I said so!” Is it safe to say Jesus’ relationship with the Father was different: his obedience was a total, fearless listening to a loving voice. Threats and secrets and power struggles did not exist. A relationship of mutual sharing; a relationship of radical love.

A love that includes yet transcends all forms of love known to us. The love between the Father and the Son is a love that includes the love of a father and mother, a husband and wife, a sister and brother, a teacher and friend. But it goes beyond the various loving relationships we’ve experienced. It is caring yet demanding. Supportive yet severe. Gentle yet strong. Life giving yet accepts death. This is the love—the Holy Spirit—the love, that eternally embraces and holds together the relationship between Jesus and the Father; it is this communion of love that is the center and source for Jesus’ spiritual life, a life of total focus on God’s love. And from this, Jesus activity in the world comes.

Can we be part of this intimate community? IS this something that we seek for ourselves? I get a little nervous about this kind of relationship. I get nervous about intimacy and sharing…It’s a wonder I’m even married.

But at the same time, I’m drawn to this kind of love. This kind of radical obedience, this focus on the one thing and from this one thing comes all of the other things.

So we have to ask ourselves: Are our lives destined to become like Jesus’ Life? This gets tricky. I mean: sometimes I think about Jesus and the way he lived his life I think, no way. I can’t be like that, it’s just kind of one of those things far out there, eyes on the prize but never getting there. Sometimes I look at the way Jesus lived his life and because I’m such a miserable sinful human being I’ve got him singing a theme song: “You can’t touch this.” Besides, things are different now than they were then, it’s not realistic to be like Jesus right?

Do we feel this way about our relationship with Jesus sometimes? Why? What was Jesus’ life for? He came to live in obedient love and to show anyone and everyone a better way, the way of love; life lived in tune with God’s Spirit. And he invites us to follow, follow him to our true home, where we can be who we really are. Follow me, is what he says, not “you can try to follow, but you probably won’t be able to keep up.”

Everything that belongs to Jesus was given to disciples (Jn15:15). All that Jesus does we can also do (Jn 14:12). In God’s kingdom, NO one is a second class citizens; no one is an illegal immigrant, we are given all rights and privileges. And Jesus wants us to be where he is: He prays in John 17: “Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you… may they be so completely one that the world will realize…that I have loved them as much as you loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am…so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them.” Jesus became like us so that we might become like him. And this means a radical transformation of everything in our lives because of a total transformation of the focus of our lives.

We are converted, every day, perhaps suddenly or through a gradual transformation. It involves an inner experience of oneness. It is a life in which we are totally transformed by the Spirit of love. Yet, again, it is strangely a life in which everything seems to remain the same.

What twitches at the bottom of the ocean? A nervous wreck. When I was in high school I was a nervous wreck. I was pimple faced, my voice cracked, skinny, scared of girls, unsure of myself. I could pretend that I wasn’t this way and try to act tough, but deep down I was so self-conscious. After graduation, going off to school was a good thing,

I was able to grow-up a bit, but really, it was when I went off to school that I began to experience my relationship with God in new ways. I grew closer to God, and fell more deeply in love with God. And things began to change. I found I didn’t worry so much about the clothes I was wearing or how other’s perceived me. Well, I still worried about what girls thought of me, but even in relationships I began to trust God more. I still did what I was doing before: I studied (kind of), played soccer, hung out, volunteered and worked, but I was focused on something different and everything began to become different. I was reminded of this this weekend by a picture of me and three highschool friends our senior year. One of my friends in the picture and I were hanging out three or four years after graduation and she said to me…Topple, you seem different.

I don’t know what it is but you just seem to have more confidence. She knew me as the nervous worried wreck!

I am no great example but I have experienced this gradual transformation of a worry filled life to a less worry filled life. To live life in the Spirit means that everything is different, but it doesn’t necessarily mean everything that we start doing completely new things. A lot of people think that deepening our relationship with God means that we have to leave our families, our jobs; that we have to give up social or political activities, or abstain from literature and art because we’re too busy praying all the time. Some changes in our lives may in fact grow out of our spiritual life, and for some people radical decisions may be necessary.

But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people. “What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God. What’s new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What’s new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.”

When we shift our focus to the center: our conflicts and pains, our tasks and promises, our families and friends, our activities and projects, our hopes and aspirations, no longer appear to us as things we have to do and wear us out, but rather as affirmations and revelations of the new life of the Spirit in us. “All these other things,” which so occupied and preoccupied us, now come as gifts or challenges that strengthen and deepen the new life which we have discovered. We know things don’t get easier or that our pain suffering will end. But our attention is no longer directed to the “more or less.” What matters is to listen… Listen for the Spirit and to go obediently where we are being led, whether to a joyful or a painful place. Poverty, pain, struggle, anguish, agony, and even inner darkness may continue to be part of our experience. They may even be God’s way of purifying us. But life is no longer boring, resentful, depressing, or lonely

because we have come to know that everything that happens is part of our way to God.

But this leaves us with a difficult question: “Is there a way to move from our worry filled life to the life of the Spirit? Must we simply wait passively until the Spirit comes along and blows away our worries? Or are there ways we can prepare ourselves? Is there anything we can do? Well, let’s take a look again at this next week.

In the mean time continue the Hanami Party, and Bird watching hikes as we gain better focus on the one thing, the kingdom of God.

1 I use Henry Nouwen’s Making All Things New as a teacher and an outline for this sermon series on Matthew 6:25-34.