Of Messes and Miracles

De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)
De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)

Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect (or the pressure to appear to be perfect, even if you are not)?  This pressure comes down on us in many different forms.  For some, it might be related to performance at work or at school.  For others, it might be the pressure to have a perfect body.  It might also be the pressure to live up to a strict moral code or to be the perfect churchgoer.

For some strange reason, I think many of us have this vaguely-defined idea in our heads about what it means to “have it all” or “have it all together.”  We tend to think that if we want to be accepted, then we have to be acceptable according to some outside standard of beauty or performance.

I’d like to test this theory this morning as we examine the lives of two people whose lives were far from perfect.  The first is Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, and the other is Mary, who we all know as the mother of Jesus.

Elizabeth, we know, was a good-hearted person, but she had a problem: she was getting on in years and she couldn’t have children.  While this can be devastating for families in any place and time, it was doubly-painful for women in first century Judea.  The most pressing concern for people in that society was the welfare of their nation as a whole.  They thought of themselves as the chosen people.  The most important thing, then, was to keep the chosen people going.  Anything that interfered with that process was most troubling.  So, if a woman was unable to bear children, people would see it as a sign that God had rejected her as a mother of the Jewish nation.  It wouldn’t have mattered that Elizabeth and her husband were honest people with good reputations, most people would assume that they had committed some kind of unspeakable act that brought this dreadful curse upon their family.  The village rumor-mill would have concocted all kinds of tantalizing tales of speculation over what that act might have been.  According to Jewish law at that time, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, would have been well within his rights to divorce her because of this.  Elizabeth, because of her inability to have children, was certainly an object of shame and ridicule in the time and place where she lived.

Elizabeth’s life and family were about as far as one could be from perfect in first century Judea.  Yet, even in her old age, after all hope had been lost, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and informed him that they could soon expect the arrival of a son, who would be named John.  What’s more is that this was not to be any ordinary baby, but a prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for massive change.

As painful as the stigma of childlessness must have been for Elizabeth, it put her in the perfect position to help her cousin Mary, whose period of shame was just beginning.

As her story opens, Mary seems like she has it all together.  Biblical scholars estimate that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time.  This was the typical age for young girls to get engaged in that society.  They believed that women should start having children as soon as they were biologically able.  We read elsewhere in the New Testament that her fiancé, Joseph, was a kind and just working man who loved her very much.  Mary’s entire life was in front of her and things were looking pretty good.

Than an angel named Gabriel showed up and informed Mary that she was about to have a baby, just like her cousin Elizabeth.  It’s ironic that the very news that took away the disgrace of Elizabeth would heap disgrace upon Mary.  While Mary herself knew that she had committed no indiscretion, she had a hard time convincing others of that fact.  Even Joseph didn’t believe her at first!  Not only could Joseph call off their wedding, but he could have her legally put to death as an adulteress for fooling around with another man.  As the weight of this news settled upon Mary’s shoulders, she packed up and made a hundred mile journey on foot as a lone, unwed, pregnant teenager to the only other person she knew would understand: Elizabeth.

Elizabeth knew what it was like to bear the disgrace of the community for no good reason.  Furthermore, Elizabeth also knew what it was like to be pregnant for the first time under unusual circumstances.  And so, sure enough, it was Elizabeth who was the first to greet Mary by speaking a blessing over her pregnancy.  Elizabeth was the first to realize that Mary’s baby was a miracle, not a mistake.  She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  In Mary’s darkest hour, when the rest of the world was ready to reject and stone her, Elizabeth called her “blessed.”  This blessing must have had a profound effect on Mary.  In the text, she immediately breaks out into a song of praise, just as if this was some kind of Broadway musical.  In the song she sings, Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed”.  The support and acceptance she received from one person was enough to transform her entire experience of pregnancy into one of blessing.

During the next three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth, the two women became a support network for each other.  Each of them was God’s gift to the other in the midst of messiness and chaos.

We can see the miracle of Christmas working itself out in their lives, but it looks nothing like we would expect in polite society.  We learn from Elizabeth that miracles don’t just come to those whose lives are seemingly perfect or put together.  We learn from Mary that miracles don’t necessarily turn our lives into inspirational success stories.  The message here is that ordinary miracles happen in the midst of ordinary life, however painful, broken, imperfect, or messed up it may be.

Here in the nostalgia of the secular holiday season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in illusions of having the perfect family, the perfect gift, the perfect Christmas dinner, etc.  Too often, the Christmas story itself gets presented with all of the messy parts carefully removed.  For example, you walk by a beautifully crafted crèche sitting on a church lawn and see the newborn Christ lying in a manger, but do you ever think about what stables really smell like?  Not very good.  In fact, they stink just about as much as our own messy lives sometimes stink.

The world into which Christ was born was this world, the same one we live in now, only two thousand years ago.  As Eugene Peterson writes, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.  Your neighborhood, just as it is.  As we draw to the close of this Advent season, we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that took place “once upon a time”; we are preparing to celebrate the good news that Christ meets us right here in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives.  And what’s more is that our messiness does not prevent something good, beautiful, and miraculous from being born in us and through us.

Mary and Elizabeth knew that.  They accepted it.  What’s more is that they accepted each other in the midst of their mutual messiness.  That, more than anything else, is what put them in the perfect position to witness the miracle of the first Christmas.  They were a safe place for each other, a community of acceptance.

When I dream about what it is that our church is meant to be and do in this community, I think about Mary and Elizabeth.  I dream about a safe place, a community of acceptance that is truly open to all and reaches out to the world in love.  I dream about a church of people who are so accepting of themselves and their own mess that they can’t help but be gracious toward the messiness of those others who come looking for a place to belong.

There is so little of that in the world today.  Every authority figure, from teachers to bosses to the police car in the rearview mirror, seems to be looking over our shoulders, just waiting for us to mess up at something.  So, we mind our P’s and Q’s, dot the T’s and cross the I’s, and make sure to keep an eye on the speedometer.  On a less official level, we also feel like we’re constantly being evaluated by our peers for what we wear, what we drive, how we look, and who we know.  That pressure is enough to drive us crazy.

Sadly, our churches are not immune to this judgmental tendency.  In fact, we’ve developed something of a reputation for it over the years.  Too many churches have turned the gospel of Christ into just another system for judging people based on dogma and morality.  Too many churches have become houses of exclusion rather than communities of acceptance.

But our Presbyterian heritage teaches us that we are saved by grace: the unconditional love and unmerited favor of God.  There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or get ourselves on God’s good side.  Not a single one of us has any grounds for looking down on or passing judgment over anyone else, even if we disagree with their opinions or disapprove of their behavior.  We are all sinners, saved by grace, loved by God, and welcome in this church.

This faith in grace as unconditional and unmerited acceptance is the biggest gift I believe our church has to offer our local community.  Ours is a church of grace, a community of acceptance: “open to all and reaching out to the world in love,” as it says in our church mission statement.  We have many neighbors in this town who need to hear this good news.  Their hearts are yearning for a place to belong, a place where none are judged and all are welcome.  We can be that place.

What we need to do in order to help that dream come true are three things:

  1.  Accept ourselves as we are.  We are not perfect.  We never will be.  We are full of faults and fears.  We don’t always live up to the values we espouse.  We need to recognize and accept this messiness in our own lives.  We need to get comfortable in our own scarred and wrinkled skin, knowing that we are loved in spite of our many messes.
  2. Extend that grace to others.  When you are able to accept yourself as you are, it’s only natural that you gradually start to become more tolerant and accepting of other people.  Their successes no longer threaten you.  Their failures give you no pleasure.  Their opinions were once the yardstick by which you measured yourself, but once you’ve stopped measuring yourself, you don’t need the yardstick anymore.  You are free to see and accept them as they are, faults and fears included.
  3. Spread the good news.  Let folks know about us.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from places all over this country say to me that they’re looking for a church like ours.  I refuse to believe that none of these people live in Boonville.  Souls here are hungry for acceptance and a gospel that really is “good news.”  Our job is to share that good news with them in word and deed.  Just as you’ve often heard me say before: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”

This Christmas, don’t worry about finding the perfect tree, the perfect gift, or the perfect ham.  Instead, focus on cultivating this kind of self-acceptance based on your faith in the immeasurable, unconditional love that holds us from birth to death and beyond.  This acceptance of self and others is ultimately what makes for a happy home, a growing church, and a merry Christmas.

Stillness: Hearing God’s Voice

Psalm 131

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

God is available to all of us.  God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Each one of us wants and needs to give ourselves space for quiet.  We can hear God’s voice most clearly when we are quiet, uncluttered, undistracted—when we are still.  Be still, be quiet, and then you begin to see with the eyes of the heart.

One image that I have of the spiritual life is of sitting in front of a fire on a cold day.  We don’t have to do anything.  We just have to sit in front of the fire and then gradually the qualities of the fire are transferred to us.  We begin to feel the warmth.  We become the attributes of the fire.  It’s like that with us and God.  As we take time to be still and to be in God’s presence, the qualities of God are transferred to us.

Far too frequently we see ourselves as doers.  As we’ve seen, we feel we must endlessly work and achieve.  We have not always learned just to be receptive, to be in the presence of God, quiet, available, and letting God be God, who wants us to be God.  We are shocked, actually, when we hear that what God wants is for us to be godlike, for us to become more and more like God.  Not by doing anything, but by letting God be God in and through us.

As many of you already know, we’ve been making our way through this summer with Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream.  Last week, we read the chapter entitled “Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart” and we talked about the way in which you and I are called to look past our present life-circumstances and deep into this present moment in which we find ourselves.  It is here, in the very essence of this moment, that we find the loving presence of God: creating and sustaining us moment-by-moment.  We took a look at the lives of those remarkable individuals who, through their own “seeing with the eyes of the heart”, were able to bear witness to God’s ongoing redemption of the world.  We talked about Joseph from the book of Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit, and eventually elevated to a high office in the land of Egypt.  He looked with the eyes of his heart and saw God at work in his life, drawing light out of darkness, order out of chaos, and life out of death.  When his brothers came back, groveling and begging, he seized the opportunity for reconciliation instead of revenge.  He said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

We also talked about Nelson Mandela, who went to jail as an angry young man in the 1960s and emerged to become the first black president of South Africa and a moral leader of the free world.  Finally, we also talked about Jesus, who suffered an ignoble death by torture and execution as a failed nonviolent revolutionary under the thumb of corrupt political and religious leaders, but whose life continues to shine as a beacon of hope for over two billion Christians in the world today, two millennia after his birth.

This week, we’re going to talk about how it is that we too can learn to see “with the eyes of the heart” and become the kind of people who see past surface appearances and into the very essence of reality.  The key element in this process, according to Archbishop Tutu, is the practice of stillness.

We North Americans, on the whole, tend to be suspicious of stillness.  Personally, I have a three year old at home, so I usually equate the sound of silence with trouble.  There have been many times when I’ve emerged from an extended period of pleasant silence only to discover the bathroom sink decorated with lipstick or a dining room chair entirely slathered with diaper cream.  Silence is not golden.  Silence is suspicious.  Tell me, parents and grandparents, am I right?

But, even without the presence of our tiny little bundles of destruction, we North Americans still tend to be suspicious of stillness.  We prefer to keep the radio or TV going at all times in order to keep the stillness at bay because the bottom line is that, at heart, we’re afraid of stillness.

Why?  What is it about stillness that scares us so much?

Based on what I’ve seen in myself and others, I think it’s two things.  First of all, we’re afraid that if we surrender to stillness and allow ourselves to just sit in silence for a while, we’ll be overwhelmed by that haunting sense of loneliness and isolation we carry inside us.  This is true for all of us, without exception.  Deep down, we are all afraid of being alone.  So we try to keep moving with the herd and keep up with the pack of our fellow homo sapiens.

The second thing that scares us about stillness is the way that our own thoughts tend to creep up on us when we’re not constantly overloading ourselves with information.  Specifically, I’m talking about that inner voice of criticism and self-hatred that follows us around.  You know the one I’m talking about: it’s the voice that says things like, “You’re not good enough.  You’re not smart enough.  You’re not pretty enough.  You’re not successful enough.  You don’t work hard enough.  You don’t make enough money.  Your house isn’t clean enough.  You don’t spend enough time with your family.  You don’t spend enough time at the office.  You don’t pray enough.  You don’t go to church enough.”  It could be any or all of those voices that you hear inside your head.  It could even be something else that pertains specifically to you, but you get what I’m saying.  We feel guilty because there’s always something more that we could or should be doing.  It’s really too much for any one human being to manage, so we just try to stave off the guilt by drowning out that inner voice with noise… any noise will do, so long as we don’t have to be left alone with our thoughts.

Aloneness and self-criticism, those are the two things that scare us most about stillness.  Together, they form the reason why we fill our lives with endless amounts of what Shakespeare called “sound and fury”.  Our fear keeps us running from our true selves and, ironically, the source of our power to overcome our fear, change our own lives, and maybe even the world around us.

Most of my heroes in this world points to their respective practices of prayer and/or meditation as their primary source of energy and inspiration for the extraordinary work they do.  I’m thinking of my usual list: people like the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and yes, Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Tutu says:

The Spirit of God sends us into the fray, as it sent Jesus, but we must observe the sequence in his life and we will see that disengagement, waiting on God, always precedes engagement.  He waited to be anointed with God’s Spirit, which made him preach the Good News to the poor and the setting free of captives.  He went into retreat in the wilderness.  He had experience of the transfiguration and then went into the valley of crass misunderstanding and insistent demand.  If it was so vital for the Son of God, it can’t be otherwise for us.  Our level of spiritual and moral growth is really all we can give the world.

So you see, not only is the practice of stillness essential for Desmond Tutu in his work, but it was even essential for Jesus himself.  There is something about the stillness itself that empowers us to overcome the fear that keeps us from stillness.

There are several scenes in the gospels where Jesus deliberately takes time away by himself or with only a few close friends to pray and commune with God.  I like to imagine that it was in these moments of quiet contemplation, as he observed the world around him with the eyes of his heart, that he received the inspiration for most of his parables and teaching.  Maybe there was a day when he was struggling with how to explain the Kingdom of God to his students.  Then, looking around on the lonely hill where he had gone to meditate, he spotted a mustard bush with a bird’s nest in it.  And that’s when it hit him: “Aha!” he says, “That’s it!  The Kingdom of God is like this mustard bush.  It starts as a tiny seed, but then grows into a great, big bush where birds can come and build their nests.”  Maybe the same kind of thing happened for those times when he compared the Kingdom of God to crops growing in a field, a woman kneading bread dough, or farm workers calling it a day.  I can easily imagine that it was through his practice of meditation that he came to realize the truth of God’s abundant providence as it was revealed in the natural world.  With the eyes of his heart opened through prayer and meditation, he was able to look around and see God’s love in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  Birds and flowers don’t drive themselves crazy running rat race or keeping up with the Joneses, yet God feeds and clothes them so well that we hold them up as our highest standard of beauty.  Think about it: what do people do at weddings and proms when we want to look our best?  We decorate our clothes, our dinner tables, and our churches with flowers.  It’s like all our finest fashion designers and interior decorators just give up because nothing they make can compete with the beauty of what God has already made.  Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Jesus’ practice of prayer and meditation gave him the eyes to see that.  And I think the same can be true for us as well.

The great prophets, mystics, and sages of the world’s religions drew spiritual power from their cultivation of stillness in the practice of prayer and meditation.  Like each and every one of us, each and every one of them probably wrestled with the same fears and insecurities.  They too probably had times when they were afraid to be alone or were haunted by the inner voices of criticism and self-hatred, but they bravely faced the darkness, the silence, and the stillness rather than running away or trying to fill every moment with some kind of noise or activity.  And the amazing thing is this: they found what Jesus found in the stillness.  The eyes of their hearts were opened and they began to see another, deeper reality.  They began to hear another voice in the silence.

Instead of that haunting voice of criticism and condemnation, they began to hear the voice of love and acceptance.  You are loved.  You matter.  Paul Tillich, the great twentieth century theologian, described that voice like this:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

Likewise, instead of the loneliness of which we are so afraid, the great mystics, in their stillness, experience a deep sense of belonging and interdependence.  I am not alone.  My life is connected to and dependent on yours.  We belong to the trees, the animals, the earth, and they belong to us.  We share this one planet in common.  All life has its origin in the heart and mind of God.  Therefore, all life is significant, important, and worth preserving.  Everything and everyone belongs in this web of existence.  We can never truly say “I don’t need you” to anyone and no one can truly it to us.  We affect each other.  We are a part of each other.

My favorite illustration of this truth comes from science itself: Did you know that most of the atoms in your body could only have been formed during the superhot explosion of a supernova?  Do you know what that means?  It means that, at the most basic level, the very substance of our bodies is made of the remnants of old, exploded stars.  You and I are literally made of stardust.  Isn’t that amazing?  And, since matter cannot ultimately be destroyed, it makes me wonder what the atoms of my body will be part of in another four billion years.  Who knows?  Maybe these very oxygen atoms coming out of my lungs right now will one day be breathed in and out by another preacher in another kind of church on another world where she is telling her congregation about this same reality of interconnected existence.

I’m sorry if this is starting to sound a little too much like science fiction for you, but I get really excited about it because it’s just so amazing.  We are never alone.  We are all connected.  We are part of an interdependent web of existence.  Within and around us all is that great, eternal mystery that we Christians call God.

This mystery is the ultimate reality that the great spiritual geniuses of the world have discovered in their practice of stillness.  Instead of the voice of criticism, they discovered the voice of love.  Instead of being alone, they discovered that they belong to the great community of life.  That dual sense of acceptance and belonging is what gives them the power to stand up, speak out, and overcome all kinds of wrong and injustice in the world.  Archbishop Tutu, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama were all able to face the darkness because they knew from their practice of stillness that injustice was doomed to fail because it goes against the grain of nature.  Exclusion and inequality based on something as ridiculous as ethnicity or skin color is not only offensive, it is ridiculous.  There’s no way it can succeed because that’s just not how the universe was designed.  Martin Luther King, quoting the Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker, once said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

When we are troubled by the evil we see in this world, we can laugh in its face.  We can know that it’s ultimately doomed to fail and disintegrate.  Just as sure as the law of gravity, the wrong in this world will one day fall to the ground.  This promise woven into the very fabric of space and time.  When we cultivate the practice of stillness through our own exercises of prayer and meditation, we can learn to hear that voice and trust that promise as well.  We, like our prophetic heroes, can be empowered to become world-changers.

All that is required of us is nothing.  We must simply be.  As someone once told me, we have to remember that we are human beings and not human doings.

If you have never taken the time to cultivate a practice of stillness, I would like to encourage you to do so.  Take fifteen or twenty minutes out of your day and just sit in the quiet.  Just be.  Many of us have heard the urgent phrase, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”  Right now, I want to encourage you to do the opposite: “Don’t do something, just sit there!”

With your eyes closed and your back straight, focus your attention on rhythm of your breathing.  Whenever you notice your mind beginning to wander, just gently bring your attention back to the unconscious rhythm of your breath.  If your mind wanders a thousand times, just gently bring it back a thousand times.  It’s simple, but it’s not easy.  Try this for twenty minutes a day and see what a difference it makes in your life.  If you can’t find twenty minutes, then do it for fifteen, or ten, or five.  Any practice is better than no practice at all.  Believe me, I have two jobs and two kids, so I know how hard it can be to find twenty quiet minutes to yourself in a day.  But if I can do it, anyone can.

Stillness is frightening, but it is also your friend.  Within its bosom, we find the power of acceptance and belonging that can set us free from what we fear most.  In silence, we can hear the voice of God reminding us that we are loved and inspiring us to love the world as God does.

 

 

 

The Experience of Grace

You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!

Paul Tillich

You Are Accepted

This is my favorite passage from theologian Paul Tillich.  It is taken from a sermon in his book The Shaking of the Foundations.

This is one of those precious few texts I repeatedly return to when I need to remind myself of what it means to be a “Christian”.

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying:You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.