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.

 

 

 

God’s Dream

This is how the principle of ubuntu is taught to kids in Africa

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

Click here to listen at fpcboonville.org

I Corinthians 12:12-26

An excerpt from God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu:

“I have a dream,” God says, “Please help Me to realize it.  It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing.  I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.”

In God’s family, there are no outsiders.  All are insiders.  Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian—all belong.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a college professor of mine named Bob White.  He told me that, during my time in college, I should have some kind of “international experience”.  In a world as technologically interconnected as ours is, it’s more important now than ever before that students stretch themselves outside of their geographic comfort zone in order to see the world from a different cultural perspective.  I took Bob’s advice and, during my senior year, I went on a church-sponsored mission trip to the Eastern European country of Romania.

The experience changed my life forever, but not in the way that I thought it would.  At the time, I thought I was “bringing the light of Christ to the ends of the Earth”, but it turns out that I was the one who needed to be enlightened.  Working mostly in mental hospitals and orphanages, I experienced both tragedy and amazement on a level that I never thought possible.

For several decades, Romania suffered under the thumb of a particularly nasty Communist dictator named Nicolae Ceaucescu.  He would send his soldiers into the countryside to get women pregnant so that the children could be raised in state-sponsored orphanages as perfect Communist drones.  As a result, Romania is a country with an inordinately huge population of orphans.  Even after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, this so-called “free” country has continued to be plagued with corruption and mass poverty.  The new government had no idea how to deal with so many orphans, so they would transfer them around from facility to facility until their paperwork got lost.

What happened next was truly awful.  Children started disappearing from the orphanages.  Without the appropriate paperwork, no one knew where they were, how to identify them, or where to find them.  Then, two weeks before my team arrived in the country, police uncovered a black market organ trade going on in Italy, with an apparently unlimited supply of fresh organs coming out of Romania.  It didn’t take much for us to put two and two together.

We visited one of the mental hospitals from which children were disappearing.  They wouldn’t let us in, in spite of our scheduled appointment.  So we parked our bus outside the front gate and waited for over an hour.  Eventually, the staff relented and let us in, but only to a certain room in the facility, and we were forbidden from taking photos or videos (a rule we disobeyed).  The scene inside reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Nazi concentration camps in World War II.  The smell alone was almost unbearable.

We sat and sang and played with the “patients” (“inmates” would be a more accurate term) for as long as the administration would allow us.  At no time did I see any doctors, nurses, or other attendants in this so-called “hospital”.  I left that place feeling more helpless than ever before.  There was no humanity in that place, no life, only existence (and even that was marginal and temporary, at best).

On the other hand, I also visited a Baptist church in a town called Galati.  We were there to distribute gifts and supplies to kids.  It was a chaotic scene at the end of a long day.  We were running out of supplies and this little church, probably no bigger than ours, was packed with over a thousand kids.  In the middle of all the chaos, a man grabbed me by the arm and said, “You will come to my house for tea!”  I didn’t know what to say, so I just told him to talk with my team leader about it.

After all the noise died down, we piled back onto our bus and collapsed.  We’d had no rest and nothing to eat all day.  My team leader stood up and thanked us for all our hard work and said there was just one more thing we had to do.

“I know you’re all exhausted,” he said, “but there’s this guy who wants us to come to his house.  I promise it won’t take long, but let’s just be polite and humor him before we go.”

We all grudgingly said okay and went to his house.  What we saw when we got there just blew us away.  This man and his family were especially concerned about all those orphans in the government systems.  Even those who weren’t being killed for their organs were just dumped out onto the street on their 18th birthday.  What this family did is take those freshly ejected orphans and bring them into their own home.  They gave these kids a safe and stable place to live while they learned viable job skills.  They even brought these kids to church and taught them about Jesus and the Bible.

As if that weren’t enough, they had prepared a welcome for us that we never could have expected.  We walked into a room with a table set with a feast of hors devours.  To a team of college students who hadn’t had anything to eat all day, it looked like heaven on earth!

What was even more like heaven on earth was what happened next.  This family and their adopted orphans talked and sang with us around the table.  In spite of the language barrier, we were all enjoying ourselves immensely.  We passed  a guitar back and forth, singing one song in English, and then one in Romanian.  Finally, when it was our turn again, I had an idea:

I said, “Here’s an oldie but a goodie,” and started playing Amazing Grace.  The Romanians in the room got extremely excited and shouted, “We know this song!”  And then, over this feast of hor devours, this foretaste of heaven, a group of Americans and Romanians, middle-class college students and previously homeless orphans, sang together this most well-known hymn, each in their own language.  I think that moment is about as close to heaven as I will ever get in this lifetime.

How amazing!  This week, as we read about God’s dream in Desmond Tutu’s book, I remember that incredible night in Galati, Romania.  In that moment, I was being fed and nourished, not just by strangers with rye bread and deviled eggs, but by that great and mysterious “interdependent web of existence”, of which I am a part.  I felt the Spirit of God in the room that night, knitting us foreigners together and filling the cups of our souls to overflowing.

What I witnessed in this family and their adopted orphans is what Archbishop Tutu calls ubuntuUbuntu is a hard word to translate into English.  Much like the Greek word agape and the Hebrew word shalom, there is no single English word that adequately captures the reality to which the African word ubuntu is referring.  Ubuntu is a particular character quality, much like courage and kindness are character qualities, but ubuntu is, in Archbishop Tutu’s words, “the essence of being human.”  Saying that someone has the quality of ubuntu is a very great compliment.  A person who possesses ubuntu recognizes that “a person is a person through other persons”.  In other words, ubuntu is all about recognizing the fact that we are interdependent beings.  To pull a phrase from the Disney movie The Lion King, we are all part of “the circle of life”.  None of us exists alone.  Archbishop Tutu says, “The self-made man or woman is really an impossibility” and “The solitary man or woman is really a contradiction in terms”.

More than just an African cultural concept, Archbishop Tutu tells us that ubuntu is “God’s dream” for us.  What God wants more than anything in the world is for us to be people who have ubuntu.  You can hear echoes of this idea when you hear Jesus say, “In all things, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  And again when Jesus is asked about the most important commandment in the Bible and he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I can also hear ubuntu in the selection we read this morning from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  He compares the community of a church to a human body.  What makes us beautiful is our diversity.  All the different parts work together to form a whole.  This is more than just motivational team-building; it’s the expression of a spiritual truth.  We are part of each other.  We are one family, even one person, in God’s eyes.  Christ is more than just a person we remember on Sundays; Christ is the body of which we are a part.  We are the body of Christ on earth.  The blood of Christ flows in our veins.  We reveal this mystical reality of Christ to the world, not just by ourselves, but together as a group.  This means that if I want to be a Christian, then I need you.

We humans seem to have an uncanny ability to divide and demean ourselves.  It’s almost as if the truth of ubuntu and our common identity in Christ is so powerful, so radical, and so threatening to the status quo that we’ll come up with just about anything as an excuse to invalidate it.  We’ll build walls between each other over skin color, gender, sexual orientation, politics, religion, sports teams, musical tastes.  At what point do we wake up and realize how ridiculous it all is?  And the most hilarious part is that none of it means a thing, since we can’t ever change the fact that we all come from one source and are headed toward one destiny.  The battle lines we draw are little more than squiggles on a piece of paper to God.

God is much less concerned about who is different and much more concerned about how we treat those who are different from us.  Can we, through the lens of our particular faith, recognize and celebrate “the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part”?  To see each other in this way is to see the image of God.  To love each other in this way is to serve Christ.  This is ubuntu.  This is our destiny.  This is God’s will, God’s vision, God’s dream for us.  The question that each of us has to answer this week (and every week) is this: how are you going to wake up and make God’s dream come true?

Make A Declaration Of Inter-Dependence

Here is my Labor Day article from last Sunday’s Rome Sentinel.

One of my favorite growing-up memories is of a time when my father took me to hear the President of the United States speak in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Walking away from the event, Dad repeated a single sentence from the President’s speech: “We must learn to treat one another as indispensible partners and not disposable parts.”

I’m not surprised that this phrase stood out to him. My father’s family moved to New York from Puerto Rico when he was a small child. He grew up facing the dual pressures of prejudice and poverty. My grandmother and her seven children lived in a one-bedroom trailer with no furniture. My father worked his way through college as a janitor.

Dad knows firsthand what it feels like to be treated like a “disposable part” because of one’s ethnicity or blue-collar status. Nobody cares about learning what the janitor’s name is until he misses a spot! Years later, he eventually worked his way out of poverty and made a comfortable life for my siblings and me. However, he never forgot what it felt like to be treated like a “nobody” at the bottom of the pile. He raised me to respect the humanity in all people, especially those who work in occupations that receive less prestige than doctors and lawyers.

This is an important value to remember as we celebrate the Labor Day holiday. We cannot afford to hold onto the myth of the “self-made individual” any longer. We all depend on one another for community stability. We couldn’t even order lunch or gas up the car if weren’t for the labors of others. This Labor Day, it’s time for us to make a Declaration of Inter-dependence. We need each other. Our future depends on it.

So, when you’re ordering lunch at the diner, make a habit of looking up from your menu and looking the server in the eye. Remember his or her name. Say “thank you” and take a moment to honor your common humanity and mutual inter-dependence.