Together in the Boat

water-73311_1280

Note: The recording of today’s sermon includes two meditations. The first meditation, for managing anxiety, begins at 16:59. The second meditation, for Praying with the News, begins at 23:55.

I heard a beautiful story this week from the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hanh. He tells a story about hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who were forced to flee their home country at the end of the Vietnam War. These refugees were fleeing for their lives, often in tiny, overcrowded boats, and while they were out on the sea, they faced extreme danger from pirates, disease, starvation and also, of course, storms. Tich Nhat Hanh says that while these desperate souls were trying to survive out there on the sea, their state of mind often meant the difference between life and death. If everyone on the boat panicked, the boat would be lost. But if just one person remained calm, that calm would spread to the others on the boat, and together, they would find a way to survive. 

This modern spiritual teaching would surely not be lost on Jesus’ friends who, when we meet them this morning, are learning something about what it takes to survive a big storm. I wonder if you can picture the scene in your mind: the wind whipping across the water…the waves crashing over the gunwales…the tiny fishing vessel taking on water as the disciples race around the boat, frantic with fear. And all the while, our story tells us, Jesus is sound asleep. 

It’s quite a dramatic picture that our gospel story paints this morning; the kind of picture that can capture our attention any week of the year. But this week, when news of the world has many of us tossing and turning all night long, it is startling to hear this story of Jesus sleeping peacefully as the waves crash and the boat flounders and the disciples cry out in their panic and their fear.

What Jesus seems to know is that in a crisis, our state of mind matters a lot. Not just to our own emotional well being, but to the fate of the entire voyage. How many times in the past three weeks have you heard someone remark that we’re all in the same boat? If there were ever any doubt that we are connected — that we are in fact one body as the Apostle Paul likes to say — that doubt has been erased by a virus that observes no borders and respects no national boundaries; a virus that is showing the world community that we will sink, or swim, together.

Of course, this crash course in public health and safety is certainly teaching us that our actions matter — a lot; that a shared discipline of self-quarantine and physical distancing is crucial to our collective well being, and particularly crucial to the health of the most vulnerable among us.

But what Jesus shows us this morning is that it is not only our actions but also our state of mind that is crucial to the well being of our individual and collective bodies. What all our spiritual masters teach is that our ability to regulate our emotional and spiritual state will contribute either to our collective healing or to the sinking of our shared boat. 

This is because, as the Vietnamese refugees learned in those tiny boats, anxiety is contagious and potentially deadly. In fact, today, anxiety is at least as  contagious as the COVID-19 virus. What Jesus knows is that managing our collective anxiety in the face of a crisis is a spiritual matter of the highest order. Don’t you care that we’re about to drown? the disciples shout at him. Of course I care, Jesus says. That’s why I am trying to show you how to remain calm. Jesus, in that storm-tossed boat, is trying to show us all the nature of our own holy work in this difficult time.

So I thought we’d take a closer look this morning at what Jesus is modeling for us on that stormy sea. On the surface, of course, it looks like Jesus is simply working a really great magic trick: he waves a hand and the storm subsides. But we know that this story is not meant to be read merely on its literal level.  Like all our sacred stories, this one paints a dramatic picture in order to convey a deep spiritual truth about how we are to live. If we look below the surface of this story, we see that Jesus models for us two crucial tasks in the midst of a crisis: managing our own anxiety and sharing the powerful energy of healing calm with all the world. 

Let’s look first at the way Jesus manages his own anxiety by refusing to let the anxiety of those around him infect his own psyche. Instead, Jesus chooses to become, in his very body, the place where anxiety and panic are transmuted into calm. Sleeping through the storm, refusing to catch the contagion of panic, Jesus reminds us that in a fearful and anxious time, we too are called to manage our own anxiety and remain calm — not only for the sake of our own mental and spiritual health, but for the well being of the world.  

Friends, in the coming weeks and months, this global crisis is going to show us what we’re made of. It’s going to require all our God-given gifts of creativity, resilience and compassion. But these desperately needed spiritual resources are  simply not available to us when our bodies and minds are swamped with the neurochemicals of fear. Neuroscientists tell us that when we panic, our bodies and minds default to our most primitive, fight-or-flight state of consciousness. And this is not where creativity and ingenuity reside. The spiritual masters of every age tell us that the quality of energy running through our bodies affects not only ourselves and our own households, but the consciousness of the entire global community. Yes, it is true that the energy of anxiety is highly contagious. But so is the energy of calm, abundance, and joy. If everyone on the boat panics, say the great teachers among us, the boat will be lost. If we practice remaining calm, that calm will steer the boat to shore.  

And so we find Jesus this morning sleeping through the storm, refusing to let himself be infected by the panic swirling around him. Refusing to amplify that anxiety by adding his own.

But that’s not all. Jesus doesn’t go back to sleep, after all. He doesn’t cover his head with a pillow and deny the existence of the storm. No. What we see is that Jesus practices discernment as he takes in information, assesses the situation, and then from his own, calm center, spreads that calm not only to the loved ones in his boat, but out to the entire sea. What an extraordinary metaphor this is! Jesus calming the sea is a beautiful metaphor for the way in which a calm and centered soul (yes, your calm and centered soul!) has the power to send that calm, healing energy rippling out to heal the world. If just one person remains calm, say the spiritual masters, the boat will survive. Imagine what will happen when a whole, critical mass of humanity learns how to remain calm; how to remain open to the creative, healing power of God within and among us; and how to share that healing power with all of creation.

Now,  I realize that following Jesus by becoming immune to anxiety and spreading calm might sound like a very tall order, especially right now. But this is precisely where our faith traditions can serve us so well, by offering us tools for managing our anxiety in times of crisis.  So let’s take a look at a few of those tools.

The first tool that Jesus offers us this morning is the practice of limiting the amount of anxiety we take in.  As the disciples in the boat spin themselves into a tizzy of fear, Jesus goes to sleep, very effectively limiting the amount of that swirling fear he receives. Now, to the disciples, this seems heartless. What do you mean you won’t freak out with us? they ask. You must not care at all! 

What Jesus seems to know is that despite their outraged protest, his friends don’t actually need him to join the collective freak out. What they need most is for Jesus to remain calm so that his powerful calm can save them all.

I think this story has something to tell us about how much anxiety we ourselves are willing to take in right now. I wonder if we might think of Jesus sleeping in the boat as the biblical equivalent of just switching off the television for a while. Remember that anxiety is contagious, and that it infects us every time we watch or listen to the news. I’m not suggesting that anyone bury their head in the sand; Jesus, after all, takes in precisely the amount of news he needs when the time is right. What I am suggesting is that no one needs a 24-hour news feed. It may also be true that in addition to monitoring our news intake, many of us may need to do as Jesus does by establishing firm and compassionate boundaries with friends and relatives regarding how much time we will spend discussing, or freaking out about, the day’s news. This is the first practice Jesus seems to suggest this morning: limiting our intake of anxiety-producing news. 

The second practice Jesus offers today is the practice of remaining calm by managing whatever anxiety does arise in us, so that even when we do feel anxious — as all of us naturally will — we use our spiritual tools to make sure that anxiety does not take over our minds. In this way, we remain calm enough to receive the inspiration and the guidance that just might save us all.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy. Jesus certainly makes it look that way, but it is not always easy to manage our own anxiety and to be a source of healing calm in the midst of a storm. I do mean to say that this is our necessary and crucial spiritual work, and that we have the tools to do it. So this morning, I want to offer you two tools. The first is a meditation practice you can use when you feel anxiety beginning to arise in your own body. I want to emphasize that this first hint of anxiety in our bodies is precisely the moment to catch it — to  quarantine it, if you will, so that it doesn’t have a chance to take over our body and mind, and so that it doesn’t infect anyone else. The second meditation is one we have done before here at First Congregational Church and that I believe is particularly appropriate now because it helps us to emulate Jesus by spreading the energy of healing and calm to those around us and to a world in need. 

Meditation for Managing Anxiety and Fear

Let’s begin with the first meditation, for when you feel anxiety beginning to arise in your body and mind.

I invite you to begin by closing your eyes and gently drawing your attention inward. Become aware of your breathing, feeling the breath as your lungs fill with air and gently empty again. As your attention turns inward, begin to scan your body from head to toe, noticing what you feel in each area of your body. Become aware of your own awareness: the part of you that is simply noticing sensation as it arises and falls away. Know that this is your true self: the witnessing presence that is noticing sensations in your body.

Now notice any emotion that is present in you right now. It might be fear, sadness, anxiety, or even joy. Where in your body do you feel this emotion? What does it feel like? Is it heavy? Hollow? Does it feel like tightness or pressure? Your work is simply to give this sensation your full attention, noticing it in as much detail as you can. And as you become acutely aware of the sensation itself, begin to let the label drop away. No need to name the sensation as one emotion or another; it might even be changing as you watch it. No need to attach any story to it; the story only intensifies the pain. Simply be aware of the sensation itself. Everything we label as an emotion is actually a physical sensation. When we learn to drop our labels and stories and simply witness the sensation itself, without trying to change it or push it away, then the emotion naturally falls away in its own time. When we are able to fully feel the physical sensation of an emotional state,  it often lasts only a few seconds before it falls away. It turns out that when we resist the emotion, when we try to push away or label it, then the emotion takes root in us and grows. The practice here is to hold still when the emotional waters get choppy and simply welcome every emotion as it arises like a wave in the sea; then simply witness the emotion. Every time you can become the calm and compassionate witness of a stormy emotion, you claim your freedom. When you realize that the emotion is not who you are, then you are free, and the emotion simply fades back into the calm sea in its own time. 

Be aware of your thoughts as you witness the sensations in your body. Maybe you’re thinking “I hate this feeling; I wish it would go away faster!”  This desire to change what is–this is a form of resistance to what is, and it will cause the painful emotional state to persist. The emotion needs us to step back and simply watch from a distance as it moves and changes in its own time.  

You can trust that you are not alone as you undertake practice. Maybe you can imagine Jesus sitting beside you. Maybe you can feel his presence now, calming you, showing you how it’s done…maybe the two of you are  just watching together as the waves of sensation arise in your body and gently dissolve again. You can stay here as long as you like, trusting the healing work of your own witnessing presence. This takes practice. It can help enormously to practice this type of meditation at least once a day, and especially when you feel anxiety begin to arise. Whenever you’re ready, gently return your attention to your surroundings, knowing that this practice is available to you anytime.

Meditation for Praying with the News

This second meditation practice is one you can use to manage your own anxiety and also to share the energy of healing and calm with the world. Begin by considering an issue that has come to your attention through the news. It might be something nearby or something far away. Or maybe you’ll want to consider the condition of the whole world right now, the whole beautiful, vulnerable body that we are. 

When you’ve chosen something to pray about, take a few deep breaths to calm and quiet your body and mind. As you begin to follow the breath, see if you can invite the presence of God to be with you as you enter this time of prayer—the God who is always as near to you as your next breath.

Now, visualize the situation that has come to your attention through the news. See if you can picture it in your mind’s eye. As you picture this situation, perhaps you have a sense of where God’s activity might already be present. A good way to look for God’s activity is to ask yourself where the work of justice, compassion, or hope exists in this situation.

As you hold this situation in your heart, gently ask whether there is anything you yourself might be called to do in support of God’s work in this situation. No need to force an answer; it is enough to simply hold the question with openness and curiosity. Take a moment to note anything you feel called to do in response to this situation.

And now, invite the presence of God to infuse this situation. This doesn’t mean that we ignore our own call to help. It simply means that we are willing to let God be God, rather than taking all of God’s responsibilities upon ourselves. Picture this situation in your mind, and invite God’s presence to surround and fill it. This is powerful prayer, friends. You might visualize the divine presence as a warm, healing light, or in any other way that feels authentic to you. Take your time as you entrust this situation, and your own response to it, to the healing presence of God. 

Now see if you can envision all the others, all around the world, who are also praying and listening for God’s call, and who are working together to heal this situation and others. You might envision this community of compassion and prayer encircling the whole earth, holding all beings in the healing light of God.

You can let yourself rest here in this healing energy, allowing it to infuse your own body and mind even as you share it with the world. Rest here in the Divine Presence…feeling the healing presence of God. And know that you can return to this Presence anytime you need to infuse yourself with healing and calm…anytime you feel called to share this healing, calming energy with the world that God so loves.

 

Conditioning and Calling…at the Crossroads

desertA reflection on temptation and choice, for the season of Lent and the novel coronavirus…

 

If you have been watching the news this past week, you’ll know that a strange silence has begun to settle upon parts of the world.  The streets off Milan, once filled with the sound of cars and motorbikes, are so silent that you can hear the sound of the wind moving through leaves,  birdsong ringing from the branches. Maybe you have seen the astonishing satellite photographs showing clear skies over China and over Italy. I wonder if you can hear the deep silence beneath those clear skies as the traffic dwindles, as the engines of industry and extraction and consumption slow to a halt. It is an eerie thing to experience this great and sudden silence moving over the face of the earth.

Perhaps it is not unlike the silence that enveloped Jesus as he stepped into the wilderness on his 40-day sojourn. A silence so deep that you can hear your own heartbeat. A silence so thick that you can hear the wingbeat of a raven. Or a vulture. I wonder if Jesus was lonely during those long, silent days and nights in the wilderness. I wonder if he longed for the comforting chatter of his family and the familiar bustle of his hometown market.

But surely the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness knew he needed that silence, and a lot of it. Because it is only in silence that we begin to really notice and hear the voices inside our own head. Only in silence can we discern among those voices so that we can decide — so that we can freely choose — which voice we will follow and which voice we will not.

All the world’s wisdom traditions teach that in order to be free — in order to freely choose who we will be, and to whom we will belong — we must have silence. We must get still enough, and quiet enough, to hear the difference between the voice of our conditioned mind and the voice of the Spirit. All our spiritual traditions teach that we always have a choice between our conditioning and our calling, and that this choice is ours to make in every moment. The trouble is that we rarely get quiet enough to choose. In our frenetic, noisy lives, we rarely hold still long enough to even realize that we have a choice. Our cultural conditioning is so strong that it keeps us working, doing, gathering, and consuming more and more until we no longer realize that this behavior is a choice: the alternatives have been paved over by the habits of the conditioned human mind. Friends, this is what our spiritual traditions call the “egoic mind.” It is the primitive, default state of human consciousness that desperately wants to keep us moving and distracted. Its entire job is to make sure that we never find that sacred silence; that  we never have the time and space to stop and listen for the voice of our true calling. If we look around at our own lives, and at our collective life, we will see that the conditioned egoic mind has done its job very, very well.

And so it is that throughout human history, our wisdom traditions have urged us toward the very same spiritual practice that Jesus undertakes this season: the practice of stillness, and silence. The practice of just stopping long enough to listen.

Now, the spiritual masters tell us that we are better off — individually and collectively — if we regularly practice this spiritual discipline of stillness and silence, just as we are urged to do every year during the season of Lent and as we are also urged to do for a whole Sabbath day every week. But we human have free will, and so we are free to just keep running. To just keep working. To just keep producing and consuming until one day, circumstances send us into the wilderness whether or not we want to go. Here in the midst of this suddenly silent Lenten season, we have been thrust, all together, into the wilderness. A wilderness in which the great silence, unsettling as it is, offers us, just as it offers Jesus, an opportunity to make a clear choice.

Come with me, Jesus says as he heads into the silence. And I’ll show you how to recognize the difference between your conditioning and  your calling. Come with me, Jesus says. And I’ll show you how to choose between them.

And sure enough, right on cue, the insistent voice of the conditioned mind arrives in the person of the devil or, in Hebrew, satan, which means “The Hinderer.” I love that name. I think it’s a great way to think about the egoic mind in us; the conditioned mind in us. This hindering mind lives in all of us and its job is to condition us into reactive patterns of thought and action that keep us from even hearing who God is calling us to be.

Turn these stones into bread! says the Hinderer in Jesus and in us. You don’t want to be hungry, do you? Take me up on my offer and you’ll never go hungry again!  

This is the voice of the conditioned mind, the egoic mind, the default state of human consciousness. And it is the job of the egoic mind, always, to look out for Number One: to grab everything in sight because hard times are surely coming. We humans evolved out there in the wilderness, after all. A wilderness in which it was every ego for itself. And that ancient, primal mind is still with us. We can see this mind at work here in our modern wilderness as it tempts us to grab every last loaf of bread off the grocery shelves; every last carton of eggs. Friends, the conditioned mind is always the mind of scarcity and fear. Some days, it may seem like this is the only mind we humans possess. But that’s only because this mind is very loud. Even Jesus hears it screaming at him in his own time of hunger and fear. 

But Jesus says “No.” You may be loud, Jesus says. But I trust that there is another voice. And I’ve come out here into the silent wilderness to wait for it. And so he does.

The voice of the conditioned mind will always tell us that the key to our safety and happiness is to have more. To get more. To produce more. Turn these stones into bread! shouts the tempter. Turn the wilderness into a wasteland, turn the ocean into a garbage dump–all in the name of getting more, having more, producing more.

This will not end until we stop. It will not end until we are forced to stop and hear the call of another voice.

Beloved, Jesus whispers. I am with you. I am right here with you in the wilderness, in the sudden silence of an epidemic, Jesus says. I am here to help you learn the difference between your conditioning and your calling. And you do have a calling, Jesus whispers. Listen

Maybe we can hear that calling in the words of theologian Walter Brueggemann, who reminds us that “We have a call, a stunning vocation, to stand free and hope-filled in a world gone fearful…and to think, imagine, dream, vision a future that God will yet enact.” 

Friends, this is not just an individual choice. Yes, it begins with each one of us. But here in the silence of our homes, in the sudden silence of our days, we are preparing to work with the Divine Presence to enact a great, collective change. If we take these days as an opportunity to practice silence and prayer and deep listening, then these strange and silent weeks will prepare us for the transformational work ahead.  Every time we reject the fearful prompting of the conditioned mind, we make space to hear our calling. And this is our essential work.

In the weeks and months ahead, whole nations — and this nation in particular — will have to decide whether we will continue to follow our conditioning. Whether we will continue grabbing, hoarding, and consuming more and more than our share of the earth’s resources, turning rainforests into cattle feed and mountains into engine fuel. Or whether, in this great silence, we will hear and heed the voice of our true calling: the voice of Life itself calling us to be the blessing we were made to be…for all the earth. The engines are slowly falling silent. Will we race to start them up again? Or will we listen here in the eerie silence for another voice, another call?

I leave you with these words of prayer from the poet Pablo Neruda:

Keeping Quiet 

Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

 

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

 

Fishermen in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would not look at his hurt hands.

 

Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, wars with fire,

victories with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.

 

What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about;

I want no truck with death.

 

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

 

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

 

Amen.

 

Wild and Precious

img_20191129_103711

Today is a special day in the church year. It is Transfiguration Sunday. The day when the disciples hike with Jesus to the top of a mountain and there they see an extraordinary sight: Jesus transfigured and filled with light. And there beside him on the mountaintop are the great prophets Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ friends are astonished. They are overwhelmed by the sight. And the only thing they can think to do is to fall on their knees and start making plans to build a shrine…or three! They want to build something to mark the spot where three great prophets appeared all together. Surely, we must be standing on holy ground. Let’s mark the spot!

Which, of course, is a very natural human response to an awesome sight! The only problem is that shrine building is not quite what God has in mind for the disciples.

What Peter and James and John seem to have forgotten in all the glory and light and holy commotion is that these three prophets have something very important in common. And that something is the reason we read this passage every year at the start of the season of Lent.

So…today’s Bible Jeopardy question. Our category is “Great Prophets for $500.” What do Moses, Elijah, and Jesus have in common?

Yes! They all spent 40 days and nights out in the wilderness listening for the voice of God. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all spent 40 days in the wilderness at a crucial turning point in their lives. Instead of rushing ahead to do the next thing on their own to-do list, they spent 40 days (which, as we know, is the Bible’s code for a really long time) holding still, getting quiet, and listening for what God was calling them to do with…well, as they poet Mary Oliver would say…what God was calling them to do with their “one wild and precious life.”

Friends, it is no accident that we read this passage at the very start of the season of Lent, which begins next Sunday. It is not a coincidence that as we begin our own 40-day journey into the season of Lent, we read this passage in which we, too, are invited to see before us these three great friends of God: three prophets who learned who they are, and whose they are, and what their lives were for, by getting very quiet and listening for the call of God.

This season, the worldwide church reads this remarkable story of the Transfiguration because we understand that God has never stopped calling us. It’s just that we modern folk sometimes forget how to listen. It is the deep intuition of our tradition that God is calling each of us, even now, to carry our particular gifts to the world. If we get too comfortable — on a mountaintop, in a shrine, in a sanctuary, in a job — and if we get too busy to listen, then our unique gift gets stuck in us, and never comes to bless the world. 

Beloved, I believe that God is calling us. Always. And I believe it is my most important work as pastor to help us listen, and hear, and answer, that call. 

But here’s the tricky part. That call is unique to each one of us. Your call will not be the same as mine. which will not be the same as anyone else’s.  I’m also convinced that God’s call to us can change throughout our lives. Which means that we can’t read a book or watch a video or download a list of what we are supposed to do with the gift of our lives. We’re going to have to make enough time and space to listen. We’re going to have to get quiet enough to hear the whisper of the divine presence speaking to our own soul. We’re going to have to get quiet enough to hear the longings of the soul itself. 

This is a profoundly countercultural practice we are invited to undertake in the season ahead. Our culture does not encourage stillness, or silence, or the patience to sit and wait until the path becomes clear. We prefer the flashy mountaintop epiphany. We prefer to ask an expert what to do next. But the world’s spiritual traditions teach us that guidance, and direction, and a sense of God’s call in our lives often comes in a much quieter manner. Jesus all alone in the vast and silent wilderness for 40 days. Moses all alone on a cloud-covered mountain, waiting. Here’s how it happened for Elijah:

Then the Lord said to Elijah, “Go, stand in front of me on the mountain. I, the Lord, will pass by you.” Then a very strong wind blew. The wind caused the mountains to break apart. It broke large rocks in front of the Lord. But that wind was not the Lord. After that wind, there was an earthquake. But that earthquake was not the Lord. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But that fire was not the Lord. After the fire, there was a quiet, gentle voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

I bet you know who that voice was. And I wonder…is your soul longing to hear that voice? Are you willing to hold still long enough, to get quiet enough, to hear it? 

Next Sunday, the season of Lent begins. All through this beautiful, quiet season, we’ll be exploring ways to listen for the longings of our own soul and for the whisper of the Holy Spirit calling us. We’ll be wondering together how to know who or what is calling; how to distinguish the call of God from the voice of our own ego; and how to find the courage to trust the call when it comes, so that we might answer a holy “yes.”

“What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And, how do you plan to listen for an answer? this season? 

May we find the courage to listen this season for the voice of the One who claims us, and calls us, and who will not ever let us go. Amen.