How long...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, January 19, 2014.

When I was a very young preacher I found myself regularly praying the words of today’s Psalm:  how long?  How long, Lord, will your people suffer?  How long will we shame and wound one another? How long must the poor be ignored and the hungry starve? How long must I feel all torn up inside and anxious? How long will the ones I love the most be trapped by fear and addicted to alcohol and drugs?

I bet you, too have your own HOW LONG lists, yes?  How long will we as a nation spend more on the weapons of war than the instruments of peace?  How long will the wicked seeds of race hatred keep producing weeds that strangle our nation’s potential?  How long will women – and increasingly men – be raped and violated? How long will good people keep silent while evil powers corrupt and pollute the most vulnerable among us?

Do you know what I’m talking about?  Do you have any HOW LONGS you want to say out loud right now?

As I have mentioned to you before, I sensed my call to ministry during the summer of 1968 just after Dr. King was assassinated.  And in spite of all of his demons and failings, I have continued to be moved by both his words and his public commitment to compassion in action.  He was someone who helped me frame some of my deepest HOW LONGS and discern how best to act in a way that strengthened the cause of compassion.  Two of my favorite MLK quotes are:

·   Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

·   A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

As time ripened – and my life matured – I found that while I kept asking HOW LONG, my emphasis had shifted.  There were still a host of laments about the common good, but now I was also asking things like:  how long must I remain such a slow learner – how long will I have to endure my own stupidity and sloth – how long will I worry about being cool enough – how long will I hurt the ones I love the most? Do you know what I’m saying here?

In the midst of all of the angst and social suffering that caused me to weep and rage, there was an emerging awareness that I too was part of the problem.  That the reality of sin and greed – fear, shame and selfishness – was not just a problem out THERE, but ALSO in here. I remember going over and over the letters of St. Paul thinking:  this cat has been reading my mail!  Especially these words from Romans 7: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very things I hate.  Eugene Peterson’s reworking of this text in The Message is particularly poignant so let me read the whole thing:

I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison.What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary… if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!

I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope.

·   Are you still with me?  Maybe you’ve had that startling realization, too that as much as you want to be a part of the solution you are simultaneously part of the problem?

·   That’s part of what the dilemma today’s Scriptures ask us to wrestle with on the second Sunday of the season of Epiphany:  how long?  How long will I resist owning that I am as much a part of the problem as the solution?  How long will I let sin dishearten, depress and demoralize me?  How long will I try to solve this impasse all by myself rather than let God’s grace take charge?

I think that is what John the Baptist’s confession suggests – I must decrease so that the Lord might increase as the Lamb of God – and it is also what Christ’s reply to Andrew is all about: come along with me and see.  Come and follow.  Come and experience the unforced rhythms of grace.  Like the Apostle Paul wrote:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus… you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will strengthen you to the end… for God is faithful and true.

So let’s spend a little time talking about what it really means to put the spirituality of Epiphany into practice.  Specifically, I want to think out loud with you about ways we can both tap into God’s grace for peace and forgiveness, and, how we can use God’s strength when we are at our weakest to mature in faith.  That is, how do we turn the energy of our HOW LONGS into the blessings of the Lord?
The late Henri Nouwen once put this challenge in the form of two questions that will confront us throughout our lives if we’re paying attention.  He asked:  Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little word?  And is there a still point where I know my life is anchored from which I can reach out to the world with hope and courage and confidence?  For me both questions cut to the chase as non-negotiables and I’ve come to rephrase them like this: 

·   Am I in touch with the peace of the Lord that is deeper than all my feelings? And, do I know how to get centered and grounded in God’s grace so that I can be active and creative in the world?

·   If I want to honor compassion more than suffering in my sphere of influence, if I want to be a man of hope rather than despair in my family, if I want to strengthen love and defuse hatred in my church and community then I need to be living out of God’s peace by resting in God’s grace.  Anything less, you see, puts me right back in the double-bind St. Paul named so well as the trap of sin.

So let’s turn first to Nouwen’s first question about knowing, experiencing and trusting that quiet stream the runs underneath all the ups and downs of our little worlds, ok? 

·   Have you ever known the comfort of God’s peace?

·  Where or how did it come to you?  Can you say out loud something of this experience?

It has been said that only an experience with God’s peace teaches us to trust and love the Lord with all our heart, mind, strength and soul: doctrine can be helpful but it doesn’t inspire, clearly written creeds can be useful but they don’t energize or motivate us into living by faith.  No, in order to go deeper and live more consistently as a person of compassion we must first have an encounter with God’s peace and second regularly practice returning to the heart of this sacred experience.

There was a woman I knew in Cleveland who used to love to go on spiritual life retreats.  “I just feel like I have been lifted up to the mountain top” she used to tell me.  Most of these retreats were held over two or three days on weekends.  Participants would show up at the retreat house for Friday dinner, get settled and then celebrate evening prayer.  Then for most of the day on Saturday and half of the day on Sunday, there would be Eucharist, study, quiet times and a chance to speak with one of the spiritual mentors. There was excellent but simple food, there was beauty and solitude all saturated on the love of the Lord.  “I just can’t get enough of those times” she told me again and again.

The only problem with her on-going commitment to these spiritual life retreats was that as soon as she returned home to her surly and alcoholic husband, all that inner serenity vanished.  “I hate coming home,” she told me.  “I’ve been to the mountain top – and then that SOB drags me down into the mire and mud of the valley of the shadow of death – would that I could stay in my retreat forever.”

·  Do you see the problem here?  She knew something of God’s peace – she had experienced that quiet healing river of love – but she didn’t know how to reconnect with it when life got hard.  She didn’t know how to tap into it again when it mattered.

·   And that is essential if we’re going to live out of God’s peace – we have to know how to reconnect – and then actually practice going back to that quiet place day after day after day.  Like the Psalmist sang:  I waited patiently for the Lord who inclined his ear to me; he lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay and set my feet upon the rock so that I could sing a new song.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “we teach our children how to measure, how to weigh, how to do business. But we fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe (and nourish it.)” First, we must experience that sweet peaceful stream that continually runs underneath all our ups and downs; and second we must practice returning and renewing that connection.  Both are essential, ok?

·   And here’s the key – it isn’t complicated – but it does take an incredible effort because the only way to stay connected to God’s peace is to practice resting and trusting. 

·   Robert Wicks, one of my favorite writers on this subject, says:  without the practice of regular simple rituals that reconnect us to God’s peace, “life can easily get out of hand and become an experience of rushing toward our grace until an event that reminds us of what’s really important steps in and stops us win our tracks, asking: where are you going? Life is so short. Are you being mindful, loving and attentive to yourself and those around you? Are you nourishing the peace of God within you?”

You see, more often than not we can get out of the habit.  Even after we’ve been touched and nourished and inspired by something of God’s peace, we still can get distracted and fall out of practice.  That’s true for me, I know, and it is probably true for you, too. And that’s why our tradition – like other spiritual traditions – has created simple rituals that we can do every day and every week to help us stay connected to God’s peace. To remind us over and over again of that quiet stream of love that runs underneath all our ups and downs.

·   Now let me be clear with you about something:  the rituals I am talking about are simple but focused – they emphasize silence and solitude – and cannot be done on your way to someplace else.  So as much as you want to believe that praying in the car counts – and it does in a very minimal way – unless you consciously take the time to quietly and consistently refresh and renew your connection to God’s peace, you are fooling yourself.

·   What all the masters have discovered is that we need i10-20 minutes most mornings or evenings to sit quietly and just listen for the Lord within.  We might take a moment or two to read a poem or spiritual lesson – or listen to some music – and then we need to offer God our thanks and gratitude.  You might find that taking a regular walk alone does the trick.  Or intentionally and prayerfully reading the words of a hymn can work, too.

What’s important is reconnecting to the stream, recommitting to God’s guidance and grace, returning to and renewing your encounter with that sweet and loving peace.  “Simple rituals of prayerfulness balance our secular obsession with success, fame, power, physical attractive-ness, money or simply just getting our own way. They help prevent normal human desires from becoming our idols.” (Wicks) And without regular practice and reconnection to the source of our peace, we soon discover ourselves anxious and fretting and afraid and caught up in shame and blaming and all the rest. 

Like St. Paul said:  I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  Or as they say in some of the 12 Step groups:  if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.  Want to use your HOW LONGS as a way into God’s peace? Then like the cab driver said to the young violinist who was lost and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  Practice, son, practice:  that’s the first insight for today. 
That’s what Jesus was telling Andrew:  come and see – come and follow – come and learn a new way. The second insight is this:  God has shared Christ with us so that we might know that still point within that can anchor all our outward activity.  It is called grace.  Not judgment – not doctrine – not fear – not shame – not liturgy nor religiosity.  Grace and grace alone is our anchor – and the way we practice nourishing and trusting God’s grace is through patience:  “I waited… patiently for the Lord” right? 

·   I don’t have to tell you that patience is no longer a virtue in our culture or economy: we want it all right now – and there is precious little encouragement to cultivate patience.  But it is the only way to regularly reconnect with God’s grace so that we share more gratitude than judgment.

·   Patience, you see, is how we practice being compassionate with ourselves so that what is true within us can be shared in the world.  One of the great mystics of the Christian tradition, St. Charles Borromeo, said:  “Be sure that you first preach by the way that you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing but live otherwise.”

And it is so easy to quit practicing patience in our quest for results or in our need to squeeze everything into our jammed schedules.  I once heard a story about a little girl who was late getting home from school. As you might imagine, her father who was working from home, was worried sick – and was getting annoyed because now he was going to be late for an important meeting. So when the child finally stepped through the door, her father yelled at her for being late.

And when his daughter’s eyes swelled up with tears, he caught himself and asked, “Can you tell me why you were so late?” To which the little girl replied, “I was helping my friend who was in trouble.” So dad asked “And what did you do to help her?” to which his daughter replied quite simply:  I sat down next to her and helped her cry.

Now two truths are revealed in that exchange:  first, the small child became the rabbi who was able to teach her daddy something simple and child-like about living compassion; and, her father was given the chance to practice forgiving himself with patience and grace. Both truths are equally important if we want to live as allies of the Lord.  We will be given chances to grow and learn and change from the most unlikely sources:  children, enemies, animals, sorrow, pain and sin.  

·   How did the Advent lessons put it:  the last shall become first and the first shall become last – the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid – and a little child shall lead them?  See how they return again in Epiphany?

·   And we will be given opportunity upon opportunity to practice being gentle and forgiving with ourselves so that what we know on the inside is how we live in the world outside.  All of a sudden, a child returning home late from school becomes the confessional where daddy can practice accepting God’s grace patiently.


Practicing the way of peace – embracing the deep compassion of the Lord – and renewing our connection with these gentle blessings regularly change us from the inside out – and bring a measure of healing to the world.  These are the gifts of God for the whole people of God – so let’s not waste them, ok?  Rather, let us come and follow and be free.


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