Sunday, October 16, 2016

Anxious but Unafraid

Friends, I think it’s about time we talked about worry.
I have a daughter who is pretty good about it – she calls me into her room when she needs “Worry Time”. We save up whatever has got her worried throughout the day, and then we sit down and she pours it all out. Sometimes she has to correct me, because I am not very good at platitudes, so she tells me what is most helpful for her to hear, “Mom, just say, ‘That will never happen, honey.’”  And so I do.

But most of the time, just sharing whatever it is that has got her worried, seems to take away the power of the worrying, at least for the moment.  And then she always asks me, “What are you worried about, Mommy?” And it always stops me in a rush of gratitude. Because it reminds me that we belong to each other.

For me, the most comforting thing for me to hear is not, “That will never happen.” But “Even if…” Even if the very worst thing that could happen does happen, it will still be ok.  
Even if, like the psalmist says, the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, that is STILL not the biggest thing. God is still God. Love is still the most true and first and final word. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore I will not fear. (Psalm 46) Because we belong to God and we belong to each other. No matter what. 
That is what I most often need to hear.

But oh, is worry a potent thing! 
Here is how worry works for me.
That terrible thing that happened over there happening to someone else?
What if it happens to me, or to someone I love? 
That loss – of home or family, of safety or order – flood, earthquake, war, famine, violence, I want to keep it far from my doorstep.
That unexpected tragedy that came out of the blue - that car accident or diagnosis - what if that happens to me or someone I love?
This terrifying and dangerous threat – ideology of dehumanization and division, isolation or provocation – it’s one thing in the hypothetical or in words, but what if it is given power, and action, and threatens me and my well-being?

I don’t worry about people suffering elsewhere. 
I might feel terrible about it, 
I might grieve it, feel angry or upset or compassionate or be filled with pity. 
But the worry comes in when I think that something bad could happen to me.

Worry always says “What if…” and then it shifts to the threat: What if…I wont not be safe. I wont have enough. I wont belong. I wont be seen. I lose someone I love, my security, my comfort, my place.
Worry rehearses the lie, over and over again; it whispers that we are unsafe, abandoned, futureless, hopeless and ultimately alone. 
In other words, we don’t belong to God, and we don’t belong to each other.

This is why worry is linked here with money. 
Money means security. If we are in it on our own, money is reassurance.  It means I have buffered myself from risk. I will have what I need – food, a bed, a home, a future. Because ultimately, this whole text is really about trust, and let’s be honest, Money is what we put our trust in. We trust in money so that we don’t have to worry. So most of the time what we worry about is having enough money.

So here is how I worry. I obsess. I read every dumb article I can get my hands on. And I can feel my blood pressure going up, and my heart racing, and my mind churning and my stomach clenching. I can feel the world around me fading out when I concentrate on whatever it is I am worried about. 
I think to myself, What if my worst fears come true? And then I google them. 
The news, the stock market, politics, webMD, CaringBridge – I feed the worry and it grows.

And while this is happening, the world is turning around me, like it does moment by moment, year after year.  The leaves are gently shifting into brilliance and color, the squirrels are finding their hiding spots for the winter.  Kids around me are discovering new, amazing skills, like standing upright and walking to their daddy, or cracking the code and suddenly discovering those shapes on the signs outside the car windows are words, and knowing what they say, or realizing in some other new way that their bodies, or minds, or voices, can do things in the world that have an impact and make a difference. And the ones in my own house are even sometimes inviting me to see that and celebrate or mourn whatever is real in their life along with them, but I am missing that.

While we are obsessing and worrying, new little people are being born, and rich full lives are ending, and every day in between is filled with all these moments where God is trying to show us, over and over again, Hey! You belong to me you wonderful, beloved person! And look, you belong to each other, all around you, all these other wonderful, beloved people! All of you, scared and longing and hopeful and brave, walking around on this earth like it matters, because it matters.

And here’s the truth about all the things we worry about: when the worst things do happen, the hardest and scariest and ickiest things have happened to us in the past, we made it through.  And what in advance had seemed unendurable, is endured after all, and worry’s “What if…” did not help us at all.

I heard a wonderful On Being podcast in which Krista Tippett interviewed Benedictine Monk David Steindl-Rast, who talks about the power of gratitude to reconnect us to God and each other, to ground us again in what is real.  But what stuck out to me most in this interview is how he answered her when she asked him about his perspective of living in a time where things seem so precarious and terrible.

We must acknowledge our anxiety about it. He said. We must acknowledge our anxiety, but we must not fear.  There is a great difference.
…Anxiety, or being anxious, this word comes from a root that means “narrowness,” and choking, and the original anxiety is our birth anxiety.
We all come into this world through this very uncomfortable process of being born…. It’s really a life-and-death struggle for both the mother and the child. And that is the original, the prototype, of anxiety.
At that time, we do it fearlessly, because fear is the resistance against this anxiety. See? If you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die in the womb. Or your mother dies.

So, anxiety is a reasonable response to a lot of human experience.
and we are to acknowledge it and affirm it, because to deny our anxiety is another form of resistance. But the fear is life destroying.

Anxiety is not optional in life, he says. It’s part of life. But we can look back at our lives, at times we were in really tight spots, times of anxiety, and say to ourselves, we made it! We got through it! … In fact, the worst anxieties and the worst tight spots in our life, often, years later, when you look back at them, reveal themselves as the beginning of something completely new, a completely new life.
And that can teach us, and that can give us courage, also, now, that we think about it, in looking forward and saying, yes, this is a tight spot. …But, if we go with it,…it will be a new birth. And that is trust in life.

So here is what I have to say to 2016: 2016, you suck.
And here is what I have to say to us: Right now is an anxious time.  
And most of us feel the anxiety acutely. All these ugly and toxic things inside of our culture, our systems, our very selves, they are leeching out, coming to the surface, and they are right here in the open, like gaping wounds.  We can see the horror we’ve practiced avoiding, ignore or suppressing, and it is really hard to look at.  And it feels big and sad and awful. It feels like we’re broken, a little bit.  And that makes us feel helpless.

We hate anxiety so we resist it, and we give in to fear. And worry is fear’s fuel, it’s momentum.  So in fear we might lash out at each other, or turn in on ourselves, obsessing about how our safety or security or happiness or precarious balance of equilibrium could vanish, seeing the threat all around us, feeding the fear, working the worry.

Right now we are in a narrow, constricted time.  And it hurts, and feels rotten and uncomfortable.  And we are resisting it.  Oh, are we resisting it. We are letting fear get us stuck, and the worry keep us distracted and preoccupied.

But there is invitation in this time.  There is an opportunity opened up in these times, to move from “What if…” to “Even if…”
By considering the lilies and the birds, by noticing and gratitude, we are shifted from worry to trust.  Trust in the one who holds us.  Trust looks up; it sees much farther and wider than worry, which can only look in one frozen spot with fear.  
Trust can look back at God’s faithfulness in the past, and trust can look forward with courage and hope, and trust can look around with eyes wide open, acknowledging the anxiety, seeing things as they are, but also holding onto a vision of things as they should be. Trust seeks first the Kingdom of God, the belonging of God that claims us and connects us.  The rest will fade and wither and die and change, but we will always belong to God and we will always belong to each other, no matter what it looks like on the surface at the moment.

We are in a series on Sabbath.  So as I say each week, when we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, we are not just saying that we worship sometimes on Saturdays instead of Sundays.

By practicing Sabbath, we are saying that as a community of people, we refuse to live fueled by worry and driven by fear. We will face anxiety and call it what it is – uncomfortable, terrible, painful, and we will trust anyway.

Sabbath is an active form of resistance to the way of fear, a powerful practice of defiance to worry.  In a 24/7 system where fear is cultivated and encouraged, and our connection to God and others is buried under noise and lies.Sabbath refuses to numb out, or rush past the pain, or submit to the relentless cycle of obsession and worry.

So when Sabbath invites us to say, I am going to step off the spinning carousel of chaos, and take a breath, and get my bearings, and sit down and be here, right here in my life, right now in honesty and gratitude, with no other agenda, it is a direct affront to the system of fear, and a powerful antidote to the cycle worry. Sabbath is such a potent and subversive move because it reminds us that we are, in fact, free, free to opt out of that game at any moment.

Because when we rest, we trust. It’s not a feeling; it’s an action. 
We actively give up the frantic resistance of fear, and the flailing of worry. Instead we welcome the anxiety, and let ourselves face it and feel it, as uncomfortable as it is. We recognize that it’s true, in lots of ways we are completely helpless.  
But then, something comes after that: the “what if” dissipates and the “even if” finds us and reminds us what is real. That despite what we see on the news and on the CT scan and on the bank statement, that is not the most true thing. “Even if” the very worst thing that could happen does happen, God is still God. Love is still the most true and first and final word.  And we usually find ourselves surprised by gratitude, a sense of peace, a momentary remembering of the belonging that claims and connects us all.

This is what it means to be people who practice Sabbath. 
We are people who practice trusting God with all our hearts, and leaning not on our own understanding, acknowledging God in all our ways, and letting God direct our paths, and in so doing, we will find healing for our bodies and refreshment for our souls. (Prov. 3:5-8)

And something else happens as well.  
Stopping, resting, trusting, makes space for the Spirit to lead us to responses that are productive, and faithful.  Responses like grieving – which connects us with the heart of God that longs for things to be as the are meant to be.  Or helping each other, listening to each other, or tending the earth, tending our souls- all these things plug us back into the real reality – belonging to God and belonging to each other.

Because when we remember the real, instead of seeing a crisis a half a world away and fearing it might land on our doorstep, we might reach out in generosity, or listen for the stories of hope and connection.  
Instead of dreading danger in our communities or vilifying those we don’t understand, we might let curiosity lead us to learn about our neighbors, or seek a way to connect more deeply with someone and their story. 
Instead of walling ourselves off in shame and supposed self-protection, we might find courage to reach out in our need and let others come near to us and tend to us.  
In other words, when we remember that we belong to God and we belong to others, we will live that way, and that can change the world.

Someone said to me this week, Why do we think worrying is fruitful, but breathing and meditation is not? Why are we so willing and quick to worry? But not to be silent or pray or stop, things that actually are fruitful?

So today, we are going to be a Sabbath people. 
We are going to actively practice silence, and praying, and stopping.  
We are going to spend the next couple of minutes countering worry with trust, reconnecting with the source of our being and our belonging, preparing us to reconnect with ourselves and each other as well. (And if you are reading this at home, you are invited to breathe along as you read).

Breathing Prayer by ab simpson

Breathe in the breath of God
Breathe out your cares and concerns

Breathe in the love of God
Breathe out your doubts and despairs

Breathe in the life of God
Breathe out your fears and frustrations

We sit quietly before the One who gives life and love to all creation,
We sit in awe of the One who formed us in our mother’s wombs
We sit at peace surrounded by the One who fills every fibre of our being

Breathe in the breath of God
Breathe out your tensions and turmoil

Breathe in the love of God
Breathe out your haste and hurry

Breathe in the life of God
Breathe out your work and worry

We sit quietly before the One who gives life and love to all creation,
We sit in awe of the One who formed us in our mother’s wombs
We sit at peace surrounded by the One who fills every fibre of our being

You belong to God.
You are loved.
You are part of God’s plan to love the world.
Be at peace.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Work, rest, repeat (aka. belonging training)


Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Mark 12:31

I know this is going to be really hard for some of you to believe, but I can be a difficult person to live with.  I am messy, and distracted, and often impatient or irritable.  And my people get frustrated with me, and hurt when I am short or edgy with them.  And then I have to do the work of seeing them, and my impact on them, and apologizing and forgiving and restoring our connection. Because we belong to each other.
They are mine and I am theirs. And we know that is not up for grabs. That means we have to work things out, we can’t just cut off and walk away every time things get hard. We can’t just close off in our own little world and not have to deal with one another. 

We live with one another – our space, our time, our sadness, our celebrations – these things are bravely shared.  We can’t throw our garbage in each other’s rooms, or claim the bathroom as our own sovereign territory and refuse to let others use it.  Learning to belong to other people is a big part of being human, and learning that other people belong to you is a lifelong project as well. 

The way of God for all creation and the cosmos, from the very first moment of creation and never ceasing is this: we belong to God and we belong to each other.

Last week we talked about how the Israelites, through the drills of Sabbath rest, repeated practice, over and over, developing the muscle memory of trust – began learning that we belong to God.  This week we are going to talk about how they learned that we belong to each other.
Our text today comes 40 years after the first text. Two generations later, when the Israelites were poised to finally enter the Promised Land, Moses, ancient of days, tired and gave-it-all-he-had Moses, stood before them and gave three long, final sermons.  We call them Deuteronomy.
The first one recounts their journey together, from Egypt until this moment, reminding them of all that happened in the wilderness and all that God taught them there. The second is a reminder of God’s laws and teachings, and their calling to live as the children of God, and the third is a promise that even if they screw it up, God will never let them go. 

Imagine this is like the parents about to send their kid off to college- and they sit him down for the epic talk, Before you move into adulthood, son, here’s what we want to be sure you know: remember your story and where you came from, it’s taught you a lot so don’t forget it.  And here are the life rules to follow along the way, we’ve tried to raise you with these but we’re telling you all of them again now to take with you. And finally, please know, that even if you mess up, which you certainly will, you will always be our child and our love for you will never end. 
Moses wont be joining them in the Promised Land, so his final words  to the people from God are  - in his mind and their’s – very important.

We like to say that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, but that’s not completely accurate.  For the first two years it was a pretty direct, if gradual, route.  Cross the red sea, that was 3-4 weeks, give or take, hang out at the bottom of Mt. Sinai in ten commandments territory for 10 months or so, journey another 11 or so months to the place overlooking the Jordan River and the Promised Land, Canaan, beyond it, and you’re almost to your new home.

Now, once they had reached the Jordon, Moses sent 12 spies to scout the land that God said God would give to them.  
But instead of just checking out the digs, assessing the possibilities for agriculture, and so on, the spies saw the enormous, strong and plentiful inhabitants of the land, in their impressive and heavily fortified cities, and got freaked out.
When they came back to report what they found, ten of them said, “The people are huge and fierce! We’re like grasshoppers compared to them! No WAY can we take this land; if we try, we will be completely crushed!”  And the people listened to them, absorbed their fear, and refused to go into the land.

In his talk with them, Moses recounts this part of their story this way:
They brought back a report to us, and said, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’
26 But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord your God; 27you grumbled in your tents and said, ‘It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. 28Where are we heading? Our kindred have made our hearts fail by reporting, “The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! … 29
I said to you, ‘Have no dread or fear of them. 30The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled until you reached this place.

32But in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God, 33who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take.’ (Dt. 1:25-33)

So because of this, they were “cursed” to wander in the desert, until that untrusting generation died off.  They found themselves in a self-inflicted holding pattern, because they didn’t believe God would help them with the very thing God was calling them to do.
So the wandering – which literally means, “traveling aimlessly,” must have been all the more frustrating because they had an aim, God had already shown them where they were supposed to be!  They spent the next 38 years basically meandering around near where God was bringing them, but not yet ready to go there.
38 years of drills. 38 years of trust training school.

And so, when the whole generation who had come out of Egypt was dead and gone, and now their children, who had grown up in the wilderness, stand before the promised land and receive the important last words of Moses – here we have again the Sabbath command.  It’s almost the same as last week, when they received the Sabbath command for the first time. But it is not the same. The other 9 commandments are identical; this one is different.

The first time around, they were to remember the Sabbath day and rest because God rests.
 We rest because our lives are centered on a non-anxious creator and lover of the whole universe who made us, and loves us, and calls us, and who gives us everything we need to join God in caring for the world and each other. 
Resting teaches us to trust.  It trains us to orient our being toward the one who loves us. You are a child of God.  Sabbath says. Orient your being toward the one who loves you.

And for people shaped bythe empire, this drill is meant to become muscle memory, to deprogram them from a life of slavery where their lives were largely about producing things for the empire, striving to stay young and strong enough to keep producing things for the empire, and protecting me and mine over and against those who could take from them whatever they want whenever they want.
Sabbath drills move them into trusting that they belong to God who loves them no matter what and will always take care of them, so that they are finally free, and able to take up the role God has called them to – to be stewards of creation, and bearers of blessing for the world. To know God and be God’s people – caring for each other and the stranger among them, tending the world around them.  
Resting is a way to remember whom they belong to.

But this time, when Moses reiterates the ten commandments, the Sabbath command changes to a command to “observe” the Sabbath, pay close attention to this day of rest, and then just as it said before, everyone rests, only it adds these words: so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Here they stand, about to enter into a new land, to form a new society. They are no longer slaves; they have been set free. And they have spent four decades learning what it means to belong to a God of freedom and love.  And now, they head into a new enterprise, ready to take up, for the first time in hundreds of years, a place of power and authority.  You are going to look like an empire, God says, Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are one. Stop and remember. Stop and see each other.  Even amidst the broken systems of this earth, take this day to stop and rest so you don’t forget who you really are, and make sure that everyone else – regardless of their station in life, joins in that rest, so you don’t forget who they are as well. 

There are new temptations to being on top that they didn’t have to face when they were making bricks for Pharoah, or aimlessly wandering, off the grid.  They are entering into a world of commerce and international politics, land ownership and striving for wealth or position. For a people living basically with nothing, competition and accumulation must have been particularly dangerous enticements.  God is making sure they hear this command to do this thing that deeply connects them to God and truth and reality, DO IT so you don’t forget where you came from – and DO IT because it’s not just for you, it’s for everyone.

When everybody rests, you all look the same -  poor and rich, ruler and slave, weak and strong, healthy and sick, old and young disappear.  Nobody is ahead or behind, nobody is better or worse. We are equal in our identity as God’s beloved children. Sabbath resting means everyone across the board stopping all together, stepping out of your roles and responsibilities, and setting down society’s labels and rankings, to see each other as human beings, side by side in life. 
Walter Brueggeman says, “The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is that anxious productivity is to be countered by committed neighborliness.  The latter practice does not produce so much, but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project.”[1]
So, in the second telling of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath command says essentially this: You rest, because nobody can or should be defined by what they do, not you, and not those who work for you, alongside you or against you. 

This isn’t the cashier of the big box store, the head of the cardiac ward, or the gas station attendant, she is a daughter, mother, sister and friend, an observer of the world who loves to paint and draw, a creative soul, with dreams and longings for her children, someone who is tired and hopeful, and who wonders in the quiet of the night whether she is missing out.
She’s a person who belongs to others, and so belongs also to you.

This isn’t a kindergarten teacher, or a multi-million dollar business owner, or an unemployed welfare recipient, he’s a human being, who has stories of being bullied as a child, and of growing up and finding his voice. He’s the one the neighbors come to when they’re stumped on a project, or to hang out in the yard and talk under the stars. 
He’s a person who belongs to others, and so belongs also to you.

When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, we do not just mean that we worship sometimes on Saturdays instead of Sundays.  We mean that we seek to live in the real reality, the Kingdom of God, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other.

We rest because God sets us free to be human beings alongside one another, and calls us to see each other that way too. We rest because the maker and lover of the whole universe claims us all, and gives us everything we need to join God in caring for the world and each other.  Resting teaches us to trust.  It trains us to recognize that every single person is precious to God and a gift to the world. We need each other. We belong to each other.

The Church is the people who see and hold to that truth on behalf of all humanity.  We all are inextricably connected. What we do affects each other. This is a communal enterprise –being human, and not an individual affair. 

If you believe you’re in it alone, you will see other people as a threat to your own safety or well-being, a hindrance to your own advancement.  If you forget that we belong to each other you will believe that love is a limited commodity, that loving one person means hating another. You’ll think that one person succeeding means another failing, and act as though there is limited amount of good to go around, so you’d better go after it and grab it for you and yours, and if you manage to secure it for a time, you can feel relieved, if not slightly guilty, that you aren’t like “them.”

But we are like them. We are them. We are all the same: Beloved children of God.  And we can’t belong to God without belonging to each other. There is no such thing.

Learning to belong to other people is a big part of being human, and learning that other people belong to you is a lifelong project as well. 

When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, that means that we practice belonging to each other. We risk saying about each other, and encourage each other to say about the world around us: They are mine and I am theirs.  I have to do the work of seeing them, and my impact on them, and apologizing and forgiving, and restoring our connection.  And we practice remembering that no matter what the world says, this belonging is not up for grabs.  As a congregation that practices Sabbath – our space, our time, our sadness, our celebrations – these things are bravely shared.

And being human alongside others can’t be done if we’re drowning in distraction and racing along without stopping.  We have to stop, and set it down, and lift our heads, and link our arms, and see the world around us, really see the people that inhabit it, and really let ourselves feel the frustration and joy of being connected to others, so that we can sense the love of God, the eternal connection underneath it all that holds us together.

Jesus summed up all the commandments and the whole law of Moses with the words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  In other words, practice belonging to God and belonging to each other. 

Sabbath rest returns us to reality, by giving us space to remember that we belong to God, and chances to observe, over and over again, that we belong to each other, until trusting God and living in God’s love alongside each other, becomes muscle memory.



[1] Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistence, 28