Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection March 1,2020
“Life is What It Is” by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
I’ve decided to place last Sunday’s sermon in this week’s Advance. A number of people thought that doing so would be a good idea. The preaching text was James 3:13-19.
I really like this passage from the Letter of James. I believe it would be a good idea to copy it and send it to every politician everywhere! I like James. If we every finish Acts of the Apostles maybe we’ll turn to James.
While today we are actually celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration, we will continue our series of sermons based on Parker Palmer’s On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. Today we’ll be exploring chapter three: “Getting Real - From Illusion to Reality.”
Sisters and brothers, we all struggle through life - that’s a given. We all want easy answers to hard questions. But our journey is always messy. Our journey is always unsettling. Our journey is always frightening. And yet our journey is all we have.
We can waste our lives asking God for an easier life. We can mistakenly believe that everything which happens in our broken world comes directly from the hand of God - but it doesn’t. God “leaves things be.”
I turn to my favorite professor of all time, Dr. Zachary Hayes, from his book, The Gift of Being: A Theology of Creation. Hayes writes: “God has created a world in which the realization of the divine aim depends upon the interactions among creatures, particularly at the level of human creatures where we are dealing with freely chosen values and actions.
“As a God of love, God has created a world that is not ruled by force or coercion. The creative love of God can well be thought of as a power that ’let’s things be.’
“It might be helpful to think of God not as the Eternal Planner who has written a finished script for cosmic history, which must be carried out, but rather to think of God as the Infinite Source of Possibilities. The cosmos is open to a real future, and that future will be the fruit of cosmic history responding to the possibilities offered by God.”
Brothers and sisters, Life will do what it wants with us: rough us up, treat us kindly, it’s all the same to Life. Life is always bigger than we imagine it to be.
Most of us have been trained to do right, to act up-rightly. Then we’ll be protected, then we’ll be rewarded in the here and now. But this approach doesn’t work too well in the real world, does it? Life will do with us what it wills.
Where is God in all this? God is in every part and parcel of this but in a very subtle way, in a very mysterious way, in an almost imperceptible way. God is not showy, even though we want a showy God. God is not a cosmic bully, even though we yearn for a God who will beat up our foes.
God is not given to rushing hither and yon to answer our billions of daily prayers. I am again reminded of the words of the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard: “Prayer doesn’t change God. Prayer changes the one who prays.”
Palmer writes: “The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.” Unfortunately, sisters and brothers, it’s become harder to strip away these illusions because of so much disinformation poured upon us from everywhere we look.
We need deep reflection to see through the deceptions we cling to, to get in touch with what Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.” But we all get caught in what is known as “the confirmation bias.”
In my Moraine Valley class on Critical Thinking, I spend a lot of time exploring the confirmation bias. We all seek information that will confirm the beliefs that we already hold dear. We all try to avoid any information that will cause us, challenge us, to change our beliefs. We all get stuck from time to time.
Brothers and sisters, we all believe untenable things. But sometimes we believe such because we want to belong, we want so desperately to fit in with whatever group we are enmeshed with. Most of us will choose what out group believes even if we know it to be wrong or doubtful.
We’ve all probably tried to convince someone else to change what they wrongly believe but none of us have likely been successful at doing such. This is why we’re warned not to discuss either politics or religion in “polite” company.
Thursday evening, while having dinner at Smith Village with friends, one of those at table asked me: “When did Jesus know he was divine? When did Jesus know he was God?”
This is an indescribably difficult and complex question. We’ve all been well-steeped in the Gospel stories. We have, for the most part, accepted them all as true and historically accurate. But my training makes it necessary to approach Scripture as poetry, not historical prose. I also know that the Gospels were written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus was killed.
This doesn’t mean the Gospel stories aren’t true. They are true theologically but not, necessarily, historically true. The Gospel stories are best treated, as they say, with kid gloves.
So how did I answer the question put to me Thursday evening? The only way I could answer - with as much honesty as I could muster. When did Jesus know, FOR SURE, that he was divine, that he was God? On Easter Sunday morning!
With deep reflection, also known as contemplation, is the way we penetrate illusion and touch the really-real. Deep reflection on our own experience of life invariably leads to insight. And insight, I believe, always leads to God. As Palmer notes: Life can always be counted on to send something our way to help burst our illusions. Our strongly-held illusions can also devolve into delusions!
Palmer writes about his fondness for the writings of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (who died in 1968). Palmer read Merton’s famous first book, The Seven Story Mountain, by accident. But it moved Palmer so much that he wanted to go off to join the monks at Gethsemane. The problem, though, was that Palmer was a Quaker and was married with children!
Merton had a very strong impact and influence on my own life, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In those years, I read much of what Merton wrote.
Palmer notes: “Most of us,” Merton brilliantly observed, “live lives of self-impersonation.” Palmer also quotes Merton’s warning about “the intolerable flippancy of the saved.” All of us could well ponder this warning!
We all seek love without illusions. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet gives the following definition of love: “When two solitudes border, protect and salute one another.” Again, sisters and brothers, something worth reflection.
I believe wholeness, holiness, can always be found, hidden beneath the broken surface of things. Palmer quotes the Algerian writer and existentialist, Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”
Today, February 23, is the two-year anniversary of the day when our Matthew Bownlee went to God as the victim of suicide. To ponder this, to reflect on this, I wish to read a poem from Mary Oliver: Beaver Moon - The Suicide of a Friend. (I suggest everyone look up this poem on the internet and read it.)
After I read Oliver’s poem this past week, I felt called to write my own reflection on her words. What follows is my reflection.
We keep trying to put own stamp on life but life is like Jello, not easily shaped into what it is not. And we get so easily upset that life is what it is.
How dare life not bend itself into what I want it to be. How dare life flow where it will.
How dare life be supremely indifferent to my cherished desires and my many wants. How dare life sweep me into a multitude of eddies and turbulent tributaries.
But there it is - the great River of Life, flowing from the Almighty Abundance of the Life-Giver.
The River of Life will pull and push me where it wills. I am but a tiny leaf floating on its immensity. But what a journey it is, as the days flow by in a rush, a blur of this and that!
I have known some who fight the flow, who rightly fear the river’s rush and who can fault them? I am one of them.
Life is not an easy journey. But an easy journey was never promised. Fight the flow. Go with the Flow. I don’t think the river cares all that much.
But I do wonder why we weren’t all issued something buoyant to help us stay above the water-line. But maybe that’s the point?
Yet I have come to know without any doubt that it helps to hold on to others as we rush downstream. “Buoyancy-buddies” is a good name for them. It’s just too hard to float solitary on the rushing River of Life.
That’s why we have a family. That’s why we have a faith-family. That’s why we have the grace of each other.
Life is too vast, too lonely, too perplexing, too frightening, to float along alone!
God is with us when we cling each to each. God is with us when we seek the Way, the Truth, the Life. Nothing else makes any real sense. Amen!