Archive for August, 2009
The Message of the Dancing Whales
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 23, 2009
Isaiah 46:1-13 Luke 12:22-34
Last time we met I talked about worrying. Today I want to talk about stress. Worrying is like stress, and worrying adds to stress. But stress is different from worrying, and I feel that understanding it is important for our spiritual life.
What made me think about stress was the holiday that Carol and I just took to Vancouver Island. On our trip, we went on a whale-watching expedition that also brought us to some hot springs. On the way to the hot springs we saw some orcas or killer whales in the distance, but nothing noteworthy. Then we hiked through a forest to get to the hot springs. We soaked in the sulfurous water and totally relaxed. That alone was a high point. Then on the way back we experienced a miracle. We came upon some more orcas—these were much closer. They were leaping out of the water and landing with a huge splash. It was breathtaking. Once a baby orca and her mother both leapt out of the water together. And each time the whales leapt, we all went, “Ooooh!” All of this expedition had an impact on me. The boat ride, the hot springs, seeing the whales leap. I felt completely relaxed and peaceful. And I also felt a kind of bond with the other people in the boat who witnessed this rare event with me. I had left the city behind me and felt connected with nature. And my own personality was more natural. When we got back to land, there was nothing I needed or wanted. I was completely at peace. Even now, when I want to recapture that mood, I can think of the picture of momma and baby orca leaping out of the water together.
Then, as we were driving back through Glacier National Park, in the midst of all that beauty I thought about my mailbox at home. I’d been away for a week and a half and I was afraid that too much mail had built up and maybe the mailman was throwing away mail that would no longer fit in it. I felt a knot beginning to develop in my stomach. And in all that beauty I couldn’t seem to get rid of that knot. The stresses of civilization were beginning to overtake me again.
When Jesus talks about worry and anxiety, He uses nature imagery to calm us. He talks about the lilies of the field, the ravens, and the grass. When we are in nature, it soothes us. The calm that took me over on the whale watch made me think about my life in the city. How much trouble just being surrounded by man-made structures makes for. How pent-up I can get in the city. I compare the man-made structures of the city to the idols we heard about in the reading from Isaiah. The Isaiah passage is about the gods of Babylon. Babylon was the greatest city in the Ancient Near East. By comparison, Jerusalem was just a tiny city. Babylon had the highest technology, huge statues of their gods, and astrologers who worshipped the stars. In Isaiah, the prophet compares the gods made by man to the real God, Yahweh. Isaiah is almost satiric. He says:
Some pour out gold from their bags
And weigh out silver on the scales;
They hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,
And they bow down and worship it;
They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;
They set it up in its place, and there it stands.
From that spot it cannot move.
Though one cries out to it, it does not answer;
It cannot save him from his troubles (46:6-7).
In the city we are surrounded by structures man has created, and much of our city life is controlled by these structures. I remember my first impression of Boston, when I moved there from the farmlands of Ohio. I looked at everyone rushing all around and thought to myself, “They need to get out of the city before they can even begin to work on their spiritual life.” It was as if the city created a city personality that covered over everyone’s real self. There was traffic noise; noise from the street lamps; buildings so close they hemmed one in; sirens going off, no stars in the sky because of city lights. I used to go way up the coast to a beach just to get the city out of me.
We take on a lot more stress than we need to in our lives. We create idols we feel we must worship. There is the normal job stress we all experience. For me there are weddings to book and plan, phone calls, emails, and messages to answer, getting ready for church on Sunday—and when there is a wedding booked that same week-end, I really feel the crunch—and pastoral visits. There aeem to be a thousand little things that I seem to keep in my head until they’re done, but then there are always more to do, and inevitably something gets forgotten. This pace can create stress for me, as the occupations that others do create for them. Then there are the activities I do in my personal life that I try to squeeze in where and when I can. I go to the Tai Chi studio twice a week, and go out with Carol. But on top of that there are the idols of gold that I add on to my already busy schedule. For instance there are the articles I write for publication. They require research, which means a trip downtown to the library, reading and not-taking, writing and re-writing, and sending them off to publishers. There is also music which I fit in—including playing, composing, and recording. So I find myself running around trying to fit into my schedule more than I can reasonably accommodate. Then I don’t eat well. And when I get tired, do I rest? No, I drink more coffee so the caffeine can keep me going. This all takes a toll on my body and sometimes I get sick. So what do I do? Do I lie down and rest? No I take Day-Quill and more coffee so my cold symptoms don’t get in my way. Worshipping idols. Eckhart Tolle describes the inner workings of this kind of life excellently in his book, A New Earth. Tolle writes,
The world will tell you that success is achieving what you set out to do. It will tell you that success is winning, that finding recognition and/or prosperity are essential ingredients in any success. . . . What the world doesn’t tell you—because it doesn’t know—is that you cannot become successful. You can only be successful. Don’t let a mad world tell you that success is anything than a successful present moment. And what is that? There is a sense of quality in what you do, even the most simple action. . . .
Let’s say that you are a successful businessperson and after two years of intense stress and strain you finally manage to come out with a product that sells well and makes money. Success? In conventional terms, yes. In reality, you spent two years polluting you body as well as the earth with negative energy; made yourself and those around you miserable, and affected many others you never met. The unconscious assumption behind all such action is that the end justifies the means. But the end and the means are one. And if the means did not contribute to human happiness, neither will the end. The outcome, which is inseperable from the actions that led to it, is already contaminated by those actions and so will create further unhappiness. This is karmic action, which is the unconscious perpetuation of unhappiness (270-271).
A woman I know in Seattle once asked me if I am at peace. I thought about how driven my life has been and told her that I have satisfaction, which didn’t cut it. Sure I have moments of peace, but I haven’t lived by it.
I think about such a life from the whale watch. Swedenborg writes that a person cannot see good from evil, but one can see evil from good. And it was from the calm of the whale watch that I could see the insanity of the stresses I can fall into. I found that what I need to pay attention to is what kind of person is doing the things that I do. I need to see my activities from the inside, not the outside. It does feel really good when I finish an article that I know is good, and it feels even better when it gets published. And when I finish a new song, there is a sweet feeling of accomplishment. I don’t need to let go of those activities. What I do need to pay attention to is how I am accomplishing the things I do. What is happening to my spirituality as I go about the things of this world. Am I being good to myself?
We can’t always be in nature. And unless a person gets ahold of themselves, one won’t find peace in nature, either. It does feel good for me to get back to work. But I came back with an abiding insight from that whale watch. What we can do is to become aware of ourselves. We can become aware of what is going on with us in the present. We can become concerned with the quality of our lives. Swedenborg tells us that regeneration has to reach even our outer life, or our external life. That means that it isn’t enough to know theology or even to love it. Theology needs to flow into the actions and into the quality of the lives we are living. This, I think is the meaning of that well-know Buddhist story. A disciple asks his master to tell him about enlightenment. The master replies, “You want to know about enlightenment? Have you done your dishes?” Creating a livable life is a spiritual undertaking. It means bringing all we know about spirituality into our day-to-day lives. Our spirituality is finally measured by the way we go about doing what we are doing. It means cutting down the stressors that we let into our lives and finding calm in every aspect of our lives. We can find peace not only in church, or on a whale watch, but even in doing our dishes.
The Worries of this World
Exodus 32:1-14 Mark 4:1-20
This talk is inspired by the parable of the sower that we heard from Mark. I have heard that parable all my life and thought I knew it well. I used it at a chapel service at Paulhaven, and heard something in it that never struck me before. It was as if I heard that line for the first time. The line I refer to is that about worrying. Jesus interprets the seed sown among thorns as follows:
Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other worldly things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful (Mark 4:18).
What really struck me was the line about worries of this life choking the word. I have worries, and I’m sure you do as well. But it never occurred to me that worrying might interfere with our relationship with God. I checked some other translations and some say that the cares of this world choke the word. Cares from the world is slightly different from worries, but I think the general meaning is the same. The message here, I think, is that worrying about the things of this world can block our relationship with God. This includes worrying about money and other things of this world.
I am taking a new perspective on my finances. Before I went to Paulhaven, I used to fret about my next bill. I would sit at home and calculate how much money I had in the bank, and about how much was going to my bills—my new car payment, my new insurance rates, my rent, my student loans—and how much I had left over to spend, and how little that was, and was I going to make it till the next paycheck.
Then I spent that wonderful week at Paulhaven as the camp pastor. I led chapel every morning. I visited the classes to help with any questions that may have come up. And I led a confirmation class in the afternoon. I watched the teens play soccer, played baseball, and ate three square meals each day on a regular schedule. And you know, the whole week I never once thought about money. That’s when it dawned on me how little I really needed to be happy.
You know, none of that worrying about my bills and my paycheck changed anything. All the debts and income remained the same. And each month I had enough to get by. These times with the recession and all make finances a high concern for many people. But I wonder if worrying about it fixes anything. What makes me upset about money is all those things I want to do for fun, that I might not be able to do—like going skiing in the mountains this winter. But that whole week at Paulhaven, doing anything other than what I was doing never occurred to me. I resolved not to worry about money anymore and to take each day as it comes. And so far I’m doing pretty good. I’m not worrying about money and I’m not sitting at home calculating how much money I have in the bank and how many bills I have to pay. And you know what? I’m happier.
Money isn’t the only thing we worry about. We worry about our families; we worry about our friends; we worry about the war in Afghanistan; we worry about taxes; we worry about the world economy. We can worry about anything we care about. In this sense, maybe the translation that talks about cares of the world fits better.
In fact, we worry most about just things that we can’t do anything about. And that’s why we worry. When things don’t go the way we think they should, and especially when we’re powerless to do anything about it, then we worry. When we see people we love in trouble, and we are unable to provide their needs, we worry. Or maybe our children heading down a troublesome path, and we are helpless to influence them and they shrug off our well-intentioned guidance, we worry. We want to fix what is wrong, and when we can’t we worry. We can take on the sorrows of the whole world and when we find we can’t do anything to change them, we worry about the state of affairs of the world. Cares of the world.
What we are doing when we worry in this way, is trying to take God’s power into our own hands. When things are out of our control, we want to take God’s place and make them go the way we think they should go. Worrying, in this sense, is not trusting in God. It’s not leaving to God the things that God’s providence guides in God’s way. When we are tempted to worry, we need to let go and let God. I think that this is why Jesus says that worrying about the things of this world choke off the word. By imagining that we are God, or that we have God’s power to make things go the way we think that they should, we are replacing God with self—no matter how well intentioned the efforts of ourselves may be.
We see the worst-case scenario in our Old Testament passage. In the Exodus passage, the Israelites are worried that Moses has been away too long. The Bible tells us that he went up Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights. The Israelites say, “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him” (32:1). So they take the matter into their own hands. They made for themselves their own gods that they could see and touch. The true God that spoke through Moses was new and uncertain to them. They had seen in Egypt and in the land of Canaan magnificent statues of the gods of those lands. Now Moses told them about a God they couldn’t see or touch. Then Moses had been away so long they worried about whether they had been abandoned. The height of blasphemy is when the golden calf that was made by their own hands was called the gods who brought them out of Egypt. Thus they were claiming that the golden calf had done what Yahweh had done for them.
At its worst, the golden calf is a loss of faith in God. When the things we have to go through seem too hard to bear, when the cares of this world seem too overwhelming, we can doubt whether God hears our cries for help. There is a myth that some have, that says that believers in God will have things always go well for them. Some think that things will go their way if only they believe. Then, when things go badly, they wonder, “Where is God now?” I remember talking with a woman whose car broke down late at night way across town. She said, “Why is this happening to me? I’m a good girl.” I know of others who look at tragedies in the world and say that God doesn’t care about us, or still worse, that there is no God. They then give up and turn to worldly pleasures for satisfaction. They make their own gods that they can manipulate and that bring them tangible benefits, rather than keep faith in an unseen but very powerful real God.
There are many hard things in life that I can’t explain. I continue to search and question. But I wonder, how would things look if we could see them from God’s eyes instead of our limited, mortal eyes? If we had a vision of the infinite interconnectedness of everything—of how free will intersects with personal ambition and altruism and worldly limitations—of how God’s infinite love for his creation intersected with human willfulness, maybe things would make more sense to us.
But we can’t see things as God does. And we don’t have God’s power to change the world or even to fix one human being the way we think he or she should be fixed. We can only work in our limited, finite way to effect world change and to influence the ones we love as we feel we should. Then we need to let go and let God. Frost says, “My long scythe whispered to the ground/and left the hay to make.” We mow the field, but God turns the crop into hay. We need to let go of outcomes that are beyond our power.
So these reflections revolve around the startling idea that worrying can choke off the word. I interpret this passage to mean that worrying is a kind of golden calf. It’s a desire to control things beyond our control, and a kind of impatience with God’s providence. Perhaps the real answer to those things we worry about is to wait and have faith. To wait for God to act in God’s way in God’s time. I think that God knows what He’s up to.