Sept. 17. 2000
I met a woman in Monroe this past week. She was shopping and we got to talking. She had her 3-year-old son with her.
I asked her how long she had lived in Monroe and she said she had just moved here. We chatted awhile; she told me she had two other children, ages 8 and 11. Then I asked her if it was a job change that prompted her family to move here. No, she said and hesitated a bit. "It was actually a lifestyle change." She shared how they had been living in California in a nice big old house that they had extensively remodeled. It had been the focus of their lives for several years. Then she said, "But all of a sudden we realized that we had, for all intents and purposes, missed the first eight years of our son's life. We were always focusing on the house, always busy thinking about what to do with it, budgeting for it, buying supplies needed for it, doing the work and along the way we missed our son's childhood." She had a look of pain upon her face. "So, we decided to move away from there, start again and spend these years focusing on our children and our family." We talked of how risky it was to give up a life you've known, move to a different place, and make new choices.
This woman came into my life at an important time this week. I had been somewhat ambivalent about the focus of my sermon. She was a gentle reminder from God to dive deep into a topic with which I had some resistance. Let me tell you about it.
When I read the lectionary scripture choices for this week sometime ago there were several possibilities that went through my mind about what my focus could be for the sermon. The psalm had some strong themes: how we go through pain and grief, how we cry out to God to save us when life has "brought us low". The psalmist also spoke of returning our soul to its rest.
Oh, there are some ideas, I thought. Grief - something we all experience and which changes our lives. Resting our souls in God - taking time for Sabbath. How we fill our life with activities; keeping busy in a frenetic way because we're not sure what to do with stillness, silence, solitude. Important things upon which to reflect.
Then, of course, there was that passage from Mark; to find your life you have to lose it. I knew the people whom he was addressing lived a reality of persecution; often their physical life would be taken or saved depending on whether they proclaimed or renounced their faith. I also knew that many sermons have been preached interpreting that passage somewhat differently for today - how we are called to give up a life governed by the values of others to live on based on the values of the gospel. But, we've all heard that before; what could I add to it. Besides with it being one of those prominent passages in the bible - I didn't think I wanted to go there. Too risky, too hard, too many questions it posed.
As is customary when working on a sermon, I just let the passages live with me for a few days to see what surfaced. Last week I awoke in the middle of a night with "lose your life" "lose your life" "lose your life" persistently ringing in my head. I felt a sense of dread. I knew this was what I needed to explore in the sermon. I'd much rather stay with something safer - like Sabbath time, or more known - like dealing with loss and grief.
But, losing my life. Whoa. How can I encourage others to lose their life when I'm not sure I'd want to lose mine? Oh, I'm willing to make some adaptations; I'm open to some changes that could help me make my life more God-filled. I realize there are parts of my life that seem somewhat deadened, but overall, I like my life. More importantly I know my life; it's comfortable to me - or so I tell myself. The truth is I only want to lose the parts of my life I think I can afford to lose.
Then I realized it's that qualification of "some", as in "some" changes that keeps me safe from the total risk asked for in this call to lose our life so we might find it. I want to play it safe; I'll make the changes where I have a pretty good sense of the outcome. I will make the changes where it won't be too disruptive to my life or the life of others. I'll take the baby steps as long as I have a sense where I'm going. But, don't ask me to take those leaps into the unknown. That would mean I could no longer hold onto the illusion that I am in control of my life. . . that would mean I had such absolute trust in God that I could leap anywhere and know I wouldn't fall.
For the next few days I wrestled with that invitation to lose our life to find it; I wanted to find out what about it was making me hesitate.
As I went through those days I made an experiment of asking people how life was going for them. "Busy, stressed, days flying by, overwhelmed," were some of the repeated answers. I watched people walk by me on the streets; hurrying, faces tight or expressionless. I read the newspapers and heard the stories of a culture in pain, depression and acting out in anger. This did not feel like the land of the living to which the psalmist refers in this morning's passage. This felt like the land of the living dead.
Even with all the cultural pressure to live a life based on the gods of consumerism and materially based success, surely we would give up these kinds of life for ones that were more calm and content, simple and faith-filled. I realized a startling and rather embarrassing truth. A part of me doesn't really believe that losing my life in the way Jesus asks us to do it will truly lead me to a more abundant and meaningful life. And while it's true there are costs to discipleship, the Bible tells us that we will be truly alive only when we surrender our lives to God.
I can't comprehend what a life totally based on trust and communion with God would be like. Maybe a part of me can't really believe that life could ever be that good; my imagination is limited by my upbringing, my culture's values, and even the framing by some of my religious tradition.
But, if I stretch my imagination beyond my understanding to really believe that giving my life completely to God will make it overflow with deep joy and contentment - if I really believe that, I have a very different response. I want to run right towards that life, discarding my present one with hardly a second look.
John Shea says that our problem with God is not usually what we think it is. The struggle is really with how good we are at receiving. Do we let God give us life? There's deep resistance in the human to receive. I don't know why that is but it rings true for me. Perhaps we think we don't deserve it; our religious tradition has often overemphasized our sin, our brokenness and instead of highlighting how much God loves us and delights in us.
I invite you to take a moment now and let your imagination be big and bold. Imagine a life so filled with God that there is no room for anxiety or fear. Imagine a life where you awake every day feeling loved and you go to sleep each night with a sense of gratitude. Imagine a life where you no longer fear your dying and you are freed to live each moment in the fullest way possible. Imagine how it would feel to be that alive.
If this is not how our present life is, then we are being asked to let something in our lives die, so God can create a new life for us. We all know things that we'd like to change in our lives. I wonder though if we too often focus on the list of changes we can't seem to make and judge ourselves harshly or just simply give up. Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong thing.
The transforming power is not in the naming of the list; the power is in truly believing the way our life will be if we make those changes. If we can grasp just some of that truth and absolutely trust in it, we will find ourselves moving in those directions that will bring healing and wholeness. We will find in ourselves an aliveness reflecting the power and passion of God.
If we create a truly alive life we will naturally bless others with our presence and strengthen our whole communities. It is bigger issue than just saving our own lives. It is about increasing the possibilities for God to be alive and active in the world.
We also have our community from which to draw the strength and courage to make these transforming changes. In the troubling times in our lives we do not always have the ability to hold on to our imagination of a different way of life. That is when others in the community can hold the hope for us and remind us of the possibilities with God's transforming power always at work.
Our vision needs to be on that new life with God. Our sights need to be kept firmly on that and not swayed by our own fears or public opinion. As the psalmist reminds us this morning, it is God who delivers our soul from death, our eyes from tears and our feet from stumbling. It is the God we are running to that matters more than the things we are leaving behind
Listen to this poem by Joyce Rupp reflecting on falling autumn leaves.
With a constant chorus of cicadas the leaves tumble down,
from long, thin silver poplars, they twirl to the ground,
dancing the Autumn death dance beneath the great blue sky.
The leaves seem glad at the going. (Is there something I don't know?)
Sparkling in the sunshine,
they fill the air with gentle rustling.
One, then another and another, on they skim down from above,
bedding the forest table before me
with comforting crunches and crackles.
This gigantic death scene of leaves does not smell of sorrow and sadness, Rather, the earth is colored with joy and the leaves make music in the wind. Why is this dance of death so lovely? Why do leaves seem so willing to go? Are they whispering to each other, urging one another to be freed?
Maybe "you first and then I'll follow" or "you can do it, go ahead" Supporting one another gladly in their call to final surrender
I have not yet discovered the secret of the serenity of sailing leaves; Every autumn I walk among them with a longing that stretches forever, wanting to face that death-dance and the truth of my own mortality.
These coming weeks we will all have many opportunities to observe the falling leaves. As you watch our landscape transform into wild bursts of color that carpet our earth, invite your imagination to think about a joyful falling into God. Feel it in your body; know it in your heart. Give room to that longing; let it grow and expand until it pushes away all that deadens your life. Then fall joyfully into the arms of God. Amen.