When Rebecca and Ashley first asked me to preach today I was surprised, honored, humbled and all that. Then I realized this was the Sunday before THE election and I was terrified; what in the world could I possibly say that hadn’t already been said better by others. But then I checked the lectionary and found the reading for today. And the more I thought about it, we couldn’t have a better text for these fiercely opinionated times. “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” It sure would be a lot easier on a lot of us if there wasn’t quite so much spirit in politics these days. I’m not sure that’s the most important lesson from today’s text. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ashley asked that my comments be about Lyndale and me, maybe something like a love letter or at least a stewardship letter. Fair enough. But there’s something disturbing to me in talking about folks when they can’t answer back. This has even become a political slogan: “Nothing about us without us can be for us.” Well, alright. But I can talk about myself and how Lyndale has carried me along in my recent journey, spiritual and otherwise. What follows, then, is in no way recommendation. It is more like confession or an offering made in the hope that perhaps you might find a little nudge or a brief spark in what I say that might help on your own journey through these perilous and gorgeous times.
Both my parents were ministers. Religion seemed more an activity than a creed. At the same time, we kids were curiously free to pursue our own lives. This combination of habit and freedom laid the groundwork for my obsession of doing the right thing. I spent decades convinced I could think my way to what was right and everything would be fine. Whether it was a career choice or how to arrange the socks in the dresser drawer, there was a right and many wrong ways of doing things all lodged somewhere in my head if I could only find where…or so I thought.
Then one day my two daughters and I came home to three notes on the kitchen counter informing us the girls’ mother was gone and our marriage was over. This experience, needless to say, abused me of my previous conviction that if only I did what was right, everything would turn out right. In the months that followed, I slowly absorbed that I had been terribly both delusionally innocent and arrogant. But if I matured a bit through that experience, I still had my old habit of living all too much in my head.
And then, to paraphrase an old song, one enchanted–in this case–afternoon I saw her across an indoor courtyard. I didn’t, as the song goes, fly to her side, fortunately, because she was three stories below me. But we did have lunch together and the rest is still an evolving story. Shortly thereafter, Mary and I were talking and I asked her, “But why are you doing this?” Her answer was a simple “Because I want to.” In many ways, the second half of my life started at that moment confirming what German poet, Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, “Old definitions which once set limits to our living, break apart like dried crusts.” A right reason is not necessary for me to do something; wanting to do it might well be sufficient. Ah, but what is this “wanting”?
With Mary’s help, I finally began to thaw a bit and my heart, which hadn’t ever gotten much informed attention, began to beat a little stronger. This, of course, only added to the confusion. Now, in addition to my over active habit of thinking, I had these new if very muted feelings from all kinds of directions. And then quite by grace, or accident if one prefers, I chanced on the Swiss doctor, Carl Jung.
Jung was one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis. Mysteriously and certainly non-linerarally, Jung helped free me a bit more from my obsession of trying to understand what was coming down using only my head. Three take-aways from Jung come to mind here. Sermons each, I can only list them here. Good and evil, right and wrong, are inextricably mixed; no one can understand the one without the other. Life is both and the better we understand both the more open we are to life. There is no such thing as only the “right” thing. After all, Satan, evil, the Devil, is also Lucifer, the bringer of light. Second, closely related, Jung was convinced that, at least from the standpoint of health, wholeness is the project of life, not perfection. And, finally, a quick story. In the 1920’s, Jung visited a Hopi reservation in Arizona. He spent months talking with an elder. One day Mountain Lake said to Jung, “You white people are crazy. You think with your heads. We think with our hearts.”
Like a good teacher, Jung encouraged everyone, in his words, “to write you own myth.” And so, when I couldn’t find any local Jungian help for the religious chapter of my myth, I turned, both by purpose and chance, to the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke. Rilke wrote, “I live my life in widening circles/ that reach out across the world./ I may not complete this last one/ but I give myself to it.// I circle around God, around the primordial tower./ I’ve been circling for thousands of years/ and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,/ a storm, or a great song?” Rilke calls to my heart, head , body and nudges me closer to being who I am and am not. Elaborating on Jung’s point that the project of life is not perfection but wholeness, Rilke advises, “God speaks to each of us as he makes us,/then walks with us silently out of the night./These are the words we dimly hear:/You, sent out beyond your recall,/go to the limits of your longing./ Embody me.//Flare up like a flame/and make big shadows I can move in./Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./Just keep going. No feeling is final./ Don’t let yourself lose me.// Nearby is the country they call life./You will know it by its seriousness./Give me your hand.”
Besides Rilke, among my other mentors these days, including many at Lyndale, is the Franciscan priest and mystic Richard Rohr. Rohr, like Jung, believes life’s project is wholeness, not perfection. A problem, however, is that we won’t allow ourselves to be the gorgeous and loving people we were all created to be. When we learn to set aside our preferences, prejudices, fears we may be able to experience–if for only a moment– creation in all its beauty and terror and our place within such wonder. Rohr says to me over and over, “Fred, for the sake of yourself and the sacred, stop thinking so much, be quiet, open your heart, look, listen.”
Rohr became more real for me, oddly, one early morning this summer. I was sitting at a table in the living room looking through the porch windows to the lake and the nearby island. Otto, the neighbor’s rather large dog, came trotting along the lake shore and then out to the end of the dock. He stood there, looked to his right and then his left, raised his nose and smelled the clear morning air with an obvious and great satisfaction. And for some totally mysterious reason Otto and I were together, simultaneously smelling the same air and intimately bound by a common gladness to be alive. There was something we both were a part of; a beautiful stillness, a completion. To borrow from T.S. Eliot, we were, together, a “still point in a turning world.” Similarly, this time with help from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, this sense of unity and wholeness came last month as I rode a pirouetting maple seed to earth.
And so I hope and pray that these on-going meditations and special moments will help me see a bit more clearly and hear more accurately; may help me think with my heart so the blinders of my -isms and privileges become less opaque and I can join, with my heart, in solidarity with all my brothers and sisters. Thomas Merton said it in three words, “Openness is all.”
And this brings me finally to this morning’s text. “Blessed–or according to the lectionary group, the text might just as well read– Happy, or Congratulations, or Well done…to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers… for they live in the creation of the holy one, the commonwealth of the sacred…” The good book assures us that these folk live as life was created to be. They know something about the wholeness of life, the joy and the grief, the beauty and the terror, the commonness of suffering, the importance of mercy.
What the next week may bring, I have no idea. But I do know that whatever it is we will gather as a community and “begin to wrap our collective hearts around what is required next.” I know, that practically speaking, in the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, “our actions, our choices, our connections bear more weight than we dare to believe. We are neither isolated nor helpless but immersed in a great web of belonging.” Whatever happens, I know that Lyndale, if I can let you, will be there to hold me and to help me and each of us up should we stumble. I could not possibly want more. I love you. Thank you for listening. Amen.