Holy Rest


A story is told of some American missionaries who were traveling to a remote location somewhere in Africa.  The last part of their route had no roads, only narrow trails.  They had to walk.  These missionaries had quite a bit of baggage, so they hired a group of local people to be their porters, and carry all that baggage.  Together they hiked across rocky plains and they forded streams, they walked narrow paths with dangerous drop-offs, and they camped each night.  For three days, the Americans set a brisk pace, stopping only when it got dark, getting up early to head on down the trail. The local people followed along.  

On noon of the fourth day, they stopped for lunch in the shade by a river. After a half hour the missionaries were ready to hit the road again.  The local people were all sitting on the baggage under some shade trees, watching the river and talking quietly.  They ignored the calls and hand-waving of their bosses.  The Americans got frustrated.  “Tell them it’s time to go,” they told their translator.  After a brief consultation, the translator came back and reported, “They say they cannot go any further until their souls catch up with their bodies.” 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
June 17, 2018

God’s Rhythm

Psalm 127:1-2  Unless the LORD builds the house,
                        those who build it labor in vain.
            Unless God guards the city,
                        the guard keeps watch in vain.
            It is in vain that you rise up early
                        and go late to rest,
            eating the bread of anxious toil;
                        for God gives sleep to his beloved.

Mark 6:30-32   The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 

A story is told of some American missionaries who were traveling to a remote location somewhere in Africa.  The last part of their route had no roads, only narrow trails.  They had to walk.  These missionaries had quite a bit of baggage, so they hired a group of local people to be their porters, and carry all that baggage.  Together they hiked across rocky plains and they forded streams, they walked narrow paths with dangerous drop-offs, and they camped each night.  For three days, the Americans set a brisk pace, stopping only when it got dark, getting up early to head on down the trail. The local people followed along. 

On noon of the fourth day, they stopped for lunch in the shade by a river. After a half hour the missionaries were ready to hit the road again.  The local people were all sitting on the baggage under some shade trees, watching the river and talking quietly.  They ignored the calls and hand-waving of their bosses.  The Americans got frustrated.  “Tell them it’s time to go,” they told their translator.  After a brief consultation, the translator came back and reported, “They say they cannot go any further until their souls catch up with their bodies.” 

Does anybody else besides me routinely set a pace for living so that your soul has trouble catching up with your body?  Our culture teaches us that more is better.  More work, more play, more self-improvement, more bargain hunting, more achievement, more volunteering, more efficiency, more, more, more…  Letting your soul catch up with your body is not part of that program.

The bread of anxious toil, the psalmist calls it. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s good poetry.  When we are running from one activity to the next, how will we make room for the sacred?  For caring?  For wisdom?  How will we recognize and appreciate the gifts we are given? Tending relationships takes time. How will we listen to the signals of our own bodies, our hearts, telling us what we need to thrive?

As we transition to summer, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that we can take holy rest.  Time for pondering and praying, for receiving the beauty of the earth and the love of our friends and family.  Rest is not a luxury.  Rest is biblically sound, and medically sound, and ethically sound.

Burnout can come from working so long and hard that our bodies crash.  But more often burnout comes from feeling anxious and discouraged, despairing and disconnected from what matters.  From not attending to our souls.

The antidote to burnout is not just rest, but holy rest, time spent remembering who we are, and whose we are. Our worth does not come from what we produce.  We are not human doings.  Our worth is assured.  We are children of a God who loves us beyond measure.  We don’t have to earn that love by working harder or faster.  We are human beings, not human doings.

I learned my adult faith from Methodists.  Their founder John Wesley said:
            Do all the good you can,
            In all the ways you can,
            To all the people you can,
            Just as long as you can.
That’s a great slogan.  In practice, it can be exhausting.  Methodists keep busy.  They have more committees than UCCers.  They have many collections for many good causes. Their regional meetings make our regional meetings look short.  When I talked to my good friend Joy about what her Methodist church in Newport Beach (same size as ours) has been up to, I felt jealous.  Then I thought about it a little longer, and I felt relieved.

I will be brainstorming this summer what we can do to have fun and learn and love and serve God.  You are allowed to remind me I am no longer a Methodist.  You are allowed to say “no thanks” to my bright idea when you need time for your soul to catch up to your body.  You are allowed to do what you do around here not for efficiency; but do it for love, with heart, with passion, with imagination.

When we slow down, it can happen that some things we were running from catch up with us.  Fears, guilts, disappointed expectations, griefs.  They were there all along though we were too busy to recognize them; they were stealing our freedom and our joy. 

This is how I usually realize that my soul needs to catch up with my body, when I can’t enjoy what I’m doing.  When I finally feel bad enough, I stop and ask myself, “What’s going on here?”  I discover what it is that’s been making me eat that bread of anxious toil, and then I can give it over to God. It’s me avoiding that one thing I really do need to do, or worrying about how to fix that thing that it’s not my job to fix. When I slow down, pray about it, talk it through with a buddy, and sleep on it, what I need to do and what I need to let go become clear. I get peace, lightness. I see that path forward. I longer eat the bread of anxious toil.

When we get in touch with the huge needs in the world, we can feel guilty if we’re not stepping up for every good cause.  How can we relax when climate change is accelerating?  How can we take time off when our democracy seems to be unraveling? And what about the migrant children?  It can tear us apart. Yet our anxiety only reinforces the climate of fear that oppresses us all.  We can exhaust ourselves without accomplishing anything.

In order to show up for the deep challenges of our time, we need to be firmly rooted in our sacred identity as children of God, co-creators of hope and healing.  We need to hang on to our souls for dear life.  We will burn out or tune out unless we find God’s rhythm.  It takes time to grieve.  It takes time to pray and do my homework, sleep on it, and wait to discover: what is one small thing I can do that might make a difference.  Not fix the problem.  That’s way beyond my pay grade.  If I imagine we have to fix these things, I will burn out. 

But we are not alone. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives sleep to God’s beloved.  And we are each of us God’s beloved. God is with us, in us, ready to help, if we slow down and listen. Also, find a buddy or a mentor, because it’s easier to hear God with a little perspective on the issue.  Asking for help takes time too!

God would love to collaborate with us to create something wonderful.  In order to do that, we might have to make space in our busy lives, set aside our preconceived ideas, and listen.  Maybe for a still small voice.  Maybe for the voice of a wise companion. And maybe listen to our own heart.

And what will you and God create?  Maybe just a peaceful heart.  “Just” a peaceful heart. Maybe you will create a Spirit-filled space to listen and love and just be.  “Just” be.  Maybe the seed of an idea that will be a long time growing into something you can’t yet imagine.  Maybe you and God will create the courage to do one small thing that is most needed.  Or the wisdom not to do that thing that really won’t help. 

Meditation is one tool we can use to slow down and let our souls catch up to our bodies.  Jesus said, Come away to a wild place all by yourselves and rest a while.   In your mind’s eye, picture a place in nature to rest, and imagine yourself there. Let it be a beautiful place, a sacred place.  A place where your soul can catch up to your body; where you experience the sacred and find hope.

Here is a poem by Ted Loder that I have on my phone, for when I need it:
Gentle me,
Holy One,
into an unclenched moment,
      a deep breath,
            a letting go
                        of heavy expectancies,
                                    of shriveling anxieties
                                                of dead certainties.
that, softened by the silence,
      surrounded by the light,
            and open to the mystery,
I may be found by wholeness,
      upheld by the unfathomable,
            entranced by the simple
                        and filled with the joy
                           that is you.
Amen.


You Invited Me



We aren’t going to pull the plug and go live in a primitive society.  Our electronic devices are here to stay. But don’t imagine that you have any clue what’s really going on with your friends from Facebook.  You have to call them.  Talk with them at coffee hour.  Invite them for a meal.  Jesus was a big advocate of that.  There is a minor saying of Jesus that didn’t make it into Matthew 25, because it was so obvious to his first followers: “I was wanting to connect with you, and you invited me to share a meal.” 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
June 10, 2018

Two by Two

Mark 6:1-13   He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.
             Then he went about among the villages teaching.  7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;  9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.  10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.  11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Two by two.  The buddy system.  I first learned the buddy system when I took scuba lessons.  I still use what I learned when I snorkel, which is one of my favorite things to do.  I love to snorkel more than just about anything else.  My favorite part of God’s good earth is the wonderland of fish and plants and corals that I see snorkeling.  To be safe snorkeling, you need to use the buddy system.  Two by two.  Have a buddy, and don’t let that buddy out of your sight.  To communicate with your buddy, you have to learn hand signals.  Stop.  OK.  Something’s wrong.  I’m cold.  Look, there’s something cool over there.  And… buddy I need you.  Get closer!

The buddy system.  Did you ever get a buddy assigned to you that didn’t work out?  My assigned UCC mentor.  My first college roommate.  Sometimes the buddy system works brilliantly.  And sometimes it would be easier to go it alone.  Americans are taught that it’s a virtue to go it alone.  Rugged individualism, just me, not the buddy system.  Don’t impose.  Don’t act needy.  Besides, people are so complicated.  Some of them push our buttons.  We have the right to be free of them.  We often don’t have the skills or the will to mend broken relationships, so it’s just easier to go it alone. But seldom is it better to go it alone.

We are pack animals; we evolved in close-knit interdependent bands of a couple dozen people.  In prehistory, people were almost never alone, and they had to figure out how to stay in relationship with the same people year after year.  To leave your band’s territory alone was to put your life at risk.  Our American ideal of rugged individualism doesn’t fit our biology. On average, people are happier together than alone, even Americans.  They report less depression, less anxiety.  Their health is better.  They live longer.  We are meant to be connected.  We ignore relationships at our peril. 

Jesus invites us to be connected, but not always in traditional ways.  He grew up in a traditional village that to us would seem too close, but he didn’t stay there.  In fact, our reading says Jesus couldn’t stay in his home village and be taken seriously.  Interesting.  We make assumptions and judgments about the people we’ve know for a while, and we don’t notice or believe when they have truly changed.  We have trouble noticing that the sacred has been at work among us, creating something new, right here.  We need some outside perspective to help us notice.  So thank you for coming to worship: bible and sermon and prayer might be the perspective we need to notice creative transformation happening among us. God at work.

In today’s reading there’s that talk of demons again. Unclean spirits. Mark is always talking about those demons.  Jesus got rid of demons, OK, sure, but followers of Jesus get rid of demons too.  That’s us.  Who’s ready to get rid of some demons? 

Let’s assume that there is something real behind all this demon talk.  All the mysterious reasons things get messed up?  Mark, like a lot of ancient people, blamed demons.  We understand now that some of that is just chance.  But some of our troubles do come from unseen forces, like beliefs and practices that don’t serve us; the systems that seem OK to us because they’re what we know, what we grew up with, but an outside perspective would say: “Why are you doing that to yourselves?” All that junk that oppresses our spirits that we have trouble even naming, let alone taming.  Mark called it demons; we don’t, but it’s real, and it’s oppressive.  The Good News of the Kingdom of God helps clear away that junk that oppresses us; gives us a new perspective.  Jesus can free us from believing that junk is inevitable, or even normal.  But each day I need to be reminded of that Good News, or the junk will make me forget what Jesus teaches me.  I can’t do that alone.  I need the buddy system.

In our reading, Jesus is taking his show on the road. The road was built by the Roman empire.  Empire thinking made people objects.  Empire thinking would eat up the Good News if his followers didn’t have support to protect them from the “demon” of empire thinking.  So when he instructed his followers to hit the road, he said, among other things, to go two by two: the buddy system.

Have Mormon missionaries ever knocked on your door?  They always go two by two, right?  They are following Jesus’ advice in our gospels: the buddy system.  And when you answered the door, you were outnumbered.  See, the buddy system works. 

Reverend Heather Miner and I are prayer partners.  Each week we pray for each other and our churches. I reel off what’s going on in my life and at the church, the celebrations celebration and the worries and the hopes.  And she wraps them all up into a prayer, and I get perspective, and hope. Then I do the same for her.  Heather is one of a half-dozen or buddies I have who support me on a regular basisas a follower of Jesus and as your pastor.  I am serious about using the buddy system.

When you have a hard thing to do, don’t go it alone.  Find mentors, find buddies.  And when you have a little something to offer, offer to be a helper and a buddy to someone else in need of support.  Then be gracious if somebody doesn’t take your offer; that you even offered is real support.  The buddy system does not come easily to most of us.  But when I work up the courage and make the ask, I’m usually glad I did. 

In working the buddy system, be persistent.  If I had taken offense the first time my buddies stood me up, I wouldn’t have many of them. Reverend Heather stood me up two weeks ago.  I was a little hurt.  I wondered: did she even care about our prayer partnership?  Her reply to my text made it clear that she was hurting and withdrawing.  It wasn’t about me.  I got her to schedule a makeup call.  And then I spaced and missed her call!  I texted her and told her how much she mattered to me, and we’re good now.

Who uses Facebook?  Facebook gives us the illusion of buddies.  Facebook is addictive, by design.  The posts are purposefully scrambled so that you have to keep checking because new things keep popping up among the old like a lottery.  And the more people have liked and commented on a person’s posts, the more those posts will show up on our feeds.  So when a shy person finally gets up the nerve to post on Facebook, nobody sees it, so nobody can click “like,” and their social isolation is reconfirmed.  When people try to share their not-so-good news, nobody wants to give it a thumbs up (that seems rude), so Facebook decides it’s not interesting and doesn’t show it to anybody.  But as I discovered this week, when you actually ask for prayers of support on Facebook, people do reach out to you with words of encouragement.  But nobody actually picked up the phone and called me.

We aren’t going to pull the plug and go live in a primitive society.  Our electronic devices are here to stay. But don’t imagine that you have any clue what’s really going on with your friends from Facebook.  You have to call them.  Talk with them at coffee hour.  Invite them for a meal.  Jesus was a big advocate of that.  There is a minor saying of Jesus that didn’t make it into Matthew 25, because it was so obvious to his first followers: “I was wanting to connect with you, and you invited me to share a meal.”  So thanks to all of you who set up for coffee hour, and cook for shelter guests, and eat with them, and invite your friends for coffee or a meal…  As a church, we are looking into structure that can support our growing as a church.  Being intentional about making connections.  Facebook is great for advertising events, but real connections are critical.  So let me know if you are interested in doing something like writing cards or making calls to help us be more connected.

Two by two.  That native garden I planted in 2013 was a partnership. I made a garden on paper, pretty much by myself.  I’m great with theory; it’s real life I need support with.  I hired some guys to rip out the lawn and deliver some decomposed granite and sand.  That just took money.  I took a rake and made hills and arroyos that my son called Indian burial mounds.  I went with my minivan to Tree of Life nursery and brought home forty-five plants in pots.  I did not hire gardeners to plant these plants, because natives are special, and you have to plant them just the right way, and gardeners don’t do it the right way.  I didn’t really know the right way either.  I knew it in theory, but not really.  I set the pots where they were supposed to go from my plan, and I went to bed.  Then I stayed up all night, thinking of all those times in the past I had bought plants in pots and let them die in the pot because I hadn’t really planted them.  Nightmares of potted plant death en mass, a potted plant massacre. 

In the morning, I tentatively tapped on the door of my next door neighbor Tomaz, whose native garden had helped inspire mine.  I asked him if he would show me how to plant a native plant.  He grinned, got his boots on, fetched his shovel, and started digging.  (There was hose work involved too.)  He planted the first plant, and I thanked him.  He started planting the second plant, and I said, “You don’t have to do that.”  “Oh, but I like planting,” he said, and ninety minutes later, fourteen plants were planted, including all the big ones.  Then he watched me plant one, pronounced me competent, and in two days the garden became reality.

Tomaz moved to New Jersey a year and a half ago. Seema inherited his garden.  Being from Pennsylvania, she was very confused at first.  A garden that you only water every other week?  And doesn’t flower all year long?  She talked about just taking it all out, planting furniture plants, and giving it back to the Homeowners Association.  I told her I could help her with it.  Between living in Virginia and then working here in Brea, I’ve put in very little time helping her, but we’ve chatted, I’ve helped her choose plants.  She knows she can call any time with questions, and I will answer with enthusiasm.  Interesting word, enthusiasm.  Comes from “en theos”, in God.  Enthusiasm can be contagious. Seema appreciates the subtle beauty of her native garden now, and she knows how to care for it.  And due to the funny geometry of our condos, I see more of her garden out my windows than she does.  Seema and I are gardening buddies, co-creating beauty and harmony with the earth. 

If you want to follow Jesus, don’t do it alone.  We get perspective and enthusiasm and inspiration from other people who have it.  Don’t wait for perfect people. Get yourself a buddy for your journey of faith.  And give your buddy a big load of grace. 

Now please take a minute to think:  Where do you need support in your life, following Jesus, in being who you are called to be, and who can you ask to help you? 

God, thank you for companions on the Way.  Help us to give and receive grace, as we learn to live together, love together, serve together.  Bless us with the buddies we need to learn and celebrate and serve with confidence and joy.  Amen.