Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, September 16, 2018.
How do you start off your day? In your waking moments, when you come out of that deep and mysterious place that we inhabit while sleeping, what do you do? On the spectrum between “my waking moments are spiritually rich and satisfying and set the tone for the entire day” to “when my feet hit the floor I put my head down and just power though,” where do you fall? I ask, because I’m convinced that how we begin our day has power to shape how that day goes. And as Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Or worship theme this month is “vocation and calling,” and I hope you will agree that we are all called to be our unique selves, to live more and more fully into the person we were born to be. And we can have particular vocations, like parent or teacher, one who fixes things or who feeds people. The call often begins with a longing for something more, with the feeling that something is wrong or missing. But it’s not easy, trying to hear and follow a call. There’s so much that would pull us away from following a call where it leads. But if you want to live a life that feels right and good, you need to do this: to pay attention to what is tugging at you, to what is nudging you, whether you understand it or not.
A call doesn’t matter much if you can’t hear it, or if you don’t notice it. Some people get calls that come like a thunderbolt or a flashing neon sign, but most of the time it’s more subtle than that. My message this Sunday is about the importance of being receptive. If you want to hear the call that is your own, it helps to be listening! In a world that produces so much noise, it takes some intention to make space, to tune up your receptors, so you can hear that call.
My call to the ministry was like a persistent and nagging voice that wouldn’t go away, a gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right with my life. Which I tried to ignore, of course, because I was a little freaked out about how things might change. Committing to a practice of sitting is what finally allowed me to hear that call in a way that felt compelling and hopeful.
And if you want to ignore you call, if you’d rather not worry about what your soul longs for, then you are free to do that. And our world will happily help keep you distracted with many shiny things; there’s an ample supply of noise and activity out there. And there’s something inside too, something in our own psyches that doesn’t want us to listen to that deeper but quieter voice, something that’s threatened by the change this kind of listening can inspire.
But if you are wanting to avoid these depths, then why are you here? The word “inspire” literally means, “filled with the spirit.” And isn’t that why we are here? To feel more care and more joy and more connection? To remember how much it all matters; to be awake to this moment and this day. If you want to hear the call that is yours, the place to start is by actively listening. By practicing being more receptive, more open
Though our contemporary culture presents its own challenges to the spiritual life, with its speed and complexity, the struggle to sense the sacred is nothing new. We heard about that spiritual dryness in Psalm 42 (improvisation by Christine Robinson):
As a deer longs for flowing streams
so my soul longs for you, O God
My soul thirsts for you. When will I feel
that I can stand before you again?
Once I came before you easily and often.
Now-now I feel disquieted and lost.
Does it help to know that even the Psalmist, a spiritual superstar of old, could go through a slump? One of the problems, I think, with taking up a spiritual practice is that when nothing happens in the first few days, it’s easy to get discouraged and stop. But anyone who’s done it will tell that passing through dry periods goes with the territory. If you’ve ever started a new exercise program, you know that it can hard at the start, and can feel worse for a while before it starts to make you feel stronger and better. Though Psalm 42 is a downer at the start, it ends with hope:
Deep calls to deep in the heart of the world.
The creative energy of the universe
throbs to those who listen.
Put your trust there. You will not be forsaken.
The creative energy of the universe throbs to those who listen. You have to listen! You won’t hear that still small voice until you learn how to quiet your mind and teach your ego to get into the back seat for a while. And this can take some time.
When I was in seminary I heard a saying, “Pray every day. When you’re busy, pray twice as long.” I took a class called “The Life of Prayer” because the teacher had this requirement that you commit to a daily prayer practice for the whole semester. I wanted and needed this discipline, and practicing it showed me to how much I need that time for stillness and silence, every day.
When I get up in the morning, I go to a quiet place, and I sit. For at least twenty minutes. I try to quiet my mind and open my heart. And not think about what may be on the news, or on my calendar. Sometimes I end up praying for particular people. Sometimes after that quiet time I turn to my journal and write for a bit. Almost always I feel refreshed, grounded, better able to enter the day. It’s a lot easier to do this now, than when our children were young, getting up and getting ready for school. But even then I tried to make the time, because I needed it.
Isn’t there something magical about the coming of a new day? The light spreading up from the horizon, the world slowly waking up? Whatever happened yesterday is gone; the new day brings a fresh start, new opportunities, the chance to try again. The chance to try something new!
Do you know Rumi’s words that are at the top of the order of service?
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.
I hardly ever remember my dreams, and when I wake in the morning I can feel this sense of disequilibrium, like being on the threshold between two different worlds. And I don’t want to move too quickly into the waking world of facts and schedules. Those early sleepy-eyed minutes are a fruitful time to be open to the mystery, to try and hear those secrets Rumi is talking about.
The contemporary poet David Whyte writes
In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans. (“What to Remember When Waking”)
These poets are saying, “When you wake, stay open for a bit, be receptive to the Mystery, before you turn to the day’s work.” Each morning we’re given this gift. Each day we have the chance to wake up to the mystery around us. To celebrate this day and this life we have been given. Each day we have this invitation to listen for the pulsing energy of the universe. Each day we have the opportunity to wake up to the miracle of being here; to not sleepwalk through the day.
Someone said, “When you take care of the morning, the morning takes care of the day.” Each day we’re given this fresh start, this new beginning. Are you honoring this gift?
If you want to make a change in your life, I know of no better way than by starting with five, ten, fifteen minutes of being still. The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Just beyond our seeing is this luminous world of connection that artists and mystics know about, that we catch glimpses of from time to time. It is very near you, if you will look for it and ask for it and wait for it.
This practice of waiting and watching and listening is essential for hearing your call; and it is also necessary for answering that call once do you hear it. Elaine Prevallet says her call to become a nun hit her like a unwelcome thunderbolt, and it took a while for her to say yes to it, and to see the gift in it. She knows what she’s talking about, and her essay “Minding the Call” saved me, when I was struggling to answer my own call.
She writes, “At the deepest level, the call frees us. It enables us to see what really matters, to focus our love, to dedicate ourselves to something/Someone larger than ourselves, and so to enter consciously into that continual stream of losing and finding ourselves that is the mystery of life.”
Isn’t that what you are looking for, and hoping for? And if you’ve found it, isn’t this what you want to keep yourself connected to? “To see what really matters, to focus our love, to dedicate ourselves to something/Someone larger than ourselves, to enter consciously into the mystery of life.”
These words we are about to sing (written by Thomas Mikelson), they are my prayer. And I hope they are your prayer too:
Wake now my vision of ministry clear,
Brighten my pathway with radiance here,
Mingle my calling with all who will share,
Work toward a planet transformed by our care.