A Spirituality of Showing Up

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, February 17, 2018.

We just heard Mary Oliver’s confession, where she says

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often 
(from the poem “When I Am Among the Trees”).

In early January I was hurrying around, trying to get things done before I left on a month of sabbatical. It was a busy time, and I had a list, and I may have seemed a bit stressed, maybe a little over-caffeinated. In those days I wasn’t exactly living as I hope to—walking slowly and bowing often.

I imagine you know something about this too—when there’s a lot to to, the pressure you feel to move faster, to do more, and to be more. As if hurrying up is gong to help. But it’s hard to see that when you’re zooming along, stretched and stressed. Right?

Which is why I’m grateful for this month’s worship theme, prayer and spiritual practices. Because a daily spiritual practice is the best antidote I know to these messages some of us carry within us, that tell us we aren’t doing enough. “Hurry up,” they say. “Gotta keep moving!” A healthy spiritual practice grounds you; reminds you of who you are and puts you in touch with what is holy and good. And don’t you need that, in these days? In this culture that keeps trying to pull us in the opposite direction?

Here’s a question. What do you want in life? What are you seeking after, what are you hoping for? Can you name that for yourself? Have you heard the quiet voice of your soul, whispering to you in the night? Have you felt your heart pulling you toward something that you don’t even quite understand yet, but nonetheless find compelling?

What I want, and this has been from an early age, I think, is to lead a holy life. By that I don’t mean a churchy life necessarily, though I hope you can still find the holy in church! But what I mean is a life of connection, of presence, of gratitude; an awareness and an awake-ness and an attentiveness to this moment and this day. A life in which I’m grateful for the mountaintop moments and for the time in the valley too, for the light and for the shadow. As we sing here, “For all that is our life, we sing out thanks and praise.”

I am so grateful for the gift of this past month, which allowed me the opportunity to celebrate my wife Tracey’s graduation from a spiritual direction program, and take a warm-weather vacation with her. It allowed me to spend a week with my mom, has lost her short-term memory, due to Alzheimer’s. It allowed me spend a long weekend in snowy Seattle with our son Will and his girlfriend. The rest of my time away I spent on soul-satisfying things like cleaning our basement, and tidying my home office, reading and writing and talking walks. And it was good.

If there was a theme that emerged from this sabbatical, that theme was attention. Most of that time was pretty uneventful. And it was such a gift, and what I tried to do was just be mindful of that fact, and not let it pass by without noticing. 

As some of you know from spending time with folks with dementia, it takes a certain kind of presence and attention to just be there with them, and not check out when it’s sad or painful or repetitive. That’s what I tried to do with my mom—to just be there, and be present and engaged and grateful, as best I could.

And this is what I commend to you today, what I hope you might try practicing if you aren’t already: a spiritual practice of paying attention. A practice of remembering that this moment is the only one we really have. That the way to feel more alive, and to have a more vibrant spiritual life, is to tune in to this present moment, whether it is exciting or boring, beautiful or ugly, happy or sad.

But we live in a culture that tells us to look away, to seek entertainment, to distract ourselves, especially when things are hard or boring. The other day I heard someone reflect that when waiting in line nowadays, you often see people pull out their phones. Unlike in the old days, when you might just stand there waiting, might look around and notice the person in front of you, or see that cloud in the sky or plant growing in the crack in the sidewalk or that bird flying by. 

There’s a saying, that preachers preach the sermons they themselves need to hear. And that is certainly true today! As much as anyone, I need help and practice at paying attention. I am so easily distracted by my own random thoughts, by shiny objects, by everything I think I should be doing, by that phone buzzing in my pocket. I’m not claiming to be an expert at attentiveness. Quite the opposite; I’m just someone who wants and intends to do better.

If you’re like me, you might want to put the quote at the top of today’s order of service somewhere where you will see it; these words by Mary Oliver: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.” The implication is that paying attention is, in itself, a prayer. That seeing this moment, this very moment, as a gift and and opportunity, as sacred even, can transform your experience of life, one moment at a time. The implication is that attentiveness can make your life a prayer.

People who have prayed or meditated for a long time know about the power of showing up at the prayer mat or cushion. They know that the peak moments of revelation or insight can be few and far between, and that sometimes it feels like nothing is happening, but that if you continue to practice, if you keep being attentive, then something does shift, something does happen. 

This showing up I’m talking about today is not just a specific practice you do cross-legged on the floor, but showing up for your life, so it doesn’t pass you by. Looking up and noticing the color of the sky. Making the time to get down on the floor with your children, or your grandchildren, while you still can. Really seeing and listening to the people around you, looking them in the eye, talking about what matters. Being mindful of what is going on in your own heart and soul. Being aware of what’s hard to see, including the pain and suffering and injustice in our midst. 

The good news is you don’t need to know what a prayer is, or exactly how to do it, in order to pray. Though if you’d like some help with that, let me know! You don’t need to understand anything about meditation to start doing it; you just need to show up at the cushion and practice. I’m grateful that we’re having a silent meditation retreat here next Saturday, and I’m looking forward to being here for that. And if that intrigues you, or if it scares you, I hope you’ll consider coming. 

What I have wanted, for a long time now, is to lead a holy life. A life with a balance between action and contemplation, a life of connection with others, and with what is sacred and good and true. A life of discernment, where, like the poet, I walk slowly and bow often.

Do you know that word discernment? It just means thinking about and sorting out the choices before you; deciding what it is you’re going to spend your time and attention on, and being clear about that. As opposed to going whatever way the wind blows. Listening to your own inner compass; listening for the voice of the Holy. And when you do, when you make a practice of this, you do find yourself in a more expansive space, in what feels like a green and growing and fertile land, like you’re among those trees that Mary Oliver loved so:

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

My spiritual companions, this is how we will help heal and bless ourselves and our world. By paying attention to this moment we have been given. By making a practice of attentiveness; being awake to these holy lives we have been given, living out the beautiful truth that we are here to be filled with light, and to shine.