A Path and a Little Light to See By

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, September 15, 2019

Some of you are familiar with Anne Lamott’s story about why she made her son go to church, when he was young and didn’t want to go. But she made him, she says, because, “I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.”

It’s as good a description as I know for what we are about here: helping you find a path, and a little light to see by. My question for you today is this: have you found it? And if not, are you looking?

I know from experience that the path she’s talking about is not a straight line between two points. No, it’s a wandering, a crossing back, a getting interrupted and diverted, a going down some dead ends and sometimes discovering that what seemed like a dead end was actually the place I needed to go. The famous monk Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that tells the truth that sometimes you have to get lost in order to be found; in that prayer he confesses that he can’t see the road ahead, that he has no idea where he is going, and he prays “I know… you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”

I wonder if you have you experienced this. Finding yourself going somewhere, doing something, that you don’t totally understand and can’t explain, but still, feeling pulled, as if by a magnet, a particular way? Have you ever found yourself, seemingly by accident, in the place where you needed to be, but with no idea how you got there? 

Contemporary American mystic and depth psychologist Robert Johnson came up with a name for those hidden forces that seem to be nudging us and guiding us along our way; he called them “slender threads.” He wrote, “It is an audacious notion to put forth in this age of science and willful determination that one’s existence is somehow inspired, guided, and even managed by unseen forces outside our control. Whether called fate, destiny, or the hand of God, slender threads are at work bringing coherence and continuity to our lives. Over time they weave a remarkable tapestry. … These are the mysterious forces that guide us and shape who we are.”

One of the great values of sitting here for an hour, not doing much really, is that the act of worship, of singing and praying and listening and being in silence, this opens you up. Where you can better hear that quiet and hidden voice, can better sense the gentle tug of those slender threads. 

Deeper understanding has to begin with what Rob Bell calls “you listening to you.” He says if you don’t know how to listen to your own inner voice, then it’s likely you will end up reading off someone else’s script. And if you’re doing that, it’s hard to follow the path that is your own.

It may seem like a luxury these days, to focus on your own inner work. But I truly believe it’s a necessity. I was walking out of here on Thursday evening, on my way to lead a memorial service at a funeral home nearby. And there were people coming into our basement for the AA meeting, and it warmed by heart, to see those folks, whose names and stories I will never know, coming here to do their own deep work, to save the only life they can save.

If you want to be of use in the world, you have to do your own work; and be in touch with you own light, and your shadow too. Otherwise it’s so easy to bumble around, unaware, and do more harm than good. And this is one of the things I love about you—that you are trying, that you are willing, to work on yourselves and are working to make ours a better world. Diane Brokvist, who died in hospice early on Tuesday, who sat right over there—she was one did her own work, with courage and persistence. She had more pain in her past than most of us, and she could have some rough edges, and she was courageous and dogged in her desire to heal, and to help others to heal too. I learned so much from her, and felt so blessed to be one of her companions, and am so aware, these days, of the absence her death brings.

So about the path—can you describe yours? Would you say that you have one? And if you’re not sure, then I have a bit of homework for you. Because you may be on a path that you haven’t quite acknowledged or given yourself credit for. There’s an exercise, called a spiritual autobiography timeline, created by my friend Kimberly, a spiritual director, that helps you to make a visual representation of key moments in your own life. It’s fun to do, and enlightening, because it can help you see that there’s more coherence, more of a pattern to your life, than you may have thought. I’ve put copies at the back of the sanctuary and on the food table at coffee hour if you want to take one home today. 

We live in a time when the culture encourages us to take shortcuts and look for the easy way out, to move faster rather than go deeper. So Karen Armstrong’s words we heard this morning are a necessary corrective: “Religion is hard work,” she writes. “Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed.” You know, if you want to be a better pianist or singer or writer or artist, you practice. If you want to have a deeper and more rewarding spiritual life, then the way to that is by practicing too.

This doesn’t mean practice should be painful or feel like drudgery. Traveling the path will be hard sometimes and it should also bring you joy. So a good place to start, when looking for your path, is to ask, “What does my heart desire? What does my soul long for?” And then follow where that leads. It may be making art, or dancing, or feeding people. It may be gathering with others to talk about theology or ethics. It may be singing. I hope it includes coming to church!

Gone are the days when you had to take the path prescribed by some religious authority. Today people have choices, and many of us have created a kind of hybrid path for ourselves. I still embrace the Christian tradition I grew up in, but have certainly broadened my understandings and interpretation of that tradition over the years. It’s informed and enriched by Buddhist teaching and Islamic mystics and by Jungian psychology. And grounded in a love for this earth and its seasons. To say nothing of trout, and the places where they live.

If in the past there was too little freedom, then these days it may be that we have too much, and too many choices. It’s possible to dabble in a bunch of things, and not be grounded in anything. I’m convinced that you do need a path: a community, with companions and practices, if you want to go deeper, and if you want to be sustained for the long haul. 

To that end, next Saturday Sophia and I are leading a half-day retreat called “Claiming our Spiritual Leadership” that is designed to help you be in touch with and develop your own spiritual resources, to find the work that feeds your soul, and so be more grounded in these anxious times. If this speaks to you, we hope you can come!

While Clare was away on parental leave, she borrowed a book from me: The World’s Religions, by Huston Smith. She’s definitely meant to be working in a church, if that’s something she chose to read as a new mom! Huston Smith was widely known as a scholar of world religions, his overview of the major faiths was translated into 12 languages. This lifelong Methodist also had a yoga practice, and prayed five times a day in Arabic. He was open, his entire life, to being moved by new experiences and understandings, and his path took unexpected twists and turns, which made it ever more interesting and beautiful. 

He says there’s a difference between finding your path and following it, on the other hand, seeing religion as like going through a cafeteria line: “Ooh, that looks tasty, I’ll take some of that, and a little of that…” Huston Smith writes, “The cafeteria approach to spirituality, is not the way organisms are put together, nor great works of art. And a vital faith is more like an organism or work of art than it is like a cafeteria tray.” (See the interview https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1997/11/world-religion-according-huston-smith/).

The invitation is to seek out the path that is yours, and get on it, and follow where it leads. And when you do, I I trust that your path will be something like the journey Mary Oliver describes:

…it was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

My spiritual companions, we are here to do the only thing we can do. To live as fully and deeply as we can this one life that we each have been given. That’s how you save yourself. That’s how we help save the world. Doing our own work, being on the way, together.