Date: July 5, 2015
Title: “A Quiet Presence”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 46 and 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Why is it, I’ve often wondered, that I always seem to choose the wrong line in which to wait? Perhaps that happens to you, too. It doesn’t seem to matter if the queue is to deposit a check at the bank, or to mail a package at the post office, or to check out with my groceries. Invariably, the line I step into is the one with the most obstreperous, time-consuming customer, the slowest teller, the most meticulous postal clerk, or the newest cashier-in-training.
I remember one particularly long and drawn-out wait at Fred Meyer not long after a holiday. As I stood in the check-out line, I watched the newly trained cashier carefully scan each item for the customer ahead of me. I watched her slowly and on-so-carefully bag each item in turn, and I witnessed her search for the security tags on the clothing being purchased. Just when I thought my turn was surely coming, just when I was preparing to move forward to get out of the store, out came the coupons! And my patience was running out as my annoyance was running high.
That was when I was surprised to feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. Turning around, I saw the woman behind me in line smiling at me, and gesturing at the cashier. Then I heard her say, “Isn’t this just the greatest blessing?”
At first I thought I must have misheard the woman behind me in line. A blessing? That wasn’t what I was thinking we were experiencing! All I could see was a huge annoyance. But then the woman went on:
You know, this cashier is a lovely person, but she just hasn’t caught on to her job yet. I sometimes want to tell her, “Honey, let me help…how about if I bag the groceries?” But if I did that, I would miss out on the blessing she is offering to us.
By now this stranger with the strange idea had my full attention, so I entered into the conversation with her. “I always seem to choose the wrong line,” I told her. “Sometimes I think I should warn the people who follow me, tell them they’d be better off in another line because the one I choose will surely turn out to be the slowest one.”
“But,” said the woman, “then you’d be robbing us all of this blessing. You know, most of us are busy all the time. We work too hard, and we work too fast. And being forced to slow down, even for a few minutes, can be a real blessing. This cashier is doing her best, and she is giving us the gift of time to reflect, to relax, to just stop and wait.”
The gift of time to reflect, relax, to stop and wait. Talk about shifting perspective and changing reality! All of a sudden, what I had seen as only an annoyance, or interruption or nuisance, because a gift.
The Psalmist today sounds so serene and secure, so sure of God’s presence and power, even in the midst of great calamity, not to mention mind-numbing annoyances of daily life. And St. Paul suggests that “we do not lose heart”, telling us it is possible for the faithful to remain optimistic and hope-filled and to stay connected with God’s presence in the present moment, whatever it may bring.
And yet, I think I may have been in grumpy good company in that Fred Meyer store that day. St. Makarious of Egypt, a fifth century monk, put it this way:
I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were completely free from anxiety…Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety!
The advent of grace – the fact of God’s presence in our midst – does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety! So how are we to “be still and know God”? How are we to “not lose heart”? How are we to imagine – much less to live – a contemplative life in the midst of everyday life? That is the question of the week, as we begin this four week series of “Peoples’ Choice” sermons and hymns. All month long, “You Asked For It!”, and we hope to deliver.
Reflecting on this letter to the Christians at Corinth, and on our own walk with God, Melissa Bane Sevier says:
It’s easy to lose heart when all you’re looking at is lists, calendars, and tasks. It makes us feel as though we are wasting away when we become so narrowly focused, and our vision is so necessarily myopic. We are afraid that if we take even a minute to look up from what we’re doing we’ll lose our place, and there’s no getting it back very easily. We have to stay aware and alert, on top of everything all at once, as if life were a giant game of Whack-a-Mole.
These are the things that are seen, our responsibilities and obligations, our hopes and dreams, the things that drive us in the here and now. But what about the unseen? I think that is question you were asking when you asked for a sermon on the topic of contemplative living. How do we stay aware and alert, paying attention to that which we cannot even see? How do we make room for God’s presence, or find time for God’s Spirit in an already over-full social calendar, or an impossible work schedule, or even just the tedium of daily chores?
One simple definition of contemplative living is finding God in all things and finding all things in God. Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Carmelite monk,called contemplative living “the loving gaze that finds God everywhere.” It turns out that, given these understandings, a contemplative life does not require you to leave home, or to withdraw from society. It doesn’t mean you have to quit your job or your family or your community. Rather, this kind of living brings you more intimately and immediately into participation with all of that – home, society, job, family and community – because you also more intimately and immediately participating with God.
But here’s the deal: it won’t just “happen” for any of us. Contemplative living is something you have to practice. It takes practice to recognize the blessing in a time to wait, even in an unexpected time to stop. Think of that long line, that boring meeting, that traffic jam as a trip to the spiritual gym. Imagine your annoyance as your own personal trainer! When you feel it creeping in, it is a signal for you to stop, reflect, and rejoice in the opportunity to practice the presence of God.
Likewise, it takes practice to employ a loving gaze instead of a cursory glance around you. Sitting here in this room, your eye flits from person to person, from scene to scene and you take in some small fraction of the moment. What if instead, you allowed your gaze to linger, and you practiced seeing God in your neighbors, finding God’s Spirit in the scene, recognizing God’s power in the moment? It takes practice to be still and know God’s presence in any present moment, any present circumstance, any present at all.
Several years I ago I studied with the Shalem Institute for Contemplative Spirituality, participating in their two year program for clergy leadership. There were about 30 of us in our class, coming from all over the country, from a couple of places outside the US, and from various denominations. We met in a retreat setting for six days each of the two years, and then, in between these residential classes, we met monthly with five or six others in peer groups.
When I first heard their plan, I thought the leaders were crazy. It was one thing to meet together, face to face, and to pray in silence, sometimes for as long as an hour or two, or even up to 24 hours straight. These were rich and deeply moving experiences for all of us. But when I heard we were expected to do the same thing on the phone with each other…to spend two hours together in silence on a conference call… well, that just seemed like nuts to me!
Until the first phone call, when I discovered again the power of practicing. Practicing together the silence, and a time to reflect, to be still, to stop and to wait…what we really were doing was practicing the presence of God.
It is true that the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety. It is equally true that most of us work too hard and move too fast too much of the time, and that life is full of challenges, frustrations and annoyances. But it is also true that we can stop. We can be still. We can wait. And we can practice the presence of God. Amen.