Sunday Sermon: 2021 01 17 Alan Storey
Week in and week out – they listen.
Their days are divided into uncompromising 50 minute segments.
50 minute segments of listening.
Therapists listen to people weaving together the tapestry of their lives … threading words into patterns of meaning … hoping that the newly woven meaning will hold … will be a home to nest in … yet seldom do the first number of attempts satisfy. Each to be torn apart before attempting another – sometimes torn apart in a weaver-bird-like-tantrum.
Yet through it all the therapist is listening.
Listening through the endless repeats.
Listening for who or what is always mentioned and for who or what is never mentioned.
Listening for who is blamed and who is defended.
Listening for the words spoken with cement-like-certainty and for the words of doubt … knowing that they may be a proxy for each other.
Therapists perhaps especially listen for the contradictions or even the slightest variations within our stories. Not with the purpose to correct, catch out or even point out, and certainly not to accuse or condemn … but with curious hopefulness that here – where our story is inconsistent or simply uneven – that here there may be a potential “in” … a possible entry – like a picture or bookcase against a wall, that just needs to be touched in a certain way – for it to slowly swivel open – revealing a dusty web-strewn corridor … leading to a distant room filled with light.
Ironically and most thankfully, the words we most fear to speak, for fear of being judged and rejected, are often the words that move therapists to awe. Awe not for the content of the words but for the courage it took to speak them. Therapists, like poets know that “too much truth is hard to bear” and so they know how we must have wrestled with ourselves to finally speak it out … overcoming our fears, our guilt, our shame and our defensive denials. They know we fear the truth as much as we long for it. They know we defend ourselves from the truth even while we seek it. They know – and so regardless of what horrors our words reveal – the therapist takes an inward bow to the brave one sitting opposite them.
Now imagine you are a therapist. You are listening to the Scriptures as if they were a recording of the many sessions you have had with each of the characters in the text … in this case – the first three chapters of 1 Samuel.
What do we hear? What do we learn?
This is the introduction for our reflection tomorrow morning. I invite you to read 1 Samuel 1-3:20 in preparation.
In grace, Alan
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While on leave I exchanged the tools of my trade. My office was now a garden. Not quite swords into ploughshares, but pen and white paper were traded in for a spade and wet muddy soil. Office lace-ups into gum boots that rejoiced every outing into the wet muddy soil. Digging, planting, clearing, cutting, trimming and watering replaced reading and writing. Weeding (endless weeding) substituted spellchecking. Raking became my new practice of meditation. (Oh the complete satisfaction to rake.) At the beginning and end of each day I would do a wandering inspection, hoping my fragile plantings survived the wind and rain. Grieving the destroyed and celebrating the new life. Noticing the tiny daily transformations that, when added together over a few weeks, were revolutionary (see the above photos of the 4 stages of the wondrous beauty of a Protea pincushion).
My office colleagues also took on completely new identities. The two legged were replaced by the four legged, the two winged and the slithering. Snails left their bread crumbs of silk across the railroad sleeper bridge. Thick juicy earthworms squiggled annoyed at me for disturbing their underworld activities. Francolins taking advantage of the turned up soil, followed my progress Pink Panther-like, three steps forward and two steps back. Looking skyward a Kingfisher paradoxically fluttered its wings while remaining dead still in the air above its catch. A Pintail Whydah checked itself out in the car’s side mirror – repeatedly kissing itself (self-love!). Sunbirds and sugarbirds blew into their flower trumpets. A Yellow Bishop did a routine fly-by (perhaps sent by my own Bishop to keep an eye on me?). I watched helplessly as a mole claimed my freshly planted vegetable patch as its private figure-of-eight-race-track. In the dead of night I spotlighted the bulb-thief with its Mohican of quills locked and loaded in my direction, and I shouted to no effect at the day time delinquent who tipped my compost bin over. The blasé baboon did not easily scare.
I discovered at new depths how healing it is to have one’s hands in the soil. How wonderful it is to feel – actually feel – rooted and grounded. It seems that people all round the world intuitively know this to be the case. According to a recent New Yorker article “in the week before lockdown began, U.K. sales of plants, seeds and bulbs were reportedly up 35% from 2019. “Whenever there’s a crisis – be it a war, or the aftermath of war, or a natural disaster – we see this phenomenon of urgent biophilia,” British psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith said. “We gain sustenance from nature’s regeneration.”
In her new book, The Well-Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith says: “When the future seems either very bleak, or people are too depressed to imagine one, gardening gives you a toehold in the future.” When one feels locked into the past or stuck in the present this is such a gift of grace! Again according to the New Yorker article: “In recent years, the benefits of gardening to mental health have become widely acknowledged in Britain. Primary-care doctors increasingly give patients a “social prescription” to do something like volunteer at a local community garden, believing that such work can sometimes be as beneficial as talk therapy or antidepressants. Some hospitals have been redesigned to incorporate gardens, spurred by findings that patients recovering from catastrophic injuries can heal more quickly if they have access to outdoor spaces with plants. Stuart-Smith’s book compares the uses of gardening in historical and contemporary mental-health treatments, and reports on empirical research into gardening’s effects on mood.”
I just love the idea of a “social prescription”.
Connecting with plant life is not only healing, it is also mentoring and liberating. If we slow down long enough to pay attention, plant life will wisely guide us to an understanding of humanity that we may discover as Gospel (Good news for the poor). The mentoring power of plant life will be the theme of our Sunday Chat at 11:11 this Sunday so I will not dwell on it now.
While I have been away the lectionary readings have turned to that long walk from slavery to freedom, (from 23 August to 18 October the OT readings are from the book of Exodus). Last week’s reading came from Exodus 3 where we witness Moses overwhelmed with wonder and brought to a barefoot humility before a burning bush, (remember to take a metaphor literally is an absurdity). Literalism limits the burning bush mystical moment to a single historical event, while the wild truth is that every bush is ablaze with Divine glory when the light of the day and the openness of our soul are graced with wondrous alignment. (Look again at the photos above … burning in beauty.)
It was before a bush – plant life aflame with beauty – that Moses heard God’s pain-filled trauma of seeing a people’s misery and hearing their cries for freedom. It was in front of a bush that Moses ran out of excuses to stay clear of Pharaoh (a parasite in plant-life-terms – a ruler living off the people instead of for the people). It was before a wilderness shrub that Moses hesitantly realised it was time for him to go and face his past (remembering that Pharaoh was his adopted grandfather). We note that the political journey of liberation will always be an intensely personal one – fought in the public streets and the hidden corridors of our own hearts, because true liberation is never only from oppressive others but also from our oppressive selves.
I guess there are many en-couraging motivations to resist a parasite ruler like Pharaoh. I believe what gave Moses the courage to begin this journey of liberation was Wonder. Wonder at creation that led to praise of the Creator of creation. Praise of the Creator that led to protest Pharaoh’s parasitic rule. The burning beautiful bush is a mystical moment that moves Moses beyond himself towards solidarity with the suffering of others and at the same time towards a healing within himself. A mystical moment is one that does not fit into our day to day measurements of meaning. They refuse to be limited by the logic of the status quo. They escape categorisation. They cannot be fully calculated and they firmly resist commodification. A mystical moment is an encounter with the More of Life. Note, that an authentic mystical moment does not lead to one seeking more mystical moments. The proof of a mystical moment is that it results in the overcoming of fear by the power of love. Love that joins oneself with the suffering of the world. Love that freely gives itself for the sake of Life in all its fullness. Before Moses was moved by mystical wonder to resist the authoritarian Pharaoh there was a pair of midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s deathly command to kill all Hebrew boys at birth. They had more wonder for God than Pharaoh and why wouldn’t they? They experienced over and over again the mystical wonder of new birth. Mystical wonder that almost every parent knows and who in that moment is overwhelmed with a love so great that they will not hesitate to give their own life to save the life they now cradle. Mystical wonder is nothing short of the death defeating power of love. Mystical wonder opens one’s eyes to see Pharaoh’s power as phony and a sham. I mean how can fireworks truly compare to the stars? How can flags waving compare to the wind that waves them? How can military parades compare to a flock of flamingos taking off from a salt lake at sunrise or a herd of elephants on a dusty African plain? How can Pharaoh’s prejudice and bigotry and genocidal commands not finally fail if faced by those who have seen a bush burning with beauty and who have entered into a life liberating partnership with the bush-burning-with-beauty’s Creator? After all, “where was Pharaoh when God laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4 adapted.)
“Lost in wonder, love and praise”, Moses returns to resist Pharaoh. (Not a bad time to sing “Love Divine, all loves excelling”.)
The world today is desperate for Moses-like and midwife-like people, (Romans 8:18-30). People rooted in mystical wonder who have been set free from fear by the power of love to enter into solidarity with the suffering of the world for the sake of Life in all its fullness. Moses was moved by a bush ablaze with non-consuming fire. The world today stubbornly refuses to be moved by the threat of every bush ablaze with a consuming fire as we get closer to the point of no-turn from complete Climate Breakdown. I think one of the reasons we are not moved to change is because we are no longer in meaningful relationship with plant life. And as a result we no longer carry the appreciative knowledge of our complete dependence on soil and tree. We have fallen out of love with plant life and therefore we fail to see any reason to give our life (change our way of life) to save our Mother earth. This refusal to love for Life’s sake will be humanity’s undoing.
Get out into the garden. Walk out in the veld. Stand shoeless beneath a tree. Kneel before a blade of grass. Pray that you fall in love again with the earth that sustains you. Marvel at the mystery that our lives cannot exist without the tiniest earthworm far beneath the soil and the forests of trees above. Maybe, just maybe, if we do this we will hear God’s trauma and respond with courage in the power of wonder.
I leave you with three short extracts from Martin Luther King Jr’s. speech at Riverside Church, exactly one year before his assassination on the 4th April 1967.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.
If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world.”
In 2020 we are faced with the fierce urgency of now more than ever.