The Rev. William C. Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
Lent 3—March 3, 2013
There is a line in the Psalm that we recited or sang this morning that struck me. Actually, it jumped out at me. It is this: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” Well, of course, that would be reason enough to praise God. But maybe that’s not the biggest point. Listen to the premise: “Your steadfast love is better than life itself.” Wow. How might we take in the meaning of these amazing words—“Your steadfast love is better than life itself”? Or, better yet, what if we could say them ourselves because that was how we, too, saw life?
I don’t have to tell you that that is not how most of us usually see things. We hang on to life at all costs; because, we wonder, without life—and here we think mostly of our individual lives—where would we be?! Where, indeed? In fact, we spend so much of our life energy consumed with preserving and enhancing our lives that we are usually consumed with a million self-referential concerns. And these anxious concerns run from the trite to the serious. From one end of the spectrum: If I lose twenty pounds, I wonder if I’ll look more appealing? Or, do you think I look OK in purple? Or, how can I manage to get that promotion—the one I so desperately need? All the way to the other end of the more serious end of the spectrum: What if I have a stroke and my physical abilities are compromised? What happens if I get sick—really sick—and my life is foreshortened? Who will take care of my family then? All these anxious fears eventually roll downhill and get to our ultimate fears of our physical lives being comprised or ended. All fear ends in death.
And so we engage in an endless, albeit futile, cycle of worry, heightened vigilance, and, yes, fear. We are always wary of a slight or an insult or a threat. And so we do our level best to either bolster ourselves against these imagined dangers or try to avoid them altogether. Mostly, though, we just distract ourselves so that they can be pushed to the back of our minds. We drive ourselves to distraction with activities and diversions. Avoiding our fears with such intensity, we then sometimes become addicted to our distractions—alcohol, food, television, gossip, etc.
So, then, what might be a more constructive antidote for this worry and fear?
Many of us were taught that an abiding faith in God was what we needed to turn all this around. But I have to wonder, does it really? For even when we try to generate holy and righteous God-thoughts in our mind, they don’t really seem to bring us the comfort that we think they should. It could be that mere mental beliefs or mental thoughts are ultimately insubstantial in the face of the fear and the terror of things that go bump in the night.
So, as it turns out, we usually try to reprogram ourselves—but at the same level. We try to exchange one set of thoughts—fearful and threatening thoughts—with another set of thoughts—God thoughts and rescue thoughts. But all the while we are keeping ourselves at the same level at which the self is always seen and experienced as separate, fragile, and vulnerable.
The key, I have come to believe, is to change the level we are living on, and that involves not changing what we think, but rather how we think.
In this vein, the spiritual traditions talk about the necessity of dying before we die. That’s right—die before we die. Even before we might more fully understand what this might mean, we have the sense that, instead of moving us away from or around our fears, this might just take us headlong right through them. And that would be correct. Of course, that brings us to Lent, to Holy Week, and to the heart of the faith experience.
Jesus had a very particular path through life—a path we might characterize as the path of kenosis or self-emptying. This was the shape of his trajectory through life on the planet; and this was the counterintuitive core of his teaching. Invest in preserving your life, he told us, and you end up losing it. Surrender it, and you not only find your true life, but you also discover the Kingdom of God. It seems clear that this is the trail that Jesus blazed for us—the path to which he invites us also.
But how on earth can we follow this path when life seems so dangerous and risky and when there seem to be some many forces that threaten our safety? Don’t we have to be vigilant to preserve our own safety?
When we carry our identity in our ordinary minds, we view everything in terms of the framework of “like or dislike.” When we make ourselves the center of the universe, we evaluate everything in terms of whether or not it enhances, protects, or pleases us. But that constant filter keeps us from actually living in the moment we are in and experiencing reality just as it is. We are, in other words, constantly trying to remake reality to be what we think it should be or want it to be—or, we engage in the process of dismissing it altogether. The tradition calls this “sleep.” We are, in other words, alive in one sense but quite tuned out in another, like sleepwalkers.
But what if we viewed life from a deeper level? What if we changed not what we think but how we think? What if we stopped judging everything and just let it be what it was, and clung to nothing? Well, that would help to take us to another level altogether. That’s the way Jesus moved through life, and what this produced was a heart that could embrace everything and everyone he encountered. That didn’t mean he liked everything or everyone, but it also didn’t mean that he disliked anything or anyone. He simply lived beyond “like and dislike.” He let all of life flow directly to him and through him, and he clung to nothing. But what was exposed in this way of being was a heart that could embrace it all.
And that is the life to which he invites us as well. With hearts wide open, we can let all of life come to us without flinching. Because viewing life from this level means that we begin to move beyond our usual restricted way of identifying ourselves. This is one way of moving our lives to a different level.
OK, you may be following me so far, but you may also be thinking, “But how do we do that?” Here’s one way, and I commend it as a practice you can work on throughout the rest of Lent. Simply watch yourself and periodically take stock of your thinking. Become aware of how often you evaluate the situation you are in. Become aware of the filter of “like and dislike” through which you view the circumstances of your life, the people you come in contact with, and even yourself.
Now, notice that I didn’t say to stop doing that, because self-judgment and even willful resistance will never get us anywhere. So, really, just notice. You don’t have to change anything. Just become aware that this is the kind of thinking filter you bring to nearly every circumstance of your life. Just notice, and just by observing and noting you will discover the power of attention.
What will this do for you? Well, rather than tell you, I’d rather have you experience it for yourself. But it has something to do with creating a spaciousness in yourself within which something else can arise. What this is is connected with that unstinting, ever-flowing well of goodness and blessing that Jesus found within his own heart and out of which he lived. Touching that eternal source of goodness changes not just what we see but how we see.
Where will this take us and what shall we see? Listen to this prophecy from Isaiah. This is the place to which we will be delivered:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
Ultimately, this is not a matter of belief, but rather the product of seeing differently.