Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The One Sufficient Prayer

My sermon for today was inspired by Conversations with Bob. Bob and I are discussing faith essentials. I preached on gratitude. During the children's time we did the Gratitude Dance. It was great watching the whole congregation get into it. We also welcomed eight new members! Here is the text:

The One Sufficient Prayer
John Shuck
September 16th, 2007

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

"If the only prayer you ever said was, 'Thank you.' that would be enough."
Meister Eckhart


Author Anne Lamott, a novelist, has become famous by writing about faith, her faith. She has written three books with the following titles: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, and most recently, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.

One might conclude that she writes about her thoughts on faith. That is true. But the joy of her writing is that it is faith and life. Her writing is honest and incredibly funny and sometimes painful.

One reviewer said of her: “Anne Lamott is walking proof that a person can be both reverent and irreverent in the same lifetime. Sometimes even in the same breath.”

To get a flavor for her writing, here is an excerpt from Plan B:

I was at a wedding the other day with a lot of women in their twenties and thirties. Many wore sexy dresses, their youthful skin aglow. And even though I was twenty to thirty years older than they, a little worse for wear, a little tired, and overwhelmed by the loud music, I was smiling.

I smiled with a secret smile of pleasure in being older, fifty plus change, which can no longer be considered extremely late youth, or even early middle age. But I would not give back a year of life I’ve lived.

Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life—it has given me me. It has provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. I have an organic life, finally, not necessarily the one people imagined for me, or tried to get me to have. I have the life I longed for. I have become the woman I hardly dared imagine I could be. There are parts I don’t love—until a few years ago, I had no idea that you could have cellulite on your stomach—but not only do I get along with me most of the time now, I am militantly and maternally on my side….(p. 171-2)

I have grown old enough to develop radical acceptance. I insist on the right to swim in warm water at every opportunity, no matter how I look, no matter how young and gorgeous the other people on the beach are. I don’t think that if I live to be eighty, I’m going to wish I’d spent more hours in the gym or kept my house a lot cleaner. I’m going to wish I had swum more unashamedly, made more mistakes, spaced out more, rested. On the day I die, I want to have had dessert.” (p. 174)

Ann Lamott said she has two prayers:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

And…

“Help me, help me, help me!”

And, she adds that she has a third prayer, “Wow!”

We did “Wow!” last week.

I suggested that “Awe!” is an essential of faith. We have to be able to be surprised and overwhelmed by that which is infinitely larger than we are.

I think there are other essentials of faith. I am not talking about beliefs. I am talking about faith. I am not talking about what we think we are supposed to believe. I am talking about the experience of encounter.

So, I am on a quest to find the essence of faith. Maybe I should call it the essence of life. I don’t know if I will find it, but I am enjoying the quest. What is essential about faith, about spirituality, about life? What does it all mean? What does my life mean? What does your life mean?

These are the big questions, the good questions, the questions that are so good and so big, that we tend to lose them. We don’t really mean to lose them, but they tend to get lost under the sofa cushions. There, unseen, in the dark, with the half-eaten cookie and the long lost remote control, they gather dust.

When we have those questions out of sight and out of mind we can address the truly “important” concerns such as how we look in the mirror, or whether or not someone really said that about us behind our backs.

The other day a friend asked me a very annoying question.

“What makes you smile?” he asked me.

“Oh, I don’t know. I like my work. The weather is cooler.”

“What makes you smile?” He insisted. I was a bit grumpy, or maybe just normal, and I couldn’t think of anything right at that moment, and I told him so.

“Looks like you have something to think about,” he said.

Boy was he annoying. It was as if he had entered my house, walked over to the couch, pulled up the cushions and made me look. So now, I have to think about what makes me smile. I would rather think about what makes me grumpy. Why don’t you ask me that? I have a list!

All right, let me ask you to look under your sofa cushions…

What makes you smile?
What are you living for?
What brings you joy?
What gives you purpose?

Which is easier, to make a list of complaints or a list of thanks?
Is it easier to make a list of things that are not going well, or things that are?
Is it easier to get down on yourself or to be grateful that you are you?

What makes you smile?
What is your life about?

If you are like me, those questions could be under your sofa cushion.
Perhaps it is time to let them out.

Another friend sent me the following via e-mail.

I Am Thankful For…

* The teenager who is not doing dishes but is watching TV, because that means he/she is at home and not on the streets.

* For the taxes that I pay, because it means that I am employed.

* For the mess to clean after a party, because it means that I have been surrounded by friends.

* For the clothes that fit a little too snug, because it means I have enough to eat.

* For my shadow that watches me work, because it means I am out in the sunshine.

* For a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning, and gutters that need fixing, because it means I have a home.

* For all the complaining I hear about the government, because it means that we have freedom of speech.

* For the parking spot I find at the far end of the parking lot, because it means I am capable of walking and that I have been blessed with transportation.

* For my huge heating bill, because it means I am warm.

* For the lady behind me in church that sings off key, because it means that I can hear.

* For the pile of laundry and ironing, because it means I have clothes to wear.

* For weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day, because it means I have been capable of working hard.

* For the alarm that goes of in the early morning hours, because it means that I am alive.

* And finally. For too much e-mail, because it means I have friends who are thinking of me.

It is a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

For everything that is uncomfortable, annoying, wrong, and incomplete, there is something deeper for which we can be conscious. When we are not conscious, we take it for granted, and shove it under the sofa cushion. Our focus becomes what we do not have or who we are not, rather than what we have and who we are.

Gratitude, the practice of gratitude, brings that which we take for granted to consciousness. That practice can consist of making a list and noticing old familiar things in a new way each day, even if we don’t feel like it. Then, after making our list, we can do a gratitude dance or some other kind of ritual to celebrate.

Because the practice of gratitude brings to consciousness that which we take for granted, gratitude is one aspect of the essence of faith.

It is a good thing to be grateful for other things and other people. That is part of gratitude. It is good to be grateful for that which is outside of ourselves. However, the essence of gratitude is deeper and more personal.

I am talking about you being grateful for you. Are you grateful for you, now, today, this moment, as you are? Not when you are ten pounds thinner or have stopped all of those habits you don’t like. Right now. As is. No warranty.

You are a gift. You are a gift to Earth as you are this second. The proper response to a gift is gratitude. Now someone might object. Being grateful for me is rather ego-centric or narcissistic, isn’t it? Good question.

It depends. It depends on who you think you are. And that is another good question to bring out from under the sofa. Who are you, really? What makes you smile?

One of the things that keep us from being grateful for the world as it is and for ourselves as we are, is our fantasy life. Call it a wish dream or an ideal. We have a wish dream, a fantasy, an ideal of what the world should be like or what our community should be like, what our church should be like, what people in our family should be like, and what we should be like.

These idealistic fantasy wish dreams are generally internalized from outside forces that want to sell us something. These demonic powers seek to convince us that we are not worthy of gratitude, that we are not ok. We are not ideal.

These forces want to sell us everything from a product, to a war, to Jesus. A fantasy land is created that is supposedly ideal and we aren’t there. But if we buy what they are selling, we are told, we might get closer. We are bombarded from all of our institutions with the message, “You are not OK.”

We internalize it first, here, I am not OK. Then that sickness extends to everything and everyone around us. Soon, nothing is OK.

I am going to read a short passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote a book entitled, Life Together, from which this passage comes. Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister and theologian. He was executed by the Nazis. He spent a great deal of time in underground resistance movements and fostered Christian communities. He writes here about the largest threat that communities face. I often return to this passage so that I can be grounded in what is, not what I think should be. Bonhoeffer wrote:

Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

When we focus on the wish dream, the fantasy that we have created or that we have internalized from others, we discover that we do not measure up. We see only what is wrong, what is lacking, what is unfulfilled. We approach life with complaint, derision, and ultimately with despair.

Am I saying there is no place for complaint, that there is no injustice that needs correction, that there is no room for improvement? Of course not. But unless we first can bring to consciousness gratitude for what is as it is, including ourselves, complaints and criticism will only tear down and not build up.

So, how do we take on this monster that delights in our misery?

We dance. We say thanks for everything and everyone we can think of everyday, and we dance for all of it. And we dance for ourselves.

We dance a dance of gratitude.

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