The Lessons Learned
The Lessons Learned
August 27, 2017
So, we have spent our summer searching together for the sacred. We didn’t spend our time looking in the pew racks or in the corners of the Fireplace Room—although sacred things could certainly be found there, too. No, we searched our lives—the people and places and stories that matter. We looked high and low and dared to point to things that aren’t normally thought of as “sacred” at all—a great song, a nice walk, a few moments at the gym. We quit trying to screen our lives to find what is “churchy” and instead simply pointed to different layers of our lives and said, “Here is where meaning and purpose happen for me and I believe that this meaning and purpose is God’s gift to me and a sign of God’s presence in my midst.”
There are a couple of reasons to spend time on such things. First, as Isaiah reminds us this morning, it is too easy to forget God altogether: “Have you not been paying attention? Have you not been listening? Haven’t you heard these stories your whole life? Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?” The truth is that we all spend plenty of time “asleep at the wheel.” We all fail to really hear what someone else or even God might be saying. We all turn a deaf ear to the stories that we’ve heard over and over again. We all, every now and then, act not only as if there is no God but as if we might be God—enraged that life has not conformed to our all-powerful, all-knowing efforts to control it.
The first reason that we make time for the sacred in our life is that if we don’t then we will forget the sacred, the holy, and God. We will begin living those days that we have all lived, robotically going through the motions, knocking things off the list, never waking up, never being moved, never feeling awe, never recognizing the incredible invitation that comes to each of us that we can be a part of God’s work in this world. We never gain the perspective on this life that allows us to be amazed that someone like me could be a part of something amazing like that. Instead of being full of the presence of God we walk around full of ourselves.
Again, Isaiah drills this point home: “God sits high above the round ball of the earth. The people look like ants… The rulers of the earth count for nothing. Princes and rulers don’t amount to much.” Yet, God is present. God knows everything. God cares. Does God care by solving all of our problems or by fixing all the issues of the earth? Does God care by giving us everything we want or by letting us, all of a sudden, act as if we are God? No!
The God to whom Isaiah points us is a God who gives us what we need. God sees the person who is caring for a sick friend. God sees the parent who is working so hard to convince his or her child that tomorrow is going to be a better day at school. God sees the cancer patient who just learned that she has to resume chemotherapy. God sees these people and—though from a distance they might look like ants— God sees beloved children doing the right thing. What he offers those exhausted people is renewal: “But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles. They run and don’t get tired. They walk and don’t lag behind.”
In Isaiah’s eyes, we should let go of the notion of God as Santa who will give us everything we want if we are just nice rather than naughty. Instead, we should recognize the difference that we have already experienced in this life between how we feel when we are walking a selfish path and how we feel when we walk a path of compassion and stay connected to God. When you do the right thing, the holy thing, the sacred thing, you feel better. You are energized. You just want to keep going and keep doing. When you are on the wrong path, sooner or later, you realize that you have become Sisyphus, pushing that giant boulder up the hill and just watching it roll back down, over and over again. In fact, if you’ve done this enough, you will realize that despair is not a statement about your quality and worth as a person. Rather, it may well be a statement about your having currently “missed the mark” of staying connected to God.
In essence, what I am saying is that every one of us has a choice to make in every moment of every day. We are not only free to choose what we are going to do. We are also free to choose the whole framework of understanding that we bring to our choices. Do I do what I do to prove something about myself? Do I do what I do because there’s something in it for me? Do I do what I do because this is my best educated guess about the faithful thing to do and because this choice gives me a chance to live in connection to the God who is the source of all that is?
The choices we make are concrete. What and how will I eat and what impact does that have on my health and my environment? If I’m asked to do something at work that I know is immoral, what will I choose to do? How can I be a caring neighbor to the cranky person next door? I have some free time. What can I do with this time that will add to the world around me? It is in these choices that we open up the possibility of being renewed, of having the chance to feel like we are flying on eagle’s wings. It is in these choices that we open the possibility of living a life which is intentionally designed to allow us to stay connected to the God who is present in every corner of this life.
There is no choice that is too small. There is no activity that can’t be done with the care and the attention that mark that effort as sacred. I’ve said it before to you that there would be a lot better pastors and priests in the world if they each spent more time changing a few light bulbs and mopping up a few floors as part of their sacred work. As a people of faith, nothing is beneath us. And honestly, the more humble the task, the more chance we may have to actually clearly feel the renewing presence of God.
On “Blessing of the Animals” Sunday, I can tell you that this is why I have a dog. Among other things, I think my dog is baffled and impressed by my willingness to dutifully pull out the plastic bag from my pocket and pick up after her every time she goes: “Well…ok, but I’m not sure what that’s about!” What it is about is probably the most concrete act of responsibility in my life: there will be no poop left behind! You can’t own a dog and not be familiar with humility and making choices that are about something other than what you want!
My dog also wakes me up to the world around me. She has thoroughly trained me to pay attention to the smallest details. Because smelling the world is as interesting as seeing it, I have learned through a thousand times to follow her nose and try to smell what she smells. As a result, I often smell the presence of the deer before I see them. I see snakes on almost every walk (other than winter). I chuckle when she finds the grasshopper and jumps when it jumps. These walks are brimming with life and its surprises. There is something that renews me in “repopulating the world” in this way.
My dog has also taught me that every day is a great day, not for one walk but for two. Until she entered my life, I only thought there was a 4:30 in the afternoon. It turns out that there is a 4:30 in the morning, too. (Who knew?) That turns out to be a great time to snuggle and wake up before you hit the trail. The only time we don’t walk is when it is thunder storming—or, sadly, when work gets in the way. However, the default setting is “Go!” She leads me into this exercise and what I feel is not drained but energized.
My dog has taught me that words don’t matter nearly as much as I think they do. She comes just as well to a quiet whistle as she does to a command. We often walk for an hour and a half without saying barely a thing. In fact, now that I think about it, she’s never actually spoken a word to me! This, of course, is obvious but it is also almost prophetic. In a world in which we throw words at one another all day long it is interesting that this creature can be such a powerful part of my life and say nothing at all. The other truth is that she doesn’t hang on my words either. Try this experiment if you have a dog. Instead of saying, “You are such a good dog!” say, “You are such a wood log!” but say it in the same tone. Your dog doesn’t really care about your words. Tone is everything. She’s just reading between the lines.
My dog is quick to forgive and forget. She doesn’t hold a grudge (except with that one Australian Shepherd who suddenly decided that she doesn’t like Karma). Stuff happens. She moves on. She steps on a thorn. She doesn’t rage against the creator of the world for including thorns in creation. She just looks at me and stares until I can hear her in my mind saying to me, “Dude, can you get this thorn out of my foot? You’re the one with fingers!” We remove the thorn. We keep walking.”
When not in Open Lands walking, Karma enjoys everyone and everything. She has eaten dog food, twice a day, every day of her life. When it is time to eat again, she is completely excited because I have decided to feed her…Dog Food!…Again! “How did you know how much I love this stuff?” And if it is roasted chicken night for the family, well…a little bit of that is pure heaven. She shamelessly works to get anyone nearby to scratch her hindquarters in just the right spot, at which point she raises her nose high into the air and silently praises the fact that all is right in the world. (And, as soon as the scratching stops, she looks at you like, “Why in the world would you stop doing that?”) When all else fails, she flops on her back on the couch, four paws in the air, jowls drooping backwards into her face and sleeps the sleep that we all wish we could have.
In short, dogs are God’s gift to us because they remind us that what matters most is connection and relationship. For the most part, no leash is needed because her worst fear is losing you. Her dreaming is not running away but running, for a while, together. She makes you laugh. She makes you forget about things. She makes you notice the details along the way. She keeps things simple for a little while in an otherwise complex world.
You shall run. You shall walk. You shall be renewed.