Acts 2:4-8; John 14:15-17
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 17, 2017
The good news of the gospel is really not good news to each of us, unless there is something about it that speaks to us. We each have to hear it in language that we can understand. We have to stop using jargon, language and phrases that only people in the in-group can understand. We have to make sure that the language we use and the ideas we express are understandable and speak to the people around us.
Richard Rohr says that parables and stories often get through to us in ways conventional language cannot: “As Einstein was reported to have said, ‘No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it in the first place.’ Parables aim to subvert our old consciousness and offer us a way through by utterly reframing our worldview. So often the biblical text is not a transformative document and does not bring about a ‘new creation,’ because we pull it inside of our own security systems and what we call ‘common sense.’ At that point, no divine breakthrough is possible. Frankly speaking, much of Scripture, then, has become largely harmless and forgettable. (Things Hidden)
We have to listen as God’s spirit speaks to us. God’s spirit speaks to us in lots of different ways. In his book, Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsh asks God who God talks to, and God responds:
“I talk to everyone all the time. The question is not to whom do I talk, but who listens? My most common form of communication is through feeling. Feeling is the language of the soul. If you want to know what’s true for you about something, look to how you feel about it. So be on the lookout. Watch. Listen. The words to the next song you hear. The information in the next article you read. The story line of the next movie you watch. The chance comment of the next person you meet. Or the whisper of the next river, the next ocean, and the next breeze that caresses your ear – all these devices are mine; all these avenues are open to me. I will speak to you if your will listen.”
The spirit of God is continually speaking to us- in many different ways, from the dramatic to the ordinary and everyday parts of our life. God often comes to us disguised as part of our everyday life. Joan Chittister once commented: “Life is made up of little things we love to ignore in order to get on to the exciting things in life. But God is in the details. God is in what it takes in us to be faithful to them. God is in the routines that make us what we are. The way we do the little things in life is the mark of the bigness of our souls.” (Called to Question)
And Rachel Remen echoes a similar thought: “God is in the ordinary, the minute particulars. When you come right down to it, all life is holy. What is most real may be those very things which cannot be expressed at all but only known. People who have sought healing everywhere else are often afraid to look within, afraid to find, at depth, someone insignificant or even unworthy. Yet this is rarely the case. The soul is our birthright. At depth, everyone is beautiful. Often it is the discovery of the ‘spot of grace’ that heralds the beginning of our deepest healing.”
God’s spirit often speaks to us in ways that reaffirm who we are – who we really are, not who someone else thinks we should be. Dr. Remen describes her own childhood:
A woman once told me that she despaired of the selfishness of her children. She could not understand how they had turned out this way as she had always set them good examples. “And how did you do this?” I asked. “By serving them generously,” she replied. But perhaps we don’t help people to become generous by giving to them but by involving them as we give to others.
My mother was a public health nurse. She worked long hours, and often I did not see her a great deal during the week. When I was small, I remember accompanying her as she made home visits in the slums of New York City. When she invited me to come with her, she told me that she needed me to help her by carrying her black bag. But perhaps she had asked me to come with her for far deeper reasons than this.
Service was a way of life in my mother’s family. It was not a way of life in New York City in the forties or even later. Like many children, when I was little I used to give away my toys, my mittens, and sometimes even my shoes. If another child wanted my pail and shovel in the playground, I would not ask for it back; and if someone had no mittens, I would give them one of mine. This was seen by my teachers and many of the other adults around me as a problem that I would need to outgrow.
Often I would be sent home from school without half my crayons or, once, without my shoes and with a note from my teacher explaining how I needed to learn to stand up for myself and have the courage not to let others take advantage of me. My mother would never scold me about these things but would, when necessary, simply replace whatever was missing. It never occurred to anyone else that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. Perhaps service does not need to be taught. It may be a natural impulse in all people. As such, we may only need to strengthen it.
–My Grandfather’s Blessings
Sometimes the language that speaks to us most vividly and compellingly is not in words, but a way of being who we are. As Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
In her book, Leaving Church, writer and theologian Diana Butler Bass said it this way: “After a lot of listening, I think I finally heard the gospel. The good news of God in Christ is, ‘You have everything you need to be human.’ There is nothing outside of you that you still need – no approval from the authorities, no attendance at temple, no key truth hidden in the tenth chapter of some sacred book. In your life right now, God has given you everything that you need to be human.”
There is an interesting parallel in how Rabbi Harold Kushner describes what theology is to him:
“My theology is less about who God is or what God does, and more about who we are and what we do because of what God means to us.”
For most of us, many times the words that speak to us aren’t spoken words. In the toughest times of life, when we hear things in our own language, what we can hear in those times may be a message often best conveyed without words, but more with the presence and compassion of another person.
Author Kent Nerburn, who will be with us in worship on October 15th, describes such an experience:
I remember years ago when I was living in a small town in Germany. I was surrounded by an unutterable and inconsolable loneliness. I knew no one. I did not have my language. And each day I dropped deeper into a sadness that seemed to have no bottom.
One day, seeking to escape myself, I took a train to a distant town where an American movie was showing. I hoped that hearing my own tongue and seeing images of my own homeland would lighten my spirit.
I arrived several hours before the film was to begin. So I sat on a bench on a street corner and watched the town shut down for the evening. One by one the shopkeepers shuttered their windows, locked their doors, and hurried to the buses and cars that would take them to homes and family. No one gave me so much as a glance as they passed.
Darkness moved across the hills. Lights went on in distant houses. Soon the town was empty, and I was alone with only the dark shapes of my imagination to keep me company.
In the distance, far up the street, I heard a strange, muffled sound. I looked up and saw a man coming toward me. He was wearing a suit, but his shirt was out and his tie was askew. His gait was unsteady; he lurched and fell against the buildings as he walked. He was obviously drunk. And he was sobbing.
In my months in Germany, drunks had become my friends. They, too, were often lonely. They did not care about my halting language, and in a country where I had made so few connections, they often opened up to me with the fullness of their hearts.
I smiled as the man stumbled toward me.
“Guten Abend,” I said.
He stared back at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. Tears rolled down his cheeks. I do not believe that I have ever seen, before or since, such a tortured look upon the face of another human being.
He began sobbing again and buried his face in his hands. His body racked and heaved. He seemed about to come apart.
“Sitzen Sie,” I said.
“Danke,” he responded, and almost fell to the ground beside me. There, in the gloaming, we sat, struggling to find a common language with which to communicate. My German was poor but workable. His English was good but long forgotten. In a clumsy mix of our own two tongues, his story came out.
He was a judge, well respected in the community. That morning, a young girl had run in front of his car as he was driving to work. There had been no time to stop. He had struck her, killing her instantly. He had been wandering the streets, drinking, ever since.
“I am a judge,” he kept saying. “I am a judge. How could I have done this?” It was as if his station in life and claims on respectability should have protected him against so horrible an event. And even more, he felt he had betrayed the trust of the entire community.
With my fumbling German, I tried to find words that would calm his spirit. But there was no consolation I could offer. He knew that it was not his fault; he knew that it had been an accident. “I keep seeing her in front of me,” he sobbed. “Why could I not stop?”
I tried again to speak some words that would matter, but he stopped me. “Don’t talk,” he said. “I don’t need words. I just need to be near somebody.”
I stayed with him on that street corner long into the night. He did not wish to go anywhere. He did not wish to talk. Occasionally he would take my hand; occasionally he would be overcome with deep and heaving sobs. But whenever I tried to leave or allow him the privacy of his own grief, he would say “No” and grab my hand to make me stay.
That night I learned something deep about despair and what it means to offer hope. It is the gift of our presence that the despairing soul needs, no more, no less.
When we sit with someone in despair, we are sitting in vigil. We cannot reach their consciousness with ours, nor can we offer consolation that will touch their darkness. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, they want only that we should sit and watch with them.
Despair is a sickness of the soul. If the despairing soul is to heal, it will do so on its own. The greatest gift we have to offer is our selfless and solitary witness. For when we stand vigil with the despairing spirit, more than anything else we are denying the emptiness into which the spirit wishes to plunge. By our presence we are affirming a worth that the spirit does not feel. We are bearing witness to a possibility in which the spirit does not believe. We are defying the darkness.
To help another stand against despair, as I tried to do that night, it does not matter what our station or status in life might be or even if we believe ourself to be a good and caring human being. The hope we offer is the simple presence of another spirit, less overwhelmed with darkness, that refuses to withdraw its light.
This may not seem like hope. It may not seem like anything at all. But against true despair, only a strong and courageous spirit can stand. After all, even the disciples abandoned Jesus at his greatest moment of darkness and doubt.
If we are able to stay with someone at their time of darkness and doubt and simply bear witness, we are performing a holy act, and the wounded heart will know. By the mute testimony of our presence, we are saying, “You are a child of God, and you matter.” And that is sometimes enough to make a wounded heart turn back, if only for a moment, and feel the presence of the light.
- Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace
The message we’d all like to hear in our own language is that message: that we are each a child of God and our lives matter.
We do not have to be particularly eloquent or well-versed theologically, or know exactly what to say.
For someone to hear God’s spirit speaking to them in their own language, sometimes what God’s spirit needs the most is our hands and feet – and at other times perhaps also our voices.
For we are each a child of God – and our lives matter.