Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Meaning of Life (3/17/13)

The Meaning of Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 17, 2014

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God.
--Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations

Psalm 130
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.

Today, in addition to being St. Patrick’s Day, is the last Sunday before Spring.   Earth has turned through yet another season.  For several years now, I have constructed the worship services so that the seasons through which Earth journeys correspond to a spiritual path.    Four paths for four seasons.    Winter’s path is the via creativa.    We might not think that Winter is especially creative; Spring might be more creative.    Perhaps, but there is creativity in Winter.   Think of all the creative things you can do during Winter.   

Summer months are full and busy, but Winter is a reflective time.    My Father likes the Winter as it gives him the opportunity to read, and at soon to be 95, he is still a voracious reader.   My mother, too, enjoys Winter as a reprieve from the garden and summer’s work, to allow the artist and the poet and Spirit to attend to her mind and heart.  

Winter is a growing season of creativity.  At Winter Solstice, the longest night, the light of creativity and promise makes its epiphany.    The birth of Christ is celebrated then as the birth of the Light.   As those days grow longer, the creative spirit moves within us.    The point is not to say you are only creative this time of year.  The point is to use worship to attend to this path, this way of approaching the Sacred.

This path, the via creativa, the path of creativity and imagination, is not to be treated lightly as if we are just making up stories.  The via creativa, is seen through the cosmos.     Stars burn out, die, explode, sending their elements into space to form new planets, and in the case of Earth, new life.   The atoms in your body have come from elements that were released in the explosions from many different stars.    As we look to Earth and watch life we are watching, feeling, and hearing, creativity.    

The human does reflect the creativity of the cosmos.  We are inseparable from the creativity of the cosmos.   While related to, we are unique among Earth’s animals in that the creativity of natural selection has provided us with language.   Through language, human beings have desired and attempted to tell the universe’s story from the time of cave paintings to computers.     

We study those who have pushed the envelope of creativity.    Whether they were thinkers or sages, observers, or those who through silence opened us to insights we had not seen, those are the ones we remember and to whom we look back with gratitude.    

Moses, not satisfied with the oppression around him was called by a bush that burned but was not consumed to speak about freedom even though he had no words.   

Buddha, in a palace of comfort that could not hold him, saw human suffering and went on a quest to find its meaning.  He didn’t give up.  Learning the practices of his contemporaries but not satisfied with them, he found his own enlightenment and in turn changed the world.  

Jesus found his voice in parables and aphorisms and dared to challenge the ideology of Empire and domination with the promise of God’s empire within oneself and among those who love and who treat with dignity all people regardless of their station or condition.   In his own life and in the movement that followed him, he showed that this empire, God’s empire, cannot be destroyed even with torture and execution.
Creativity didn’t end with Jesus or with the Bible or with the creeds or with a 1st century or a 4th century version of God.   It didn’t end with Buddha’s eight fold path.   It didn’t end with the Bhagavad Gita.  It didn’t end with Mohammad and his revelation of the Qur’an.   Creativity will not be satisfied living in anyone’s box.   Creativity explodes boxes of dogma like stars.  

Creativity did not end with Ptolemy’s understanding of the universe or with theSumma of Thomas Aquinas.  It didn’t end with Copernicus or Galileo.    Creativity didn’t end with Martin Luther’s 95 theses or with Calvin’s Institutes or with the certainty of the Westminster Divines and their confession. 
It didn’t end with Hildegard of Bingen, Rabia the Sufi mystic, Catherine of Sienna, or Joan of Arc.  It didn’t end with Elizabeth Cady Stanton who courageously wrote her own woman’s Bible to show that creativity didn’t end with men.  

It didn’t end with Descartes thinking and therefore existing.  It didn’t end with Kant, or Hume, or Jacques Derrida.   It didn’t end with Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung.  It didn’t end with Darwin’s, “Origin of Species” or with Einstein’s Relativity.     

Creativity didn’t end with Michelangelo, Beethoven or the Beatles.  Creativity didn’t end with Shakespeare or Alice Walker.   

Creativity didn’t end with Karl Barth or Paul Tillich.   Creativity didn’t end with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Matthew Fox, or Joanna Macy.      

All of them pushed the envelope of creativity.   That is not exactly correct.  All of them had their envelope pushed by creativity.   

That is why they are interesting.  

The people who are not interesting are those who think that it has all been done.  There is nothing left to read, nothing left to write, nothing left to see, observe, calculate, paint, explore, chant, or say.   No new dance steps to learn.   Those who are not interesting look at life and are bored. 
My mother and father are scheduled to turn 90 and 95, respectively, this year.  I don’t think either of them have been bored a day in their life.   They are both characters, but they aren’t boring.  They live life to its limits and each in their own way push the envelope.

Yesterday we remembered and celebrated the life of Doris Cope.   My experience with her resonated with what others said about her.   She was charming and delightful, of course.  Also, she was curious and interested.    She was always game for the show, whatever the show might be.

I don’t pretend to know the meaning of life, but being curious and game for the show can’t be a bad way to make life meaningful.  

During the season of Winter, the via creativa,  I created a series of sermons on the topic of “spirituality as if the stars mattered.”   You can read them all on the website, if you like.    The audio of some of them are on podcast.   

I started this series by reflecting on my teenage years, lying on top of a haystack and gazing into the Montana sky wondering about the stars and about God.   How things have changed both over the millennia when our ancestors saw the stars and reflected on them and how things have changed in my own life, and in perhaps your life.  

I created this series of sermons on changes that have happened over the millennia and how these changes have challenged Christian theology and spirituality.  I talked about Jesus, the Bible, God, evolution, life.    I am not saying it is great.  I am not even evaluating it.  It is exploration. 

Related to it is the grief over the loss of my son.  In both cases, I am trying to put together something.   I am trying to put together the pieces of a shattered stained glass window.    Pieces are missing and I don’t know where any of them go.   I know it has to be hard to watch and I thank you for your patience and for your love for my family and me through all of this.     My hope is that others might find me to be a companion in their journey, but I don’t know that.    I do hope that you would talk with me.  I think we all share something, that is an experience of depth.

This past week I found this quote from a sermon from Paul Tillich.  It is from his collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations, and this one is called “The Depth of Existence.”     He used as his text the first verse from Psalm 130.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
The paragraph that our liturgist read spoke to me.    The names and symbols for Divine Mystery, Life, God, and so forth, we may or may not understand in common, but the experience of depth is.    This depth can be from sorrow or from love.   Isn’t sorrow even a form of love?  It is the depth of feeling and we all share that.     Paul Tillich wrote:
He who knows about depth knows about God.
Creativity present in the depths of time and in the depths of space is present in the depths of our own experience.   That creativity transforms our depth.   In the midst of uncertainty or grief which is a form of depth, creativity is most present.    We don’t have to hide our uncertainties or be anxious about them.   The psalmist was present to them and called out from them.    

The creative people we have admired, I named just a few, also cried out from their own depths for what was true and real.   I am thankful that they did.  In so doing, they enriched us all.  

I hope that you, too, will never find life boring or live only on the surface or accept another’s box of belief.  God is much larger than any name and even in those times when all names seem wrong or small, the Divine Mystery is present, waiting, and creating.   

Since it is St. Patrick’s Day I want to share with you this prayer that speaks both of depth, hope, and strength to live.
The Prayer of St. Patrick
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulitude.
Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation

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