Sunday, November 16, 2014

Awakening in the Dark (11/16/14)

Awakening in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 16, 2014

This series of sermons is based on a book with the title, Learning to Walk in the Dark.   Notice the title is not, What to Believe about the Dark or Have You Been Saved by the Dark or Become A Spiritual Mystic in the Dark.  It is Learning to Walk in the Dark.    

I say that to make a point.  The point of this series of sermons including today’s sermon is about practical wisdom.   The point is not metaphysics or philosophy or theories about God.  The point is learning to walk in the dark.    How to do it.

I have refrained from speaking about this, but now that I am going to be leaving I realize this is too much fun to pass up.   Over the past month a letter has circulated about me from someone in the presbytery.  This individual wrote a letter to all ministers and clerks of session in the presbytery asking the stated clerk of our presbytery to make a statement about my beliefs.  In her letter she included a cd of one of my radio programs.  She questions whether or not my beliefs are Presbyterian.    Just to squelch any rumors this has nothing to do with my decision to take another call.  This is the same old stuff that has been going on for years.     It is likely to go on for years to come wherever I go.   My gift to the universe is to make people upset about my beliefs.  I use this as a teaching moment. 

My response to all of this is, “Really?  That’s the take away?  That is the take-home message for you?”  After 140 radio shows, after nine years of sermons, the concern is about my beliefs and whether or not they are Presbyterian? 

It is like going to the opera.   Someone asks you the next day at work:  
Tell me about the opera. 
Well the bathrooms were clean.  I wish there had been more variety at the snack bar during intermission.

We brought this on ourselves for centuries of reinforcing the lowest and least interesting aspect of religion, beliefs.   Think about what happened to Jesus.  He said some provocative things, got in trouble with the authorities, got himself killed, and what happened?   People made lists of beliefs about him.  Turned him into a salvation machine and created creeds and used him to promote their pet theories of the afterlife.    Jesus said,

Love your enemies.   We said,
That is no fun and it’s too hard.  So instead we will turn you into the second person of the Trinity, sing songs about you, and regularly ingest wafers in your name.

There is nothing wrong with the Trinity or communion or singing songs about Jesus.  I love it and do it.   It is beautiful.    I admire the creativity of this human cultural product we call religion.   

Last night I loved the Indian dancing at the United Religions Initiative Gratitude Dinner.    The teacher explained the dances and how they connected to the various deities.  One was about Ganesha who removes obstacles.  Ganesha is elephant-headed god and is the nephew of someone else I can’t remember.  The dancing was beautiful, graceful and expressive.   The stories and symbols and colors all mixed together.   The students had obviously trained hard and long.  It was really impressive.  I’m glad I was there.

Here is how you ruin it.   You ask this question:

Do you believe in Ganesha?

Oh man.  Just go sit in the back.  Don’t talk anymore.  Really?  You are going to reduce this to beliefs?

I am giving away all of my books on beliefs.   What Do Presbyterians Believe?  You can have that one.   That goes for all the rest, too.  What about the Methodists.  What do they believe?  Don’t care.  Buddhists, Muslims, Jews for Jesus.   It doesn’t matter.

Two books that are not in the book sale and that will be traveling with me on the Oregon Trail are by Stephen Batchelor.   One is called Buddhism Without Beliefs and the other is called Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.  

Stephen Batchelor has to do the same thing with Buddha and his wisdom that those interested in the historical Jesus are doing with his wisdom.    The guy we call Buddha, the awakened one, wakes up, says some stuff and then, poof, all kinds of beliefs emerge about him as well including metaphysics and supernaturalism and reincarnation and who knows what all.   

Again, there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, there is much that is right with that.     The beliefs and the practices are good to the extent that they are helpful.   They are like tools.  Here is a wrench.    Do you believe in the wrench?  That’s pretty dumb.  The wrench may be useful with this particular task or not.    If it is helpful, use it, if not use something else. 

To make beliefs more important than doing what needs to be done to engage the task is what the ancient Hebrews called idolatry.   It is making an idol of that which is not real.    Illusion is another word for it.    Icons are not bad.  Symbols are not bad.  Take care when they become the end not the means.     How do we take care?  That is the via negativa.  We let go of beliefs.   Start anew.

Let’s talk about Buddha.   There is a parable about him and his life story that is good to know.  I am not going to repeat all of that now.    The parable continues to the night in which he awakened.   The right word is not enlightened.  He woke up.      He awakened to what was real.

He wakes up and articulates truths. 
Life is dukkha which is often translated as suffering which is not exactly it, but ok.
Suffering has an origin
Suffering has a solution.
Here is the way to enact the solution.  

The Four Noble Truths and the fourth truth is the eightfold path of how to do it.

These are not beliefs, any more than “love your enemies” is a belief.    One can argue with both Buddha and Jesus about what they articulated.   I think one should do that.  I think it is far better to argue with these guys than simply believe them or not believe them.    What do you mean, Jesus, “Love your enemies?”  I can think of a lot of things to do with enemies.  Love is not one of them.   What does that mean?  How do we do it?   You start asking those questions and you are on the path.   That is far more interesting and rewarding than believing stuff.

Buddha is the focus for today.    You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate his wisdom.    Use it, don’t use it. 

He says, Suffering exists.  The origin is desire.   The solution is to cease desire.  Here is how you do it
1. Right view 
2. Right intention     
3. Right speech         
4. Right action           
5. Right livelihood    
6. Right effort           
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

There is much commentary on how to do all of that.    The point again, is that this is practical.   This is about if you will, learning to walk in the dark.    Learning to navigate this life.  How does one live wisely, with less suffering for self and others?  

Here is what I have found in my own reflection and practice.   I think of lot of suffering, anguish, dissatisfaction, and so forth is caused by my own need to cling and control.    Things change.  I change.  I don’t like it.   When I am not intentional I can spend a lot of time and energy and effort chasing illusions rather than focusing that time, energy, and effort on what is real.   

I don’t need to judge myself in regards to that.  I can notice it and then ask what I can do to increase peacefulness about it, whatever that is.   A real test of this is moving.  Moving is a high stress event.   The emotions are high in regards to saying goodbye and to anticipating what is to come and working out the many, many details.   

I am quite skilled at worrying, so the practicality for me is play out the worries, name them notice them, talk about them, and to put them on lists of when I will need to deal with them.   I find that is helpful when I do it.  

This book sale has been a real interesting event.    Those books have been collected since college in my case.  Throughout our marriage, through my three churches, and the letting go of them has been hard and emotional.    You think, really books?    It is my trade.  It is what I do.  It is what I love.   What will I do if I need this one?   They are valuable.

But what was really helpful, was yesterday to watch people pick them up by the armloads and be so happy that they found these books.    They have been sitting on our various shelves for years.     Now they might actually be read.   Watching that yesterday finally allowed me to feel good about letting go of these books.

Sometimes we need to free up space, not only physically but spiritually so that we can be open to new experiences.   That is why change is hard and yet necessary.   Change happens anyway, life is impermanence.   But we have to practice impermanence and to be open to change.  That I think is what helps us to navigate life and the disrupting changes it brings.  

Yesterday someone was telling me about sand paintings.   You create these beautiful colored paintings, intricate and detailed.  You admire them and then you destroy them.   Everything is temporary.   The heartbreaking and yet liberating challenge is to accept that and be grateful for what is.    

As we are able even if for a little to cease our clinging to whatever it is we love and want to preserve beyond the time that we can preserve it, we can let it go and let it do what it needs to do.    Like those books.   

This time for me before we leave on the day after Christmas with our three dogs in our Prairie Schooner Corolla over the 2600 mile Oregon Trail, is to admire and honor the time that I have had with you in this beautiful part of the world.   If I have learned anything or become wiser or become better at all it is because of you.  

Even for the person who worries over my beliefs, well you know, I have learned a phrase here…bless her heart.   I don't mean that in a sarcastic way.    In the true meaning of blessing one's heart.   It is all good.  Everyone has their thing.   Ganesha knows I have mine.    Sometimes you have to breathe and laugh about it and take the next step.


1 comment:

  1. May I just say--Wow! Thank you for once again giving language to my own beliefs that I've had such a hard time putting into words. Wishing you the very best as you travel forward.