Ah! The Power of Prayer, Part 4: Finding Nirvana, or How I Wound Up in Cheese Station C

Read the rest of the series

Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church, Phoenix, Ariz.

As different as the mice and little people were, they shared something in common: Every morning, they each put on their jogging suits and running shoes, left their little homes, and raced out into the maze looking for their favorite cheese. The maze was a labyrinth of chambers and corridors, some containing delicious cheese. But there were also dark corners and blind alleys leading nowhere. It was an easy place for anyone to get lost.

However, for those who found their way, the maze held secrets that let them enjoy a better life. The mice, Sniff and Scurry, used the simple trial-and-error method of finding cheese. They ran down one corridor, and if it proved empty, they turned and ran down another. They remembered the corridors that held no cheese and quickly went into new areas. Sniff would smell out the general direction of the cheese, using his great nose, and Surry would race ahead. They got lost, as you might expect, went off in the wrong direction and often bumped into walls. But after a while they found their way.

Like the mice, the two little people, Hem and Haw, also used their ability to think and learn from their past experiences. However, they relied on their complex brains to develop more sophisticated methods of finding Cheese. Sometimes they did well, but at other times their powerful human beliefs and emotions took over and clouded the way the looked at things. It made life in the maze more complicated and challenging.

Nonetheless, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw all discovered, in their own way, what they were looking for. They each found their own kind of cheese one day at the end of one of the corridors in the Cheese Station C.

(Excerpts of pages 26-27 of Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D.)

And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the Synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their Synagogue some one with an unclean spirit who cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked the spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing the person and crying with a loud voice, came out. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority Jesus commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey.” And at once Jesus’ fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

(Mark 1:21-28)

Epiphany, a Greek word meaning “revealing,” is a season where we explore the dawning awareness in Jesus; of his own divine nature — of that which was truly in him; his coming into being Christ, the anointed of God. So many of us end the journey right there and thus we end Jesus’ own message. This is a season where we are to follow the same path that Jesus walked. Not watch him do it but walk it as he did into a dawning awareness of our own divine nature; a dawning awareness where we individually are called to be Christ. That’s a responsibility that most of us want to walk away from. And that, collectively, we are to be the physical, living presence of Christ in the world. What do you think it means when it calls the church, the body of Christ? It’s the working part. We are meant, together, to be at work reclaiming creation. Prayer is the place where we gain that kind of awareness. Deep prayer as connection to our roots, as quietness, lets us hear the voice that calls us into being; deep prayer, as “breath of life” prayer, something we all share in common. That would be connection to each other.

In this fourth part, we look at prayer in an ever larger way — prayer as communion with the Cosmos and as deep connection with all of nature. Our gospel lesson is one that people wrestle with. I imagine the moment you began to read it there was struggle for you. Anytime we encounter stories that seem unnatural, it sets us off balance. We don’t know how to deal with it. Our 21st century minds are not equipped to deal with stories of unclean spirits crying out. Mark’s Gospel is filled with these kinds of stories because Mark’s Gospel is an attempt to show Jesus as a man of action, as somebody who gets into the fray of things and gets things done. So he tells us lots of these stories. Mark uses stories like this one, set in Capernaum, to share how Jesus became so popular and so threatening so quickly. In three years Jesus rose from nothing until the entire government wants to put him to death. That’s something. Mark sees the source of fascination with Jesus and the authorities that fear him as his communion with the cosmos. He sees it as Jesus’ deep connection with everything that is. Everything! No matter what labels we put on things. Mark sees Jesus as connected with all of creation and I’ll bet that if you look closely, you would see that.

Jesus enters the town of Capernaum and he goes into the Synagogue on the Sabbath and he begins to teach. He doesn’t teach like the people normally teach. The people who normally teach, read it. Jesus began to speak to them and the way he spoke was amazing to them because the way he spoke he was comfortable with what he was saying. Here’s a clue. If someone doesn’t believe what they are saying, they are rarely comfortable with saying it but if they are at ease in being able to say it then they are comfortable with what they are saying. It is part of who they are. Jesus was comfortable with what he was saying to them. It astounded them. We, in the 21st century, have a difficult time because the next part of the scripture says that an unclean spirit cried out and Jesus silenced it and said, “come out,” and we look at that and say, “What can that be?”

There are, in Greek, different words for unclean spirit and demon but I’m not going to deal with demonology. If we try to understand ancient concepts through today’s culture, we miss it every time. For example: There isn’t one of us that can understand why animal sacrifice was so important. What was the big deal? How can sacrificing an animal make such a deep difference in a person’s life? Some of us can’t even eat meat because of it but we can’t imagine how that could be about what God wants while trying to understand it through our culture. I’ll give you a way in which you can understand it. Have you ever bargained with God? “God, I promise if you will do this ONE thingĂ–.” That’s the way our culture does it. It’s existed throughout time. We just find different ways of doing it. But if we try to fit something into the way our culture sees it, we will never understand it.

I cannot authoritatively tell you what the unclean spirit was. I don’t care because it’s not the point of the story. What I can authoritatively share with you is this: It was Jesus’ absolute comfortableness with himself, with who He was, with his understanding of God and with his connection with the world around him. It was his comfortableness, his confidence, which grabbed the hearts and minds of those people and said, “what is going on here?” It was his consecutiveness to all things.

How many of you remember the Gospel story where they are trying to enter the temple compound and they don’t have the tax they need to go in? Peter says, “Oh no, Jesus, how are we going to get in?” Jesus then says to go over to the lake and catch a fish. So, Peter goes over and catches a fish and he pulls the fish out and in the fishes mouth is a coin. Now that’s a fairy tale kind of story but the point being this: How many of us have seen instances of people who can connect with nature in ways that we are just awed by? We’ve seen itĂ–people who can walk on hot coals. It was with his connection with Creation that awed people. Jesus was in communion with the Cosmos and it showed. In a very real way, Jesus lived in the moment. He talked about the future and a coming reign of peace and justice and then do you know what he did? He said live it right now. Live in liberation right now. Live in the realm of God right now, live in connection, live with creativity, live it now! The only way to live in the “now” is to live in communion with what exists now. No matter how you look at it, the past doesn’t exist anymore and the future doesn’t exist. All that exists is now. And all that exists now is the entire cosmos.

The reading from “Who Moved My Cheese?” gets us to the heart of that story and I’d like to share one little piece with you. We finally arrive at a place of cheese; this is what our little adventurers have been searching for. They’ve been searching for the cheese that they long for and they finally get there in our reading today.

“Every morning, they each put on their jogging suits and running shoes, left their little homes, and raced out into the maze looking for their favorite cheese.”

Buddhism is not a religion. It is not a philosophy. It is a method of life. Its philosophy is summed up as “everything changes.” Nothing stays the same; nothing is static. I think the whole book “Who moved my Cheese?” is a good Buddhist treatise. It is the concept that everything changes. There is suffering and there is challenge in the world. We all would like to end that suffering, that challenge but the problem is that we hold onto life, rather than letting go of it. Holding onto it is an illusion because you really can’t hold onto it because everything changes. You really can’t hold on to ANYTHING. Letting go of trying to hold on is called Nirvana.

Now the four characters, the mice and the little people, are very different but they share something in common. Everyday they get up putting on their jogging shoes and they go out into the maze looking for cheese. Everyday they enter the place where life is lived. They enter the maze. They enter what is there and they search for cheese. You can call cheese food if you want to, or you can call it heart food. For some of us, we would call cheese fulfillment and some of us would call cheese purpose in life. They searched each and everyday for the cheese that they desired. The mice searched by trial and error. Sniff would sniff out where the cheese direction was and Scurry would run along to look where it was and they’d go down one path and find it was dead end and another one where it was too dark to get through and then sometimes they would find cheese and sometimes they would get lost because they would wind up in circles that they couldn’t get out of. How many of you say that your life can be like that a lot of times? We go down one road and then another and find out that it’s nothing but a dead-end or this way is just a little too dark for me to get through. Eventually, Sniff and Scurry find their way.

Like the mice, the little people, Hem and Haw, use their ability to think and learn from past experiences. They learn from their mistakes. They learn that if you go down this way you’re going to hit a dead-end or you’re going to run into a wall. We learn from our mistakes, but their complex brains developed more sophisticated methods for finding cheese. Isn’t it amazing how elaborate we can get to find what we need? We will create systems and amazing ways to find what we need when half the time it was sitting right in front of us. Sometimes their abilities served them well. I think that it’s amazing that, taking the creativity of people, we can do things such as wipe out and eradicate childhood diseases but sometimes their powerful beliefs and human emotions clouded the way they looked at things and so they weren’t able to find their way through the maze. Isn’t it amazing how in the 21st century, we’ve moved on but there are whole churches who think that part of the earth’s population couldn’t be like Christ because of the way their bodies are made. Just because they’re a woman they can’t do certain things in church; sometimes their powerful human beliefs and emotions cloud their ability to see the way. Think of the 20th century, when African Americans (less than 5 decades ago) in which churches were arguing or not whether a black person would be able to sit with a white person in the house of God! Their powerful human thoughts and emotions clouded their ability to see. Isn’t it amazing today, where just being gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender may mean that you have no place there?

Sometimes religion, something that is supposed to improve society, actually sets it back. That’s scary but true. The little people’s belief’s made life in the maze more complicated and challenging. Nonetheless, as our section ends, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw all discover in their own way, what they were looking for. Each found their own kind of cheese one day at the end of a corridor. Finding Nirvana, or how I ended up in Cheese Station C.

Recently, we did a little exploration of Buddhist mediation. We must remember that Buddhism is not about religion or philosophy. Buddhism is about a method to live. You see the problem is that there is suffering in the world. The solution is that we don’t want suffering. How do we stop having suffering in the world? We let go of our attachments. Buddha simply means enlightened one and is not considered a God or a Deity. It’s just somebody who woke up! Buddha believed that all people were Buddha’s and were just not aware of it yet. We haven’t awakened yet. People need Nirvana. That’s the goal of Buddhism.

If you’ve been taught that Nirvana is, as Buddhists believe, that you are going to annihilation or something like that but that’s not what Nirvana is. Do you know what Nirvana literally means? It means “breath out.” We talk about God giving us the breath of life and that life is in the breath, which is also an Indian concept as well, do you what? Then the Buddha was right. You cannot hold on to life. Try holding your breath for 10 minutes. That’s an exercise to show you that you cannot hold on to life!! Everything changes. It is a letting go of life. It’s letting go and saying “I’m being.” I am just being what I am, who I am, with all that is right now. Nirvana, to quote Alan Watts is “Whew.” How much easier would our lives be if we could let go of the expectations. It has to be this, it should be this, and it must be this. Nirvana is Whew.

Buddhism says that we breathe out through meditation, through centering ourselves and through the practice of just “being.” I call that Deep Prayer. There are many ways to do this. It is the kind of prayer where you know that you are “one” with everything around you. I had a moment a while back, as I stood at the ocean. I watched the birds and listened to the waves and saw the rocks and I saw the water go on and on and on and I knew that I was a part of that — as if I was planted and connected to it.

We are part of the Cosmos! Nirvana, finding Cheese Station C, doesn’t happen so much for what we reach for and work for and grab at. Rather it is what we let go of, what we surrender to, what we let be. The only way to do it is to enter completely into just the moment. To just let yourself “be.” That is Deep Prayer. If you wish to find Nirvana, a place of peace for yourself, listen to the advice of the Buddha and follow that path that Jesus walked. If you want the cheese you need, enter the maze of life. Let it be what it is! Cheese Station C becomes inevitable because fulfillment at oneness is not something we acquire. It is becoming aware of what we already share in. We are part of all of Creation. Revel in it.

Amen, Shalom and Blessed Be.