Centered in Stillness

Tabernacle United Church, Philadelphia, Pa.
Readings: Mark 1:34-35, 6:42-46, 14:32-35

Today we conclude our Lenten series in which we have been considering some aspects of our culture that are detrimental to our spiritual wholeness. We have thought about the impact of the many choices we have in our society. We have looked at our culture’s focus on individualism and our culture’s sense of entitlement, and today we consider our culture’s obsession with doing.

This year I got a new DayTimer, one with less room for to do lists and more room for jotting down ideas. But as I was looking through the catalog I was aware that I am not on the cutting edge here because of the trend toward computerized organizers, otherwise known as Palm Pilots. I have no idea who came up with that name, but it leaves me pondering the question of who is piloting whom? Do our personal organizers help us take control of our lives, or is it the other way around? Is it our schedules, our appointments, our to do lists that have become the pilots, determining the course of our days?

I don’t need to go into detail about our culture’s obsession with doing and productivity. Most of us here know all about the battle we wage every day for our time, how we have to constantly fend off ever increasing demands upon us that we do more, produce more, achieve more. Sometimes it almost seems like we are subjects in some kind of cruel experiment, like hamsters desperately trying to stay on a wheel whose speed is being increased bit by bit. It is no wonder that a significant percentage of physical illnesses in our time are stress related.

The other night I was watching the News Hour on PBS and they were talking about interactive television and some of the new technologies that combine television and the Internet. I learned it is now possible to have a television show running in one corner of your computer screen while you can surf the web or read and write your e-mail at the same time. It’s called multi-tasking. I don’t think we were meant to multi-task. I think it leads to fragmented minds and fragmented spirits.

It’s appealing, of course, to blame new technologies for our plight, as though we are the hapless victims of forces beyond our control. But that’s not really so, because we are the consumers who are deciding what kind of technologies will be developed and how they will be used. We are the ones who decide to stay on the wheel, no matter how fast it goes. It is our attitudes and priorities that are the driving forces behind the technologies that are developed, not the other way around.

In many other cultures people have been far less obsessed with busyness and accomplishing things, which is probably why Europe and European descended nations have led the world in industrialization. The “industrialized” world of course emerged among an industrious people, and generally we feel good about that, as though our industry makes us somehow superior. But we are coming to realize that in our zeal to do more and produce more we have decimated the environment, abused our own bodies and alienated ourselves from our souls.

In the East they have the concept of the yin and the yang, the two sides that must be kept in balance. The yang is the active, outward force, the yin is the inner, receptive, reflective force. Ours is a culture seriously out of balance. We value only the yang, action, and in fact we even hold the notion that “idleness” is a sin. But our lack of balance has severe consequences. Without reflection, our actions become impulsive, lacking purpose and direction. Without nurturing the yin side of our being, the receptive, reflective side, we fail to understand the consequences of our actions and we become incapable of discerning what is truly important in life. Our lengthy to-do lists leave us exhausted while our booked schedules crowd out any time we might otherwise use to attend to an inner wisdom.

In my view, this lack of balance is due, at least in part, to the deeply embedded belief in our culture that our worth is determined by how much we can accomplish in life. There is a sense that in our society we are our resumes, and the fuller our schedules and the longer our to-do lists, the more important we seem. Being busy has become a kind of status symbol, a sign that we have arrived, that we matter.

But the notion that we must earn our worth through our accomplishments is a lie, a lie that denies the fact that we have been created worthy and already loved, a lie that, sadly, draws us away from the deepest meaning of our existence and that separates us from the source of our power.

When we read the gospel stories, it is easy to skip right over those verses that mention Jesus going off into the wilderness or up on a mountain to pray. We often skip right over them because they seem like insignificant non-events, nothing more than commas separating one miracle story or teaching moment from the next. But I do not believe we can ever have any understanding of Jesus, or of the spiritual life at all, if we do not take these verses with the utmost seriousness, because I believe that everything Jesus said and did found their genesis in those times when he went away by himself to pray. He did not embark on his public ministry until he had spent time alone in the wilderness, and during his ministry it was, I believe, in those times alone that he sought and listened for direction and for the strength to carry on. It was in those times when he withdrew from activity that he regained his sense of who he was and what his life was about. It was those times of listening that gave his actions focus and power. It was in those times that he reconnected with himself and with his God. Those moments were not optional, they were essential.

One of the fallacies we hold is that doing and being are antithetical to one another, that if we take time to be — to be present to our souls and to our God — we will accomplish less because we won’t have as much time. In truth, just the opposite is the case. Martin Luther was once asked how he could possibly get everything done that he did when he spent three hours a day in prayer. His response was that he couldn’t possibly get everything done that he did if he didn’t spend three hours a day in prayer.

I try to make it my practice to begin my work week by coming into the sanctuary on Monday morning to meditate and pray and to seek guidance as I try to discern what is most important for me to do during the week, and only then to make my to do list. Whenever I start my week that way, I have a much greater sense of direction and centeredness, and calm, and in the end, a more focused and productive week. But the annoying thing is that I always have to contend with the voice in me that says that I am wasting my time because I’m not busy doing anything. I often have a vague sense of guilt about taking that time to simply be present to myself and to God, even though I know it benefits me as well as the church. And there are times when I give into the cultural expectations and decide to return that phone call or check on that e-mail as soon as I walk in the door, and before I know it I have launched head long into a work week that has no focus or direction, and with me in a state of hurried distraction.

It is difficult to practice in a culture like ours, but the reality is that when we take time to center ourselves in the stillness of the Spirit of God, our lives and our actions become redirected toward what is truly important. When we practice the art of being our souls are restored and our actions become more purposeful.

Pianist Artur Rubenstein was once asked How do you handle the notes as well as you do? He answered, “I handle the notes no better than many others, but the pauses — ah! that is where the artistry resides.” [Rechtschaffen, 21]

The pauses that bring artistry to our lives and restoration to our spirits are not simply times of inaction when we numb out, just as meditation does not have as its goal attaining a hypnotic state. They are pauses when we are fully awake to the moment, fully awake to the presence of God. They are moments filled with the intense awareness of ourselves as living beings, existing within a reality that is vast and amazing. They are moments of connection with the One who is the source of our being.

Just before the crucifixion, Jesus withdrew once again, this time to the Garden of Gethsemane, to somehow find the strength he would need to complete his ministry upon the cross. This time, though, he did not withdraw all alone. He asked his friends to stay with him in a presence of prayer. It seemed to be desperately important to him that his friends accompany him in his time of anguish, not by doing anything, but by being present and fully wake with him in his time of distress.

As we prepare ourselves for Holy Week and for the Jubilee year to follow, I ask us to devote ourselves to the practice of being, of being present to God, present to the moment, present to ourselves, and I am going to give us an opportunity this morning to practice. I invite you to assume a comfortable position, close your eyes and become mindful of your breathing. In a moment I will sound the prayer bowl, and when the sound dissipates, I ask that we all be aware of the sounds around us, not trying to identify them, but simply letting ourselves rest in their presence and to be aware of the silence out of which they emerge. . .

[Time of silent meditation]

Know that you exist within God.