In Your Dreams! Nightmares

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Eighth Sunday after Epiphany: 

I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:8-16)
Do not be anxious about your life… (Matthew 6:24-34)

Joseph Fidler Walsh was born in 1947 in Wichita, Kansas. During his career Joe Walsh played in several bands including the James Gang and the Eagles. While he was with the Eagles he released a solo album in 1978 called “But Seriously, Folks …” On that album appeared our first song of the evening. “Life’s Been Good” went to number 12 on the Billboard charts and is Walsh’s ode to rock stardom. Let’s try it.

I have a mansion, forget the price
Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice
I live in hotels, tear out the walls I have accountants pay for it all

Chorus: They say I’m crazy but I have a good time
I’m just looking for clues at the scene of the crime
Life’s been good to me so far

When I lived in Atlanta, I had a Presbyterian pastor friend tell me about her dream job. She had asked God for a particular pastorate in a particular place. She said it everything was perfect. She got everything she had asked for. She had a great house, in a great location, right near everything she wanted – grocery stores, restaurants – her prayer had been answered exactly – in every single detail – as she had asked for it.

So, everything was perfect right?

No, she said – it was a nightmare. The church she served was terrible, rife with infighting, divisions, backbiting. What, at first, looked like a dream come true, was, in reality, hell. It was a classic case of “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

What had made my friend’s pastorate a nightmare is that she had focused on asking for the wrong things. She wanted a great house, a great neighborhood, a great life outside of her job at the church. The one thing she didn’t pray for was a great church – a loving congregation – a community that would support her and focus on growing and helping others.

What made her life a nightmare is that her prayers were selfish – concerned only with her own creature comforts. She didn’t give one thought to the people she was sent to serve – instead it became all about her.

Isn’t that how we make most of our own nightmares, by selfishly thinking only about ourselves? We go about our daily lives wondering what we want, what will make us happy, what will make us wealthy, what will make us more secure, what will our lot in life better than somebody else’s. Oh, yeah, the world may look nice – you might have a mansion and accountants to pay for the destruction you leave behind. You may even think life is good – but in reality, you’re in the middle of your own personal nightmare – lapping up the luxury of your own life – while blind to the enormous need of everyone around you.

My Maserati does one-eighty-five,
I lost my license, now I don’t drive
I have a limo, ride in the back
I lock the doors in case I’m attacked
I’m makin’ records, my fans they can’t wait
They write me letters, tell me I’m great
So I got me an office, gold records on the wall
Just leave a message, maybe I’ll call

Chorus: Lucky I’m the same after all I’ve been through
(Everybody say “I’m cool” ……”He’s cool”)
I can’t complain but sometimes I still do,
Life’s been good to me so far

Sounds like Joe’s got the life, doesn’t it? A great car – that he can’t drive. A limo with locked doors in case someone attacks him out of jealousy over his success. The pressure to keep producing those hit records to keep the fans happy and the money coming in. Lucky he’s still sane, right? Living that crazy good life – who could stay sane? Instead, this rock stardom life is a nightmare. Filled with anxiety and worry.

That’s what all nightmares have in common – anxiety and worry. We’re full of questions: What will happen if I lose what I have? What will happen if I lose my wealth, my job, my relationship, my home, my stuff? What will I do? How will I survive? How will I cope?

Let’s ask our ancient Hebrew cousins that question. They lost everything. They lost their homes, their land, their temples, their entire way of life when they were first spirited away to Egypt to be held as slaves. After claiming the promised land, they were once again conquered – losing it all again to be sent to exile in Babylon. It was a nightmare for them – taken away from everything they’ve even known into this foreign land.

It reminds me of the insurance company commercial that features a dog with a bone. The dog is so worried about losing the bone. First he buries it in the backyard, but then has nightmares about finding the hole empty – his bone gone. Then he takes it down to the bank and puts it in a safety deposit box, but still he’s plagued by nightmares of an empty safety deposit box.

Finally, he buys some insurance – and sleeps peacefully, as the little insurance umbrella floats in the air over his bone. No matter what happens to the bone, the dog sleeps securely, assured that his needs are being cared for.

The ancient Hebrews had this kind of insurance, only they didn’t have to buy it, they just had to recognize, and remember, that they had it all along.

I have kept you and given you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’,
to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
They shall feed along the ways,
on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.

How would it change the way you lived if you truly believed that the Holy keeps you? How would it change the way you lived if you truly believed that the Holy has called you out of the darkness of your nightmares? How would it change the way you lived if you truly believed that you will never go hungry or be thirsty? How would it change the way you lived if you truly believed that the Holy leads you, and guides you, and gives you springs of water to refresh you on every step of your journey?

There’s no need to put your bone in a security deposit box. There’s no need to have nightmares about how you awful your life could be. There’s no need to live lives of quiet desperation, worrying about our wealth, or how we’ll get by in this world.

“Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” Isaiah asks.
“Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

You are inscribed on the palms of God’s hands, Jubilants. Don’t worry – be happy.

Breathe deeply.

I go to parties, sometimes until four
It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door
It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame
Everybody’s so different, I haven’t changed

Chorus: They say I’m lazy but it takes all my time
(Everybody say “Oh, yeah”….. “Oh, yeah”)
I keep on goin’ guess I’ll never know why
Life’s been good to me so far

There used to be a nightmare in my closet, writes Mayer Mercer in the children’s book “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet.”

Before going to sleep, I always closed the closet door. I was even afraid to turn around and look. When I was safe in bed, I’d peek … sometimes.

One night I decided to get rid of my nightmare once and for all. As soon as the room was dark, I heard him creeping toward me. Quickly I turned on the light and caught him sitting at the foot of my bed.

“Go away, Nightmare, or I’ll shoot you,” I said.

I shot him anyway.

My nightmare began to cry. I was mad, but not too mad.

“Nightmare, be quiet or you’ll wake Mommy and Daddy,” I said.

He wouldn’t stop crying so I took him by the hand and tucked him in bed and closed the closet door. I suppose there’s another nightmare in my closet, but my bed’s not big enough for three.

The story reminds me of Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice that if we want to conquer our fears – if we want to tuck our nightmares into bed once and for all – we must invite them out of the shadows. We must invite our nightmares to have tea – Hahn advises. Instead of hiding from our nightmares, Hanh invites us to breath them in. Breathing in, we smile at our nightmares … breathing out, we take care of our nightmares.”

Breathe deeply.

Our second song went to number one on the Billboard charts in 1979 for a duo called “England Dan and John Ford Coley.” The song was originally written by Todd Rundgren, a singer and songwriter from Philadelphia who founded a band called Utopia. The song first appeared on their 1977 album called Oops! Wrong Planet. The song is called “Love is the Answer.” Let’s try it.

[Verse] Name your price, I’ll take you to paradise,
I can’t stay here anymore,
and I’ve looked high and low,
I’ve been from shore, to shore to shore
If there’s a short cut I’d have found it,
But there’s no easy way around it

[Chorus] Light of the world shine on me,
Love is the answer
Shine on us all set us free,
Love is the answer

In our Jesus story, we find our guy still in the midst of his famous Sermon on the Mount. The last we heard from him he was encouraging us to wake up and let our light shine. In today’s passage he’s shifted gears a little. While you’re out in the world alive, awake, and shining your light – don’t worry – be happy.

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Parent knows that you need all these things.”

The Holy knows what we need, and yet we worry. What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear? Where will we work? Who will love us? Who will take care of us? What will make us happy, safe, and secure?

One of the things that hasn’t changed since Jesus’ day is our human capacity for worry and anxiety. We are an anxious species – equipped by nature with a fight or flight instinct, always on alert for danger, always alert for what we should be afraid of, or flee from.

In Jesus’ time, the Jewish people were a defeated people – ruled over by the Romans, marginalized in their own land. They worried a lot – would they have enough to eat, enough to drink, clothes to wear, money to pay the tax collectors or be sold into debt slavery?

Would they have a place to live, and would they be allowed to live or accused of some crime by the Romans and taken off to crucifixion?

Along comes this Jesus guy and tells them “don’t worry, God’s on your side, she’s got your back.” They probably grumbled among themselves that this homeless, itinerant preacher didn’t really understand their lives at all. We read those words today and probably think the same thing.

We may want to say, “Hey Jesus, what about those unemployed people, those homeless people, those people who look at the future and see nothing but despair. They’re not supposed to worry? Are you crazy? Worry is all they have!”

And I imagine Jesus would sigh a little bit before he smiled at us and said, “Don’t worry.”

You see, he never says, “Don’t work for tomorrow,” or “Don’t plan for tomorrow.” All he says is that right here, right now, in this moment – don’t worry. It won’t add a moment to your life. It won’t help you solve the problems you’re facing right now. It won’t do anything for you – and, in fact, it may keep you completely immobile and unable to deal with the very real problems you’re facing.

Instead, Jesus tells his listeners to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

“Strive first for the kingdom of God and her righteousness …”

What exactly is Jesus asking of us here? The Greek word used for “kingdom” does mean royal power, but it also connotes “dignity.” The word used for “righteousness” means “integrity.”

When you worry, Jesus tells us, you’re not living into God’s dignity – or your own integrity. You’re not living as Jesus has called you to live. Worry dims your light – it increases not just your anxiety, but the anxiety of everyone around you.

When my job ended at the university, I was filled with anxiety. How would we make it? What would we eat? What would we drink? Would we be naked and penniless? I was hyperventilating regularly for the first few weeks after my job ended. I told Wanda about my anxiety and she simply smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”

In the middle of my anxiety, she spoke Jesus’ words to me. “Don’t worry.” If I became overwhelmed with worry, I couldn’t spend time looking for other work, looking for other opportunities. You know what? She’s right. We’re fine – opportunities are coming my way – God has provided a path in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

Instead of worrying, I’ve tried to live into the dignity of Holy – into the integrity of the Holy – into the faithfulness of the amazing, still speaking God we love and serve.

“Don’t worry,” sounds like such a platitude, but it is powerful advice. Instead of wasting our time on something that won’t get us anywhere – Jesus says, get busy – live with dignity, live with integrity, shine your light. There’s no short cut here – no easy way around the nightmares we encounter in this world. Instead, the answers can only be found when we stop worrying and start loving.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] Who knows why someday we all must die,
We’re all homeless boys and girls
and we are never heard,
It’s such a lonely, lonely, lonely world
People turn their heads and walk on by,
Tell me is it worth just another try

[Chorus] Light of the world shine on me, Love is the answer
Shine on us all set us free, Love is the answer

My own personal, “careful what you wish for,” nightmare occurred in a place that many journalists would give their eyeteeth to work: CNN. I spent the last six years of my media career there, and for the most part, it was good – but the last couple of years there were terrible. I loved journalism, but the industry has changed drastically since I started working in it. We were no longer doing journalism, but “info-tainment” that was bereft of any real benefit to anyone, except advertisers. We were commanded to “bring in eyeballs” by any means necessary. That meant good stories, stories that needed to be covered, went unmentioned because they were intricate, needed too much explaining, or didn’t have video to go along with them.

I hated what my job had become and came home in tears most nights. I stayed though, longer than I should have, simply because walking into that building with my CNN badge, and witnessing the grandeur of that newsroom that I sat in everyday was a hell of an ego boost. I had made it! I was the envy of other journalists – a CNN writer and editor!

I stayed in that miserable job because while I hated it, my ego loved it.

So often, it is our egos, our own selfishness, that keeps us wrapped up in our own nightmares. We may blame other people, saying, “I’d do something different, but this person won’t let me,” or “I’ll let others down if I don’t,” or “I worry about what will happen if I give this up.”

Wayne Dyer says “ego” stands for “edging God out.” When we live from that place of ego, where we have edged God out of our lives, our lives are plagued by nightmares of our own making. We can see the nightmares in our own lives and all around us.

The greed in this world is because we edge God out and pursue our own wealth at the expense of others. That makes others suffer – greed is responsible for homelessness, hunger, joblessness, and despair. Like the children of Israel before us, we pursue the gods of this world, edging out the one true God along the way.

What can we do? How do we put God back in the equation?

Love. Love is the answer, Jubilants. Love the answer to all of our deep, burning questions.

Why are we here? Love. What is the purpose of our lives? Love. What is our responsibility in this world? Love. What do we all need? Love. How can we change the world? Love. What do I need the most? Love.

When we are plagued by worry, we cannot love. When we are entangled in our own nightmares, we cannot love. When we edge God out, we cannot love.

Instead of worrying, instead of shooting our nightmares, I invite you Jubilants, to open the closet, invite your nightmares out into the open and love them – tuck them into bed – invite them to tea – smile at them.

It’s a lonely, lonely, lonely world, Jubilants. We are called by Jesus to stop worrying, and start living with love, with dignity, and integrity. We are called, Jubilants, to invite the nightmares around us to snuggle up beside us and be transformed by God’s love.

[Bridge] Tell me are we alive or just a dying planet?
(What are the chances) Ask the man in your heart for the answers
And when you feel afraid (Love one another)
When you’ve lost your way (Love one another)
And when you’re all alone (Love one another)
And when you’re far from home (Love one another)
And when you’re down and out (Love one another)
And when your hopes run out (Love one another)
And when you need a friend (Love one another)
And when you’re near the end (Love, we got to love)
(We got to love one another)

[Chorus] Light of the world shine on me, Love is the answer
Shine on us all set us free, Love is the answer

Oh, Yeah!