Monday, August 27, 2007

Homily: "Thirst" (Delivered 8-26-07)

The beginning of my homily this morning got all messed up because I mis-remembered a quote by Kurt Vonnegut, the famous novelist and avowed humanist and free-thinker. Earlier this week I was thinking about some of my favorite Psalms from the Hebrew tradition and I seemed to recall something about Vonnegut saying that Psalm 23 was the finest piece of writing ever written. I searched frantically for this quote, only to find that Vonnegut had expressed these sentiments about the Sermon on the Mount.

Some do consider the Twenty-third Psalm, with its imagery of walking through the valley of the shadow of death and of cups runneth-ing over, to be the greatest piece of writing ever. Just not Kurt Vonnegut.

Me, I’ve always been partial to Psalm 150. Psalm 150 is the final psalm and also the shortest. It is only six verses. In the third and fourth verses, the psalm lists how we are to praise. Praise with lute and harp, with trumpet and tambourine. And then the fifth verse arrives, and we are told to quote, “Praise the Lord with clanging cymbals; praise the Lord with loud, crashing cymbals.” I’ve always loved that particular verse. First of all, it is superfluous, unnecessarily repetitious for such a short little psalm. It is driving the point home. It is as if the psalmist is saying, “Praise with loud cymbals… no, I’m serious here, we’re talking crashing, clanging cymbals. Bring the noise. Bring the funk.” I like to think of myself as a clanging cymbals type of guy. I like to imagine Animal from the Muppet Show as the exemplar of this sort of piety.

But, there is a third Psalm that I think is just as good. It is the forty-second Psalm that begins with this great line, “As the deer thirsts for water, so my soul thirsts for you.” Depending on the translation, the word thirst comes across differently. The King James version uses the verb “to pant”: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so paneth my soul after thee, O Lord.”

In our service today, I am going to talk a little bit about thirsting and invite you to think about what you are thirsty for. For what do you thirst?

One of the books I have been reading this past month is called Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It has kind of been a hot best-seller this Summer. It falls into the genre of spiritual writing and it even has an enthusiastic blurb by Anne Lamott on the cover, which is good enough for me. In a nutshell, the book is the memoir of a successful writer in her mid-thirties from New York City who goes through a tough divorce and decides to set out around the world to heal and find herself. She gets a book deal to do this and spends four months in Italy, four months at an Ashram in India practicing meditation, and four months in Bali, Indonesia studying under a Balinese medicine-man.

I decided to read the book as an experiment. I know dozens of people who have read Eat, Pray, Love and have seen dozens more reading it on airplanes, but I don’t know a single man who has ever read it. It is distinctly possible that I am the first man to have ever read it. I wanted to know whether a man could enjoy it. So far, I have strongly disliked it, and with only fifty pages to go, the window of redemption is closing quickly. (And if you accuse me of not giving this book fair shakes, consider that several years ago I read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a diary of her first year as a single mother to her son. I was riveted, even when she goes on for twenty pages about dealing with her colicky son. I’m open-minded. But Eat, Pray, Love doesn’t do it for me.)

But, here is one of the few passages in Eat, Pray, Love, that I actually found redeeming and insightful. It deals with the subject of thirst we are considering today. Gilbert writes,
I found during the beginning of my stay here at the Ashram that I was often dull-witted during [my meditation practices.] Tired, confused, and bored my prayers sounded the same. I remember kneeling down one morning, touching my forehead to the floor, and muttering, “Oh, I dunno what I need… but you must have some ideas… so just do something about it, would you?” This is similar to how I often spoke to my hairdresser.

There’s a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear Saint, please, please, please… give me the grace to win the lottery.’ This lament went on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son – please, please, please… buy a lottery ticket for crying out loud!”

If I want transformation, but can’t even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I’m aiming for, how will it ever occur…. If you don’t have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift. So now I take the time… to search myself for specificity about what I am truly asking for. [pages 176-177]
Listen to these words again: “I want transformation, but I can’t be bothered to articulate what I’m aiming for… so now I take the time to search myself for specificity about what I am truly asking for.” For what do you thirst?

Over the summer our Board of Trustees and senior staff read the book Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy, one of the leading thinkers about healthy church life. Bandy begins his book by pointing out that the vast, vast majority of people (especially those under the age of 50) who begin attending church do so because they are longing for some change to take place in their life. They are seeking to be transformed though they may not even be aware of what that change might look like or what the transformation entails. They have a vague sense of something missing or something that they want to be altered.

Not to drill the point home too hard, but Bandy says that they don’t come to find friends; they tend to already have plenty of friends. He says they don’t come seeking service opportunities; they already have more than enough places making demands on their time. No, they come for something they cannot get through going out with friends or serving on the PTA; there is some change they wish to make in their life. Now, the catch is that to make that change happen will involve creating intimacies and to make that change happen will involve doing something akin to service, but the intimacy and service follow from a longing, panting thirst for change.

I find myself now trying to integrate this into the way I approach ministry. I used to ask visitors to the church what they did for a living, hoping they would say they were a plumber (yay, a potential new member for the facilities committee) or a financial planner (Hooray – a future finance committee chair) or a teacher (send them down to the classrooms right away!)

Now, I try to ask people, “What transformation do you want for your life to undergo? What is missing? What do you want to change?” And only then do I ask them how can this church community be an agent of that transformation. How can we quench that desperate, panting thirst?

For what do YOU thirst?

Let’s do an exercise. In just a moment I am going to sound our little Buddhist meditation bowl and invite us to join in a few moments of quiet thought about this question. When I sound the bowl a second time, I invite you to be brave and turn to your neighbor and maybe ask them to tell you one thing in their life that they thirst for. If your neighbor is not brave, I invite them to share with you their prediction for what the Chiefs’ record will be this year. When I sound the bowl for the third time, I invite your attention to return up front.

First ring: quiet reflection on your thirst.
Second ring: sharing with your neighbor.
Third ring: come back.

If this exercise has been anything what I imagine it has been like, the conversations out there among you have been diverse. Some of you may not have been able to name any thirst; perhaps you have come to discover and discern. Some of you may have been able to name a thirst but have no idea how to make it happen; perhaps you have come to be empowered. Some of you may have been able to name a thirst and have a very developed plan about how to satisfy that thirst; perhaps you have come to be turned loose. Some of you may not have been able to name any thirst, but perhaps only a thirst you once had, a thirst that has been sated and satisfied; perhaps you have come out of a sense of abundant gratitude and fulfillment.

This morning as we start up a new church that never ended, as we come back to a place we never left, let us continue to ask each other what we thirst for. Let’s listen to each other’s longings. Let’s share and be receptive, understanding that just as we do not all share the same image of divinity (and that’s OK) neither do we all thirst for the same things (and that’s OK too.)

A. Powell Davies once said that life is a chance to grow a soul. It is that enterprise that we try to be about here in this religious community. There is so much before us.