Member and Youth Director Joyce DeGreeff offered this sermon on November 15th.
One of the things I love about my part-time work at Northeastern University is the near hour-long car ride all by myself because it gives me a rare chance to either sit in silence OR to listen to NPR uninterrupted. Recently, on my drive into Boston, I caught an episode of “Here and Now” in which a British woman named Sarah Outen was being interviewed about her courageous journey around the world powered by her own energy. Over the course of more than four years, this woman had biked and kayaked 11,000 miles across Europe and Asia, spent 150 days alone at sea rowing between Japan and Alaska, kayaked 1500 miles through the Aleutian Islands, and finally crossed North America on her bicycle. Her final leg would be to row across the Atlantic Ocean back to England, but this plan was thwarted in early October when Hurricane Joaquin proved to be too much of a threat to her safety. Outen was eventually rescued by a passing cargo ship and her row boat “Happy Socks” was lost at sea.
In the interview, Sarah was asked what it was like rowing in such a small boat across the Atlantic ocean and given that she was all alone, were there any existential moments? You can find her full responses to these questions on line, where she describes how much she loves the ocean and all the strategies she used to keep her spirits up. But what most resonated with me was this:
She said:“You really feel every storm. You appreciate every good moment that counteracts the tougher moments in the weather that’s pushing you off course. … There are definitely frightening moments out there and really challenging moments, and moments where I think ‘I’d like the easy bit to happen now’ instead of going from one tough patch to another.’ However, it’s really beautiful and I’m very at ease with my own company.”
She then went on to explain how she wasn’t going to try the Atlantic Ocean again for logistical, financial, and emotional reasons but that she was going adjust her original plan and complete her journey with a mix of cycling and kayaking back to London, where she had started. The reporter’s final question was “How much will it nag at you that you made it two thirds across the Atlantic and had to stop?”
To this, Sarah replied: “It won’t nag at me. I did my best out there. Nature is always boss – I’m not going to argue that. So it’s out of my hands. I’ve learned to accept a lot of things on this journey that I can’t control. I’ve had a really enriching, enlightening, and challenging journey the whole way through, so for me it’s just part of the story now.”
For me, this interview wasn’t just about one person’s rescue at sea. How many among us can relate to “appreciating every good moment” to “counteract the tougher moments” when life seems to be throwing us “one tough patch after another”? How many times have we thought or said “I’d like the easy bit to happen now” please?
The real question for me, though, is how willing are we to ask for and accept help when we are in the storms of life? When we are sad or afraid, in pain or even despair, how honest are we with God and with each other?
Hannah was pretty honest in today’s first reading from the book of Samuel. For years, she had not been able to conceive a child and to make matters worse, was being tormented and provoked by her husband’s other wife who had born many sons and daughters. Hannah was “deeply distressed” by this according to the text, and she “prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” in front of Eli, the priest. At first he dismissed her because he thought she was drunk and told her to put away her wine. (not very helpful) But she had the courage and conviction to stand up for herself: “No, my Lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
YOU GO GIRL!
Speaking up for oneself, particularly as a woman and in front of a religious leader, was far from the norm in this society. Hannah was special in this regard. In the end, her prayers were answered and she gave birth to her son Samuel, though for me that’s not the most important part of this story.
As we know, in real life things don’t always turn out like we’d like: Sick people die; relationships end; dreams about our careers or building a family don’t always come true; teachers, friends or parents might disappoint us….and yet we are called to bring our cares to God and to bear one another’s burdens in communities of faith. Because it is in the sharing of our real selves, our whole selves, that we come to understand the power of vulnerability and the soul strengthening wisdom of surrender. Like Sarah Outen, we accept that some things are out of our control, and YET we pray to a God who says “come to me and I will give you rest”…not because we think God will make the hard stuff go away but because we trust that God will take our hand and walk with us right through it and beyond it. The disappointments, the rescue missions, even the tragedies in our lives become “part of our story”. They certainly inform how we understand the world but they don’t have to continually nag at us or define our whole life experience.
In my work as a college chaplain and as the youth director here in this church, I have found that one thing kids and young adults really appreciate is having a safe space where they can share both their celebrations and their challenges. We call it “highs, lows, and uh-ohs” at Northeastern and in youth group we call it “Milestones” – both are very similar to our “joys and concerns” time here in worship. By naming out loud what’s on our hearts, we are doing a number of things: we are lifting our praise and petitions to God, we are learning more about one another’s lives, and perhaps most significantly we are realizing that we are not alone. Likewise, here in worship during joys and concerns, we have shared some of our highest hopes and deepest fears trusting that they will be held by this faith community in the presence of a Sacred Mystery that is far greater than our own human capacity for love and understanding.
Our sharing time in youth group is followed by a collective prayer. In this prayer, we thank God for giving us the time, space, and courage to offer a part of ourselves to the group. We also thank God for all that is good in our lives and ask for God’s guidance through the challenges that we face. Our prayers won’t help us to win more soccer games or fix unfair teachers…our prayers won’t change the fact that our classmate’s parent died or that our best friend moved away. But our prayers will empower us to perhaps have more patience in frustrating circumstances, more resilience in times of struggle, and more peace with all that life throws our way.
“Be still, and know that I am God” is a commonly known line from Psalm 46. Sometimes just being still, slowing down long enough to even notice what’s on our hearts, is a gift. Last week, we took a youth group field trip to a Quaker meeting in Cambridge. Their Sunday worship consists of sitting together for one hour in silence, listening for what they call the “still quiet voice”. Imagine that! Some might say that it was a little risky bringing a large group of teenagers to such an experience. But I would argue that we ALL could use more silence in our lives. The idea is that in being still, we quiet our minds and open our hearts so that we can more readily feel God’s presence and hear what the Spirit is saying to us. At the Quaker meeting, there are people who stand up occasionally to offer spiritual wisdom, questions, or open ended thoughts as they are so moved by the Spirit. But for the most part, we are still and silent. In the debriefing afterwards, many of the youth shared that it was hard at first not to fidget and they were easily distracted by other people in the room or by their own wandering thoughts. It can be uncomfortable to be with ourselves and to listen to what our hearts want to tell us. It’s sometimes much easier to stay busy or to focus on other people rather than to stop and listen to what the Spirit is trying to say to our own souls. What we hear might be challenging or uncomfortable, but it also might be inspiring and thought-provoking…and maybe it will even lead us to life-changing transformation!
In today’s Gospel reading, Mark is writing about a conversation that Jesus is having with some of his disciples. This conversation happens just after Jesus has had a series of conflicts with the religious leaders (most notably his condemnation of the temple establishment) and just before the beginning of the passion story. It reads as a sort of apocalyptic literature with Jesus’ prophetic and mysterious words alluding to the future destruction of the temple. And yet, rather than giving details or signs that would provide clues about the timing of events, Jesus has a very interesting response to his disciples, who, like many of us, are uncomfortable with uncertainty and prefer not to live in the unknown. They are extremely anxious about what he’s suggesting and they want to know more about the plan of events:
“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
To which Jesus replies: “Beware that no one leads you astray.”
What? He doesn’t answer their question at all. Rather he turns it back to them and says: calm down, pay attention, notice what’s around you, and don’t be fooled by false alarms. The word “beware” here seems pretty important – it comes from the Greek root “blepo” which means to watch, but not in the sense of “watch out” for self protection or to spot signs, but rather to watch in the sense of “to be aware” or “to be discerning”. Interesting choice of word in this context. In the face of his disciples extreme anxiety, Jesus tells them to listen to their heart, to trust their judgement, and to be aware of the forces or situations that lead them astray from the Divine.
Furthermore, Jesus goes on to describe what the future will bring: “nation will rise against nation, kingdoms against kingdoms, there will be earthquakes and famines” but “don’t be alarmed”, he says, “this must take place for the end is to come”. And then finally he adds: “This is but the beginning of birth pangs” … this immediately shifts the focus from trials and suffering to a future hope and a possibility for new life. It is as if Jesus throws them a lifeline as they are drowning in a restless sea of worry.
I wonder if Jesus had a little bit of Quaker in him? This isn’t the first time that Jesus indirectly answers anxious disciples in a way that asks for deeper contemplation. And there are several places in the Bible where Jesus himself, seeks solitude and silence to be in the presence of God and to listen for the Spirit. I personally have gained much inspiration from reading Quaker authors, especially Parker Palmer, who write with such clarity and conviction about the necessity of being real with God and listening for God’s voice in the quietest places of our hearts. I have also gained much wisdom through Quaker singer/song-writer Carrie Newcomer. Her poetry, time and time again, has spoken so loudly to me that at times I feel like she must have written that song just for me. Most recently, her song “Throw Me a Line”, has shattered through my own resistance to naming and processing some aspects of the very intense journey that my family has been traveling over the course of the last two years. I’m guessing that her wisdom might resonate with many of you too.
Rather than trying to paraphrase or capture the essence of her song, I thought I’d play it for you because I think it speaks for itself.
Healing and compassionate God, You know us better than we know ourselves. When our world turns faster and faster, help us to slow down long enough to hear your still quiet voice. Calm our storm-filled souls and grant us courage so that we might recognize and graciously receive the lifelines in our path. Amen.