When I’m not singing in the choir, I like to sit right over there. In years past Barb R. usually sat right behind me, and we chatted. About two years ago, Barb was sitting behind me and she leaned forward and said, “You know, they’re talking about some meditation class in the bulletin. I just don’t get it. What does meditation have to do with us? Why would anyone in this church be talking about meditation?” Today I’d like to answer Barb’s question.
A secret about me that almost none of you knows is that I make really great buttermilk biscuits. When people come to dinner, they eat 3 or 4. It’s a skill I have. I don’t use a recipe at all because I’ve done it for so long. My grandma taught me to make biscuits when I was about 10. My first attempts were lousy. Hard, chewy. Sometimes raw inside. But I’ve been practicing more than 55 years. Practice makes perfect.
How about someone who can really shoot well? Here in Ely many of you started learning how to shoot a gun when you were kids. Maybe your grandpa or your dad taught you. In the beginning you couldn’t hit the garage wall. But you practiced for years. You went hunting with your family. You went to shooting ranges. And after all that practice, you got really good. In the Fall, when you see that 8 point buck , you get him on the first shot.
Meditation is just a skill like making biscuits or shooting a gun. It’s just a skill. We learn how to do it by practicing. In the beginning we’re lousy at it so we practice. Eventually we get really good at it. I’ve been meditating about 40 years so I’m pretty good at it.
Meditation is a tool. Nobody has to meditate. But it’s a way to see beyond our everyday thoughts. It’s a tool that helps us stop focussing on our thoughts and see something new. We see a space that is not thought at all.
Let’s think about our gardens. We love to garden. We start reading seed catalogs in January when it’s thirty below! We make plans and buy seeds. In May we plant. And then we watch. But the weeds come and the hail and the bugs and the deer. It freezes in June. Last year I planted dozens of hollyhocks. Last week the deer ate the tops off all of them.
Our lives are exactly like our gardens. We make our plans. “I’ll get a degree in Engineering.” “I’ll marry someone I love.” “My children will be smart and happy.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all except that real life happens instead. “Life is what happens when we’re making other plans.” Right?
The important thing is to see that both the plans and the obstacles are just thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with that except that our thoughts are always small and limited because they come out of our egos.
Let’s stand in our gardens again. Under our feet is what supports it all. The soil. The earth. Everything in the garden comes out of the soil. The soil is the source of everything. The soil is like God. The soil is like Divine Love.The soil is neither the good things nor the bad things—it’s much bigger than that. It is the base, the source of all existence. The soil holds all possibility. It carries potential—all the things we did NOT think of, all the things we simply cannot imagine.
What’s possible? Maybe there’s a whole apple orchard that can feed everyone in town—Never thought of that! Maybe there’s an oil well—Never thought of that! The real fruit of the soil is transformation itself. It is the growth from God, transformation so astonishing that we absolutely cannot imagine it.
Learning the skill of meditation, practicing meditating again and again makes it easier to focus on the soil instead of obsessing about our thoughts. So this is my answer to Barb R.: When I meditate, it’s easier for me to hear what God wants instead of what I want. But meditation is a skill. It’s like making biscuits or shooting a gun. You have to practice.
I started teaching meditation here at the church about two or three years ago. Karen L. was in one of the first classes I taught. Most of you knew Karen. She was not at all an airy-fairy hippie type. She loved this church and she was a Protestant through and through. But about two weeks after the first meditation class, she got a very tough diagnosis, a terminal diagnosis. Even then, even in the beginning of her illness, she had started using the meditation breathing techniques, and she said they really helped her. A year or two later, in the time just before she died, she had some bad falls. But she would just shrug and say, “Well, yes, I was down on the ground for a while but I could just do my meditation.” Wow. It really worked for her. I was so grateful that it helped her.
Some of the fruits from the garden soil are easy and beautiful. And some are very very hard.
Let’s start with easy: Imagine you’re paddling out in the Boundary Waters. It’s windy and a little rough and you’re paddling along the shore. You’re paddling hard. You can’t see what’s up ahead. You keep going and there’s a rocky point. You paddle hard to get around that point. Finally you make it around. You look up and goose bumps rise all over your body. The water here is flat. The sun gleams. It is impossibly beautiful. This is real and it’s perfect. We feel utter joy. Utter peace.
We created space by going out into the wilderness… and God filled it. Our deep hearts know God in the beauty of that moment. Meditation is a way to paddle out into the wilderness. Meditation makes these moments come more easily.
What about when you hold a new baby? That deep sense of peace, that profound love.
What about if you go to Normandy and there’s a cemetery with thousands of white crosses. Tears come to your eyes. You choke up and get goose bumps. You see the enormity of the sacrifice, the truth that every one of those young men died to stop the Nazis.
These are easy, wonderful moments when we know God is real. But sometimes there’s heavier lifting. It still comes out of the soil but it’s just much harder.
Here is a very personal story about me. When I was 23, I had been married about 2 years and I got pregnant by surprise. I had used an IUD that was later recalled. About 6 or 7 months into my pregnancy, I got very sick. When I went into labor and went into the hospital, they said the infection was so bad that the hospital took away my clothes and burned them. The doctor had me sign the papers for a hysterectomy because they believed that was the only way to save my life. I was only 23. My little boy was born too early. In those days there were no NICUs. 26 or 27 week babies did not usually survive. My little guy lived one day in an incubator and then died. I never held him. I was too sick to go to his funeral. It was a terrible, terrible experience. But it turned out that I didn’t die and I did not need a hysterectomy.
Life goes on. Day follows day. Two years later I had a gorgeous baby girl. She was born with black hair this long. Later I had two more gorgeous healthy babies. Beyond that, the terrible experience of losing my baby was exactly what put me on the spiritual path all those years ago.
The empty garden soil holds the things we cannot possibly imagine. I am sorry my little guy died. But I am so grateful for the fruit that God brought out of that soil. I surely didn’t do it. It was way beyond anything I could imagine.
Think of this: On the day Jesus was killed, no one could imagine past that Friday. At first they thought he would win, be the king… and then instead he was killed. They didn’t know the end of the story. They had no idea Easter was possible. Sunday came. Resurrection was real… but it was completely different than anything they had ever imagined.
One of our hardest challenges is forgiveness. How do we forgive the really terrible things? It’s written right here on the communion table: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Today’s scripture says, “Love your neighbor and pray for your enemies.” But how? This is really heavy lifting.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a woman named Kia Scherr. While her husband and her 13-year-old daughter were visiting India, they were eating lunch in a restaurant, and terrorists shot and killed them. After the attack, one lone terrorist survived. Here’s what Kia says:
As I looked at this man’s photo on the television screen I knew what I had to do. The words of Jesus Christ came to me: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ I wasn’t a religious person, but those were the words I heard. I turned to my family and said, ‘We must forgive them.’ Everyone was shocked. They thought I had lost my mind. But at that moment, I just said what I knew to be true. I felt a ray of peace enter my heart….I knew that forgiveness was essential so I forgave. I knew that to respond with love to an act of terrorism was the only way to triumph over terrorism.
Kia says that she had to accept the reality of the incident because it could not be changed. And she also says that her acceptance and forgiveness did NOT mean that justice could not be served. The young man, the terrorist, was hanged by the Indian government. But we’re talking about the miracle in Kia’s heart. We are talking about how God filled the terrible space in her heart—the fruit far beyond anything she could imagine.
One more story … about World War II. The Ravensbruck concentration camp was the largest camp for women in the Nazi system. 92,000 women and children died there. D-Day was June 6th, 1944. Think of the cemeteries at Normandy– all those soldiers fighting their way across Europe and finally getting to the camps and freeing the prisoners. It took 10 months after D-Day for the Allied soldiers to finally make it to Ravensbruck camp. On April 30, 1945, the Allied soldiers liberated Ravensbruck. Lying on the ground next to a child’s body, the soldiers found a piece of wrapping paper. Somehow a prisoner had scrawled a prayer on that scrap of paper. Here is that prayer:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will
but also those of evil will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us;
remember the fruits we have borne thanks to this suffering—
the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;
and when they come to the judgement,
let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
In your bulletins is a prayer by Thomas Merton. Please pray along with me:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
[This is a sermon I gave on on July 15th, 2018, at the Presbyterian Church]