A Sermon for Seekers Church
December 29, 1996
by Deborah Sokolove
A Seekers Year
Today’s readings are all a kind of praise, rejoicing in the God who walks in and with the created order. Isaiah says "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord…For as the earth brings forth its shoots… God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations." The Psalmist says
Fire and hail, snow and mist,
fruit trees and cedars,
wild beasts and tame,
snakes and birds,
old and young,
praise, praise the holy name,
this name beyond all names.
And Paul in the letter to the Galatians, and the Gospel according to Luke, both rejoice in the fact of the Incarnation — in the birth of Jesus, which is celebrated at Christmastide, we know that God walks among us.
In the secular world, however, Christmas is over, the gifts are unwrapped, and the New Year is all the news. At this time of year, the popular media are full of articles and features with names like "The Year in Review." We are inundated with lists of the year’s 10 or 100 Best or Worst movies, politicians, musical recordings, restaurants, and just about anything else that might seem appropriate. Or inappropriate. We are also encouraged to make lists of our own, with the heading "New Year’s Resolutions." And many of us, who only a few days ago were filled with the Christmas spirit of peace on earth and good will to all, are ready to say "Bah, humbug! What’s special about New Year’s Day?" Reverting to our customary, quasi-scientific view of holidays in general, and more-or-less let down after the rush and excitement leading up to Christmas, we remind one another that this is just a "made up" holiday, with no special significance in connection with either Christian or agricultural/astronomical realities. We decide to go to bed early on New Year’s Eve.
But regardless of our intentions to ignore the cultural hoopla, some recognition of the changing calendar is necessarily forced upon us. Even if we are not in business, we have to close out our personal financial records, preparing (at least) for the annual accounting to the IRS. We have to remember to write the new date on our checks and letters. And somehow, whether reluctantly or intentionally, most of us probably do pause to take some stock of the year just past, and to consider what we might do differently in the year to come.
For many years, I thought that I was immune to the cultural imperative to celebrate New Year’s Eve with champagne, noisemakers and funny hats, not fully realizing that I was indulging in a parallel, counter-cultural ritual of making fun of it. I thought that I was superior to those merrymakers who dressed up to go dancing and drinking, and stumbled home in the wee hours after singing Auld Lang Syne in a room full of strangers. Recently, though, I have come to the conscious realization that we human beings need rituals, and that the rituals which have the greatest value, the greatest power, are those which are not simply private, but which connect individuals with community. While I am still not about to go carousing on New Year’s Eve, I have come to recognize that my desire to stay safely at home eating Chinese food and watching old movies is also a culturally-sanctioned ritual observance of this particular secular holiday, and that my ritual-of-choice is more about self-preservation than it is about virtue, and has more to do with introversion than it has to do with integrity.
Ritual has been defined as "repetitive, symbolic acts that represent meanings." We use ritual to acknowledge the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the anniversaries of days that are special to our individual lives. Last year I decided to take the rituals of the turning of the year more seriously than I had in a very long time, and actually make some New Year’s resolutions. Telling myself that between my studies at Seminary and writing liturgy in Celebration Circle, I was doing enough examination of both Scripture and conscience, I had been not been making specific time for prayer and introspection. Aware that my spiritual life was suffering, I resolved to return to the traditional Church of the Saviour spiritual disciplines of Scripture, journal and prayer every morning, regardless of what was happening in my life, good or bad. On January 3, I wrote
Where do I start? What do I write? It is boring to keep a diary, to write only of the events of the day. This journal has been so much deeper than that, but so often only when I was in some kind of pain. Why write when things are going well? And yet — it is a way to pray, a way to put on paper what I need to say to God, praise and thanksgiving, blessings for those I love, and those I don’t even know yet, those who are far away, or close at hand, and suffering. ….I long for a rule for prayer. I have lost the knack (if I ever had it) for meditation. I want the surety of "first you do this, then you do that."…Remember to whom [I am] praying. To begin the day in prayer is to actively put God before everything else…Begin again at the beginning. Now. Today.
And so I began, with great difficulty, at the beginning.
Halfway through the year, I was pleased to realize that I was, in fact, keeping my resolution to pray on paper nearly every morning. At times it was much easier than it was at the beginning, and at other times it felt like a chore. But regardless of whether the writing itself was easy or difficult, or whether I wrote many words or few, I found that days which did not begin in prayer felt somehow unbalanced. I found that however I felt when I woke up, whatever still lingered from the day before, at some point in my talking-listening-writing with God I felt a profound sense of peace and thanksgiving that allowed me to face into the new day. I began to understand that the discipline of journalling has its own rewards over the long haul, which are not immediately apparent on any given day.
In these last several months, much of the preaching from this pulpit has dealt with the externals of where Seekers should meet, the budget, and how we, each and severally, live out our calls in the world. In the light of my own experience with the daily disciplines, I wanted to remind us that the inner journey is a necessary as the outer one. Thinking to close the year with some reflections from Seekers’ inner lives, recently I began to ask other Seekers if they kept a journal or any other record of their daily prayer, and if so, would they be willing to share what kinds of things they did. The following is a composite image of the year, taken from the journals of a number of Seekers, most of whom rarely if ever share their thoughts publicly. Since some asked not to be named, they are somewhat edited to preserve anonymity.
- February 20:
- The Adam and Eve story strike me differently this time — why is it so bad that humans can tell the difference between good and evil and must make choices based on that knowledge?
- March 14:
- Had a great time at Rolling Ridge with [two others], planning for [a] retreat. Three more different [people] would be hard to find, but out of common purpose we came together.
- April 5:
- The water swirls in gentle eddies around my feet and the rock I am sitting on, softly murmuring a liquid prayer. The surrounding woods are bathed in a delicate green haze of newly emerging leaves. Several trees have fallen into the stream — victims of a series of spring floods. My grandmother is dying. My mother is dying. I sit here surrounded by exposed roots.
Half a dozen trees still struggle to stay upright along the banks of the stream. Much of their root system is above the water. The roots are like chubby fingers clutching for soil, reaching into the emptiness. Where is steadiness? A cool sip of water? My grandmother is weakening as I write. At ninety-seven, she is ready to die and refusing to eat and drink. My mother is in the hospital and cannot swallow — a tumor blocks her stomach. I do not want to see the roots as they dangle helplessly. They belong to tall sycamores. Their upper branches are mottle white and shimmer like silver ghosts against the blue sky. These trees gently lean toward the stream like the arches of an enormous cathedral or the ribs of a cavernous beast.
Gradually, in my mind, the rocky stream bed becomes a spinal column and the coursing stream becomes an artery. I am contained within a giant ribcage. I am the throbbing heart. As I sit, I can hear the forest breathe. From time to time, the sun hides behind a small cloud. With the shadow, a breeze comes like a gentle inhalation at first, crescendoing slowly to a roar. The trees sway and my hair blows across my face. Parachutes from the maple trees whirl through the air. When the sun reappears, the woods become quiet again except for a parula warbler who sits on a perch asking the same question over and over again — a buzzy trill up and over the top.
- May 2:
- I’m eating to fill the void caused by [my dog’s] obviously failing health. He started listing to the left and is increasingly unsteady on his feet. Still continent, eager for food, however, so maybe he’ll last a while longer. [The doctor] says there is actually an "old dog syndrome," characterized by deafness, unsteadiness, etc.
- May 21:
- I have not been faithful to my quiet time. Did pray periodically but not regularly. Being in that chaos [with my relatives] makes it difficult for me to feel in charge of my time. I feel disconnected here, too.
- June 19:
- Torrential rains, off and on the last two nights, have given some relief from the heat. The rain falls so hard, so fast, that I wonder how the earth can hold it. I fear flooded basement, leaking roof. Yet, on waking, all seems secure, dry, safe. Outdoors, the greenness of summer just grows and grows, lush, jungle-like. The lilies, that look so fragile waving in the sun, seem untouched, but taller than I have ever seen them….Meanwhile, I study, or not. The vocabulary is familiar, easy. It is the grammar I have to work at, these rules derived from human speech and writing, which try to capture and codify what any child simply intuits. I find myself amazed, entranced, at the way the world works.
- July 4:
- After all these years, I ought to be able to spell "independence." Well. The cat sits purring on my lap, wanting me to pet her rather than write in this book. Which is the more sacred discipline, to attend to the one here, physically present, or to look inward, contemplating the pure oneness of God? This is always the tension for a people who believe in an incarnate God, a God who enters and permeates the material, sensible world. It is not that one could or would say that a cat is more important than God. Rather, it is that one may honor God, do God’s will, in caring for this old, dear companion, who asks only for a pat on the head, to sit in my lap, to cuddle beside me when I sleep, and who is growing increasingly thin and frail.
- August 15:
- The Seekers "stuff" is disquieting to me. I feel we are a strong community and want to stay together, but because we are not strongly of a mind to act in one way or another I feel unattached in some way.
- September 22: (on silent retreat, Sunday morning)
- There is an emerging sense of God’s healing power and gentle invitation to grow within a community. Also the fear is replaced with affirmation of myself as a [sexual person]…I am looking forward to…visiting my sister Sunday afternoon.
- September 22:
- [Two drawings also made on retreat by a person who does not like to write, and does not consider him/herself to be an artist. The person who made them often uses this kind of abstract imagery as a vehicle of prayer and introspection. These paintings are rarely shared with others, and it is a privilege to be able to show them today in the context of other journal entries.]
- September 25:
- I am reading Finding Grace at the Center, by Keating, Pennington, and Clarke. Keating says (about centering prayer) that as soon as one reflects on the experience one is having during prayer (peace, joy, or insight), one loses the value of the experience. One must, he says, bring to prayer a child’s ability to savor immediacy. Do not try to capture it…if that is the essence of prayer, then it differs from creating a poem in that a poem tries to capture and experience…Then what is the answer to my big question? Where in me does all experience go? What is cooking in the kettle of my life?
- September 26:
- Back in the saddle again. I had an experience during centering prayer today that I want to record. It was deep, moving, causing tears. I was contemplating the word God, saying it the usual 20 minutes, breathing in ("God"), breathing out ("God"), and while according to Keating, above, one shouldn’t reflect on what is happening, I became aware of God’s presence within and without to the degree I felt inseparable from God. Powerful….. So I have just captured an experience. Why, Mr. Keating, is this a no-no?
- November 24:
- It is helpful to contemplate my own death, as we are to do for class Tuesday… I tapped into my own ambivalence – my desire to know I’m cared for at the same time my need to be alone… So would I want my loved ones around me, sending me off, or would I want to be alone? The truth is, I don’t know. I just hope I will be in an interior as well as physical place to be able to know my needs and to communicate with them — and to have them honored.
Of course, all this supposes I will die a lingering death. That has been one of my greatest fears and in many ways still is. Reading the chapter by Marge Koonig in Stephen Levine’s book Who Dies is very comforting. Her reflections on the deaths of various patients in the nursing home where she is a nurse opened up the dying process for me in some wonderful ways….Yet the story…was from the reflections of a care-giver, not the pain racked patient. I’d be interested to know whether there is any writing by those dying in great pain. It is the prolonged dying that I don’t want…. At least at this point I don’t think I fear death itself, although I don’t know how it would be actually be to there. Mystery —
- December 20:
- I have been sliding into depression these last several days. Fatigue, stress, lack of exercise all contribute. Today…a light coating of snow on shrubs and lawns — clear, cold morning. I was resistant to even getting up, but know that exercise is an antidote to the circling evil, self-pitying thoughts that keep creeping up on me all day, till by evening I am too exhausted to keep them from spilling out of my mouth and wounding others….Reading psalms helps, with their promise of God’s grace.
- December 24:
- I have not felt well lately…But I am happy! I feel so carried by the love of the Seekers community. 75 to 100 people who care about my welfare. They pray for me and hold me in the arms of the Holy Spirit… I feel as one in nature. I see the whole of nature. Beauty — concern…. Also in art. I feel so satisfied when I see painting, sculpture. … A couple of years ago I saw sculptures so magnificent that I teared up at its beauty of 1500 years old. It is great to experience the creativeness others can show…. I am happy! Life is good as it is given.
These scraps from Seekers’ journals, from their daily prayers, are the ongoing record of God’s people. Like the Scriptures that we read, recording the stories of first Israel and then the followers of Jesus, they are the record of our seeking after God, our learning to recognize and know God’s ways in the dailiness of our lives. They are, in all their varied stories, the celebration of Incarnation, of God walking among us.