This sermon was preached on 3.1.15 in the Bridge, the emergent service at First Presbyterian, Elkhart, Indiana. The second in a series on spiritual practices.
“Be still and know that I am God.” (NRSV)
“That’s enough! Now know that I am God.” (CEB)
“Desist, and learn that I am God.” (CJB)
This is the word of the Lord. In three translations. Thanks be to God.
We’re focusing this season on spiritual practices, last week on the practice of self-examination and confession, this week on the practice of slowing. I’m prepared to offer you a bit of a testimony today— reflections derived from my own experience of and need for this practice of slowing. I hope that by speaking personally this will give you permission to honestly reflect on your own experiences and needs. As we continue to reflect on practices one after another, not each will connect with every one of us. Not everyone here likely needs to slow down. But we hope you will find something in this series that you do need, something that helps you to connect, or re-connect, or deepen your spiritual life.
I not only studied this practice this week, I tried to live into it because goodness knows I need it. Just a week ago a colleague told me repeatedly that I am fast. On the one hand, this is almost comical— you should see me run! My pace is barely more than a fast walk! And I think of myself as a slow reader— not that I struggle to read, but reading takes time for me. And gosh… as I am reminded every time I play Nertz, the favorite card game in our household (perhaps you know it as Dutch Blitz or Pounce or Racing Demon) my reflexes, compared to those of my beloved are downright sluggish. And then there’s that Ph.D…. That has taken me seven years to complete. But on the other hand… my brain… and my work patterns… um, yeah… fast. Mentally moving on to the next thing while in the midst of the current thing and always, always moving, moving, moving… And I rarely let myself do just one thing at a time. Even something as simple as eating— I frequently overlap with other activities. I reach for my phone, or a book, or even my computer— while I’m eating… I’m a big practitioner of the working lunch. Or at least I have been.
It was with the working lunch, actually, that I tried to make an incremental move in the direction of slowing this week. Actually, it was God, I believe, nudging me to do so. Did I have a leisurely week that meant I felt I could afford to take a true lunch break every day? Far from it. In fact, on three out of four work days I didn’t manage to get to lunch until almost 2 p.m. It all started on Monday when I had intended to go home at noon, have lunch, and then spend the afternoon immersed in sermon study. Monday morning was crazy. Every time I tried to leave the office I realized there was one. more. thing to do. So when I did get home, at almost two o’clock, I was frustrated and famished. I heated up some soup and then sat down to eat it.
Unconsciously I reached into my pocket for my phone in order to be able to facilitate yet another working lunch… only to find it wasn’t there. Searched all my pockets, my bag… nowhere to be found. I knew what I had done. I could see it in my mind’s eye— lying on the table in my office. I had one hour before I had to leave to pick up C and then K. I had yet to START my study or even eat my lunch. After my futile search, I surrendered and just ate my soup. That’s all I did for the next 10-15 minutes or so. I ate my soup, and a few handfuls of tortilla chips.
Well, actually, my brain stayed busy while I ate… I was racing on to the next thing… wondering what I’d eat tomorrow for lunch at presbytery. Thinking about tomorrow’s lunch while eating today’s. I opened up my spiritual disciplines handbook while eating my apple (the habit of the working lunch can be a hard one to break) and read about the practice of slowing. And I started to laugh. By forgetting my phone I was a) realizing how desperately I need to slow down, and b) being led to slow down. And then, after an almost lunch break, I realized that the text we picked for this week is a total of a half a verse of scripture— I could, in fact, study it in the short time available after lunch. And I could just write it on my heart and let my life teach me about it; what better to do with a practice. And so I did.
And when a few hours later Caroline and I got stopped by a long, slow train, I took deep breaths and thanked God instead of cursing. Thanked God for another nudge to slowing down. And on every day that followed, though each was JAM PACKED, I made a point of slowing or stopping completely at some point in it— and in each still point of calm, self-nurture, undivided attention, I found myself connecting with gratitude and tapping into energy for what was yet to come. Friends, I think I’ve found my Lenten practice… I think this is what I need to keep attending to consciously for the rest of this month. I want to reflect on this practice and the scripture a bit more, but I’d like to accompany these reflections with music. This is a slowed down version of a piece by the minimalist composer Steve Reich— slowed down 800%. Let’s let the ambient sounds of this slowed music wash over us as we reflect.
Slowing down. Slowing down.
Be still. That’s enough! Desist… Interesting how just a few words can be translated so drastically differently. What the latter two translations remind us of is the context of the verse… Verse 10- These are words from God that emerge in the midst of a prayer that is reflecting on wars in the holy city of Jerusalem, chaos, the sense among God’s people that everything around them is crumbling. Things falling apart— that’s what this prayer is contemplating. Just before these words we hear that God is allowing the devastation of war to reveal its futility— that God is working to bring an end to all war in this way. And so the language of the Jewish translation of this Psalm “Desist!” makes a lot of sense. So does the Common English Bible translation “That’s enough!” God is calling out to war torn humans to put down their arms, to cease their striving, to STOP! Desist! That is enough! Be still! Let go!
And what’s the second half of this half of a verse? “Know that I am God.” Or “Learn that I am God.” These two parts do fit together. Whether human beings are striving with one another for control over land or resources, or striving within themselves to get ahead, or simply to not fall behind… to maintain control over the chaos of our personal lives… when we’re pressing, pressing, pressing, addicted to work and busyness, refusing to slow down… we’re likely to get a bit confused, on some level, about just who is God, who is ultimately responsible. I don’t know about you, but me… the more I incessantly work, the more it begins to feel like the world is on my shoulders, and everything depends on me, and it all feels like just. too. much. Because it is. … If it’s too big for me, it belongs to God. That’s sort of become my mantra. But when I overwork, I start to put myself in God’s place, and get overwhelmed.
I have often taken offense at people telling me to chill or slow down… there’s so much that needs to be done, things are such a mess, so many people are hurting, I have so many commitments… how could I slow down? Have any of you ever felt like this?
But here’s the truth. There’s always too much for me— or for any human— whether I take my day off or not, whether I take vacation or not, whether I stop working at some hour or not… if I worked every hour of every day… if I fought every battle… I still would not come to the end. I am FINITE. The needs of the world— infinite. I have limits. The work to be done— limitless. I’m not God. And, in fact, when I stop and rest regularly, when I slow down at regular intervals, I’m more able to be productive when I am engaged in activity.
God spoke these words “Be still and know that I am God!” “That’s enough! Now know that I am God.” “Desist, and learn that I am God.” God spoke these words in the midst of Israel’s chaos and destruction. God still speaks this word into times of chaos and destruction. In 2001, on September 11th, Psalm 46 was the appointed Psalm in the daily lectionary. This is what we read in my seminary chapel… hours after the twin towers crumbled to the ground. At a moment when so many were rushing to the rescue. At a moment when suffering seemed immense and unending… and the need for intervention limitless. At this moment we heard God speak again- “Be still and know that I am God.” “That’s enough! Know now that I am God.” “Desist and learn that I am God.” So if we are tempted to say “Life is just too overwhelming for me to slow down right now…” we are missing the message completely. WHEN LIFE IS TOO OVERWHELMING, that is precisely when we need to slow down.
This may not be your issue. You may naturally move at a slow and steady pace, in every aspect of your lives. You may. You may take things one at a time… and take rest regularly… and breathe deeply… your life may embody this practice already. If it does I hope to learn from you. But if it doesn’t. If, like me, you tend to be a bit addicted to work or busyness— if, like me, you can get a bit confused about where you stop and God takes over… perhaps you’ll want to take on this practice too.
I’ve placed on your tables copies of the few pages from the spiritual disciplines handbook on the practice of slowing— the same pages that made me laugh on Monday… I encourage you to read through them if you think this practice might be helpful to you. Perhaps you might even want to do some writing in response to the reflection questions on the handout during the song that follows… or later today.
And if this practice isn’t what you need… pray for those of us who do need it, please. Pray that I might continue to abstain from the working lunch. And hang in there… perhaps one of the other practices will be just right for you.