Sunday, June 26, 2011

Iyats and Other Assorted Chaos

Swedish National Heritage Board
Sermon, Sunday, June 26, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:
Psalm 46 and Matt 8:18-27

I come to you this morning with a series of reflections on our scriptures. But short. Because we have ordinations and installations and a meeting to get to. If we have the energy after that we have some yard work to get to. It is a full day, and we might not get it all done. We are an older, retiring, weary, congregation. I say this not to depress us, because I think we depress pretty easily on our own. I say this because it’s true, and we need to find a way to rebirth this church or it will not last. These are not easy words, and the challenge of rebirthing when we are so small and have been at it for so long is not an easy one. If we manage it, it will only be because the challenge of dying well was too daunting, too sad, and we reach to the bottoms of our toes to find the energy to go on and thrive.

These scriptures came to mind this morning because we are working with a fair amount of fear in our congregation. Fear of closing, fear of failure, fear of the new and fear of the old. We are working with fear of loss. We are working with fear of death.

But more than that, we are working with minor annoyances and major setbacks in some combination, each one magnifying the other until it becomes impossible to move without finding another problem.

Recently we discovered a water leak behind the church—we discovered it because the water bill in April was $700. That’s a lot of water in a place where I pay $22 a month for water for my apartment, so we knew there was a problem. We found a leaking faucet, and hoped that was the culprit. But in May there was another $700 bill, so we called in an expert. We found a tiny hole in a main water supply line. 1/8 of an inch. The repair cost $3600. We are a tiny church with tiny reserves—that was a major setback.

There is a faucet on the other side of the building that is supposed to be freeze proof, but we notice that it is broken. For now we have just turned off the water to that faucet, but it sticks out the side of the building and is prone to freezing and leaking. To fix it may require us to go into the foundaiton of the building. A minor annoyance with the potential to become a big problem.

The overhead projector and screen were installed with extension cords instead of permanent wiring. We have to take out the extension cords in between use until we can figure out a safe way to plug them in long term. This requires a ladder. The ladder fits awkardly. Nobody in this room should be climbing ladders anyway. We don’t even use the projector, but our rental groups do. A minor annoyance. A drain on time and energy.

We have a Toilet Paper Problem in this building. We run out of toilet paper at astonishing rates. We can’t keep this place supplied with toilet paper. In our minds this building stands empty all week except for the occasional small group. In reality there’s a church of 60 who meets on Saturdays, another with 20 on Sunday afternoons. Two 12-Step programs meet here during the week with 50 or so in attendance. And the Girl Scouts are here on Mondays with 4 troops of girls. There’s a reason we’re running out of TP and it’s a good reason. But it’s annoying because traditionally the church has not had a budget for toilet paper—four people in the women’s group regularly add an extra case of toilet paper when they’re out shopping and donate it to the church.

This Toilet Paper Problem is a drain on our energy and resources. It’s a minor annoyance, but it has us so flustered that we don’t even want to talk to the user groups about anything. It feels like there must be a Toilet Paper Thief. And there’s times when someone or other has said, “Why can’t they bring their own toilet paper?” And of course that’s a bit odd—if you pay to use a church space, you generally expect that the space comes with toilet paper. But it’s a drain and a resentment, nonetheless. A minor annoyance that sucks the life out of us.

I could go on, couldn’t I? I could talk about how we don't have trash pick up so we have to take the trash home with us. Or the mice. Or...or...or...All the minor annoyances that turn into or interact with major setbacks that keep us from growing, thriving, enjoying. It’s not just the church, but this kind of stuff happens in the rest of our lives too.

Last week, on Friday, I went down to my car to drive to south Jersey, where I was planning to lunch with several ministry colleagues. When I got to my car I discovered the flat tire. I sat down on the curb and stared at that tire for five minutes and cursed every word my mother told me never to say, and some she does not know about. It was not a matter of life or death. A few hours inconvenience at most. I have AAA, and I could probably have figured out how to change to the spare. The tire shop guys were great, and it only cost $150 to buy a new tire (the old one being beyond repair). But I needed that lunch. And I needed the study time scheduled for later in the afternoon sacrificed to getting the tire dealt with. And that minor annoyance rolled into Saturday’s plans, which rolled into Sunday’s, which made me late for church. Hence I was somewhat spaced out thinking of all of this absurdity and took the wrong exit, which made me late-r. And of course, in my hurry out the door I did not take the church directory, and the phone hasn’t rung loudly here in years, and on it goes, snowballing from a minor annoyance on Friday to more nonsense on Sunday. As my friend Sara says, a Soup Sandwich, or a Hot Mess.

Janny Wurts wrote a fantasy novel called The Curse of the Mistwraith. It is a grand tale of good and evil, light and shadow, Empire and the little guy, with the unusual twist that the light is corrupt and the shadow is something not evil (although good is too simplistic to describe Janny Wurts’ philosophical bent in this novel). Featured in this story is a young prince and his sorcerer apprentice.

The apprentice is a bumbling fool of a man named Dakar—a man who has trained for centuries but lacks the focus to get things right. His spells cause more problems than what they are meant to solve—he is the kind of person constantly tripping over his own shoelaces—lazy, bumbling, slovenly. The bane of Dakar’s life are iyats: tiny invisible creatures, energy sprites not visible to the eye, manifesting a poltergeist fashion by taking temporary possession of objects. They feed upon natural energy sources like fire, breaking waves, and lightning. But they also feed off negative energy in people. Iyats are attracted to drama and perfectly willing to create more drama to suck up more energy. Iyats will tie your shoes together, pull your hair, and generally wreak havoc, all the while enjoying the frantic energy you emit in the midst of the chaos. The iyats go as far as to merrily strangle Dakar with his own cloak, all the while he is dancing about cursing, attempting to ward off invisible, fiendish sprites.

Iyats can take a minor annoyance and turn it into chaos and major setbacks in a heartbeat, and they do it by feeding off the chaos that comes about when we respond to annoyances and setbacks with panic and fear. To get rid of the iyats one must be still. Certain music helps. The more one responds, the stronger and more frenetic they become. We are like that in the church and in our own lives. Anxiety builds upon anxiety until we are strangled with our own clothes, unable to move or speak constructively.

Years ago, when I was learning to drive, my father took me out in his 1972 Cadillac for practice. It was a rather long car, and when I started to pull out of the parking place, my father said, “Remember to look behind you when you back out of the cul-de-sac. Annoyed beyond words, embarrassed as a new driver, navigating the ever-present tension with my father, and desperately wanting to get this right, I snapped back at him, “I know that!” And then I stepped on the gas and backed up…right into a tree. As it was a 1972 Cadillac, more damage was done to the tree than the bumper of the car, but I wanted to die on the spot. There are energy sprites everywhere, lurking, waiting for the right moment to urge us on in reckless directions, panicking and somersaulting from one disastrous chaos to the next, from minor annoyance to major setback—it is easy to get caught up in the fear that all is not right, has never been right, never will be right.

So then what do we do?

This morning, a Twitter friend quoted Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. As I was preaching on Psalm 46 today, this piece then is an answer to prayer:
In the Psalms, it says, “Be still and know that I am God.” “Be still” means to become peaceful and concentrated. The Buddhist term is samatha (stopping, calming, concentrating). “Know” means to acquire wisdom, insight, or understanding. The Buddhist term is vipasyana (insight, or looking deeply). “Looking deeply” means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. 
Be Still, says the Hebrew. Be Still, says the Christian. Be Still says the Buddhist. Be Still and know that I am God. Be Still and know what to do. Be Still and insight will come. Be Still and allow the Spirit to work. But Be Still. Stop moving, stop cursing, stop reacting and responding to crisis with yet another crisis. Stop playing the game. Slow down. Full stop. Be Still. And then perhaps an answer will come to us.

We are a tiny church, and like many tiny churches, we are in a crisis. We cannot sustain ourselves how we used to. We have cut what we are willing to. We have changed in the ways we know how. We have given what we can. And still we are in crisis. It seems that we may be dying. No matter how much we try to bail the boat, the storms and waves still come, drowning our efforts. We turn to Jesus and he’s asleep in the damn boat. Asleep! When all the chaos of creation threatens our being, he sleeps.

There is possibility. We are not dead yet. There are options to consider, things to be done. Death is one of those things. But there are others. We might make a go of it yet. But if we are to manage it, we must reach all the way to our toes to do it. And we need to do it without panicking, without drama, without fear or else all we are doing is feeding the iyats.

A pastor in my presbytery is retiring, and he left a part of his book collection at a nearby church with an invitation for others to take home books. To my delight I found several interesting nuggets in those boxes and gave them a new home in my library. One of those books is called A Faithing Oak: Meditations From the Mountain by Robert A. Raines. The first story of the book caught my attention tonight. He wrote of an infestation of the local oak trees by gypsy moths, which strip the trees of their leaves, leaving the branches unprotected. He wrote of his sorrow at the sight of a lone oak tree, and then...
One morning in that last week of June, there came a shout from a woman on the Lodge deck. She called us outside to look closely at the dried-up oak, and invited us to touch its leafless fingertips. Strange little nubbins...buds...urging forth towards a second leafing. The process of refoliation had already begun! Later in the summer we would see that oak fully leafed again. We beheld a faithing oak. 
A second leafing? At this point in our history? Can we? Should we? Do we want to? The next two months we have questions to consider, concerns to ponder. What is our tolerance for fear and worry? How much more can we give—not money, this isn’t about that. How much more of ourselves can we give? Are we willing to pour our hearts into this church, knowing that we might fail? Or is this a time in our lives when that energy for rebuilding, for refoliating, must be channeled to other people and projects? If so, that is okay. Not all oak trees can make a second leafing. Not all old trees can go on another season. We have not come this far for nothing, but we have reached a moment where we must ask, "What now?"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Burning Bushes and Other Such Foolishness

Sermon, Sunday, June 12, 2010
by Katie Mulligan
(Pentecost Sunday)

Scripture Readings: Exodus 3:1-15 and Acts 2:1-21

James Loder, who was a professor of pastoral care at Princeton Seminary for many years, wrote a book called The Logic of the Spirit. While I have some doubts that the Spirit can be logically understood any more than we might understand the wind or the whims of a cat, I loved his attempt to do so. His opening chapter is titled, “What is a Lifetime, and Why Do I Live It?” He writes this:
When they turned up the sound on the monitor, I could hear her tiny heart like the galloping of a stallion: “I will be born,” “I will be born,” “I will be born.” Between her valiant, heartfelt determination to be thrust into this world and the eventual cry of shock and distress on arrival would come the mother’s excruciating pain, her struggle to keep pushing, the wrong drug to relieve pain, near loss of the mother’s pulse, “Emergency!” then the recovery, and finally the quivering, squalling, wrinkled, red-blotched voyager had arrived. Through pain, blood, shock, and near death, Julie had come. But come where? To do what? And why?
If my daughter had died giving birth, we would all ask “Why?” but she lived and gave birth to a beautiful little girl, so we do not ask why; we are all much too grateful to God that it came out right. However, behind the whys of both the sudden loss of life and the stunning arrival of new life lies the persistent question: Why do we live? Why do we cherish life with such passion? Why, when there is every reason to despair, do we continue to affirm life; and what happens when that affirmation goes sour and the passion to die becomes unstoppable? These questions all have to do with the human spirit and the fundamental two-part question behind this book: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” (1)
So this is the fundamental two-part question for each of us here this morning: “What is a lifetime?” and “Why do I live it?” And for our church: “What is a lifetime, for a church?” and “Why do we live it?” I paired these two scriptures together this morning: Moses and the burning bush with the disciples at Pentecost. It seems a natural pairing to me, as some of our Spirit-filled moments come alone in the wilderness (like Moses with the burning bush), while others happen as we gather together in fellowship (like that first Pentecost). The Spirit is sometimes sneaky and sometimes blatantly, obnoxiously PRESENT.