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Presence

For Sunday, 6 November. The canoe story I might flush out later, but the gist of it is that one day last month I was out in my canoe, with my dog, watching the sunlight dance on the surface of the water, feeling peaceful, and all of a sudden a little rodent nose pierced the water right next to us and startled us: my little dog jumped and I jumped and the poor muskrat was so startled he dove back down under without getting a chance to breathe, so a few underwater-strokes later he once again surfaced and we all jumped and I sat there in a rocking canoe full of joy.

The very next day when I was out in my canoe, some fool was zipping around in his motor boat, in circles fast as could be, startling me and startling my dog and rocking the canoe. That day, I didn't feel joy.


Presence
Isaiah 55:6-13
Luke 14: 15-24

[ tell canoe story ]

The circumstance that I was in on these two days was almost exactly the same circumstance. In neither case was I really in danger of tipping the canoe -- I've never tipped that canoe. My little dog wasn't really in danger; I wasn't really in danger: even had we tipped over my little dog can swim and I can swim and it's not that deep a lake. The conditions we felt on the day with the muskrat and the conditions on the day with the motorboat were almost the same, physically. But you see I can make myself unhappy just because I've got some story going on in my mind that I'm believing, that I'm buying into: I can sit in a canoe that is rocking and jumping and be startled by a muskrat and feel gratitude and joy, and the very next day I can be sitting in a canoe and be startled and jumping because there's a motorboat, and I feel anger and aversion, and I start telling myself stories about this guy: how there's something wrong with him.

But I think whenever I direct my attention to the stories about what is wrong with somebody else, I lose focus on what really matters. What really matters is that we love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength; what really matters is that we love our neighbours as ourselves; what really matters is relationship with God and relationship with each other.

And yet I tell myself these stories and I lose my way, and I get lost.

And I know perfectly well that I am not going to find God in my stories about what is wrong with somebody else. I am only going to find God when I reach out for God, when I seek God in gratitude and love and when I try to follow God's exhortation that I love.

I think that's the easier part, actually, to learn to stop telling ourselves those stories about other people. It's kind of scary that that's the easier part, because I don't really think it's all that easy to learn to stop telling ourselves those stories, but it's a skill we can develop, and I think we're all motivated on some level to develop that skill because deep down we all know we are not going to deepen our relationship with God by getting lost in anger, or in hatred, or in fear.

I think the stories that are even harder to stop telling ourselves, the stories that are even more insidious, are the stories in which we tell ourselves not "there's something wrong with him," or "there's something wrong with her," but "there's something wrong with me."

I have felt called to the ministry since I was a teenager. But you know, I knew I wasn't good enough. I wasn't kind enough, I wasn't thoughtful enough, I wasn't skilled enough. And I told myself through my twenties and I told myself through my thirties that yes, I might be called to the ministry, but I'm not good enough yet. I'm not thoughtful enough yet; I'm not skillful enough yet. And it took me a really long time to realize that I wasn't ever going to feel "good" enough. As a matter of fact if I ever start thinking that I am "good" enough to be a pastor that's probably the day I should leave the pulpit and not come back.

We are not called to serve God when we are "good" enough. We are not called to come to God when we have achieved whatever goals we have set for ourselves -- family, fortune, education, skill, wisdom. We are called to come to God in our imperfection. We are called to come to God because on our own we are not good enough, we are not thoughtful enough, we are not loving enough, but we want to be in relationship with God who loves us anyway.

Like those who were invited to the feast in the parable, we plan. We plan our finances and we plan our families and we plan our careers, and we get so caught up in our thinking and our planning that once again we lose focus on what really matters, now and here in this moment in this time and place. And we lose focus because our minds are somewhere else, our minds are not here: our minds are caught up in the stories that we're telling ourselves, that I'm not good enough, I'm not ready. Our minds are caught up in the stories we tell ourselves that we are not yet thoughtful enough or skillful enough or we have not gotten our ducks in a row. We have not settled our finances, our children are not grown, we do not have the job that we want, so we're not ready yet.

We'll come to God once we've gotten everything together; we'll come to God once we have everything ready. And when we have the right job and our kids are grown and our debts are paid off and we've taken care of all our business, then, then we'll be ready to turn to God's work.

But you know the good news is that we are all called to God, now. The good news is that God loves us now and wants us now to be working for His kingdom. And we are called in our imperfections. Not good enough, not ready, broken in as many ways as we are all broken, like the poor and the crippled and the blind and the lame in the parable.
..................................
I've been working on noticing when I start to tell myself a story, so that I won't get lost in them. I've been working on trying not to tell myself stories. I'm not there yet -- I'm not good enough yet! -- but I'm working on it. And I've been studying some neurocognition, learning about how the brain works.

Many of us have had the experience of spending time with older people and thinking that they have somehow become more like themselves the older they get; we know some older people who have become really generous, good people, even in the midst of loss. And we know some older people who might be in very similar physical circumstances but who deal with them differently, some folks who are kind of curmudgeons, who seem like they complain a lot, such that all they seem to do now is complain: that's all that's left of them. And we don't want to be them. I know in my head I can think of models of people I want to be like when I get older, and there are some people I absolutely don't want to become, and that's what I'm trying to negotiate.

The way the brain works, the more you think something, the more you are likely to think something. So we have these little neurons in our brain, and whenever we make a connection between them that synapse gets stronger. So what this means is, by repeating a thought, we strengthen it, in a very real way, in our brain: we strengthen whatever thoughts we think.

So the more we tell ourselves that we are angry, the more likely we are to respond to world around us in anger. The more we tell ourselves that there is something wrong with other people, the more we are likely to find something wrong with other people. The more we tell ourselves that we are not good enough or wise enough or skillful enough the more we are likely to believe that we are not good or wise or skillful enough to do the work that God has given us to do. The more we tell ourselves that we are God's children and we are born of God's promise and the more we reach out to the world around us in gratitude and in love and in wonder, the more likely we are to live as if we know that we are God's children; the more likely we are to reflect that gratitude and love and joy to those around us.

I was reading about a study the other day -- I believe it took place at Harvard, but don't quote me on that -- it was a happiness study. The investigators separated the people they were studying into two groups. One group they took aside and asked them to keep a journal over the course of the year. And in that journal they were to write everything that bugged them. Every single day at the end of the day, they told these folks, write in your journal "I am irritated by [this]" and "I am angry at [this,]" everything that bugs you put it in that journal, for a whole year, every day.

And they took a similar group of people, and they took them into a different room, and they said, "I want you to keep a journal. Every single day for a whole year, I want you to sit down and write in your journal what you are grateful for, what you are thankful for, what blessings you have, and I want you to write those things every day."

That was it, that was the whole set-up for the study. And in a year, they brought these people back in to the lab. Now these two groups had been tested at that first session: they had started out at about the same level of happiness. But a year later, after the journaling, do you think there was a difference? Oh, yes. At the end of the year, the group which had journaled about their impatience and their anger were in general miserable, unhappy people, because they had been dwelling, over and over, on what made them angry. And the other group were happier in their lives, because they had spent every single day, at least for a few moments every day, thinking about how grateful they were, how blessed they were.

It really makes a difference what we think; it really makes a difference what we dwell on.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
... Let the unrighteous [forsake] their thoughts
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
...For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.


So I want to challenge you this week to catch yourself in your thoughts, and stop, and if you find yourself angry or afraid or telling yourself stories about what you need to change before you can get to the Lord's work: stop, and breathe, and reach out to God, seek the Lord while he may be found, here and now, where God may always be found. Ask yourself, what am I grateful for; ask yourself, how can I love God in this moment; ask yourself, how can I love my neighbour in this moment. Those are the things that matter.

Lost in our stories and in our planning we lose track of God's presence and of God's call. And lost in our thoughts we lose track of God's thoughts. And too often we lose track of God's invitation.

The table is set. Come to the feast, for everything is ready now.

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