When she approached me about taking on this task, as she put it: “Would you be willing to preach while I’m on vacation?” my first thought was no! I’m a psychologist—we’re not supposed to preach, we listen! Then, feeling like Moses before the burning bush, confronted by God, and like the prophet and leader of the Israelites, I asked, “Why me?”
“You’re not Moses,” she responded, “and I’m most certainly not God!” And then she asked, “Why not you?”
“I’m new here,” I said, “and besides that, preaching is something my loving father did every night at the dinner table, and my bigger-than-life maternal grandfather, a Methodist minister who I loved to be around when I was a child, scared me when he preached one of his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons.”
“Don’t preach then,” she said, “tell some of the stories you’ve written.”
I was beginning to learn what the parishioners of my new church already know: she will not be denied!
I left that meeting thinking of the psalmist’s prayer: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
So I set about the task of telling a new story. As I mulled over what I was going to say for that Sunday’s homily, the comforting words of Frederick Buechner came to mind: “It is as impossible to prove or disprove that God exists beyond the various conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about him as it is to prove or disprove that Goodness exists beyond the various and conflicting ideas people have dreamed up about what is good. [Arguments] won’t convince anybody unless his predisposition to be convinced outweighs his predisposition not to be. …It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle.”
With this in mind, the scripture I chose for the day was: Mark 4:35-41:
“With the coming of evening Jesus said to them, ‘Let’s go across to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd behind, they took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats came along. A huge storm came up. Waves poured into the boat, threatening to sink it. Jesus was in the stern, head on a pillow, sound asleep! They roused him saying, ‘Teacher, is it nothing to you that we’re going down?’ Awake now, he told the wind to pipe down and said to the sea, ‘Quiet! Settle down!’ The wind ran out of breath; the sea became smooth as glass. Jesus turned to them and said: ‘Why are you such cowards, so afraid? Don’t you have any faith at all?’ They were in absolute awe, staggered. ‘Who is this, anyway?’ They asked each other. ‘Even the wind and sea are at his beck and call!
Like the disciples in the storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee I get anxious, I doubt, my faith is shaken, and then I’m always surprised when God’s voice proclaims: “Quiet! Be still! Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
I’m made aware of my fragile faith and bedrock doubt on random occasions, times when I’m least prepared and most vulnerable, and a recent outing at Pelkey’s Blueberry Farm provided such a setting. I’d wandered away from my wife and other blueberry pickers, and walked down a row of bushes sagging under the weight of plump and glistening blueberries. It was a beautiful Saturday morning with a breath-taking view to the west, clear skies, a slight breeze, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks in the distance, and though glad to be taking in the wonder of the succulent blue berry bushes and the distant landscape, I was troubled and unable to put my finger on the source of my consternation. I began a conversation with God, a daily occurrence for me that often begins with two questions and a plea: “Where are you?” followed by “Why do you sleep when I need you the most?” and finally –“Help!”
“I’m here, Roger [said the voice in my head], right where I’ve always said I’d be, next to you—I’m beside you, the one for whom you’ve been searching. Look into and then beyond the obvious. I’m in the dark and the light, the openings and empty places, all the spaces where I fill the gaps. Rest in my presence.”
We left the farm and drove home with two bags totaling more than 20 pounds of lush blueberries. Strangely I felt lighter, a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Along an open portion of Greenbush Road, cornfields on both sides, I recalled the psalmist’s words: “You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning: my God turns my darkness into light, with you I storm the rampart, with you God, I can scale any wall!”
On a more recent occasion, July 9th of this year, I lay in bed unable to put to rest unwanted and persistent questions about my faith. Though a full moon illuminated the south facing bedroom where I lay awake, a darkness filled my mind and soul. Like the fearful disciples in the boat I was anxious and doubting. My alarm was set for 5:30. I tossed and turned, wrestled with unwanted thoughts and feelings, sleep distractions that appear only in the dark and silence of night. I recited a mantra of mine—“Lord Jesus, son of the living God have mercy on me a sinner”—then added, “help me sleep, please!” Nothing occurred. At around 2 a.m. the runaway thoughts and feelings were replaced by the music of Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia—over and over again my sleep was interrupted by the orchestral sounds of a symphony being played against my will. Finally the alarm went off as scheduled, and while having my usual morning cup of coffee I realized that I was feeling surprisingly rested. I got in my Volvo, turned on a Van Morrison CD, and headed south on Route 7 for my first office appointment while singing along to “Moondance.”
As I drove through New Haven Junction an unexpected desire for quiet came over me. I stopped singing, turned off the CD player, and exited the junction in stillness. As I looked out of the side window at the cloud-topped Green Mountains to the east I began singing the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” The hum of the tires on the pavement faded as my voice grew stronger and the orchestral sounds of Finlandia provided background to the lyrics I was singing. The music came from within me and I robustly sang the first verse over and over until I reached my office in the Marble Works.
I sat quietly, ignition off, breathless and bewildered in equal measure. God had spoken in the dark of night, but I hadn’t listened. The orchestral sounds at two in the morning were his answer to my prayer. “Be still,” God had whispered, and in spite of my closed ears he’d given me rest.
The church service proceeded as planned, a time of worship in a welcoming, accepting community—the sermon delivered in a seamless manner, and the stories resonating with parishioners who later shared vignettes from their own lives while expressing appreciation for mine. Listening and being still while preparing this lesson served me well, and though “your reluctant disciple” remains so, my faith received a needed boost.
photo courtesy of Riverson Fine Artby