Thoughts for a Sunday: Blueberries, Van Morrison, Rough Seas, and the (Temporary) Stilling of a Doubter’s Restless Soul

SundayThe pastor of the church I recently began attending asked if I would fill in for her on a Sunday while she and her husband were on vacation.

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 Art

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10 Comments

  1. Ted Marcy

    Loved this perspective of that pastor you tell about. Sorry I was not there for your message, but this was quite good to read. For those 3am awakenings, I read one of NT Wright’s tomes. Usually works, and I got through all three volumes of his “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series as a side benefit. Next time will try to listen for Sibelius.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Ted,
      Not certain whether you know a pastor like this one, but she like God and the proverbial junkyard dog are tenacious in their commitment to grace and boundless loving–even when the bite “hurts.” I will check out Wright as you suggest. Here’s to 3 a.m. awakenings that bring clarity and soulful rest.
      Roger

      Reply
  2. JoAnne Kurman

    “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.”

    I find this fascinating, Roger. Didn’t you talk about hearing a a symphony in your mind in a prior blog, keeping you awake? I think that’s really cool. When I sing a song acapella (one that has orchestration in the original recording) I can hear the orchestra play in my head so to me it’s like I’m not singing acapella. I wonder how big our little big club is? The one that hears orchestras and symphonies playing in people’s heads. Tht would be fun to know, wouldn’t you?

    Reply
    1. JoAnne Kurman

      Whoops. Correction on last sentence:
      That would be fun to know!

      Reply
      1. yourrel4 (Post author)

        Jo Anne,
        I have to look in my journal to see where the last corekction needed to be…whoops, need I say more?
        Thanks,
        Roger

        Reply
    2. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Jo Anne,
      Our little club is quite big, but like many of us clubbers I step out in the alley and hear only the music I want to hear rather than the “symphony” that’s playing.
      Roger

      Reply
  3. Colette

    Your stories about your endless search for the god you know is always there with you, remind me of the yin and yang of all life. Doubting and believing are but two sides of the same coin. I’d say the Universe was at work when your new pastor asked you to preach in her place. An affirmation of her faith in your unique perspective and voice, as well as her belief that you would also gain and grow in the process. Good preachers and psychologists serve the same pure purpose: to listen and hear what parishioners and patients are seeking, and to share words and wisdoms to help in some way. May you continue to find moments of peace and stillness in the balance between your sleepless struggles and your ceaseless searching. As you heard God speak to you, “I’m here……..Rest in my presence.” I can imagine the members of your new welcoming and accepting church community appreciating and sharing after your speaking to them. Search, write, and preach on, mon ami.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Colette,
      I will continue the searching and writing, but the preaching I leave to others more qualified. As you accurately write, doubting and believing are flip sides of the “coin,” but both vital parts of living. Here’s to sleep-filled nights for all of us sojourners…unless sleeplessness teaches us something that only the darkness of night can awaken in us.
      Thank you for reading and commenting,
      Roger

      Reply
  4. Toby Brookes

    Roger, I share in your ambivalence. I have found my faith rises proportionally with my life’s trauma, and it has been the highest when I’m alone, as I was after a divorce. I am not proud of this, but there it is. I have of late been thanking God in my prayers for my good fortune and health, so maybe I’m coming around. I see desperate people huddled in the streets and say” there but by the grace of God…”
    Hows the story coming about the psychiatrist and the mobster’s wife?
    Hope you are well,
    Toby

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Toby,
      Good to hear from you, and thank you for reading and commenting on “Thoughts.” The mobster’s wife continues her antics through chapter four while the psychiatrist, bless his soul and other parts, remains in “heat.” The more I practice gratitude the more grounded my life becomes. Sometimes my fuming prevents the necessary looking at the reasons for being grateful, however, when I do I’m amazed at how easily they’re discovered and how many there are. I wish you continued wellbeing, and perhaps a Middlebury trip. I’ll let you know when a Bay Area trip is planned. How is your writing coming along?
      Roger

      Reply

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