SHAKING LOOSE AND MOVING FORWARD
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown
July 7, 2019
Texts: Acts 9:1-10; Luke 10:1-11
On a sunny morning in October 1909 a young man and his bride got onto a ship in Hangko, Finland, and sailed down towards Liverpool, where they would transfer to a larger ship that brought them to their new home in America. They and the thousands like them who streamed into this country dur-ing the height of the immigration influx during the last cen-tury had begun their journeys with certain expectations. Shaken loose from their old moorings to begin new lives in a young country, they often encountered something differ-ent than what they expected. Then, as well as now, people often begin journeys with one set of expectations only to find a new reality. And they never looked back.
When Saul of Tarsus began his journey toward Damascus, he was expecting to stay only long enough to clean the synagogues in Damascus of the “disciples of the Lord,” as the text this morning put it, not to have his life turned around. And although the dramatic story in Acts provides a slightly different chronology than Paul’s own account of his conversion from persecutor to advocate written in his letter to the church in Galatia, the essential truth of his journey remains: that our life experiences can and will radi-cally change us from what we expected.
Each of us was born into a family and a society that had certain expectations for us and our future. As we grew, we developed our own set of expectations; and we have often come to places in our lives that we never expected. A job or marriage, an illness or some other development we never expected has changed our lives. The question remains how we face these moments in our lives and what do we do with them. How do we move on?
Moving on is difficult for many of us. It means letting go of certain assumptions or even a way of life. And, for many of us, no matter how much we read about how to adapt to the changes life forces on us, moving on is really difficult. The local Barnes & Noble bookstore is full of books about facing life challenges, as the books so often euphemistically put it, in order to move on with our lives. The self-help shelves provide a myriad of suggestions on how to face loss, come to terms with divorce, build new lives after economic or personal disaster, and so forth.
In a world that expects an almost instant response, we often are unable to adapt or change quickly enough to even survive emotionally. The world around us moves so quickly. We wonder, how on earth can we expect to respond? We just want to cry out: Stop! Stop the world. I want to get off.
Many of us hunger for the world we have once known, the world that is more familiar to us. We wonder why the world has changed in such strange ways. How do we recon-cile the old with the new in our personal lives, in our church, or our communities? In our personal lives, we face our deep ingrained reluctance to change. In our communities, we what was once familiar has often been often transformed into something we do not recognize. In our churches, we are challenged as communities of faith to embrace the new while serving those who want to maintain traditional ways of worship or of community life. We just want to cry Stop!
Jesus’ approach toward rejection and disappointment offers us some ideas on dealing with the unexpected. Shake it off, like the dust from your feet. These rejections, disappoint-ments, and losses are only temporary, he said. Shake it off, like the dust from your feet. As with most advice, that’s easier said than done, of course.
Quite frankly, I imagine that even Jesus felt at a loss from time to time. The Gospels just give a hint, but surely
he felt just as upset and as angry as we do. Knowing that others, even Jesus, felt as we do only provides us the support in knowing that we are not alone. We need more than just that, of course. We need––we want––solutions. Who doesn’t?
What’s important here, I think, is to realize that a solution doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a permanent sol-ution, the once and for all fix. A solution is always a temp-orary fix to a particular situation, the nature of which will change and so we need a new solution to the new situation that has developed. And so forth and so on. Learning to be flexible so that we can adapt to unexpected changes is, of course, most important for us spiritually and emotionally be-cause the two are intertwined.
Our emotional life and our spiritual life are but two facets of our totality, the integrated personality that we have. We think we can compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives but that doesn’t mean that we can function as if each compartment is separate from the other.
The compartments don’t just overlap each other; they actually seep into each other so that the boundaries we try to create don’t and won’t hold. It’s a bit like oil and water––although they don’t seem to mix when on a counter, they seep into the paper towel we use to wipe both up. The paper towel is our life and when we wipe up the oil and water of various events, they all seep into each other.
Shaping our emotional and spiritual life is not easy but we do have some tools and some guidelines. Setting aside a particular time of day to enter into communion with God is one way, a good way to start. The regularity of this time will help to create regularity in an increasingly chaotic world. For some of us the best time is night, for others in the morning, and still for others a set time of day.
What is important here is the regularity of the time. This doesn’t mean that you just sit. A friend of mine uses her morning walk for that time. Another uses her evening swim. Some people set aside a certain time and call it prayer. That’s what prayer is, of course, communion with and being open to the voice that comes from both inside and outside of us at the same time. That is the paradox of prayer––that it is inside and outside of us simultaneously.
Every once in a while when I read one of the Gospel stories, such as the one this morning, I can just imagine the way Jesus must have prayed. He clearly was frustrated from time to time, whether it was due to the thick headedness of his followers or the intransigence of the villages he visited. I’m sure that life for Jesus was no easier, probably even more difficult than it is for us. And he didn’t have a Barnes & Noble down the road where he could search among the self-help shelves!
Shaking loose and moving on are really difficult. As we struggle with this process, let us remember that God is with us during the struggle and that we can feel the presence of God as we try the various ways to adapt and adjust to our ever changing world. That support will give us strength to take the risks necessary to enter a new world.
Let us pray: Eternal Power, you are our rock and our salvation, ever present to us as we struggle to deal with the vicissitudes of life. May we have the grace to be open to your presence, your power and your love. In the name of him who showed us how to be open to your grace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.