Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Today I want to talk about the agenda of the soul.
Richard Rohr, in his book Immortal Diamond, says, “The agenda of the soul is to have no agenda whatsoever,” and you’re thinking it is going to be a short sermon, but let me finish the sentence. “The agenda of the soul is to have no agenda whatsoever EXCEPT to see what is, as it is.” That is what I want to talk about, seeing what is, as it is.
Now this requires recalibrating our eyes to see really real moments, in joy, as I have talked about, in suffering, as Kate has talked about, and in the rhythms of life, as Wellesley has talked about. To see what is is to see the world as God sees the world, which, incidentally we are all capable of doing, unless of course we are blinded by the limited perspective of our own context. And if you are not sure whether or not you are blinded by the limitations of your own context, then ask yourself if what you see causes you anxiety?
Today we are going to get better acquainted with the soul’s agenda, with the secondary benefit of living with a little less anxiety in our lives. I am sure we could all use that.
I am inspired to consider the agenda of the soul, because today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Ash Wednesday is on Wednesday and then we move into forty days of Lent. The Gospel today foreshadows the reason for Lent, as a season to consider our souls and realign ourselves with the soul’s agenda, which is to see what is, as it is. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus lays claim to this necessity as demonstrated through the actions of Peter.
Let’s take a look.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up Mt. Hermon. There he is transfigured in their presence. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called The Message, describes it this way: “Jesus’ appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them. And Moses appeared and Elijah appeared.”
Now what happened next is what inspired my sermon. Peter, as all of this is happening, calls out to Jesus (there Jesus is, shimmering, glowing from the inside out: “Excuse me, Rabbi, it is good that we are here; let us make three huts, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” And then the text says, as if by way of internal commentary: “Peter said this because he didn’t know what else to say.” He was anxious, which is normal, right? Jesus is there, glowing, Moses and Elijah appear. It is not the kind of thing one usually encounters. Anxiety is normal; how we deal with it is the challenge. So Peter does what people often do when they are anxious. He does something, because in the face of uncertainty the impulse is to do something, to change something, to rearrange the environment as a means of trying to put things into our own context. This is what Peter is beginning to do as he says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.”
This Gospel reminds me of a story my good friend Dr. Ronald David likes to tell. He is in my small group, and before he became a priest he was Medical Director at DC General and before that a neonatologist at the University of Pittsburg. This is a story from his early days in training. He was in the NICU. There was a newborn child dying. The parents were around the incubator and Dr. David was hustling here and there, doing this and that, trying to forestall the inevitable. And from across the room his attending called out, “Dr. David, don’t just do something; stand there!”
Don’t just do something; stand there.
These words fly in the face of logic. They stand in opposition to action and accountability. They mock patterns of practice and preparedness, particularly in a hospital. Yet, these words also honor the soul. “Don’t just do something, Dr. David, stand there.” The agenda of the soul is that the soul has no agenda whatsoever, except to see what is, as it is. And in this case, it was the death of a child.
Stand there, Dr. David. Honor the moment. Honor the family. Honor the child. Honor God. We are beloved, of course. This child was beloved, of course, and this child continues to be beloved to God, of course. “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
Imagine the outcome of the story of the Transfiguration if Peter had gone ahead and built those three huts. While he was pounding his hammer, he’d have failed to hear the voice in the cloud say, “This is my son, the beloved.” And when the huts were finished he’d hustle the shimmering white Jesus into one, and Moses into the next, and Elijah into the third. And the veil of the huts would extinguish the moment as it was.
I’m not saying doing something isn’t good and right. I’m not saying that when faced with a crisis we shouldn’t jump to action, particularly if we are trained to do so. What I am saying is that we first consider the soul, first seek to see what is, as it is, and then do what needs to be done.
I struggle with this: my habit is to act. My prayer life reflects this struggle. When I pray in the morning my mind wanders, and it inevitably wanders to that which gives me most anxiety. And when my mind lands on that anxious thought, my impulse, my real physical impulse, is to jump up and do something. And when I hit that point EVERY DAY in prayer, I hear my soul saying: “Don’t just do something, Doyt, sit there.” And so I sit there. And that is when my real prayer begins. That is when the soul begins to seek its agenda which is to be in God and to have God in me. That is how Richard Rohr defines the soul. The soul is who we are in God and who God is in us; and this happens when the soul seeks to see what is, as it is.
So how does this work? Let’s do a case study. First we need to find something that causes us anxiety. It could be our children’s grades, a financial stressor, a medical condition, a reoccurring argument with our spouse, or a construction project… that is something we have in common.
With the Great Hall shut down the common patterns of our lives have changed. Meeting places are switched around. Service times are changed. Coffee hour is in the back of the church. It is all a great big problem that could cause some anxiety.
So we talk to a friend about it. And they think it is a problem, too. So they suggest we talk to the building committee about it. They make themselves available, we are heard, and then nothing changes. So we decide that the situation needs a squeaky wheel that will get things moving! And we all know what that does. It scatters the anxiety all over the place.
Now an alternative is to view the anxious impulse as an opportunity to seek the agenda of the soul. In the face of anxiety, to continue with this construction example, (which, I must note in reality hasn’t been a big issue) is to take the construction provoked anxiety to God prayer. Just talk to God about it, not as a request to change the situation, but to help see it clearly, as it is. And in prayer ask, how am I really being impacted? What has this meant to my relationships? What deeper anxiety might this dislocation at church be revealing in me? Go to God in prayer, first.
Then take the anxiety to a friend, and not a kvetching partner, not that person who just reinforces whatever we are saying, but a kingdom of God friend. We want someone who loves us enough to push us out of the ruts of our well-worn perspective. Allow them to push back on the point, challenge our assumptions, to remind us that, irrespective of our anxiety, we are still and always beloved by God.
And then finally, I’d invite you to set the anxiety as the focus of a fast.
I am teaching a class on fasting today, which will give us more details on planning a fast, but suffice it to say, fasting is a discipline that trains us to see what is, as it is.
And you may be wondering, how can giving up food help us see things as they are? Won’t everything just start looking like a cheeseburger? Maybe for a while, but as we sink into our fast, I know from experience, that we learn to feast in a different way. As Jesus said, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). By fasting we are making the claim that our bodies are not the end all and be all and that we are not the center of the universe. The fast reminds us that even if we don’t eat, God is still God, we are still with God, and we are still beloved by God.
The soul finds liberty in the fast. It becomes easier to see who we are in God and who God is in us. And when we have a greater sense of who we are in God and who God is in us, the anxiety of our limited perspective begins to fall away.
This Lent I am going to fast on Ash Wednesday and every Friday. I invite you to join me. This Wednesday, if you are fasting, I’d encourage you to join Emily and me in the Chapel at noon for prayer. I’ll be there every Friday at noon, as well, for quiet prayer. You are welcome to join me.
My hope for us this Lent is that we let our anxiety point to the well-worn ruts of our own perspective, and then seek to jump these tracks, through prayer, conversation and fasting, in a way that allows us to see what is, as it is.
And maybe we’ll even adopt Dr. David’s adopted motto, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” And in stillness become better able to see with the eyes of our souls.