Waiting For The Heart
Dec 05, 2021
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27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
I went to the mall on Black Friday. Don’t judge me. I really like Christmas decoration, Christmas music, that whole mood you get into, and honestly the mall really knows how to capitalize (pun intended) my vibe. The people, the chaos, it was crazy and I wanted to be a part of it!
What’s the word you think of when you think about Advent? Is it peace? Is it joy? Or is it anxiety on how much money you’ll spend on presents? Or trying to figure out how to get all the work done in three weeks to be out for the holidays? Or the hecticness of planning gatherings and travels? I do feel like the world goes a little on crazy mode in this season. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday!
I’ve noticed that more and more, many people struggle with anxiety and depression. Mental health has come up again and again as something that’s really impacting people…that need more wisdom, science and study, and care from ourselves, friends, and family. And something I’ve personally noticed (not based on a study or anything) but that folks older than me struggle more with depression and the younger generation more with anxiety.
It’s just something I noticed. And I almost get it. Like with all that’s going on in the world, the bombardment of news and information, worries like climate change, and social media, it almost seems to me like anxiety is the most natural response.
Mental health workers and scientists talk about how the body has this reactionary response that is explainable. It’s the fight or flight. When we’re faced with something that is upsetting or dangerous, that is our body’s natural response.
I’m actually so good at fight or flight. Well usually it’s flight, denial, ignore, and even numbing and not sure what I’m feeling. But if I know you pretty well and I feel close to you, I fight. My therapist tells me to breathe first, do some other activity, to bring at least my body back to the present moment. But honestly it’s so second nature because the world has trained me and my body to respond a certain way. And to change it, it takes extra effort to create new brain pathways to respond differently. And some extra time.
In seminary I took a class on a thing called the Clearness Committee. It comes from the Quaker tradition, which could be considered a Christian denomination, (but not all Quakers see themselves as Christians). I thought at first from their name they must quake or shake, but actually their distinctive tradition is how they worship–which is: they sit in silence for an hour. Imagine if we just sat in silence for an hour here!
Sometimes they might say a word or so here and there but mostly they just sit, in silence. Clearness committee is like that, but more specifically a way to discern and get clarity. They do so by sitting in a circle (mostly in silence). It usually involves one person sharing something and then sitting in silence some more and everyone kind of helps bring clarity to the person’s situation.
And one of the things I learned in the clearness committee was that, after you hear the person’s story or dilemma, you can bring up questions, but when you think of a question, first you sit on it. See if it’s just your curiosity or if it’s going to help this person bring clarity. So you don’t ask questions for your own sake, like, if they were talking about doing a grad program, you don’t ask “oh where and what program?” You sit with the question and see and ask if you really really need to ask, not for yourself but for them. Maybe a question like, “How would it impact you, or would it, if you didn’t do the program?” or something like that.
And it was funny how many times I would sit with a question, and I don’t say it, and how it just floated away if it didn’t feel important. Or other times, I wouldn’t say it, and another person would ask the exact same question. You gave it time. You waited. You sat in silence. You sat in the unknown, in the dark. And that’s actually how you gained more clear answers.
One of the themes for the season of Advent our church is focusing on is waiting and hoping. It’s the time that Mary was pregnant with Jesus. Joseph and Mary were figuring out their turbulent relationship with this new surprise child that Joseph apparently knew nothing about at first. Awkward and probably a scary time for this couple. Mary was probably worried as any expecting mother does, how am I going to be a mom?! A mother to a God at that?! What a crazy time! I’ll tell you, an expecting pregnant mom’s mind is crazier than the mall on Black Friday.
With this theme of waiting, we ask you to give us art to adorn our Dome Gallery right outside of those glass doors. The preachers have been picking one to inspire us to use in our sermons and I want to share with you, Tom O’Toole’s photography work titled, The Hopeful Tree.
He titled it the Hopeful Tree.
It makes me tear up just looking at it. I mean look at it. Look how old it is. I don’t know how old it is, but it doesn’t look like a young tree. And without leaves, so many branches reaching out and extended, growing and searching. And what shadow it casts, a big one. I imagine what it’s been through. And I can also imagine what it will become, maybe in the next season, full and vibrant, green.
But the thing I love the most about this is that Tom titled it the Hopeful Tree. That makes all the difference for me. It shows me his resilience, his faith, his trust in God and imagination, that even in the face of what it apparently looks like an empty stripped down tree, Tom’s showing me his vision of the future, one that’s filled with a rebellious hope. I imagine standing in front of this photo next to Tom, maybe without the title there, I wouldn’t have known he’s the one who took it. And I’d say, “hm, a tree.” And he goes, “no. a hopeful tree.” And just like, everything changes about the way I see this tree.
And the thing is, that’s more powerful than seeing a vibrant luxurious tree and calling it hope. It’s almost like, that’s easy hope, even a not that big of a deal hope. Like, shrug, I’m hopeful. Like cheap hope. Of course there’s hope, it’s live and well and all good, no worries. But when you’ve been through hell, going through some dire situations, with no evidence or reason or signs of hope, and you cry, “I have hope.” That’s faith.
One of my friends has been journeying through her dad’s cancer recovery. She shared with me the feelings of sadness seeing her tall strong vibrant Dad, who would often pick up building projects around the house, just a few years ago making a tree house for her kids, seeing him go through chemo and medication, and lately having lost so much weight she described as skin and bones. I got a chance to talk to her during Thanksgiving weekend.
She had just finished an emotional family meeting, a rare one where the husbands had to watch the kids, and she and her sister, mom and dad sat around to talk about his evident deteriorating condition, trying to talk through the hard inevitables, and they started with logistics but somehow it turned into questions about church. You see, her dad had never really been into church although his wife and the girls have been devoted Christians. But he began to ask them,
Why do you believe?
My friend almost didn’t know what to say, saying I don’t know why because churches are full of broken people and we’re all just a mess. She shared with me how strange it was to hear him ask,
Who is God?
And then at the end they prayed together. She said that she heard him pray for the first time in a really long time. He never prayed, it was always the mom. But he prayed, she said, such an honest, baby-like faith prayer, full of questions and theology that strangely seemed so right and even biblical without him knowing anything. And he said in the prayer, this stoic private korean man, never-would-say-this-in front others, but in a prayer, how grateful he was for his wife and his daughters.
The ladies cried of course, and my friend was on a video call with me, as she was snacking saying, “that ended just 20 minutes ago, I’m so emotionally drained, it was crazy.” I felt honored to sit there and get a chance to see into a window of such an intimate and vulnerable moment of someone. It’s a dark time for this family. Her grandma, the mom’s mother, had actually just passed away a few weeks ago and now her dad with this… And yet, what a beautiful moment for this family.
I think there might be a reason why there is a kind of surrender of a soul when we get faced with things like cancer or death. Because you can’t fight or flight anymore. You just have to be, in that moment, with all the fear and pain. And yet it allows an invitation to dig deeper to what the heart really wants. At times like this, with strange strength, things like hope and gratitude set in…for no good reason except that that’s the only thing that matters. I feel like my friend’s dad probably had every reason, and the whole family has every reason to be worried, troubled, be afraid, and they are, and yet, there was a gift for them in that moment of prayer. Tears, confession, gratitude, surrender, longing and seeking for peace that the world cannot give.
Have you ever lit a candle in a bright room in the daylight? Have you ever lit a small candle in a dark room? Do you go on Christmas lights drives or tours in the daytime? No! You go at night.
The staff decorated this place a bit with Christmas lights last week. We turned on some 80’s/90’s inspired Christmas playlist, and I made my round to my colleagues while they were decorating to join me in a few merry steps. It was fun.
And then, after a day of working in the office in the ministry center, I was heading back to my car, and the lights in here drew me in. I came inside to take in the lights as the sun was going down. It was dark. It was quiet. It humbled me, and made me see the twinkling lights differently than earlier that day.
I think the heart is like a small twinkling Christmas light. Sometimes, it’s not the brightest or the most visible. I mean I think our brain and minds get so much credit. But if you quiet your mind a little, you might notice the heart’s burning hope, longing or desire. Its strength of peace, especially when there’s a cacophony of noise in the world. When you give it some time, some quiet and some silence. Sometimes by invitation of your own, or sometimes by invitation of circumstances where all the noise becomes background noise, when things are dimmed a bit, and darkness sets in, I think it’s then, when the little glow is the most beautiful.
Darkness is a part of life. Heck it’s half of our lives, and if you don’t do well during those hours, those who struggle with rest or sleep, it’ll impact all of your life. In fact, those are really precious parts of our lives. Negative space makes a photo. When we are bored with “nothing to do” is when our brains get a chance to be creative or even thread together biographical narratives about our past and future. Do you wait for your heart to speak?
I think that’s what prayer is. Or listening to God is. Like the Quakers that worship in silence. Waiting on the Lord means quieting our anxious minds and listening. And I think, especially initially, it takes a really really long time. I think with practice it does get faster, like you hear and recognize God’s voice.
I’ll end with this illustration.
I grew up playing the piano. Have you ever been in the room when the piano tuner comes? Tuning a piano takes a really really long time. They go through each note, and turn up or turn down, with each note. I don’t know how anyone could have the patience to do so. Look up piano tuning on YouTube and try to watch it, it’s so boring. But when they are done tuning, you can play beautiful music. Well first you have to learn, and then practice, and then maybe memorize and feel it in your soul and body, and you become one with the piano to play beautiful music.
Maybe our heart is like a piano, sometimes really out of tune from clunking it around to different floors of our house. I hope that you will find some space and time to sit and wait on the Lord, waiting for your heart to tune. That you will find freedom and peace in God knowing that you are so in union with them, God knows you and you know God, that your hearts are one. Let me pray for us.