First Things First

Mt. 6:33


It would be one thing if these words were penned by an ascetic that retreated from the world, but they are not.

Roman historians even wrote about Jesus huge popularity. He attracted lots of people that became filled with moral indignation at the Roman occupation and he was eventually tried and executed in a very public forum that again drew the masses.

No, these words are penned from someone who had the exact same pressures on him that you have as a leader today. You are pulled this way and that, surrounded by competing agendas, asked to be involved in squabbles large and small, asked to be responsive to emerging crises. It is not that they are not distractions but with so many different things vying for your attention, our leaders regularly feel distracted.

At the very beginning of his public life, Mark says that Jesus retreated into the wilderness to seek God. And the very last thing Jesus did, according to Luke is to turn to God- “into your hands I commit my Spirit” he prayed.

At key points, all the gospel writers say that he withdrew again to be in prayer. The gospel of John says that Jesus did this that ‘the Father and I might be one’.

John pays Jesus this honor, summarizing the significance of his life at the very beginning of his gospel, saying, ‘he dwelt among us full of grace and truth.’ In other words, Jesus was connected, so connected that when you saw one you saw the other.

We must be involved with the agendas of the world because we are in the world, but, Jesus says, we do not have to be ridden by the agendas of the world, we are not entirely ‘of’ the world either. So he would retreat and reconnect, re-focus and then re-integrate.

Most of us know that we have a deficiency here. We may be disciplined about getting exercise, we may be disciplined about vacation, we may be disciplined about socializing, but solitude and genuine reflection is usually one of the first to get crowded out.

Marcus Aurelius took some time out of each day to withdraw, write, and think- even when he was the top General of the Roman Army, even when he was the Emperor of the Roman Empire. He is significant because he was arguably the most powerful man in Western history (Rome was at its height when he was Emperor. And only recently have we matched that scope of influence).

None of our living presidents took time daily to reflect and all of them have lamented that they did not do so.

You can have a full agenda and still things start losing their zest; stale; anger grows and the part of you that is resentful; flat, a bit depressed even though you are surrounded by people; not really as full of life as usual.

I’ve never been very big on the life of piety. When I was in divinity school, I was introduced to meditation where the famous mystic Thomas Merton lived. We were given a class then invited to pray in silence. When it was time for lunch, they found me sleeping. The monks called me ‘Brother Charles the sleeper’.

I had to be a lot older and I’m still not any good, but our farm where we hope to retire one day is on the edge of the forest, the Appalachian trail. There aren’t but a couple cars a day on our road and I can’t see any neighbors in the middle of our property. Especially at the beginning of the day or as the dusk is falling, you can be in a quality of quiet that New Yorkers don’t hear. In the forest, you can have that hushed awe.

If you watched any of the wonderful series on the National Parks, you heard so many people speak of the sacred moments they shared at Yosemite, Muir woods, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. Nature is reflective like that.

I was helped years ago a Benedictine Monk who was also a psychotherapist who explained that meditative silence is a difficult discipline. He said that the first thing you notice is how much noise there is in your head. You have all these thoughts bubbling up to the surface and how most of us give up right there because a lot of these thoughts we don’t want to deal with.

He likened meditation to REM sleep, another connection between our conscious selves and our sub-conscious selves. Even if this is all you get out of it, it is good to know what is roiling in your basement, he used to say.

Henri Nowen used to point out that the word Absurd comes from the Latin root sardus which means deaf.[i] Absurd behavior happens when we no longer hear our soul, our deeper psyche.

By contrast, the word obedient comes from the Latin root audire which means ‘to listen’. We are paying attention. We are aware.

Buddhists call paying attention ‘mindfulness’. Like the prophet Elijah, we have to find a way to hear that still, small voice in solitude, to simply be present.

What we experience in that is as varied as the stages of our lives. Unfortunately for me, one of my recurring images right now revolves around the fleeting character of life. I wouldn’t call it pleasant but it does have an echo effect during certain odd hours of the week that encourages me to opt for things that are intrinsically purposeful and fulfilling.

I know that for other people being present, being awake is very clarifying when they are having trouble making difficult decisions with competing values.

I know that for others it can critical for creativity and letting ideas that are within you rise to the surface and you make breakthroughs.’

In other seasons of our lives, it will be a deep sadness. Hopefully, at other times it can be a joyful gratitude unto serenity.

The important thing is to do it. Set some time and put yourself in some place that can become sacred space. It is not easy, so don’t expect it to be. You will probably have a short attention span in the beginning. It is what it is.

But put it on your calendar. This is the time to check in with my inner life and listen for what God is saying to me. That is one pole of the spiritual life.

And the other is community, where we practice the life of loving others and being loved. I read a simple book by Erich Fromm this week and he had a clear depiction of a mutually interdependent life that we need to create and sustain with each other to share out of our ‘being aliveness’, out of what gives the sense of joy and gift-like character of living. [ii]

We care for one another. We treat each other as ends in themselves. As Jesus used to say, ‘you are a child of God’. You are intrinsically worthwhile. In community, you are not a customer, you are not a commodity, you are not a voting bloc, you are treated as an end in yourself and you treat others as ends in themselves. We don’t use each other to get something else. We care. There is something wonderful watching loving Mother’s tenderly care for their infants. They have that tangible way of beaming healing energy, safety, comfort, growth and nourishment.

I was at a surprise party one time and the guest of the party was just kind of stunned to see all these people that she hadn’t seen in such a long time and somewhat overwhelmed. I finally made my way over to her and said, ‘what does it feel like being you right now’? She looks around the room at all these people and says, ‘I feel cared for’. That is right. Who here doesn’t need some of that? Who doesn’t want to find their place? We care for others and we allow ourselves to be cared for.

And we take responsibility for each other. In one of the foundational epic tales of the bible, God asks Cain where his brother is and Cain responds by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In community, the answer is ‘yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.’ I will honor the boundaries between us and keep faith with you. I will not misuse your trust or take you for granted.

Brian Piccilo, the half-back from Wake Forest I am glad to say, who played behind the All-Pro Gayle Sayers had a mildly profound response to a reporter. He said, “my God is first, my country and family are second; I am third”. He understood the responsible dimension of love and though he would never enter the Football Hall of Fame, he lived a life of honor. It is intrinsically worthwhile.

And we ‘respect’ one another. Fromm points out that the word respect comes from yet another Latin word, respicere, which means ‘to look at’, in the sense ‘to really see’. When we ‘see what is really there’ we are respecting people for who they are.

In high school I was in an acting class, with a Master director, and had been working with the other actors for much longer. One of them thanked him saying something I never forgot.

She said, ‘You brought out something in me that I never really knew I had.’ He saw something in her that she couldn’t see for herself. That is what we do for each other. We help one another to recognize our unique abilities.

There is a romantic poem that has a line, “I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for drawing out of me things that no one else looked quite hard enough to find.”

Finally, we have knowledge of each other, in the biblical sense of that word. It is on a couple different levels. On one level, we know each other in the sense of ‘you get me’. You know what I’m about, my humor. You remembered that I hate cigar smoke. You know me. That is a critical component in deep friendship, sisterhood and brotherhood.

And there is this other sense in the bible as in Adam knowing Eve and suddenly, they had children. In the bible knowing also has a sensual dimension to it. That is because in the mature love that the bible describes, our sensuality, our romance, is an expression of our intimacy. Sensuality is at the service of intimacy.

So, we know one another and the more profoundly we live a life of love together, the more we realize what we really don’t know about our beloved. Our lives and our loving are always like peeling back an onion, another layer and another layer.

And you keep evolving through life. We realize the limits of our ability to be vulnerable and intimate, and then we grow, become more confident or safe and there is another layer still. This part is never complete in this life so even at the end of a life of profound love, you know that there is still more.

Whatever else we do as a church, we have to figure out how we develop some space for this genuine community to take place with each other. We want to care and be cared for. We want to become responsible and have others take responsibility for us. We want people close to us that we can respect and a context of friends around us where we can express ourselves honorably. We want to know others and for others to know us more closely. Genuine community is a sacred space in the other dimension of the spiritual life.

We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We connect personally being present with ourselves, the still small voice within us, and through our deeper psyche to God. We connect personally being present with others in genuine community of loving and being loved. A mystical union and a loving union.

That is what gives our life its deeper joy, it’s gratitude, that wonder of being really alive. May you make the time to reflect and recover the savor. Amen.

[i] “Making All Things New” (New York: Harpers, 1981), pps. 67 ff. These are ideas that he first gave at Yale in a class on the introduction to the spiritual life.

[ii] Eric Fromm, “The Art of Loving” see the first chapter. It is an old book.

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