Thy Presence My Light
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
March 11, 2018 Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 107; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Psalm 107 sums up the Lenten experience.
Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way;
hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to God in their trouble,
and God delivered them from their distress…
Some were sick through their wrongful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
Then they cried to God in their trouble,
and God saved them from their distress;
God sent out the word and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
The purpose of Lent is to bring into our awareness our soul’s hunger and thirst, and our wrongful ways and the suffering they are causing us. The purpose of Lent is to teach us to do what Jesus did in his wilderness, which was to turn to God in every trial and temptation. Not only does turning to God help us through a particular struggle, but if we make a practice of it, it leads to our inner and outer transformation. We come out of the wilderness like Jesus, full of the Spirit’s power to shine God’s light and love into the world.
The Psalm applies to every human’s experience in life, but the author may also have had in mind today’s strange story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. The people said they had no food or water, and yet they also said the food they had was miserable, so apparently they were exaggerating their misery. One wise therapist I know holds a tissue box in front of her patients’ eyes so that it is all they can see, a kind of binocular trick where you fill your vision with something that is not really as big as it looks but you cannot see any way around it.
How and what we see in our mind’s eye makes a huge difference to our health and happiness.
The wisdom of today’s wilderness story is that the negativity of the people’s way of looking at their situation leads directly to the serpents or fiery angels sent from God, it leads to suffering a kind of inner death. The cure is to see the same things differently. The people look at an image of what afflicts them and see through it God’s loving, healing, transforming power, and they have new life.
There is a fable about transforming our perception that you may have heard before. Once upon a time there was a community of acorns living at the base of a great oak tree. They were proud of what they were, and kept their little caps on straight, and kept their shells glossy and hard. One day a passing blue jay accidentally dropped an acorn into their midst. It looked old and beat up. It was missing its cap. It had a dirty, scarred shell and smelled of rot. The shiny acorns gathered around it in disgust and mistrust, keeping a safe distance, listening to its story. It ended by pointing up at the great oak tree, with wonder and awe, saying, “We… are… that!” The other acorns scoffed and said it was crazy.
The old acorn shook his head and pointed down and said, “All we have to do to become a great oak is let ourselves fall into the dirt until we soften and crack open our shell.”
“Who would want to do that?” they yelled indignantly. “Then we wouldn’t be acorns!” [adapted from Jacob Needleman and Cynthia Bourgeault]
Today’s gospel passage says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” The shiny acorns mistake their glossy coats for the true light of greater life. They think that becoming a soft, cracked open acorn is death, and of course they are right. It is the death that leads to life, the darkness that leads to light that Christ and all wisdom traditions say we need to undergo. To move to a higher developmental stage or a deeper spiritual state, we need to die to the old self and allow our truer, God-given self to come into being.
The great Sufi contemplative poet, Jalaluddin (Ja-la-loo-DEEN) Rumi called this “dying before we die.” He wrote,
The Mystery of “Die before you Die” is this:
That the gifts come after your dying and not before.
Except for dying, you artful schemer,
No other skill impresses God.
The Gospel passage says that we need to lift Christ up the way Moses lifted the image of the serpent/angel before the eyes of the dying. We need to fill our vision with the force of love and life and light in Christ the way the acorns needed to fill their vision with becoming a tall oak. We have to let go of our self-concern and our old self, just let it die the way an acorn lets its glossy shell die, because if we hold onto our shell, we keep ourselves from growing into the eternal life of God. That greater life is hidden in every present moment like an oak tree right before our eyes that we fail to recognize as our true self.
The Gospel says that those who do evil separate themselves from the light, but the Greek root of the word translated as evil is not what we picture. The Greek root is ponos, and its meanings are intense desire or great trouble or pain—like the Israelites who had intense desire for better food in the wilderness and it led them to great trouble and pain.
It is so hard to let go of what we know and desire in life, it is so hard to let go of our old way of seeing things, but the good news is that we do not have to do anything more than that to leave behind our former harmful ways. The Spirit’s higher power that transformed and filled Christ transforms and fills us if we can let go and open just a crack to give it room to flow.
The process of dying before we die and freeing ourselves from painful ponos goes by two other New Testament Greek words: kenosis, which means self-emptying, and metanoia, which Mark Kutolowski defines as the transformation of the eyes of the heart. Literally metanoia means to change and go beyond where our heart, mind and soul are now.
This is exactly what we train ourselves to do in Centering Prayer, kenosis and metanoia, self-emptying and transformation.
There have been times in my life when I have envied other religions for things they had that my religion did not have. I envied Buddhism its meditation and mindfulness, but then I discovered that Christianity has its own ancient tradition of meditation and mindfulness, called contemplation and watchfulness or heartfulness.
I learned about Taoism in high school and experienced extreme religion envy. What I loved about it was the idea that there is a kind of current or force flowing through everything in the universe, including through us, and if we can enter the Tao in us we can work with its power and virtue and flow with its force and experience our oneness with all things.
Being in the Tao means being centered, being grounded in a deep inner peace no matter what else is going on around us and being on the way to fulfill our true calling in life. Taoism is a little like the religion of the Force in Star Wars, and I used to envy that, too. I wanted to be Yoda when I grew up, after a few hundred years of intense Jedi training.
But then I came to understand Christianity more deeply and I saw that the Tao or the Force is part of our tradition, too. St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.” Christ promised us the Spirit would fill us and enable us to do even greater works than he did.
The Tao means literally “the Way.” The Way was the first name of the followers of Christ. Christ says he is the way. To fill our vision with Christ’s light, to transform the eyes of our heart so that we fill them with the presence of God, is to be in the Tao, to be centered, grounded in inner peace, full of life, one with all creation and on the path to be our truest, God-created self, fulfilling our calling to serve our time and place with the gifts the Spirit gives us to share.
I no longer envy for other religions. The contemporary masters and teachers of Centering Prayer have completely revived the ancient contemplative tradition and added to it powerful and profound insights from science and psychology. We have everything we need now to “facilitate the process of inner transformation” as Thomas Keating says in the book we are reading this Lent.
And the heart of it is so simple, just the slightest of motions, just opening our clenched hands and letting them flatten out, just letting go of our anxious, busy thoughts, one by one, letting go of everything else we are straining our eyes to see and instead turning our vision to the presence of God that is always here, within and around us, and letting that be the light by which we see everything else. As the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” says, “Thy presence my light.”
If you are looking for a way to fill your life with more love and light, you have come to the right place. The way happens to lead right through this sanctuary, right through the pew where you are sitting, right through your heart. Let go, just let go as you would let go of a dock to float down a river’s current. Let go, and enter, and be changed.
Let us pray in silence, aware of our thoughts but letting them be, turning our gaze deeper within us, below the thoughts, to the peaceful depths where the light of God shines, ready to rise and fill us to overflowing. If you have ten thousand thoughts in this silence, consider that a gift of ten thousand opportunities to turn to God. Let us pray in silence…