October 18, 2009
"Commitment and Over-Commitment" by Deborah Sokolove
Scripture: Mark 10:35-45
A few minutes ago, most of us made a commitment to be members of this church, one small part of the universal, grace-filled, fragile, earthen vessel that is the Body of Christ. Like those earliest disciples, we are called to drink the cup that Jesus drank, to be baptized with the baptism of Jesus, not to be served but to serve. This cup is our life-blood, our connection to the universal life-force that flows within each of us, healing our wounds and giving us strength to bring healing and wholeness to a broken world; this baptism is the water of life, poured over and around us and through us, that we may pour out our lives for the sake of the world.
In the eyes of the world, this commitment, this pouring out of our lives, sometimes looks like over-commitment, a recipe for burn-out. A few days ago, I was lamenting in my spiritual report about my over-full days, and wrote:
Is this what it means to pour out one’s life for the sake of the world? Well, some portion of the world, in any case. I do keep wondering about that – the disparate value systems implicit in the notion of pouring out one’s life, versus that of self-care. After all, Jesus died on the cross, which can hardly be considered taking care of oneself.
Not, of course, that I am comparing what I do to being crucified. Far from it! Rather, I think about what it means to give everything to work that I believe in, to give up my comfort and my privilege for the sake of those around me, knowing that I will never complete the work but only entrust it into the hands of those who come after me. Or just let it go, knowing that God is in control, anyway. I am beginning to understand that my life will never be about balance, but about passion.
And a few weeks earlier I had written:
Work continues to fill pretty much all of my waking life – in the last two days, I have already put in 20 hours – and there is no indication of the load getting any lighter….What I have come to see, however, is that most of what I do at work is ministry. Most of my day is filled with responding to people’s requests, either through email, on the phone, or in person. People come to me wanting a job, advice, information, or simply an understanding ear as they work out their response to God’s call on their life. Sometimes it is one of my staff, who needs help with a project; sometimes it is a student, asking me to be their thesis advisor or wanting clarification about something they read for class; sometimes it is one of the arts adjuncts, working on a course proposal; sometimes it is someone from outside the seminary, trying to figure out where they fit in the intersection of art and faith. At one point yesterday, I had four or five projects going on at once, as each new urgent request interrupted the one that I had been replying to. By five pm, I was finally able to get to the two tasks I had started the day knowing had to be done before I left, since today is again stacked full of meetings, including a dinner meeting at Washington Theological Union, just before mission group
And, even though I often feel a bit frantic, trying to juggle all the questions, concerns, and issues, I am filled with a profound gratitude that I have been entrusted with this responsibility. As I go into each meeting or conversation, I try to take a deep breath and remember that I have been placed in this position in order to minister to the people who come to me. I can’t always give them what they want, but I can usually give them something that helps them in their lives or work. That I can do this is a great gift from God, and I am very grateful for it even when it leaves me exhausted and wrung out by the end of each long day.
Part of what keeps me going is the hope that it won’t be this way forever, that this is a stage in my journey. Reflecting on this on silent retreat at Dayspring, I wrote:
Jane asks, "What is God for you?" How do I put that on a piece of paper? How do I say in a word, or even a sentence, how I experience God? God is silence, emptiness, mystery. The endless pool into which I empty myself.
Jane asks, "What is aging for you?" This one is easier. In my best moments, or maybe just right now, I see getting old as permission to rest, to let go of the "shoulds" that have run my life. That sounds odd – I have in so many ways gone my own way, heedless of the danger, avoiding the well-marked path in favor of the more enticing, uncharted wild places, taking the unexpected turns, reveling in challenge.
But here I am, the Director of the Center for the Arts and Religion, Associate Professor of Art and Worship, somewhat-successful artist. And still, of course, wife and mother and grandmother. And my days are filled with deadlines, demands, needs, questions. I see my busy, hectic life as fruitful, creative, intense, joyful, and exhausting. Every day, I pour out my life for and with others.
One day, of course, and sooner rather than later, I will put a lot of this down. In five or six short years, it will be time to give over my hard-won, newly conferred, professional titles to someone else. When my professional career is over, perhaps I will have the leisure to rest, to think about ageing.
If, indeed, many more years are given to me. Right now I feel stronger than I have in a very long time, but my mother died at 66, my father at 58. I am 62. I do worry some about illness and incapacity, but as I reshape my body with healthy eating and exercise, I enjoy feeling the power of getting to the top of the hill breathing hard, but not breathless. I don’t want to give that up. I’m not ready to enter that other reality. Not yet. Not today.
That other reality will come soon enough, though. As I walked past the stone labyrinth in the little copse of woods, I saw a pond off to my left that I did not remember ever having seen before. The shining water drew me on, and a bit farther along, I crossed a tiny, humpbacked bridge over a stream that surely didn’t merit such a well-built structure. As I sat on the low, stone wall, I wondered at the work that went to make those lovely, extravagant, flagstone steps and over-ambitious bridge, a well-marked path that leads nowhere in particular. And it seemed to me that the place where I was sitting was a lot like life. Behind me, a large, open field was dotted with children’s toys, a swing set, a climbing fort – freedom and challenge, yes, but also safety, a place for play, for experiment, for fantasy. The stonework wall, stairs, and bridge seemed to symbolize the world of work, of hard labor that is both physical and mental, of creating a kind of pointless beauty for the pure joy of making, of building something that may bring ease or even joy to others. Beyond the bridge, the path merely ends, and the land rises into trackless woods. Although I knew that I was in a well-traveled place, in the silent morning I was alone with an image of life beyond work, a place where there is no well-marked road to either follow or avoid, but simply an invitation to wander among the trees in wonder and delight.
Of course, I know that a trackless forest is not all wonder and delight. It is also filled with dangers, with hidden pitfalls, murky quicksand, or wild encounters that may leave us maimed or poison our joy. Later, as I sat on a bench not far from the Lake of the Saints, I noticed other Seekers as they walked the land, and wrote:
I see Richard’s orange hat and deep, red jacket, floating above the sea of mustard-yellow flowers, Nancy’s red scarf and blue fleece silently gliding nearby. Farther away, Marjory’s steadfast gait takes her up the hill, her vest like a patch of light blue sky against the leaden clouds.
It is to these people, this community, that I make my commitment to live as a member of Christ’s Holy Body, regardless of the consequences. That commitment is not lightly given in a community of graying hair and wrinkled faces…. In the nearly 20 years that I have been at Seekers, I can remember only four deaths among those who were active members. Each of those deaths wrenched us all, and strained our emotional and physical resources as we planned memorial services and cared for family members and friends, even as we were immersed in our own grief. Each death left an irreplaceable hole in our community, in our life together in Christ.
And so I wonder, as so many of us now have passed sixty or seventy or eighty, what will happen if there is a death – or two, or three, or four – every year. How will I know what to do if Marjory or Peter or Mary Carol or Emily or Muriel or any one of you welcomed me into Christ’s body and taught me what commitment means is no longer walking out ahead, showing me the way?
What will keep me going, of course, is that the Body of Christ is much bigger than Seekers. One of the many gifts of the work that I do is that I do it in the context of another Christian community. Every Tuesday morning, I have the opportunity to stop whatever I am doing, and go to the chapel to worship with my colleagues and students. Chapel at Wesley is like our worship at Seekers, in that it is never the same from one week to the next, and somebody different preaches every week. But in most ways, it is quite different – the congregation is larger and more diverse, there is far less agreement on the importance of inclusive language, there is an organ and an excellent choir, the musical repertoire covers somewhat different ground, and we have Eucharist almost every week. And almost every week for the last two years or so, as the elements are brought forward from the back of the nave to the altar-table, the Wesley community has been singing the song that we sang a few moments ago, "Give Thanks."
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, it’s in a new hymnal that we’ve been using this morning, The Faith We Sing. Actually, it’s not really new, since it was published in 2000, but I’ve been urging Celebration Circle to buy it because it has a lot of songs that can enrich our worship that aren’t in any of our other books. I’d like to invite you now to take a minute to find a pen or pencil, and write "Seekers Church," today’s date, and, if you’d like, your own name, on the inside front cover, as a way of dedicating these books to our use and God’s service.
Let’s go back to "Give Thanks." it’s a very simple song, with few words and an easy tune. But as I’ve been singing it every week, as it has begun to sink into my very being, I have come to know at an ever-deeper level just how profound it is. Let’s look at the words:
Give thanks with a grateful heart….
Once I get past my reflexive rejection of exclusively male language for God, I remember my own first encounter with Jesus, and how very grateful I am for the gift of new life and forgiveness that was marked at my baptism, and that continues to inform and give meaning to my life. And then, having given thanks for these gifts, I am called by the words of the song to pour out my life for the sake of the world.
Now, it happens to be objectively true that I was weak and now I am strong, that I was poor and now I am rich, and for these things I am profoundly grateful. But it doesn’t – it must not – stop there. The gift of Jesus is not just for me, or even for us, Seekers. God’s gift of Jesus is for the sake of the whole world. Because of our committed membership in the holy, living, risen Body of Christ, we are called to give power to the powerless, to give our material and spiritual goods to those who are in need, and to share the gift of forgiveness and healing wherever there is brokenness.
That’s a tall order, and I am quite certain that I can’t do it alone. In fact, I can’t do it without you, my beloved friends in Christ, and I can’t do it without Jesus.
A few weeks ago, in a guided meditation, I was asked to go to a sacred, spiritual place, connect with a powerful, beneficent being, and ask for help. Immediately, I was here, in the Seekers sanctuary, standing in front of the cross. I was aware of the blue light that suffuses this room, and that somehow – like a medieval church glowing with images – it was also heaven. I remember thinking that, even so, in some way the place didn’t really matter, that the only thing that mattered was the cross.
By that, I meant not just the physical cross that is in this place, but the Cross as eternal reality, as event. The image in my mind’s eye was the beautifully-crafted cross here behind be, but even that didn’t really matter, except, of course, that it is beautiful. What mattered was that I was standing in front of the cross, at the foot of the cross, in the presence and beatific vision of God.
As I stood there asking for help, I was given the suggestion that I think of an object or a gesture – like touching my fingers together – that I could use in everyday life, to remind me that help was always available. As I began to close my left hand, it was as if I were a child, reaching for the hand of a parent. And I had a deep awareness of Christ standing next to me, taking my hand. Wordlessly, Christ assured me that he would always be by my side, that all I had to do was reach out as I was doing at that moment.
Since then, when I feel exhausted by my commitments, over-committed to my work, my family, to Seekers, to the world, I try to remember to reach out my hand to Jesus, and say,
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
…Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.