by Robert Calhoun
This past month, during the first week of May, I was sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop beside the Big Thompson River as it coursed its way through Estes Park… a cool day, the water level on the rise with spring rains and early snow melt. Sipping coffee with a book, notepad, and pen in hand. People passing by.
When first sitting down, I noticed a large fluffy gray jay…gripping tightly to a lone boulder in the middle of the stream. A mature bird, feathers periodically ruffled by the breeze…he appeared comfortable…I imagined him to be contemplating what he saw both near and far…as he held this space on the boulder in midstream. My eyes often returning to my winged friend, wondering what he saw, what he knew. He was there for what seemed a very long time, while pages turned in my book.
And then, at one moment looking up from my reading…. I saw the boulder was bare. I had not seen him fly away. Now just a bare boulder, a space that earlier was filled with my feathered friend.
I was surprised how the image of that empty rock grabbed… held my attention. This empty, vacated, space without the gray jay had my full attention now.
Empty spaces. What to do with empty spaces?…….spaces where what was is no longer; or spaces where something has always been missing, spaces yet to be filled……spaces that appear suddenly or spaces that capture our attention slowly over time? Empty spaces due to the natural changes of life…..spaces ripped open by the unexpected. How do we experience, how do we respond to, those spaces before us and within us?
Empty spaces call up many feelings and reactions…curiosity, compassion, excitement for a new start, hopefulness ….or confusion, heartache, doubt, fear, hopelessness…… it is not unusual for us to fill empty spaces with distractions, even false gods, so as not to even notice what is missing.
What do we do, how do we wait… for what or for whom do we listen?
My thoughts went to Good Friday at noon-time in our Plymouth sanctuary where I and one other…were in that quiet space for almost an hour, a space which spoke of emptiness, waiting. What or who if anyone holds that space with us?
Perhaps Jesus wondered, as he waited….in the wilderness....or in the garden.
Or Mary outside the tomb.
Or twelve apostles “all together in one place,” and Mary, the mother of Jesus, as they gathered in a house on Pentecost, along with the many others who gathered as was the Jewish custom at the end of the grain harvest…..The twelve apostles aware of an empty space, remembering, wondering what to expect, waiting for what may be next if anything….
I have read about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, theologian and mystic… at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky in the 1950’s… watching, waiting, not yet imagining what was about to come….
You have had your times….I have……moments when what has your full attention is the "bare boulder," the empty space that cannot be ignored….times when the messenger has disappeared, belief seems hollow…when what you thought you believed no longer makes sense, even belief in yourself….times when nothing seems to be holding the space in front of you…when what was reassuring…is gone and its absence is what fills you.
Life………waiting for the phone call that does not come…… receiving the phone call you do not want to receive….starting out in life without a clue where to go…..a sudden lack of purpose….the end of a relationship…
…standing at the grave of your parent, child… partner…….or times when the thoughts of past traumas take over your mind…. perhaps the "empty-nest" time, or the aging process and the awareness of approaching death……
… spaces that speak of emptiness….These days, the nightly news often speaks of empty spaces: uncertainty, lack of civility… divisiveness…one more shooting…. excluded from entrance for simply being who you are….us against them.
The twelve apostles gathered “all together in one place,” in a house, and the many others gathered as was the custom at Pentecost.
Perhaps that is the meaning of faith…to gather together, to still gather even when the space before us is empty…still gather when the road ahead is unclear.
Perhaps that is faith… for us to keep gathering as a Plymouth community, week after week, even in times when the "boulder" is empty, when something is missing, the promise seems distant…..still gather when our efforts to be welcoming seem futile…. to gather together, share bread together… where we hold the empty spaces for each other…and together see what is, what is not, and what has always been. To still gather, remember, wait……wait for the signs of reassurance, wait for our eyes and hearts to open to the loving presence that holds the space with us, shines light into dark places……
…reminding us of our birthright, that we are not alone, as love unfolds before us and among us and we move out into the world with boldness and compassion knowing that "God is still speaking."
These things I pondered sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop on a spring morning alongside the Big Thompson River. And then, as if unaware until that very moment, I felt the rush of the wind upon my face, the branches waving, and heard the loud, mighty, sounds of the rushing water as if many voices were speaking all at once….and now all of that energy had my full attention and I left that bench and began walking on the crowded sidewalk, enlivened by something familiar but for which I could not name, with the sense we were not separate, not alone, but were all walking together with the One who breathes with us.
Robert Calhoun is a member of Plymouth and serves on the Pastoral Relations Committee.
Acts of the Apostles 16.16-34
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Two different stories of liberation comprise today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. One is the story of manumission: the release from demonic possession and slavery of a young woman who is being exploited by those who own her. And her freedom ironically leads to the captivity of two apostles, Paul and Silas, who are thrown into prison because they helped to free her from bondage. The second liberation comes as Paul and Silas are freed from prison as an earthquake breaks the prison cell doors and unshackles them and others.
It’s an odd tale…definitely one that fits the genre of an adventure story. Can you picture for yourself Paul and Silas, wounded from having been flogged, in a prison cell with their legs in stocks in the middle of the night? I imagine that it was dark and dank. We don’t know what their long-term prospects were, but after being beaten, they were probably awaiting execution…long-term incarceration wasn’t typical in the ancient world. What would you do if you were in their place? I imagine that I would pray fervently and quietly. How about you? Would you be singing? Maybe so…singing is one of the things that sometimes dispels fear. Maybe you would start quietly with the triumphant Welsh hymn and the words of that great preacher from the Riverside Church in New York: “God of grace, and God of glory, on your people pour your power crown your ancient church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.” Or maybe you’d sing the words of one who suffered during the Thirty Years War in the17th century: “If you but trust in God to guide you, with hopeful heart through all your ways, you will find strength with God beside you, to bear the worst of evil days.”
One of the aspects of music in worship is that it gets us out of our heads and into our hearts. Singing has an affective dimension that employs our bodies as well as our souls and minds. And that is especially important for those of us who find ourselves in the oh-so cerebral Congregational tradition of the UCC, the church that founded Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth, along with so many other American universities.
But being thoughtful and appreciating the life of the mind is not mutually exclusive with being able to feel deeply as well. When we are in moments of crisis, it is the ability to feel our faith (and not simply analyze it) that pulls us though. That might be why those two early apostles found themselves singing hymns at midnight in a seemingly hopeless situation in a prison cell.
When I was beginning to write this sermon, I was talking over the text with Jane Anne, and she told me that she remembered a sermon her dad had preached about this passage, and he called it “Singing Hymns at Midnight.” And so, I borrowed his sermon title, though the content is different.
Milton and Bettie, my late in-laws, were acquainted with tragedy as their daughter, Jo Catherine, was killed in a traffic accident when she was sixteen. Milton was a seminary president and taught philosophy of religion and had a great theological mind. But he also had an incredibly big heart…not unlike Jane Anne. And in that sermon, Milton recalled how in the dark of the night, after learning of Jo Catherine’s death, he found himself reading scripture and singing hymns at midnight. That was the aspect of his faith that gave him strength and hope in the face of tragedy. It wasn’t theological analysis, which of course is important, but rather the affective dimension of his faith that Milton relied on in that dreadful hour. He later told Jane Anne, “As I looked into the abyss that night, I realized that everything I had been teaching and preaching my whole life was true…I believed it in the midst of tragedy.”
What about you? How would you lean into your faith at such a moment? At times like those, it is so helpful to have a spiritual toolkit that contains a passage of scripture, a prayer, or a hymn that you know by heart, even if it’s just one line. Your spiritual toolkit can help calm your mind and your heart.
One of the amazing figures of colonial Christianity in this country, Jonathan Edwards, served Congregational churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts before becoming president of Princeton. Edwards concluded that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Edwards was writing in the 18th century before the advent of psychology, but he was able to identify that faith involved more than the head; it also involved the heart. “Holy affections” involve emotion, but they are more than that for Edwards. He lists love, hope, joy, and gratefulness as positive religious affections. And we can lean into those to bolster our faith.
It was love, compassion, and concern in our story that led Paul to keep the guard from taking his own life and to tell him that by putting his trust in Jesus he would be saved.
That word “believe” is an interesting one for many of us. For some of us believing reflects the experience of Alice in Wonderland, who said to the Queen of Hearts, “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Faith does not mean convincing yourself of six impossible things before breakfast. It means opening your heart and mind to relationship. Believing in someone is vastly different than simply judging the veracity of a statement. And it’s more than conjecture. If I say, “I believe in you” to my son, Christopher, it means that I have confidence in him. And the English verb “believe” has its roots in the Old English “belyfen,” which is also related to our verb, “belove.” To have faith in God is about relationship; it is more about the heart than it is the head.
So, when we say, “I believe in Jesus,” it is less about affirming his existence and more about saying that I trust him…I have confidence in him…I put my faith in him.
In our story, when the guard comes into relationship with Jesus, he responds faithfully through deep hospitality, taking Paul and Silas, his former prisoners, into his home, cleaning their wounds, and feeding them. That’s a theme: for the last five weeks, each story from the Acts of the Apostles has involved hospitality, when one person provides housing, food, or both. Hospitality essentially seals the relationship and underscores faith.
So, if you find yourself feeding the hungry or standing up against gun violence or extending hospitality to people, or even if you find yourself singing hymns at midnight, just go with it. It may be your relationship with God showing up in unexpected ways. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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