The still point in the midst of the storm

Stuart Higginbotham

June 19, 2022

The still point in the midst of the storm

I tried to write a sermon for today three times, once while in Paris (which I thought would be a marvelous place to think about a sermon). Then, the tragedy with the extended Cummings family led me to shift what I felt I needed to say (and I will only allude to these with children present this morning). With three killed in an incident of gun violence, our community worked this week to be present to those who are grieving. Then, the tragedy at St. Stephen’s in Birmingham with three killed in gun violence at a potluck dinner knocked us all back on our heels. 

So, these days I have given up on trying to write sermons ahead of time. Given all that is happening to us, I need to try to stay present during the week and write a reflection on Saturday that is grounded both in the context we share and the Gospel’s promise of hope.  We just don’t have the luxury of writing ahead very far ahead.

Ministry these days feels like trauma care. It is trauma care. We are all experiencing trauma, and this triggers my anxiety very much, as the events in our world are triggering many of you. Friday I met with two nurses who closed the exam room door and shared with me how they are scared at work and in their lives. They gave each other a knowing look when they asked what I did and I told them I was the rector here at Grace. I listened to them with tears in my eyes as they shared about how scared they are and how they wrestle to know how to be present to strangers who come in.

There is so much anxiety and fear at what is happening around us. This insanity has gripped us, and we all feel caught in a storm, and it is so very important to be able to say out loud how we feel. That this is not alright. That this is scary. That we hurt. That we wonder, “How long, O Lord,” as the psalm says. 

I told someone last week in a text that “this is unreal,” and then I had to correct myself and say, “No, this is real. This is what real is for us now, the reality we live in. The question is do we want to live in this reality, do we accept that reality has to be this way?”

Like I said in my last sermon a couple weeks ago, are we willing to put everything on the table in the hopes of discerning a way to be transformed and live a life grounded in hope and healing? Are we willing? 

So, when I feel anxiety and fear creeping in, I must ask myself how I stay grounded in this pressure. I don’t know about you, but my body knows it before my thoughts have caught on. My Buddhist teachers are teaching me that the body knows first. By the time I am thinking about how I feel, by the time I notice how I feel, my body has already constricted. My pulse rate is already up, with the tightness in my shoulders and neck. I need to pay attention to that. We all need to pay attention to our wellness.

How do we stay grounded in such traumatic times? How do I pay attention to what I am paying attention to? Because this is what is shaping me. Being aware of how we spend our time now is vitally important. Do we keep the news on constantly and let all that flow into our bodies and souls? Not that we neglect the pain or escape it, but we must be cautious about constantly soaking up this hurricane that is blowing around us.

And we need to be very mindful of how some–from politicians to media commentators–are making a fortune off of our fears and anxieties. I think we need to be very careful about this and monitor what we are taking into our souls. Where I focus my energy is where I allow energy to enter me, and this exchange affects us enormously. This is why our practices of prayer are so essential and it is why we keep saying how important it is to have a disciplined practice. 

When it comes to this, I am thankful for the wisdom in the story of Elijah in the cave. Here we find Elijah seeking refuge at the pressure and threats that were facing him from the dreaded Jezebel. He takes refuge in a cave and prays to God that he might find some relief, that God’s presence might comfort him. God tells him to stand at the entrance to the cave, and we see this wonderful procession of spectacles: earthquake, great wind, and raging fire. But God wasn’t in the spectacle; rather, Elijah experienced God’s presence, as the text says, “in a sound of sheer silence,” or as others translate it “a still small voice.” I like to translate this with a combination of the two: that Elijah encountered God in “a stillness and silence that has profound presence.” It wasn’t an empty silence. It was a silence that was full of presence, and it recharged Elijah’s soul.

I don’t know who did this image, but I love it.

We can learn a lot from this image, because it challenges us to be very suspicious of spectacles. In a world that seems driven by largeness, loudness, grandness, by glitter and sparkle, we are called not to fall into the trap. Perhaps we need to take a cue from Oedipus a bit here and ask one another to tie us to a center point that will anchor us as we resist the call of the sirens around us whose seductive voice will only lead us to crash and die on the rocks of chaos. 

Elijah encounters this silence that is full of a profound presence as he wraps himself in his mantle at the mouth of the cave, and he is empowered to return to his life. He is set back on course and is grounded in the midst of the chaos. 

Oh, we can learn a lot from this story, I think.  

This story also speaks to a common phrase we have heard these days, that it feels like the world has come unglued. I can’t tell you how many people we heard from who used that exact phrase in some way, that it feels like the world has come unglued. 

As I sat with this, I felt in my heart that the more important question is this: yes, the world is coming unglued, but we need to ask ourselves what the glue is that we felt was holding the world together. These are essential questions to ask, and it is where we can experience spiritual transformation even in the midst of pain. 

Can we put our finger on what we feel is breaking down? Put another way, what social frameworks or standards or such have we counted on that we can no longer count on? And, how is this awareness helping us to see how the real “glue” if you will, is not some social standard or cultural framework. We are challenged to recognize these days how, again, this deep profound presence of God is the actual “glue” that holds our lives together. So many norms or customs or such are breaking or have broken. And we feel disoriented, anxious, and afraid. AND, and…how can this compel us to look more deeply and ask ourselves how, like Elijah, we can feel God’s presence in our lives, not in spectacle but in the oftentimes subtle reminder that we are held and loved and known by the Spirit that gives us life. 

This is where our intention is so vital. What practices are we intentionally cultivating in our lives that can nurture this subtle awareness? We cannot rely on the broader culture to hold us up, so to speak. So many habits and such have changed during Covid and into now. And it is so easy to become distracted and even cynical, to let a certain spiritual lethargy set in that robs us of our connection to those deep spiritual waters that nurture our hearts and our lives.  

So, like Elijah standing in the mouth of the cave, we can be reminded of this when we encounter this “stillness and silence that has a profound presence.” And perhaps we remember. And perhaps we are even refreshed.

There’s another piece of today’s readings that I want to look at briefly: the Gospel story today of Jesus casting out a demon. It is a strange story, and I always feel bad for the pigs who bore the brunt of the oppression. But even this grimacing moment teaches us that we are interconnected with creation and that such possession, if you will, has an effect beyond us. All of creation suffers.

Pay attention right at the moment when Jesus encounters this man who is possessed. He asks the demon what his name is. Now, there is a crucial lesson to be learned here, I think, and it is that naming what ails us is essential. And not only that, but paying close enough attention to actually find the right name. 

Now, I don’t know what your metaphysics are around possession and exorcism, but I can tell you that I am paying more attention to it than I ever have during my fifteen years of parish ministry. I don’t want to get caught up in it, here, but to say that perhaps we need to start naming what powers we feel are seeking to possess us, and perhaps it might be helpful to wonder what an exorcism would look like in terms of our health and wholeness. 

When we stand in our cave, like Elijah, and we pay attention to what we encounter, what spiritual practices can help us name what we need to name so that we can truly be open within this stillness and silence that has a profound presence? I believe with all my heart that such a deep practice of prayer can nurture healing and wholeness. 

Now, to close, I want to offer a brief image about how I believe the church can be a space that can nurture this deep work. Friends, it is time that we see ourselves even more as an intentional community who supports one another–beyond just coming for one hour on Sunday. These days are times of heightened intensity for us when we must listen to how we are being called to embody Christ in this world–and that is no easy thing. 

When we were in Paris last week, we spent one day in Montmartre, the wonderful and quirky area so known for artists and creativity. We went to visit Sacre Coeur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which sits at the top of the hill. We thought we were going to walk around, but when we entered, we decided to go and sit in a pew. I thought the small group of nuns was just singing a bit. In a few moments, six priests entered and we realized we were actually going to share in the Eucharist. I looked around and saw probably two hundred folks sitting in the pews around us, as we paid attention and joined in what we could (as an aside, even in French, you know your way around a liturgy and can join in the prayers). 

I didn’t understand a word the priest said in his homily (an experience maybe shared by some of you on my bad days), but I felt fed. Folks laughed around me, and they nodded their heads as they smiled. 

When it was time for Communion, the three of us walked up and received a blessing from one of the priests, and as we walked back to a pew, I noticed a very moving thing: folks were still coming in to walk around the ambulatory, with this intentional group sitting in the pews in the center, worshiping and praying. 

As I watched, I noticed that several people who had started out as tourists, walking around and looking at statues and such, had stopped and were now taking their seats in pews around the outside. They had stopped being tourists and had now begun to share in the mystery they had encountered, the presence they had met. I saw it time and time again with people, how they were caught up in this profound presence, and it reminded me of who we are as this parish. 

This is who we are in times like this: we are a people who wrap ourselves in a cloak and stand in the mouth of the cave and experience the profound presence of God in our lives. And we are a people who offer a cloak to others who are traveling by in the stresses of their lives. We are a people who move over a bit and make room for others to stand in awe of the presence of God in their lives. And we are a people who dare to name what we need to name that is constricting us, what is burdening us, even what we fear has possessed us. We are a people who dare to point out where the presence of God comes swirling in, and we support one another in our anxieties and fears, reminding one another that we are all held in God’s embrace. 

We teach one another how to love, we support one another in our grief and pain, and we celebrate with one another and share joy. And because of this, even with all that feels like it is coming unglued, I know in the bottom of my soul, as dear Julian of Norwich says that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

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