(From a guest sermon message at Union Church – November 16, 2014)
I want to share this very human idea that God is someone we call on, or return to again and again, when in fact, God never leaves. It is we who leave. And yet, we ask over, and over: Come, Lord. Be with me now.
First though, I’ll tell you a story about what inspired these thoughts. It’s the story of the origins of a song. When I recently heard the story, it changed everything for me about the song.
Let’s close our eyes and IMAGINE: It is Deep South — 1926. Nearing 40 and virtually broke, ousted from his last job as English professor, a white man, a folklore buff named Robert Winslow Gordon set out from his home on the flat, endless Georgia seacoast, lugging a hand-cranked cylinder-recorder and searching for songs in the nearby black hamlets. One particular day, Mr. Gordon captured the sound of someone identified only as H. Wylie, singing a lilting, swaying spiritual in the key of A. The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help, and beseeching God in the refrain, “Come by here.”
And to the untrained ears of the scholarly white man, Come by Here in Gullah, the English-based, creolized language that was spoken by the slaves in Georgia, sounded like “Kum by (h)yuh, my lawd”. Which is where Kumbaya came from.
“Come By Here” in its original hands appealed for divine intervention on behalf of the oppressed. The people who were “crying, Lord” were blacks suffering under the Jim Crow regime of lynch mobs and sharecropping. Imagine the sons and daughters of slaves, technically free, but enslaved themselves by their unpayable debt to “The Company Store”, and forced to work their hands, their backs, their lives away, day after day, in the same fields of their fathers.
And I’m imagining that this song, besides a call to God for mercy, hope, and redemption, was also a song to “check in” with each other every day. Imagine different voices singing from the fields: Someone’s happy, Lord. Someone’s crying. Someone’s pregnant. Someone’s dying. Come by here, Lord. Notice what lies on our hearts and minds this day. We are living in the best way we can, and we are calling out to You.
Although the idea of asking God to “come by here” really appeals to me, the irony is not lost on me that, it is I, who have gone away from the gentle caresses of God’s wisdom.
Too often I see the relationship as a kind of Karmic Transaction – I give this in hopes of getting this. I need you now, but not when I’m preoccupied with gains and goals or frivolity. The best example I can give is one I’m running out to a downed bird who has flown into my window, and the mantra I say to God over and over as I send healing warmth to the bird is, “God, if I have done any good in my life, please let this little bird live.” As heart felt as my plea might be, that’s a transaction! Or when I prayed, “God, [because it’s not for me, because it’s] for the bears…please guide people’s hearts to vote the moral way on Question 1!” That’s a transaction!
So what would it look like if I narrowed the distances between my calls to God? Instead of reaching out with awareness once a day, and for that moment, being the highest version of myself, what if that gap closed to once an hour? Once a minute? With every intake of breath? What would that look like?
And the picture that comes to me is how Jesus lived. Because I imagine that he was not in a transactional relationship with the highest representation of himself. I imagine he moved through the world, ….every motion synchronous and in “right balance” with the Divine, with nature — every deed and every word impeccable.
What do I mean by impeccable? Having integrity with the highest Truth of ourselves. When we are impeccable with our words, it means that the journey the words take from our hearts or minds to our lips is not cluttered with falseness or lies. For when we lie to ourselves, we damage our deepest, highest selves.
Hafiz, the sufi scholar makes this clear when he writes: “What we speak becomes the house we live in. … Look what happens when the tongue cannot say to Kindness, ‘I will be your slave’. The moon covers her face with both hands and cannot bear to look.”
So how might we learn to move through the world with impeccability, aware from moment to moment that we are the manifestation of God? Aware that when buttering our bread, looking for our lost gloves, scraping the ice from our car windows, driving in traffic, and interacting with each other — we have a responsibility to embody the Divine. What does that look like for me and for you? Well, folks, I’ll tell you, “It is easier to preach ten sermons than it is to live one.” I surely don’t have a ready answer to that. But not having “answers” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking ourselves the questions.
Yes. We are human. We forget. (I am human; I forget)We screw up. We get lost. And then, we wake up in that broken or bereft place, and know we must return to God. “Someone screwed up, Lord. Come by here.”
Where do you go to listen for the whisper of the Divine? Because returning to God means listening, doesn’t it? For you, perhaps it is settling into your squeaky old chair with your dog-eared Bible, or standing in the wee dark hours near a window taking in the dancing stars and the moonlit embrace. Perhaps it’s a drive out to an old country church, or meandering through the rows of ancestors in an ancient cemetery. Maybe you will sit motionless in front of an altar of reminders, just breathing in and out.
For me, I hear my soul’s deepest urgings when “drifting through a snowy forest”; or “wandering alone by sea breakers”; or “sitting by desolate streams”.
Wendell Berry says it so well in “The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of [God] the world, and am free.
In closing, I once again turn to Hafiz, whose playful and rich tapestry of words perhaps captures an answer to our question – What would it look like to embody the Divine with every intake of breath?
The Seed Cracked Open
It used to be
That when I would awake in the morning
I could with confidence say,
“What am ‘I’ going to do?”
That was before the seed
Now I am certain: there are two of us housed in this body.
Doing the shopping together in the market and
Tickling each other
while fixing the evening’s food.
Now when I awake
all the internal instruments play the same music:
“God, what love-mischief can ‘We’ do
For the world Today?”
So, I invite you to go out into the world to see what “love-mischief” you can do – for the Divine!