What follows is my Baccalaureate sermon delivered to Monmouth College’s graduating class on May 14th, 2016. It is based on Mark 10: 46-52.
It’s funny, I find myself getting increasingly sentimental at graduation. Every year I am up on that Commencement platform crying over the cheesiest things. Like, tomorrow, you girls will walk across the stage to get your diploma in these six-inch platform shoes and I’ll be sitting there crying, thinking to myself, “Look at those shoes. How can she walk in those shoes? I’m so proud of her.” And then there will be these memories that arise—memories that I associate with you—Zach P. will walk by in his graduation gown and I’ll remember watching him stroll down Broadway in the Homecoming Parade, wearing nothing but body paint and a pair of underoos—and I’ll start crying all over again.
Graduation is a poignant, emotional time, enhanced by the fact that we are all exhausted by the time we get here. But we did it. You did it, seniors! Congratulations.
Last year’s Baccalaureate preacher, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, memorably told the graduating class, “I will be praying for you, and you will need it.” I could certainly say the same today.
The world we live in has grown increasingly troublesome:
- Keeping up with Presidential campaigns has felt like Keeping up with the Kardashians.
- The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the racial and racist structures that persist in our society.
- In 2015 there were more mass shootings in the United States than there were days.
- The world produces enough food, but 11.3 % of the world’s population is still hungry.
- Syria. Our hearts break over Syria.
- People are just generally afraid and suspicious, we don’t know who we can trust, we don’t know what we can do to solve the complicated problems of our time. So we just lock ourselves up emotionally, spiritually, physically and buy a lot of guns to protect ourselves from that which we can’t control.
So, yes, graduates, I will pray for you, and you’re going to need it. But my prayer will be more specific. When it was decided that I would be up here preaching today I asked myself, “Okay, what do I hope for these graduates? What do I yearn for them as they leave this red brick oasis of higher learning and move into their future?” As I considered these questions I was led to the story of Jesus healing the blind beggar Bartimaeus because my hope for you, what I yearn for you, is the ability—but most of all—the desire—to see.
Let’s look closely for a minute at this story in the Gospel of Mark. Bartimaeus is an important character here, depicted as wise and faithful for two reasons: First, he knows he is blind. And secondly, he wants to see. Now I know you may be thinking, well, duh. This is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to see if they were blind? Well apparently, lots of us.
At this point in the Gospel there are a lot of blind people milling around. Twelve of them are Jesus’ closest friends. Today’s text (bear with me here) is the end of what Bible scholars call an inclusio, or a Markan “sandwich” that begins with Jesus healing one blind man in chapter eight and concludes with the healing of Bartimaeus here in chapter ten. The two healings are meant to highlight the texts in between and how “blind” the disciples are to what is right in front of them. No matter how many times Jesus tells or shows his disciples that the Kingdom of God is near (as in, right here, in me, guys) they still cannot see what Jesus is about. I’m not sure how he had the patience to put up with them.
Or with us, for that matter. Because we’re all blind in some way. Some of us are blinded by misunderstanding. Some of us by prejudice. Some of us are blinded by ego or by the worldview or tradition we’ve been taught not to question. Some of us are blinded by others—you know—like the blind leading the blind. And some of us, frankly, are blind because we choose to be, because we simply can’t handle the truth.
Flannery O’Connor, a woman whose fiction I admire for its prophetic examination of the moral injustices of her time, once said, “We have to see the world as it is before we can turn it into art.”
Artists, in fact, help us to see because art makes us pause. Just about every day I walk by the Southeastern corner of McMichael Academic Building. Typically, I am running late for a meeting in Poling Hall, racing to beat the chimes before they toll the end of the hour with my nose pressed to my Smartphone to make sure I don’t miss a single email or message via Facebook. Like you students, I have gotten very good at race walking while scrolling through my feed. But as I fly past McMike, something in the grass there catches my attention. I remove my nose from my digital device to look and I see what appears to be a large, yellow plaster snake—just sitting there in the grass. It’s not a scary snake. It has a little smile or smirk on its face and a cute little pattern of pebbles running down its back. But it makes me pause. It catches my attention. What is this? Now I’m late for my meeting, but I am curious. What does this mean? Crazy art appears outside of McMike like this quite often. Red and blue solo cups emerge from and circle around the windows. Yarn bombs explode and knit the trees in colorful little sweaters. Bike parts are welded together and assembled into a new and curious sculpture. These displays always make me stop, make me recalibrate my trip across campus. They take me out of my self-absorbed, Smartphone existence, to reconsider the space I am in. They help me to see. Art does that. It wakes us up to take note of the world and can even change how we move through it.
So I’ve been hanging out with more artists lately—poets, creative writers, musicians, visual artists. I’m drawn to these creative types because of their ability to see and sense and notice the world better than the rest of us. I want more of this kind of vision because I want to create work that will make people pause, work that is beautiful and meaningful, work that has substance and depth, work that changes or recalibrates how people move through the world. I want to offer something to this world of value. So you know what I have been doing? I have been training myself to see.
This journey began for me the first summer after I started here as Chaplain when I decided to attend a writer’s workshop in Iowa City. I’d never done anything like it before and I was completely intimidated. At this literary gathering of aspiring poets, novelists, essayists and the like, I was the only pastor. I tried to conceal my identity for a while, thinking no one would feel free to drink or swear around me if I revealed what I did for a living. I think I even told someone I sold insurance or something like that. (Hey–it’s kind of true!) But eventually my truth came out. I had to meet one on one with my teacher, who was a poet, to get his feedback on something I had written that I considered my best work. At that point, all I had written was a bunch of sermons. So I gave him one—one of my best. It was a sermon that had been really well received and it had even gotten published in a preaching journal. Yeah, I was feeling pretty confident.
My teacher began our conversation by confessing his envy. “You know, Teri, poets get really excited when ten people show up for one of our readings. As a pastor, you have an audience larger than that every week.” Then, in a bit of a fury, he proceeded to rip apart my carefully crafted sermon that lay on the table in front of him. His pen blocked off and slashed through whole paragraphs as “unnecessary.” He circled my “real beginning” which I had mistakenly placed at the end.
Finally, in a frustrated huff, he just stopped, looked up at me and said, “You’re not venturing far enough into the wilderness of humanity. You tippy toe in, but you don’t go far enough. Then you slap a band aid on the end for a conclusion as if to make everything okay.” I sat there, silently, not knowing what to say. I understood and I didn’t understand. Yet I came away from that meeting knowing I had work to do as a writer, as a pastor, as a Christian, as a human being who desires to do good with her life.
My teacher’s words of critique “You are not venturing far enough into the wilderness” have become my mantra because he basically told me I wasn’t seeing clearly enough to produce anything of value. I had to go farther. I had to see the ugly as well as the beautiful. I had to be honest about the world and the people in it. I had to, recalling Flannery O’Connor, see the world as it truly was before I could turn it into art.
So this, dear graduates, is why I hope and yearn for you to see. The world we live in is extraordinary, but it needs us and our gifts to turn it into art. And you don’t need to be an art major to do this. A good entrepreneur needs to have vision, needs to see his or her community clearly, to know what kind of business will best serve that town. A good physical therapist will find ways to heal bodies by using all her senses, by not taking pain at face-value but by looking deeper, assuming nothing, seeing each patient as an individual. A good chemist, biologist, or physicist will see a setback in their experiments not as a dead end, but as a creative challenge that will require creative thinking to solve. A good politician will not look upon his or her constituents as red people and blue people, but as people who each has their own version of the American dream.
Bartimaeus is highlighted in the Gospel of Mark because he gets it right. He knows he is blind and he wants to see. His prayer should be our prayer as he cries, “My teacher, let me see.”
Imagine what it must have been like for Bartimaeus when he regained his vision. As he stood there, in the midst of that crowd, slowly beginning to see color and shapes and bodies moving around. I imagine him confused and overwhelmed, his brain not recognizing yet what his eyes were showing him. Everything in that moment for Bartimaeus must have felt brand new.
Perhaps it was like that first moment you Seniors stepped on campus four years ago and realized this place would be your new home. Or maybe like your first exciting, brand new steps on the Freshman Walkout. Remember walking downtown in that sweltering August sun with your Orientation Leaders bouncing around and the bagpiper wailing up ahead. Do you remember how that moment felt? Do you remember what you saw? The bright-colored flags on the Intercultural House whipping in the wind. Community members with smiling faces lining the streets, welcoming you downtown by pressing cold bottles of water, baggies full of homemade cookies, and hot slices of pizza in your hands. Oftentimes, walking into brand-new, meaningful moments like this, moments that you know will pass so quickly, we intentionally heighten our senses so we can take it all in and remember every detail.
I imagine tomorrow will be like this for you too, Seniors. You’ll hear your name echo through the loudspeakers and you’ll feel your body start to walk across the stage. That damn tassle on your cap will keep flying in your face, but you will be focused, intent on your destination, the piece of tape on the other side of the stage that marks your spot where you will stand and shake the President’s hand and receive your red leather folio with its gold-embossed seal catching and reflecting the sun. Like a blind man who just received his vision, everything will look and feel brand new in that moment. You’ll step off that stage with all your senses heightened, trying to take it all in, to notice everything, to see the world as it truly is so you won’t forget a thing.
And when you do, Seniors, I pray that you remember not only Bartimaeus’ desire to see, but the charge Jesus gave to him when his eyes were finally opened. A charge that Jesus gives every time a miracle like this occurs. Jesus says, “Go!” Go! Don’t stay here. Don’t keep this gift to yourself. Now that your eyes are opened, don’t go back to being blind. Move forward. Take this gift of vision out into the world. Take this gift and do something with it. Take this gift and go see it all.
Now to the God who calls us to this vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
[Images by Monmouth College]
I am in the middle of writing my sermon for our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I have a great beginning, a muddled mess for a middle and no conclusion. Yet the day is fast approaching when I must deliver this creative work. So I am feeling anxious.
Last week I listened to a podcast on “Overcoming Creative Roadblocks” that hit home. During this podcast, Todd Henry talked about the creative process as having a U shape. Any sort of work you have to do, or project you want to complete is like a hike down into a valley. You start out on one side and looking across you can see the other side clearly. You can see your objective. Over there across the valley the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. It sure is going to be great when you get there. So you set off with all the momentum inspiration brings in the beginning.
Then you get to the bottom of the valley and here your objective is obscured. Things get confusing. You can’t see as well. Maybe the trees are thicker here, the path becomes treacherous and you’re approaching the uphill climb. You start to hear scary animal noises and you wonder if you’re going to make it out of this valley alive. You start to question yourself, your sense of direction, your intuition. Should I have even started this journey to begin with? Things don’t look good right now.
According to Henry, we often tell ourselves that the most difficult part of a creative project is getting started—all I have to do is get started and then the rest will just come, we think. Or we tell ourselves that the hardest part is finishing the project, getting to that place of completion. But, Henry asserts, the truth is that the hardest part of any worthwhile endeavor is when you are right in the middle. Because here, in the middle, is where fear and self-doubt arise. You start telling yourself things like: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I suck at preaching. Things that are, in reality, only minor obstacles appear to us here, in the valley, as huge and disastrous. My outline isn’t working. I’m doomed! My printer is jammed. God has cursed me!
So what we need here is motivation to keep going, to keep pushing ourselves forward. We need narratives in our head that aren’t based in fear or self-doubt. We need a way to positively confront the hurdles we meet when we get to this place.
It is here, in this valley of the creative process, where I find myself relying most on my faith. In fact, if I did not have faith when I got to this valley, then I think I would probably quit. Instead, I have come to trust that if I give the Spirit enough space and time, if I work hard and open myself to where the Spirit is leading me, then eventually God will guide me up and out of this valley.
A friend introduced me to a poem called “The Woodcarver” written by Chuang Tzu and translated by Thomas Merton. It has become one of my favorites. I keep a few lines of it taped over my desk so I can see it whenever I find myself discouraged or in need of inspiration. The poem tells the story of a master woodcarver who was asked by a Prince to carve a bell stand. The bell stand he produced was beautiful, so beautiful that everyone who saw it said it must have been made by spirits. When the Prince asked the Woodcarver to tell him how he produced something so beautiful, this is what he said:
I am a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
Then I went to the forest
to see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
At this point in my sermon writing process there are lots of dangerous distractions, intimidating thoughts, self-defeating messages swirling around. The Woodcarver reminds me to guard my spirit, to stay true to the task of preaching God’s Word, to open myself to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and meditation, so I can climb out of this valley with a worthwhile, meaningful message for our graduating class. It will be two more weeks until this Baccalaureate pilgrimage comes to its conclusion. May God guide you in all the creative work to which you have been called, as I pray the Spirit guides me in mine.
[Feature Image: Jeff Turner]
A poet friend posted this quote to Facebook last week. It was the anniversary of a difficult miscarriage and she posted this as a prayer that her grief enlarges instead of diminishes her. This struck me as a beautiful sentiment and so typical of a poet. I keep turning to the poets for the way they enlarge life, for the way they take a magnifying glass to all that seems mundane. A good poet can create a whole scene (or deliver a whole sermon) out of a detail as small as the petal of a pansy. In this enlarging of life it seems that Hirsch’s point is well taken; that the poet’s job is to leave a verbal record as a way of refusing to let any thing—any detail or experience or person, for that matter—vanish.
As I contemplated Psalm 36 for an upcoming sermon, I began to recognize the psalmist’s job as leaving a verbal record of God. These ancient poets enlarged every detail of God. Psalm 36, in particular, enlarges the details of God’s steadfast love that extends to the heavens, God’s righteousness that stands like the mighty mountains, God’s judgment that runs like the great deep and God’s refuge that the psalmist emphasizes is for all people. Implicit in this poetry is a refusal to vanish and a refusal to allow God to vanish. It almost seems like an act of rebellion–an act of rebellion against all that counters love and justice, refuge and righteousness; an act of rebellion against all the pain, heartache, and grief that this world dishes out–to refuse to let God vanish.
This past holiday season all of the end-of-the-year reviews seemed to be ripe with heartache, tragedy and grief.
After the shooting in San Bernadino, California articles were written about how there had been more mass shootings this year than days—as of December 2nd, 355 mass shootings had occurred in 336 days. So much heartache has been caused by these shootings, and yet we Americans are so solidly entrenched in our culture of guns and our worship of guns that we can’t seem to do anything about this abhorrent violence. It breaks my heart to know that my 6-year-old not only knows the drills at her elementary school for tornado and fire, but also what to do when an active shooter is in the building.
Adding to my heartache this holiday season, I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness in preparation for a college trip I am leading where we will study the mass incarceration of our American men of color. What I learned in reading this book—about how our nation’s War on Drugs has strategically and systematically rounded up and locked up our impoverished, black males—blew me away and it made me understand the urgency of the #BlackLivesMatter movement all the more. Our societal imbalance and ‘disadvantaging’ of a whole population of people is a tragedy.
And then there’s the continued evil of groups such as ISIS, Al Queda, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. There’s the insanity of Donald Trump’s popularity, our nation’s gobbed up political process, militia men taking control of a wild life refuge in Oregon, another black teen gunned down by police and a “Bible believing” man who walks into a Planned Parenthood clinic to shoot it up.
My God, it seems in the midst of all this heartache and grief, evil and tragedy that there is simply nowhere to turn. Everything is just so messed up.
So I am grateful for the Psalmist who leaves us a verbal record of:
Righteousness like the Mountains
Judgment like the Great Deep
A refuge in which ALL PEOPLE may find shelter
By recording and enlarging these sacred details, the psalmist refuses to let God vanish in a world so full of heartache. The psalmist defiantly lifts up that which counters the insanity, grief, tragedy and evil of the world in which we live.
People of faith do the same every time we gather for worship. Have you ever thought of worship as an act of rebellion? I mean really, how dare we gather to read the psalmist’s words out loud, to pray bold prayers for peace, to sing hymns of hope when all that is taking place out there? It’s kind of crazy, really. But God will not vanish as long as God’s people gather to speak God into this world.
With the state of the church today—which is a state of rapid decline—I oftentimes think to myself where Christianity would be without the church? Or even, where Jesus would be without the church? If no one is gathering anymore to read the scripture, to sing the hymns, to pray the prayers and build the Body of Christ, then where does that leave Christ? I know this is kind of radical, but consider with me this question: If the church vanishes, then would Christianity, maybe even Christ himself, vanish too? I don’t know my answer to this question yet. But I want to ask it. Because I’m afraid God would vanish if God’s people do not speak and act and live God into existence.
So I guess I want to encourage an uprising—a revolt against all that is terrible and terrorizing. I want us to rebel against the heartache. I want us to be enlarged, not diminished by the grief. I want us to counter the evil, hate and bigotry with steadfast love, and righteousness, and justice for ALL who are welcome into the fold of God’s refuge. I want us to be God’s poets, refusing to let God vanish by leaving a verbal record.
Who knows, maybe this could be the start of something big? We won’t know unless we try. And I think God is hoping, maybe even depending upon us to try.
I have written and rewritten the ending to a new article about a hundred times and it still isn’t right. So I decided to pull one of my favorite writing books off the shelf for help and guidance. One of my teachers at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival told me about William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.” Each chapter of this book is a gem, full of great advice. In particular, I recommend his chapter on “Clutter.” Writers ought to read this chapter religiously! This week, though, I turned to Zinsser’s chapter on “The Lead and the Ending.”
I appreciated Zinsser’s nod to the preaching task when he writes: “Like the minister’s sermon that builds to a series of perfect conclusions that never conclude, an article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.” Dragging on, though, is not my problem. I have a tendency to quit too soon. My problem right now is how to sum up my article that I have pushed through to the max, am ready to conclude, but want to do so in a way that is beautiful, memorable, maybe even profound. I think here of the way a good New Yorker article ends. I love the writing in The New Yorker because they can get me interested in reading about topics I thought I had no interest in—like economics! And then, their endings are always perfect. I’ll read to the final paragraph and then make that little “hmm” grunt of satisfaction because the writer has wrapped the article up in such a perfect way. That’s what I want for my article.
To achieve this kind of satisfying ending, Zinsser’s offers some good advice:
- Don’t summarize. Don’t repeat in compressed form what you have already said in detail. Not only does Zinsser say this is boring, but it’s also insulting. Do you think your reader was too dumb to get the point that you need to go over it again?
- Zinsser writes, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.” This is really difficult. But this element of slight surprise is important to name and remember.
- One way to conclude is to bring the story full circle at the end. “Strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning—it gratifies my sense of symmetry, and it also pleases the reader, completing with its resonance the journey we set out on together.”
- What works best, though, Zinsser advises, is a quotation. “Go back through your notes to find some remark that has a sense of finality, or that’s funny, or that adds an unexpected closing detail.” I’ve often done this in my sermons, using a verse or a phrase from the text. I’m playing with the idea of ending with a quote in my article because it includes a number of interviews with college students.
Zinsser concludes his chapter on conclusions by returning to his point about surprising the reader. “Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing” he writes. This is truly the best advice I’ve received from all the writing courses I’ve taken. When I write now, I write towards the surprise. Nothing kills interest quicker than predictability—there’s no tension, no wonder, nothing worth paying attention to about writing (or preaching) that is predictable. So now, with Zinsser in my head, I’m going to pick up my notebook and write through my ending again. I won’t stop writing until I am surprised by what I find. Because if I am surprised, then I can rest assured that my reader will be too.
[Feature Image: Steve Johnson]
I have been thinking lately about Dr. Brad Braxton’s comment that “the American pulpit could use a healthy dose of courage” as I contemplate two upcoming sermons. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Braxton, but my inner editor is already shooting off warning flares about some of the things I plan to say. This Sunday I am preaching for a relatively small, older, Lutheran congregation. My sermon topic itself doesn’t worry me as much as a few lines scattered here and there that the older folks might experience as a little too “edgy.”
I’ve been moving towards a more authentic voice in my preaching. This means I am trying to be the real me from the pulpit by using the same words and phrases that I would use in common conversations with others. Unfortunately, words or phrases that would be experienced as honest, refreshing, maybe even funny, among my friends and colleagues are suddenly heard as edgy or inappropriate when up in a pulpit. So I’m worried about how this will play out—but not worried enough to change my sermon. As long as my mother doesn’t drop by, no harm will be done. Also, I believe the church is in desperate need of a more authentic voice from the pulpit.
Then, in my first Chapel Service here at the college I am tackling Mark 7: 24-30 where Jesus refers to a desperate, widowed Syrophoenician woman as a “dog.” This word, kynarion in Greek, translated here as “dog”, was known widely throughout the ancient Middle East as an ethnic slur used by Jews against non-Jews. The word represents the racist, prejudiced, ignorant beliefs of one people over and against another people. So it’s really hard to understand how this offensive word could have rolled off the lips of the Prince of Peace.
I’ve decided not to make any excuses for Jesus, though. I don’t think he needs me to protect him. (I also respect him enough to let him be his very own Messiah.) Instead, I am going to be honest about the difficulties in this text and reveal its dangerous nature. I don’t want to be a “play it safe” preacher when it comes to texts like these.
Even though I know what I want to say from the pulpit for both these preaching occasions, it’s still pretty frightening to go ahead with it. So I’ll be relying on one of my favorite quotes from Oscar Romero for inspiration:
“A gospel that doesn’t unsettle,
a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,
a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of a society
in which it is being proclaimed—
what gospel is that?
Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone,
that’s the way many would like preaching to be.
Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter
so as not to be harassed,
so as not to have conflicts and difficulties,
do not light up the world they live in….
The gospel is courageous.”
The gospel is courageous and those who proclaim it should be too.
[Feature Image: Alexander Fisher]
I’m excited to share another article of mine published in the June 24th issue of The Christian Century, A Preacher’s Anxiety: Between Panic and Pride. All my life I have wanted to write for this extraordinary magazine. Still hard to believe this is real!
Although I love to write, the sermons I post here on my blog are meant to be heard. So instead of posting the text for my most recent sermon, I decided to share the podcast. You can hear me preaching my Ash Wednesday sermon by following this link. The sermon is called “Choose Life” and it is based upon Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
I preached a dog of a sermon this past Sunday. Walking that dog for fifteen minutes in front of my small congregation was exhausting. I was working hard to connect—but since I was disconnected from my sermon, so was the congregation. Some people politely feigned attention, which I appreciated. Others stared out the church windows or whispered to their neighbors. A couple of teenagers in the back snickered and poked at each other. I’d wanted more time to work on another writing project, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull out an old sermon to preach. The sermon I chose for this past Sunday wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t me. I’d written it in 2005 when I was an entirely different preacher. So the whole experience was tired and lifeless. Immediately after finishing I thought to myself, “I never want to do this again.”
Normally, such a preaching failure would send me spiraling down into despair. Afterwards I would wallow around in a depressive state and repeatedly ask my husband for words of encouragement to help build me back up. This Sunday was different, though, because of a new spiritual practice.
I’ve been re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book How to Meditate over my winter break and found myself drawn into what Pema describes as one of her biggest teachings from her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. About this important lesson, Pema writes:
I remember one time going to [Rinpoche] with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No…big…deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself.”
When I came to this lesson in my reading, I was writing a sermon to be published in a journal for preachers. I was excited about this sermon as well as the opportunity to have it published. When I get excited about something, my enthusiasm has a tendency to consume me. It’s all I can think about. Then my imagination leads me to some grand delusions where I do start to feel awfully “special.” So Pema’s words resonated with me, even as they confused me. Wasn’t it okay for me to get excited? I’m a very enthusiastic person. Wasn’t it okay for me to feel joy in what I am doing and experiencing? As I lived into the “no big deal” mantra, though, I came to understand it’s wisdom and it’s power.
I ended up writing a better sermon for the journal because whenever I started to picture other people reading it, or to imagine the positive attention, fame, fortune (Ha!) that might come of it, I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—which led me to be more real, more playful, and more honest in my writing.
After preaching my dog of a sermon this past Sunday, I repeated my new mantra. When I felt myself spiraling down into my typical state of self-denigration I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—and locked myself in my bedroom for about ten minutes of quiet meditation. After this tiny bit of practice, I was able to let go of my “preacher’s despair” more successfully than I ever had before.
Through the use of this new mantra, I find myself seeking a sense of equanimity, or a state of spiritual balance. Swinging from the extremes of high-flying excitement or depressive denigration will only lead me to self-denial, life-denial, and suffering. It won’t be good for anyone around me, either. To be fully present in this moment, though, to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically balanced, is the path to a healthy, whole, and happy life.
 Pema Chodron, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, (Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2013), pp. 13.
What follows is my sermon, “Following a Star” from our Monmouth College Christmas Convocation based on Matthew 2:1-12.
Writing a sermon for me is like following a star that has suddenly risen in the night sky. When I begin this journey, scripture text in hand, I have no idea where I am being led. I have to write my way in, following the thread of inspiration, and carefully guard my spirit so I don’t get distracted.
This is terribly difficult, however, because I have to forget about how badly I want this sermon to go well and how badly I want to offer you something beautiful today. I need to set aside my desires as well as my fears. I have to stop picturing myself preaching in front of our new President and the Dean and all you scary faculty types and all you college students who are so good at looking so bored. I need to meditate in order to free myself from these distractions, and I have to pray and attend to my soul and… I drink a little.
The acclaimed poet William Stafford likened his writer’s journey to following a golden thread. Stafford “believes that whenever you set a detail down in language, it becomes the end of a thread…and every detail—the sound of the lawn mower, the memory of your father’s hands, a crack you once heard in lake ice, [a star observed rising]—will lead you to amazing riches.” The stance for the writer to take, then, is one of being “neutral, ready, susceptible to now. Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for the writer is one of following, not imposing.”
So I began this sermon not by writing, but by observing. And yes, a star. (I walked out into my backyard, laid myself down in the grass and watched and watched…until it began to snow) and I thought about the three men, or three Magi, who chose to follow one particular star in their sky far from Monmouth College. I’ll admit that I find these men attractive. I don’t know why biblical characters are always portrayed as old, gray-bearded, and grizzly. I don’t see why these guys can’t be athletically-built with olive skin and big brown eyes. Three tall drinks of water.
Really, though, I find these three men attractive because they were open to discovery, susceptible to the now, and ready to follow wherever life’s path might lead them….even if that path was unexpected and unconventional.
Post-biblical tradition has given them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Interestingly, they weren’t Jewish, so there wasn’t any expectation for them to go and pay homage to the new King of the Jews. They weren’t aware of the Jewish prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. All they had was a star way off in the distance to guide them. And yet, in spite of this, they decide to make the journey. So it didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to go with them. I mean, who knows what I might discover in such attractive company?
Every new journey is exciting at first. Just remember how you students felt on move-in day of your first year. So what if it was 98 degrees and raining, and your room wasn’t much larger than a small prison cell. College was awesome! Waving goodbye to Mom and Dad and your pesky little brother was liberating! You walk down Broadway for your Freshman walkout, again in 98 degree heat, hot slices of pizza in hand, getting free stuff, following a bunch of bagpipers who I once heard you describe as “totally badass!” I mean, it couldn’t get any better. The possibilities for your college journey were endless. New experiences, new friendships, new love interests, new ideas. It was all just so exciting.
My journey with the Magi began the night I lay in the grass observing the stars. I started to picture myself riding one of those camels and, for the first few miles, chatting with my new companions. They are astrologists, so they enjoy pointing out the different constellations, what they had learned from the night sky, and how they know that the star rising in front of us is the sign of a new king. My mind is racing with all the possibilities for this journey. I wonder who we’ll meet? Or, what kind of wisdom I might glean? Maybe I’ll learn some really cool survival skills out here in the desert and get a really great tan? Here, at the beginning, anything is possible.
As it happens on long journeys, though, the conversation between us eventually lulls. And in the growing silence I become aware of my feet that hurt my lower back that aches and that star—well, it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Just how long is this journey? I wonder to myself. And when might we take a break?
This point of the journey reminds me of Midterms. All the new excitement has worn off, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh CRAP, college is really HARD!”
When the Boys and I do finally take a break, it is out of necessity. The sun is rising and our star has vanished. We sit down beneath a grove of olive trees and my three companions quickly doze off, but I can’t get comfortable. The arid heat is crawling all over me and my mind won’t let me rest because my Type-A, got-to-have-a-plan-self, is starting to panic. What am I doing here all alone with three strange men? What would my mother think? Or my practical-minded father? I can hear him clearly, “Teri, what’s the point of this whole adventure? Where are you headed with this? What are your goals?” I can’t answer my father’s questions, though, because they are mine as well. I have no idea where I am headed. So I start thinking about quitting and heading home to be somewhere safe and comfortable. Somewhere where I can control my surroundings and my life and leave all this mystery behind.
When journeys get difficult—as they always do—our minds quickly begin to look for alternatives. When my sermon writing is faltering and I am panicking and picturing myself standing up here with absolutely nothing to say, I find myself being tempted by alternative paths. I turn to my husband and ask, “Dan, do you think Farm King is hiring? They have some really cool stuff there. Or Subway? I think I could make sandwiches for the rest of my life.”
Maybe after your first college midterms you started to ponder some alternatives too. So just how much does a stock boy at County Market make? Maybe living with my aging mother when I’m 36 isn’t as terrible as I originally imagined it?
If you’re here today, obviously you didn’t give in to the alternatives. You’re still on the journey and so am I. Not everyone sticks it out, though. For some, it is too tough. So what’s so different about us? Why are we still here? Well, I imagine, that you, like me, are here because we have hope, perhaps even a little bit of faith, in what lies ahead.
Hope is an extraordinary gift. Not everyone is so blessed to have hope. We don’t know what lies ahead. We can’t know. But we hope that it’s something good. So we keep going, even when the going gets really difficult.
The climax of our journey narrative today comes, of course, when my wise friends arrived at the house above which the star had stopped. When our 2-year-old Isaac met his baby sister, Ella, for the first time in the hospital, all he could manage to say, was “This?” “This?” Maybe the wise men had the same question. This is what we have been searching for? This tiny, fragile baby is the King of the Jews? This is the one King Herod is so scared of? Does this make any sense?
But you know how sometimes you know something is right because you feel it is right—even though all rational explanations tell you it is wrong? Well, I imagine that’s what happened here—because these foreigners who had no reasonable connection to this baby, were overwhelmed with joy at finding him. So overwhelmed that they knelt down in homage to him. Something must have clicked within them when they saw this child. Something must have told them that they had come to a place of discovery.
There is no greater joy, no greater feeling of exhilaration than to discover whatever it was that was waiting for you along the golden thread. William Stafford describes it as “amazing riches” and that’s how it feels. It’s the place of epiphany, and of revelation, and of a profound knowing that this was what was meant for you.
So, the moment I discovered what this Christmas sermon was about, I was running on the treadmill at our local YMCA. I’d been journeying with those Magi for a long time—two weeks to be exact. I’d grown weary of their company and was contemplating lots of alternatives when— right in the middle of all these people exercising around me—it came to me. It’s about the discovery! Yes! It’s about the discovery on the journey! And suddenly I feel as if this huge weight has been lifted—because I know now where I am headed. I have at least discovered the direction. And so I start to bounce a little as I run…and I punch the speed button up…and I pick up the pace…and I turn the volume up on my Ipod…and THEN I am still so excited that I start jamming my fists in the air to the music in my ears! And yes, people are looking at me, but I don’t care, because I am feeling so much joy. I am overwhelmed with joy! Thank you, God! Thank you, baby Jesus. I have a Christmas sermon!!!
The sermon itself –like the Wise Men’s journey— is a place of discovery! A place of epiphany! It is such a high!
I hope you’ve known such moments. I hope you’ve known the overwhelming joy of discovery. Maybe it’s happened for you in a class, or a deep conversation with friends, or at a program you attended, when seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas came together in your mind to reveal—suddenly and inexplicably—something NEW about your life, or your future, or your perspective on the world. And then your mind explodes with possibilities and your body flushes with energy because of this new discovery! You discover your life and the world anew! These discoveries, these epiphanies, are what await us all along the journey.
I hope you’ve known such moments, because they remind us that the journey is worth it. They reveal that—as tiny, and fragile, and fearful, and vulnerable, and insignificant as we oftentimes feel—our lives are not meaningless. There is wisdom to be found along this road. There is joy to be found and love and beauty and grace. And—especially at Christmas—we are reminded that God is to be found here as well. God is not removed from us and from all this. God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God is within each discovery.
So let’s take this moment, this sacred and holy moment, to open ourselves to the journey. This Christmas, let’s begin once again. Let’s follow our stars.
Now to the God who calls us on this sacred journey, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 From Robert Bly’s introduction to Stafford’s selected poems.