“Spiritual Wholeness and Vitality”
Scripture: I Kings 19: 4-12; 1-8; Ephesians 4
I love our scriptures for today, because when taken together, they organize themselves in such a way that the sermon practically writes itself. (Always a happy turn of events for a preacher.) And what I noticed right away is that each of these passages talks about a different aspect of what we might call Spiritual health or wholeness. Further, each one corresponds to one of the three phrases in what Jesus called “The Greatest Commandment” which is that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole selves, and love our neighbor as ourselves. So today, I’ll be talking about some of the components of spiritual health as revealed by these texts, and also about how they fall under the heading of loving God, neighbor and self. That’s the framework I’ll be using.
The first part of the great commandment is to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Our Psalm for today, 34, which made up our Call to Worship, paints a beautiful picture of one who is madly in love with God- “I will bless the Lord at all times, whose praise will be ever on my lips.” There is spiritual healing in loving God. We were born for it, and we’re off kilter unless it is in place. And I don’t think this means trying to work up some sense of affection for an institutional image of a distant God. Rather, it means knowing God personally and intimately, and seeking God’s presence in the midst of the daily round. Quaker Thomas Kelly, (whom I have been quoting frequently in recent months) says, “Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. We have hints that there is a way of live vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. Life is meant to be lived from that divine center!” Loving God means seeking to live from that center day in and day out. It means revering the great mystery that is beyond all attempts to explain it. Getting lost now and then, in a good way, in something transcendent, something bigger and vaster and awe inspiring; getting out of our own heads, out of the limited, little worlds of our own creating and into the vast, healing love at the heart of things. To touch center with that- to experience that- is to know awe. I think there are people who worship God when they find themselves moved to tears by a powerful piece of music or the vastness of nature or anything that connects them to the Mysterium Tremendum. In my opinion, one moment of touching that healing center, that transcendent mystery, is the most spiritually restoring power on earth. They say that if the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. And that is just one galaxy! Can you imagine then, the infinitesimal smallness of each one of us? One key ingredient to spiritual wholeness is knowing one’s relative place in the grand scheme of things, and regularly cultivating a sense of awe at the magnitude, complexity and vastness of life, of God. And better yet, learning to seek the loving guidance of that God right in the midst of our personal lives. Learning to flow with God’s gentle nudges, and to love the great mystery itself. Loving God heals us.
The second part of the Great Commandment, after loving God with all that we are, is to love our neighbors. For that, we can turn to Ephesians 4 where we are given a plethora of good advice on how to deal healthfully with interpersonal relationships. Here we are exhorted to speak the truth to one another, including dealing openly and respectfully with conflict. Indeed, the text tells us to “be angry but sin not.” (Did you know that was in the Bible? God telling us to “be angry?”) Anger, the text would seem to say, is inevitable in relationships. The trick is learning to handle it in healthy, respectful and timely ways. I think “do not let the sun go down on your anger” is not so much a literal command to resolve conflict before sunset, which is sometimes impossible, as it is a general encouragement not to hold grudges indefinitely, but to resolve them as quickly and openly as possible lest they take on a life of their own and lead to bitterness. And most importantly, the text tells us to establish a baseline of kindness in how we deal with one another. Spiritual wholeness for each of us means we need to be a part of community, be it family, friendship circles, church or whatever, where people treat one another with kindness.
Speaking of kindness, there was an article making the rounds on Facebook awhile back which said researchers had found the key ingredient to lasting marital happiness. The article said that since half of marriages end in divorce, and another twenty percent of people stay married unhappily, it is really only thirty percent of those who marry that enjoy happy marriages, and the key ingredient, according to new research, to being in that thirty percent is…wait for it…whether or not there is a general, baseline, context of kindness in the marriage. It is so easy to allow chronic bickering or sharp edged teasing or just low grade mean-spiritedness to become the baseline. It’s toxic to do so, and is one of the key reasons that marriages either break up or become chronically unhappy.
There is a powerful saying that goes “be kind. Everyone is fighting an unseen battle.” Kindness got lots of play in my grandparents and parents generations, but then sort of fell out of emphasis with my own generation’s discovery of things like assertivenenss and self actualization- good additions and important counter balances to be sure. But I suspect we could do with a return of good, old fashioned kindness in our families and communities and cultures. It goes a long way as an ingredient to spiritual health and wholeness. I suspect it is a great preventative to spiritual distress. When kindness is the baseline, spiritual health is much more likely to be in existence. We blossom under its gentle warmth. It is part of the culture here at Faith UCC, and is an important part of the healing love that just exists here. If it doesn’t exist in a marriage or a church or circle of any kind, nothing can compensate for its absence and you should do whatever it takes to create it. If it does exist, you are most blessed and should do whatever it takes to protect it. This doesn’t mean you never have conflict. Anger is, after all, a part of any authentic relationship or community. But it can be handled well and kept from becoming the overall tone. Choose kindness for the overall tone, the basic context of your relationships. It is an important ingredient to spiritual health and wholeness.
Finally, we have the incredibly moving passage from 1 Kings which tells the story of Elijah under the Broom Tree, and which beautifully illustrates the command to love not just God and our neighbors, but ourselves as well. In the story, Elijah has become extremely depressed because despite his faithfulness in exposing the false God, Baal, in the previous chapter; despite his victory in doing exactly what a prophet is supposed to do by calling the people back to their covenantal relationship with God, the powers that be hate him and are threatening to have him killed. Indeed, it must have seemed to Elijah that no good deed goes unpunished. He has performed admirably, done just what he was called to do, and it has all turned to dust in his hands. So what does Elijah do when he becomes so painfully discouraged? Well, first of all, he breaks the momentum of his daily round and gets out of Dodge. He goes off by himself a day’s journey into the wilderness. Now this would not necessarily be the right course of action for everybody who is depressed. Indeed, some and maybe most, would need, at that time, to connect with people, not isolate. But Elijah, whose life and work has him pouring himself out to crowds of people, needs quiet and time alone. He needs, that is, sabbath, which is in short supply these days as well. Time and space to do what Walt Whitman said was to “loaf and invite one’s soul.” Dr. Richard Swenson puts it this way: “We must have some room to breathe. We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by high speed, good intentions. Is God now pro-exhaustion?
Does the Good Shepherd not wish to lead the people beside still waters anymore?”
So Elijah knows enough to go, to retreat and find his center again. He goes and sits quietly in the shade until he falls asleep. Solitude and rest seem to be what the doctor ordered for Elijah. Next, he is ministered to by a quiet companion, an angel, who twice gives him food and water, nourishment and nurture.
I had a spiritual director for years in Minnesota who used to advocate the same basic course of treatment for me when I would become discouraged in work or life in general. Solitude, quiet, rest, healthy eating, getting out of my own head and thinking about something else for awhile. Sometimes the basic, simple stuff goes a long way. The twelve step program has an acronym called HALT- It suggests that one halt, stop, that is, when one is hungry, angry, lonely or tired, hence the word HALT. The story of Elijah under the Broom Tree is a story of simple, common sense, self-care. It’s a matter of tending to the basic, human needs for rest and healthy food and water and the restoring coolness of the shade, both literally and figuratively. It’s a tender story of compassion and gentleness, and calls to mind one of my favorite poems by John Keats, “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever” part of which goes like this:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
The shade of the Broom Tree was Elijah’s thing of beauty, his flowery band. It was his bower quiet which provided sleep presumably full of sweet dreams and health and quiet breathing. Its curative powers overcame the pain of gloomy days, of despondence and o’er darkened ways. We all need a quiet bower- a place or a time or an angel who might take the form of a friend or a therapist or a pastor, some bower where we can find deep rest for the spirit, and simple nurture to refill us.
What are the basic, simple, self-care practices that comprise part of your spiritual wholeness, and are you tending to them? Might you need to recommit to some of the simple, daily practices that can move away the pall when your spirit grows dark? Elijah and the Broom Tree remind us that good self care practices, loving ourselves, is important too. We are not just to love God and neighbor, but are to nurture and find care for ourselves as well.
In summary, though, let me advocate for all three. Spiritual wholeness means we love God, that is, that we find a real, daily relationship with God, or a sense of awe in something larger than we are, something transcendent and healing and whole, and that we regularly find a way to connect with that. It also means that we love our neighbor, by practicing good interpersonal habits of handling conflict cleanly and speaking truth in love and creating a baseline context of kindness in our relationships. Finally, it means learning to care for ourselves with the same compassion and tenderness by which God cares for us. Sometimes that one is the most challenging. If you find self care difficult, ask for God’s help. Ask God to help you see yourself with the same unconditional love with which God sees you. Then you will have found the bower quiet, full of sleep and sweet dreams and quiet breathing.
In the end, it’s relatively simple. We are to love God, our neighbors and ourselves. Therein lies spiritual wholeness, which is the condition we long for, whether consciously or not. And there is one more thing: we need to do this not just for our own enjoyment, but so that we can be effective servants in the world. Our deepest calling is always to help create glimpses of the Kingdom of God, the realm of God, on earth as it is in heaven. We are to be healers, servants, justice-workers, repairers of the breach. Helping to bring the realm of love and justice for all. We are more effective workers for this new reality when we are spiritually whole ourselves. You cannot give away what you don’t have. But when you have it, when you are a person of spiritual vitality, you cannot help but give it away, because you exude that different, healing energy in everything you do.
So seek spiritual wholeness, seek it because it’s a far better way to live in and of itself, but also because the world needs for you to step up and be who you were created to be: an agent of God’s new community of love and justice and peace, on earth as it is in heaven.
I Kings 19: 4-12
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
Ephesians 4: 25-32
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c]