Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Recognizing and Embracing the Fullness of Life



A Sermon by Michael J. Bayly

Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
August 3, 2003


Contemporary Reading from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The days in the House of Change passed, and it was still summer. . . . In the evening Bastion and Dame Eyola had long talks. He told her about all his adventures in Fantastica, about Perilin and Grograman, about Xayide and Atreyu, whom he had wounded so cruelly and perhaps even killed.

“I did everything wrong,” he said. “I misunderstood everything. Moon Child gave me so much, and all I did with it was harm, harm to myself and harm to Fantastica.”

Dame Eyola gave him a long look.

“No,” she said. “I don’t believe so. You went the way of wishes, and that is never straight. You went the long way around, but that was your way. And do you know why? Because you are one of those who can’t go back until they have found the fountain from which springs the Water of Life. And that’s the most secret place in Fantastica. There’s no simple way of getting there.”

After a short silence she added: “But every way that leads there is the right one.”

Suddenly Bastian began to cry. He didn’t know why. He felt as if a knot in his heart had come open and dissolved into tears. He sobbed and he sobbed and couldn’t stop. Dame Eyola took him on her lap and stroked him. He buried his face in the flowers on her bosom and wept until he was too tired to weep anymore.

That evening they talked no more.



Scriptural Reading (John 10:10)

Jesus said to them, “I have come so that you may have life, life in all its fullness.”



Sermon

As a child, whenever I heard Jesus’ words about the fullness of life, I always thought it was a reference to an abundance of only good things. I thought it meant that if we followed Jesus we would know only good and positive experiences in life, and that these good things would be our reward for being faithful followers.

Adulthood, of course, brings the realization that none of us are spared from unpleasant, unsettling, or even devastating experiences.

We’ve all had experiences that have forced us, like Bastian in The Neverending Story, to reevaluate our journey, to lament that which has befallen us, and perhaps, as a result, to contemplate and articulate new ways of speaking about God and God’s presence in human life.

I’d like to share with you this morning one such experience in my life. It’s not an earth-shattering political experience or a personal tragedy involving the loss of a loved one – though I concede that such things for many of us can and have facilitated transformation. Still, perhaps you’ll find yourself relating in some ways to my experience, or at least resonate with the ways responded and continue to respond to it.

At a certain time when I was living in Australia prior to my coming to the United States in 1994, I found myself physically and emotionally drawn to a young man named Ahmed. I have many meaningful and happy memories of Ahmed and our time together. We were and remain good friends. We spent a lot of time in the Australian wilderness; we swam in rivers and the sea, explored forgotten trails and ruins, and climbed rocky, sunlit peaks. We had many adventures – adventures through which we shared our dreams, fears, and desires. It was to Ahmed that I first came out as a gay man.

Our time together sometimes feels like the fragments of a dream. Yet certain events remain like vivid watermarks upon my memory. I remember, for instance, the night Ahmed and I slept beneath the stars on the sandy banks of a river. A dying fire crackled and smoked beside us, and at one point during the night a fine misty rain descended from a suddenly overcast sky. Roused into action, I pulled a tarpaulin over us and we drifted back to sleep to the gentle sound of falling rain.

And then in the night sky appeared an amazing sight. Was it a meteor? A comet? Was it even real or did Ahmed and I share the same dream? We still wonder about what it was we saw. I recall a great ball of flame tumbling in slow motion through the cloudy sky. I gazed upon it sleepily and without fear. For I had the one I loved beside me and all felt wondrous and right.

But of course it wasn’t. You see, I did love Ahmed but he, being straight, could not love me in the way I desired him to. For months I avoided this reality until it hit me like a cold sea wave. I was shocked and numbed. How could this be? It seemed I had done everything wrong. Misunderstood everything. Suddenly I felt incredibly foolish and alone.

I also felt anger and frustration – much of which was directed toward God. It just wasn’t fair. For years I had kept putting off coming out to family and friends as I was convinced that God would bring into my life someone with whom I could be in relationship. And the strength and love I would gain from this “someone” and our relationship would give me the courage to “come out.” I was waiting for a savior, I realize now.

In time, however, I came to realize that one cannot always depend on others when it comes to the taking of certain steps so as to embody an authentic life. I had to let go of the idea that someone “out there” would save me. Yet it went further. I also realized that I had to let go of an image of a controlling God – a God who from a distance would oversee and orchestrate the appearance of this “savior” in my life.

In the place of this controlling, puppet-master God I’ve discerned a companion, lover God – a sacred presence that journeys with me; a loving, sustaining, and ultimately mysterious presence who dwells both deep within me and beyond me.

Accordingly, my images and metaphors for God are now ones that reflect fluidity. I think of God as a current of loving and transforming energy, a flowing river that invites me to be immersed and embraced, to be carried and refreshed by. I see my life as a boat upon this river. And though at times I know I am called to proactively navigate and propel myself, at other times I must let go of the oars, jettison excess baggage, and wait upon the breath of the spirit and the flow of the sacred to guide me.

Some might say that my experience of unrequited love was all part of a plan by God to facilitate my spiritual growth. Such a way of thinking could lead some to declare that everything in life happens for a reason or that our soul, prior to birth, choose the various experiences of our life in order to advance its spiritual progress.

Although I realize that for many people this type of theology is meaningful, I have to admit that I cannot embrace a theology that does not acknowledge mishap, missed boats and missed opportunities, accidents and tragedy. Although I accept that good can indeed sometimes come from these types of experiences I can’t make that leap and accordingly declare that these things were meant to happen or that we chose on some level for them to happen.

I still believe in tragedy – in senseless deaths; painful, inexplicable losses; and acts of unfathomable evil. I don’t believe, for instance, that the torture victim chose before his/her birth to be tortured in order to advance his/her spiritual journey. Such a theology, to my mind at least, absolves us – as individuals and as a society – from taking responsibility for much of the injustice and suffering in our world.

No, I believe that any good that comes from injustice and tragedy, from mishap and just plain bad luck comes from our response to such experiences, not the experiences themselves.

Another way of saying this is that it doesn’t have to be the events of our life that define us but how we choose to respond to these events.

So how does any of this relate to Jesus and his words about the fullness of life?

Well, Jesus was clearly someone who was conscious and open to the complexity of the human condition. Yet he also recognized the presence of God within each of us as we struggle together with these complexities. He didn’t avoid life but modeled or exemplified for us ways to respond to life that are affirming, liberating, and which reveal the transforming love of God.

According to theologian John Sanford, it is this profound depth of awareness and his way of responding to life that enables us to recognize and declare Jesus divine.

Sanford also notes that throughout his life and ministry, Jesus called others to likewise cultivate this depth of consciousness – to recognize and claim, in other words, the sacred within themselves and within their relationships with others.

Thus for me, to be Christian, to be a follower of the Christ way that Jesus so powerfully and beautifully embodied, is to be a fully conscious entity in the world. Jesus calls us to consciousness, to awareness – about ourselves and about our world. And through such consciousness we’re going to know and experience life in all its complexity, in all its fullness.

Being conscious means being aware of all sorts of things – both life-affirming and life-denying. It means acknowledging tragedy as an inescapable part of the human condition. It means sharing with others both the joy and pain of life. And in our compassionate and proactive responses to this range of experience, this fullness of life, we get the opportunity to build community and to learn what it means to be a loving and relational human being. We get to learn and experience all that relationship entails – free will, responsibility, journey, trust, love, transformation.

With all this in mind (and in heart) perhaps one say that God desires to be in relationship with us and so created a universe wherein finiteness, process, and unpredictability exist, and accordingly the potential for engagement and relationship, through which we experience the loving and transforming presence of God.

This type of theology, this way of thinking and talking about God is very different to one that demands submission to a puppet=master God who causes and directs every single detail of our lives and thus all manner of mishap and disaster. I’ve journeyed beyond that type of theology, partly as a result of how I’ve chosen to reflect upon and respond to difficult and challenging times in my life – responses that have attuned me to God’s loving presence.

I could have, for instance, so easily allowed my experience of Ahmed to embitter and harden me. At the other extreme I could have held on for years to the fantasy of a relationship with him. My chosen response – one that I continue to live daily – has been one of letting go, one of gratitude, and one of openness to new possibilities.

It’s a response that is best illustrated by the following prayer – one that I rote in the form of a letter to Ahmed after a visit with him a few years back.

Ahmed, Did you know that when I’m with you my life seems to take on a new dimension? I actually notice it more when we’ve parted – things seem duller, less alive when I’m not in your presence. I’m not sure what it is about you, I just know you possess something very special which a very deep part of me, perhaps the deepest part of me is moved by, enlivened by, turned on by.

I’m slowly learning that perhaps it’s just enough to experience and be thankful. Part of me would ove to hold on to the experience, capture it, express it with you in a very outward and physical way. But because of who you are and how you’re orientated at a very deep level, I can’t. And there’s th frustration, the paradox, the mystery.

So all I can do is thank you for being you. And thank God that you’re part of my life; that I’ve known you, that my life has been made richer and fuller because of your presence in it.

That’s ultimately all I can hold onto – that gratitude. And even this I offer to God, with a fuller and happier heart for knowing you.


My words of long ago remind me of Chilean author Isabelle Allende’s contention that life is all about letting go. She certainly would know, having lost her father to an early death, her adult daughter to hospital negligence, and her country to a military coup sponsored by the CIA. I agree with Allende that life is about learning to deal with loss, learning to let go. Yet it’s also about learning to be and stay open and hopeful in the wake of such loss.

For as Bastian discovers in The Neverending Story, the way to the Water of Life, the fullness of life, is indeed one that is long and varied. Yet rather than blame or rail against a God who sets the course, let us follow the example of Jesus and consciously seek to recognize and celebrate the God who walks beside us as we discover, and at times forge the paths that lead to the fullness of human and thus sacred life.

Let us, like Bastian, come to understand that the range and complexity of our experiences – the fullness of our journey – is what ultimately brings us to an awareness of life, an awareness of hat it means to be truly, fully, and divinely human.


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Gravity of Love
In the Garden of Spirituality – Toby Johnson
Passion, Tide and Time
Dew[y]-Kissed

Other Homilies:
The Soul of a Dancer – Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community, May 22, 2011.
Liberated to Be Together – Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community, October 4, 2009.
"More Lovely Than the Dawn": God as Divine Lover – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, August 30, 2009.
Dispatches from the Periphery – Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community, October 5, 2008.
The Harvest Within the Heart – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, July 17, 2005.
Disarming the Weapons Within – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, November 29, 2004.
Soul Deep – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, June 20, 2004.
Something We Dare Call Hope – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, November 9, 2003.
On the Road with Punk Rockers and Homeless Mothers – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, October 19, 2003.
Praying for George W. Bush – Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, January 2003.
What We Learn from the Story of the Magi – St. Stephen's Catholic Church, January 2, 2000.

Image: Standing on sacred ground somewhere in between – southern end of Town Beach, Port Macquarie, February 2010. (Photo: Gordon J. Bayly)


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