Sunday, July 6, 2008

Keep It Simple

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen. Matthew 11.28

A young woman who was newly recovering from alcoholism complained to her AA sponsor, a program veteran, “I just don’t get this whole God-thing, and prayer doesn’t make any sense to me at all. What am I supposed to do?”

Her sponsor replied, “Here is what you do. Every morning when you wake-up go into the bathroom, take a bar of soap, and write, ‘Help’ on the bathroom mirror. At the end of the day, just before you go to bed, go back into the bathroom, wipe off the mirror, and then write ‘Thank You’ on it with a bar of soap. Repeat the process daily.”

“But, but,” the young woman stammered, “Who am I supposed to be saying this to?” “Darling,” said her sponsor, “you don’t need to worry about that.”

The secret to spiritual well-being is really quite simple. It is a matter of having the humility to ask for help, and to be grateful for what we are given. When we do this, we discover that our burden is a whole lot lighter. Unfortunately, we tend to try to make life a whole lot more complicated.

No wonder Jesus says that these things are hidden from the wise and the intelligent, and have been revealed to infants instead. Our humungous brains are constantly elaborating, abstracting, and analyzing, and so we often overlook the simple truths of life. And if we are at all successful by the standards of our society, we tend toward an attitude of entitlement and self-sufficiency that makes it very hard to embrace humility and gratitude. Others might think we are weak if we ask for help. And why should we be grateful when we believe we’ve earned everything we have?

But if we are willing to see through our elaborate self-justifications and illusions about life, we know down deep inside the truth of our vulnerability. We require the help of countless others just to get through each day – from the bus driver who gets us to work, to the migrant farm worker who harvested our lunch, and the folks who remove our trash for us. And that doesn’t even begin to include our psychological and emotional needs to be seen, heard, and held by others.

Are we responsible for our birth? Do we make the air we breath? Did we set in motion the hydrological cycles that provide our water? So very much has been given to us – everything that we need, really – not because we earned it, but simply by virtue of our being alive in this moment. How can we not be aware of the infinite debt of gratitude that we owe to our ancestors, to our neighbors, to the earth, to God?

Asking for help and being grateful should be like breathing in and breathing out, the fundamental rhythm of our lives. This is what we are invited to learn from Jesus, who is gentle and humble in heart. We make life much harder than it needs to be when we try to do it all, figure it all out, and pretty much control everything our self. In fact, such a way of living is a sure recipe for feeling overwhelmed and isolated. How much lighter our burdens would be, if we spent half as much time appreciating what we have as we do resenting what we don’t have (and often don’t really need).

So, if this is all so simple, why is it so hard to do?

It is hard because we fear acknowledging our dependency upon others and, ultimately, upon God. We are not so sure we can trust that we will have a future if we are not in control of it. And so we substitute our own will for God’s will, and try to make God a prisoner of our own plans and projects rather than subjecting ourselves to the yoke of humility and gratitude.

We want to bend Reality to the shape of our will, rather than bring our will in line with Reality. We are like the enthusiastic young man, just graduated from plumbing school, who was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it intently for several minutes and then said, “I think I can fix this.” But what if the point of life is to enjoy it, rather than fix it?

Let me tell you a little secret that most religious people – especially the do-gooder types, whether liberal or conservative – seem unable to grasp: life can not be fixed if it is not first enjoyed. We can not heal what we do not love. We can not change what we do not accept.

“Someday you will understand that you are seeking what you already have,” said the Master to an intense disciple.
“Then why do I not see it now?”
“Because you are trying to.”
“Must I then make no efforts?”
“If you relax and give it time,” said the Master, “it will make itself known.”

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” said Jesus, “for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” If we are willing to accept the yoke of humility and gratitude, we can relax and let God be God. We can begin to rest in the joy and wonder of the present moment, which doesn’t depend upon us one bit, and THEN perhaps we will be in a fit spiritual state to be of service to others.

Self-will is the heavy burden that we bear. Rather than fix our problems, we need to dissolve the ego that caused them in the first place. When we accept Jesus’ yoke, replacing self-will with God’s will, resting in Reality rather than trying to control it, many of the problems that used to trouble us seem to melt away. We can spend more time enjoying life rather than trying to fix it.

Let me give you a homely example. My work requires me to attend a fair number of meetings, generally meetings to discuss issues and plan programs about which I usually have an opinion. Now, I have a choice when I attend a meeting. I can decide that I have the answers and that I’m entitled to enlighten you with them, treating any resistance to my desire as a problem to be solved through persuasion if possible, domination or manipulation if necessary. If things don’t go my way, I’m a failure or others are bad and wrong, or both. You can image how pleasant meetings are when I show up in that way.

On the other hand, I can decide simply to be present to my experience in the course of the meeting. I can be vulnerable with others, admitting what I don’t know and when I am wrong, and grateful for the wisdom and forbearance that they bring to our interaction. Conflict will not be a problem to be solved, but an inevitable reality to be embraced. I can accept whatever outcome emerges, entrusting the process to God. Such meetings are a pleasure rather than a heavy burden.

Each week as we gather around this Table we have the opportunity to learn anew from Jesus, to lay down the heavy burden of self-will and take upon ourselves the yoke of humility and gratitude. We acknowledge our dependence upon God and one another, and we offer thanksgiving for all that we have received in our creation and redemption in Christ. We leave the fixing and controlling to God, and focus on the accepting and enjoying instead.

“Help” and “thank you.” It really is that simple. Amen.

Note: The story of the plumber is from Antony De Mello’s Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations and the dialogue between the master and the disciple is from his Awakening: Conversations with the Masters.

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