I officiated at a surprise wedding yesterday. The couple planned a pig roast, combined with a murder mystery role-play, with their wedding ceremony mid-way through. As guests arrived they received special envelopes containing their instructions. They knew ahead what character they would be playing, and most came dressed in costumes to help them live out their part. Guests were to mix and mingle in character, and work into the conversations their pieces of information, the clues that would lead towards the killer. Before long, there was a horrible scream. The victim, the character of the obnoxious party planner, was found dead, and it was time to start searching for clues.
This was my cue to sneak away with the bride and groom, and set up on the patio, which had been transformed into a “courthouse”. The guests were led by the clues, and by a few very directive characters, to the courthouse, for the next surprise.
Once the guests were all seated, Pachelbel’s Canon began to play over the speakers, and flower girl, bridesmaid, witnesses, and the couple appeared, to the happy surprise of the guests. I welcomed everyone to the wedding, which I felt, even after being part of several hundred weddings over the years, was touching, and poignant, and very beautiful. The couple had both been married before. She was widowed, and he had been divorced after a very difficult first marriage. They each have grown daughters who stood with them as witnesses. Two people who despaired of ever finding another person to share their lives, celebrated with great joy, their decision to marry.
I really like this couple. They are both about my age, and have lived long enough to grow out of some of the pre-occupations and confusions of younger years. They seem to have their focus on the right things. Their wedding day was about love, and commitment, and sharing their joy with the people closest to them, in a creative, and fun way. I felt when I asked the friends and family to join me in asking God to be with them, and bless them, the couple really wanted blessing.
That the setting was a mystery role-play gave me great material to work with for the wedding sermon. I talked about how the real mystery that gathered us together was not the pretend murder, but the mystery of life. How are we supposed to live? What is true? What is worth giving ourselves to? In terms that fit with what we are about here, “Who are we, and who or what is God?”
I have noticed over the last decade as I have worked with wedding couples choosing their vows, there is a real aversion to using phrases like “as long as we both shall live”, or “til death do us part”. Couples tell me they don’t want to talk about death or dying on their wedding day. They don’t want to bring the mood down, or make anybody who has lost a mate feel sad. Some couples just plain don’t want to think about the fact that they will not be young forever. But as Ecclesiastes said thousands of years ago, “there is a time and purpose for every matter under heaven”, including “ a time to live and a time to die”. We know this is true, but we live in a culture that conspires to deny death, and encourages us to act like we are going to live forever. I think it is part of our consumerist way of living- that depends upon acquiring more and more, and ignoring the truth that there are natural limits.
Presiding at weddings where we are not supposed to talk about death, I see that in the name of keeping a happy mood, we sacrifice the opportunity to go deeper into meaning of the moment, and of our very lives. We have to face, and live with the discomfort of pondering our own death, in order to really grasp what is happening when a person promises themselves to another, for life. We have a limited number of days on earth. What we do with them, and how we spend them, is a big deal. If we choose not to think about it, and cushion ourselves with the illusion that we will always be young, even our biggest commitments and choices have a hollow, disposable tone to them.
This morning is the third and last in our series based on “Reaching Out”, by Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and author of more than 40 books about Christian spiritual life. His writing was rooted in deep and honest reflection on his own life, in light of his own experience of God as a living, transforming, healing presence. He modeled the insight that we come to know God more profoundly as we are look with loving eyes at the depths of ourselves.
Nouwen invites us to look at our Christian spiritual lives in terms of three movements. The movement from Loneliness to Solitude involves accepting a degree of separateness, aloneness, as a human reality. Each person is unique, and individual, and carries with them a certain mystery- there is no one just like them. If we are uncomfortable, or unwilling to be alone with ourselves, then we may never actually discover who we really are. We may never see ourselves the way God sees us. But if we begin to know, and to trust that we are loved by God, and that our value is rooted in that love, and not in all the other messages we have bought into about ourselves, we can grow to be more appreciative of the gift of ourselves.
The second movement is related to the first. If we are growing in our capacity to love and know ourselves as unique, and precious children of God, whose lives matter, then out of that more sure and secure sense of ourselves, we are free-er and more able to love other people. This is the movement from Hostility to Hospitality. Less afraid of the judgments and opinions of others, we become more secure in the knowledge of God’s love. Our relationships with others can be more generous, and less selfish.
The third movement, the one we are looking at today, is perhaps the hardest to talk about, and is the foundation for the other two. It is about our relationship with God. Nouwen calls it the movement from Illusion to Prayer.
We allow ourselves to live with comforting illusions, like the one about immortality. The illusion that we will never face death, so we don’t need to think about it, provides short term relief from anxiety and fear. But to the extent that the illusion allows us to escape reality, it also stops us from growing up, from becoming spiritually mature.
When we act like we will live forever, we also buy into the illusion that we are very powerful- we must be, if the laws of nature don’t apply to us. If we buy into the idea that we are powerful, and largely self-made, and self-sufficient, we may live as if we are the centre of our own little universe. We don’t really need anybody else, except to satisfy our appetites. With this exaggerated sense of ourselves, there is very little room in our hearts for other people, or for God. There is nothing like the anxious awareness of mortality, of the raw and painful fact we will die someday, to tune us into our basic human dependence. We depend upon God, and other people, for our very lives.
This seems to be the way it works. The journey to spiritual maturity takes us right into the midst of feelings we might prefer to avoid, in order to get to the God way of seeing things. On the other side of our fear of the unknown reality of death, is the invitation to place our trust in God, and God’s love. Beyond our fear of dependence on others, is realizing they are also dependent upon us, and that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves. We need people, and they need us to. We feel the pain of others, because we admit to our own basic neediness. Another word to describe that awareness of mutual need is compassion, or love.
All of these movements are about moving through the pain, and from anxiety about ourselves, and our own existence, towards God, and the love that comes from God.
The third movement, from Illusion to Prayer, is also about our illusions concerning God. Feeling insecure and confused about ourselves, and life, we might long for religion that presents a simple, knowable, manageable God. As we move through these illusions, and closer to reality, each journey through our own fearfulness brings us to a place of greater love, and real comfort.
As we give up the idea that we can know everything about God, we move towards humility, and can realize, to our great relief, we don’t actually have to have all the answers. That is God’s job. We don’t have to try to be God.
We can let go of the idea that we can totally understand God, and therefore control God. God is not manipulated by our prayers, or our piety. God’s love is not conditional upon us getting the words right, or making all the right choices. We can move towards a deeper trust that the One who is actually in charge is God, and not us. We are not as powerful or as responsible for everything as God. That takes a huge weight off of our shoulders.
All of Nouwen’s insights about Christian spiritual life are about relationships. How we relate to ourselves. How we relate to other people. How we relate to God. In each of these areas, we may begin with our tendency to feel insecure, and unsure, holding on to our easy answers and illusions. We may hesitate, and resist letting go of the easy answers, and resist going deeper, because it means facing and experiencing some pain. But that journey takes us to a profound awareness of the love that is at the heart of all things.
Solitude, our time alone can become looking at ourselves with soft loving eyes, with gratitude for life. Life with others can become richer for the love that flows through each person, love most deeply felt in the face of each other’s vulnerability. Our prayer time, our intentional time with God, becomes less about finding the right words to talk to God, and more about simply resting in God’s loving presence. God’s love is answer enough for all the questions, all the mysteries of life. Amen