4 Easter: That Terrible Trinity

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Okay, this is a little weird for a sermon,
but it’s all I got for today.

Of all the creatures on this blue planet,
the two with whom we have
the most generous relationship,
are cats and dogs.
Here is a basic difference between
cats, dogs, and humans.

I have lived 23,861 days
give or take a few.
A dog would have no concept of days,
every minute of every day being all there is.
A cat could care less about the past,
and its only concern about the future
is how to get the best out of it.

A human
can actually calculate the number of days,
obsess about what was missed
and fret about what is to come
all without ever stopping
to experience the moment that is.

Now the truth is,
we have no idea what it is like
inside the mind of a cat or dog, it is
just our projection.
In this case, mine.

But being human,
we all share that
like germs on a grease spot.

Past, present, and future are so human –
maybe even uniquely human
among the creatures on this planet.

Each one of us lives in a hall of mirrors
made up of those three panels –
past, present, and future.
We cannot escape it,
it is what defines us,
and how well we manage
those relationships
will determine our wellness –
spiritual and otherwise.

The past, only lived out in the memory,
is chock full of
and sorrow.

The future, only lived out in fantasies
or projections of the mind, is where
and anticipation live.

Everything else hangs out in the present.
Love, joy, grief, pain, and gratitude
are all present tense.

Time, like manna, cannot be collected
or stacked up in a pile like dirty dishes
nor stored like plasma
or last summers canned tomatoes.

Time is a use-it-or-lose-itkind of thing.
And yet we act as if time
is a hand of cards we hold –
the pastare the tricks we have collected
and stacked in neat little piles
at our place at the table,
while the future
is a brand new deck
we are about to draw from.

But in fact, we only have
what we are holding at the moment.
We can no more stack our days
in the sleeve of memories
than we can predict the future;
and we can no more re-live our memories
than we can play the future
as if it were a sequence on a DVD.

Re-living the past and predicting the future
are equally illusory
and equally seductive.
The proof of this pudding
is that Goddoes not reside
in either the past or the future,

That is why we have great difficulty
encountering God.
God only resides in the present.
Encountering the holy
is elusive and capricious,
and darn impossible to hold onto,
and hard on us humans.

Of that terribly Trinity
– past, present, future –
we love two and hate the other.
We fondle the past with great pleasure,
and beg the future
as a pauper at the feet of a king.
But from the present,
we hide our face as if
the moment were a horrible
misshapen victim.

Joan Borysenko helped me
to understand the power
of living in the moment,
something I had heard so much about
from every religion I studied
but found elusive.

She is a physician and researcher
who was on staff at
the Harvard Mind/Body Institute
before peeling off on her own publishing career.
I once heard her describe the power
of the present moment
as she discovered it in her own life.

She told us that as a very young child
she was gripped with a debilitating obsessive/compulsive disorder.
Everything had to be just so for her,
counted and placed to perfection
before she could go anywhere or do anything.
She described her liberation
from this prison of rigid compulsion
when she discovered
the perfect freedom
of the present moment.
All of a sudden one day
at a young age, as if
by spontaneous healing,
she found herself in the present moment
instead of living in anxiety about the future.

Whereas she was used to living in the dread
of “what if,” she discovered
that by residing in the present moment
there was no anxiety or remorse,
only what was happening right then and there.
That revelation freed her
from stacking, sorting, counting, and planning.
Her life-long recovery had begun.

Now most of us do not live with the tyranny
of that kind of powerful obsession
but many people struggle with something.
Any recovering alcoholic or drug user
can tell us about the power
of living in the present moment,
when memory calls for a drink
and anxiety insists on getting high.
“Living one day at a time,”
or one hour at a time,
or one minute at a time,
even when it is not the happiest moment,
leads to freedom from past and future.

Being in the moment
keeps us from obsessing
on what was or what will be
and allows us to focus on
just now– even if just now
is a struggle, actually, especially
if just nowis a struggle.

Everything else
is what one Buddhist meditation teacher
calls our “planning mind.”

Planning mind is that mental tendency we have
to race ahead of this moment
in anticipation of what we need to do,
what we have left undone, and
what we have forgotten.

Then again, sometimes
our thoughts fall back into yesterday
where we do comparison shopping
with the present.
By which I mean that
sometimes we nurseour nostalgia
as if it were honeyed mother’s milk
we could never give up.

Sometimes we suck on resentments
as if a straw in a snow cone,
knowing that the sweetest stuff
is still down there somewhere
if we can just get to it.

So the past draws us with power,
as does the future
even though both are at least somewhat illusion.

For example,
memory is not a photographic essay
of what happened once,
nor video evidence
of who was there and what happened.
Memory always wears the lens of the present,
coloring what would otherwise
be a grainy old black and white movie.
Memory adds details that were never there,
fitting it for the present mood or cause,
changing it with or without
intention and yet forever.
Memory is indeed a trickster.
It is a great gift, of course,
but one that can confuse our senses,
color what was,
and blind us to the present moment.

Likewise our “planning mind,”
while a benefit,
can cut us off from the present
like a butcher knife.
While acknowledging and embracing
our “planning mind,” which stutters over
what has not yet happened,
we must also learn to discipline its voice
to only speak when spoken to.
Indeed, we need memory
to call to us from out of the past
and remind us of what we have learned.
And we need our planning mind
to patiently stay in place, silent
in the future
until evoked for a specific purpose.
Focusing on either the past or future
can be tremendously helpful to humans
when used surgically for a specific task.
But they are a terribly debilitating
blunt instrument when used indiscriminately.

Practicing simple presence,
being held in the moment
and refusing to look back or forward,
is an exercise we need in our repertoire.

Now, why in the world,
did I get on this subject today?

Psalm 23 and John’s Jesus
talking about hearing his voice,
are all about our ability
to enter and hold
the present moment.

The guidance of still waters,
following pathways of justice,
enduring the vale of death’s shadow,
the consolation of God’s presence
in the face of foes…all of it,
is only available in the present moment.

The voice of the holy,
whether we ascribe it to Jesus
or the Holy Spirit
or a still small voice,
is cradled only in the present moment.
We can remember such times from the past
and hope for such times in the future,
but what was and is to come
are trustworthy only when mediated
by the voice of God in the present.

This should probably be a “how-to” sermon,
but in truth, every liturgy
is a practice session in mindfulness,
or being present in the moment.
That is what we are invited to do,
enter into this moment
and experience the presence of God among us.
The prayers,
the music,
the candles,
the bread and wine…
that is what all of this invites us into:
here and now
in the presence of God.
The one fly in the ointment
is this thing – is the sermon.

The sermon pulls us into memory
or points us toward action
and so messes with the whole thing.

Which means that once again,
I am part of the problem and not the solution!

Anyway, for what it is worth, mindfulness
or being held in the present moment,
is something we can practice.
In fact, it needs to be a part
of our spiritual practice.
I would go so far as to say, it needs to be
part of our baptismal practice.
The shepherd –
the voice, the rod, staff, and all that we seek –
are found in the present.
What’s crazy, is my dog already knows that.