Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making Room – From "Small and Full" to Spacious

ESR Director of Supervised Ministry Stephanie Crumley-Effinger delivered the following message in ESR Worship on February 20, 2014. You can read more from Stephanie on her blog, Surgery and Since.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — "This is not dead," —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — "This is enow *
Unto itself — 'Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."
* enough

(Thomas Edward Brown, Old John and Other Poems, 1893 )

Scripture Readings:
Philippians 2: 5-7  NRSV
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Luke 10: 41b-2a
“you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one."

Mark 4: 39
[Jesus] got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Psalm 46: 10a
“Be still, and know that I am God . . ."

We live in a period of high demand for our energy, attention, and time. Multitasking, efficiency, and accomplishment are widely held up as virtues for all to achieve. In middle-class American culture, overworking is expected, and is typically a source of admiration, bragging points and self-esteem.

Communities of faith are no exception; I can’t find the source but see much evidence for the quote that "work is the drug of choice for the church". The sense of responsibility to live our faith by doing more for God and our needy world  tends to drown out the voices calling for centeredness, contemplation, and balance in life. While stewardship of the earth and of our time and finances are often addressed, there is relatively little said about stewardship of our bodies. In Christianity in general and in my own context of Quakers in specific, the influence of the ancient Gnostic anti-body attitude greatly affects us still.

Even while Quakers admire 18th century John Woolman in changing his occupation so as to have less business responsibility and more time for centered listening and responding to God's leadings this is seen as an exception rather than a model for us.

My Christian formation and practice resulted in my seeing faithfulness as something that required a great deal of activity, to which my body needed to be a quiet and obedient servant. When it would protest, usually in the form of back pain, I was annoyed at having to give in to its insistence. After years of chiropractic care and then physical therapy, adding daily exercises and being careful about certain activities such as carrying heavy things or sitting for long periods of time were my only concessions to my body's needs.  I resented the limitations and felt a general sense of annoyance at my body, akin to how I experience a computer when it malfunctions or the washing machine when it breaks.

Then two years ago, in February of 2012, a number of small tumors were discovered in my liver, and after additional tests I was diagnosed with a slow-growing malignancy, carcinoid cancer, which had metastasized to my liver from a primary tumor in my intestines. Unlike most cancers, carcinoid, in the form that I have, develops very slowly and it can be years before treatments that are typically used for cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiation, are needed. That June I had surgery to remove the original tumor and, following a summer of recovery, returned to teaching. But after a few weeks I was experiencing tremendous fatigue and had to make major modifications to my activity level (such as sitting instead of standing) to get through my days. Another round of testing resulted in every test for a reason for this disabling lack of energy being negative. Last summer my oncologist concluded that I had cancer-related fatigue, which according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network is found in 75% of people with metastatic cancer. A medical leave this past fall semester was devoted to seeking recovery. With the assistance of a clinical health psychologist who specializes in working with people who have fatigue, it was a valuable time of learning and growth such that I am able to be here this semester. It was successful not in eliminating the fatigue, but in diminishing it and in teaching me ways to manage it more effectively.

One of the most helpful parts of the treatment was an eight week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), at the I. U. Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Early in the course we were given the homework assignment for each day of the next week to sit for ten minutes in silence focusing on our breath. When thoughts came we were gently to release them rather than get drawn into thinking. I could hardly stand it. I was very restless and constantly distracted with thinking.  Despite being a quiet-appreciating Quaker for almost forty years, in learning mindfulness practice I discovered the extent to which, even in the silence of waiting worship or individual centering, my still body harbors a relentlessly busy mind.

For many years I had appreciated the [above] poem, especially the lines “thou art all replete with very thou, and hast such shrewd activity” and being “small and full”. Indeed I had often prayed to be large and spacious so that there would be more room for God. What I had failed to appreciate, though, was that my very ways of seeking God were themselves part of being small and full and “replete with very thou.” I had largely mastered the first level of being able to sit quietly, the second one of being less reliant on words, and the third step of moving my thoughts from making “to do” lists to focusing on spiritual questions and themes where God was working with me. But now I was being challenged to move to a fourth level of making room, that of stilling even my theological questions and thoughts, so as to present my mind and heart fully to God in the silence.

This was very helpful, although challenging but I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that mindfulness practice and thus the MBSR course developed out of the Buddhist tradition. What did it mean for me as a Christian? Two questions became forcefully present -- How can I be both faithful and well?  What does it mean for living sustainably, as a good steward of my time, energy, gifts, commitments, and body, that the central figure of the Christian faith died?

I wondered the resources in Christian tradition for careful and kind stewardship of our bodies, since there is so much that reinforces a body-negating view. While that remains something for further exploration, I have been drawn to the theme of incarnation, of Jesus being present in a body. The first passage [above], from Philippians 2, is set in the context of Jesus’ diminishing of himself from divine to human, and Paul’s model for acting in mutually caring ways toward one another. But what I lift out for our consideration is that Jesus being present in human form can be seen as an affirmation of the importance of being embodied. Presumably God could have simply sent a spiritual resource, but instead we are told that God’s method was to provide a person, a someone, a presence integrating bodyspiritmind. Or as John I:14 states, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Similarly, the Genesis stories of God creating the world celebrate in loving detail the physical, material creation. This is especially visible in the Genesis 2: 7 account of God forming the first human being by hand and breathing life into this being.     

The call to be still and focused is a gift of the other three scripture passages -- from Luke, Jesus inviting Martha to stewardship of that moment, from Mark the story of Jesus stilling the storm, and from Psalm 46 the admonition to be still and know God. In these and many other sources, the Christian tradition is replete with guidance to take time from the fullness of activity and thoughts, to make room for God.

Some of the words of the guided imagery CD that my friend loaned me were a bit startling to hear: “ . . . my body has been teaching me something useful, that this cancer has been challenging me to learn and change and grow.” “I tell this cancer these things: ‘thank you for teaching me to stop and listen. Thank you for reminding me of what is truly important. You can go now.’" These words were a bit startling to hear but they are absolutely true to and resonant with my experience of the past two years.

I encourage you, especially if being “small and full” and treating your body like a machine are issues for you also, to make room for God by stilling yourself and seeking to be a faithful steward of God’s gift of your own precious and unique incarnation in this your body in this and succeeding moments. May it not take a “wake-up call” from your body, such as I have gotten, for you to do so.

To lead into open worship, here are words of George Fox, adapted by Paulette Meier:

“Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit, from thy own thoughts. Then thou wilt feel the principle of God, to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive God’s strength and power from whence life comes; whereby thou wilt receive God’s strength, to allay all blustering storms and tempests.”

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