Isaac Newton theorized that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
He may not have been considering human activity, but I have observed that we follow the same patterns. We will usually continue to do the same things (both good disciplines and bad habits) until something intervenes and gets us on a different track. And conversely, we will remain stagnantly at rest until something intervenes and gets us going.
It is that second that we want to consider this morning. We have been talking about below-the-waterline issues in our lives – matters of the soul, the heart, the spirit. Being out of sight, they are often out of mind, until… Until something happens in our life that disrupts that calm sea and smooth sailing.
I’ve mentioned my indebtedness to Gordon MacDonald and his book, The Life God Blesses, as the inspiration for this sermon series. And in this book, MacDonald calls those events disruptive moments, and he suggests four of them.
The first he calls “The Disruptive Moment of Crisis.” And while we often overuse this word “crisis,” it refers to any event for which we are unprepared and incapable of coping. It is an event we cannot control, and most of the time it is traumatic and overwhelming.
If you have ever gone through a flood or a tornado or some kind of natural disaster that destroyed your home and wiped out everything you own, it leaves people heartbroken and desperate. Maybe a financial downturn that wiped out your life savings and left you angry and hopeless. Maybe the loss of a job or a failed marriage or the death of a child or a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or a terrible accident. Crises can take on many forms, and they have a way of disrupting our lives in ways that we never imagined.
But they also have a way of forcing us to look below the waterline, and sometimes they have the ability to open a new world and create a new life that we also never imagined possible.
Howard Rutledge was a man who experienced that kind of rebirth in the midst of crisis.
Howard Rutledge was an Air Force pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam during the early stages of the war. He spent sever miserable years in the hands of his captors before being released at the war’s conclusion. In his book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, he reflect upon the resources from which he drew in those difficult days when life seemed so intolerable: During those longer periods of enforced reflection it became so much easier to separate the important from the trivial, the worthwhile from the waste. For example, in the past, I usually worked or played hard on Sundays and had no time for church. For years Phyllis [his wife] had encouraged me to join the family at church. She never nagged or scolded – she just kept hoping. But I was too busy, too preoccupied, to spend one or two short hours a week thinking about the really important things. Now the sights and sounds and smells of death were all around me. My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for a steak…. Now I wanted to know about that part of me that will never die…. I had completely neglected the spiritual dimension of my life…. Now I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church. But in heartbreak solitary confinement there was no preacher, no Sunday school teacher, no Bible, no hymn book, no community of believers to guide and sustain me…. I had completely neglected the spiritual dimension of my life. It took prison to show me how empty life is without God.
This is crisis – the disruptive moment – and in Rutledge’s case, it was the beginning of a new life for him. It forced him below the waterline to discover that inner space and what possibilities there might be there for him if he connected with God.
The second is what MacDonald calls “The Disruptive Moment of Wonderment.” If crisis describes a moment we cannot control, wonderment (or astonishment) describes a moment we cannot explain. A moment that is disruptive because it leaves us breathless, stupefied, in awe.
Moments of wonderment cause us to realize again that there is a reality beyond our understanding. We ponder it and our mind reels with confusion, as if to say, “This is too wonderful, and its cause or its message exceeds my capacity to appreciate.”
Whittaker Chambers, a communist and atheist of early last century became a believer later in life. He describes that moment of wonderment that ignited his belief when he held his newborn daughter for the first time:
My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (his atheistic view). They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I did not know that, at the moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.
I vividly remember a similar moment a couple of years ago. Sonograms weren’t really available when we were having children, but on a visit to our daughter’s in Wichita, she invited us to come to her checkup where they did an ultrasound.
Diana and I stood there in the exam room while the technician held the instrument and moved it back and forth across Alicia’s belly as we watched on the screen and saw our grandson move and stretch and yawn and suck his thumb. It was in color and we could see the blood pumping through his heart and veins. It was a surreal experience, peering into our daughter’s body and seeing life grow.
The prophet Isaiah described a moment of wonderment as he stood in the Temple seeing a powerful vision of God. It occurred on the heels of a crisis moment (the death of Israel’s king Uzziah). He is there in the Temple and suddenly he is transported to this heavenly scene where God appears in glory with his angels filling the Temple. Isaiah writes, “I saw the Lord, high and lifted up.” And then this moment of awe becomes disruptive as he realizes his own sinfulness in the presence of God’s holiness and falls to his face crying, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
In that disruptive moment, Isaiah became intensely aware of what we are calling “below-the-waterline” issues.
Those kinds of moments fill the pages of the Bible. Moses had one as he stood before a burning bush; Jonah had one in the innards of a great fish; a leper who was healed by Jesus; a man possessed by demons who is made whole by Jesus; even King Nebuchadnezzar had one as he peered into the blazing furnace and saw four men standing unharmed by the flames.
You have probably experienced some of those moments as well. One summer evening, Diana and I stood under a cloudless sky in Utah and looked up at the Milky Way galaxy stretching across the vastness of the universe and were struck by what an awesome God could create all that. We have stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and marveled at the creative beauty of our creator. We have held our newborn children and been humbled by the intricate precision with which God forms a human being in the womb.
Not every person who has a disruptive moment of awe has the same response. Some observe something that is beyond comprehension and dismiss it and refuse to let it affect them. For example, those Jews who watched Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and then rush back to the chief priests with the report that Jesus is too dangerous to be allowed to live; or a person who observes the wonders of creation and dismisses them as mere physical events of geology or meteorology or evolution.
An old nursery rhyme hints at what it is like to have one’s sights set so low that wonderment is lost:
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you see there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.
The third disruptive moment is “The Disruptive Moment of Aging.” If crisis describes an event we cannot control, and if wonderment describes an event we cannot explain, aging is a process we cannot avoid.”
In about eight months I will turn sixty – that’s a sobering thought. That is old to some, young to others. I noticed about a week ago on my receipt at Culver’s that they gave me a senior discount (and they didn’t even ask me!) I didn’t know whether to be offended or appreciative.
I’m sure I have much yet to learn about aging, but I am well acquainted with the curriculum. I can no longer take my body for granted; my mind finds it difficult to memorize as easily as it once did; I need reading glasses; my children think I need hearing aids. I am realizing that I am no longer on the rise of my career, but looking toward retirement. Dreams and aspirations have settled into acceptance. I have to face the fact that I have now lived more years than I have yet to live.
And how shall we live through the aging process, this experience we cannot avoid? Some will simply do all they can to deny its happening and thus, crazy as it sounds, try to avoid the unavoidable. The avoiders will dye their hair, undergo cosmetic surgery, wear stylish clothes. Some men will divorce their wife and find a younger woman in the hopes it will make them feel young again. Perhaps if they do this, they can circumvent for a few more years the stark message that life is advancing, even winding down.
Over the years I have had older friends tell me that life begins to speed up as we grow older, and when I was in my twenty’s and thirty’s I thought they were just imagining it, but then when I passed forty, and then fifty, I became one of those telling others how quickly the months and years seemed to pass. And I find myself telling new parents to live every moment of their children’s lives and take the time to pay attention and be engaged because those years will pass so quickly. Your child will be going off to their first day of kindergarten and you’ll turn around and they will be bringing home your first grandchild.
And so, if you’re younger than me this morning, don’t dismiss these words and think they don’t apply to you, because soon enough they will.
Now, to someone for whom human life is all there is, aging is frightening. Time moves faster and faster; the scope of one’s world tends to lessen; negative feelings, irritations and fears seem harder to keep secret. Each day brings us one step closer to death, and that is terrifying.
But what if aging causes one to look more deeply into the soul? What if it is possible to find what eluded that naïve host of explorers, an actual fountain of perpetual youthfulness built upon energy that comes from the soul?
Consider the thoughts of Paul: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Cor 4:16 – 5:5)
What if in this inevitable and unavoidable process of aging, we become more acutely aware of those things that are most important in life, and instead of being preoccupied with the things of the body that are failing we become increasingly alive to the things of the soul? What if, instead of our world shrinking as we become increasingly inward focused, our world expands with thoughts of heaven and eternity?
In India, life is seen in four phases. The first phase is the student where one sets out to learn all he can from his wiser elders. Then there is the phase of the householder where one marries, establishes a home and a family, and provide what is needed. A third phase comes in the wake of the householder period, and that is the phase of the seeker. The seeker goes out into the world to learn what is really important in the light of many years of life. The seeker is prepared to listen in humility and is not distracted with the need to prove himself or demonstrate his power. But then, the earnest seeker becomes the wise man to whom the students come. The wise man is the one who speaks out of the soul and has become comfortable with, but respectful of the deeper mysteries. One finds peace and wisdom in the presence of the wise person.
And none of this can happen apart from aging.
There is a final moment: “The Disruptive Moment of Spiritual Discipline.” Crisis: what we cannot control. Wonderment: what we cannot explain. Aging: what we cannot avoid. And now the fourth of these disruptive moments, which moves us inward and downward below the waterline toward soul territory.
Spiritual disciplines are those things that – more than likely – most of us would rather not do. Discipline is that act of inducing pain and stress in one’ life in order to grow into greater toughness, capacity, endurance, or strength. So spiritual discipline is pressing the soul into greater effort so that it will enlarge its capacity to hear God speak and, as a result, to generate inner force, or spiritual energy, that will guide and empower one’s mind and outer life.
Back to Newton’s laws of motion. The fact that we use a word like discipline in spiritual matters is probably an admission that life has a tendency to pursue disorderliness and laziness, and it takes some force to set it in motion.
Athletes such as the runner, the swimmer, and the wrestler all understand that pain is an indicator that one is crossing the threshold into growth and increased performance. They understand that only as they exert themselves beyond the comfortable and pain-free level of exercise will they begin to experience greater ability to perform.
And so it is with those issues that exist below the waterline, at soul-level. Nothing of value is ever acquired without discipline. Here it is that one learns – to use the words of Thomas a Kempis – to walk inwardly. One who would get in touch with the soul must do so with diligence and determination. One must overcome feelings, fatigue, distractions, bad habits and sinful desires. One must not be afraid of silence, of stillness, or of entering the overpowering presence of God with a humble spirit.
Of the four disruptive moments we have talked about, spiritual discipline is the one we can bring under daily control. The first two – crisis and wonderment – are often unplanned. Aging is something we know about but usually pretend won’t happen. But discipline is something we can choose to embrace on a daily basis. The choice lies in the decision to set aside the necessary time, embrace the habits of spiritual growth, and engage with a waiting God who seeks our communion.