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February 25, 2024 “Receiving Divine Guidance”

February 25, 2024 “Receiving Divine Guidance”

Lisa Wiens Heinsohn

Homily for St. John’s Episcopal Church by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn given February 25, 2024

The Second Sunday in Lent: Mark 8:31-38

My husband Jeff is an addiction counselor and has worked in this field for many years. Some of his clients have been homeless opiate addicts, and some have been celebrities with great wealth who have a wee drinking problem that is destroying their lives. Most of the initial treatment, traditionally 28 days of inpatient therapy, seems to be about moving people out of denial and into acknowledging the scope of their sickness. There is a running joke that describes the denial phase: “I’ve lost my job, I’ve lost my spouse, my kids won’t talk to me, I’m living under a bridge … but I can quit anytime I want.”

Getting people to see the truth, which is that the way they are living is destroying them and those around them, is hard. But the paradox is that acknowledging this painful reality is the gateway into healing. One of Jeff’s clients once said, “I feel like I have to give up everything to get one thing, sobriety.” Jeff turned it around and said, “No, you have to give up one thing, drinking, to get everything.”

Many of us are not addicts, but I think it is endemic in the human condition that we all seem to follow patterns of thinking and behavior that in the end don’t serve us or anyone else, but that are notoriously hard to change. The addiction to convenience that is driving climate change is one. We all know that the giant industries that have sprung up to serve convenience are some of the primary drivers of climate change. Yet our current lifestyles make it seem hard to avoid feeling like we need modern conveniences. Let me ask you something. If you give yourself a moment to be really honest, what in your current life needs transformation? Or, where have you been stuck? I’ve sometimes been stuck in chronic frustration or anger that comes out sideways. I’ve been stuck not knowing how to help people I love who are themselves stuck, and my efforts just make things worse. There have been periods I’ve felt so exhausted by the demands of work and family that it’s hard to muster the energy to make the changes I know I need. What about you?

Although we are capable of much wonderful change ourselves, it does seem that part of the human condition is to run up against limits in the amount of transformation we can accomplish using our egoic operating system, our usual mode of thinking and behaving. And perhaps because of this, many great spiritual traditions have practices that revolve around a kind of death and rebirth: a way to truly end things that do not serve in order to be born to a better way of living. Tibetan Buddhists deeply contemplate and even visualize their own death in order to lose the fear of death and to value each precious moment of this life, to live it in accordance with their deepest values. In many shamanic cultures throughout the world, there is a spiritual journey called “dismem-berment,” in which a person has a vision of their body literally being taken apart and put back together by their spiritual guides, in order let go of that which no longer works and to be re-arranged in a way serves divine purposes in life. And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus says something strange to his disciples and to the crowds around them. He says, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life, for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It seems there is something essential about letting go of some things in order to follow Jesus’ Way of Love. It seems that always clinging onto the way our lives are does not serve. So how do we do this?

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest who has written many books about the Christian Wisdom tradition, about Jesus as teaching a wisdom way of life. She says that that there are basically two reactions we as human beings can have to anything:

… either you will brace, harden, and resist, or you will soften, open, and yield. If you go with the former gesture, you will be catapulted immediately into your smaller self, with its animal instincts and survival responses. If you stay with the latter regardless of the outer conditions, you will remain in alignment with your innermost being, and through it, divine being can reach you . . . Bracing is never worth the cost.[1]

She goes on to explain that this inner yielding and softening does not mean external surrender or rolling over and playing dead. It is simply keeping the capacity to see truly, in order to move into whatever effortless and nonviolent action is called for in the moment out of the power and motivation of love. This is what Gandhi, and Dr. King, and Jesus all did. It is what we are called to experience and to live, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

For me the key to this stance of softness, of receptivity, is that what I am becoming soft to is not the thing that makes me want to run away or fight. It’s being soft and open to what the Spirit might say to me about the situation. It is the radical trust that I can receive divine guidance if I stay in a listening stance. Divine guidance can come from the deepest core of who you are. However you understand divine guidance, or listening for the Spirit, the point is that it comes from a place different than our normal egoic operating system. It comes from the spiritual mind which is located in the heart.

 In a way, learning to come from this stance of non-bracing, of openness, of receptivity to God in any and all circumstances, is akin to dying. It is a surrender to the flow of what actually is without losing one’s integrity in the process. It is a radical acceptance of things as they are which paradoxically is the precursor to change. We can have a deep, unshakeable, inner peace even as we face the storms in this world.

Let us go back to the question I asked you earlier. What in your life needs transformation? Or, where have you been stuck? What if there was a wealth of divine guidance available for you, a process of dying to what has been and rising to love and liberation, that you could experience in this? What if we could simply believe that change is possible, with God’s help?

I’d like to invite us to a short spiritual practice. Consider the thing that needs transformation in your life or the life of the world. Deeply feel what your stance has been toward that issue. Does your gut tighten? Do your shoulders or your jaws clench? Do you feel a hopelessness or numbness about it? Does it feel like your heart is a rock inside you?

Now, imagine your body and mind softening because help is available you hadn’t been in touch with before. Imagine you can ask God for help, for wisdom, and it will come from a source beyond what I’ve been calling your “egoic operating system”—the limbic, mind-spinning, fight or flight responses we all have. How might the Spirit provide guidance for you? It might come from imagination, or intuition, or something you heard twenty years ago that suddenly seems relevant. Even if that guidance doesn’t come right now or right away, we can practice deliberately softening our stance, throwing out any manic speed thinking we’ve been doing, and just being open to what guidance will come. It is there.

We can become open to losing things in order to gain the one thing that matters—our soul in alignment with God, a life that embodies divine light. We can accept the inevitable rhythms of life and death and rebirth, knowing that in God nothing is ever truly lost. What does God, your deepest and truest self, want to say to you? Amen.

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart,(Jossey-Bass, 2003) at Location 760 of 1385 (Kindle Cloud Reader).

10am Service