Starting Here, Starting Now

Any minute now my ship is coming in I’ll keep checking the horizon And I’ll stand on the bow And feel the waves come crashing Come crashing down, down, down on me

And you said,”Be still, my love Open up your heart Let the light shine in” Don’t you understand? I already have a plan I’m waiting for my real life to begin

– Colin Hay, “Waiting for My Real Life To Begin

They say that we teach what we most need to learn – and that is no truer than it is at this very moment. I’d like to tell you some things about me, and maybe the story will shed some light on today’s theme, starting here, starting now. I realized about a month ago, rather sheepishly I might add, that I’ve always been waiting for something in order to get my life on track, waiting for something so I could accomplish my goals.  “Just as soon as I finish school”… “Just as soon as I get a raise”… “Once the check comes in”…“As soon as I meet someone”… “Once I move”… “After I lose weight”…. And the second part of those sentences promises a wonderful future. An educated, rich, loving, beautiful, thin future.  The “just as soons” got even sharper in 2004, when I quit my corporate job due to mental and physical stress. I moved back here from NC, full of “just as soons” – getting a new job, moving out of my sister’s house, then of course the 18 months of “just as soon as the next doctor’s appointment… test… surgery” as I dealt with a severely damaged lumbar disk. It seems I have spent my adult life waiting for something to happen, or get finished, so that I could begin approaching something called a goal. This is further complicated by a vision I once had. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it was a sleep-deprived hallucination, but it has stuck with me for over a decade. In my vision, I was in a spa, with women pampering me – manicure and pedicure, facials, peeled grapes, handsome, shirtless men fanning me with palm fronds – the whole nine yards. An older, attractive man (who was some sort of divine god-figure) leaned in behind me to kiss my cheek. But instead of a kiss, he whispered two words: “Not yet.” I have no idea for certain what he was referring to, but it was clear I wasn’t ready, that I must wait some more. And so, I have been waiting for “yet” for a decade.   Now some of you may remember the last New Year’s sermon I gave in 2009. It was the first sermon of Linda Hoddy’s sabbatical, and I felt the weight of it. I spoke about the Church of 80% Sincerity – that when we give ourselves permission – the 20% or so – to mess up, we actually allow hope, love, and grace to come in. I spoke about being open to possibility, and not waiting for the other shoe to drop. I encouraged you all – and me – to allow for the ‘other shoe’ to be something good, not always something bad. It’s two years later now, and I have been better at this – much better.  In these two years, I have been more aware that grace is there for the taking. My editing and publishing business has gone in some interesting directions, because I was open to the possibility rather than focused on a strict business plan. I let love in from a surprising place – Minneapolis – and that relationship daily reminds me of the possibilities of love without bounds. And – perhaps most significantly – being open to possibility, open to grace, and open to the messages the Divine has for all of us if only we have ears to hear, has led me to realize that the sermon I gave in early 2009 was the first major clue that it is time for me to pursue ministry as a formal path, one I decided to follow actively a month or so ago. Now you’d think that all is sunshine and roses. Business! Love! Ministry! Joy unbounded and rapture divine! And “yet” is finally here! But… no.  Because just like my life before 2009, I am still waiting. Maybe the other shoe is Cinderella’s glass slipper, rather than a heavy work boot that’s going to knock me out. But I am still waiting…and the waiting is driving me nuts. On the professional side, I am waiting for a number of clients to say “go” on their projects. I am still waiting for book sales to take off, for the right reviews, for the million dollar project. My relationship is in waiting mode – waiting for his youngest to graduate from high school, waiting to see what will happen with my career path, waiting for something to make the future more clear for us. And ministry – I have begun applying to seminaries, but there’s waiting for acceptance, waiting to see if I can afford to go, waiting for some sign that this truly is the path I’m supposed to be on and not just a diversion. All of these things seem dependent upon each other, as if I’ll know what to do on all counts if even one of them breaks loose. As Colin Hay sang, “I’m waiting for my real life to begin.” I realized this while speaking with my spiritual director last month. I suppose it was appropriate that I started talking about waiting during Advent – `tis the season, you might say. I spoke to him about feeling paralyzed by the waiting, as if the waiting was stopping me from doing anything else. He said to me, “stop stopping” – in other words, stop letting the promise of “just as soon” keep me from living now. After we spoke, I thought of Moses, leading his people through the desert for 40 years. Now I have a feeling that the actually number is quite different, and that after following a man who refused to ask for directions, it only FELT like 40 years, but let’s assume it is true. Forty years of wandering, seeking the promised land. “Just as soon as we get there”… a big “just as soon” – perhaps the biggest there is. But during those 40 years, people died, babies were born, grew up, fell in love, had kids of their own. Food was found and prepared. Life happened – a whole new generation finished a journey started by their parents and grandparents. But what we remember is the big goal and 40 years, not the life that happened in the meantime. For Moses and Company, the “just as soon” was all that mattered. It was indeed a test of faith, and I don’t mean to dismiss that in the least. As I sit with my wondering about seminary, a certain amount of faith is required that if it is meant to be, all will work out. But what happens in the mean time? As we know, the “meantime” can be a mean time – full of pain, angst, and worry. Now I’m not sure this is true, as I’m just now thinking about this, but I suspect that the meantime can be less mean when we live right now, in this moment, not in the meantime. In other words, be here now. I know, I know, it’s what the Buddhists have been trying to tell me for years. Or at the very least, Eckhart Tolle. I will admit: I resisted reading The Power of Now; I’m one of those people who gets put off by hype, and once Oprah had this author in her sights, that was it for me. But now, after the hype has died down, I’m willing to look. I haven’t read it all yet, but I did get a good start, and fortunately, Tolle presented the real gem of the piece early on, on page 35:

Realize deeply that the present moment is all you will ever have. Make now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the now, have your dwelling place in the now and pay brief visits to the past and future. Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment.

Easier said than done, I know. Frustratingly so, I’d add, especially since our culture is driven by “just as soons.” After all, we are immersed in an ego-driven, over-hyped, ambition-led society. We believe, thus, that we are incomplete. Tolle points out that this sense of not being whole “manifests as the unsettling and constant feeling of not being worthy or good enough.” We then enter a spiraling pattern of gratifying that need to feel worthy, to feel complete – and as soon as we do that, there’s more holes to fill. Sometimes we try to fill the holes we see in ourselves with material objects, sometimes with degrees, sometimes with relationships. We are always striving for something more, and we measure the size of those holes to determine our self-worth. Whether we think we need more knowledge, more skill, more love, more toys, or more experiences, it never seems to end. We are so good at striving, we have an entire industry built around goal setting and planning. We all know the aphorism, “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” But it seems that our goal-setting ways leave Now behind. As Linda Hoddy once said to me, setting goals kills the moment. And yet, goal setting and future planning is important. Having a vision of our life five or ten years out with a strategic plan for implementation does give us direction. It helps us figure out where to go next. And heck, entire religions are built on an ultimate goal – heaven, or some form of life after death. But being focused only on the goal means we probably aren’t living. And it probably means we are trying to control too much. There is a Sandra Bullock film called 28 Days, which takes place at a rehab center in the woods. Among her fellow patients is Eddie, a major league pitcher played by Viggo Mortensen. Having received a box of balls from his coach, Eddie goes into the woods to pitch balls against a mattress with a strike zone drawn in. Bullock’s character, Gwen comes up behind him, picks up a ball, and pitches it wildly at the mattress, missing by a mile. As she turns to go, she grumbles, “great, another thing I suck at.” Eddie stops her and asks, “what were you thinking about when you threw the ball?” She responds that she was thinking about hitting the mattress. Eddie tells her it’s all wrong: “You get locked in on the strike zone, next thing you know, it’s looking the size of a peanut. And you’re thinking, ‘Damn, I gotta get that little ball in there?’ You’ve psyched yourself right out of the game.” He tells her to think about the little things – the things you can control. “You can control your stance, your balance, your release, your follow-through,” he says. “When you let go of the ball, it’s over. You don’t have any say in what happens down there. That’s somebody else’s job.” Eddie hands Gwen another ball, helps her get into position, and tells her to close her eyes. She thinks he is nuts, but she tries it, and lands the pitch clearly in the strike zone. Letting go of control. Being focused on the moment. Seems to me this might be a good way to get life going. But now the pragmatist in me is thinking about this and saying, “yeah, so? Now what do I do with it? How do I do it? It’s easy to talk about letting go and being in the now. But talk is cheap, Debus.” Yes, my inner pragmatist has an attitude. But she’s right: how do we make it happen? I think the first clue comes from the Bible. Any time some pronouncement is being made, the person (or angel) saying it begins with one word: “Behold.” “Behold, the king walks before you.” “Behold the lamb of God.” “Behold, I bring good tidings of great joy.”  “Behold the things that are in heaven and on earth.” Behold. Look. Hold on for a moment and be in this present place. We know it works – consider the mother at Wal-Mart scolding a child; she usually gets down to eye level and starts with, “now look at me”… to get the child’s focus. We value eye contact in people we’re speaking with, and making eye contact is the difference between catching your waiter’s attention and sitting with an empty cup of coffee. We gaze into our lover’s eyes, being present with them. We don’t look ahead, we look at. We hold. We stop. We get our attention focused. I’m sure this is what the whole “focus on your breath” thing is about when we meditate. I think my mind wanders too much when I do that. But when I look at something and focus on it, I am absolutely focused. For that moment, I stop. I look. I behold. The “just as soon” thing I’m waiting for doesn’t matter. The thing I look at – the words on a page, the image on the computer screen, the cat insinuating herself on my lap, the onion I am chopping, the flame of the candle – those are all happening now. And there is joy in that. Writing down the things you’re grateful for each day helps keep that joy fresh. It makes you focus on what’s happening instead of what may happen eventually. It doesn’t dissolve the worry forever, but in time, with practice, we can be more present and productive. I think that the more we let go, the more we focus on the Now, the more we enjoy the life we are living instead of pining for the life we want to lead, we might find joy in the living. We might find that our goals are actually easier to achieve. And, we might find we’re more open to possibilities for a brighter future, because we are paying attention to those things that are in front of us now.

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Learn more about my ministry at The Art of Meaning

Read my thoughts about congregational life at Hold My Chalice